Hebrews 8:1-13

David H. Linden    University Presbyterian Church, Las Cruces, NM USA    (revised January 2011)



Hebrews 8 & 9 are the heart of this sermon letter. In this literary format, the way to show what is most important is to place it in the middle. This is the middle of Hebrews. Chapters 8 & 9 are a unit marked off by the repetition of the verb “to offer” in 8:3 and 9:28, combined in both places with entering the heavenly sanctuary. Chapters 8 & 9 should be studied together.


Hebrews 7 ended the discussion of Melchizedek, but it should be noted that nothing was ever said about Melchizedek’s offerings. Jesus is a Priest in the order of Melchizedek only in the sense that His priestly office is like His. Hebrews does not compare their priestly work. In the writing of Genesis 14, the Holy Spirit suppressed that aspect of Melchizedek’s work, so that the record would present him more closely as the model of Christ. Jesus is a Priest in that order because the Biblical record of Melchizedek is confined to him being a living priest. Jesus serves without end in the power of an indestructible life. When 7:27 says that Jesus offered Himself, it changed the focus from the appointment to ministry. The contrast will be of the ministry of Jesus in the heavenly sanctuary, with the ministry of priests in a sanctuary on earth. (Jesus’ ministry continues, but in 70 A.D., the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. Then the shadow priests could no longer serve as priests at all. If they had remained in the city they were killed in the Roman massacre.)


Chapters 8 & 9 elaborate on Jesus’ offering Himself, as in 7:27, but in this passage one more major contrast is given, one necessary to saying that Jesus entered the Presence of God by His own blood (9:12). Where do other priests serve? They serve on earth in a place built by human hands. Jesus never entered the Holy Place in the Temple in Jerusalem. He often taught nearby in the temple courts (Mark 14:49), outside the sacred location where only sons of Aaron, not sons of David, could enter.


A new priesthood of One Man has replaced the ministry of all the others. Any Jew who did not have God’s Word clearly in mind would be confused, and perhaps offended, that God’s appointed priests in the line of Levi had become obsolete! Yet the Scriptures spoke of a different Priest to come. 


Another major change arrived with the ministry of Jesus: the old covenant would be replaced by a new one. This too was predicted in the Scriptures – notably in the prophecies of the prophets just before and during the Babylonian Captivity. That terrible captivity was the consequence of violating the Mosaic covenant. It showed how much a new covenant was needed.  In chapters 8 & 10, Hebrews will quote Jeremiah on this change of covenant. A change of covenant tied to the ministry of Jesus strongly reinforces the message that a change of priesthood also marks the arrival of “the last days” when God spoke in His Son (1:2). In Hebrews 8 & 9, the entire text is exposition (with no preaching), as the writer spells out that a new ministry has replaced the old ministry, and a new covenant has replaced the old covenant. The coming of Christ is the great hinge of human history. To reject Jesus is to be left behind in what God is doing as His eternal plan unfolds in history. 



8:1-5   After Jesus had offered purification for sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven (1:3). This is the chief truth Hebrews has been moving to. In Psalm 110:1, God the Father speaks from heaven. Now in 8:1-5, Jesus’ priestly service is located in heaven. We do not grasp the full range of Jesus’ saving ministry if we think only of His work on earth. 


To Whom was that offering made? It is deficient to think only in terms that Jesus died for us; we must consider to whom He made His offering. It was for us, but it was to God. The offerings of old were killed outside the holy place, never inside. On the Day of Atonement blood was carried inside, right to the throne of God between the cherubim. This animal blood was presented in a sanctuary on earth, never in heaven. No son of Aaron ever entered heaven to represent his people before God. Only the ultimate Priest with the offering effective to remove sin entered heaven for us by means of His blood (9:12). This is the awesome message of Hebrews. We have such a High Priest; He made His offering on earth and has appeared in heaven for us (6:20). There He remains today; the ever-living Priest of Hebrews 7 is the only Priest in the real sanctuary of Hebrews 8 & 9. 





