One of the beauties of the letter to the Hebrews is its integration of two important themes: the continuity of God’s plan of salvation across the ages and the discontinuities that arise as a result of God’s consummate act of redemption in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Some things are carried over from the Old Testament into the New and others are left buried in Jesus’ grave.
Drawing on the evident familiarity of his readers with the Old Testament, the author of Hebrews is at pains to remind us that without the older covenant, replete with complex ceremony, ritual, and officialdom, our understanding of the work of Christ would be greatly impoverished. That is why he couches his presentation of the gospel in the language of Old Testament ceremony: “We have such a high priest … a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up” (Heb. 8:1–2).
The older covenant made with Israel was the vehicle through which God’s saving purpose was advanced. By giving laws to Israel, God revealed the righteous standards He expects from everyone. Time and again, however, Israel broke God’s commands — “they did not continue in my covenant,” says God (v. 9).
Obedience to God’s law is the benchmark of continuing in God’s covenant. Yet no Israelite could be saved by law-keeping — that was the point Paul would argue forcefully in his letter to the Romans, showing that the true Israelite was not the one who gave mere outward regard to the required ceremonies. The true Israelite was the one whose heart was pure before God (Rom. 2:29), and who, like Abraham, was justified on the basis of faith in the covenant promise (4:22).
Gloriously and graciously, the same law that spelled condemnation also made provision for sin. The sacrifices, the bloodshed, the priesthood — all these ceremonial requirements were God’s way of dealing with sin. The older covenant was both a national covenant with Israel and an administration of the covenant of grace. As a further elaboration of the covenant of grace, building on God’s promises to Noah and Abraham, it made provision for an everlasting priesthood (Num. 25:13), for atonement, for redemption, and for salvation. These elements of Israel’s religion were “a copy and shadow of the heavenly things” (Heb. 8:5).
The final, glorious stage in the unfolding of God’s redemptive purpose was the death, resurrection, and ascension of the Great High Priest, who offered Himself for our redemption on earth, and presents Himself for our final salvation before God in heaven. Every element of Old Testament ritual derived its efficacy from Him and pointed forward to Him. Consequently, all true believers in every age have been saved in the same way: through faith in the covenant promise and justified through the covenant Mediator.
In Christ, however, old things have passed away. There is now no single ethnic group, for example, whom God favors with the privileges of redemption. Israel, like Adam, broke covenant with God (Hos. 6:7). But the eternal life that Adam forfeited, and to which Israel could not reach, is ours in Christ Jesus. As a result, the covenant is recast — the new covenant anticipated in Jeremiah 31:31–34 (which is quoted in Heb. 8:8–12) is made with all believers in Christ.
Yet this is no brand new gospel — God’s same laws are now written on the hearts of His people (Heb. 8:10), giving a new affection for them and a new inclination to them. The same principle of adoption Israel enjoyed God now extends to all who believe. The scaffolding of the building has collapsed: the ritual and sacrifice that prepared for the appearance of the Savior is now obsolete, and God’s purpose of grace is fulfilled.
Unlike the ancient Israelite, I can now say that Christ the last priest has done His work, and the last sacrifice for sins has been offered. I need no lamb of my own, for God has provided a lamb for Himself (Gen. 22:8). By faith, I look away from myself to the Great High Priest, thankful that my approach to God is both enabled and emboldened by a sacrifice of eternal significance, efficacy, and worth.
Consequently, I can rejoice in the absolute security of my inheritance in Christ. He, unlike both Adam and Israel, has kept the covenant for me. His law-keeping covers my law-breaking. I mourn over my commandment-breaking but rejoice in the strength of the covenant, which in Christ can never be finally broken.
There were Old Testament saints who enjoyed that security too, as genuine believers in the covenant promises of salvation. Many Israelites, however, rested on external privileges without fulfilling the conditions
that they demanded. Although they were a privileged people in covenant with God, many of them “were unable to enter because of unbelief” (Heb. 3:19). Now, however, I stand before God in Christ and He says to me: “I will be merciful … I will remember [your] sins no more” (8:12).
That, at last, is the apex of our privilege: in Christ, the last Adam and final Israel, we are God’s covenant people forever.