Hebrews 8:1–6 . . .
“The New Covenant’s High Priest”
Starting in chapter 8, our author will sum up his arguments to this point about the superiority of Christ’s person and ministry. He'll build from his last two themes: (1) Melchizedek was greater than Abraham; (2) the priesthood of Jesus — in the order of Melchizedek — was greater than that of the Levitical priests. Both concepts will be the springboard to a new and deeper discussion of how and why Jesus' role in our salvation is what God has continually been promising us.
He'll also introduce this logical conclusion: The new covenant that Christ mediates is superior to the old covenant, which, while flawed, wasn't Father God's mistake or failure. It was simply one part of his overall plan for his people. Before Christ’s coming in the flesh, the old covenant and priesthood enabled men to draw nearer to God than they'd previously been able to do. The old covenant had sinful human priests who served in an earthly tabernacle; the new covenant has a divine/human priest who serves in the heavenly sanctuary. That's why the new covenant is vastly superior to the old covenant.
Wanting his readers to remember what he'd recently taught them in chapter 7, our author likely gave this simpler six-verse explanation to teach his readers (then and today) that a high priest who is perfect in every way (7:26) is very much needed, one who must offer the perfect sacrifice, which God evaluates, to effectively forgive man's evil deeds (7:27). To our benefit today, this has already happened; Jesus Christ is our Great High Priest; the sacrifice that he offered was his own life, leading to his death and resurrection.
Today's text suggests that earthly things, such as the tabernacle, were meant to symbolize heavenly things. For example, Christ's high priest role is superior to the Old Testament system because it actively takes place in the ''true tabernacle'' that God had planned, created, and organized, rather than in the earthly tentlike tabernacle, made by man while following Moses' directives. We'll soon realize that this was God's plan from the beginning.
“Remember This” (8:1–2)
Our text includes words with which we're likely familiar. But we must put them into context to appreciate the author's arguments. And with a little help from Greek transliterations, we'll scrutinize "sanctuary," "high priest," "sat/seated," "tabernacle/temple," "offered/offering," "copy and shadow of what's in heaven," and "mediator."
The High Priest of a New Covenant
8 1Now the main point of what we are saying is this: We do have such a high priest, who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, 2and who serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by a mere human being (8:1–2).
Bringing together the main point of chapter 7, the author reminds us that our Great High Priest of the new covenant, unlike Aaronic priests, is now seated at Father God’s right hand, on the throne of Majesty, which is the position of all authority in heaven. There's no other "sanctuary" on earth or in heaven that holds and offers more power. That sanctuary is heaven's real and "true tabernacle set up by the Lord," not pitched by man, according to God's specifications.
A "high priest" (Gr. archiereus, from archi- [denoting rank or degree] and hiereus [denoting priest]) was the preeminent member of chief priests. Our High Priest now sits on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty on high in heaven. There, Father God placed his Son, the Mediator, possessing all authority and power in heaven and on earth. This authority that Jesus now exercises for his Father's glory and his own honor provides a happiness blessing for everyone who believes and follows him. With his almighty power, he intercedes, mediates, and brings everyone to the right hand of the heavenly Father: Where God is, so may we also be.
When Father God accepted Jesus’ sacrifice, something astonishing happened: Jesus sat down. In the old covenant, no priest ever sat down in the tabernacle, tent, or holy rooms of Jerusalem's temple. There were no chairs in any of those earthly sanctuaries that priests could sit upon because they entered the sanctuary only to carry out a specific, prescribed task. They remained therein only while actively performing that task, thereafter exited it. Even the high priest never had a permanent place to sit or stand in God’s house, while that sanctuary was on earth.
Regarding the words "such a high priest, who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven," commentator David Guzik writes this: "Jesus is seated in heaven, in contrast to the continual service of the priesthood under the Law of Moses. The tabernacle and the temple of the Old Covenant had beautiful furnishings, but there was no place for the priests to sit down because their work was never finished. However, the work of Jesus is finished; therefore He is seated in heaven."