The Significance of Location in 8:1-5:  


We have a High Priest, Who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, and who serves in the heavenly sanctuary. Unlike the one built in Moses’ time, the one in heaven is the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by man. If our Priest were on earth, he would not be a priest of the Levitical kind, for there are already men on earth who make offerings. They serve at a sanctuary on earth that is merely a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. This is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: "See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain."


Hebrews 9 stresses that the tabernacle on earth had a counterpart in heaven. “When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation” (9:11). “For Christ did not enter a man-made sanctuary that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God's presence. Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again” (9:24,25).


The Heavenly and Earthly Sanctuaries in Hebrews 8 & 9


The Mosaic tabernacle


on earth 8:4

an earthly sanctuary 9:1


set up by man  8:2


made with hands  9:11

a sanctuary made with hands  9:24


of this creation  9:11


a copy and shadow  8:5

a copy  9:24



The heavenly sanctuary


in heaven  8:1

heaven itself   9:24


set up by the Lord  8:2


not made with hands  9:11

not a sanctuary made with hands   9:24


not a part of this creation  9:11


the true tent  8:2

the true sanctuary  9:24

the greater and more perfect tent  9:11


8:1,2   Some readers of Hebrews were discouraged believers, suffering persecution and perhaps wondering if they had done a smart thing by confessing Christ (3:1). The words “we have such a priest” were a great comfort. To show where He serves is to indicate His superior ministry. These same words are a constant comfort because our sins are ever present in us, and our hope of eternal life rests entirely on the ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ.  This also answers directly the attack on their faith: that the Jewish rejecters of Christ could claim a high priest on earth. The Christians did not have a priest people could see. Yet the LXX of Zechariah 6:13 mentions a priest at God’s right hand and no priest on earth could fit that description. Thus another OT text teaches there is a priest in God’s Presence. Here Christ is called a minister, a label that highlights His activity. From the angle of sacrifice the priesthood of Christ is seen in what is accomplished and needs no repetition, but here the point is on what He continues to do. In 7:25 the ongoing work of our Priest is intercession. 


That Christ sat down has wonderful implications. It shows His work is finished (10:11-14). Since the Father told Him to sit, it also reveals the Father’s approval of His work on earth. 


8:2   Two sanctuaries are contrasted. The heavenly is called “true”, but this does not mean that the other one was false. What the priests did there was ineffective to remove sin, but they were men appointed by God to serve the way they did. They were not false priests, but imperfect priests, shadows of the Priest to come, a type anticipating His greater ministry. The tabernacle (or tent) in the wilderness is now gone, so is the temple in Jerusalem. God has shown by this that those structures were temporary, only a shadow (10:1) of the genuine Presence of God. Jesus is the only Priest Who serves in heaven.


8:3,4   Jesus was not a Priest in name only. He too had to offer something. This is so of every high priest (5:1). At this point Hebrews 8 does not say more of His offering, except that as a Priest it is necessary that He make an offering. If He were on earth He could not serve legally in the earthly sanctuary. The law regulated that only priests descended from Aaron could do so. Jesus did not come to break the law, but that its ceremonies and shadows would be fulfilled in Him and thus become obsolete.


8:5   The service of those priests on earth had a legitimate purpose. Their work pointed to Christ’s. Their service was centered in the tabernacle Moses built. He was not allowed to build a tabernacle of his own design. God gave the pattern because that building pointed to a higher tabernacle. The one man built would be a kind of copy or model. Exodus 25:9,40, quoted in 8:5, speaks of the old tabernacle constructed on a pattern shown to Moses. The place of the Presence of God on earth was a type of the real Presence of God, not of this creation.


8:6   Hebrews dwells on contrasts. Other priests die and are replaced; Jesus lives forever and cannot be replaced. They were not appointed with an oath; He was. Their ministry and offerings are ineffective to remove sin. Now 8:6 states that Jesus’ ministry is more excellent than theirs. His ministry is as superior to theirs as the new covenant is superior to the old one. When comparing covenants, it is explicit that Jesus has a unique role in this new covenant; He is the Mediator.    


