When the Writer of Hebrews describes the New Covenant, it simply replaces the Old. The first covenant was not faultless, but the new covenant will be perfect (Heb 8:7). The key term is “faultless” (amemptos), a word which is normally associated moral perfection (often in Job). The problem was not that the first covenant was flawed, but rather no sacrificer was pure in heart, nor was any sacrifice offered in the first covenant really adequate to deal with the extent of the problem of sin. This is the same sort of critique of the Law Paul makes in Galatians. If the law as intended to be a guide for living one’s life in order to obtain salvation, it is a failure! The Law itself was good, but the people to whom it was given were unable to keep it perfectly.
The key word here is in verse 13, the new covenant makes the old covenant “obsolete,” as most translations render the word. The word here simple means, “makes old,” in that it is chronologically an earlier version of the covenant. There is some baggage which comes along with the world obsolete in English. We all have a computer which is obsolete; if I was working with a computer from 1980, it would be completely useless by today’s standards. For Americans, advertisers have only to suggest that something we own is obsolete and we run out and buy the upgrade. “Planned obsolescence” is a part of business these days.
But that is not necessarily what this word means in this context. By way of analogy, I recently renewed my driver’s license by mail. I sent in my check and got a new license, but I still have my old license. If I was pulled over by a policeman and tried to use the old license, I would be in a great deal of trouble because it is the old license, it is “obsolete.” The writer is saying that the old covenant has been superceded by the new chronologically, this is the way in which God is dealing with his people in the present age (recalling 1:1-3 once again). This is a rabbinic principle which appears several times in Hebrews (4:8, 7:11, 28, 10:2, cf., Philo Rer. Div. Her., 178). The same principle was applied in 1QHab 1:5 to the New Covenant passage, although with a different application.
The grammar is tricky though – the old is growing old and is “near destruction,” or as the ESV translates, it “is vanishing away.” Is the Old Covenant gone and the New Covenant already here, or not? The tense of the verbs are important. The old covenant “has been made obsolete / old,” in the perfect. This implies a past event with present ramifications. But the next to verbs (in the second half of the verse) are present tense – the old covenant is becoming obsolete and nearing death. But it is not quite there yet! Ellingworth (NIGTC 417) comments that “old age” is a sign that death and dissolution are near, but not quite present yet. “Statements about the supersession of the old dispensation appear to grow generally bolder as the argument progresses (cf. 7:18f; 10:9, 18), yet the continued existence of the first covenant is never completely denied.” (NIGTC 418).
Perhaps this is a case of “living between the ages,” after the new covenant has been established, but before it is fully consummated (cf. Eph 1:15-22).