It’s a new year and our thoughts naturally tend toward making a fresh start. As believers, we have already experienced the freshest start possible. Our sins have been wiped away completely, and we are a new creation. Paul says as much in 2 Corinthians 5:17. We have a new birth, new life, new position, new nature, new goals, new relationships, a new mission, a new purpose … and many more. But the key to all of this, we learned last week, was God’s divine initiative. One of the ways that initiative was manifested was God initiating a covenant with individuals and with groups of people. And we learn about those in Hebrews.
Before we discuss the covenants themselves, it’s important to realize that they are solely a function of God’s grace. Yes, Abraham was a man of faith, but God’s decision to cut a covenant with the patriarch came before Abram exercised any faith in God. It wasn’t a case of God reviewing humanity and deciding Abram was someone He could work with, someone He wanted on His team. No. Fallen humanity never seeks God or the things of God. But God does seek us, and He graciously calls us into a relationship with Him. Abram wasn’t a party to the first covenant in Scripture but his is the first we’ll consider.
In Hebrews 6:13-14, the writer recalls the covenant God made with Abraham in Genesis 22.
For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself, saying, “Surely I will bless you and multiply you.”
Even though the writer doesn’t cite the entire covenant and its promises, they were certainly in view to him and to his readers. Those promises included an inheritance of land in Canaan and a unique identity as God’s people. God chose a people for Himself, the descendants of Abraham. Later, we’ll find out just what it means to be a descendant of Abraham.
When we think of covenants, we think of the covenant God made with Israel through the Exodus. In Exodus 19 God invites the people to live as His people, under His law. While the people immediately accepted that offer, especially after seeing the miraculous deliverance from Egypt, things went south quickly.
As it is said, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.” For who were those who heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses?Hebrews 3:15-16
The covenant based on keeping God’s law was a failure because the people were rebellious. Note it was not a problem with God’s law. Paul explains in Romans 7 the law was good. It points out how high God’s standards are and how short we fall. Even if we think things would have been different if WE had been at Sinai, if WE had seen those miracles … the truth is, WE have already failed. A quick dip on social media provides enough evidence that, left to ourselves, we are in deep trouble. Better evidence is in Romans 3 where Paul plainly tells us that none of us are good, none of us seek after God.
While that first covenant had a system in place to cover our sins and delay judgment, there was no permanent way to erase our sins. That’s why God initiated a New Covenant in Christ.
The NEW Covenant
Christ Himself explained in the Upper Room that He was inaugurating a new covenant, guaranteed by His blood. The writer of Hebrews quotes Jeremiah 31:31-34 about the New Covenant.
For he finds fault with them when he says: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt. For they did not continue in my covenant…”Hebrews 8:8-9
This is how we know the New Covenant wasn’t a last-minute idea God threw together when Israel couldn’t keep the Law. HE knew we wouldn’t be able to keep the Law. We, however, had to see for ourselves. (We’re stubborn that way.) God knew all along that redemption through the blood of Christ was the only way our sins could be dealt with and satisfy both His justice and His grace.
Hebrews 9 explains (and it is absolutely worth the long quote):
But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.Hebrews 9:11-15.
The blood of goats and bulls could only go so far. How much MORE will the blood of Christ Jesus Himself, freely offered, purify us! This is how we become the people of God by faith like Abraham. We believe God that Christ’s death is sufficient and is available to us. God accounts that to us and we are considered righteous.
Now that’s not the end of the story, and we don’t get to simply sit around patting ourselves on the back. Under the covenant made while Moses led the people, obedience was expected in order to enjoy the blessings of the covenant. Deuteronomy 27 describes how the Israelites lined up on Mounts Ebal and Gerizim to rehearse the curses for disobedience and the blessings for obedience.
Even under the New Covenant, believers have a responsibility. While we’ll look at the charge more next week, here’s how the writer of Hebrews lays it out.
Therefore, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works,Hebrews 10:19-24