Digging in Deeper: Hebrews 8:7-13

“For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion for a second one. But finding fault with his people, he says: ‘”See, the days are coming,” says the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah – not like the covenant that I made with their ancestors on the day I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt. I showed no concern for them,” says the Lord, “because they did not continue in my covenant. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” says the Lord: ” I will put my laws into their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. And each person will not teach his fellow citizen, and each his brother or sister, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least to the greatest of them. For I will forgive their wrongdoing, and I will never again remember their sins.”‘ By saying a new covenant, he has declared that the first is obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old is about to pass away.” (CSB – Read the chapter)

Think about your phone for a minute. Is it the first phone you’ve ever owned? My guess is that unless you’re a teenager with a fairly new device, the answer to that question is no. It’s probably not even the second phone you’ve owned. If I’m remembering correctly, my current device is my sixth. Of course, the fact that I can’t even remember very well says something all by itself. Why did you buy a new phone when you did? It could be your old one broke or was lost or stolen, but I suspect there’s a better chance it simply became old and obsolete. Let’s talk today about old phones and God’s covenant with Israel.

When God first made His covenant with Israel, there was nothing like it in the world. No God had ever made a covenant like this with his people before. Of course, no other god actually existed to be able to make such a covenant, but even the people speaking on behalf of the various made-up gods throughout the world to that point in human history had never considered anything like what God gave to Israel through Moses. Yes, Hammurabi had written his famous Code fairly recently, but as comprehensive as it was, it didn’t even begin to compare with the law Moses delivered to the people when he descended from Mount Sinai. In fact, to call what Moses gave the people a “law” doesn’t really give it justice. It was an entire way of life.

The Law of Moses was the most just system of laws on the books at that point in human history. As much as we like to look back on it from a perch dripping with chronological snobbery, it was a vast improvement to the ways people had been behaving throughout the world then. Consider the idea immortalized by the phrase “an eye for an eye.” We are horrified by such a standard of justice, but when you consider that most people operated then by a standard better characterized as “a life for an eye,” limiting the people to just an eye for an eye was a huge step forward in a direction we should be able to recognize was a positive one.

And before we start patting ourselves on the back for being so much more morally enlightened than they were, if we are left to our own devices, our natural drift is back in the direction of something like a life for an eye. I had the chance to have a conversation with a couple of young ladies recently, neither of whom could fairly be characterized as followers of Jesus. Both of them are products of this world in a whole plethora of ways. Mostly they were talking while I listened. As they did, somehow their conversation turned toward responding in kind to various offenses they had been dealt by friends. Both of them agreed wholeheartedly with the “fact” that the only way to respond to someone who had been ugly to you in some way was to punch back harder than they’d hit you. The punch didn’t have to be a literal one, of course, but a physical punch certainly wasn’t off the table. When I piped in with the suggestion that such an “eye for an eye” type of standard ultimately failed, and that the way of Jesus yielded better results in the end, they looked at me like I had grown a third arm. Their clear opinion was that such a thing might work in the land of wishful thinking, such a display of weakness only invited more aggression from the bullies (real or imagined) who caused the trouble in the first place. What I’m getting at is this: our moral pridefulness isn’t perhaps quite so justified as we’d like to think it is. And before you go thinking you can write these two young ladies off as exceptions, think again. They are formed by the culture they are living in, which itself is informed by the broader culture of the country. They are normal. Followers of Jesus are weird.

All of this is to say the covenant God made with Israel was good and important. We needed it. It was an invitation into a fuller, richer, deeper humanity than we had ever known or experienced before. The debt that all of humanity owes to God’s covenant of law with Israel in terms of making the world a better place to live on the whole goes beyond what most people properly understand. It moved all of us from an essentially barbarian morality to something entirely more civilized. More than that, though, it set the table for a subsequent jump forward that has allowed the world to be where it is today.

