Before there were games like Madden football for various video systems, there was an “electric football” game. There was a metal field which looked like a football field and oversized men. You painstakingly lined them up and then you flipped the switch. The men would all start vibrating and somehow would move roughly in the direction you had them facing. The goal was to get past your opponent without being touched by the opposition.
I had one of these games and had lots of fun with it. However, it had flaws. If two men hit each other just right they would go endlessly around in circles. Sometimes the ball carrier would hit one of his own men at an angle and it would turn them around . . . so he was “running the wrong way.”
This game sounds pretty primitive today in the day of video games and expert graphics. Yet, the games of today are still nothing like the reality of what they depict. War games are not the same as being in war. Driving games are not like actually driving a car. They are but a shadow of that reality.
We will see a similar picture in Hebrews 8 and 9 today. We are told the Old Testament laws and religious practices were a shadow, or a picture, of the reality that is ours in Christ.
Last week we looked at the Jewish Priesthood and the fact that the order of Melchizedek (or Jesus) is superior to the Jewish priesthood. William Barclay summarizes the conclusions of the argument concisely,
The writer to the Hebrews finished describing the priesthood after the order of Melchizedek in all its glory. He has described it as the priesthood which is forever, without beginning and without end; the priesthood that God confirmed with an oath; the priesthood that is founded on personal greatness and not on any legal appointment or racial qualification; the priesthood which death cannot touch; the priesthood which is able to offer a sacrifice that never needs to be repeated; the priesthood which is so pure that it has no necessity to offer sacrifice for any sins of its own.
In Hebrews 8 we continue to look at the superiority of Christ. We learn three things about the priesthood of Jesus that makes it possible for us to know and walk with God.
He sat down in the place of honor
Here is the main point: We have a High Priest who sat down in the place of honor beside the throne of the majestic God in heaven (8:1)
Two things we know from this simple statement. First, Jesus is more than a famous guy. He is more than an influential person of history. Jesus sits in the place of honor. He sits beside the Father as one who rules with Him. He is the Lord over all creation.
Second, He has finished the work He came to do. The Jewish priests were not able to sit down; there were always more sacrifices to offer. Jesus sits because He offered the final sacrifice when He gave up His own life. No further offerings are necessary. His life was a sufficient payment for all sin.
He serves in Heaven rather than on earth
2 There he ministers in the heavenly Tabernacle, the true place of worship that was built by the Lord and not by human hands. (8:2)
The Jewish priests served in the earthly temple, Jesus serves in the court of Heaven. The priests pointed to God; Jesus IS God. The priests served in the copy of the place of worship, Jesus ministers in the TRUE place of worship.
In verse 5 we read,
They serve in a system of worship that is only a copy, a shadow of the real one in heaven. For when Moses was getting ready to build the Tabernacle, God gave him this warning: “Be sure that you make everything according to the pattern I have shown you here on the mountain
So the earthly temple and the sacrificial system was like the electric football game; they were just shadows, representations of the real thing. God never intended for us to look to the Temple as the “true” place of worship. He stated to Moses that he was making a picture of the true throne of God. The Tabernacle and the temple were designed to give us only a picture of God’s presence.
This is also true for us. Our worship is really just a shadow of the worship that is to come when we actually stand in the presence of the Lord. The point here is: when we come to Jesus we experience what is real. The shadow gives way to the reality.
He mediates a better covenant.
6 But now Jesus, our High Priest, has been given a ministry that is far superior to the old priesthood, for he is the one who mediates for us a far better covenant with God, based on better promises.
7 If the first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no need for a second covenant to replace it. (8:6-7)
This is the “bread and butter” of the issue about the superiority of Christ. I remind you that a covenant is like a contract. It is an agreement which defines the relationship. You may enter into a covenant with a Realtor, a car dealer, or a carpenter. When you become a citizen of a country or a member of an organization you generally enter into a covenant or agreement. Marriage is a covenant relationship. As a church we enter into covenants with musicians every time we have a concert. We agree to provide certain things and the artists agree to provide items. Contracts or covenants are a part of life.
