Better Than All the Rest
To swap the better for the lesser is always foolish, and Christians have a better priest than any other priest.
Hebrews 1-8 (WBC), William Lane
Hebrews: Evangelical Biblical Theology Commentary, Thomas Schreiner
Hebrews, John Owen
Well it is the first Sunday after Thanksgiving here in America, and since I am firmly on team, “No Christmas music until after Thanksgiving,” I’m letting it roll and starting to think more about the holiday. One popular tradition at Christmas parties in America at least is a game that goes by various names: White Elephant, now you have it, now you don’t, or, as Michael Scott preferred, “Yankee swap”. Everyone brings a wrapped gift, a random order for opening gifts is assigned, and then whoever was selected to open first opens the first gift. The person who goes next can then choose to take an already opened gift if they know they really want it, or take their chances on an unwrapped gift, and so on until all the gifts are opened. The best position to be in, then, is to be last, because you have seen all the opened gifts already, and you can decide which one is better than all the rest. When you determine that, the natural thing to do is grab it, and try your best to hold on to it. In the passage on which we are focusing in Hebrews, our author is continuing something he’s been doing throughout the book: He wants to show us that Jesus is better than all the rest, and in this case, the “rest” would be the rest of the high priests. The Hebrews were being tempted to turn from Christ back to the priests God had instituted before the coming of Christ, but the author wants them, and us, to see that that would be a foolish swap, because we too face the temptation to swap Christ for someone, or something else. But we have the better priest, and in this passage we see two reasons he is the better priest: He ministers in a better place, and he mediates a better covenant.
He ministers in a better place
Our author begins our passage this week by very helpfully telling us the point in what he is saying, and the point is this: We have such a high priest. By saying we have “such” a high priest, our author refers to his description of the high priest we need that came before chapter 8. So by way of review, let’s start back in Hebrews 5:1, where the author told us what a high priest is: He is a man chosen to act on behalf of men in relation to God. As a lawyer acts on behalf of people in relation to a court, as a congressperson acts on behalf of people in relation to the government, priests act on behalf of people in relation to God, and we have need for such a person because our sins have created distance between us and God. As one children’s book puts it, God is so good, and sin is so bad, that God and sin cannot be friends. If we were to approach God without a priest, we would incur his judgment, and even our good works would be tainted by our sin and unacceptable to him. But God, out of sheer mercy, because of the great love he has for his people, instituted the priesthood, to make a way for us to avoid his judgment and offer to him acceptable service. Among the twelve tribes of the people of Israel, the tribe of Levi in particular was set aside to fill the office of priest, and among the Levites, one man at a time served as high priest. That one high priest was appointed by God to offer the most important sacrifice of the year, on the day of atonement, to atone for the sins of God’s people, which means to assuage God’s wrath against those sins.
Yet those high priests were weak to their task, as our author demonstrated in chapter seven. For one thing, they were prevented by death from continuing in their office, and so another always had to be appointed. It was never safe for God’s people to put all their trust for acceptance with God in the high priest, because at some point, and you never knew when, he’d die. On top of that, the high priests were sinners too, just like the people. So their work was never done. They offered sacrifice for the people, but then they’d sin again, and the people would sin again, and they’d have to keep offering sacrifices. So God recognized that we need a better priest, and God accordingly appointed another priest, a priest not after the order of Levi, but after the order of Melchizedek, a different kind of priest, a priest without beginning or end, who is never prevented by death from continuing in office because he lives forever, and a priest who has no need to keep offering sacrifice for himself and for the sins of the people, but who could offer the one perfect sacrifice to cover all the sins for all time of those for whom he offered it. That’s a priest in whom you can put all your trust forever.
And the point in what we are saying is this, back to 8:1 – “We have such a high priest.” We need such a high priest, and, good news brothers and sisters, we have such a high priest. Note the present tense of that statement: We, right now, who are in Christ by faith, have exactly the high priest we need to act on our behalf in relation to God. He has offered the perfect sacrifice, and he now lives forever. Remember that when you are tempted to sin. Right now, in that moment, when you are presently tempted, you have help available in the present. Draw near to him to receive the help he gives to resist temptation and walk in obedience. Remember that when you have already sinned. Right now, we have a high priest who has made a full atonement for all the sins of all who trust in him. Draw near to him and receive both forgiveness and the power to turn and walk in new obedience. We have such a high priest.
