A Superior Covenant
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A Superior Covenant

Hebrews 8:1–13  (ID: 1919)

Hebrews illustrates how the old covenant’s limitations made the superior new covenant necessary. In this message, Alistair Begg helps us understand that all of Scripture reveals God’s perfect plan and initiative. By securing our salvation through His Son and sending His Spirit to fill our hearts, He transforms a people for Himself. Even today, we can be encouraged that Christ’s ministry as our Priest continues from a heavenly throne.

Series Containing This Sermon

A Study in Hebrews, Volume 2

Our Great High Priest Hebrews 7:1–11:1 Series ID: 15802

Sermon Transcript: Print

I invite you to take your Bibles and turn once again to the passage of Scripture that we read earlier, from Hebrews chapter 8. And we are, as we have noted before, studying here the most “Old Testament” of all the New Testament books. And it is therefore very important for us, in studying in this way, to keep in the forefronts of our minds the unity of the Bible. The very fact that the Bible is split into the Old and the New Testament has contributed in the thinking of some people to a very truncated view of Scripture, so that some tend to read only in the New Testament and thereby miss the foundations on which later truth has been built, and others have become stuck in the Old Testament and have never made their journey across. 

In emphasizing the unity of the Bible, which I want to do for just a moment, I have three pictures that you might find helpful. First of all would be to view the Bible as a book that has the answers at the back. Every so often, when we do something, it’ll point us to a section in the rear of the book that has the answers to our questions. And there are certainly questions with which the Old Testament ends. When you come to the book of Malachi, you are standing, as it were, looking over a fairly wide chasm of time and of truth, and there are questions, expectations—for example, about the Messiah who has been predicted—that have yet to be fulfilled, and as you stand there looking forward, you’re saying, “Well, I wonder what the answer is to this question?” Or, for example, to the notion that the Son of David will actually be David’s Lord, and as you come to the end of the first section of the Bible, you find yourself saying, “How is that possible, and how will it be?”

The analogy is not particularly good, because the New Testament is not simply a key to the Old Testament. The better analogy might be—for those of you who like detective novels—to think of the Bible as a detective novel. And when you read those books, you know that there are little bits and pieces that come in the early chapters that are signal events which only begin to play into the totality of the plot as you read further in the book. And there is a certain denouement, to use the French, which finally brings clarity to all of the bits and pieces that you had made note of in going through. And some of us need to think of the Bible in that way, because we have tended to think of it all chopped up in bits and pieces, and we have got no concept of the fact that there is one singular theme which runs from the book of Genesis all the way through to the very final book of the New Testament.

Perhaps the most helpful analogy is one that was delivered years ago by an Old Testament scholar by the name of John Bright. And he, picking up on the two testaments of the Bible, described the Bible in terms of a two-act play. And he pointed out that in a two-act play, without either act, the play is incomplete. Each act has something individual to say, and neither act can stand on its own without the other act.[1] And when you think about the Bible, in the Old and New Testaments, in that way, I think you’ll find it to unfold very helpfully for you.

The substitution of the innocent for the guilty is the divine principle of dealing with sin.

Act 1 unfolds, and as it does so, tensions begin to appear. Because, for example, there are all these references to the sacrificial system, but there are also sins which the sacrificial system does not explicitly cover. And then as further threads unfold, it becomes apparent—for example, in the prophecy of Isaiah—that in the ultimate sense, only a person can substitute for the sins of the people. And this is all in act 1. And as you read act 1 and you realize that the sacrificial system is not covering all of sin, and then you realize that only in a person can sin finally be dealt with, you find yourself saying, “Well, I wonder where the answer to this question lies.” And so act 1 is waiting for act 2.

And the testimony, however, of act 1 is valid in and of itself. The same fundamental principle is there which is fleshed out in act 2: that by the will of God, the substitution of the innocent for the guilty is the divine principle of dealing with sin.   And every child would have said, “Daddy, why are we taking a perfectly nice little lamb that hasn’t done anything to anybody and cutting it up in bits and sacrificing it on the altar?” And the father would have said, “Because, honey, the only way that sin can be atoned for is by the substitution of the innocent for the guilty. The lamb is innocent, we are guilty—and this pictures something that we don’t have the end of the story for yet.”

