“The Heart Covenant”
January 20, 2002
The new covenant applies the heavenly ministry of Jesus to the hearts of his people.
I. His ministry in the heavenly sanctuary. (Hebrews 8:1-6)
II. His new covenant ministry in our hearts. (Hebrews 8:7-13)
MessageMax Lucado tells one of his fantastic stories to illustrate the difference between external obedience and inward righteousness. When my family lived in Rio de Janeiro, I owned a ham radio. I kept it in the utility room on top of the freezer. When we traveled, I always unplugged the radio and disconnected the antenna.
Once, as we left for a week long trip, I remembered I hadnt unplugged the radio. I ran back in the house, pulled the plug, and dashed out. But I pulled the wrong plug. It was summertime, and summer in Rio redefines the word hot. Our apartment was on the top of a 14 story building, which adds to the intensity. For seven days a full freezer sat in a sweltering apartment with the power off. (Why are you groaning?)
When we came home, Denalyn decided to get some meat out of the freezer. As she opened the freezer door well, I wont go into details as to what she saw, but I will say it was a moving experience. Guess who got fingered as the one who had unplugged the freezer and would be responsible for cleaning it? You got it. So I got to work.
What is the best way to clean a rotten interior? I knew exactly what to do. I got a rag and a bucket of soapy water and began cleaning the outside of the appliance. I was sure the odor would disappear with a good shine, so I polished and buffed and wiped. When I was through, the freezer could have passed Marine boot camp inspection. It was sparkling. But when I opened the door, that freezer was revolting.
No problem. I knew what to do. This freezer needed some friends. Id stink, too, if I had the social life of a utility room. So I threw a party. I invited all the appliances from the neighborhood kitchens. It was hard work, but we filled our apartment with refrigerators, stoves, microwaves, washing machines. It was great. A couple of toasters recognized each other from the appliance store. Everyone played pin the plug on the socket and had a few laughs about limited warranties. The blenders were the hit, though; they really mixed well. I was sure the social interaction would cure my freezer, but I was wrong. I opened it up, and the stink was even worse!
Now what? I had one more idea. If a polish job wouldnt do it and a social life didnt help, Id give the freezer some status! I bought a Mercedes decal and stuck it on the door. I painted a paisley tie on the front. I put a Save the Whales bumper sticker on the rear and installed a cellular phone on the side. That freezer was stylish. It was ... cool. I splashed it with cologne and gave it a credit card for clout. Then I backed away and admired the high class freezer. You just might make the cover of Popular Mechanics, I told it. It blushed. Then I opened the door, expecting to see a clean inside, but what I saw was putrid stinky and repulsive.
I know what youre thinking: the only thing worse than Maxs sense of humor is his common sense. Who would concentrate on the outside when the problem is inside? Sadly, far too many of us are guilty of this when it comes to our relationship with God. We think a few external behavior changes will somehow fix a problem of the heart. But God knows better. In Jesus he has provided a way to change his people from the inside out - from the heart. What well see in Hebrews chapter 8 is that the new covenant applies the heavenly ministry of Jesus to the hearts of his people.
I. His ministry in the heavenly sanctuary. (Hebrews 8:1-6)
Dividing our text in two, well begin with Hebrews 8:1-6, where we see that the ministry of Jesus is superior because it takes place in a heavenly setting, not in an earthly copy. Hebrews 8:1 The point of what we are saying is this: We do have such a high priest, who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, 2and who serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by man. 3Every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices, and so it was necessary for this one also to have something to offer. 4If he were on earth, he would not be a priest, for there are already men who offer the gifts prescribed by the law. 5They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. 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." 6But the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, and it is founded on better promises.
What the author has been saying, especially immediately prior to this chapter, is that Jesus is a high priest more like Melchizedek than like the Jewish high priests who were descended from Aaron. He is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens, able to save completely those who come to God through him. He is perfect - that is, right with God and therefore he has free and unrestricted access to God - no barrier of sin separates him from God.
This is what our high priest is like, as evidenced by the fact that he has gone into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Majesty on high. This is the second time weve heard that Jesus is seated in heaven. His sitting down reminds us that in one sense his work as high priest is done. He has offered the sacrifice and another one isnt needed. The priest under the old covenant never got to sit down because his work was never done. But our high priest is seated at the right hand of God the Father.
