December 15, 1996
Bethlehem Baptist Church
John Piper, Pastor
Jesus: Mediator of a Better Covenant (pt.1)
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.
Replacement of Shadows with the Reality
Last week we saw that Christmas is the replacement of shadows with the Reality that casts the shadow. Remember from Hebrews 8:5 that the priests serve a copy and a shadow of heavenly things. The tabernacle and temple were a shadow; the official priesthood was a shadow; the animal sacrifices were a shadow; the feasts and dietary laws were a shadow. And when Christ came, the shadows began to fall away, because Christ himself is the Reality. He is our temple and tabernacle, our focus and place of worship. He is our High Priest and Mediator and Intercessor. He is our atoning sacrifice. He is our Passover feast and spiritual food. He is our purity and holiness that sets us off from other people.
And we saw last week that there's a reason why the worship and focus of the New Testament is so radically spiritual, rather than ritualistic and traditionalistic. The reason is that Christianity is a missionary faith. That is, the message of the New Testament is meant to be preached to all peoples, and the radical worship of the New Testament is meant to be incarnated in all cultures. That was impossible in the Old Testament. The tabernacle, priesthood, sacrifices, feasts and dietary laws could not be transferred to other peoples and cultures. It was a come-see religion. Christianity is a go-tell religion. That is why Christianity is radically spiritual. Radically internal. Radically personal. And we could add radically ethical, lest anyone misunderstand "internal" to mean "private." It is meant for all peoples, tribes, tongues and nations. So almost all the mandated ritualistic, formal, external aspects of worship life are gone. What remains is a radically spiritual, internal, personal joyful dependence on all that God is for us in Jesus, and the outworking of love and justice in community.
Now this week, the writer takes us down this same path a little further. He says that this radically spiritual, internal, personal way of relating to God is, in fact the fulfillment of the promised New Covenant. That's what today's text is about. And we are going to spend two weeks on it.
Simply Replacing Shadows with the Reality is not Enough
It wouldn't work if God simply took away the shadows. It wouldn't work if God even set Christ before us as the great Reality and left us to ourselves to know him and love him. If that's all God did, our worship and our lives would not become radically spiritual and internal and personal. On the contrary, we would construct as fast as possible a manageable, man-made, external religion. No, if God is going to take away the shadows of external, ritualistic, will-power religion, then he is going to have to do something powerful and dramatic in us and not just outside of us. Because as sinners we are wired to another way.
And what God promised to do, with the coming of Christ, was the New Covenant.
To see this, let's begin with verse 6:
But now He [Christ] has obtained a more excellent ministry [that is, more excellent than the Old Testament priests who mediated God's grace through the sacrificial system], by as much as He is also the Mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises.
Better promises build a better covenant relationship between us and God and this relationship is what Christ obtains and takes care of as Mediator. What those better promises are we will see in a minute.
For if that first covenant [this is a reference to the law with all of its shadows and, in general, without divine spiritual enablement to keep it] -- if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion sought for a second [which is what Jesus is now bringing]. (8) For finding fault with them, He says, "Behold, days are coming, says the Lord, when I will effect a new covenant . . .
Now notice carefully where the fault lies in the first covenant. Verse 7 says that the first covenant was not faultless. But then verse 8 explains this by saying, "For in finding fault with THEM . . ." -- not "it" but "them." The fault with the first covenant was with "them." Well, who was "them," and what was their fault, and what was this covenant anyway. All those questions are answered in verses 8-9:
For finding fault with them, He says [now he quotes Jeremiah 31:31ff, the prophecy of the New Covenant], "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.
So here you can see that the old covenant was made with the people of God (Israel); it was made with them as they came out of Egypt, which I think means in that general time period, a few months later at Mount Sinai as Moses received the law; and it was an arrangement of how God and man were to relate that they failed to keep: "they did not continue in my covenant;" and so God looked away from them and they suffered judgment again and again.
