This morning’s message will be the 16th in our series through the book of Hebrews. It is titled “A Better Covenant”. At the conclusion of our discussion last week, the Biblical author stated that Jesus ministers as the Mediator of a “better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises”. This covenant will be the topic of our sermon today.
A covenant is a binding agreement or contract between two parties. Typically, when we speak about Biblical covenants we are referring to those that God has initiated between Himself and mankind. Scholars recognize 7 such covenants found in Scripture - the Adamic Covenant, the Noahic Covenant, the Abrahamic Covenant, the Land Covenant, the Mosaic Covenant, the Davidic Covenant, and the New Covenant.
These covenants are generally categorized as either conditional or unconditional, though some have elements of both. A conditional covenant is structured so that the promise(s) made by God contained in the agreement are contingent upon man’s ability to adhere to its terms. An unconditional covenant is structured so that God’s promise(s) are binding regardless of man’s abilities or actions. For example, God’s conditional covenant with Adam promised eternal life in the Garden of Eden in exchange for not eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of God and Evil. His unconditional covenant with Noah made no human demands but rather promised to never destroy the earth again by flooding.
Conditional covenants can be thought of as works-based covenants. Man’s actions or works determine whether or not he will receive God’s promises or maintain His favor. Notably, in every instance of a conditional or works-based covenant mankind has failed to uphold the terms of the agreement. Unconditional covenants, however, can be described as grace-based covenants. Man’s works have no bearing upon God’s promises. He graciously acts solely on the basis of His own righteous character and will.
It is essential that Christians have some general knowledge about the two types of covenants. It helps us to better interpret and understand the meaning of Scripture. This will be of particular importance in our message today.
I. THE NEED FOR A NEW COVENANT (v7-9a)
The first covenant, which is also called the old covenant, was flawed and faulty. The fault was not with God, but rather with man. It was a conditional covenant that fallen humanity simply couldn’t keep. It was unable to perfect humanity. As such, a new and better covenant was needed. This coming covenant was foretold hundreds of years earlier in Jeremiah 31:31-34.
What’s more, the former covenant applied most specifically to the children of or nation of Israel. In other words, it had limited participation. A new covenant was needed that had a broader application to all people. While it was originally introduced to the Jews, this new covenant would expand to include everyone - including the Gentiles.
II. THE NATURE OF THE NEW COVENANT (v9b & 12)
The former covenant is sometimes referred to as the Law. Under it, people typically received God’s blessings if they obeyed His commands and punishments if they did not. For example, when the Hebrew children refused to follow God’s directive to enter into the Promised Land they were forced to wander in the wilderness. God “did not care for them” because of their disobedience. While He still loved them and desired their repentance, He justifiably withheld His promised blessings.
God is fully aware of men’s depravity and inability to live without sin. He knows that a corrupted and imperfect people always will fail to keep up their end of the bargain. When left to unholy men, inevitably the end will be curses and condemnation. So in order to redeem them, the LORD enacted a new and unconditional covenant characterized by mercy and forgiveness. It is founded on grace through faith.
III. THE PLACEMENT OF THE NEW COVENANT (v10a)
The old covenant consisted of many laws, ordinances, and statutes that were either written on tablets of stone or in scrolls of paper. While the moral laws pre-existed the former covenant and were simply included in it, the ceremonial and civil laws were all new. These laws were externally imposed upon man by God. Together they functioned as the governing rules of Israeli society and religion.
The new covenant is written into people’s “minds” and onto “their hearts”. It is affected by God internally within man. It emphasizes universal morals and ethics which are inherent to every person. These are seared into the human conscience. Because all people are created in the image of God, each naturally has some sense of good and evil. Unfortunately, this discretion is often blurred by sin.
IV. THE FAMILIARITY OF THE NEW COVENANT (v10b-11)
Because the old covenant was based on external laws which defined what was legal and illegal, it had to be taught by and/or shared between people. There was no innate understanding or awareness of it. People had to hear and learn these precepts from others if they intended to follow them. They weren’t naturally familiar the old covenant’s requirements or even the God who prescribed them.
The new covenant is rooted in humanity’s internal recognition of right and wrong. While this can and certainly should be developed and refined through additional teaching and discipleship, everyone instinctively knows that some things are fundamentally good while others are not. In addition, everyone has an inborn awareness that God is real. Some may try to suppress or deny this knowledge, but it exists nonetheless.
V. THE END OF THE OLD COVENANT (v13)
With the advent of the new and faultless covenant which was enacted by Christ, the old has become “obsolete”. It is no longer necessary or viable. That said, there remains great value in studying the old covenant. The commandments contained therein provide considerable insight into the character and heart of God. While they are no longer strictly binding, they may still be beneficial to a person’s or people’s well-being.
God purposely initiated the old covenant, which demanded obedience as the means of obtaining His blessings and salvation, in order to show us our utter helplessness and hopelessness. The Lord was not intentionally setting us up to fail, but rather was revealing to us that we could never succeed. This was an act of grace on His part, because it made us aware of our desperate need for a Savior.
Let’s briefly review the comparisons made in this passage between the old covenant and the new covenant.
- The old covenant was faulty, but the new covenant is faultless.
- The old covenant was conditional upon man’s obedience, but the new covenant is an unconditional expression of God’s grace through faith.
- The old covenant was written on stone and paper, but the new covenant is written on hearts and minds.
- The old covenant was external and had a limited application, but the new covenant is internal and has an unlimited application.
- The old covenant is obsolete, but the new covenant is in effect.
Last week I introduced the concept of “progressive revelation” and explained how it relates to the priesthood of Jesus Christ. This same principle also applies to God’s covenantal relationship with mankind. In truth, salvation has always come to repentant sinners by grace through faith. This process has never changed throughout time. Prior to the Mosaic Law there was virtually no widespread understanding of this, during the time of the old covenant it was being vaguely portrayed, and in Christ it is fully declared and made transparent.
The new covenant is merely the complete revelation of that which was always in place. Wow!