What is the real purpose of a covenant between God and man? There are many different ways to answer that question, each of which would capture some aspect of God’s intent. However, I prefer to speak of covenants as a means of relationship between God and man.
Any relationship between an infinite Creator and finite creatures must necessarily be somewhat different than relationships between human beings, with which we are far more familiar. We do not have the capacity to grasp God in all His glory, so He must condescend to us in one way or another. Since man’s fall into sin, our relationship with our Creator has been complicated even further, for He is holy and just. Because none of us are capable of making ourselves holy, we need the supernatural actions of a holy God if we are to have fellowship with Him.
Both the Old Covenant (here I mean the Mosaic Covenant) and the New Covenant provide means for human beings to relate to God through a system of mediation. A mediator in the biblical sense is someone who stands between sinful humans and a holy God to make the relationship possible, and this necessarily requires some kind of payment for sin. As this relationship is at the heart of any covenant between God and man, we must ask ourselves a very basic question.
Did the Old and New Covenants have the same system of mediation?
Let us begin by establishing the problem: sinful human beings cannot endure the holiness of God when they are brought into full contact with Him. That may seem strange, but we see evidence of it from the very beginning of scripture. Prior to the entrance of sin into the world, Adam and Eve had perfect communion with God. Although He had to condescend to a certain extent, for they were creatures and He was the Creator, there was no sin that required a response of wrath. That changed as soon as our ancestors ate of the forbidden fruit, breaking the divine command. Their response to God’s presence became quite different.
They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. Then the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid myself.”
Why did they hide? Because they knew they had sinned, and thus for the first time they acted toward God in fear: not in the sense of awe, but in the sense of fearing His judgment. Adam’s comment about being naked seems to underscore the fact that he fears exposure. From this point on in scripture, the instinctive reaction of anyone who encounters something heavenly is fear. See for example the response of Hagar when she saw the angel of the Lord: “Then she called the name of the Lord who spoke to her, ‘You are a God who sees’; for she said, ‘Have I even remained alive here after seeing Him?’” (Genesis 16:13) We see a similar reaction from Jacob after he wrestled with God. “Then Jacob asked him and said, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And he blessed him there. So Jacob named the place Peniel, for he said, ‘I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved.’” (Genesis 32:29-30)
These responses don’t tell us the whole tale, because they were not encountering God in all His glory. Rather, they were seeing God as He had condescended to them. This is commonly described in the Old Testament as a visit from “the angel of the Lord”, which seems to have been the pre-incarnate Jesus Christ. This “angel” appeared to Abraham when he was about to sacrifice Isaac. (Genesis 22:11-18) He appeared to Moses in the burning bush and said, “Do not come near here; remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” We are told, “Then Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.” (Exodus 3:5-6)
The angel of the Lord also appeared to Gideon, who said, “Alas, O Lord God! For now I have seen the angel of the Lord face to face.” The Lord’s response was, “Peace to you, do not fear; you shall not die.” (Judges 6:22-23) The angel also appeared to Samson’s parents. His father Manoah said, “We will surely die, for we have seen God.” Samson’s mother responded, “If the Lord had desired to kill us, He would not have accepted a burnt offering and a grain offering from our hands, nor would He have shown us all these things, nor would He have let us hear things like this at this time.” (Judges 13:21-23)
Why do I mention all these instances? Because these people had good reason to fear the angel of the Lord. When an Assyrian army under Sennacherib threatened the kingdom of Judah, the angel of the Lord entered their camp at night and put to death 185,000 people! (2 Kings 19:35-36; It is not clear in this case if it was the pre-incarnate Christ or just a normal angel, but the latter seems probable.) This is why King David, the same man who wrote, “The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear Him, / And rescues them,” (Psalm 34:7) also said of God’s enemies, “Let them be like chaff before the wind, / With the angel of the Lord driving them on. / Let their way be dark and slippery, / With the angel of the Lord pursuing them.” (Psalm 35:5-6)
These people feared the presence of God because they knew that He does not tolerate sin. Now, the presence of the Lord is a somewhat complex topic. Not everyone or everything that is described as being in some sense “in the presence of the Lord” is actually in a full relationship with Him. The Israelites were said to have traveled through the wilderness and conquered the land of Canaan in the presence of the Lord. (e.g. Numbers 32:31-32) Satan is described in the Book of Job as coming into God’s presence to accuse the saints. (Job 1:6-12) Then there is this famous and beloved passage.
Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there.
If I take the wings of the dawn,
If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea,
Even there Your hand will lead me,
And Your right hand will lay hold of me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will overwhelm me,
And the light around me will be night,”
Even the darkness is not dark to You,
And the night is as bright as the day.
Darkness and light are alike to You.
Despite such verses, there is also a sense in which someone is said to leave the presence of God, and this is always linked to sin. After murdering his brother and receiving a curse, we are told, “Then Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.” (Genesis 4:16) Jonah responded similarly when he received a divine command that he wished to disobey. “But Jonah rose up to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. So he went down to Joppa, found a ship which was going to Tarshish, paid the fare and went down into it to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.” (Jonah 1:3) The Apostle Paul also writes that part of the punishment for sin is being removed in some sense from God’s presence. “These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, when He comes to be glorified in His saints on that day, and to be marveled at among all who have believed—for our testimony to you was believed.” (2 Thessalonians 1:9-10)
Scripture tells us that purity is necessary in order to stand in the presence of a holy God, as in this example from the Psalms.
Who may ascend into the hill of the Lord?
And who may stand in His holy place?
He who has clean hands and a pure heart,
Who has not lifted up his soul to falsehood
And has not sworn deceitfully.
Even before the Mosaic Covenant was instituted, there was an awareness that in order for human beings to be pure before God and escape His judgment, they needed a mediator. This was accomplished in those early days through a kind of proto-priesthood, about which we have only a few scattered pieces of information. The example of Job, who likely lived before Abraham, is particularly telling. His children would participate in regular feasts, and this is how their father would respond: “When the days of feasting had completed their cycle, Job would send and consecrate them, rising up early in the morning and offering burnt offerings according to the number of them all; for Job said, ‘Perhaps my sons have sinned and cursed God in their hearts.’ Thus Job did continually.” (Job 1:5)
We have reason to believe that in these early days, it was the male head of household who acted as a kind of priest, offering sacrifices in an act of worship to God. Abraham certainly offered regular sacrifices, as evidenced by the responses of both him and Isaac in Genesis 22:1-8. However, Abraham (Abram at the time) also had an interesting experience when he met the King of Sodom after a military victory.
Then after his return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley). And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; now he was a priest of God Most High. He blessed him and said,
“Blessed be Abram of God Most High,
Possessor of heaven and earth;
And blessed be God Most High,
Who has delivered your enemies into your hand.”
He gave him a tenth of all.
This is all the passage tells us about the mysterious Melchizedek, who was evidently both a king and a priest. His city may well have been the predecessor of Jerusalem, and the text suggests that he was not some pagan priest, but a true servant of “God Most High”. The interpretation of the author of Hebrews (e.g. Hebrews chapter 7) also leads us to believe that Melchizedek was worshiping the true God in a proper manner, and that Abraham was correct in paying him a tithe. I admit that I wish to know much more about this Melchizedek, but we must be content knowing that there were legitimate priests before the time of Moses and Aaron. In fact, Moses’ own father-in-law, Jethro, was said to be “priest of Midian”. (Exodus 2:16)
All these men served as mediators prior to the time of the Mosaic Covenant, but their knowledge of the Almighty was limited. At Mount Sinai, God condescended to enter into a covenant relationship with the entire nation of Israel that went beyond the one established through Abraham. It included the entirety of the Mosaic Law, and it also involved a change in mediation. The account of how this covenant came into being provides one of the clearest examples in scripture of how people responded when they encountered the presence of God.
Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke because the Lord descended upon it in fire; and its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked violently. When the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and God answered him with thunder. The Lord came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain; and the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up. Then the Lord spoke to Moses, “Go down, warn the people, so that they do not break through to the Lord to gaze, and many of them perish. Also let the priests who come near to the Lord consecrate themselves, or else the Lord will break out against them.” Moses said to the Lord, “The people cannot come up to Mount Sinai, for You warned us, saying, ‘Set bounds about the mountain and consecrate it.’” Then the Lord said to him, “Go down and come up again, you and Aaron with you; but do not let the priests and the people break through to come up to the Lord, or He will break forth upon them.” So Moses went down to the people and told them.