The New Covenant   8:6-13


So far in Hebrews, the subject of covenant had one brief mention in 7:22. There Christ is the Guarantor, the One Who makes the covenant effective. In 8:6, Christ is the Mediator, the One through Whom the new covenant comes. It would come as the prophets predicted, but since He is Mediator, He is its introduction. The essence of the new covenant is the work of the Spirit in the believer, but the Spirit was not given until Jesus had first been glorified (John 7:39) and seated in heaven. Then exalted to the right hand of God, Jesus sent the Spirit (John 15:26; Acts 2:33). The new covenant is another blessing (John 1:16) Jesus has secured for us in His Priestly ministry. The Spirit did not come in the fullness of new covenant ministry until Jesus had entered the Presence of God.


In the time of the old covenant, God was gracious, or otherwise no one would have been saved. The Mosaic covenant had in it offerings for sin, which clearly portrays God’s gracious provision for His sinful people in Christ. Yet the law conditioned its blessings on obedience (Galatians 3:10-12). This is where the people failed (8:8). [See below, Appendix E, An Overview of Covenants.]


§  They needed perfect righteousness as a gift for justification. This righteousness Abraham received by faith before the law (Romans 4:1-3; 9-25). Likewise David, after the law was given (Romans 4:4-8), received righteousness apart from works. The law did not change or annul the promises of God (Galatians 3:15-18). Justification came from God’s promise, and only by faith, never by law-keeping.

§  They needed righteousness to be produced in their hearts; that would come only by the promised Holy Spirit. The old covenant required obedience but did not supply it. The new covenant supplies it.


The Three Purposes of the Law:


It defines sin and thereby makes sin to be guilt, the explicit transgression of God’s law. 

It shows the need for Christ the Savior.

It serves as a guide to godly conduct. It still does all these things.


Since Jesus is the Mediator of the new covenant promised in the prophets, there must have been some difference in the life of the covenant people prior to the coming of Christ. The law was given by Moses; grace and truth came by Jesus Christ (John 1:17). There is a before and after. Jeremiah spoke of a future day when the new covenant would appear (8:8). He saw what it was like before that new covenant was implemented. The Mosaic covenant was not all the people had; they also had the promise of a Savior at the time of Adam’s sin. They also had the promises to Abraham. They had many kindnesses from the Lord, Who saved His remnant before Jesus appeared as Priest or Mediator of the new covenant. The ceremonies of the law pointed to Christ and the Messianic promises assured them of a Savior to come. All this encouraged the faith of the remnant. Like a mirror, the law showed them they needed to be washed, but, like a mirror, never did it for them. The law did not give a new heart. Many times before the work of Christ on the cross, God forgave sins. Many times before the Day of Pentecost the Lord put a new spirit in people (Ezekiel 11:18-20) and answered prayers for a new heart, such as Psalm 51:7-17. Psalm 51:19 makes very clear that they were still in the time of the old covenant. 


They saw God’s wonderful works in the Old Testament, but unless a man is born of the Spirit he still cannot see the kingdom of God (John 3:3,7). Many saw Jesus’ works and heard His words but were not converted (Matthew 11:20-26). In Deuteronomy 29:2-4, the Lord had not given the Israelites “a mind that understands or eyes that see or ears that hear.” Such a ministry in the heart is clearly new covenant blessing. God warned of the heart turning away (Deuteronomy 29:18) – in language similar to Hebrews 3:12. Then in Deuteronomy 30:1-8 the Lord promised to circumcise their hearts so that a response of love and obedience could occur. When the prophets told circumcised people they needed to circumcise their hearts (Deuteronomy 10:16; Jeremiah 4:4) the prophets were crying out for new covenant blessing. Eventually Jeremiah, who preached for years to hard hearts, ended his ministry with the prayer “Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may return” (Lamentations 5:21). By His sovereign delays, God has often built a longing for His blessing before sending it. That is clearly the case in sending Christ, the long-awaited Son of David. It is also the case with the sending of the Spirit.  


