Hebrews 8 - What Jesus’ Priestly Service Accomplishes
Chapter 8 of the letter to the Hebrews starts off with a wonderful summary of the letter. The author himself speaks of the core of his argument. This is the message he wants to convey:
1 The point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, 2 a minister in the holy places, in the true tent [tabernacle] that the Lord set up, not man.”
For the Hebrews it is especially this contrast with the Jewish high priest of the day that needs to be clear: he serves in an earthly sanctuary, the temple in Jerusalem, the copy of the real sanctuary in heaven. For Christians today, the emphasis is on the present tense of Jesus’ ministry as priest in active service. Priestly service is in full swing in the New Testament: there is a heavenly sanctuary in full operation. The first two verses of Hebrews 8 show that the shadow of the atonement has been replaced by the reality. God’s plan all along was for his Son to serve as high priest at the heavenly altar, to realize atonement between him and man. Hebrews 8 reveals what Jesus is doing as the God-appointed high priest (chapter 7): he fulfills his service before God’s throne. Would Moses have seen this from the mountain? Verse 5 speaks of a “copy”, (an example) shown to Moses (see also Ex. 25:40; Acts 7:44). Instead of thinking of a model with a certain design, one might also suppose that Moses had a glimpse of the heavenly sanctuary of God (of which the tabernacle on earth is the “model”). Perhaps Moses (like John later on) saw the altar standing there, or even Jesus busy as high priest. The “copy” is then not a mini-tabernacle but the true sanctuary, possibly also in operation. And he then had to make an earthly version of it. In that case, Moses was allowed to take a glimpse “around the corner”, as it were, in order to then be able to draw out the shadow (the copies, Heb. 9:24) for the Israelites. The author of Hebrews says in these first two verses: with Jesus’ birth, death, resurrection and ascension, the shadows of the atonement were replaced by the reality.
And what Jesus is doing is arranging a new relationship with God for you. In the verses of Hebrews 8, the word “covenant” appears seven times (ESV). Each time it speaks of the relationship of God with his people, in which God devotes himself in a blessing way to his people and the people devote themselves gratefully to their God. That is the contract (EXB). On God’s part, this succeeds completely. He never backs down; his dedication to it is perfect and he never falls short with his blessing. From our human side it often does not work: we fall short in our gratitude; our devotion to God is not perfect. And allow me to speak for myself — I fall short of the obligations. This puts a strain on the relationship. But Jesus arranges a new relationship between God and the people. That is what he does as high priest in active ministry.
The purpose of this is that God and man can be together. God wants to be a God of people, that is the gospel. This typifies God in his love. It is a key phrase that you find throughout the Bible: “And I will be their God and they shall be my people,” as you can read it in Hebrews 8:10b. There it is a quotation from Jeremiah 31:33. But you first encounter this verse already in Leviticus 26:12 (and even the earlier half of this sentence: “I will be your God” Ex. 6:7). The last time this appears in the Bible is in Revelation 21:3: “I saw a new heaven and a new earth...and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.”‘ Elsewhere you can read it in Jeremiah (7:23; 11:4; 30:22; 31:33; 32:38), Ezekiel (36:28; 37:27) and in 2 Corinthians (6:16). And Jesus is the liturgist, says the writer of Hebrews, the mediator or regulator of this new covenant between God and me (9:15). He realizes this reconciled relationship with God. In the old covenant, people arranged the relationship; the new aspect of the new covenant (Jer. 31) is that Jesus does it all. The author characterizes it as “a better covenant” (8:6).
How fortunate that as a New Testament Christian you get to live in that better relationship. First, with Jesus, God replaces the shadow of reconciliation with the reality of it. Then God himself makes that reality come true in the lives of his children through Jesus. At the same time, I am ashamed that this was necessary. For the first covenant foundered on the unfaithfulness of the people (v. 9). The Israelites did not keep the contract and walked away from the relationship. That is still true for me; the people have not changed. But God so desires to have a relationship with me that he designs a new covenant with Jesus living up to its reality.
How does he do that? From Jeremiah 31:31-34 three things come to mind, they are in Hebrews 8, verses 10, 11 and 12. Through Jesus:
- you start doing God’s law wholeheartedly (v. 10);
- you learn to know God (v. 11);
- you receive forgiveness (v. 12).
Through Jesus you Start to Perform God’s Law Wholeheartedly
The first thing you notice about Jesus achieving the reality of a new relationship with God in you, is that you want to start doing God’s law wholeheartedly. Not because it is imposed on you, or because you fear punishment, but you want to do what God asks of you because you love him. Because you are grateful that he has delivered you from the corruption of idols, hatred, lies, consuming lusts, greed, pride and jealousy. You are not at their mercy; God has delivered you from them. And he wants to put his laws in your mind and write them on your heart by his Holy Spirit. That is the Spirit of Jesus, because Jesus makes this happen. He is the high priest of the new relationship between God and people. The priests of Israel also provided instruction in the law of God (Deut. 31:9-12; think also of Ezra after the exile, Neh. 8:1-3), but it did not have a lasting effect. Jesus, as a priest, teaches us the law in such a way that it does have effect. He himself set the good example: Jesus lived by the law; he loved God and the neighbour with all his heart, soul and strength. Jesus also took the law very seriously: he experienced the death sentence that was connected to breaking the law, he submitted himself completely to God’s law. It was foremost in Jesus’ mind; God’s law was written in his heart. He wants to work this in you through his Spirit. Look at how Jesus handled God’s law and pray for his Spirit.
Through Jesus you Learn to Know God
The second thing you notice about Jesus turning the new relationship with God into a reality in you, is that he increasingly causes you to know God in a better way. When you look at Jesus, you see God, his Father, your Creator in a very beautiful manner: in Jesus you see God’s love and faithfulness to his creation. You see God’s dealing with man’s sin in righteousness; but you also see his dealing with man’s sin in his mercy and grace. In Jesus you see God’s goodness, majesty and glory, his infinite wisdom and patience. Hebrews 8:11 says, “People no longer need to teach each other, no longer need to say to each other, ‘Know the Lord!’” I think this is the final picture, the reality of the coming kingdom. Until then, we continue to remind each other of who God is.
Through Jesus you Receive Forgiveness
“For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more” (v. 12). From this you can see that the relationship with God is becoming more and more a reality. By asking for forgiveness, sins no longer stand between God and you, and room has been created for the relationship and for celebrating it. There is room for growth to emerge in the relationship. Ask for forgiveness through Jesus. And because Jesus himself is God, because he lives eternally and is himself perfect, because he is high priest in heaven, your relationship with God will succeed!
Questions for Discussion
- What do you think of the word “contract” (noted in EXB) as a substitute for the word “covenant”?
- How do you notice that you want to start doing God’s law from the heart?
- Can you point to instances in your life where you increasingly get to know God in a better way? Give some concrete examples.
- How does the assurance of the forgiveness of your sins stimulate your relationship with God?