Yet, in spite of his finished work of sacrifice, Jesus continues to serve as high priest. He serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by man. Weve already been told that Jesus intercedes for us. Now we learn that he does it in the original, heavenly sanctuary rather than a man-made earthly copy. Our author calls this the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not men. The tabernacle the Israelites took with them through the desert was a tent. This verse says Jesus serves in the true tent which the Lord pitched. It is Gods original heavenly sanctuary.
This is why while on earth Jesus had little to do with the Temple in Jerusalem. He went there as a boy, and several times during his ministry, but he never did anything remotely priestly there. His earthly ministry was teacher, not priest. In fact, his only priestly act was to offer himself as a sacrifice, not in the temple, but outside the gates. Yet by this act he assumed forever a superior heavenly ministry as part of a new covenant. Verse 3: 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. We know that the sacrifice offered by this high priest was himself. Jesus didnt come to continue the repeated sacrifices of the old covenant. Verse 4: If he were on earth, he would not be a priest, for there are already men who offer the gifts prescribed by the law - that is, the Levitical priests. They have a symbolic, earthly ministry. Jesus has an effective, heavenly Ministry. They serve, verse 5, at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. Jesus is superior in that he serves in the original, the reality of which the earthly is only a copy.
There is no doubt these earthly, old covenant sacrifices were meant to teach what sacrifice was all about and how it could be effective. God already had the sacrifice of Jesus in mind when he gave Moses the sacrificial system. It was a picture of the reality which would only come in Christ. Sacrifice provided a focus for those who by faith trusted God to send his promised salvation. Even the tabernacle pictured that heavenly reality. Verse 5 says 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. Most of you have probably read the chapters in Exodus where the tabernacle, with its curtains and cubits and columns is described in exacting detail. Even so no two artists fully agree on what these things looked like. Its a case where a picture would truly be worth a thousand words.
But there are no pictures in the Bible. We dont have this picture. But apparently God did give the Biblical author an image to work from. Moses was shown an image on the mountain to match the words he received. Some rabbis even taught that the angel Gabriel came down from heaven in a workmans apron with models of the Tabernacle and its furniture, which he showed Moses how to build.
Id prefer to speculate on the descent of a nice big computer terminal, with engineering drawings and numerically controlled machines and 3-D modeling. But then, Id want the ten commandments delivered on CD-ROM, so dont listen to me. The author of Hebrews implies that Moses was given a vision of the heavenly reality, and then told to build the earthly version like the heavenly one he had seen. But no matter how well his craftsmen worked, the result could only be a lesser copy - you cant do heavenly things with earthly materials. Our author says that tabernacle was only a shadow of what is in heaven - it shows the shape but not the substance of heavenly things. And if thats true of the sanctuary, its also true of the ministry that took place in the sanctuary - merely a shadow of the heavenly reality.
Verse 6 is the conclusion to this line of thinking and the introduction to what follows: But the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, and it is founded on better promises. If the sanctuary is a heavenly rather than an earthly one, then the ministry performed by Jesus in that sanctuary was of heavenly value rather than just of earthly value. He is the mediator or the key person for both sides of a new covenant between God and man. The old covenant, though it had great value in showing Gods righteous ways, mans sinful failure and the way of atonement through sacrifice was inadequate to truly provide what it pictured. A new kind of priest, in the order of Melchizedek, offering a new kind of sacrifice, the once and for all sacrifice of himself, brought in a new kind of covenant which our author calls a better covenant - superior to the old, and offering better promises - not promises more certain, but more effective.
II. His new covenant ministry in our hearts. (Hebrews 8:7-13)
Verses 7 to 12 remind us that this new covenant should not have been unexpected, because its promises were well described by the prophets: For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another. 8But God found fault with the people and said: "The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. 9It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers 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. 10This is the covenant I will make with the house 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. 11No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, 'Know the Lord,' because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. 12For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more." 13By calling this covenant "new," he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear.
