High priest of the heart

by Scott Grant

Hebrews 8

The high and low of it

The eighth chapter of Hebrews in many ways is a chapter of contrasts. Jesus, the priest and mediator of the new, is superior to the priests and mediator of the old. This kind of contrast we have seen before. What we also see in Hebrews 8 is the contrast in the ministries of Jesus. As a priest, he is as high as the heavens. As a mediator, he is as close as our hearts. The ministry of Jesus is higher than any other, and it is lower than any other. The ministry of Jesus is superior to all others because it is heavenly and it changes the heart.

In Hebrews 7, the writer presented Jesus Christ as a priest according to the order of Melchizedek, superior to the Levitical priests in Israel chiefly because he is eternal. The emphasis in Hebrews 8 shifts to the heavenly aspect of the priesthood of Jesus, which enables a powerful ministry that is in effect here on earth. The hinge sentence in the passage is verse 6, where the writer says that Jesus has obtained "a more excellent ministry," in which he is a priest (8:1-6) and the mediator of a covenant (8:6-13). In each case the ministry of Jesus is shown to be superior to the old ministry.
This passage is also provides a hinge to the entire book of Hebrews. In the first seven chapters, the writer presents Jesus as the great high priest. In the last six chapters, he presents the New Covenant. In this passage, Jesus is shown to be the priest who mediates the New Covenant.

The heavenly ministry of Jesus (8:1-6)

Hebrews 8:1-6:

(1) Now the main point in what has been said is this: We have such a high priest, who has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, (2) a minister in the sanctuary, and in the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, not man. (3) For every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices; hence it is necessary that this high priest also have something to offer. (4) Now if he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all, since there are those who offer the gifts according to the law; (5) who serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things, just as Moses was warned by God when he was about to erect the tabernacle; for, "See," he says, "that you make all things according to the pattern which was shown you on the mountain." (6) But now he has obtained a more excellent ministry, by as much as he is also the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises.

The writer arrives at "the main point" in what he has said in chapters 1 through 7. The phrase "such a high priest" also comes at the end of Chapter 7 (7:26). Jesus is pictured as seated at the right hand of the Majesty at the beginning of Chapter 1 (1:3). The allusions in Hebrews 8:1 to the beginning and end of the first seven chapters tie them together and allow the writer to make his point about the main point - that being, that we have the kind of high priest that he has depicted thus far, who is both God (Chapter 1) and man (Chapter 2); who is faithful (Chapters 3 and 4) and merciful (Chapters 5 and 6); and who, being without sin, is eternal (Chapter 7). He is all these things in the context of a heavenly ministry that has a powerful earthly impact (Chapter 8).

Jesus "has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens." This is obviously evocative, once again, of the kingship of Jesus. He is the priest who reigns in the heavens, seated on his throne next to "the Majesty," the Father who reigns in majesty. Where are the heavens? When the scriptures speak of the heavens, or heaven, they don't mean some far-off place light years away from earth. Heaven is pictured with such lofty language to depict the holiness of God and his dwelling place. But "heaven" is all around us: It is, for now, that unseen dimension, but it is as near as the earthly dimension that is visible to the eye.

Clearly, then, Jesus is no ordinary king. This is particularly seen in the statement that he is a "minister." He is not a king who lords it over his subjects; he is a king who serves. He serves as a priest. The point here, however, is not that he serves as a priest, but where he serves as a priest. He serves in that heavenly dimension "in the sanctuary and in the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, not man." The "sanctuary" of the earthly tabernacle was the Most Holy Place, or the Holy of Holies (the word "sanctuary" is related to the word "holy"). In Hebrews 9:11, we will see that Jesus has entered the Most Holy Place for us. But the place of Jesus' ministry is a different kind of tabernacle. It is the "true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, not man," which is contrasted with the earthly tabernacle in verse 5.

Why does the writer refer to the tabernacle, the temporary wilderness precursor, instead of the temple, the permanent fixture in the land? Because he's about to launch into discussion of the covenant, which was made with the people in the wilderness and which resulted in the construction of the moveable tabernacle.

