The New Covenant in Hebrews
The Epistle to the Hebrews sheds much light on the topic of the new covenant. Before looking at the passages concerned it may be helpful to list the different expressions used in this Epistle in referring to the new covenant. Taking into account that, in the original, two different wordsare used for 'new' you find six different designations of the new covenant - where the word 'covenant' is used:
1. a better covenant (Heb. 7:22; 8:6)
2. a new (Gr. kainos) covenant (Heb 8:8; 9:15)
3. the covenant that I will make... after those days, (Heb. 8:10; 10:16)
4. the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified (Heb. 10:29)
5. the new (Gr. neos) covenant (12:24)
6. the everlasting covenant (Heb. 13:20)
However, there is an additional expression used for the new covenant, only that it does not use the word 'covenant' at all - it is supplied (or implied) by the previous verse:
7. The second [covenant] (Heb. 8:7).
Let us explore, very briefly, what we can learn from these verses. We'll look at them in the order in which they occur in the Epistle.
A better covenant
...Jesus became surety of a better covenant (Heb. 7:22).
On two occasions the Epistle to the Hebrews refers to the new covenant as 'a better covenant': here and in chapter 8, verse 6. This word 'better' (used no less than 13 times in Hebrews) is characteristic for this letter designed to persuade Christians of Jewish background that there was no point in cleaving to, or returning to, the old system of Jewish rites and worship. As Christians they had received something far better, not shadows but reality.
However, we should not jump to the conclusion that Christians have received the new covenant, i.e. that it has been made with them. Admittedly, this would have been far better than being under the old covenant but what we have as Christians is even better than that: we are linked with the person who is the 'surety' and the 'mediator' of this better covenant.
The new covenant is presented to turn our eyes to Christ and to show His greatness. If the new covenant is superior to the old - as we will show - how much better then to be able to 'see' (2:9) and to 'consider' (3:1) Christ, the architect and foundation of this better covenant!
So why, then, is the new covenant 'better'? Wasn't it a privilege to belong to the people of Israel who had received the covenants? It surely was. Paul mentions the covenants as one of the great national privileges of Israel (Rom. 9:5). But the new covenant was far superior in a number of ways (see the comments below on Hebrews 8:6).
In our verse, Christ is called the surety, or guarantor, of a better covenant. We will see in a moment that, in the context of the old covenant, we find an Old Testament illustration for a mediator (Moses) but when it comes to the surety we cannot point to Moses by way of illustration - nor, for that matter, to anyone else in the Old Testament. For the old covenant no surety existed. The 'deal' was done, both parties had consented, and God would never fail to meet His obligations but nobody could give any guarantee whatsoever that the people would do the same - a shaky foundation indeed.
As surety Christ takes upon Himself the entire obligation. He commits to making sure that the people of Israel will be brought into blessing.
And we are linked with, and pointed to, Him. This is emphasised by the fact that the definite article is missing here (as also in 8:6). The attention is drawn to Christ, not to the covenant as such. The covenant is only brought in to show the glory of the Christ, its surety and the mediator.
But now he has got a more excellent ministry, by so much as he is mediator of a better covenant, which is established on the footing of better promises (Heb. 8:6).
In order to be the mediator (or, as they say today, to 'broker a deal') you need to have access to both parties and you need to be able to relate to both of them. Here we find an illustration in the Old Testament: Moses was the mediator of the old covenant. In reading Exodus 24 one is struck by the way in which Moses was singled out as the mediator. He alone was allowed to draw near to God: And he said to Moses, Go up to Jehovah, thou and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel; and worship afar off. And let Moses alone come near Jehovah; but they shall not come near; neither shall the people go up with him (Ex. 24:1.2).
This was a great honour for Moses. Only Moses had that access to God and only through him could the people of Israel receive the covenant. Good Jews would proudly point out that they were 'disciples of Moses' (John 9:28).
But Christ is mediator of a 'better covenant, which is established on the footing of better promises '. These promises are better because (i) they are unconditional and (ii) they include the blessing of forgiveness - which is central to that better covenant.
We know the One who has become the mediator between a holy God and that was not only liable to fail but that had already failed dismally; indeed One greater than Moses. He only could establish that covenant because He was ready and able to lay the foundation for its blessings - on the cross.
Yet another striking reason for the superiority of the new covenant is given a little further down as we shall see shortly when looking at verse 7.
A second [covenant]
For if that first was faultless, place had not been sought for a second (Heb. 8:7).
What a marvellously disarming argument: the very need of a second, or new, covenant demonstrated the imperfection of the first or old! Anyone familiar with the life and message of Jeremiah (as quoted in Hebrews 8:8ff.) will understand this: Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, had to deliver a difficult message: the people had disobeyed, they would lose the land, the Babylonians would come and take them captive - and all this because they had been unfaithful under the 'old covenant': 'not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers... which... they broke ' (Jer. 31:32). It was the break-down of the first covenant that gave occasion to the second.