And then act 2 comes in on the flood tide of act 1 and says, “Here is the human perfection of a willing substitute.” And all of the questions and bits and pieces of the first act, in terms of the sacrificial system, are necessary; otherwise there would be no significance in the arrival of a lamb who was without blemish. And people say, “Well, who cares about that? ‘Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’”[2] You just come in, you’re forty-five minutes late, you missed the whole of act 1, and you walk in in act 2, and it goes, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” You immediately grab for the program. You’re going, “There must be significance in that; I’m not sure what it is.” And that’s exactly the point. Because when you go back into the Old Testament, into act 1, to the first act in the drama, you see that it is unfolding towards this great conclusion in the one who will be a provision for sin. And then, again, act 2 distinctively speaks on its own, making clear that when the ultimate substitution for sin was made, it was God himself who came and stood in our place.

Now, I say all of that by way of background to try and crystallize this for some of us who are having real difficulty with it. I retreat to my Sunday school teacher in Scotland, who years ago taught me in this way; if you get this, it’s like an honors course in theology, and you should write this down: In the Old Testament, we have Jesus predicted. Predicted. In the Gospels, we have Jesus revealed. In the Acts of the Apostles, we have Jesus preached. In the Epistles—of which Hebrews is one—we have Jesus explained. And in Revelation, we have Jesus expected. And that’s the totality of the Bible right there. I mean, we can summarize it in different ways, but the whole of the Bible centers in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Old Testament predicts it, in the Gospels we have it revealed, in the Acts we have it preached, in the Epistles explained, and in Revelation we have Jesus expected.

Now, you will note that chapter 8 begins very helpfully, to many of us, “The point of what we are saying is this.” Some of us last time were saying, “Is there any point to this at all?” And the writer, almost anticipating that response, says, “Well, just in case you were wondering, let me tell you that the point of what we’re saying is this.”

Now, this reaches back into the concluding verses of chapter 7 and on into 8, 9, and indeed, halfway through chapter 10. In verse 26—if your Bible is open—of chapter 7, you will note that the writer had said that the high priest that was needed was “one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners,” and “exalted above the heavens.” And many of the readers would be saying to one another, “Now, do we really have such a high priest?” And the writer says, “The point of what I’m telling you is this: We do have such a high priest. And this high priest is none other than the Lord Jesus himself.”[3] And as you read through chapter 8 and on into chapter 9, the same recurring emphasis is there. The ministry of this high priest is better, the covenant which he establishes is better, and the promises which are inculcated with the establishing of this covenant are also better.

Now, clearly, loved ones, this is of very great importance, and I’ll show you before we’re finished this morning just how important it is. But for now, understand—at least up here—accept what I’m telling you to be true. Otherwise, the writer would not continue to reinforce again and again and again one essential fact—namely, the superiority of Jesus Christ. He, he has told us, is greater than the angels;[4] he is more significant, he is greater, than Moses;[5] he is a greater figure than Abraham, he is a priest after the order of Melchizedek.[6] It is to Jesus, as Paul will later say, that the Father has given a “name [which] is above every other name,” and “at the name of Jesus, every knee [will] bow … and every tongue confess that Jesus … is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”[7] And that is of pressing import. And so he comes to it with renewed emphasis.

