September 17, 2017
As I mentioned earlier, while I enjoy the opportunity to teach in Ukraine, it is good to be home and it will be nice to get back into a “normal” routine…or at least as normal a routine as is possible.
What often strikes me is the way God’s providence works. I have often had Sunday School teachers come to me after the service and say, “wow, we talked about the same thing in our Sunday School class.”
Teaching in Seminary is often much the same. I plan my preaching calendar about a year in advance but the classes I teach typically get assigned to me only about 2-3 months ahead of time. Some of the professors tell Dr. Messer what they are willing to teach an the fits them in where he needs, but there are a few of us that Dr. Messer uses to fill in the gaps because we will pretty much teach anything he needs for us to teach.
Anyway, as we have been working through Hebrews, we have spent a lot of time talking about the contrast between the Old Testament administration of the Covenant of Grace and the New Testament counterpart found in Christ. One of the classes, though, that I was asked to teach was the Doctrine of God’s Covenant with Man…or Covenant Theology for short. And much of this class focuses not on the contrast, but on the continuity between the Old and New Testament administrations of the Covenant.
There is both…what is found in the Old Testament is a shadow of what comes in Christ. And thus, there are similarities — There is a covenant, there is a mediator for the covenant, and there are conditions of the covenant, promises for obedience to the conditions and punishments for disobedience. Ultimately, the promise even, is still the same: peace with God and an eternity with Him.
Yet, there is a difference. The Old Testament administration of the covenant was temporary and passed away in Christ. Also, it was often hard to look forward from the Old to see what would be fulfilled in the New. To borrow from the Apostle Paul, sometimes it was like “looking into a glass dimly.” Or, to borrow from Mark Twain, sometimes it was “looking through a glass eye dimly.”
A shadow has the basic outline of that which casts the shadow and moves in harmony with it. At the same time, it is dark and unclear, quickly fading away in the light of the sun…and Jesus is the ultimate light, the “Light of the Glory of God.”
Thus, the author of Hebrews has been hammering this idea home over and over because it is important for us to know the difference between the shadow and the thing the shadow is derived from.
Think about it this way, if you have fallen overboard from a boat while on a fast-moving river, what are you going to grab for? A rope? Or the shadow of a rope?
We are talking matters of life and death..eternal life and death at that. So how does one know the difference? With a physical shadow or mirage, we must touch or look closely to determine which is real and which is the shadow. But when it comes to spiritual matters, it is only through the Scriptures that we can discern the real from the mirage, Truth from Error, and the eternal from the passing.
And, I would suggest, that it is not just judaizing cults that are guilty of leading folks down a shadowy path, but there are many other people who have done the same. So, while we may be tempted to say to the author of this book, “Enough Already!” We ought to instead recognize that its author was a man on a mission to call the church away from such traps.
The simple reality is that the average evangelical in American holds that in the end times the Temple will be rebuilt and even that sacrifices will be reintroduced in the new Temple (hence the search for the red heifer).
So, to protect and reinforce that we are trusting in the real thing and not the shadow…to protect our children and grandchildren from such errors…we need to study this book carefully and understand its arguments. To be honest, you cannot give an answer to Jews, Muslims, Mormons, or Jehovah’s Witnesses without an understanding of the book of Hebrews.
And, as Christians, we are commanded to be able to make an answer to such as these (1 Peter 3:15).
And, to the point that we care about those around us, we need to show people the difference between the shadow which will not save us and the one who can…all under the light of Scripture.
So, when we arrive at our text this morning, one more time the author approaches this basic idea that Jesus mediates a greater covenant than what has come before.
He writes in verses 7-9:
“For if that first one had been without fault, there would not be a reason to look for a second, for he finds fault with them saying, ‘Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, where I will bring to completion a new covenant for the House of Israel and the House of Judah. And it will not be according to the covenant that I made for their fathers in the day I took hold of them by the hand and led them from the land of Egypt, because they did not remain in my covenant, so I forsook them, says the Lord.”
Now, the passage that the author is quoting is from Jeremiah 31:31-34. And, if you remember, one of the goals of the book of Hebrews is to teach us how to understand the Old Testament in the light of Christ.
So, here is the interpretation of Jeremiah’s words…not referring to the reestablishment of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, of Moses, or of the Levitical Priesthood as some suggest… it refers to Christ and to the kingdom he inaugurates in the church.
But before we move on, I also want to talk for a moment about the last phrase of verse 9: “They did not remain in my covenant and so I abandoned them says the Lord.”