Every earthly high priest was appointed by the Lord in the Mosaic law to offer "gifts and sacrifices" to him, the culmination of which was the annual offering on the Day of Atonement (9:7). Because Jesus is a high priest, he too must make an offering. Both kinds of priest "offer," but the plural offerings of the earthly priests are contrasted with the singular offering of the heavenly priest, who has "something" to offer. The singular offering of Jesus, of course, was "himself" (9:14), his "body" (10:5).

The writer also contrasts the earthly with the heavenly. Earthly priests minister in an earthly tabernacle, and Jesus ministers in a heavenly one. In fact, if Jesus were on earth, he couldn't minister in the earthly tabernacle, because the law prescribed that priests come from the tribe of Levi, and Jesus was from Judah.

The earthly priests are ministering in a "copy and shadow" of the true and heavenly tabernacle, which was also called by the Lord a "pattern" for the earthly tabernacle. In Exodus 25:40, the Lord gave Moses a vision of the heavenly tabernacle and told him to pattern the earthly tabernacle after it. The Lord in fact "warned" Moses to be precise. Why was precision so important? Because the earthly tabernacle was designed, even then, to orient the people toward the heavenly original, toward God, who dwelt there, and ultimately toward the true high priest who would enter the true tabernacle and reconcile us to God. The description of the tabernacle (and later the temple) and all its activities can do the same for us today, especially with the help of the book of Hebrews, which helps us see how everything points to Christ.

Verse 6 clearly belongs in the section that encompasses the previous five verses. A literal translation of verse 4 would begin with the words, "On the one hand." A literal translation of the beginning of verse 6 would begin with the words, "Now on the other hand ... " On the other hand, Jesus has "obtained a more excellent ministry" than the priests on earth. All its excellencies in the first five verses stem from its heavenly, as opposed to earthly, nature.

Once again, the writer speaks of the superiority of Christ in order to move his readers away from the inferior shadows that they find attractive. The Levitical priests were earthbound; Jesus is not.
We are not attracted to priests from the tribe of Levi per se, but we may be attracted to priests like those from the tribe of Levi: priests that are bound to earth. We have earthbound obsessions that may not be in line with heavenly purposes. To achieve those obsessions, we employ "priests," so to speak. These priests may in fact be people who we think will give us what we need, if we can only get them to behave the way we want. They may also be techniques or practices that often seem biblical but are really designed to achieve earthly obsessions, or heavenly goals instantly. Then, of course, we use these techniques and practices to influence people, who often stand in the way of our goals or are in some position to enable their achievement.

The heavenly goal is movement toward God that conforms us to the image of Christ. Jesus, our high priest, enables this, through the atonement and his ongoing intercession that we draw near to the Father. Our earthly goals are not necessarily wrong; what is wrong is our obsession with them. Jesus is not the priest of our obsessions. He does not align himself with our earthly obsessions, though we might like him to. Heaven does not endorse our earthly obsessions, nor does it provide us with a priest to enable their success. That is one reason life on earth is frustrating. When our obsessions fail us time and time again, and when we've exhausted ourselves in search of a priest that will fall in line with our purposes, we find Jesus waiting for us. The frustration of our earthly obsessions can then, like the Levitical priesthood, point us to Jesus. And he says to us, when we're finally ready to hear him, "Come, let me take you a different place. There is this other dimension you haven't been able to see; let me show it to you. Let me take you to the heavenly place and show you the Father." And seeing the Father, we then begin to let go of our earthly obsessions and trust him with our needs.

This Jesus, the one who is waiting to take us to the Father, is our high priest. "Now the main point in what has been said is this: We have such a high priest ... " We have a high priest who takes us to our heavenly Father. This is what the writer has been telling us for seven chapters. This is the main point. This is what God has been telling us for six months, ever since we began studying Hebrews. This is not something you need to strive to get. This is something you already have. The question then becomes, "Do you realize what you have?" Or, if you haven't yet embraced Jesus, the question becomes, "Is this something you want?"

The "more excellent ministry" of Jesus concerns his work as our heavenly priest but also his work as a mediator of the new covenant.