The Messiah was promised; then later the new covenant was promised in the prophets. As Israel sank into apostasy and only a remnant remained, obedience was in frightful decline. Hearts were like stone, yet God boldly announced that His purposes would be fulfilled. There would be a new covenant. When Hebrews 8 quotes from Jeremiah, this passage may have been chosen because it is the only OT text to call the promised ministry of the Spirit a new covenant. The writer of Hebrews wants to emphasize the antithesis of old and new in different priesthoods – and now in different covenants.


Predictions of the Future New Covenant:


Isaiah 44:1-5,              I will pour out my Spirit on your offspring,

Ezekiel 36:13-38        I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.

Joel 2:28-32:               And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.

Jeremiah 31:31-34   Behold the days are coming … when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel 


A Notable Exception


Jeremiah 24:1-7, especially v.7 – “I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the LORD” – is a clear example of new covenant blessing in Jeremiah’s time before the coming of Christ. God may bring healing not promised to many prior to the resurrection day and the second Coming. He gives eternal life in this life though its fullness is in the next!  He could work by His Spirit when and how He chose. Yet it is still true that the fullness of blessing did not come until Jesus appeared as the Mediator of the New Covenant, and the Spirit was given (John 7:37-39). See also Psalm 51:10.



8:8-12 Observations on the Quotation from Jeremiah 31


1.   The Emphasis on Time   Some things will continue until the time of the new order (9:10). When Jeremiah said, “the time is coming,” he did not refer to his lifetime. That time came when Christ the Mediator of the new covenant came. Reference to time is present in 8:8, 9 & 10.


2.   The Covenant with the House of Israel Includes Gentiles!   Those from all nations who believe benefit from a promise to Israel that would come when Israel’s King appeared. At the Lord’s Supper the cup is called “the blood of the covenant” in Matthew 26:28 and Mark 14:24, but in Luke 22:20, the cup is “the new covenant in my blood”. If we receive the cup in the communion service, and if we have the promised Spirit working obedience in our hearts, then Gentiles who have believed are participating in the blessing promised to the House of Israel. Jesus promised one flock of Jews and Gentiles (John 10:16), not two. Gentile believers would become fellow-citizens in Israel (Ephesians 2:12 & 19), and Gentiles in Christ are children of Abraham, heirs to promises made to him (Galatians 3:26-29).


3.   No Mention of the Spirit   This is the kind of observation that easily leads to false conclusions! Joel, Isaiah and Ezekiel all mention the Holy Spirit. But so does Jeremiah, for the Spirit is also the Lord. When the Lord repeats “I will” in this quotation, it is the Spirit speaking as well as the Father and the Son. We should believe that simply from our understanding of the Trinity, but 10:15-17 says it is the Spirit speaking in Jeremiah!


4.   The Law in the Heart   In a book that tells us that the law is weak and useless (7:18), made nothing perfect (7:19), is only a shadow (10:1), had to be changed (7:12), and the covenant tied to it is obsolete (8:13), we should note that God promised to write the law on their hearts! Making distinctions is the work of theology. Did God promise to write His law on the heart that people should not eat pork, as the law prohibited (Leviticus 11:7,8)?  Or did God promise to write worshipping the Lord our God and honoring our parents, as the Ten Commandments require? In the new covenant God does not write obsolete ceremonies on the heart; He writes His moral law. It is not a new law that is written, but God gives a new desire and ability to keep it.   


5.   The Inclusion of Forgiveness   Forgiveness is a gift of God based on the satisfaction made by Christ. We are not forgiven because we are good, nor because the Holy Spirit is doing a work of renovation in our hearts. Justification always rests on the obedience of Christ never ours. The new covenant brings about frequent forgiveness and frequent cleansing tied to a life of Spirit-induced repentance and confession of sin (1 John 1:9). The tendency to make our justification contingent on lifelong confession of sin and cleansing is a grave error we must resist. To do this is to view the new covenant obedience as a means of justification rather than the result of God accepting His justified children in Christ and giving His Spirit to them (Luke 11:13). 