Now, if you think about it, many of his readers were struggling. They were struggling with the idea that in the opposition that they were receiving there was perhaps validity to the claims of the people. Because the people were coming to them and saying, “You know, you have given up on act 1. And act 1 was terrific,” they were saying. “We had all the priestly functions, we had the sacrificial system, we had a ton of stuff going on. When we came together for our worship, we knew what day it was, we knew what we were doing, and there was just tremendous significance to it all. But now what are you poor souls doing? You’ve reduced it all to one day—you call it the Lord’s Day, or Resurrection Day—and we’ve come to some of your services, and there’s nothing there. You don’t have any robes, you don’t have any tables, you don’t have any altars, you don’t have any bells or smells. You got nothing going on! Are you sure you even have a high priest?” you see, they would be saying. “Are you sure you’ve got anybody at the front of this parade? After all, you’ve given up on your past, you’ve joined with a group of people, you’re heading in a certain direction, but have you ever run up to the front to see if anyone’s there?”

If you’re struggling and feeling beleaguered, weary, pressed down, put upon, and opposed, there is one sure antidote: fix your gaze humbly and believingly on the Lord Jesus Christ.

You ever been caught up with a crowd of people? You say to yourself, “Well, how did I get caught up in this?” And their friends were saying, “I don’t think anybody is at the front.” That’s what our friends say to us—at least they say to me—“You know what? You just bought a bag of tricks. You just go together, and you sing kind of Christian mantras, and you pump one another up, and it’s true because you believe it—your belief makes it true—and you all psyche one another up for a couple of hours on a Sunday, and then you go out and march in your parade. But there’s no one at the front of your parade. There’s nobody there! If you ever go up front, you’ll find there’s an empty place. There may be a chariot, but there’s no one in it.”

And that’s exactly what was being said to these people. And so they’re looking at one another, and they’re saying, “Is there any truth in this?” And the writer, recognizing that, says to them, “Listen, I want you understand that there is in the Lord Jesus the antidote to all of your struggling and all of your discouragement and all of your fearfulness.” Now, it may take him till 12:3 to say it succinctly, but he says it clearly: “Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” And as they grew weary and as they began to become fainthearted, the antidote was always the same—a consideration of Jesus, who is “the author and perfecter” of their faith.[8] You have come to worship this morning as a believer, and you are struggling, and you’re feeling beleaguered and weary and pressed down and put upon and opposed and all these other things—there is one sure antidote, and that is to fix your gaze humbly and believingly on the Lord Jesus Christ.  Indeed, every other solution will be of secondary impact in comparison to that simple approach.

Now, you see, these other priests to whom they had been referring had been prevented by death from continuing in office. That’s 7:23: “Now there have been many of [these] priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office.” “Remember old priest Shemaiah,” says somebody, “he was a nice old guy, wasn’t he? I loved him. I loved the way he used to lead us in worship from Deuteronomy. I love the way he recounted the law. He was a great guy, wasn’t he?”

“Yeah, he was. Where is he now?”

“Well, he’s dead.”

“Uh huh. Didn’t like the new one as much, did you? The young guy?”

“Naw, he didn’t seem to get with the program in the same way.”

He says, “You remember all those boys. They’re gone, And your friends are telling you that the new one, he’s gone too. But I want you to know,” he says, “that Jesus lives forever, and he has a permanent priesthood.”[9]

Now, what does this mean? Well, he unpacks it in chapter 8. And I’m not gonna go through chapter 8 laboriously, but I tried to do it in such a way that I don’t leave anything out and I hit the main points. I want you to notice that in underscoring this truth, he points to the setup, there in verse 2. The setup. Speaking of Jesus: “who serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by man.”

Now, people’ll use that phrase all the time. They say, “What’s the setup?” “Well, how did this get set up?” or “Who set this up?” They’ll come around to an experience of worship, and they’ll say, “Now, what’s the setup here? Who did this? Who’s behind this? What’s the deal?” And in the same way, they had had something that had been set up, and now something has been set up in its place. And the writer says, “I want you to understand that this was set up by the Lord and not by man.”

Now, what he is doing is, he is contrasting the Old with the New. He is contrasting the shadow with the reality. He is contrasting the promise with the fulfillment, which you find always between act 1 and act 2. In the Old Testament, the people set up an earthly tabernacle; it simply means a tent. And they used it for worship in their wilderness wanderings. For example, in Exodus and in chapter 27—you needn’t turn to it, but I just quote you from it—Exodus 27:20:

Command the Israelites to bring you clear oil of pressed olives for the light so that the lamps may be kept burning. In the Tent of Meeting, outside the curtain that is in front of the Testimony, Aaron and his sons are to keep the lamps burning before the Lord from evening [until] morning. [And] this is to be a lasting ordinance among … Israelites for the generations to come.