The internal ministry of Jesus (8:6-13)

Hebrews 8:6-13:

(6) But now he has obtained a more excellent ministry, by as much as he is also the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises. (7) For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion sought for a second. (8) For finding fault with them, he says,

"Behold, days are coming, says the Lord,
When I will effect a new covenant
With the house of Israel and with the house of Judah
(9)Not like the covenant which I made with their fathers
On the day when I took them by the hand
To lead them out of the land of Egypt;
For they did not continue in my covenant,
And I did not care for them, says the Lord.
(10)For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel
After those days, says the Lord;
I will put my laws into their minds,
And I will write them upon their hearts.
And I will be their God,
And they shall be my people.
(11)And they shall not teach everyone his fellow citizen,
And everyone his brother, saying, 'Know the Lord,'
For all shall know me,
From the least to the greatest of them.
(12)For I will be merciful to their iniquities,
And I will remember their sins no more."

(13) When he said, "A new covenant," he has made the first obsolete. But whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear.

What's the connection between Jesus the high priest and Jesus the mediator of the better covenant? A priest is a mediator between God and man, and as a priest, Jesus is that mediator: "For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus" (1 Timothy 2:5). But as a mediator of the covenant, Jesus goes beyond the role of a traditional high priest. In this sense, he is more like Moses, who was from the priestly tribe of Levi and was the mediator of the first covenant (Galatians 3:19). In verses 1 through 6, Jesus is like Aaron the first high priest, though superior. In verses 6 through 13, he is like Aaron's brother Moses, the first mediator, though superior. His work as a priest provides the "mediation" required in the covenant, but he also "mediates" the covenant, giving it to us.

God answered the fall of humanity by making covenants in which he promised to bless people. The covenants were designed to reunite God and man. The Mosaic or Sinatic Covenant was made with the nation of Israel, and it was designed to bring God together with Israel, but was ultimately ineffective, as we shall see. Jesus, as the mediator of the better covenant, effectively brings God and man together. This better covenant has been enacted on better promises than the first covenant. The better promises that the writer refers to are spelled out in verses 10 through 12.

If the first covenant had been faultless, the writer says, there would have been no occasion "sought" for the second one. Someone was seeking. That someone was God. He sought out humanity. He sought to put in place a fault-free arrangement by which he could enjoy us and we could enjoy him. It's important that we see God in this light. He wants. He looks. He seeks. He wants, looks for and seeks us. What was wrong with the first covenant? The "fault" of it was that God found fault with the people. The implication of the New Covenant, then, is that God finds fault no longer. Another implication is that God wants not to find fault with us so that we don't feel at fault and so that we move close to him. He wants us near him, and the covenants, culminating in this new and better covenant mediated by Jesus, achieve that end.

The writer illustrates his point that Jesus is the mediator of a better covenant that finds no fault by quoting from Jeremiah 31:31-34. The Lord spoke through Jeremiah sometime around 600 B.C. Jeremiah repeatedly warned the nation that the Lord would judge it for its willful idolatry and send it into exile in Babylon. But before the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon in 586 B.C., the Lord spoke these hopeful words to the nation, promising a new covenant. God speaks hope into the darkness. He speaks hope into our darkness as well.

The promise of the New Covenant is recorded in verse 8, the description of the Mosaic Covenant is recorded in verse 9 and the description of the New Covenant is recorded in verses 10 through 12.

The Lord said "days are coming." Those days would be inaugurated by the New Covenant that would lead to no further exile. The New Covenant would be made with "the house of Israel and the house of Judah." The nation at the time, since the days after Solomon, had been divided into two: north and south, Israel and Judah. It is interesting that when the Lord next spoke of the participant in the New Covenant, he referred to "the house of Israel" (verse 10). The covenant was made with both kingdoms, but reunites them as one Israel. All believers in Christ are part of that Israel. Under the New Covenant, Gentiles are no longer "excluded from the commonwealth of Israel" and are "no longer strangers to the covenants of promise" (Ephesians 2:12). They are "grafted in" through Christ (Romans 11:17). "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28). Jew and Gentile followers of Christ constitute "the Israel of God" (Galatians 6:16). It was never God's intention to exclude the Gentiles; it was his intention to bless Israel in order that Israel might include the Gentiles. The first covenant included this goal, but Israel failed, choosing other gods instead. How could Israel extend the Lord's blessing to the nations when it chose instead to worship the gods of the nations?