To simplify, the Old Testament was a covenant of works or performance. God agreed to bless the nation of Israel if they would follow Him completely. The Old Testament Laws defined the stipulations of the covenant. This covenant was insufficient because people would not submit to God’s authority. The covenant was broken.
This is illustrated clearly when Moses was on the mountain getting the Ten Commandments. The people were at the foot of the mountain worshipping a golden calf! When Moses came down the mountain he broke the tablets. A fitting picture of a broken covenant.
The New covenant is anchored to grace. God promises to save us, to give us the Holy Spirit, and to write His Word on our hearts if we will trust Him. The New covenant is not about our behavior or efforts; if is about trusting what the Lord has done on our behalf.
Hebrews tells us several things. First, the new covenant is superior to the Old. It is superior because it is something God does in us rather than something we earn or gain by our own effort. It is unlike a contract in that it is not conditional. The New Covenant is a promise from God to us. The promise in essence says, I know you cannot fully obey my law and live by my standards. I am going to provide a permanent sacrifice for you so that you can stand before me clean; as one who has obeyed the law.
The new covenant is superior to the old because it is eternal rather than temporary. In the Old Covenant you were OK as long as you lived perfectly or had offered a recent sacrifice. In the New Covenant you are OK because Jesus has paid for our sin and rebellion. The New Covenant is a promise that God will, through His Holy Spirit, continue to work to change our hearts.
Second, we are told that the new covenant was not a Backup Plan. There is a long quote in our text (8:8-12) from Jeremiah 31:31-34,
“The day is coming, says the Lord,
when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel and Judah.
9 This covenant will not be like the one
I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
and led them out of the land of Egypt.
They did not remain faithful to my covenant,
so I turned my back on them, says the Lord.
10 But this is the new covenant I will make
with the people of Israel on that day, says the Lord:
I will put my laws in their minds,
and I will write them on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
11 And they will not need to teach their neighbors,
nor will they need to teach their relatives,
saying, ‘You should know the Lord.’
For everyone, from the least to the greatest,
will know me already.
12 And I will forgive their wickedness,
and I will never again remember their sins.”
The point of the quote is to show that God had a plan all along that culminated in the work of Christ. In Ephesians 1 & 2 Paul talks about the plan of God which was established before creation.
There are several things we are told about the new covenant.
- The new covenant was necessary not because of the weakness of the first covenant, the moral law stated in the Ten Commandments and throughout the Old Testament is still God’s heart for His people. The new covenant recognizes that we cannot (on our own) keep that law. It provides a way for us to be right with God in spite of our sin.
- The New Covenant is internal rather than external. In other words it is focused on the heart rather than simply external behaviors.
- The New Covenant enlightens us. It makes it possible for us to “see” the truth because of the influence of the Holy Spirit.
- The New Covenant makes possible a deep, genuine, and full forgiveness rather than a superficial and temporary cleansing. This forgiveness is the cornerstone of the new covenant.
The Illustration of the Tabernacle
In Hebrews 9 the illustration is carried further. Our author says even the Tabernacle (the predecessor to the Temple) was just a shadow of the reality. (Show Slide)
He reminds the readers of the structure and furniture of the tabernacle. The tabernacle is best described as an ornate tent. It was designed to be taken down and moved. It was a rectangular tent you could think of as three squares. The first two squares 2/3 of the tent was the first room and it was called the Holy Place. This is where priests did various functions. The room included an altar of incense, a table for bread, and a lampstand.
The remaining square room was separated from the first room by a thick curtain or veil. This was known as the Most Holy Place or the Holy of Holies.
4 In that room were a gold incense altar and a wooden chest called the Ark of the Covenant, which was covered with gold on all sides. Inside the Ark were a gold jar containing manna, Aaron’s staff that sprouted leaves, and the stone tablets of the covenant. 5 Above the Ark were the cherubim of divine glory, whose wings stretched out over the Ark’s cover, the place of atonement. (Hebrews 9:4-5)
This was the most sacred spot in all of Israel. The only person who could enter this room (which symbolized the presence of God) was the High Priest and then only on the Day of Atonement after extensive cleansings and offerings.
