The New Covenant, Hebrews 8, and Christianity’s Relationship with Judaism
On some level, the Book of Hebrews is a book about covenants. At its heart, Hebrews focuses on the superiority of Christ’s covenant, encouraging readers not to turn back to the sacrifices and rituals of the old covenant.
Hebrews 7–10 centers on this discussion, and chapter 8 closes with the words “By calling this covenant ‘new,’ he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear” (Hebrews 8:13). And those words introduce tension between Christians and the Jewish faith—tensions that have contributed to historical anti-Semitism.
How can we understand Hebrews 7–10 and apply it in ways that reduce rather than inflame those tensions? George Guthrie answers this question in The NIV Application Commentary: Hebrews. The following post is adapted from his book.
Comparing the Old and New Covenants
In Hebrews 7–10 two understandings of God’s dealings with his people intersect, collide, meld, or display a succession—depending on one’s interpretation—and the comparison of the two takes a singularly concise and lucid form in chapter 8: the old covenant vis-à-vis the new, and the priesthood of the tabernacle over against the priestly, heavenly Messiah. There can be no doubt that the author of Hebrews intended the comparison.
Again and again he employs the term “better” to describe God’s revelation in Christ in contradistinction to the old covenant. If many commentators are correct, the author expressly utilizes the contrasts in order to bolster the commitment of Christians whose resolve was waning, who were tempted to return from the upstart, persecuted Christian community to the stable, long-standing traditions of Judaism proper. These believers were a minority society within society, and that minority status had its pressures from which some wished to escape.
This, of course, is not the struggle for most reading this commentary. Currently the Jewish population in the United States has dropped to 2 percent of the total and continues to decrease. The problem of maintaining Jewish culture and the distinctiveness of the Jewish religion has become a weighty issue for Jews in America. The call to embrace the Jewish religion may be an issue faced by one considering an interfaith marriage or a Christian struggling under minority status in modern-day Israel, but, for the most part, the tables have turned, so that the forces of change pull the other way.
For many believers the “allure” of traditional Judaism is simply a nonissue. This may be why the middle section of Hebrews falls flat for some modern-day Christ-followers. The inferior status of the old covenant has become an axiom. When that approach to God is placed in a contest with Christianity, we perceive it as a batting competition between a little-leaguer and Babe Ruth, or a running match between a middle-aged jogger and Carl Lewis. Who can get excited about that?
Devaluing what God accomplished in the old covenant
At least two problems are inherent to this attitude. (1) This perspective belies a devaluation of what God did in the old covenant religion. How could God’s interaction with his people, his provision for a covenant with them, be seen as less than magnificent, even if it was provisional?
Although his sermon is polemical, calling for an increased appreciation for new covenant doctrine, the author of Hebrews does not mean to suggest that the old covenant activity of God was base or useless; he is no Marcionite. The Old Testament revelation was, after all, a form of God’s speaking to humanity (1:1–2) and, for the author, a primary source of authority. No, it is the moon in relationship to the new covenant sun. In the darkness of the Old Testament era it shone brightly, giving insight to the holy, loving God of the universe; but this true, older light has now been eclipsed by the full intensity of revelation in God’s Son.
One way of more greatly valuing what God has done in his Son is to begin by reflecting on the tremendous importance of what God did in the old covenant. Remember, the original hearers of Hebrews probably were drawn in some way to the desirability of the Judaism of their day, and it is in that light they are addressed in Hebrews concerning the much greater value of the new covenant in Christ. We miss the intended impact of Hebrews 8 if we fail to grasp the value of traditional Judaism.
Avoiding Christian triumphalism
(2) In the comfort of our Christian communities, insulated by long-worn customs and closely networked relationships, we can lapse into an unhealthy form of triumphalism, which does not play well with those of the Jewish faith, with those of other religions, or with those who hold to a pluralistic worldview. Our haughty celebration of Christian superiority damages our witness to those who intuitively sense the contradiction between a prideful spirit and the humility preached by Christ. How should we relate, therefore, to those of the Jewish faith? At least two cautions demand attention as we seek to apply ourselves to that question:
- We need to remember that the supersessionism described in Hebrews 8 has been misused at times to justify anti-Semitism, a cancer long-lived in the church and chillingly crystallized in Nazi Germany:
Historians now recognize the importance of an anti-Semitism that long preceded Adolf Hitler and that was to considerable degree rooted in Christian doctrine and church practice. Centuries ago, having pushed the Jews beyond the boundaries of moral obligation, this Christian anti-Semitism prepared the ground for the more radical Nazi Jewhatred that produced the Holocaust. Moreover, during the Holocaust itself this legacy of contempt for Jews was a crucial impediment to appropriate Christian behavior in occupied Europe. When the Nazis set to work annihilating Jews, they found a deep reservoir of scorn for Jews on which to draw in seeking collaborators in stifling action, or even sympathy, on behalf of their prey.
The majority of those responsible for the Holocaust were associated with the Christian faith—having been baptized, instructed in the Christian way of life, and married in the church. Many Jewish survivor-victims of camps like Auschwitz and Dachau remembered with bitterness that their jailers celebrated Christmas and Easter. Thankfully this does not paint the whole picture. As detailed by David Gushee in his excellent book, The Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust, there were Gentile rescuers motivated by their Christian faith to help the Jews. However, their numbers were too few to stem the tide of the murder of six million of Abraham’s descendants. The fact that Christian doctrine could be misused to such evil ends should give us cause to reflect deeply on the way we interpret and apply passages like Hebrews 8.
