Hebrews 8 COMMENTARY (Ellicott)

Hebrews 8
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

The mode in which this chapter is introduced shows that, in the writer’s own arrangement, a new division of the argument begins here. On examination we shall find that there is a clear difference between the topics discussed before and after this point; though it was hardly possible, and certainly was not the intention of the writer, strictly to maintain this distinction in every particular. Hitherto the personal characteristics of the High Priest have occupied the chief place: from this point to Hebrews 10:18 it is His ministration that is brought before us. Hebrews 5:1-10 sets forth whatever there is of similarity between Jesus and the high priests of the Law: the principal subject of Hebrews 7 is the contrast between the priest of whom Psalms 150 speaks and all others, in respect of dignity (Hebrews 7:4-7; Hebrews 7:9-10), right of priesthood (Hebrews 7:8; Hebrews 7:16), mode of appointment (Hebrews 7:20-22), duration of office (Hebrews 7:23-25), and freedom from sin (Hebrews 7:26-28). Interwoven with this contrast is another—between the former dispensation, which has failed to attain its purpose, and the new covenant and better hope (Hebrews 7:11; Hebrews 7:18-19; Hebrews 7:22). The same kind of comparison is continued in the rest of the section, and not between the high priests only, but also between the covenants to which their ministry belongs. First the writer dwells on the place in which the high priest ministers (Hebrews 8:1-5; Hebrews 9:1-5), then on his ministration, and especially the sacrifice which he presents (Hebrews 8:6; Hebrews 9:6 to Hebrews 10:18). In Hebrews 8:7-13 (Hebrews 9:15-19), Hebrews 10:15-17, is introduced the thought of the contrasted covenants.

Now of the things which we have spoken this is the sum: We have such an high priest, who is set on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens;
(1) Now of the things . . .—Better, Now in the things which we are saying (literally, which are being said) this is the chief point. Opinion has been much divided as to the meaning of the first Greek word, whether it should be taken as “summary” or as “chief point,” each of these meanings being well supported by the usage of the language. The words joined with it, “in the things which we are saying,” would lead us to prefer the second rendering; and when the course of the argument is traced we find it difficult to believe that the writer could express a summary of his thought in such words as those which follow.

Who is set.—Better, who sat down. Twice before have the words of Psalm 110:1 been thus referred to Jesus (Hebrews 1:3; Hebrews 1:13), but their full significance in regard to the present subject has yet to be brought out. When in Hebrews 7:26 we read, “such an high priest became us,” we must look to what precedes for the explanation—“such a one” as has already been portrayed. Here the case is different, and the meaning of “such” is found in the description which the following words contain. The last verse of Hebrews 7 united the two predictions which pointed to Jesus as Priest and King, and the same thought is contained here, expressed in language which at once recalls Hebrews 1:3. A later passage (Hebrews 10:11-12) will show that the words “sat down” have yet further significance, involving a contrast to the continued and ever incomplete services of those who “stood before God” in His earthly sanctuary. The next verse must be closely joined with this, for the contrast just spoken of does not imply that He no longer “ministers” on behalf of men (see Hebrews 7:25; Hebrews 9:24); on the contrary, it is as “a minister” of the sanctuary that He sat down on the right hand of God.

A minister of the sanctuary, and of the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, and not man.
(2) Of the sanctuary.—The word here rendered “minister” (see Hebrews 1:7; Hebrews 1:14) is very commonly used in the LXX. for the officiating priest. It is difficult, however, to decide on the meaning of the words here joined with it—whether they denote holy things or holy place; if the latter, what is the distinction between this holy place and “the true tabernacle”? The ordinary usage of the Epistle would suggest “holy place,” and perhaps the occurrence of both expressions in Hebrews 9:11-12 (where there is no doubt as to the translation) is sufficient to remove any hesitation here. The “sanctuary,” therefore, will probably be the heavenly counterpart of the Holiest Place; the “true (or, real) Tabernacle,” the counterpart of the sacred Tent of Moses, containing both the Holy Place and the Holiest of all (Hebrews 9:2-4). It is not certain that in this place we need go beyond this point, though in Hebrews 9:12 the more developed thought may require a closer interpretation. The Holy of Holies is the place of God’s immediate presence; the Tabernacle, that of God’s appointed service. The latter is expressly mentioned here because special reference is to be made to its typical representation upon earth; this is shown by the following words, which point to Exodus 33:7. The word rendered “true” (which occurs again in Hebrews 9:24; Hebrews 10:22) is full of interest, denoting that which is contrasted with everything shadowy or imperfect or merely typical; it is a word especially characteristic of the Gospel of St. John. (See Note on John 1:9.)