And I use that language there intentionally. You see, God’s covenant with Israel was never intended to be more than a setting of the table for the main course which was to follow in Jesus. Thinking that was as far as we needed to go is a little like letting a child set the Thanksgiving table with a plastic feast before the real meal is served, only instead of getting to the real meal, we got to where we preferred the plastic because it just looked so tasty. But the plastic was never meant to truly satisfy us. It was just to get our appetites whet for the real feast. And, for the people who tried to live off of the plastic, it not only didn’t provide all the nourishment they needed, it actually started killing them. Rather than enabling it, the plastic became an impediment to real life.

The thing is, from our limited, finite perspective, the time between the plastic appetizer and the real main course was a really long time. God had to wait for just the right time. You can’t serve Thanksgiving dinner before it’s fully cooked. But the longer our season of waiting grew, the more comfortable we became with the plastic. We may have talked about a coming feast, but we had long since started treating the plastic as if it were the real thing. And then we started talking about the real thing through the lens of the plastic. So, when God spoke to the people about a day when the plastic would be replaced with the real thing like He did in the quote from Jeremiah the author of Hebrews includes here, we didn’t understand Him. And when God sent His Son to begin describing the real thing in earnest to prepare us for its immanent arrival, we rejected Him. We killed Him. How dare someone threaten and defame our perfect plastic!

Yet the new had come. The old was passing away. Actually, the language the author of Hebrews uses here should get our attention. For anyone who would try to argue that modern followers of Jesus are at all beholden to anything we find in the old covenant, these words offer an important corrective and perspective shift. Look at what he says again: “By saying a new covenant, he has declared that the first is obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old is about to pass away.”

A few weeks ago, one of our kids’ iPads broke. It was an accident, but the screen was shattered to the point it was not only unusable, it wasn’t even safe to use because of the risk of getting glass shards in your finger. We were faced with a choice. We could pay to get the screen repaired. A little bit of digging found that was going to be a fairly expensive venture – more than half the cost of a new device to repair a device that was badly out of date. We could buy a new device. While we didn’t reject that out of hand, we weren’t really in the market for that kind of purchase. The third option was to give him my wife’s old phone that we still had around the house from when she upgraded to a new device a few months ago. This option didn’t cost us a thing. It furnished him with a working device that did all of the same things his iPad did. And it gave him the feeling of having a real phone several months before our house rules allowed him to have one which he rather liked. All in all, it was an obvious win-win-win situation. He has a working device, we weren’t out any funds, and we didn’t bend our rules in a way that would have greatly irked his brothers.

I should note, though, that while his new-old phone does everything his iPad did, it does not do everything a normal phone can do. It became obsolete and was replaced with a newer and better device. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the old phone, but it cannot do what its replacement can do. And to expect it to do all the same things is not just silly. It’s delusional. It will leave you disappointed. And if you are really in a place of need, it will fail you spectacularly. The problem then won’t be with the device either. It will be with the expectations you have put on it to do what it is not any longer capable of doing.

This is all a little like the difference between the old and the new covenants God has made with His people. The old covenant was fine. It was good. It did what we needed it to do when we needed that done. But the old covenant is called the “old covenant” for a reason. It has been replaced by the new covenant. The new covenant is not the old covenant. While there are some baseline similarities, it is improved in every way. It has features that were not built into the old one; features we need; features we literally cannot live without. Trying to bring parts of the old into the new or to somehow suggest we need the old in some way in order to get the new right isn’t just wrong, it’s silly. It doesn’t make the first bit of sense. The new may be informed by the old and flows naturally from it, but it’s not dependent on it. The old is obsolete.

If you are a follower of Jesus today, you live under the power and authority of the new covenant He made between us and God through His spilled blood. The old covenant is not your law. It is not your standard. The new covenant is. Don’t try to live through the old. Respect it. Study it. Learn from it. But don’t look to it to do what only the new can. And don’t try to meet with selected standards of the old because the standards of the new are too hard. Be a new covenant person. That’s what you signed up for, so enjoy it for all it’s worth.

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