Hebrews 8—The Old Covenant
By Kevin M. Williams
One of the rules of hermeneutics is to let the Bible interpret itself. When we step away from this principle, humans have a long track record of misinterpretation, of inserting concepts from the culture or age in which they live as opposed to culture in which it was written, or making improper assumptions due to a lack of knowledge, and thus a cult is born. A friend of mine refers to it as “human pollution” and he has a very good point: when people attempt to intervene, even with the best of intentions, the results can be misleading if we are not extremely careful.
Today, a gap is widening between believers in Yeshua (Jesus) who feel the Torah of the Lord has relevance, and those who feel it has been “fulfilled” and therefore laid aside by the Messiah. One of the proof texts used to defend the latter is Hebrews 8:13.
“When He said, ‘A new covenant,’ He has made the first obsolete.
But whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to
As we examine Hebrews 8—and more specifically the author’s intent behind “covenant”—we shall attempt to let the text interpret itself and avoid any potential traps that might get in our way.
There is debate among those with lots of letters behind their names and years of study under their belts as to who authored the book of Hebrews. Some say it had to have been the apostle Paul while others argue that it was someone else. There are those who argue that it was penned by several writers.
On this I cannot answer and have no opinion. My concern is what happened to the Greek text when it was brought over into English and how subsequent generations have handled the Word.
In the verse quoted above, one would certainly get the impression that the “new covenant” is not only a better covenant, but that the former covenant is obsolete, growing old, and about to disappear. Reading the English, it would seem this point is quite evident.
But please notice that the word “covenant” is in italics. That is an academic convention wherein the translated text shows us that the word does not appear in the original Greek. That means the word “covenant”
is not in the original text but has been added at some latter point by English interpreters/translators.
This is true in the King James Version and many other English translations. While the NIV does not put the word in italics, it sets “covenant” apart in quotes.
The also occurs in verse 7:
“For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion sought for a second.”
Again, the impression we are given is that this earlier “covenant“ referred to is somehow inferior. Yet time and again the Bible refers to the Torah as “holy” (i.e. undefiled), perfect, true, and good—by the likes of King David and the apostle Paul! These positive and affirming adjectives come from any number of books of the Scripture and not from any one person’s opinion. Does this mean that the book of Hebrews is wrong? Or might this mean that the book of Hebrews is right and the other books of the Word are wrong?
May it never be. Rather it would seem that the English interpretations may be “polluted.”
Let us look at Hebrews chapter 8 anew, but this time omitting the word “covenant” where it does not actually appear in the text and see what we come up with.
Verse 1 tells us specifically what the subject matter is, “Now the main point in what has been said is this: we have such a high priest, who has taken His seat at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens” [emphasis mine].
The main point, according to the author, according to the text, is the high priest. Not just any high priest mind you, but The High Priest, Yeshua the Messiah.
The subject at hand is not about any of the covenants, including the Torah, but the transformation of the priesthood from a Levitical priest to a unique priest from the tribe of Judah. How do we know this is the topic? The text confirms it.
Verses 2-4 discuss the role of this “more excellent” priest according to the greater function of the Messiah’s priesthood. His role is carried out in the heavenlies, where he sits at the right hand of the throne of Almighty God, a feat no Levite ever conceived, let alone achieved.
Verse 5 reinforces the words of Moses that all these images and rituals we see in the earthly priesthood and in the tabernacle were “shadows,” images of the genuine articles in heaven. Similarly, we too are images of our Creator. We are very real, we have genuine substance, but when all is said and done, we are the same type of shadow or image as the tabernacle and the Levitical priesthood. Our collective purpose? To bring glory to His name.
Let us not overlook the fact that the author uses the words of Moses to bring credibility to his argument. Would such an author use Moses only to later discredit his covenants, the very source material he is using to strengthen his instruction? That would be double-minded and ineffectual. In short, that would be bad hermeneutics.
Verse 6 tells what most of us already know: that the Messiah’s priesthood is more excellent and that he is mediator of a better covenant. Here the word “covenant” (diatheke) does appear in the Greek text. The author does not say the earlier priestly systems was “bad.” It served its godly purpose. As an image of the greater priest to come (Messiah) the Levitical priesthood had done all that it was established to do. Everything we need to know about the ministry and role of the Messiah as priest could be learned by studying the sons of Levi.
A modern example might be to consider a computer’s operating system. The early versions served their purpose. The newer operating systems are generally superior (at least after the bugs have been worked out) and few users would ever dream of using DOS again. DOS served its purpose, but by comparison to modern Windows® or MacOS systems, DOS is archaic. There was nothing wrong with what the earlier versions accomplished. They did exactly what they were designed to do. But most would agree that the current OS is superior in every way.
Which brings us back to verse 7, “For if that first had been faultless, there would have been no occasion sought for a second.”
Keeping with the author’s main point—the priesthood—he is not talking about a faulty covenant, but a faulty priesthood. The people failed, not the covenant. Even the first high priest, Aaron, was imperfect (Numbers 12:1), speaking out against God’s anointed, Moses. This pattern of failure remained with the priesthood as long as the priesthood was held by fleshly man.