For every high priest is ordained to offer gifts and sacrifices: wherefore it is of necessity that this man have somewhat also to offer.
(3) This verse and the three following confirm and illustrate the importance of the statement just made. The general course of thought appears to be as follows:—That which stands “at the head” of what we are saying, and gives completeness to the whole, is, that we have a High Priest who ministers in heaven itself (Hebrews 8:1-2). For, whereas the very conception of high-priestly duty would, were He on earth, exclude Him from being a priest at all (Hebrews 8:3-4), like those who “serve a copy of the heavenly things” (Hebrews 8:5), He in heaven holds and exercises that more excellent ministry of which their service was a shadow and a type (Hebrews 8:6).

That this man have . . .—Better, that this High Priest also have somewhat to offer. If these words refer to the continued ministration in the heavenly sanctuary, the explanation is found in Hebrews 9:24; but the meaning may simply be that every high priest, and therefore the Lord Jesus, must have some sacrifice to present to God, this being (Hebrews 5:1) the very object of his appointment to the office.

For if he were on earth, he should not be a priest, seeing that there are priests that offer gifts according to the law:
(4) For if he were . . .—The oldest Greek MSS. and two important versions read, “If then He were”; and two other changes in the text of this verse also rest on high authority. In its correct form the verse will stand thus: If then He were on earth, He would not even be a priest (that is, He would not be a priest at all), seeing there are those who according to law offer the gifts. The argument somewhat resembles that of Hebrews 7:13-14; there, however, the impediment is that of tribe; here the thought is that the place is preoccupied by men who by express command are bringing the gifts unto God.

Who serve unto the example and shadow of heavenly things, as Moses was admonished of God when he was about to make the tabernacle: for, See, saith he, that thou make all things according to the pattern shewed to thee in the mount.
(5) Who serve unto . . .—Better, men who serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. So in Hebrews 13:10 we read of those who “serve the tabernacle.” On the connection of thought, see Hebrews 8:3. “Copy,” not in the sense of perfect resemblance, but rather a token suggesting and designed to suggest the original. (See Note on Hebrews 9:23, where the same word is used.) “Shadow,” as the shadow has no substance or independent existence, but represents only the outline of an object. (Comp. Hebrews 10:1, where “shadow” is contrasted with “the very image”; and Colossians 2:17, where it is opposed to “the body.”) We must not confound these words, “token” and “shadow,” with “the pattern” mentioned in Exodus 25:40, quoted later in this verse. The “heavenly things” are “the sanctuary” and “the tabernacle “of Hebrews 8:2, the realities to which the true earthly tabernacle corresponded; their nature can be understood only when Christ has come as High Priest of the good things to come. (See Hebrews 9:11; Hebrews 10:1.) That every part of God’s earthly house might be a fitting emblem of spiritual truth to be afterwards revealed. Moses was charged in all respects to follow the pattern which had been shown him in the mount (Exodus 25:40). Jewish tradition understood these words to imply the presentation of a heavenly tabernacle to the sight of Moses, as a model to be imitated with exactness; and Stephen’s words in Acts 7:44, “according to the pattern” (the same word is here used) “which he had seen,” convey the same meaning. In itself, Exodus 25:40, when compared with Hebrews 8:9 in the same chapter, does not necessarily involve a visible representation. But whether we think of a pattern shown in vision, or merely of explicit direction received by Moses, the meaning of “the heavenly things” remains the same. The view here presented of the Jewish tabernacle involves no depreciation, except in comparison with “the good things to come.” It was only a shadow; but it rises above all temples and symbols of man’s art and device as being a shadow of the heavenly things.

Was admonished of God.—The words “of God” are not in the text, but are implied in “admonished.” (See the Note on Luke 2:26.) “Hath been admonished:” another example of the writer’s characteristic mode of regarding Scripture (Hebrews 4:9).

But now hath he obtained a more excellent ministry, by how much also he is the mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises.
(6) But now.—That is, as the case really is. (See Hebrews 8:3.) We have here another of those proportional statements commented on in Hebrews 1:4; Hebrews 3:3; Hebrews 7:22. The last of these passages is closely akin to this. There we read that by how much the Priest appointed by the divine oath is raised above all other priests, by so much is His covenant better than theirs. Here, that as He is Mediator of a better covenant, in the same proportion does His ministry excel that of priests on earth.

Which was established.—Better, one that hath been ordained. The verb, properly meaning “to legislate,” has already occurred in Hebrews 7:11, “the people hath received the Law” (literally, hath been legislated for). Here, then, a word which properly refers to the passing of a law is applied to a covenant. The explanation must be sought in the special nature of the covenants of God with man (see Hebrews 7:22), which are not compacts between equals, but arrangements offered by the divine goodness, and made dependent upon conditions. Hence such a covenant may be spoken of as ordained, enacted, on the basis of promise. On the promises (see Hebrews 8:8-12) which are given by God is based the “covenant” which becomes the law of His kingdom and the declaration of His procedure. The man who accepts the promises by entering into the conditions laid down is dealt with according to this law. Here, Jesus is the “Mediator,” in Hebrews 7:22 (see Note) the “Surety,” of the better covenant. The idea is expanded below in Hebrews 9:15-18. On the tacit comparison with Moses, as mediator of the first covenant, see Note on Galatians 3:19.