What we see here is no timid and permissive God, but a holy fire. The people could not go up to God. Moses had to serve as their mediator. The priests who existed at that time—for the Aaronic priesthood was not fully established, but seems to have been in primitive form—were commanded to consecrate themselves lest they be destroyed. Even the priests could not actually go up on the mountain, but only Moses and Aaron. Thus we see throughout the book of Exodus that these brothers were constantly relaying messages back and forth, taking the peoples’ supplications to God and God’s commands to the people. Moses later recalled the words of the people at this time.
And when you heard the voice from the midst of the darkness, while the mountain was burning with fire, you came near to me, all the heads of your tribes and your elders. You said, ‘Behold, the Lord our God has shown us His glory and His greatness, and we have heard His voice from the midst of the fire; we have seen today that God speaks with man, yet he lives. Now then why should we die? For this great fire will consume us; if we hear the voice of the Lord our God any longer, then we will die.’
Much like their predecessors that we have already seen, the Israelites feared to be in the presence of a holy God. Even after they survived hearing from God in some form, they were still terrified! They were quite happy to let Moses go up the mountain and act as mediator. However, Moses could not serve as mediator forever, for he was mortal. Therefore, as part of the Mosaic Covenant, God established a priesthood that was restricted to Aaron and his sons. These men would be set apart to act as mediators under the covenant. Consider this fascinating passage.
Then He said to Moses, “Come up to the Lord, you and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu and seventy of the elders of Israel, and you shall worship at a distance. Moses alone, however, shall come near to the Lord, but they shall not come near, nor shall the people come up with him.”…Then Moses went up with Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and they saw the God of Israel; and under His feet there appeared to be a pavement of sapphire, as clear as the sky itself. Yet He did not stretch out His hand against the nobles of the sons of Israel; and they saw God, and they ate and drank.
Exodus 24:1-2, 9-11
These men were seeing a vision of God, much as the Prophets would in later days. They received commands from the Lord for a holy priesthood that would stand between the people and God, mediating for that covenant relationship. We see in this description of the priestly garments just how important the holy commands of God were to this whole system.
Aaron shall carry the names of the sons of Israel in the breastpiece of judgment over his heart when he enters the holy place, for a memorial before the Lord continually. You shall put in the breastpiece of judgment the Urim and the Thummim, and they shall be over Aaron’s heart when he goes in before the Lord; and Aaron shall carry the judgment of the sons of Israel over his heart before the Lord continually…You shall also make a plate of pure gold and shall engrave on it, like the engravings of a seal, ‘Holy to the Lord.’ You shall fasten it on a blue cord, and it shall be on the turban; it shall be at the front of the turban. It shall be on Aaron’s forehead, and Aaron shall take away the iniquity of the holy things which the sons of Israel consecrate, with regard to all their holy gifts; and it shall always be on his forehead, that they may be accepted before the Lord…For Aaron’s sons you shall make tunics; you shall also make sashes for them, and you shall make caps for them, for glory and for beauty. You shall put them on Aaron your brother and on his sons with him; and you shall anoint them and ordain them and consecrate them, that they may serve Me as priests. You shall make for them linen breeches to cover their bare flesh; they shall reach from the loins even to the thighs. They shall be on Aaron and on his sons when they enter the tent of meeting, or when they approach the altar to minister in the holy place, so that they do not incur guilt and die. It shall be a statute forever to him and to his descendants after him.
Exodus 28:29-30, 36-38, 40-43
God put in place a system of sacrifices to atone for sin. These were to be performed by the Levites (that is, the descendants of Aaron who were of the tribe of Levi and served as priests) in the Tabernacle. The instructions for the construction of the Tabernacle were also given as part of the Mosaic Law, and they speak to the holiness of God. The very presence of God was within that Tabernacle.
You shall put the mercy seat on top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the testimony which I will give to you. There I will meet with you; and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim which are upon the ark of the testimony, I will speak to you about all that I will give you in commandment for the sons of Israel.
You shall hang up the veil under the clasps, and shall bring in the ark of the testimony there within the veil; and the veil shall serve for you as a partition between the holy place and the holy of holies. You shall put the mercy seat on the ark of the testimony in the holy of holies.
What message is being sent here? The presence of the Lord was not for everyone to experience in its most direct form. The holy place in the Tabernacle, with the mercy seat and all the rest, was only for the descendants of Aaron to view, and then only after they had gone through an extensive process of purification. Consider these instructions that the Lord gave to Moses.
“Tell your brother Aaron that he shall not enter at any time into the holy place inside the veil, before the mercy seat which is on the ark, or he will die; for I will appear in the cloud over the mercy seat. Aaron shall enter the holy place with this: with a bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering.”