The New Covenant is "not like the covenant" that the Lord made with the fathers of the Israelites, with the men and women whom he brought out of Egypt. Thus far, we know, at the least, that the second is not like the first in that it doesn't find fault.

The description of the first covenant in verse 9 doesn't sound like such a bad deal. The Lord redeemed Israel from Egypt, by means of the plague of the first-born and the Passover lamb. The imagery here is very tender and personal, with the Lord personally taking Israel by the hand. The Lord's purpose in redemption was to bring Israel to Mount Sinai and enter into this covenant relationship with him. It was not, then, a covenant of works and demands, but one of grace. Before the 10 commandments were given, the Lord said, "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery" (Exodus 20:2). Then the Lord gave Israel his glorious law, the centerpiece of which was the 10 commandments. The law was a gift of the Lord's grace that instructed them how to live, and it was given against the backdrop of redemption for Egypt, which illustrated the goodness of the Lord.

The New Covenant that the Lord promised to make would be unlike the old one, "for they did not continue in my covenant." The first one found fault in the people. The fault was that they didn't continue in covenant relationship with the Lord. In the New Covenant, the Lord intends to correct that fault and enable the people's continuance.

What did the Lord mean when he said that "they did not continue in my covenant"? It cannot mean simply that they sinned, or that they sinned a bunch. The terms of the covenant called for priests and sacrifices; it made provision for sin. Forgiveness was available. The problem was that the nation didn't want forgiveness. It didn't want the Lord. It wanted other gods. Aside from a few exceptions (Jeremiah, for example), the nation as a whole completely and totally rejected the Lord and adopted other gods, even sacrificing their own children to those gods (Psalm 106:37-38). The nation thus incurred the covenant curse: exile from the land of blessing. Thus the Lord "did not care for them." That doesn't mean he didn't love them; he spoke words of love in promising the New Covenant at the moment of their deepest depravity. It means he let go of their hand. He let them have the gods they wanted, and all the dehumanizing consequences that go with idolatry. He sent them into exile.

It's important for us to recognize that the Mosaic Covenant was never a covenant of works. It involved works, to be sure, but in the same sense that the New Covenant involves works - works borne out of, and in response to, God's grace. God never said anything like, "Here's the law. If you obey it, you're justified; you're saved; you can know me." Neither did he ever say anything like: "Here's the law. Take your best shot. I know you'll mess up." God doesn't operate that way. He never did. Many of us, though we know that the Lord doesn't operate under these kinds of premises in the New Covenant, still think that the Lord did it that way back then. If we think that God at least at one point operated in a way that demanded people to earn his acceptance, it's easy for us to question whether he still operates that way now. It's easy for an inaccurate image of God to form in our minds, one that ends up damaging us and others. How, then, is the New Covenant different? The writer explains, beginning in verse 10.

The New Covenant was to be made "after those days" - the days that were "coming," the days beyond the exile. The covenant was inaugurated by the death of Christ, which enabled the new exodus, the true return from exile. This death, exodus and return from exile were acted out, so to speak, on Jesus' last night with his disciples, when he told his disciples that the wine of which they partook was "my blood of the covenant, which is to be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins" (Matthew 26:28). The New Covenant, then, is in effect now, and it is in effect for the house of Israel, all followers of Jesus. The New Covenant, as described by Jeremiah, includes three features, which are described in five couplets of poetry, the last three of which relate to one feature.

The first feature of the covenant concerns the placing and writing of the laws of the Lord. The Lord said he would "put" his laws into the minds of the people and "write" them on their hearts. In the first covenant, he put his laws, the 10 commandments, in the temple, inside the ark of the covenant in the Most Holy Place, and he wrote them on tablets of stone. The words "mind" and "heart" are in parallel construction and relate to the inner life. The New Covenant is an internal covenant - a personal and intimate one.