But how was it possible, that the old covenant, having been given by God, was not 'faultless'? The fault lay with the sin and weakness of one party to the covenant, Israel. As with the law as a whole, it was not a problem with what God had given (the law was good, Rom. 7:12) but with the weakness of the flesh (Rom. 8:3).
We note in passing that God is indeed entitled to change the rules, the way He deals with men. He gives one covenant, based on one principle (responsibility), the system fails, and He gives another, different, covenant based on a different principle (grace). Anyone who is in any doubt about the truth that there are different 'dispensations' will do well to consider this. He indeed 'takes away the first that he may establish the second' (Heb. 10:9).
We can rest assured, of course, that God was not taken by surprise. He knows the end from the beginning, and He knew that the old would fail. Why, then, did He not give the new straight away? The answer is simple. He knew, but we didn't. Would we ever have believed the utter inability of man to stand before God on the grounds of responsibility had we not read the accounts of the failure of man under previous dispensations?
The fact that the new was occasioned by the very failure of the old is brought out, very powerfully, again in the next verse:
A new covenant
For finding fault, he says to them, Behold, days come, saith the Lord, and I will consummate a new covenant as regards the house of Israel, and as regards the house of Juda (Heb.8:8).
It was in 'finding fault' that the new covenant was given. Reading the prophet Jeremiah one will find that there was a lot to find fault with (see chapters 2-29) and that it was this despicable failure that gave rise to the announcement of the new.
The word used for 'new' here, and in most instances where the term new covenant occurs, is 'kainos' (new in kind, fresh, in contrast with what has been before). Another expression, 'neos', is used for ,new' as in 'recent' or young (we're familiar with this word from the use of the prefix 'neo' in English). The new covenant is of a different character, marked by God taking all responsibility and promising blessing. This comes out beautifully in the 'I will' in this verse (and in the whole of the new covenant section of Jeremiah 30-32).
This verse quotes from Jeremiah 31:31 - but with a slight variation: instead of saying 'with ' it is 'as regards ' the house of Israel. When the Holy Spirit modifies an Old Testament verse in quoting it this is always very instructive. So here: by saying 'as regards ' it is made clear that Israel is a beneficiary of the new covenant, rather than a party to it, in the sense of being put under an obligation by it (see also 10:16).
Yet it is made clear that it is as regards 'the house of Israel' (and not the church). The same, earthly, people is in view: under the old covenant they lost the land, under the new they receive it back (and much besides).
So what exactly are the blessings of this new covenant? To get the full picture one needs to read Jeremiah 30-32. There you find that the new covenant entailed a large number blessings to do with the land, its possession in peace, etc. But there are four blessings in particular that are singled out in Jer. 31:31 and quoted here (Heb. 8:10-12):
1. God's law in the heart: 'Giving my laws into their mind, I will write them also upon their hearts ;
2. Relationship between God as His people: 'and I will be to them for God, and *they* shall be to me for people '.
3. Knowledge of God: 'they shall not teach each his fellow-citizen, and each his brother, saying, Know the Lord; because all shall know  me in themselves... '
4. Forgiveness: 'I will be merciful to their unrighteousnesses, and their sins and their lawlessnesses I will never remember any more.'
For Israel these blessings will mean a complete reversal of their current situation (which they have been in since they became 'Lo-Ammi' at the time of the Babylonian captivity). As Christians, on the other hand, although the covenant is yet future and 'as regards Israel', we already possess these four blessings, but in a deeper sense:
- Christ is written on our hearts (2.Cor. 3:3; Rom.12:2);
- we are 'a people for his name ' (Acts 15:14) and in relationship with God as our Father;
- we know God - but as Father (1.Joh. 2:13); and
- we have received the forgiveness of sins - but as a known fact, 'for his name's sake ' (1.Joh. 2:12), based on a finished work.
This forth blessing, forgiveness, is central and foundational to the new covenant. When the Lord mentioned the new covenant in connection with the supper He pointed out that His blood speaks of forgiveness, not of judgement or revenge like that of Abel (Gen. 4:10). What grace!
'In that he says New, he has made the first old; but that which grows old and aged is near disappearing.' (Heb. 8:13)
This verse underlines what we said in relation to 'new'('kainos'): the covenant is 'new', of a different kind. The old has been broken and is no longer regarded as valid (v.9). Note, again, this clear statement of dispensational change.
Covenant vs. testament
'And for this reason he is mediator of a new covenant, so that, death having taken place for redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant, the called might receive the promise of the eternal inheritance. For where there is a testament, the death of the testator must needs come in.' (Heb. 9:15.16)
In this passage we are again pointed to Christ, here as 'mediator of a new covenant'. We had seen Him as mediator (of a 'better' covenant) in chapter 8, verse 6; and we had seen the term 'a better covenant' in chapter 8, verse 8. But what is brought out in a striking manner here is that death was necessary in order for the Lord Jesus to become the mediator of this new covenant.