However, those instructions were only for the general holy place and not the most holy place, the Holy of Holies. That portion of the Tabernacle, in which God had condescended to make His presence dwell, could only be entered on one day a year, and then only by the high priest.
This shall be a permanent statute for you: in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall humble your souls and not do any work, whether the native, or the alien who sojourns among you; for it is on this day that atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you; you will be clean from all your sins before the Lord. It is to be a sabbath of solemn rest for you, that you may humble your souls; it is a permanent statute. So the priest who is anointed and ordained to serve as priest in his father’s place shall make atonement: he shall thus put on the linen garments, the holy garments, and make atonement for the holy sanctuary, and he shall make atonement for the tent of meeting and for the altar. He shall also make atonement for the priests and for all the people of the assembly. Now you shall have this as a permanent statute, to make atonement for the sons of Israel for all their sins once every year.” And just as the Lord had commanded Moses, so he did.
All of these requirements were put in place because God is forever holy and the Israelites were decidedly unholy. In taking them as His people and entering into a covenant relationship with them, the Lord commanded the Israelites to be a holy nation.
- “So watch yourselves, that you do not forget the covenant of the Lord your God which He made with you, and make for yourselves a graven image in the form of anything against which the Lord your God has commanded you. For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.” (Deuteronomy 4:23-24)
- “For I am the Lord your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy. And you shall not make yourselves unclean with any of the swarming things that swarm on the earth. For I am the Lord who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God; thus you shall be holy, for I am holy.” (Leviticus 11:44-45)
- “Since the Lord your God walks in the midst of your camp to deliver you and to defeat your enemies before you, therefore your camp must be holy; and He must not see anything indecent among you or He will turn away from you.” (Deuteronomy 23:14)
Unfortunately, the people were not holy. That is why they needed the priests to approach God in their place. However, the priests themselves were unholy men, and thus they needed to go through those elaborate rituals, following God’s commands to the letter. The slightest mistake would result in death, as was the case with two of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu.
Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took their respective firepans, and after putting fire in them, placed incense on it and offered strange fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them. And fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, “It is what the Lord spoke, saying,
‘By those who come near Me I will be treated as holy,
And before all the people I will be honored.’”
So Aaron, therefore, kept silent.
This is a truly terrifying story, and it reveals how important those commands were. The presence of the Lord is lethal to those who are not pure. A closely associated concept is that of the glory of the God. I have mentioned how the Lord’s “presence” seems to take on different meanings in various passages of scripture. As God is omnipresent, we are all in the presence of God in that general sense. However, this is not the same as being in His presence in the fullest sense. When the biblical writers speak about this most intimate experience, they often refer to God’s glory, the fullness of which no man can see and live. We know from the Book of Exodus that even the fading aftereffects of being in God’s presence were too much for the Israelites to view when it came to Moses.
It came about when Moses was coming down from Mount Sinai (and the two tablets of the testimony were in Moses’ hand as he was coming down from the mountain), that Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because of his speaking with Him. So when Aaron and all the sons of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him. Then Moses called to them, and Aaron and all the rulers in the congregation returned to him; and Moses spoke to them. Afterward all the sons of Israel came near, and he commanded them to do everything that the Lord had spoken to him on Mount Sinai. When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil over his face. But whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with Him, he would take off the veil until he came out; and whenever he came out and spoke to the sons of Israel what he had been commanded, the sons of Israel would see the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face shone. So Moses would replace the veil over his face until he went in to speak with Him.
Even this experience of God, which caused Moses’ face to shine, was not the full glory of God. While scripture indicates that “the glory of the Lord rested on Mount Sinai” (Exodus 24:16), there is one passage that clearly indicates that Moses was prevented from seeing something of God.
Then Moses said, “I pray You, show me Your glory!” And He said, “I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the Lord before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion.” But He said, “You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!” Then the Lord said, “Behold, there is a place by Me, and you shall stand there on the rock; and it will come about, while My glory is passing by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock and cover you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away and you shall see My back, but My face shall not be seen.”
The Lord tells Moses that He will make His “goodness” pass in front of him, but seemingly rejects Moses’ request to see His “glory”. God also distinguishes between His “back” and His “face”. We know this to be analogical language: God doesn’t really have a body. It seems to be a kind of metaphor that echoes the difference between God’s “goodness” and His “glory”. Now, God is ever and always the sum of His attributes, and thus His goodness cannot be separated from His glory. Therefore, I conclude once again that this language is somewhat analogical. Moses was allowed to see God as He condescends to man. He could not look upon the fullness of God as He exists in Himself and hope to live.