And that is why, growing up as a child in Scotland with many Jewish friends in my class, not only did they have the Shema symbolically represented on the lintels of their door when I walked into their house, but also they discharged me on a Friday afternoon around three thirty so that they could set up for the Sabbath preparations, and they also, in the Orthodox framework of their worship, paid attention to Exodus 27:21. Because it was important!

And that’s why God said to Moses, back in Hebrews 8 here, “I want you to do everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.”[10] Because the tent in the wilderness corresponded to a heavenly reality. It pointed from itself to a fulfillment that the people in the wilderness wanderings could not fully grasp. And it is in the heavenly reality that the exercise of Christ’s ministry takes place.

And that’s why where Christ ministers is described as “the true tabernacle.” That doesn’t mean that the previous Tent of Meeting was false, but it distinguishes, again, the reality from the shadow. “Back here,” he said, “we had the Tent of Meeting, we had the ark, and so on, and that was symbolic of a heavenly reality. These priests exercised their ministry within this covenantal procedure. They died—there is obsolescence marked in this—and now we have in the person of the Lord Jesus a Great High Priest, who is not dealing with the shadow but is dealing in the realm of the reality.” That’s why, in verse 5, he described the priests serving “at a sanctuary that is a copy and [a] shadow of what is in heaven.” It was invested with significance, it had meaning—that’s why God speaks to Moses in that way in verse 5—but in the end it was only a pale reflection of what the reality really was.

If you turn over a page in your Bible to Hebrews 9:24, it says it very clearly: “For Christ did not enter a man-made sanctuary that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence.” These people were so concerned to have a priest; they wanted to know how they could draw near to God. They had become totally befuddled by the framework which was pointing them in a direction but giving them no ultimate solution—in the same way that some who are worshipping here this morning find your experience of religion to be doing exactly that to you. It is all external, it’s all pointing somewhere, but you could not in all honesty say that you have closed the loop, as it were, and you have come to an understanding of the reality to which the shadow points. You’re still dealing in the realm of the cardboard cutout, as it were—the poster but not the person.

“The setup, then,” he says, “has been set up by the Lord, according to his purpose. Also, I want you to notice that the High Priest—our High Priest—sat down.” Now, you say to yourself, “Well, is there really any significance in this?” Well, again, this all has to do with knowing act 1. If you know act 1, then this phrase will strike you when you see it in act 2. Because in act 1, it was patently obvious that the priest never sat down. And the reason that the priest never sat down was on account of fact that his work was never done.  It would be silly to sit down, because there still was stuff to do. And when on the Day of Atonement, once a year, he offered first for the sins of himself and then for the sins of the people, having entered and stood, he then exited and in a sense took his place at the end of the line so that it might happen all over again.

If you ever go to Edinburgh, you will notice that the Forth Road Bridge joins the Kingdom of Fife to the other side of the Firth of Forth. And they seem always to be painting the Forth Road Bridge. It is a mile long; it’s the longest single-span bridge in the UK. And the reason they seem to be always painting it is because they are always painting it. They paint from one end to the other, and as soon as they get to the other end, they have to start at the other end again and paint it all over again, because the elements have eaten away the work of their previous endeavors.

And that is exactly what was the picture in the old covenant. The guys went around, and they came in procession, and it was Monday, and they offered up the sacrifice. And then they went out, and everyone was sinning like crazy all over again, they took their place at the end of the line, and then they came back down, and they did another sacrifice. So we got the seven o’clock sacrifice, the eight o’clock sacrifice, the ten o’clock sacrifice, the three-thirty sacrifice and the seven p.m. sacrifice. And we’d better have another one first thing in the morning! Unless, of course, there was someone who made a once-and-for-all sacrifice, thereby nullifying—making obsolete—all of that previous preoccupation with a sacrificial system which was a copy and a shadow but not the reality.