Seeing Jesus as being "seated," that word in ancient literature often symbolizes a completed work. However, in the old covenant's tabernacle, no seats were provided for the priest who went about his ministry. This shows that his sacrificial ministry was never completed. We'll soon discover the major point of the next few chapters: Christ's work is entirely complete! No repetition of sacrificial efforts is ever needed under his priesthood, as was required with Levitical sacrifices. And, because Christ's seat is found at "the right hand" of God, it symbolizes power, authority, and acceptance. What's more, this right-hand position is said to be "in heaven," which is the place of highest honor. This implies that Jesus is most exalted, honored, and glorified.
By law, every high priest must offer gifts and sacrifices of some kind. In our Lord Jesus' case, this High Priest must also offer something. Unlike an earthly priest who'd work in an earthly tabernacle/tent, offering the sacrifices prescribed by Mosaic Law, our Great High Priest works unendingly in his heavenly sanctuary where his priestly ministry overshadows the ministry of the Aaronic priesthood.
In v. 2, we're first introduced to the idea that Jesus' ministry had been "set up by the Lord" as one part of God's actual, eternal plan. The previous sacrificial process was symbolic and obsolete at best. In the book of Exodus, God describes the construction of a temporary building, a special tent in the desert, inside which Israel was to worship him (Exod. 25:8–9). This "tabernacle" or tent was the sanctuary in which all sacrifices were performed. However, as later "Hebrews" verses will reveal, Jesus offers his sacrifice in a perfect sanctuary: heaven. It's that eternal place that was well-constructed by God; it wasn't, instead, the temporary tabernacle built by man (Heb. 9:24).
Before we go on, remember this main point that we covered in vv. 1–2: Jesus is the new high priest who sits in heaven where the "true tabernacle," the holy of holies, is located. When the author used the Gr. naos for "tabernacle/temple," it would have been natural for his audience to know that naos depicted a highly decorated shrine. Temples of that time were beautiful buildings with tall, vaulted ceilings, marble columns, granite floors, hand-carved woodwork overlaid with gold and silver, and more. Naos sometimes referred to the inner-most part of the temple, which was called Most Holy Place (more literally in Hebrew is the idiom "Holy of Holies").
Further, the old covenant involved repetitious sacrifices by a series of interim priests inside a temporary, man-made tabernacle/temple. On the other hand, the new covenant brings one sure sacrifice for all, by one eternal high priest, inside the true, heavenly sanctuary.
What we'll realize in the next four verses is this: The new covenant consists of an inward law written onto one's heart, rather than an external law like the Law of Moses. It's a description of New Testament salvation offered through Christ.
Christ’s Superior, More Excellent Ministry (vv. 3–6)
Starting with v. 3, we're told that a high priest's assigned task was to offer both gifts and sacrifices. It’s no different with Jesus' priesthood. Old covenant priests provided only a hint of what goes on today in the true sanctuary of heaven, which Moses caught a glimpse of as he was about to set up the first tent-shrine. God then prompted him, Be careful to follow exactly the pattern for it that I gave you on the Mountain (Exod. 25:40). Our author intended to show that Christ’s priesthood couldn't coexist with the Levitical priesthood. In these four verses, he explains in detail that: (1) Christ is a minister of certain holy things; (2) such things aren't of the old Law (v. 4); and (3) Jesus is a minister of greater promises (v. 6).
3Every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices, and so it was necessary for this one also to have something to offer. 4If he were on earth, he would not be a priest, for there are already priests who offer the gifts prescribed by the law. 5They serve at a sanctuary that is 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” [from Exod. 25:40]. 6But in fact the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, since the new covenant is established on better promises (8:3–6).
Every high priest was appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices. For Christ, the new high priest, it's necessary that he too offers people something (5:1). Previous sacrifices offered animals, while offered gifts were anything else. But the sacrifice that Jesus offered went far beyond anything that had been offered in earthly temples. Levitical priests "who offer" (Gr. prospherein, present tense) made repeated sacrifices, while Jesus "has established" (Gr. prosenenkē, past tense) a new covenant in which only a single sacrifice needed to be offered. Jesus' sacrifice wasn't that of a mere animal; it involved the sacrifice of a living person, as the writer had previously declared in 7:27. Because it was necessary that Christ offer something, he offered himself. His was a clean, unblemished offering because his flesh had absolutely no sin stain (Exod. 12:5). He was also fit to be offered up because his flesh then was mortal.