The tabernacle illustrates the difference between the old covenant and the new covenant. In the Old Covenant the people were kept from the presence of God. The only people who ever went into the tabernacle were the priests. And only one priest was able to go into the presence of God and he was able to do so only once a year.
When Jesus died the veil between the Most Holy Place and the Holy Place was torn in two from top to bottom (God was the one doing the ripping). It symbolized that the New Covenant made it possible for you and me to know God personally. Access was granted. We were now welcome into His presence.
9 This is an illustration pointing to the present time. For the gifts and sacrifices that the priests offer are not able to cleanse the consciences of the people who bring them. 10 For that old system deals only with food and drink and various cleansing ceremonies—physical regulations that were in effect only until a better system could be established. (Hebrews 9:9-10)
The old covenant was temporary. It served a purpose for a while but it couldn’t cleanse the conscience. It couldn’t change our heart.
NT Wright gave what I found to be a helpful illustration. Whenever there is a new road that is going in or an expansion of an existing road, it is a complicated deal. You not only have to figure out how to build the road but also how to keep the traffic flowing as the road is being constructed (or repaired). So, before you can even start building you have to construct bypasses. A person unfamiliar with the road might conclude that it was a very difficult road. Wright says,
“The period of time right up to the coming of the Messiah – was simply the time of temporary arrangements (and the temporary arrangements included, confusingly, the entire tabernacle or Temple itself!). Don’t make the mistake of thinking that this whole system, elaborate and well-constructed though it is, is what God has in mind as the final scheme. That would be like a visitor mistaking the complicated temporary road layout for the final one.” (Hebrews for Everyone p. 94)
We have covered a lot of material today. We have flown over this text trying to see the big picture. And if we have paid attention we should have at least two responses.
First, we should be grateful. We have been blessed to live at a time when we can know God personally, where our forgiveness is made complete, and when we can have God’s law written on our hearts. We have the Holy Spirit living inside of us and the Lord Jesus serves as our High Priest. He has made it possible for us to be made new from the inside out.
We are honored to travel the new way of grace rather than the way of sacrifices in the shadows. To use Wright’s analogy, we get to travel the Highway of Grace rather than the burdensome construction zone of the sacrificial system. The construction zone was necessarily limited. The barriers have now been removed.
Second, we should be devoted. We are privileged people. We have been given a gift that is greater than anything we could imagine. We should not take it for granted. We have been given a great privilege and we ought not to squander it.
The work of Christ has made it possible for us to experience the reality of a relationship with God. We should not trade this for the trinkets of the world. We should not treat it lightly but instead we should diligently seek to live in the freedom, grace, and life that has been given to us. Why settle for less that the best in life? Why turn to someone or something else for direction and purpose in life?
The old electric football game is a relic of a former time. No one wants to play electric football any more. We are used to the real life simulations and incredible graphics of new games. We have graduated from the primitive to the amazing.
Unfortunately, many of our children have lost some of the sense of amazement. They are so used to the great graphics that they do not appreciate them. In fact, there is a lot in life we all take for granted. We often take the majesty of grace for granted too.
The lesson Hebrews is trying to teach us is that we should never shrug off what we have been given. We must continually remind ourselves of the privilege and the honor we have been given. We are living the life that people in the Old Testament could only dream about. We have the relationship with God that they could see only from a distance.
It is still possible to devote ourselves to the shadow rather than to the reality. It is possible to focus on the experience rather than the Lord who loves us and wants to guide our lives. And between you and me, it is better by far to appreciate what we have and serve the Lord with every ounce of strength we have.
 William Barclay, ed., The Letter to the Hebrews, The Daily Study Bible Series (Philadelphia: The Westminster John Knox Press, 1975), 86.