THE LETTER TO THE HEBREWS - PART VIII
CHRIST AS ESTABLISHING
THE NEW COVENANT
I. The letter then sums up the last section and introduces a related point, the new Covenant that Jesus establishes.
A. The letter summarizes the previous section in saying that all the roles of a high priest are accomplished by the High Priest Jesus Christ.
- The high priest of
the old covenant was always expected to lead the worship and guide the
- However, from Aaron
to the sons of Eli and onward, they often faltered either through a
desire to be popular or worse. See, e.g., Ex. 32;21-24; 1 Sam.
2:12-17. Although there were some high priests such as Ezra who
led the country well, even the best could not really bring the people
to the holiness God desired.
- Although it was a
not duty assigned by the Bible, in the absence of a king, the high priests
often conducted the foreign policy of the Chosen People. The high
priests of the time of Jesus thought they were securing the future of
the people by keeping a rebellion from taking place. One great
irony was that, by opposing Jesus, they were instead bringing judgment
upon the city of Jerusalem. See, e.g., Matt. 23:37-39; Luke 29:41-44.
- Nevertheless, the
high priests were powerful figures and highly respected, at least until
the destruction of the temple. The letter is saying that that
great reverence and confidence is to be well placed, but in Jesus Christ,
of whom the prior high priests even at their best were but an image.
B. The letter then goes on to introduce the theme that Jesus is not only the high priest, but also the new sacrifice of the true sanctuary in heaven, establishing the New Covenant.
1. The letter
points out that Jesus the new high priest is at the right hand of God,
here described in His Majesty in heaven. The image again is from
Psalm 110, which describes the new and glorious king as at the right
hand of God. Here, the letter refers kingly authority of Jesus
who protects His people. This authority is combined with His role
as the High Priest. See also Acts 3:36.
2. The letter then describes Jesus as the minister of the sanctuary in the "true tent" established by God. This reference would have reminded the people of the Tent of Dwelling that housed the Ark of the Covenant and was the center of Jewish worship until the building of the temple. Here, the letter makes clear that the spiritual and invisible is more real that the visible. See also Rom. 1:20; 1 Tim. 1:17
- There seems to
be an implication that now the new Chosen People of God are journeying
again as they journeyed on their way to the Promised Land.
3. The letter argues that, as the earthly Tent and later Temple were images of a heavenly Temple, so also the earthly sacrifices must also be images of a heavenly sacrifice, leading them to ask what that sacrifice may be.
- The letter states
that the Book of Exodus itself implied that such was the case.
For, after Moses received all of the instruction regarding the building
of both the Ark and the Tent, which would later become the model for
the Temple, God says to him, "See that you make them according to
the pattern shown you on the mountain." Ex. 25:40; se also Ex. 26:30,
27:9. The implication taken from this was that Moses saw, not
only the Tent on earth but a greater Tent and Tabernacle in heaven that
he was trying to replicate as much as human effort could. See
also Acts 7:44-50. Prophets had spoken of a worship in heaven,
see Is. 6:1; Dan. 7:9, but had said little about it. It would
appear that Moses also saw the worship in heaven, but could not write
- The letter points
out that they already have priests to offer earthly sacrifices; and,
as the letter stated earlier, Jesus was not of the human line of priests,
at least according to the Law, for by His foster father Joseph, He was
of the tribe of Judah and house of David. For this reason as well,
one should expect Him to offer a very different sacrifice. The
reference to priests who seem to be offering current sacrifices would
seem to indicate that the Temple had not yet been destroyed at the time
of the letter.
II. The letter then argues that the prophets themselves pointed out that there would be a new and better covenant.
A. Several prophets spoke of a new or renewed covenant. See, e.g., Is. 55:3-56:8; Jer. 31:31-40; Ez.37; Mal. 3. Even those prophets who did not expressly use the term new covenant often spoke of a messianic era in similar terms. See, e.g.., Hos. 14; Joel 3; Amos 9:9-15; Micah 4:1-5:8.