Certainly by the time we reach the period of the Messiah and the apostles, likely the era of the writing of the book of Hebrews, the office of the High Priest had become absolutely corrupt and Rome’s puppet. The biblical characters of Anna and Caiaphas had not come to their position by lineage. They had been appointed by Herod. Their history was one of corruption, even to the mock-trial and subsequent execution of the Messiah. Yet they were not an viable representation of the genuine Levite established by God. They were not even valid representatives of Israel or God’s Torah. They were not intermediaries, they were usurpers.
Yet the office of the High Priest could not be fulfilled perfectly through imperfect men. It required someone better, someone undefiled, someone directly accountable to the Father. It would require Yeshua the Messiah. The role of the priest would remain in tack just as God ordained.
Yet God is a God of covenants. Paul teaches that a newer covenant does not set aside a previous one (Galatians 3:17). In the covenant with Abraham, God promised him land, that kings would come from his descendants, that nations would be blessed because of him, that he would be God’s and God would be his. The sign of this covenant? Circumcision.
In the next covenant, the Mosaic or Sinaitic covenant, we find all these promises reconfirmed, with even more details on how to live our lives in the community of God’s redeemed. We read what God’s expectations are when it comes to holiness, and we learn how we are to deal with one another in community relationships. Yet the stipulations promise land, kings, blessings for the nations, that the people would be God’s and God would be known by them. The previous terms are not abrogated, they are reiterated. This covenant’s sign? The Sabbath.
In the Davidic covenant, we find the same parameters: land, kings, nations being blessed, he is God’s and God is his, though now augmented with the promised temple. Nothing has been abrogated, only reiterated and improved.
In the new covenant of Jeremiah 31, copied verbatim in Hebrews 8:8-12, we find the promises reiterated a fourth time! All the promises of the covenants are written on the hearts of those in this “new covenant.” In fact, it is rather clear that the Torah—the Mosaic covenant—is going to be in all our minds and hearts (a repeat of the promise in Deuteronomy 6:6) to such a degree that teachers will become unnecessary, “For all shall know Me, from the least to the greatest of them.” If anything, Hebrews 8:10 declares the Torah even more alive and more relevant for those participating in the new covenant.
How are these new covenant participants known? By the very signs of the covenants God has made with His people. They have circumcised hearts, they have entered into the Sabbath rest of the Messiah, and they have become the living temple, even to the point of being called “priests and royal” (1 Peter 2:9). The previous covenants are not abrogated, rather they have been augmented, bringing about further revelation of our Lord and Savior in us, His living and mobile temple.
By the time we get to verse 13, “When He said, ‘A new,’ He has made the first obsolete. But whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear” we must remember the author’s main point—the priesthood. Certainly if not at the time of the writing of the book of Hebrews, shortly thereafter, the temple would come to ruin and the Levites would be disbanded.
The author demonstrates that the new priesthood could only come through a “more excellent” priest—the Messiah. He is not saying that what he proclaimed as true in verses 8-12 in regard to the Torah is true and then turn around in verse 13 and say it is not true. Again, this would be poor hermeneutics.
Now let us roll back to chapter 7 for a moment. The author reminds us in verse 11 “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?”
The author explains that Yeshua’s priesthood was not of the order of Levi, according to the Torah, but according to the order of Melchizedek, also established in the Torah. Again, if we presume that the Torah is rendered obsolete, as is so commonly believed today, then the very Torah which establishes the order of Melchizedek is likewise rendered obsolete.
Rather, in the Torah we see elements of the order of Melchizedek which allow us to better understand Yeshua’s priesthood. Without the covenants, without the Hebrew Scriptures, we would be ignorant and lack full spiritual appreciation. The order of Melchizedek would be nonsense. The Torah therefore, is the foundation upon which our understanding and faith is built with Yeshua as its cornerstone.
Remove the foundation, and what do we know of any priesthood? Our only basis for comprehension would be the pagan cultures, and in the Bible we find time and again that God warns us NOT to be like the pagans in ritual or worship. The very purpose of the Levitical—and the Melchizedek—priesthood gave us a foundation and spiritual understanding divorced of pagan influence.
To have the Bible in English is a tremendous gift. A gift that many generations lived and died without. Yet not everything “inserted” as interpretive tools have done the text justice. Hebrews 8 is one example and has flavored the faithful for centuries. Inferring that the Torah is obsolete, when the text makes no such claim outside of the transition from a Levitical to Melchizedek priesthood, may have done great harm through the ages. It certainly causes rifts of misunderstanding between those believers who hold the Torah with high regard and those who do not.
Kevin M. Williams, Litt. D., H.L.D. has served in Messianic ministries since 1987, planting indigenous
Messianic Jewish congregations with the purpose of reaching God's Chosen with the good news. He helped found Adat Etz Chayim (Tree of Life Congregation) in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and is on full-time staff
with RBC Ministries. Kevin has written numerous articles and been a featured speaker at regional and
international conferences on Messianic Judaism.
Copyright © 2003 Kevin M. Williams. All rights reserved.