- What makes the New Covenant superior to the Old Covenant?
The writer of Hebrews makes a bold claim in chapter 8:6.
“But Jesus has now obtained a superior ministry, and to that degree he is the mediator of a better covenant, which has been established on better promises.”
He is claiming that a New Covenant has been established by Jesus and this New Covenant is superior to the Old Covenant. To establish superiority what the Old Covenant entailed and what the New Covenant holds. The substance of the Old Covenant – this agreement between man and God – as delivered by Moses in Exodus 19 is that man will obey the laws of God (spelled out in the Torah specifically in Exodus and Leviticus) in return for God’s provisioning favor. When taking even a cursory look at the history of Israel, they frequently abandoned their portion of the covenant. Though each of the historical books and as exclaimed by most of the prophetic books, the issue was never with God not doing his part, but Israel doing theirs. And that is the heart of why the Old Covent is inferior to the New Covenant; the necessity of man doing something for God’s favor.
The New Covenant relies on what God, through the second person of the Trinity, does to and for His creation. As stated further in Hebrews:
“Therefore, (Jesus) is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called might receive the promise of the eternal inheritance because a death has taken place for redemption from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.” (9:15)
The purpose of the Old Covenant was to show that mankind needed God and the New Covenant, through Jesus, provided a way for God to redeem His creation from sin. Further:
“For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with hands (only a model of the true one) but into heaven itself, so that he might now appear in the presence of God for us. He did not do this to offer himself many times, as the high priest enters the sanctuary yearly with the blood of another.” (9:25-26)
This sanctuary represents the tabernacle of the Old Covenant – reliant upon human hands. But Christ enters the very presence of God as a High Priest of the New Covenant perpetually interceding for mankind. The Old Covenant had mankind working to please God. The New Covenant has Jesus doing the works of salvation. Mankind’s responsibility is to put their trust in Jesus so that they can be united with the Father and transformed by the Holy Spirit. As Barclay puts it:
“…only Jesus can lead us out of the frustrating actuality into the all-satisfying real.”
- Why did the writer of Hebrew use the word διαθηκη instead of συνθηκη when describing the arrangements between God and mankind, both old and new?
The writer of Hebrews selects an intentional word when describing the agreements explored in the letter. The word used is διαθηκη indicating an agreement between God and man. A more common word for agreements, such an agreement upon a price for the sale of an object or an agreement between two parties would be συνθηκη. The difference is in the nature of the two parties. With συνθηκη, the parties are in equal measure. Buyer and seller are on equal terms. Those entering into a binding agreement are not ontologically superior or inferior to each other. However, with διαθηκη, the parties are different. One party has a higher position than the other. God, obviously has a much higher place of authority than mankind. As noted by Barclay:
“This is why our relationship to God is described as a diatheke, a covenant for the terms of which only one person is responsible. That relationship is offered us solely on the initiative and grace of God.”
Biblical covenant has God initiating and bearing the load for the agreement. Mankind needs to respond to that agreement. The response is either obedience to the letter of the Torah Law (Old διαθηκη) or putting trust into the work of Jesus (New διαθηκη). But God is the initiator, author, enforcer, and judge of the διαθηκη.
I remember my bride walking down the aisle of St. Richard’s church June 4, 1988. That day, Karry and I entered into a lifelong covenant of marriage. We agreed that we would love and cherish and remain faithful to each other for the rest of our lives. This was not just a legal agreement between two parties or a mutually agreed upon transaction; it was a genuinely spiritual covenant between us. Hebrews 8-10 looks at the theme of covenant. The Old Covenant had mankind living according to a strict code of laws as set out in Exodus and Leviticus. The New Covenant relies on what Jesus did in the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. Before, mankind was always in the balance of ritual purity and disaster. God always forgave the repentant sinner, but there was external physical work for the repentant sinner to do in order to make things right again. Living in the New Covenant, there is a more profound aspect in that the work the repentant sinner needs to do is internal – through the power of the Holy Spirit. Like the covenant I have with my wife, the New Covenant does not rely on external legal or ritual items but is a commitment of the heart – a trust in the other.
What we need to be aware of is the human tendency to turn the New Covenant into the Old Covenant. Legalism is a return to the Old Covenant using New Covenant language. When a body of Christ followers starts to put external ritual in the place of the Grace of Jesus, they are reverting back to the inferior covenant with a whole new set of ritual purity laws. Jesus, throughout the Gospels, accepted people for where they were at in their sin. There was no constraint holding them back form His healing presence. It was only after encounters with Him and His grace that people were told to go and sin no more. Old Covenant legalism states the opposite. Legalism requires outside purity before engaging with inside purity, and that is not the Gospel.
Because the concept of covenant in Hebrews involves God, a superior entity, agreeing to enter into a grace relationship with people, God is the one who does the internal work of sanctification. God’s promise is that for those who put their full trust in Him through Jesus, He will provide His Holy Spirit to those who have put their faith into the work of Jesus. The Holy Spirit then does his work of Sanctification. Works, then, become a response to salvation, not a requirement for salvation. Jame’s letter and the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 stress the importance of our response in the form of works to our salvation. Those who do not take care of the poor, orphaned and widowed are not showing evidence that a real transformation has taken place. Like my marriage, if I go off on a philandering path, then I am externally showing that a covenant has affected my internal life. Because I show love, protection, and devotion to my wife, I am demonstrating externally what has happened to me internally. Works, proceeded by faith is legalistic and inferior. Transformation through the power of grace and the power of the Holy Spirit is the Gospel.
 William Barclay, trans., The Letter to the Hebrews, rev. ed., The Daily Study Bible Series — Rev. Ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, ©1976), 89.
 William D. Mounce and Robert H. Mounce, The Zondervan Greek and English Interlinear New Testament (Nasbniv), 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, ©2011), 1040.
 Henry George Liddell, Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon, Abridged: The Little Liddell (Place of publication not identified: Simon Wallenberg Press, 2007), 677.
 Barclay, 91.