But our author doesn’t settle for a description of this priest that preceded chapter 8. Instead, he continues his description of this high priest when he says he is one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man. Every priest is a minister; minister is just a word meaning servant, and priests were servants of God, God’s ministers. Most ancient Israelites had other jobs: Some worked the ground as farmers, some worked with animals as shepherds, some worked with metals, and so on. Others worked for other Israelites; they were called servants. The servants worked in the household of their masters, but then there was another class, the priests, who were the servants of God, and who therefore worked in his house: The tent built by men in the days of Moses, when God first instituted the Levitical priesthood. These are the priests mentioned in verse 4, who we read there offer gifts according to the law. The priests of the order of Levi, then, are priests on earth, who offer gifts according to the law, in tent that was made by men, and which is also located on earth.
But, the high priest we have is not on earth. After Jesus Christ rose from the dead, he ascended into heaven. Like, those who saw him in his resurrected body, literally saw him rising in the air until he got beyond the clouds and disappeared from their sight, and the place we are told here that he went was to the right hand of the Majesty in heaven, the right hand of God the Father. Heaven is a spatial realm; Jesus Christ can be located there in a material, resurrected body, for example. While God is omnipresent, meaning entirely present everywhere at all times, heaven was a realm he created, a realm set up by him and not by man, mentioned in Genesis 1:1, where we read that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, and in this spatial realm God reveals himself in a special way as the king over all the universe, hence the name “Majesty in heaven”. That’s where our high priest is. That’s where he serves.
What about the tent on earth, then, and the priests who serve there? Our author tells us in verse 5 that they serve a “copy and shadow” of the heavenly things. God is the one who instructed Moses to build the tent; you can read all about it in Exodus 25-40, and when God did, he didn’t just tell Moses to build it however he felt. He told him to do so according to the pattern that was given to him, because that tent on earth was meant to be a copy and shadow of the heavenly tent built by God, those priests were meant to be copies and shadows of our high priest, and the sacrifices they offered were meant to be copies and shadows of the sacrifice he offered. They were valuable in their own right; God instituted them! But we have the better priest, better than even the high priest after the order of Levi, because our high priest serves in the true tent that the Lord set up, while even the high priest, the greatest among the priests of Levi, serves only a copy and shadow of that tent.
If you are the greatest basketball player at the Francisville playground or the St. Paul’s rec center, that’s impressive. It really is; I’ve played in those places before and I can say I am genuinely impressed by the best players I’ve seen there. But if you are the greatest basketball player at Rucker Park in New York City, where Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, and Dr. J have played, you are greater than the greatest players at the Francisville playground or St. Paul’s rec center. That’s the idea here. The high priest on earth was the greatest of all priests on earth, but we have a better high priest, because our high priest ministers in a better place: In heaven, the tent that the Lord set up, not man.
To turn from the high priest we have, therefore, to another, will always be to turn from a better priest to a lesser one. On the most direct level, for the original audience, this meant that for them to turn from Jesus Christ, our high priest, back to the Levitical high priest, would be to turn from the better high priest to the lesser one. And there are still those who claim to be priests today in the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Church for example or in other religions, and here’s one basic reason not to trust them to help you in relation to God: Whatever claims they may make about themselves, there’s one thing you cannot deny: They’re on earth! There they are; you can see their body right in front of you, but we cannot see the body of Jesus because he is seated at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. Better place, better priest, and we have such a high priest. Don’t turn from him. But beyond those who take the title of priest, consider the people whose approval you crave, who seem like they could do so much for you! There’s the boss who could pay you more, the professor who could grant you the degree, or the friend who could get you into a cooler social circle. They may be able to help you in many ways on this earth, but here’s the one thing you cannot deny: They are on this earth.