There was something wrong with the old covenant. It did not produce heart righteousness. Not that the Old Testament isnt aware of the need for heart righteousness. Moses commands the people to love the Lord with all their hearts. David cries out Create in me a clean heart. But the law didnt produce or sustain this heart righteousness. The old covenant revealed sin and showed how sin could be dealt with through sacrifice, but didnt change the heart. This is why God said in Isaiah: These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men.
God recognized that even faithful old covenant worshipers still needed a change of heart. They didnt need faith - that was already there. In the covenant with Abraham righteousness came not through works but faith. It was trust in Gods promises, his promised savior that allowed God to apply the work of Christ in advance to those ancient believers, making them righteous in his sight and cleansing their hearts.
But even then, there was something missing. They didnt have the Holy Spirit working in their hearts, to convict, to strengthen, to guide. It is his work that enables believers to live in growing righteousness. The key difference between the old covenant and the new was that the old defined externally what right behavior was to look like; the new covenant strengthens us for right behavior by changing our hearts.
During the times of the prophets, God made it known that this new covenant was coming. The passage our author quotes is from Jeremiah 31. It dates back to the reign of Josiah. After rediscovering the Law, Israel had had a national time of repentance and made a public commitment to keep the old covenant - and they had failed again. In the midst of this failure, God promised a new covenant that would address the heart issues which made the old covenant, even the Abrahamic covenant, so disappointing. In the new covenant faith would not only save people but change them so that righteousness could not only be credited in heaven but lived on earth.
Thats the promise God makes in describing this new covenant: The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. 9It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers 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. God in his love had powerfully revealed himself to Israel when he took them by the hand and led them out of Egypt. But they were not faithful to him, and they repeatedly chose to worship other gods and defy the stipulations of the covenant he had given them. So finally, in accordance with his covenant, he turned from them. The result was destruction for Israel, exile for Judah, and the loss of the nation.
The repeated failure of the people to live out the covenant pointed up the need for a new covenant that would address behavior on a heart level. Thats what this Jeremiah passage, as quoted in Hebrews 8:10 to 12, promises. The first promise is the most important: I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. The new covenant has an inward impact. Our high priest in heaven saves so completely that he even gives a new heart. God, describing the same covenant in Ezekiel, says I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Ezekiel 36:26_27. Its a heart covenant - and remember that in Hebrew the heart stood for the whole inward aspect of life: mind, will and emotions. All of these are remade and rewritten by the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
On one occasion Dr. Christian Barnard, the first surgeon ever to do a heart transplant, asked one of his patients, Dr. Philip Blaisberg, would you like to see your old heart? Dr. Bernard took down a glass container and handed it to Dr. Blaisberg.
For a moment he stood there, stunned into silence the first man in history ever to hold his own heart in his hands. Finally he spoke and for ten minutes plied Dr. Bernard with technical questions. That he took a final look at the contents of the container, and said, so this is my old heart that caused me so much trouble. He handed a back, turned away and left it forever. In the same way Christ removes our heart of stone, that caused so much trouble, that could not love God and love others, and gives us a heart of flesh, responsive to the Holy Spirit and the will of God.
Its unfortunate we dont have time to pursue this because one of the things Ive seen more and more lately is that Gods desire for all of us is all about the heart. I challenge you to look for this in Scripture. Take the teaching of Jesus: the Sermon on the Mount is not about external laws written on stone, not condoning mans attempts to manipulate those laws, but about internalizing and applying their principles to every area of life. It was Jesus who warned the Pharisees, Woe to you, teachers of the law! Hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. Jesus was concerned about the heart.
So the new covenant is a heart covenant. And like all the other covenants, it is also a relationship covenant. God says I will give you a new heart and then he says I will be your God and you will be my people. Again, we could do a whole study of this Scriptural phrase. Its one of my favorites. Starting with Abraham and in all the covenants and many of the prophets, this is the promise of God. His goal is relationship: He wants to own our hearts, and we can own his in the way a lover says to his beloved you are mine. All this culminates for eternity in Revelation 22: And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain." The desire of Gods heart is to graciously bless a group of people to establish an intimate, eternal relationship.