The first covenant was designed to be internal as well, but it started from the outside. The written law was designed to work its way inside human hearts, but human hearts proved to be hard and resistant to truth. The first covenant, then, diagnosed the human heart as fundamentally resistant to God and his word. The problem was not with God or with the covenant but with the human heart. What was needed was a change of heart, and the Lord himself promised to effect that change: "Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit 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 you will be careful to observe my ordinances" (Ezekiel 36:26-27). Although the promise of the New Covenant in Jeremiah 31 doesn't refer to the Holy Spirit, other passages do, such as the verses in Ezekiel. Jesus, of course, promised to send the Spirit (John 14:15-16, 15:26, 16:13), and Paul connects the ministry of the Holy Spirit to the New Covenant (2 Corinthians 3:6). After the advent of the first covenant, the Spirit of the Lord filled the tabernacle (Exodus 40:34-35). Now he fills the tabernacles of human hearts and writes the laws of the Lord on them.

The Spirit internalizes the law and shows it to be what it is - a beautiful expression of God's heart, not a list of impossible demands. The Spirit first of all, then, shows us God's heart. He shows us, in a much more internal way, that the Lord is the God who took us by the hand and redeemed us from bondage to sin, from bondage to a lifestyle of rejecting God and his word. When we see God for who he is, we see his law for what it is: a gift from him who loves us so much that he tells us what's good for us. The Lord said that when he brought Israel back from exile, he would "circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live" (Deuteronomy 30:6). Obedience to the law, then, as the Spirit does his work within us, becomes more of a delight and less of a burden under the New Covenant.

The second feature is the Lord's promise that he would be our God and we would be his people. This is a familiar Old Testament refrain that begins with the Lord's covenant with Abraham (Genesis 17:7) and can be tracked right through to the depiction of the new heavens and the new earth (Revelation 21:3). The promise was included in the Mosaic Covenant as well (Exodus 6:7, Leviticus 26:12). But the people abandoned the Lord. The New Covenant, then, can be seen as a covenant renewal - one that guarantees continuance in the covenant on the part of the people. That was the fault with the first covenant: It didn't generate continuance. The New Covenant issues forth the Spirit, who takes up residence in human hearts, makes them responsive to the Lord and guarantees continuance (Ephesians 1:13, 4:30). Unlike the Mosaic Covenant, it promises that the people will continue in covenant and that the Lord will continue with them.

The third feature is universal knowledge of the Lord, as depicted by the three couplets in verses 11 and 12. Under the New Covenant, there is no need for teaching each other to "know the Lord." Why is this?

The answer is in the second couplet in verse 11. We don't have to teach each other to know the Lord, because "all" know him. Certainly, all people do not know him. The word "all" refers to all "fellow-citizens" and "brothers" - all citizens of "Israel" and all brothers in God's family. All of these have the Spirit; all of these have God's laws written on their hearts and placed in their minds. This, by the way, is what God's laws are designed to do: create and nurture relationship with the Lord. There is a more direct teaching that comes from God himself through the internal ministry of the Holy Spirit. The Lord spoke through Isaiah, "And all your sons will be taught of the Lord," words quoted by Jesus in John 6:45. John also says that because of the internal witness of the Holy Spirit, "you have no need for anyone to teach you" (1 John 2:27). All this certainly does not mean that there is no need for external teaching by human teachers; it means that relationship with the Lord is no longer a phenomenon that begins from the outside; it begins from the inside, and works its way out.

In Israel, there were those who stood in special relationship with God: kings, priests and prophets. They were commissioned by the Spirit for the purpose of the nation's relationship with God. The faithful among them taught them to "know the Lord," hoping that it would sink in. Usually and ultimately, they were resisted, because hearts were hard. But the Spirit changes all that. As the Lord said through Ezekiel, "I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh." Now, everyone in the family of God has "an anointing from the Holy One" (1 John 2:20). Everyone has the Spirit, "from the least to the greatest of them," not just kings and priests and prophets.