Now, of course, if this earth or this universe is all you believe exists, that’s about as good as the help gets. If there is no Rucker Park, so to speak, then being the best at the Francisville playground is as good as it gets. And the late pastor Timothy Keller has pointed out that’s why so many today have such a hard time dealing with suffering. If this world is all you have, then to not have the approval of that boss, that professor, that friend, that family member, and so on, or simply to have your life in this world shaken, is catastrophic. But what if you knew there was a real heaven, a real, spatial, substantial realm, a realm that in a sense was more substantial than this realm, of which even the tent God instituted was a mere copy and shadow, and what if you knew that you had a high priest there, interceding on your behalf, who was so effective in doing so as to ensure that you would be with him there one day as well? Suffering in this world would still be hard, but it wouldn’t be catastrophic. And trading that high priest for approval from anyone on earth, priest or not, would be a losing proposition, however attractive their approval on earth may seem, however scary their disapproval on earth may feel. Brothers and sisters in Christ, we have such a high priest, a better high priest than any other. Hold on to him. He ministers in a better place, and, next we’ll see he mediates a better covenant.
He mediates a better covenant
So verse 6 tells us that Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. The old priests serving in the old tent on earth and offering the old sacrifices according to the law did so because they were operating within the old covenant, or what verse 7 calls the first covenant. We learn in verse 9 that the covenant here referred to is the covenant God made with the people of Israel on the day when he took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt. We commonly call this covenant the Mosaic covenant, named after Moses, the man by whom God led Israel out of Egypt, or simply the Old Covenant, in contrast with the new, the covenant Christ mediates.
Now, just as we had some leg work to do on high priests to understand the first part of our passage, so we have some leg work to do now on covenants and mediators to understand this part of our passage. None of us were raised under biblical Judaism, so we have to take our time to understand these things. Covenant is actually a hard word to define; kind of like Augustine said of time: “I know what it is until you ask me to define it.” But theologian Gordon Hugenberger defined it as “an elected, as opposed to a natural, relationship of obligation under oath,” and that’s probably about as good a definition as any. It is an elected relationship as opposed to a natural one; so my relationship with my wife is a covenant relationship, whereas my relationship with my sons and daughter is not. In each case, there is a relationship of obligation, but my obligation to my kids springs from nature: Since I was responsible for bringing them into the world, I am now responsible before God to protect and nurture their lives, among other things. With my wife, however, nothing in nature obligated me to love her and give myself up for her. That obligation became mine when I elected to enter into the covenant of marriage with her by way of an oath I took on my wedding day, expressed in the form of vows. So a covenant is an elected relationship that obligates the parties involved to act in a certain way toward one another, entered into by way of some kind of oath, an oath that then binds them to act in the ways appropriate to that covenant. So that’s a covenant in general.
Now, not all covenants have mediators, but mediators become necessary when the parties entering into the covenant are at enmity with one another. We even use this language today when it comes to conflict resolution; if two people try hashing it out and cannot, they will ask a mediator to come and help them make peace. So with God, since we have all sinned against him, covenant relationship with him is now only possible through a mediator. So a covenant is an elected, rather than a natural, relationship of obligation under oath, and a mediator facilitates such a relationship when the parties entering into are at enmity with one another.
When God entered into covenant with Israel, it was not on the basis of nature. In fact, God goes to great lengths to show them how there was nothing in them that entitled them to their special relationship with God (e.g., Deut 7:7-8). Instead, God elected to enter into a relationship with them under oath, thus freely choosing to obligate himself to act toward them in a certain way. But when God started speaking to them, they recognized their sinfulness in his sight, and thus requested a mediator to facilitate the covenant, and Moses was that mediator. So rather than speaking directly to the people, from that point forward God spoke to Moses, and Moses relayed to the people God’s promises in the covenant, by which he obligated himself. The promises could basically be summarized this way: If you obey me, I will bless you with long life in the promised land of Canaan (Ex 23:23-33). That was God’s obligation, and then God spelled out the terms that obligate the people who would be in covenant with him, summarized in the Ten Commandments. Moses read those commandments to the people, and the people accepted the covenant (Ex 24:3-8). That’s the covenant that God made with the fathers of Israel on the day when he took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, and it’s under the law of that covenant that the priests minister on earth in the tent made by man.
