The New Testament tells us that Jesus is our intercessor, our mediator, our Savior and King. But only the book of Hebrews tells us that he is our priest. This unique concept is the central message of Hebrews, the main idea from which the others flow. Priesthood is the purpose for which Jesus was made human (2:17); his priesthood is the reason we should hold fast to our faith (4:14); and the proof that the old covenant has been set aside (7:12).
Jesus guarantees a better covenant, a better relationship with God. And because he lives forever at God’s right hand, “he is able to save completely those who come to God through him” (7:25). The old covenant priests could not save anyone, but Jesus is fully effective at what they could only picture. Jesus does it not by adding himself to the old covenant, but by fulfilling the old so thoroughly that the old becomes unnecessary. He supersedes the old covenant, replacing it with a better covenant (7:22).
When we have Jesus, we do not need the old covenant. The practices commanded in the Old Covenant (circumcision, various rituals, sabbaths and festivals) have no spiritual merit for the Christian. All we need is Jesus.
The main point (verses 1-2)
“The main point of what we are saying is this…” After seven chapters, here is what we should have firmly in mind: “We do have such a high priest.” What humans need, what God has promised, has finally come. We have the priest who is able to save us completely. We need to focus our thoughts on him, hold fast to him and have confidence in him.
He is our priest not only because he lives forever, but because he has been exalted to a position of royal and spiritual power: He “sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, and…serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by a mere human being” (8:1-2). What earthly tabernacles and priests could only picture, Jesus Christ is. He is the reality forever, not a temporary imitation.
A superior ministry (verses 3-6)
The author has capped off seven chapters with a simple summary: Jesus is our high priest. What then? The letter begins to move forward by discussing the work of a priest: “Every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices, and so it was necessary for this one also to have something to offer” (8:3). What did Jesus offer? The author has already told us in 7:27, and he will develop it more fully in chapter 9, but here he mentions it only briefly. First, he wants to set the scene for chapter 9 by discussing the tabernacle.
If Jesus were on earth, he observes, “he would not be a priest, for there are already priests who offer the gifts prescribed by the law” (8:4). The earthly rituals were being done according to the laws of Moses. The temple work was being done by Levitical priests, as the law required. Jesus did not work in the earthly temple, but the earthly sanctuary does teach us something about the priestly work of Jesus.
The tabernacle of Moses, and later the temple, was “a copy and shadow of what is in heaven.” It is therefore important, and “this is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: ‘See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain’” (8:5). The author is quoting Exodus 25:40 to show that the earthly tabernacle was a copy, not the real thing. The Levitical priests served as a copy, and the rituals they performed were copies, not the spiritual realities.
“But in fact the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, since the new covenant is established on better promises” (8:6). The Greek verb is past tense: the new covenant “has been enacted through better promises” (NRSV). It is already established. Just as the heavenly sanctuary is better than the earthly one, so also is Jesus’ priestly ministry better than the Levitical ministry, and so also is the new covenant better than the old.
The tabernacle was merely a copy, a cheap imitation, in comparison to the heavenly reality. In the same way, the Levitical priesthood, although divinely ordained, was merely an imitation of a heavenly reality fulfilled by Jesus Christ. The Levitical rituals came in great variety: water rituals, grain rituals, special clothing, hand motions, killing of animals and releasing of animals. All these rituals were fulfilled by and superseded by the work of Jesus Christ.
We do not see exact correspondence for every detail, nor do we need to. We cannot insist that the spiritual is just like the physical. We do not expect that the heavenly sanctuary has wool and linen curtains, bronze basins, acacia framing and red ram skins. Indeed, it does not need curtains, frames and skins at all. Those are merely physical things that corresponded to a spiritual reality.
Jesus’ priestly work is much better than the old priesthood — in quality, not quantity. The work he did once was better than millions of rituals done by Levites. Christ’s work was so much superior that it did not have to be repeated. It was a different kind of priesthood. We should expect major differences between spiritual realities and earthly copies.
In the same way, we should expect the new covenant to be different in quality from the old covenant. Just as every ritual has been superseded, so also is every detail of the law. In some cases we can see how the new covenant modifies or clarifies an old law, but in other cases we see laws disappear without any particular replacement. The new is better than the old, as far as heaven is from earth. The old covenant promised a long life in the land of Israel; the new covenant promises eternal life with God. It is a very different kind of covenant.
Predicted in the Scriptures (verses 7-13)
The author of Hebrews likes to show that the Old Testament Scriptures contain hints of the dramatic change brought by Christ. There are hints of a “rest” to come, hints of a priesthood to come, hints of a spiritual reality that supersedes and replaces the rituals. Now he shows that a change in covenants was also predicted. “For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another.” The fact that a new covenant was predicted, implied that something was wrong with the Sinai covenant.
“God found fault with the people,” but it is also correct to say that there was something lacking in the old covenant. The author has already said that the old covenant could not make anyone perfect (7:11, 19). It could point toward perfection, but it could not bring it. Many Jews thought it was good enough, but it was not, and that is why God predicted a new covenant:
“The days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah” (8:8). This is quoted from Jeremiah 31:31, which is one of many predictions of a new relationship between God and humans. The prophets described it as a new spirit, a new heart, a covenant of peace, an everlasting covenant. This covenant would be made not only with Israelites, but also open to Gentiles.
“It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they did not remain faithful to my covenant, and I turned away from them, declares the Lord” (8:9). Because the Israelites repeatedly broke the old covenant, the new covenant will be different.
“This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people” (8:10). The Israelites had some of God’s laws in their minds, and they sometimes wanted to obey them. But this prophecy implies that the new covenant will have a different level of internalization. The relationship will be characterized by attitude, not external rituals.
“No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest” (8:11). All humans will have equal access to God; no longer will one tribe have special status. Jeremiah’s prophecy does not spell out all the details, but the beginning is here of a very different covenant.
“For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (8:12). The covenant does not predict perfect people — it predicts perfect forgiveness, a forgiveness available to everyone based on God’s grace, without any priests or rituals. The fact that this prophecy was given implied that the old covenant was ineffective and soon to be replaced. “By calling this covenant ‘new,’ he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear” (8:13).
Even in Jeremiah’s day, the old covenant was destined to come to an end. Israel’s history had already shown that this covenant could not bring the people toward perfection. God’s plan required a new covenant, a covenant of forgiveness, a more spiritual covenant, a covenant with a perfect priest, who made a perfect offering for all sin. That is the subject of chapter 9.