Its a heart covenant, a relationship covenant, and also a knowledge covenant. Verse 11: No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, 'Know the Lord,' because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. Remember that to know someone, in Hebrew, is much more than head knowledge. Its intimate heart knowledge. Its direct knowledge: theres no priest except Christ, and through him everyone knows God equally and directly. Its not that teaching ceases - in fact individual study of Scripture is key to a growing knowledge of God. But the essential, saving knowledge of Christ is for individuals, not nations or families. Each individual takes the step of faith that leads to this knowledge. No one else takes it for them. All believers know the Lord, from the greatest to the least.
Finally, its a covenant of forgiveness. For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more. Theres plenty of forgiveness in the Old Testament. Those who by faith had a relationship with God received forgiveness, and knew it. The Levitical sacrifices, made in faith, would bring forgiveness. But in the new covenant we see the reality these sacrifices foreshadowed. Jesus came, and bore the burden of our sins to bring us forgiveness. In Matthews account of the communion meal this is very clear: when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. In the new covenant Christ has established we find forgiveness - and therefore righteousness before God.
One more comment on this covenant: it is now and not yet. Yes, we have new hearts, we have a relationship with God, we know God, we have forgiveness. But . . . our hearts are still moving toward inward righteousness. Were not there yet. Our relationship with God is not yet as intimate or full as it will be. Our knowledge is partial, but growing. Our forgiveness, though total, has to be realized time after time as we continue to sin. The promises of the new covenant are not immediate in our lives, but are progressive as we grow toward Christlikeness. They will not be perfected in this life - not until we are made new for eternity.
And yet our high priest in heaven does work through his Holy Spirit to make us more and more into what we are already in Gods estimation. The question we have to ask ourselves is: are we cooperating with the Spirit? Are our hearts more and more given to God? Is our relationship with him and our intimate knowledge of him growing? Are we recognizing the cost of his forgiveness and learning to live more and more free from sin? Is this new covenant taking effect at the heart of our lives?
The author completes this thought with the contrast of verse 13: By calling this covenant "new," he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear. The author is essentially asking his readers if they are hanging on to an old way that didnt do what they wanted, or will they embrace a new way in Jesus that achieves its goals at the heart level? Will they continue down a road that is clearly a dead end, or will they take a better way, the way of the heart covenant?
Robert Fulghum tells an interesting story: Its about the fact that we once lived at the dead end of a dead end street. It wasnt much of a street in the first place. I mean, it didnt call to you to come down. Kind of narrow and cluttered. Ed Weathers van and his brothers two-ton flatbed, and the Dillses old Airstream trailer were just part of the vehicular obstacle course. Still, you could see all the way down from 95th to the end. And there were two signs up there at 95th, too one on each side. Big yellow and black signs that said STREET ENDS. And down here at our end of the street was another big sign. Black and white, with stripes and reflectors. DEAD END is what it said. Right in the middle. And you could see it a long way off.
Well, for all that, people just drove on down the street anyway. Not just part way, mind you. Not just to where the reality of the situation cleared up. No, sir. They drove all the way down, right up to the sign. Then they read that sign two or three times. They looked on either side of the sign to see if there was a way around. Sometimes they just sat there for a couple of minutes adjusting their minds. Then they backed up and tried turning around as close to the sign as possible. Backing and filling between our yard and Mrs. Paulskis marigold bed and the blackberry bushes across the street, running over some of each. Funny thing is that once they got turned around, they never left slow and thoughtful as if theyd learned something. No, they tore away at full throttle. All kinds of people, broad daylight and pitch dark. Even a police car couple times, and once a fire truck.
No matter how clearly it has been marked dead end, people will continue to go down the path of the old covenant - the path of law or legalism that doesnt change the heart. Somehow you deceive yourself into thinking, as the Pharisees did, that youve found righteousness by external obedience. But God isnt fooled. He wants a true heart relationship with his people. And in this new covenant, in Jesus, he has achieved it. The question is, will you and I stay on a dead end street, cleaning up the outside but remaining putrid on the inside. Or will we accept a new heart and a new spirit? Will we pursue heart righteousness and heart knowledge of God and true forgiveness? Thats what Jesus died for. Thats what this new covenant is all about. His ministry in heaven applies this new covenant to our hearts, offering us this forgiveness, this intimate knowledge, this true relationship with God, this chance to learn to live his way. Isnt that what you really want? Its what I want. Its what I want for you.