But there was a problem with that covenant, and we know that because, verse 7, if it had been faultless, God would never have spoken of another. But God did in fact speak of another in Jeremiah chapter 31, the passage quoted at length in the rest of our passage. And we see the fault in that first covenant as verse 9 continues: They did not continue in my covenant, and so I showed no concern for them. In other words, the fault with the covenant was the fault of God’s people, who did not continue in that covenant. They disobeyed, especially when they refused to enter the promised land, and so God swore that they would not enter. After letting the only two of that generation who did obey enter the land, eventually the people turned from the LORD again, and so he sent them into exile away from the land. In that context, God spoke these words originally through the prophet Jeremiah, saying that he would make a new covenant with the house of Israel after those days, the covenant that Christ now mediates, which we accordingly call the new covenant.
And the new covenant is not only new; it’s better. New doesn’t always mean better, but in this case it does, because, verse 6: The New Covenant is enacted on better promises than the old, and verses 10-12 spell out those promises. We could summarize those promises as new hearts, new knowledge, and new mercy. We see the new heart in verse 10: I will put my laws in their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. In the Old Covenant, God wrote his law on tablets of stone. In the New Covenant, he wrote it on human hearts and minds. Notice that it is the same law, so it is not as though under the Old Covenant God required you to love him and your neighbor, whereas under the New you’re “free” to do whatever you feel. The situation is rather that under both the Old and New Covenant God required his people to love him with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love their neighbor as themselves, but when he gave that law in the Old Covenant, he gave it to people who did not love him with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, nor did they love their neighbor as themselves, whereas under the New Covenant, God promises to so transform the hearts of those with whom he makes the covenant that they will actually love God and their neighbor as the law requires! Whereas under the Old Covenant God promised to give his people the promised land if they obeyed, in the New Covenant God promises to give his people the power to obey! Therefore, God will truly be their God, and they will truly be his people. The New Covenant promises new hearts.
And it promises new knowledge. Verse 11 tells us that in that day the participants in that covenant will not teach one another, saying “Know the Lord,” because they will all know him, from the least of them to the greatest. Under the Old Covenant, the people of Israel still had to be taught to know the LORD, because many of them, most of them even, did not. They may have known a lot about God, but they proved by their actions that they did not know God. Those with whom God makes the New Covenant, though, God also promises to give the knowledge of him. This does not mean there are no teachers at all under the New Covenant; the author of this letter already told the Hebrews that they all ought to be teachers! But it means the job of teachers under the New Covenant is no longer to say, “Know the LORD.” So the author of this letter does not tell the Hebrews to enter into a real relationship with God. Rather, he assumes they are already in one. He does not have to tell them to know the LORD because he assumes they already do. So instead, he tells them to go on to maturity with the LORD, and to not fall away from the LORD.
It’s why in sermons here I often have to make a brief aside to speak to the unbelievers in the room, to tell them to “know the LORD,” because I assume that those of you who are here and are members of this church already know the LORD. Of course, I don’t know that ultimately; sometimes churches admit into their membership some who are not truly members of the New Covenant, but all who truly have entered into the New Covenant do know the LORD. Incidentally, that is one reason we do not baptize infants and receive them into the membership of our church; because we still need to teach them to know the LORD! Knowledge of God is one of the promises of the New Covenant: New hearts that enable us to obey God’s law, a new knowledge of God, from the least to the greatest, and, finally, verse 12: New mercy.
What enables God to give these new hearts and this new knowledge to people who have sinned against him? He promises to be merciful toward their iniquities, and remember their sins no more. Mercy simply refers to a cessation of punishment; iniquities, or sins, deserve God’s punishment, but God promises in the New Covenant to be merciful to those with whom he makes that covenant. He will not give them the punishment their sins deserve. And he says he will remember their sins no more. God is omniscient; just as it is impossible for him to lie, it would be impossible for him to literally become unaware of sins we have committed. But what he means when he says he will remember them no more is he will no longer call them to mind in how he deals with us. His promise is to treat us as though we’d never sinned, and therefore to give us new hearts enabling us to obey him, and new knowledge of him, rather than showing no concern for us, as he did for those Israelites who did not continue in the Old Covenant.