At first sight, the connection between these two verses cited above is not obvious to the reader of the English text. What is the relationship between the new covenant  in verse 15 and a testament (v.16)? The answer lies in the fact that the same Greek word, diatheke, is capable of either meaning: depending on the context it can be translated as 'covenant' or as 'testament'. The Holy Spirit makes use of this double meaning to highlight a very important point: the new covenant was founded on death. Only through death could redemption take place, transgressions be dealt with, and blessing be given.
It must indeed have puzzled Jeremiah and his hearers and readers ever since he pronounced the words of Jeremiah 31:31-34. How could God do this? How could He acknowledge that Israel had failed, that they had forfeited their blessings, broken the covenant, lost their right to land, etc.; and on the other hand simply promise blessing nonetheless? What was the basis for God's 'I will', especially for His 'I will pardon' and 'their sin will I remember no more'? How could God be righteous and yet 'remember no more'? Centuries later, this question was answered by the Lord Himself, in saying: 'This is my blood, that of the new covenant'. He was about to accomplish the work of redemption and thereby to lay the basis for the new covenant: His own blood.
In the language of our verse it is His death. The second meaning of 'diatheke' is adduced to show that death is necessary - and not only any death but the death of the testator, the one who bestows the blessing. Without this the testament would have no validity whatsoever (would not be enforceable) and no benefit could be transferred. And in this sense the reality exceeds even this divinely given illustration: in the normal course of events death is unavoidable and the testament coming into force is a consequence; but our blessed Lord, on the other hand, endured death in order to be able to bestow the blessing!
The death of Christ is the end of the old covenant (man no longer being tested by God on the grounds of responsibility) and, at the same time, it validates the new. The first (old) covenant only resulted in transgressions, the new brings in redemption. Under the first, the temporal inheritance was forfeited and lost; but the mediator of the new endured death so that an eternal inheritance can be given.
'Whence neither the first was inaugurated without blood. Both covenants were inaugurated with blood shedding. For every commandment having been spoken according to the law by Moses to all the people; having taken the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, he sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, saying, This is the blood of the covenant which God has enjoined to you' (Heb. 9:18-20).
The 'whence' (or 'wherefore') of verse 18 shows that this general principle (death being required for the validity of a testament) also applied to the old covenant - which was also inaugurated with blood. This is a clear parallel between both covenants - and yet what a contrast! The blood of the first covenant testified that anyone breaking it would merit death  . The blood of the new covenant tells us that the mediator paid the price; His blood was shed.
The covenant which I will establish towards them after those days
Chapter 10 also comments on the new covenant, this time under the expression 'the covenant which I will establish towards them after those days':
'This is the covenant which I will establish towards them after those days, saith the Lord: Giving my laws into their hearts, I will write them also in their understandings; and their sins and their lawlessnesses I will never remember any more (Heb. 10:16.17).
The expression used for the new covenant here shows that it is (i) a future covenant and (ii) that the initiative and action are on God's side: the covenant wich I will establish with them after those days. When Jeremiah spoke these words the covenant was still in the distant future. At the time when they were quoted in Hebrews, it was still future - but by then the foundation had been laid in the sacrifice of Christ - and this is the point here: the blessing of forgiveness could only be given because a perfect sacrifice had occurred.
Forgiveness implies a perfect sacrifice
At this stage in the Epistle the writer seeks to bring out the value of the sacrifice of Christ. He first states that 'by one offering' Christ 'has perfected in perpetuity the sanctified' (v.14). Then he goes on to show that the notion of a perfect sacrifice was already implied by the promise of a new covenant in Jeremiah 31:31-34. By giving this scripture the Holy Spirit also 'bears us witness of it' (verse 15). How is this possible? The divine answer is clear:
But where there is remission of these, there is no longer a sacrifice for sin (Heb. 10:18).
Where there is real forgiveness the sacrifices must cease. Redemption must be accomplished. Therefore, this is the argument, as the new covenant provides full forgiveness, a perfect sacrifice must have occurred. Therefore, there would be not point in continuing to brin more sin offerings (more than that, it would be a disregard for the perfect sacrifice that has now occurred), therefore, sin offerings must have ceased, and therefore the old covenant can no longer be in force.
This paves the way for the conclusion and exhortation of the next verse: 'Having therefore, brethren, boldness for entering into the holy of holies by the blood of Jesus, ...let us approach with a true heart, in full assurance of faith... ' (vv. 19-22). The promise of forgiveness under the new covenant tells us that Christ's work is perfect - and this allows us to approach God in worship without fear.
But we will also find a solemn warning in connection with this same covenant (see below, verse 29).