There will come a time, of course, when "the whole earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea" (Isaiah 11:9, Habakkuk 2:14), when all who live on the earth, the re-created earth, will know the Lord, because all then will be part of God's family. The New Covenant, though in effect now, will be fulfilled in new heavens and the new earth.

Verse 12 can either be seen as a further explanation for why they will no longer teach knowledge of the Lord (11a and b) or as an explanation for why all will know the Lord (11c and d). In either case, verse 12 offers an explanation for relationship with the Lord. Relationship with the Lord happens because of God's mercy, because he doesn't remember sins. Certainly, we can only know the Lord because of his mercy and forgiveness, but we will never really want to know the Lord unless we believe he is merciful and forgiving. Knowledge of an unmerciful and unforgiving God is not true knowledge of the Lord: It is false knowledge, and it creates distance, not intimacy.
The sacrificial system certainly illustrated God's mercy and forgiveness, but it also maintained "consciousness of sins," because sacrifices had to be offered repeatedly (10:3). The sacrificial system became useless at points because the people's hearts weren't in it (Isaiah 1:11, Hosea 6:6, Malachi 1:10). The priestly work of Jesus Christ on the cross, on the other hand, offers convincing evidence of God's mercy and forgiveness, proof that the Lord will "remember their sins no more." If the Lord has forgotten sins, we can too. And we can therefore know him, really know him, as he is, in all his mercy and forgiveness. The work of Jesus Christ on the cross shows us the love of the Lord, and the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts makes that love irresistible.

So, how is it that God finds no fault with his people under the New Covenant? Remember, the fault that he found earlier was not that they sinned, but that they sinned by not remaining in the covenant, by completely forsaking him and worshiping other gods. Under the New Covenant, that fault will not be found, because it will not happen. And it will not happen because the New Covenant is an internal one. All God's people, his true people, have his Holy Spirit residing within them, working on them from the inside out, creating and nurturing love for the Lord. The Lord will not send his Israel into exile again, for he guarantees that she will remain with him. Unlike the Mosaic Covenant, the New Covenant has no provision for "curses," the ultimate of which is exile.
The Lord, then, has declared the first covenant "obsolete," no longer in effect. But if the first covenant has already been made obsolete, what is it that "is becoming obsolete"? The writer may be saying that even something that is in the process of becoming obsolete is recognized as on the verge of uselessness.

If this is so, how much more should we acknowledge as already useless something that the Lord has declared useless? But we hang on to the old way of doing things, don't we? As mostly Gentiles living on the verge of the 21st century, we were never given the Mosaic Covenant. It was given to a particular nation at a particular time. But we do opt for an external way of doing things, don't we? We often prefer to keep everything and everyone, particularly God, at a safe distance. And if we're going to be taught to "know the Lord," perhaps we'd prefer to be exposed to it from the outside; that way, we can block out anything we don't like. If this is the way we live, we as followers of Jesus have a problem under the New Covenant. And the problem is this: The Holy Spirit lives within us and won't let us get away with it. There will be an inability to engage in deep and meaningful relationships, and we will be left wanting; there will be routine that eventually drives us crazy; there will be dissonance, incongruance and restlessness - until we stop, slow down and listen to the internal voice of the Spirit: "Know the Lord." And the Holy Spirit stops us. Perhaps he is stopping you right now so that you can listen to him.

I was among some men once when one of them confessed that he had years ago sinned against the others. He asked for their forgiveness, and it was freely granted. They asked how they could pray for him. With his eyes red, his face taught and his voice small, all he said was, "I want to learn to respond when God says, 'Come here.' More of that. I want more of that." That's the Holy Spirit in a man's heart. That's the New Covenant.

God keeps getting closer

If we stand back and look at the big picture of the history of God's people, we see that the Lord keeps getting closer. Humanity went astray, but in the covenants, God keeps getting closer. In the New Covenant, he is as high as the heavens, but as close as your heart. Jesus, he of the more excellent ministry, makes all this possible. He is the high priest who sent the Spirit to work in our hearts. He is the minister of the heart.

- SCG, 11-16-97