Brothers and sisters, those are better promises, and those are the promises of the covenant mediated by Christ. He is the better priest because he mediates a better covenant. If you are one of those who are here today who is not yet a Christian, I want you to see here why faith in Jesus is so essential to salvation. Whatever you do, do not go from here today thinking, “Ok; I get it. I know there are some things I’m supposed to do, and I don’t do them, and it’s really made my life empty. So from this day forward I resolve: I’ll start doing them.” That’s what the fathers did on the day when God took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, but they did not continue in that covenant, and neither will you be able to continue in obedience to God if you really understand what his law requires. As a sinner, you simply do not have the power to do so, anymore than I or anyone else here did in our natural state. You need a new heart, the new heart promised in the new covenant, for God’s law to be written on your heart, enabling you to obey, and Jesus Christ is the only mediator of that covenant. You may even know a lot about God, but the only way to truly know God is through Jesus Christ. And even if you could muster up your best efforts to obey, the only promise God has made to merciful toward anyone’s iniquities and remember their sins no more is in the New Covenant, and Jesus Christ is its only mediator, because only Jesus Christ took upon himself the sins of all who would ever believe in him and atoned for them. God can remember the sins of all who believe no more because God did remember their sins when he placed them upon Christ on the cross. God can withhold punishment of the iniquities of those who believe because Christ was already punished for them. Receive and rest upon Christ alone for salvation, and you will know the LORD.
Brothers and sisters here today, I do not have to tell you to know the LORD. But I do want to encourage you with these glorious promises of the New Covenant. Do you see now that if you are in Christ Jesus today, God has put his law in your mind and written it in your heart? You are not Sisyphus, constantly pushing a boulder of attempted obedience uphill, only to have it fall back down on you as you make no progress. Yes, you are still in a struggle against the sin that remains in you, but it is a struggle in which you can attain a measure of victory in this life, and in which you will emerge victorious in the end. If you are in Christ, sin will still come and pester you, but don’t listen to it! As the Spirit works in you love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, and so inclines you to obey God’s law as it is written down for us in scripture, act on those things. You have the power to do so, by God’s grace.
And if you truly know the LORD, don’t let any false teachers try to convince you that you don’t. That’s what the Hebrews were facing: They knew the LORD, but they were listening to false teachers who told them they needed to return to the old covenant priesthood. And the author points out: No, the old covenant didn’t bring knowledge of the LORD to everyone in it; the New Covenant does. So today Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Mormon, Jehovah’s Witness, Muslim, Black Hebrew Israelite teachers, and even just atheistic, unbelieving teachers, will try to convince you that you don’t really know the LORD, either because they believe there is no LORD, or because they think they’ve found another way to him than the mediation of Christ. But there’s a scene in the movie A Few Good Men where Tom Cruise’s character says to Demi Moore’s: “Don’t tell me what I know and don’t know; I know the law!” and I so want you to be able to say to false teachers, even when it feels like you can’t quite defeat their argument: “Don’t tell me what I know and don’t know; I know the LORD.”
Don’t let false teachers pull you away from our mediator, and don’t let an awareness of your own sins take your eyes off our mediator. In him God promises to be merciful toward our iniquities and remember our sins no more. Sometimes people will say they need to forgive themselves, but what you really need to do is stop judging yourself. It is simply another species of wicked pride to hear God’s promise to be merciful toward your iniquities, and then to insist that you will continue judging yourself for them. You never had that right in the first place. Your sins were never against you; they were against him, and he has chosen to remember them no more in Christ. Satan wants you to think that obedience is impossible, so you might as well sin. Then once you have sinned, he wants you to think forgiveness is impossible, so you might as well give up, leave Christ, and sin more. But God’s promise is to write his law on your heart so that obedience is possible, and to be merciful toward your iniquities, so that forgiveness is likewise possible. It’s only when you leave Christ that forgiveness becomes impossible!
And yet that’s what not only we, but the Hebrews, were tempted to do. So our author concludes in verse 13 with one more feature of the new covenant that demonstrates its superiority to the old: It lasts, while the old, in his day, was ready to vanish away. Yes, there will still priests on earth offering gifts and sacrifices according to the law when this letter was written, but there would not be for much longer. In the year A.D. 70, God sent the Romans in judgment on the Old Covenant Israel, the temple was destroyed, the sacrifices ceased to be offered, and in the 1950 years since, they have never been offered again. The Old Covenant is officially obsolete. There is only one priest now who acts on behalf of men in relation to God, who ministers in heaven, the true tent made by God, not the copy and shadow of it, and there is only one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus, who mediates a better covenant enacted on better promises, the promises of new hearts, new knowledge, and new mercy, and the point in saying all this, is that we have him.