What is interesting is that when scripture begins to talk more specifically about the Messiah, it describes Him as the image of God’s glory. For example, Isaiah wrote, “He said to me, ‘You are My Servant, Israel, In Whom I will show My glory.” (Isaiah 49:3) Perhaps God was talking about the nation of Israel here, but we know from several passages in the Book of Isaiah that “Servant” also refers to the coming Messiah, Jesus Christ. The Apostle John built upon this concept in his Gospel.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it…There was the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth…For of His fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace. For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ. No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.
John 1:1-5, 9-14, 16-18
In Jesus Christ, the God who could not be seen became visible to all of us, having been incarnated as a man. We must never forget how incredibly and wonderfully odd that is. The Word who was from the beginning, the Son who is the “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15) and the “radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature” (Hebrews 1:3)—this Person, fully God, came to earth and took on full humanity that the things of God might be revealed to us, that we might stand in the presence of our Creator, and that we might be conformed to His image, having been born anew of the Spirit. We are told that “as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God”. (John 1:12-13) Particularly relevant are the last few verses, which state that “the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ”. (v. 17) Furthermore, we are told that while “no one has seen God at any time”, the only begotten Son of the Father “has explained Him”. (v. 18)
This theme occurs throughout John’s books. He quotes Jesus in his Gospel saying, “It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught of God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father, comes to Me. Not that anyone has seen the Father, except the One who is from God; He has seen the Father.” (John 6:45-46) Yet, even as Jesus is the revelation of the Father and the fullness of God, we see once against that purity is necessary in order to truly have fellowship with Him. “Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is. And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.” (1 John 3:2-3) Later in the same epistle, John writes, “No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit.” (1 John 4:12-13) Then there are the famous words of Christ in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Matthew 5:8)
Fortunately, Jesus is not only the revelation of God. He is also our Mediator if we are in Him—the only mediator who has any true power to reconcile us to God. This is fully explained in the Book of Hebrews, which draws a sharp line between the Levitical priesthood under the Old Covenant and the priesthood of Jesus Christ under the New Covenant.
The former priests, on the one hand, existed in greater numbers because they were prevented by death from continuing, but Jesus, on the other hand, because He continues forever, holds His priesthood permanently. Therefore He is able also to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them. For it was fitting for us to have such a high priest, holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens; who does not need daily, like those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the sins of the people, because this He did once for all when He offered up Himself. For the Law appoints men as high priests who are weak, but the word of the oath, which came after the Law, appoints a Son, made perfect forever.
Notice here how the author differentiates between the lesser priesthood under the Old Covenant and the better priesthood under the New Covenant. (I will address the meaning of “the Law” in a later article.) The former priests only held their positions temporarily, whereas Christ’s priesthood “continues forever”. This means that “He is able also to save forever those who draw near to God, since He always lives to make intercession for them”. Christ is also a superior Mediator because He does not have to make sacrifices for His own sins, but Himself became the sacrifice for sins. He is altogether holy. The priests under the law were “weak” but the One who came “after the Law” was “made perfect forever”.
Now if perfection was through the Levitical priesthood (for on the basis of it the people received the Law), what further need was there for another priest to arise according to the order of Melchizedek, and not be designated according to the order of Aaron? For when the priesthood is changed, of necessity there takes place a change of law also. For the one concerning whom these things are spoken belongs to another tribe, from which no one has officiated at the altar. For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, a tribe with reference to which Moses spoke nothing concerning priests. And this is clearer still, if another priest arises according to the likeness of Melchizedek, who has become such not on the basis of a law of physical requirement, but according to the power of an indestructible life. For it is attested of Him,
“You are a priest forever
According to the order of Melchizedek.”
In this passage, the author makes clear that there was change of priesthood: that is, a change in the system of mediation. The important point here is that Christ’s priesthood is not simply a continuation of what started in the Old Covenant. Jesus was not a descendant of Aaron, although He was a descendant of Abraham and David. We are told that He is a priest “according to the likeness of Melchizedek”. That is, Jesus’ priesthood is not connected to those covenants that were made with the Jewish people, for He is a priest in the same sense as Melchizedek, who was a Gentile. The other priests were connected with the Law, which the author of Hebrews assures us is now “obsolete”. (Hebrews 8:13) Christ is a priest forever because the promises He serves are eternal, and His New Covenant is in the here and now.