How did Israel not remain in the covenant? Moses was a man and is thus a sinner and so he was at fault. Joshua was a man and thus a sinner. The Judges, Samuel, Saul, David, Solomon, and the rest were all men. They fell short and did not guide the people in righteousness. The covenant was faulty (incomplete) because it was administered by men and thus will fall to the wayside along with those placing their trust in it.
And so, God abandoned and neglected the people, leaving them to their own ends. Ends separate from God.
We should be reminded of Moses’ language in Exodus 33:16 that it is only in God’s going with us that we are distinct from the people of the world. And these words are just as true for us today as they were for the people of Moses’ day.
What makes a church distinct from all of the other institutions of the world is God’s presence with us. So, the warning also stands that if we are not faithful, God will remove our candle stand as he did with the church in Ephesus (Revelation 2:5), will wage war against us as he did with the church in Pergamum (Revelation 2:16), or will spit us out of his mouth as he did with the church in Thyatira (Revelation 3:16).
If we abandon the standard of scripture as our sole guide, whether we retreat into pragmatism, the spirit of the age, business models, or just plain preference, then we face the abandonment by God…something that many mainstream denominations are experiencing (and often reveling in). For one of the ways that God removes himself is that he ceases to restrain our sin.
Paul writes in Romans 1:28, “Since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them over to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.”
This permission is a mark of God’s judgment against the mainline churches, not God’s blessing.
Verse 10 continues with the quote from Jeremiah:
“For this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: ‘I will put my laws into their minds and on their hearts I will write them, and I will be their God and they will be my people.’”
Let’s stop there for a moment. This is not, as some suggest, a context where everyone will all of a sudden have a perfect understanding of God’s law…that is not what the text says. It says that for those in the covenant, God will essentially turn their minds and hearts toward His law and His word.
Think about it this way:
If you love the word of God. If you like to think about it (the mind) and apply it to your life (the heart), then that is a pretty good sign that you are in covenant. But, if you aren’t interested in what the Scriptures say but look at it as something you simply tolerate on Sundays, and learning more or applying it to your life is just not going to happen…then that is a pretty good sign that you are outside of the covenant.
Christ makes no allowance for spiritual lollygaggers in his kingdom; dawdling in your Spiritual growth is not allowed.
Verse 11: “And they shall not teach each one his fellow citizen and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord!’ For all will know me from the least to the greatest of them.”
Note: this does not mean that there will not be teaching in the Kingdom (remember, Christ’s kingdom is his church throughout the ages). What this says is that teaching in the church will not be in the form of an exhortation — “Know the Lord.”
Indeed, we evangelize, but we do this primarily while we are outside of the church and in the world. In the covenant body, amongst believers, evangelism ought to be unnecessary.
Think about it this way: Before you are permitted to join this church, you must profess your faith in Jesus Christ. In our context, that is done with the Elders because they are the overseers of Christ’s church.
Then, we treat you as a Christian — a born again believer in Jesus Christ — until, by your actions, you demonstrate otherwise and that is where Church discipline comes into play and unless you repent, you will be removed from the membership in the body and again we approach you with evangelism rather than to teach or disciple you.
Man cannot see the heart (1 Samuel 16:7), that is God’s domain, but that is why God gives the responsibility of discipline to the church. Thus, our church bylaws read: “It is the duty of the Church Council to exercise discipline in cases where active members are living in open sin, habitually neglecting the means of grace, persistently disregarding their Christian duties, or rejecting the Christian faith outright.
So, in the church, we do not teach by saying, “know the Lord.” That is evangelism. We shall teach, as the author has already stated, the meat of the Scriptures with the aim of nurturing growth and spiritual maturity.
Verse 12: “For I will be merciful toward their unrighteousness and their sins I will remember no more.”
This is not saying that God will forge these things…how can an omniscient God do such a thing? It would go against his nature. What it is saying is that God will no longer hold our sins over our heads. Why? Because Jesus has made satisfaction for the sins of his elect.
Verse 13: “So, in speaking of the new, it declares that the old is obsolete and what has become obsolete and grows old is disintegrating.”
Some Bibles word it “dissolves away” — the word picture here being that of an old pile of rusty scrap metal. The longer it sits, the more it rusts, breaks down, and disintegrates, eventually vanishing from sight. It will eventually be gone, but not yet.
With the coming of Christ, there comes the “New Covenant,” but there is overlap as well. The new covenant is already here but is not yet in its fullness. It is fulfilled in Christ but will not reach its fullness until the second-coming of our Lord. For now, the old is still around us as a shadow and sadly, many are drawn into it.
As we await the return of Christ, it is our job to testify to the world the the New Covenant is here and that there is no other name under heaven by which man can be saved.