Regarding v. 4, John Calvin wrote this enlightening comment: "It is now beyond dispute that Christ is a high priest; but as the office of a judge does not exist without laws and statutes, so the office of sacrificing must be connected with Christ as a priest: yet he has no earthly or visible sacrifice; he cannot then be a priest on earth. We must always hold this truth that when the Apostle speaks of the death of Christ, he regards not the external action, but the spiritual benefit. He suffered death as men do, but as a priest he atoned for the sins of the world in a divine manner; there was an external shedding of blood, but there was also an internal and spiritual purgation; in a word, he died on earth, but the virtue and efficacy of his death proceeded from heaven."
While Jesus was on earth, he couldn't have been a priest at all, since there were already those who offered the gifts according to the Law, the Mosaic Law, the Mosaic Covenant. He had a more superior offering for the people, but he wouldn't have qualified to be their high priest under the old covenant because he wasn't born of Levi's tribe, as required by law. The earthly service, while it was glorious in man's eyes, was really only a "copy and shadow of what is in heaven."
The Gr. hupodeigma means literally a representative copy, sketch-plan, or likeness of the original. What Moses saw on the mountain was the original; the constructed tabernacle and its furnishings were the copy that represented the original. The Gr. skia used for "shadow" refers to a washed-out shadow, as contrasted with a sharp, distinct one. The point is that the old Mosaic covenant, including the institutions of the priesthood and the tabernacle, were pale shadows of the light and substance that Christ would bring.
The special tabernacle/tent mentioned in v. 5b was only a "model, exemplar, copy, and shadow" — not the real thing, which is in heaven. Those under the Levitical priesthood, under the old covenant's Mosaic Law, served only within "a copy and shadow of what is in heaven." This was the same warning that God had given Moses prior to erecting the special tabernacle/tent and everything inside it, as God had directed him, made according to a pattern of what existed in heaven (Exod. 25:9, 40; 26:30). This assembly was to be the sacred venue in which people would learn much about the true place of worship in heaven wherein Jesus is our high priest.
We see in v. 6 that Jesus presides over a "superior" priesthood having a greater covenant and better promises. [The author used the words "superior," "greater," and "better" seventeen times in this epistle, as listed here.] He's the new covenant's "mediator," which comes from the ancient Gr. mesites, meaning "one who intervenes between two, to make or restore peace and friendship, to form a compact, to ratify a covenant." Jesus is our mediator for this greater covenant because he's obtained from his father a superior, excellent ministry in heaven. While on earth under the Mosaic Covenant, Jesus wouldn't have qualified to be a priest. Today his ministry supersedes in every way the earthly priestly ministry of the Levitical system; it's superior to that of the old covenant.
And this superior place in heaven, where Jesus now works, enables him to be greater than all of the old covenant priests. In Revelation 11:19, this heavenly sanctuary reappears with the name "temple." No earthly priest inside the tabernacle or tent or temple had the ability to free people from their sinfulness the way Jesus has today. In our behalf, the Son has made a better agreement with Father God, which includes the establishment of better promises than what the old agreement had pledged.
Because of Jesus’ work as high priest, God has established a new kind of relationship with his people. The writer will detail that relationship's promises in vv 8–12, which we'll delve into in our next discussion. The earthly tabernacle, tent, or temple sanctuary passed away as it was intended to do. But the truth that it was meant to teach abides forever, as we'll explore in detail, when we'll cover chapter 9. The author will then describe and highlight a very new living arrangement — the new covenant — in which our Great High Priest Jesus mediates and guarantees continuously.
Finally, we should always remember this fact: Jesus’ work as priest is much more superior than anything that Israel’s priests ever achieved. They'd served God at his tabernacle on earth, which was a mere earthly copy of the "true tabernacle" in heaven. Thankfully, Jesus serves his people in the true holy place above, in the heavens, while sitting at Father God's right hand.
- Q. 1 Is Jesus your Chief Priest or High Priest? . . . How do the responsibilities of each office differ?
- Q. 2 What does it mean to "mediate"? . . . Why is one needed? . . . Has Jesus ever mediated in your behalf?
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— Listen to chapter 8, narrated by Max McLean.