The faultiness of the first covenant -- the Mosaic law -- was not that God gave bad commands, but that the people had bad hearts. There was divine forgiveness and patience in the first covenant (Exodus 34:6-7). There was the call for faith in the first covenant (Numbers 14:11; Hebrews 3:19; 4:6). There were promises of God's love in the first covenant (Exodus 34:7). But, by and large, these things did not get into the people's hearts. It was mainly external rather than internal. Obedience by will-power rather than by reliance on the Spirit; and ritualistic rather than personal.
What Was the Flaw in the Old Covenant?
What was wrong? What was the flaw? There are two ways to answer that question. From the human side and from God's side. From the human side the problem was unbelief and hard-heartedness (Hebrews 3:8,15,19; 4:7). From God's side the problem was that God withheld the sovereign enablement of his Spirit.
Listen to Deuteronomy 29:4. Moses is speaking as he looks back over forty years of rebellion in the wilderness: "To this day the LORD has not given you a heart to know, nor eyes to see, nor ears to hear." That was the ultimate reason why the old covenant was inadequate. God had lessons he meant to teach in the Old Testament and they involved enduring generations of stubbornness and rebellion and hard-heartedness until the time the new covenant should come.
But now it comes with Jesus Christ, the Mediator of a new covenant. Let's read the description of it in verses 10 and 11 (and save verses 12-13 for next week):
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. 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.
He says three things about this new covenant: First, the will of God is going to be written not just on stone tablets or white Bible paper, but in the mind and on the heart. Second, the new covenant will establish a relationship of ownership of us by God: "I will be their God and they will be my people." And finally, the new covenant will be personal and intimate. When it is perfected we won't have to exhort each other to know the Lord, because we will know him intimately and personally. "All shall know me from the least to the greatest."
We Need God's Will Written on our Hearts
So you can see the new covenant is exactly what we need if God is going to replace shadows with Reality. If God's will is that we be free from externalism and formalism and ritualism and traditionalism, so that our faith and our corporate worship and our life can be radically spiritual and personal and internal, then we need more than the blowing away of the shadows of the Old Testament. We need for God to write his will on our hearts. We need for him to assert himself powerfully in our lives as our God. We need for him to see to it not just that he is knowable, but that we know him.
And so my prayer for us this morning and in this Advent season is that we would grasp the preciousness of the new covenant as never before. Christ is the Mediator of a new and better covenant for us. What's new about it is that it does not leave us in our bondage to sin. It does not leave us in our so-called free will -- which is only a code word for slavery to self and sin. The new covenant does not leave us in our vaunted self-determination and death. It sovereignly overcomes our rebellion and resistance and frees us to delight in God and in the will of God written on our hearts.
Christ is the Mediator of this new covenant, according to Hebrews 8:6. What does that mean? It means that his blood -- the blood of the covenant (Luke 22:20; Hebrews 13:20) -- purchased the fulfillment of these promises for us. It means that God brings about this inner transformation by the Spirit of Christ. And it means that God works all this transformation in us through faith in all that God is for us in Christ. The new covenant is purchased by the blood of Christ, effected by the Spirit of Christ and appropriated by faith in Christ.
The best place to see Christ working as the Mediator of the new covenant is in Hebrews 13: 20-21:
Now the God of peace, who brought up from the dead the great Shepherd of the sheep through the blood of the eternal covenant [this is the purchase of the new covenant], even Jesus our Lord, equip you in every good thing to do His will, working in us that which is pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
The words, "working in us that which is pleasing in his sight," describe what happens when God writes the law on our hearts in the new covenant. And the words, "through Jesus Christ" describe Jesus as the Mediator of this glorious work of sovereign grace.
So the meaning of Christmas is not only that God replaces shadows with Reality, but also that he takes the reality and makes it real to his people. He writes it on our hearts. He does not lay his Christmas gift of salvation and transformation down for you to pick up in your own strength. He picks it up and puts in your heart and in your mind, and seals to you that you are a child of God.
COPYRIGHT 1996 John Piper