Hebrews and the New Covenant (Part 2)

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 We all have a computer which is obsolete; if I was working with a computer from 1980, it would be completely useless by today’s standards.  For Americans, advertisers have only to suggest that something we own is obsolete and we run out and buy the upgrade.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   The writer is saying that the old covenant has been superceded by the new chronologically, this is the way in which God is dealing with his people in the present age (recalling 1:1-3 once again).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).

6 thoughts on “Hebrews and the New Covenant (Part 2)

  1. I feel like chapter seven could be added to what you are talking about here P Long. Like verse 18 which states, “The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless”. How difficult it must have been to be an early believer pulled between following the Law and following the truth. By receiving pressure from the church to drop the traditions and by the synagogue which many believers still attended and were committed to, “they found themselves in a quite impossible situation” (Hagner pg 8). I do not believe that we can just take everything that was written to the Jews and apply it to Christianity. Especially things that no longer apply, like the former regulations that were weak and useless. I think we need to be careful that we do not pick and choose the pieces of Scripture that we want to hear.

  2. To give up such lawful living for a completely new perspective of who God is would be a difficult task. Although, if people lived between the ages, it wasn’t for an extended period of time. For once the church had begun they had no choice but to be part of a new age. An age where the law was only a guide. “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming not the realities themselves” (Hebrews, 10:1). The word “obsolete” brings for a painstaking truth that was tough for the nation of Israel to swallow. Salvation by grace through faith is offered to all people of all nations. Its like being the coaches favorite player for as long as you can remember and then sitting on the bench for thousands of years. I might disagree with the formation of a new covenant and the church.

    • I wonder as to what reference of “law” do you make in saying that a new age is “an age where the law was only a guide”? It might seem that you are referring to the Ten Commandments on a moral sense, but the Mosaic law which is on the discussion table in Hebrews is encompassing of the Levitical priesthood, sacrifices, and even the tabernacle. It is to such things that 10:1 describes as a shadow of the good things to come and this is because it is a law that is incomplete in perfection. It is necessary for the priests to make atoning sacrifices year after year because these cannot make the members of Israel perfect. The good things to come, the ‘true form’ is Christ once for all sacrifice. The repetitious sacrifices demonstrate a continuous problem of sin, but Christ as able to make a perfect and permanent sacrifice which handles the problem of sin entirely, which brings to the point of this age where we do seem to live between the ages in that Christianity lives in a semi-heavenly, or semi-eschatological age (as the ESV comments). We are participants in a heavenly reality now (sin has been dealt with and atoned for) yet we still await the full realization of our Sabbath rest (Heb. 4:9). We still witness the effects of sin presently and it still bears consequently present implications but a complete restoration will be seen in the full realized new age that is yet to come.

      • Good points, Justin. I think it is amazing how we can look back at the mosaic laws, sacrifices, covenants, etc. and see their perfect completion in Christ.

  3. I do agree that the old covenant does not really apply any more. It is not that God is changing or anything. That covenant was for those people at that point in time. But now, through Jesus, we have a new covenant that applies to us at this point in time. I really do not know if I think we are “living between the times” I know that the new covenant has already been applied to us and we are to be living it out every day, but it is not at the end of it. So I guess you could say we are “living between the times”. When Jesus comes back again, then the covenant will be fulfilled.

  4. “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).” –P.Long

    A couple of interesting observations. This concept can either be really confusing, or…well, really confusing. The fact that it is never expressly said that the old covenant is not longer in effect makes me wonder how that is applicable today. Tagging on the concept of ‘living between the ages,’ and inserting a little bit of dispensationalism into the mix, this seems like it could be evidence for a distinction between the Church and Israel. The old covenant is not completely gone because the promises to Israel have yet to be fulfilled. Israel still finds itself under the law because they rejected the new covenant. In the driver’s license analogy, it would be like new driver’s licenses being mailed out to people before the old ones expired. There doesn’t seem to be any reason for it, but upon further study, there are found to be distinct benefits for accepting the new license.

    The ‘old is nearing destruction’ means that it has not yet been destroyed. So again, I reiterate, this topic can be confusing or a little bit more confusing. We are saved by Grace, not by works, but what happens next?

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