Relevant Verses: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 8
Leading Question: Is the covenant described in Hebrews 8 a brand new one, or a renewed covenant as it is Jeremiah 31?
Hebrews 8:8-12 is a straightforward quotation of the New Covenant promise in Jeremiah 31:31-34. But by placing it in a new setting, Hebrews contrasts the Old and New covenants rather than seeing them as complementary. In short, Jeremiah breathes continuity and renewal, Hebrews announces contrast and obsolescence.
Question: Are there any clues in Hebrews that the author is taking a different approach than is found in Jeremiah?
Hebrews 8:6-13: But Jesus has now obtained a more excellent ministry, and to that degree he is the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted through better promises. 7 For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no need to look for a second one.8 God finds fault with them when he says: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah; 9 not like the covenant that I made with their ancestors, 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 so I had no concern for them, says the Lord. 10 This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 11 And they shall not teach one another or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. 12 For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” 13 In speaking of “a new covenant,” he has made the first one obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear.
Comment: Heb. 8:8 uses the phrase: “God finds fault with them.” That is being true to both contexts, – the fault was with the people, not with God or the covenant. Jeremiah says nothing about the covenant being a “better” covenant which makes the old one obsolete.
The Jeremiah passage is a promise to the people in Jeremiah’s day, before the incarnation, before Jesus came to earth as the Messiah. Apparently Hebrews was so concerned about putting the Levitical system to rest once and for all, that the author used strong language. Not only was this a better covenant, but the old one was made obsolete.
When we interpret Scripture, it is essential to lay the differing passages side-by-side, not on top of each other. That way we can see how each passage addresses a particular context, a particular need.
Standing in the Sight of God Without a Mediator
Within an Adventist context, a potentially problematic comment from Ellen White needs to be addressed when we talk about Jesus as mediator. In The Great Controversy, 425, Ellen White speaks of standing “in the sight of a holy God without a mediator.” When she penned those words, she clearly thought of them as a threat. But if we look at John 16:25-27, we see the possibility of transforming that threat into a promise:
John 16:25-27: “I have said these things to you in figures of speech. The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures, but will tell you plainly of the Father. 26 On that day you will ask in my name. I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; 27 for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God.”
The word not is the crucial one. Graham Maxwell loved to tell the story of an old-time evangelist who heard Maxwell speaking on the passage, and for the first time in his ministerial career heard the not. He jumped up out of his chair and exclaimed, “My whole life I have been using that text without the not!” Maxwell also tells about a 1971 paperback edition of The Great Controversy which omits the not.
If one is half asleep, either way sounds plausible: without the not the passage is more Pauline; with the not the passage is more Johannine. Here is the rendering of the key phrase with and without the not.
Without the not: “On that day you will ask in my name. I say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; for the Father himself loves you.”
With the not: “On that day you will ask in my name. I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; for the Father himself love you.”
At issue here are two different perspectives on the atonement, the “objective” atonement in which Jesus presents the believer to the Father; and the “subjective” atonement in which Jesus presents the Father to the believer. Both views are biblical and the believer should be free to choose the one that is most helpful.
The author of Hebrews emphasizes the positive role of the Mediator. I am convinced that as long as one needs a Mediator, Jesus is there to fill the need.