For if that first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second.
(7) For the second.—Rather, for a second. This verse connects itself with the words, “a better covenant” in Hebrews 8:6. The form of expression used clearly points to the intended inference—that covenant was faulty, and a place was sought for a second; this makes plain the connection with Hebrews 8:8. The failure of the first covenant was manifest (Hebrews 7:11; Hebrews 7:18) to God, who, whilst the first still existed, “sought” and found place for a second.

For finding fault with them, he saith, Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah:
(8) Finding fault with them.—Not, “with it,” but with those through whom the covenant had failed. The following quotation (Hebrews 8:8-12) is taken from Jeremiah 31:31-34. It is the crowning point of that collection of prophecies which is brought together in Heb 30-33, descriptive of the hope and salvation of Israel. The characteristics of the prophecy and its significance in this place will be noticed below (Hebrews 8:12). The quotation agrees in the main with the LXX. (and, except in Hebrews 8:11. with the text contained in the Alexandrian MS.), and in one clause only fails to represent the meaning of the Hebrew original. The only point requiring notice in this verse is the substitution of “I will accomplish” for “I will make.” The new word closely answers to that which was used in Hebrews 8:6, “ordained.” (See the Note.)

Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they continued not in my covenant, and I regarded them not, saith the Lord.
(9) Not according to the covenant.—The difference is declared below (Hebrews 8:10-12). “In the day when” they were led forth out of Egypt the token of God’s covenant was the deliverance itself. At Sinai, Exodus 24:7-8 (see Hebrews 9:18-22), the “book of the covenant” was read, and “the blood of the covenant” was “sprinkled on the people,” who had promised obedience to all the words that the Lord had said.

And I regarded them not.—It is here that the translation departs from the Hebrew, which, as is now generally believed, is faithfully represented in our Authorised version: “although I was an husband unto them” (that is, had the authority of a husband). The quotation here follows the LXX. without change.

For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people:
(10) I will make.—Literally, I will covenant—not the same word as in Hebrews 8:8.

Israel.—Formerly (Hebrews 8:8), Israel and Judah. When the reunion of the nation had once been signified, Israel” could stand alone as the name of the one people.

I will put.—Better, putting my laws into their mind, I will also write them on their heart. In the former clause the Hebrew has, “I will put my law in their inward parts;” the law shall be within them, not an external code. In the latter, the “fleshy tablets of the heart” are contrasted with “the tables of the Law.” This is the first of the “better promises.”

And they shall not teach every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest.
(11) His neighbour.—Rather, his fellow-citizen, according to the best reading. The second promise is the universality of the knowledge of God. The divine teaching shall not only be internal, but for this very reason shall extend to all.

For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more.
(12) Merciful.—Literally, propitious. On the kindred word “make propitiation,” see Hebrews 2:17.

To their unrighteousness.—Rather, to their unrighteousnesses, and their sins will I remember no more. The words “and their iniquities” are omitted by the best authorities. Here is given the third and chief promise: the characteristic of the new covenant is the full pardon of sin.

Of this new covenant, “ordained” on the three promises of an inward revelation, universal knowledge of God, and free pardon of sin, Jesus is the Mediator. How this is to be understood the writer himself will teach, for all these promises are present (virtually or formally) in the last portion of his argument (Hebrews 10:14-18). In part they belong to the new covenant from the beginning. The pardon is spoken of not as a gift to individuals, but rather as from the first a characteristic of the covenant (Hebrews 9:26; Hebrews 10:18). The first promise is seen in the gift of the Holy Spirit, and in the teaching represented by the Sermon on the Mount, in which inward principles of life take the place of many an outward rule. The second waits for full accomplishment, but is seen in the abolition of distinctions between nation and nation, and the common influence of the Holy Spirit.

This subject has presented difficulties, because it has been forgotten that this Scripture speaks of no sudden change in man’s relation to God. The essential promises of the new covenant were not unknown under the old. “Thy law is within my heart” is the saying of one Psalmist; “Thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin,” of another. But in regard to the nation there was failure. The rites of the Law did not lead to the perception of spiritual truths; ordinances which were intended to teach the divine intolerance of sin became mere ceremonies; external sanctions did not preserve the nation in true obedience to God’s law. To all, the former covenant (like the first Tabernacle, Hebrews 9:9) was a parable, explained only when the new covenant (which was in truth before the old, Galatians 3:17) was “ordained.”

In that he saith, A new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away.
(13) In that he saith . . .—Rather, In saying “new” He hath made the first old: now that which groweth old and is failing for age is nigh unto vanishing away. The very language of the prophet contains a declaration of the speedy dissolution of the former covenant. If “nigh unto vanishing” at the time when Jeremiah wrote, well might it now be believed to have passed away.

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