The author of Hebrews goes on to make an even clearer distinction between these two systems of mediation, and what he has to tell us is not what we might expect: 1) The priests under the Old Covenant were thoroughly insufficient. 2) The sacrifices did not atone for sin. 3) The Tabernacle ceremonies did not truly bring people into God’s presence or into fellowship with Him. You may be hesitant to believe me, but let’s examine the passages in question.
Now when these things have been so prepared, the priests are continually entering the outer tabernacle performing the divine worship, but into the second, only the high priest enters once a year, not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the sins of the people committed in ignorance. The Holy Spirit is signifying this, that the way into the holy place has not yet been disclosed while the outer tabernacle is still standing, which is a symbol for the present time. Accordingly both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make the worshiper perfect in conscience, since they relate only to food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until a time of reformation. But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? For this reason He is the mediator of a new covenant, so that, since a death has taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were committed under the first covenant, those who have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance.
Notice how the author makes his case. He says that “the way into the holy place has not yet been disclosed while the outer tabernacle is still standing, which is a symbol for the present time”. However, Jesus Christ appeared “as a high priest of the good things to come” entering into “the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation”. Therefore, the priests did not really bring people into God’s presence. Only the perfect Mediator, Jesus Christ, can do that.
Moreover, the sacrifices made under the Old Covenant had no saving effect. Those laws “cannot make the worshiper perfect in conscience, since they relate only to food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until a time of reformation”. These were the things that the ancient Israelites looked to in order to be pure, but they had no real purifying effect, for “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins”. (Hebrews 10:4) They may have helped to cleanse the flesh—that is, the outer man—but they did nothing to cleanse the inner man. Jesus Christ, on the other hand, entered the “more perfect tabernacle” (9:11) through “His own blood”, and thus obtained “eternal redemption” (v. 12). It is the blood of Christ, offered through the “eternal Spirit” that can finally “cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God”. (v. 14)
What is more, in becoming the Mediator of this New Covenant, Jesus’ death actually brought “redemption of the transgressions that were committed under the first covenant” that “those who have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance”. (v. 15) You see, the people living under the Old Covenant did not actually receive forgiveness of sins through those animal sacrifices. They received it by placing their faith in the promise of the true sacrifice to come. Their hope was not in those fallible and temporary mediators, but in the promised Savior, who is the perfect Mediator between God and man.
Therefore it was necessary for the copies of the things in the heavens to be cleansed with these, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ did not enter a holy place made with hands, a mere copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us; nor was it that He would offer Himself often, as the high priest enters the holy place year by year with blood that is not his own.
Here the author describes those earthly things as mere copies that are not as good as the heavenly things. Christ’s sacrifice is better. His blood speaks a better word to us. He entered “into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us”. By this one sacrifice, Christ became our eternal Mediator at the right hand of the Father. How could a priest who entered into the holy place once a year to offer an inferior sacrifice ever compare to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, in whom we place our true confidence?
Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
It is Christ who allows us to “drawn near with confidence to the throne of grace”. The Levitical priesthood could provide no such confidence through its system of sacrifices that had to be offered time and time again. Those who failed to keep the commands of the Old Covenant would be cut off, but not so for those under the New Covenant, because Christ has already been cut off on their behalf. (I will address this in greater detail in a later article.) His sacrifice cleanses us from sin wholly and completely. He is our hope that we will persevere to the end.
By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. Every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins; but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time onward until His enemies be made a footstool for His feet. For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us; for after saying,
“This is the covenant that I will make with them
After those days, says the Lord:
I will put My laws upon their heart,
And on their mind I will write them,”
He then says,
“And their sins and their lawless deeds
I will remember no more.”
Now where there is forgiveness of these things, there is no longer any offering for sin.