B. The letter takes a quotation from the prophet Jeremiah regarding the new covenant. Jer. 31:31-34
1. That passage
is particularly appropriate because it comes right after a prophesy
of Jeremiah about the impending destruction of Jerusalem due to the
foolish confidence of the king Zedekiah.
2. In 597 B.C.,
the Babylonians took over Jerusalem, deported the new King Jehoiakim
and many leading citizens, and appointed his uncle Zedekiah. Jeremiah
warned Zedekiah that he must accept Babylonian dominance for the time
because it was God's punishment. But Zedekiah listened instead
to the false prophet Hananiah who advised him to throw off the Assyrian
yoke. At this point, Jeremiah prophesied of the catastrophic consequences
of that attempt. See Jer. 29:16-23.
3. But then Jeremiah
prophesied of the restoration afterward. See Jer. 30:10-22.
Then, the prophet speaks of a new covenant that He would make going
to the very heart of the people. See Jer. 31:31-34. Jeremiah
went on to relate God promise that the nation of Israel would continue
until the earth itself is unmade. See Jer. 31:35-37
C. The prophesy describes a new covenant that would bring the Chosen People to their height.
1. First, the
new covenant would be with both halves of the Chosen People. After
the reign of Solomon, they were divided in two due to a rebellion after
King Rehoboam, Solomon's son refused the people's desire fro lower
taxes and other burdens. See 1 King 12. The northern Kingdom
was conquered and destroyed by Assyria in 721 B.C., never again to be
reconstituted. St. Thomas explains that the northern kingdom stands
for those who are outside of the Law, i.e. the Gentiles, who will be
joined to those who received the Law, i.e. the continuing nation of
Judah after the Exile. See Rom. 9:6.
2. The new covenant
would be stronger and deeper than the old one, for that one was more
external, dealing with symbols and rules that were good in themselves
but could not bring about the full holiness that God wanted. As
a result, the people could never fully keep the covenant and it only
showed the need for something greater. See, e.g., Rom. 7:4-25;
3. The new covenant
would be written upon the very minds and hearts of the people so that
they would know the Lord personally, from the least to the greatest.
Joel prophesied in similar terms and St. Peter proclaimed that that
prophesy was fulfilled at Pentecost. See Joel 3;1-5; Acts 2:14-21.
The implication of saying people will not teach each other, but rather
know God, see also Is. 54:13is not that there will be no teachers of
any sort. Compare Matt. 5:19; Eph. 4;11, Rom. 12:7. Rather the
personal experience of God will be greater than any knowledge that can
be communicated. The teaching is as shadows and pictures that
will give way to vision. See 1 Cor. 13:12; 2 Cor. 5:6; 1 John
4. The statement "They will be My people and I will be their God," see also Ez. 38:23-28, may seem obvious, but it implies the reversal of the statement at the beginning of the Book of Hosea that, because of the infidelity of the people of the northern kingdom, they were no longer the people of God. See Hos. 1:9. That is presumably why the northern kingdom was destroyed and never again restored. The promise of Jeremiah and Ezekiel is that the sinfulness of humanity will never again break them off from God's covenant. See, e.g., Matt. 16:18. God would also forgive the people of their guilt and cease to count past sins against them, both individually and as a people. The author again wants the people to ask how this forgiveness would take place, given that the old sacrifices never accomplished it.
- In addition,
the original promise "You will be My people" was in the context
of setting the Chosen People apart from all others. See Duet.
7:6, 14:2, 16:1. Now, by contrast, as the prophets promised, people
will be gathered from all nations to be the people of God. See,
e.g., Is. 66:18; Micah 4:1-7.
5. The letter concludes that the old covenant was rendered obsolete by the new one. The implication is that the old covenant had its time, but that that time is over. The implication is that the Temple, which was the center fo the Old Covenant is no longer needed.