The covenant, whereby he has been sanctified
'...of how much worse punishment, think ye, shall he be judged worthy who has trodden under foot the Son of God, and esteemed the blood of the covenant, whereby he has been sanctified, common, and has insulted the Spirit of grace?' (Heb. 10:29)
Having considered the value of the sacrificial death of Christ the writer pronounces a solemn warning. If somebody knows about the blood of Christ - which has such great value that God can found on it all the blessings of the new covenant in grace - and despises it or regards it as 'common' or nothing special, i.e. if someone turns away from Christ as the way of salvation, only just judgement will remain for such a person.
When it says that such a person had been 'sanctified' by the blood of the covenant we need to bear in mind the true meaning of 'sanctified' ('set apart') and the fact that the letter was addressed to Hebrews: as members of God's earthly people they had been set apart from other nations. It was only 'with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah' that God would conclude the new covenant. This privilege was an outward or external one, related to being born an Israelite and has nothing to do with saving faith. But this outward privilege made the sin of despising the blood of Jesus so much more solemn.
A new (neos) covenant
When the new covenant is mentioned again in chapter 12, it does not say that we have come to the new covenant but 'to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant' (12:24). Again, we are pointed to Christ Himself.
Here it is not kainos but neos, new in the sense of recent, young, fresh. Here the point is not the contrast with the old covenant but the fact that this covenant will always remain new and will never lose any of its freshness.
The eternal covenant
We now come to the final reference to this covenant in this Epistle: 'But the God of peace, who brought again from among the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, in the power of the blood of the eternal covenant, perfect you in every good work to the doing of his will, doing in you what is pleasing before him through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory for the ages of ages. Amen'. (Heb. 13:20.21).
The first covenant, really, was broken before the 'tables of the covenant' could be handed over by its mediator. The new covenant is a lasting, and eternal one, based on an unshakable foundation. It will remain as long as the earth exists ('eternal' is often used in this sense in the Old Testament). This is in line with what Jeremiah says in connection with the new covenant (Jer. 31:35.36):
'Thus saith Jehovah, who giveth the sun for light by day, the ordinances of the moon and of the stars for light by night, who stirreth up the sea so that the waves thereof roar, --Jehovah of hosts is his name: If those ordinances depart from before me, saith Jehovah, the seed of Israel also shall cease from being a nation before me for ever.'
And the central blessing of the new covenant will even endure beyond the millennium: 'and their sins and their lawlessnesses I will never remember any more.' (Heb. 8:12).
Now the wish expressed is that 'the God of peace, who brought again from among the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, in the power of the blood of the eternal covenant, perfect you in every good work'. Here another application is made to Christians: we are encouraged to do God's will, to live in obedience to Him, in voluntary new covenant type obedience - from the heart.
We have seen that seven different expressions are used for the new covenant in the Episte to the Hebrews. Each one conveys a slightly different aspect or shade of meaning. This is summarised in the following table:
|1. a better covenant||Heb. 7:22; 8:6||Superior to the old covenant in quality and blessing|
|2. a new (Gr. kainos) covenant||
Heb 8:8; 9:15
|New in the sense of being of a different character|
|3. the covenant that I will make... after those days||
Heb. 8:10; 10:16
|A future covenant that could only be established 'after those days'|
|4. the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified||
|A covenant by which Israelites were sanctified as to ouward position, implying a greater responsibility|
|5. the new (Gr. neos) covenant||
|New in the sense of fresh (never growing old or fading in quality)|
|6. the everlasting covenant||
|Durability, a covenant that would not be broken|
|7. the second [covenant]||Heb. 8:7||Demonstrates the failure of the first covenant|
In addition to these seven expressions the new covenant is compared to a testament that only comes into effect once death has occurred (Heb. 9:16). We have not counted this as a separate designation because it is a comparison rather than a designation and it is the same word in the Greek language. But it provides an eighth aspect of the new covenant: it is founded on the death of Christ and only on this basis will its blessings be enjoyed.
 There will be no more need to teach one another with a view to knowing God objectively (in the sense of knowing about Him, Gr. 'ginosko') because all will know Him intrinsically, in their heart and intuition ('eido ').
 The KJV uses 'testament' in both, verses 15 and 16. However, this can hardly be right as, clearly, the new covenant is in view in verse 15.
 A useful explanation is provided by Edward Dennett: "The life is in the blood (Lev. 17: 11), and consequently the blood, the shedding of it, will represent death, and death, when connected with sacrifice, as the penalty of sin. Here therefore the sprinkling of the blood signifies death as the penal sanction of the law. The people promised obedience, and then they, as well as the book, were sprinkled to teach that death would be the penalty of transgression. Such was the solemn position into which, by their own consent, they had been brought. They undertook to obey under the penalty of death." From: Exodus - A Simple Exposition (chapter 24).