We often think of sanctification as an ongoing process that follows our legal justification, and that is true in the sense that we put to death the deeds of the flesh and become more conformed to the image of Christ. However, we must never suppose that the sanctifying power of Christ’s blood is not fully and immediately effective. As soon as that blood of the New Covenant is applied, we are legally made holy. We have our guilt removed and are credited with Christ’s righteousness. In that sense, we are fully sanctified. As it says here, “For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.” That is a one time action with eternal consequences: a declaration of “not guilty” that will be echoed on Judgment Day. Only the blood of Christ and His mediation before the Father can give us this assurance, and it only comes as part of the New Covenant. Again, that is why Christ said at the Last Supper, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood.” (Luke 22:20b)
Note how the author of Hebrews quotes Old Testament passages that predict the New Covenant and connects them with the better sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The system of mediation is simply different under the New Covenant, and as such it is truly effective. Scripture never describes Jesus as a mediator of the Old Covenant, but only of the New Covenant. This begs the question, why was that first system of mediation in place? The Apostle Paul writes, “For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time.” (1 Timothy 2:5-6) So what in the world was the purpose of the Levitical priesthood? Indeed, what was the purpose of the Mosaic Law? Luckily, Paul answers this question for us.
Why the Law then? It was added because of transgressions, having been ordained through angels by the agency of a mediator, until the seed would come to whom the promise had been made. Now a mediator is not for one party only; whereas God is only one. Is the Law then contrary to the promises of God? May it never be! For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law. But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.
The language here can be a bit confusing, but this is the meaning. The (Mosaic) Law was “ordained through angels by the agency of a mediator”. This is referring to the fact that it was given to Moses on the mountain, who then gave it to the people of Israel. The reason this is confusing is that Christ Himself is described as our Mediator elsewhere, but when Paul says “a mediator is not for one party only”, he means that human go-betweens brought the Mosaic Covenant to an entire nation of people.
Furthermore, the Law was added “because of transgressions”. You would think this means that it was given in order to forgive those transgressions and make people righteous, but actually Paul tells us this was not the case. “For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law…But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed.” (Paul said earlier in this same chapter that “the Law is not of faith”; v. 12.) Rather than calling the Law a provider of righteousness to sinful human beings, Paul tells us that the Law was a “tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith”. What is greater than the Law, Paul tell us, is the promise originally made to Abraham regarding his seed, which Paul clarifies is Jesus Christ. (3:16)
I will write more in a later article about what exactly is meant by “the Law” and how we should view its proper function. However, the point here has to do with mediators. The Old Covenant had typological mediators making typological sacrifices in a typological Tabernacle with a typological people of God. If we forget any of those elements, we start to misunderstand the nature of the covenants. (More about types and shadows can be found in this article.)
Again, Jesus Christ was not the mediator of the Old Covenant. Moses and the priests were the mediators. Now that we have a Great High Priest in the heavens above, we do not need priests. We have something far better: something that can actually put us into a right relationship with God. The only questions that remain are how does Jesus mediate for us, and for whom does He mediate?
In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified. What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us.
This passage talks about the benefits of our salvation in the context of 1) Christ’s mediating work and 2) the indwelling of the Spirit in believers. Those two things are united in an unbreakable bond. When a believer prays, they must do so in the power of the Spirit, who “intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words”. There is therefore a sense in which the Spirit “intercedes for the saints according to the will of God”. However, Christ is the one who is seated at the Father’s right hand. That is where He serves as our Mediator, in the heavenly tabernacle. “Who will bring a charge against God’s elect?” Paul asks, for Christ is there and “intercedes for us”. This is why we may have confidence before the Father, for our prayers proceed by the Spirit, through the Son, and directly to the Father, before whom we have been justified.
But does Jesus mediate for just anyone? No, He does not. He only mediates for one very specific group of people: the elect. “For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren”. By the mediation of Christ, we are made pure children of God and therefore have access to the fullness of God’s presence. Such a benefit is not offered to those who are not in Christ. True communion with God is only granted to the elect. They are the ones for whom Christ mediates through the New Covenant.
The ultimate result is that those who are united to Christ can look forward to perfect communion with God at the ending of the age, when we are glorified and no longer chained to the sinful nature. This eschatological promise is once again not offered to everyone, but only those who have been purified by Christ’s blood. The Apostle John describes the scene.
In the daytime (for there will be no night there) its gates will never be closed; and they will bring the glory and the honor of the nations into it; and nothing unclean, and no one who practices abomination and lying, shall ever come into it, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.
To sum up, there were different systems of mediation under the Old and New Covenants, only one of which was sufficient for the forgiveness of sins. Christ is the Mediator of the New Covenant alone, and only those who are united to Him (the elect) can truly look to Him as a Mediator. Come back next time, when I will consider whether or not the Old Covenant was completely broken.
All scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.