To make our living a condition of justification is the old error that depreciates the unique role of Christ. It is the old moralism that tells us that a person becomes a Christian by acting as one. Justification rests only on the obedience of Christ (Romans 5:19) that occurred outside our lives. Sanctification brought to us by the Spirit, is a beginning of obedience in us (Hebrews 5:9; Philippians 2:12,13; 3:12-16). Nowhere does the Bible teach that sanctification is perfect in this life, nor does it teach that justification can ever rest on less than a perfect obedience. That alone ought to make this important distinction very clear.


6.   The Repetition of the Quotation in 10:15-17   In Hebrews 10, the second reference to Jeremiah 31 completes the chief theological section of Hebrews. The focus has been the Priestly work of Christ, and the benefit that follows is the new covenant! It is very clear that sins are put away by the offering of Christ (10:10). When the Holy Spirit said through Jeremiah, “their sins … I will remember no more” the work of Christ on the cross is the reason, not the progressive moral improvements in the believer’s life, even though these are new covenant blessings. Sins removed from our record the moment we believe in the blood of Christ are also being removed from the heart by the work of the Spirit. Forgiveness is based on the work of our Priest; the cleansing of life is produced by the Spirit.


7.   How Little Hebrews Says about the New Covenant!   I have chosen to deal with the content of the new covenant more than what we find in Hebrews. The writer wanted to show that a new priesthood obviated the old one, and the new covenant made the old one obsolete. What was obsolete and aging would soon disappear. He wanted his readers to see they had nothing in the old covenant priesthood to bring them into a right relationship with God; their only hope is Christ. I think for this very specific goal he avoided a wide-ranging exposition of the new covenant itself. He was content to point out in 8:13 that the new covenant makes the old one obsolete. There is a package here: a new order of priest requires a change in the law (7:12); a new covenant also shows that an entire system was growing old, was no longer viable, and was ready to vanish away. 






Appendix E:  An Overview of Covenants


There are three basic covenants: 1) The Covenant of Redemption [see the notes on 7:22] between the Father and the Son;  2) the Covenant of Works between God and man represented by Adam; and  3) The Covenant of Grace between God and Man represented by Christ as the Head of redeemed humanity.  


The Covenant of Redemption is incapable of failure; it is an agreement within the Trinity, specifically between the Father and the Son.   


The Covenant of Works was capable of failure, since man was able to sin and did. The blessing (eternal life) in the covenant of works depended on Adam’s obedience. He broke this covenant and brought condemnation to all men.   


The Covenant of Grace is incapable of failure since it is between God and Christ representing His weak and sinful people. We are the objects of His grace. God’s elect remnant in this covenant are required to believe. Even this necessary response is produced by the Spirit in the heart so that there is no uncertainty whether those called to be in Christ will indeed repent, believe, and be justified. The blessing (eternal life) in this covenant of grace depends entirely on Christ. Christ has stepped into the leadership void created by Adam’s sin, and Jesus by Himself alone has fulfilled both conditions of the covenant of works for us:


o   For our sin, He took the covenantal curse in His death.

o   For our life He fulfilled all the obedience required by the law.


We are not saved by our works but by His. He obeyed the law of God for us when we were still law-breaking sinners, so that those He represented are justified only in His covenantal obedience.   


The law was given as a teacher to prepare people for Christ. Its blessings are never in the reach of any sinful man by the obedience the law requires. Thus the law has a similarity to the covenant of works. Since the law also points to Christ, Who is the purpose of the law, it promotes a proper understanding of the gospel by keeping the issue of sin clear, and by frustrating all hope of justification by the works of sinners. In the Spirit’s work, the law creates a yearning for righteousness that is only supplied in the covenant of grace and, within that framework, the blessing of the new covenant.    


The new covenant is the fullness of the covenant of grace. Just as Christ in the gospel graciously supplies the perfect righteousness of His conduct for our justification, the Spirit, in furtherance of salvation, begins and persists in a gracious production of righteousness in the hearts of those who are saved.