Believe Jesus: Joining God’s Life Group
We live in an age in which we are very familiar with the concept of obsolescence. The computer that was cutting edge five years ago now appears antediluvian, the camera with five megapixels that seemed so incredible when we first got it is now regarded as useless. This passage in Hebrews describes the way in which the Law of Moses has similarly become obsolete. Once it was useful, but now it has exceeded its sell by date.
This is a wonderful passage, but at first reading we might think “What is it saying to me?” – especially for those of us who do not come from Jewish backgrounds. However, Hebrews 8 helps us to see what it really means to be a Christian – and even what it means to be human.
The Bible tells a story of how we were meant to be in community with one another and with God. God himself exists in perfect community (the Trinity) and created Man to be in community with him, and with each other. This community was very different from how we all too often experience human relationships. It was a community of stress free, strife free, bitterness free friendship. It was very good! But this good community between men, and between man and God, was disrupted by sin. This is what sin does; sin is a relationship breaker. Sin introduces stress and strife and bitterness into our relationships.
Even though sin smashes up community, because we were made for community, the human story has always been about our attempts to recover community. The very good news is that God hasn’t given up on community either. The story tells us that things not only began in community, but will end that way too – as the glorious promise of Revelation 21:3 makes clear, “God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.”
In the first 7 chapters of Hebrews the writer has demonstrated the greatness and superiority of Christ; he has urged the believers to keep pressing on; and he has described the promises of God’s blessing. Now, in chapter 8 he demonstrates how Jesus puts this all into place and shows us the heart of the story.
Hebrews 8:1–10:18 is an unpacking of the promise of a new covenant found in Jeremiah 31, and the quotation here is the longest single citation of Old Testament scripture in the New Testament. The reason the letter to the Hebrews gives so much space to Jeremiah 31 is that this is a pivot point in the story of God gathering a community to himself. The context of Jeremiah’s prophecy was a bad time in the history of Israel, with Jerusalem besieged by Babylon. And then, like a sudden rainbow, the promise of the new covenant appears. This new covenant is going to be like the old one – its intention being to draw God and his people into community – but it is going to be totally unlike the old covenant in its operation.
The new covenant achieves three things, which the obsolete covenant with Moses could not:
1. A change of heart
One of the great ironies of Israel’s national story was that the Mosaic law wasn’t hard to keep – but they didn’t keep it! The point is that no one can live as God requires simply by self-effort. Living as God requires is not about moralism, but about the heart. In order to please God we need a heart transplant!
The promise of the new covenant is that God performs heart surgery on his people and implants his law in them. A parallel pivot point promise to Jeremiah 31 is found in Ezekiel 36:26-27: “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” The point (and the promise) is clear: We come into God’s community not through our effort, but by a heart transplant.
2. Personal experience of the knowledge of God
The promise of both the old and new covenants is that, “I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” The people of Israel knew God, but at times it was said of them, “They do not know the Lord” (Jdg 2:10; Hos 4:1,6). This is the difference between knowing and knowing. The promise of the new covenant is knowing! All members of the new covenant can draw near to God, can know him, can have access to him. The need for the intercession of a priest has been removed, by Jesus our great high priest!
3. Forgiveness of sins
Under the old covenant there was an annual reminder of sins; under the new covenant our sins are forgotten! There is a completeness to this forgiveness because of the completeness of Christ’s sacrifice. This means that when we take the sign of the new covenant (the Lord’s Supper) it is not a reminder of sins but of forgiveness! Our sin doesn’t need to be dealt with; it has been dealt with! And this means that taking the Supper should be a moment of triumphant celebration, not the mournful introspection we have often allowed it to become.
Under the old covenant there was a tent (tabernacle/temple) around which community with God revolved. This was a copy of the heavenly reality – it was physical enough, but nonetheless it was only a shadow of the true reality. The real tent is in heaven – and it is this tent we really need to enter. Jesus claimed to be this true tent: “Something greater than the temple is here” (Mt 12:6). The only way into this temple is by forgiveness, and, in Christ, forgiveness is ours!
Hebrews 8 is about what it is to be a Christian. None of us enter by our effort, but his grace: the old way is obsolete. Our relationship with God is not abstract but personal: the old way is obsolete. We need experience no burden of guilt or shame: the old way is obsolete. We get invited into God’s community – into his Life Group! Let’s enjoy it!