A brother in England writes, “According to Reformed teaching, as I understand it, the New Covenant is ‘new’ in the sense that it is the final stage in God’s unfolding of His covenant of grace and marks the end of the types and shadows. Hebrews 8:13 (‘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’) seems to suggest it is more than that: a completely different covenant. Is that true?”
The brother cites a second text, “I will no more have mercy upon the house of Israel; but I will utterly take them away” (Hos. 1:6), asking, “What is that saying to us about God’s faithfulness to His covenant promise? Did God break His covenant with the ten tribes?”
I am taking these two interesting and important questions together because they are related to each other and the answers involve the same doctrinal truth. Furthermore, they are both related to a subject I discussed in the last News.
While I do not like to rest the interpretation of Hebrews 8:13 merely on Greek word usage, for most our readers cannot check up on whether I am right, those who are able to deal with the Greek may take note of the fact that New Testament Greek has two words for “new” and two words for “old.” According to Thayer’s A Greek – English Lexicon of the New Testament, one of these Greek words for “new” (neos) means new in the sense of “time, young, recent.” The other word for “new” (kainos) means new “primarily in reference to quality, the fresh, the unworn.”Kainos is used in Hebrews 8:13.
The same distinction is made in the Greek by the use of two words for “old.” The first word, archaios, means old in the temporal sense and describes something as being ancient or from long ago. The other word for old, palaios, means “no longer new, worn out by use, the worse for wear.” It is the word used in Hebrews 8:13.
The distinction is fitting here. Thayer calls attention to the fact that Scripture makes the same distinction as Hebrews 8:13 when it speaks of the old and new man (e.g., Eph. 4:22, 24). Surely, when God makes us a new man, while the old man is totally depraved, the new man is not an entirely new person, but the same person renewed, transformed spiritually, freed from sin. He is new in the sense that, while remaining the same person, he is changed from bearing the image of Satan to bearing the image of God (Col. 3:10).
This is a striking way to explain Hebrews 8:13. The old covenant is dilapidated, worn out in all its efforts to save anyone, of no value or use anymore. Its character was always this: Keep the law and live! Hebrews 8:9 explains the old covenant and its uselessness: “Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by them 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.” That covenant they could not keep, for it was based on the keeping of the law, and Israel could not obey it.
The covenant was the same essentially. It was still God’s promise: “I will be your God and ye shall be My people.” It was a covenant that promised life: “Do this and thou shalt live.” It even defined the heart of the relation between God and His people: one who lived in covenant fellowship with God had to be as God. He had to be holy, that is, he had to keep the law. But he couldn’t!
Then Christ came. He lived in eternal covenant fellowship with God within the Holy Trinity, but also as the Son in our flesh. “I and my Father are one,” He was bold to say (John 10:30). He kept the law. He kept the law perfectly—even when He was the great Abandoned One on Calvary’s cross. When all He knew was wrath—when He did not even understand the reason for the terrors of being abandoned by God—when He alone could say, “The lovingkindness of my God / Is more than life to me”—He who suffered such anguish because He took upon Himself our sins and our hell—He did what we could never do. And He did it for us! The covenant is the same, but Christ performed that great work that we could never, into all eternity, do!
He paid for our sins and guilt, and took them away forever, earning for us righteousness. He fulfilled the law in that awful moment when from His broken heart the great question of the ages shook heaven to its foundations: “Why? O God, Why?” But even then it was still “My God, My God.” It was as if hell itself could not contain those words, but that they reverberated to the throne of God: “I do not understand. It is so dark here. He whom I love is gone from Me. I know not where He is. But whether I know or not; whether I understand or whether the wrath is almost too great to bear—My God, I love Thee still and will always love Thee, though Thou hast abandoned Me. I love Thee with My heart, My mind, My soul, My strength. I love Thee, though I perish.”
If we would peer into the abyss of hell, how could we ever understand that amazing wonder of Calvary. Luther, awe-struck by it, marvelled, “God abandoned by God!” For me!
And so He took away our sin and guilt. But our Saviour also earned for us covenant life with God. A book on the passion of Christ put it this way: “When our Lord started the long way up, out of hell, towards his Father, when ‘It was finished;’ he trembling and tentatively reached out his hand towards God’s throne and beseechingly laid it at the foot of God: ‘Am I accepted by him whom my soul loves?’ And God, as it were, reached down to his beloved Son in whom he was well pleased and lifted him up to his own right hand. ‘Father (Yes, this time, once again, ‘Father’), into thy hands I commit my spirit.’ And heaven resounded with the voice thrice heard on earth: ‘This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased!’”
The Son of God was taken into God’s covenant fellowship once again. He had kept the law and thus fulfilled all the old covenant that we could not keep. And He had done it for us.
The true covenant—the old covenant—but wondrously, gloriously new. That is Hebrews 8:13. Read it and sing your hallelujahs!
I didn’t get to the second question after all. Next time, the Lord willing. Prof. Herman Hanko
- Volume: 15
- Issue: 1
Prof. Herman Hanko (Wife: Wilma)
Ordained: October 1955
Pastorates: Hope, Walker, MI - 1955; Doon, IA - 1963; Professor to the Protestant Reformed Seminary - 1965
Emeritus: 2001Website: www.sermonaudio.com/search.asp?speakeronly=true&currsection=sermonsspeaker&keyword=Prof._Herman_Hanko
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