- There has been a growing tendency in some circles to misjudge the New Testament itself as anti-Jewish. For example, Samuel Sandmel has commented, “The New Testament is repository for hostility to Jews and Judaism. Many, if perhaps even most, Christians are completely free of anti-Semitism, yet Christian scripture is permeated by it.” A more judicious and exegetically sound approach, however, understands early Christianity as one of several movements within Judaism in an intramural struggle vying for the hearts and minds of first-century Jews. The Jews of Qumran, the followers of the rabbis, the Sadducees, the Zealots, and other groups formed anything but a monolithic culture. The polemic one finds in the New Testament occurs in these various branches of first-century Judaism, each group presenting itself as the future of Judaism.
We must remember that Jesus, his first followers, all the apostles, all the writers of the New Testament except Luke, and all Christians in the first years of the church were Jewish. When God introduced the concept that his new covenant was intended to include the Gentiles, it scandalized the first Christians as well as those holding to more traditional forms of Judaism (Acts 10:1–11:3; 15:1–2; 22:17–22). Hebrews, as we have seen, is permeated by the Jewish Scriptures and replete with examples of rabbinic forms of exegesis. Christianity is not a Gentile religion but a Jewish religion that has grafted in the Gentiles. It is polemical; but rather than being anti-Semitic, it is thoroughly Semitic, arguing for a specific interpretation of the history of God’s work among the Jewish people, and through them, the broader world. Any charge of anti-Semitism, while understandable (given the faulty interpretations of the New Testament propagated by some Christians through the centuries), has failed to study adequately the historical context in which the New Testament literature developed.
Understanding the nature of the new covenant
I teach New Testament survey classes every year and am surprised consistently at many students’ inability to explain concisely the essence of Christianity. Those with a history of church involvement may use descriptions such as “saved,” “born again,” “confirmed,” “I belong to the church,” or “I have a relationship with God,” but the thinking about what those references mean often comes across as mushy. Those with little church orientation misconstrue Christianity as essentially having to do with certain external practices, such as going to church, being moral, and being nice—all vitally important to the practice of Christianity but off the mark as adequate explanations of Christian faith. One of the most gratifying experiences for me as a teacher occurs when I receive a note from a former student who writes, “I finally understood the basic message of the New Testament for the first time.”
In Hebrews 8 we have a synopsis of the new covenant in prophetic form. Since the new covenant is true Christianity, this passage, although not exhaustive, sums up the essence of what it means to be a Christian. Thus as we move toward application, we do well to ask how our reflection on this passage might inform our thinking about the Christian faith and our explanation of that faith to others.
Let us consider what the new covenant is. It is, as expressed above, grounded in Judaism (8:10). Consequently, any adequate understanding of Christianity must grasp its Jewish roots and the implication of those roots for Christian belief. It is about the internalization of religion, not merely the external practice of religion (8:10). God’s laws are written on the minds and hearts of true Christians. As such, transformation and intrinsic motivation form powerful, foundational elements of Christian life and living. The new covenant is about relationship with God (8:10–11), not merely service for God. Finally, the forgiveness of sins forms the basis for this new covenant relationship (8:12).
Any conception of Christianity, therefore, that neglects the idea of sin and forgiveness has departed from the understanding of covenant expressed in Hebrews 8 via the prophet Jeremiah. So the new covenant, in essence, has to do with a relationship with God established by the forgiveness of sins, lived out by the internalization of God’s laws, and conceptually set against the backdrop of God’s working through the people of Israel.
We should also pause to reflect on misconceptions about Christianity that could flow from a misuse of this passage:
- Christianity is not about the rejection of the Jewish people. When Jeremiah writes of those led out of Egypt, “I turned away from them” (8:9), he expresses the Lord’s disapproval of a specific group that had been disobedient, not the Jewish people as a whole. Note that the new covenant was prophesied as for “the house of Israel” (8:10).
- The new covenant does not mean that Christians need not give attention to external practices such as morality, kindness, and church attendance. Hebrews 8 cannot be used to suggest that believers should just “follow their hearts” in attempting to discern proper behavior. For example, the author of Hebrews later challenges his hearers to love fellow believers in tangible terms, to be sexually pure, and to reject greed (13:1–6). Believers are encouraged to perform “good deeds” (10:24; 13:16), with which God is well pleased.
- Closely related to the second caution, when Jeremiah proclaims that God forgives the wickedness of those under the new covenant and remembers their sins no more, this neither implies that true Christians cease from sin completely nor provides us with a license to sin. Elsewhere the author encourage us to “throw off . . . the sin that so easily entangles us” (12:1) and warns that a flippant attitude toward sin brings about imminent judgment (10:26–27). Moreover, that those under the new covenant “know the Lord” does not remove our need to grow in our relationship with God, since growth is a hallmark of true Christian faith (e.g., 5:11–6:3).
This understanding of Christianity in terms of covenant not only has implications for how we think about our faith but also for how we express our faith to others. Hebrews seeks to clarify Christianity for its audience in the hope of bringing about a decision.
Embracing Jesus without marginalizing Judaism
Dr. Guthrie goes on to provide some helpful application for Christians in the way they understand and communicate about the gospel. These include:
- Rejecting all forms of anti-Semitism and language that can be understood as anti-Semitic.
- Thinking clearly about what we believe as Christians and proclaim the gospel
- Holding our doctrinal convictions with an uncompromising commitment to a
holistic, biblical morality
Learn more in George H. Guthrie's Hebrew video course on MasterLectures.
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