Donít Go Back Ė
Contrasting the Old and New Covenants
The Book of Hebrews
This paper analyzes the book of Hebrews. The purpose and theological content of the book are examined.
Purpose of Hebrews
Hebrews was written to Jewish believers in Jesus as both and encouragement and a warning. They were encouraged to remain in Jesus and were warned against returning to their old forms of worship and temple practices of the Old Covenant.
Hebrews was written prior to the destruction of the temple, which occurred in 70 ACE. This was also before the split into separate Jewish and Christian religions. Up until this point in time, adherents could move somewhat freely between the various sects of Judaism, including becoming followers of Jesus as Messiah.
By quoting the Law and the Prophets, the book of Hebrews shows that the Law and the Prophets foresaw the life of Jesus and pointed the Jews to Jesus as the Christ. Hebrews provides a number of contrasts between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant on specifics such as temple worship, the priesthood, and other points of practice of the Jewish religion showing the superiority of the New Covenant brought by Jesus at every point of difference.
Theology of Hebrews
The book of Hebrews presents an extremely high Christology. For example, Jesus is shown to be:
Greater than the angels (1:1-2:18).
Superior to Moses and the Law (3:1-19).
The promised Sabbath Rest (4:1-13)
Superior to the High Priest (4:14-5:11)
Greater than the angels
The list of differences and contrasts between Jesus and the angels demonstrates that He is superior to the angels:
Son of God
Not sons by nature
Incarnated as man
Seated at right hand of God
Messengers of God
The force of the argument should put to death any thought that Jesus is an angel who became a man. Jesus is shown to be superior in every meaningful way possible to the angels. Even his temporary life on earth is counted as an advantage in his ability to relate to humankind.
Superior to Moses and the Law
Moses is the representative of the Old Covenant. Therefore, it is necessary for the author of Hebrews to show the superiority of the new Covenant instituted by Jesus over and against the Old Covenant of Moses. Moses was portrayed as being faithful in all his House as a servant. Jesus is shown to be the builder of that house. As the builder of the form, Jesus is free to substitute another form for the earlier one.
Unfulfilled Sabbath Rest
The next argument is to show that the Old Covenant had unfulfilled forms. The Sabbath rest is an excellent example of this. Under the Old Covenant a person had to repeat their weekly rest every single week. They did not enter into a permanent rest - at least not during their lifetimes. Under Jesus, believers enter into rest from their works, thus fulfilling the Sabbath.
Temple sacrifices are another example of the same kind of thing. Under the Old Covenant, the sacrifices had to be repeated yearly. Jesus, in contrast, was only sacrificed once.
Superior to the High Priest.
A fourth area is the superiority of the priesthood of Jesus to the Levitical priesthood. This axis has several arguments. Jesus died once as a sacrifice for all time. The Levitical priests did not themselves die as sacrifices, but had to repeat the animal sacrifices constantly.
In another layer of this argument, the author has a clever twist by jumping beyond Levi to Levi's grandfather Abraham and his encounter with Melchizedek. In the account, Abraham paid tithes to Melchizedek. The superiority of Melchizedek is shown and it is claimed that Jesus is a priest of the order of Melchizedek. The author of Hebrews identifies Melchizedek as a shadow of Jesus. This particular argument is not used elsewhere in the New Testament and was the occasion of much speculation by the Early Church Fathers about the depth of the parallel between Melchizedek and Jesus with some identifying Melchizedek as an Christophany.
Additionally, it is noted that the high priest is on the earth. The residency of Jesus in Heaven shows his intercessory abilities to be much greater than that of an earthly high priest.
Repeated Warnings Against Returning to Old Covenant
The question of whether application leads exegesis is raised by this text. An ordinary interpretive tendency is to view the warnings as the subthread of the text (or application) with the theological details being the main focus.
However, the opposite seems to be more the actual case. The theological details and repetition of the historical narratives are used as a method of forming precedence. Restating the general form of the warnings would be something of the following form "they [the people under the Old Covenant] were destroyed [or failed to reach the goal], but we should learn from them and not make the same mistakes." Repeating the narratives forms the background for the warnings, rather than the warnings being in the background of application of the theological texts.
The book of Hebrews forces the reader to confront the question; "Why would anyone choose to go back to the old forms of religion once they have embraced Jesus?" Clearly, Jesus is shown to be superior and the evidence that there would be a superior fulfillment is shown to have been in the Law and the Prophets all the way along, although obscured.
The fact that God had already intended to replace the Mosaic covenant with a better covenant was shown to be in the Old Covenant itself from the very beginning where Moses told the people to listen to the Prophet that was to come through the book of Jeremiah which explicitly details the New Covenant as well as the failures of the Old Covenant.
The only reason left is peer pressure for cultural conformity. In a number of places the author makes it clear that's not a valid option. Leaving Jesus leads to sure destruction because there's no real safety in the Old Covenant any longer. Even the forms of the Old Covenant were beginning to pass away at that time. Besides, they've already been persecuted for their faith and what they need to do is endure. To such persons, the destruction of the temple in 70 ACE was a sure sign God was on their side.