How could it ever be that once an individual had understood the reality, that they would still live with the shadow? Now, people tell me all the time, say, “Well, I, no, no… Oh, I believe unreservedly in Jesus Christ as the sacrifice for my sins. ‘I need no other sacrifice, I need no other plea, it is enough that Jesus died for me.’[11] But I still continue to go to the seven o’clock, the eight o’clock, the ten o’clock, and the two thirty.” Well, I’m sorry, you just haven’t grasped it, madam. You have not understood. If you understood, you wouldn’t need anybody to offer up sacrifices on your behalf day after day.

Christ’s absence from earth—which was what they were concerned about—his absence from earth is the necessary result of him being what he is and of his having done what he has done. When the Lord Jesus offered one sacrifice for sins, he “sat down.” And he sat down on “the throne of the Majesty in heaven.” Why? Because the work was done. The finished work of Christ.

And then, as the person lays hold upon this, and as the opposition and the tempting and the challenge comes, and some poor, beleaguered soul is confronted by their friend who meets them in the bazaar and says to them, “You know, I feel sorry for you, Simeon. I feel really sorry for you. ’Cause you don’t have a high priest on earth. You’ve got nothing. In fact, I was just talking with some people in the coffee shop up the street, and they were saying that you guys, with this Jesus of Nazareth thing, you’re into cannibalism. We hear that you’re eating his body and drinking his blood. That’s not good, Simeon. And you’ve got no high priest on earth. What do you have to say to that, Simeon?” Now, if Simeon has understood not only the foundation of act 1 but the reality into which he has been brought in act 2, he would have said, “No, we do not have a high priest on earth. And it is far better that we don’t. Because if we had, he would not be the high priest that we need.”

Even the disciples had difficulty with this when Jesus said to them, as he approaches the time immediately prior to his death, he said, “I’m going to prepare a place for you. And if I go, I’ll come back.” And the disciples are all up in arms. They’re saying, “Oh, Jesus, you mustn’t go away from us! You can’t go away from us. If you go away from us, we’ll be stuck!” And Jesus gathers them around him, and he tells them about the Holy Spirit. He says, “It’s necessary for me to go away. If I’m here, I’m just here. But when I go, I’m everywhere. When I send the Holy Spirit in all of his fullness, he will not only be in you, but he will be with you. And he will take the things that are mine, and he will make them precious to you. And he will take the pages of the Bible, and he will make it ring in your hearts and transform your lives. And he will manifest God to you.”[12] Indeed, he says, “If a man loves me, he will keep my commandments, and I will come, and my Father will come, and we will live within him.”[13] And the disciples are going, “I don’t think… Man, I can’t understand this!” That’s why the Gospels, we have Jesus revealed, and then in the Epistles, we have Jesus explained. And the same chaps that couldn’t get ahold of it in John 14 are explaining it within forty or fifty years. ’Cause the Holy Spirit has come and done exactly what Jesus said the Holy Spirit would do.

And many people have got an external religion, an interest in a cosmic principle, a God who is way up there somewhere, and they’ve got into all kinds of things about this God, but if you ask them, do they know God? You ever met a Buddhist who said he knew Buddha? I never met a Buddhist that said he knew Buddha. It doesn’t matter whether a Buddhist knows Buddha. Did you ever meet a Muhammadan who said he knew Muhammad? “Since I came to know Muhammad personally”? Did you? You ever met somebody in Borders bookstore, you started talking about comparative religions, and the guy said, “Ever since I came into a personal relationship with Confucius…”? No, they never said that. Because it isn’t possible to do it!

See, the distinctiveness of this Great High Priest, this is not some arm’s-length theology. This is the crux of life! This is the issue of humanity! This is the apex of what it means for God to make himself known and for sinful men and women to be able to draw near to God. It is a radical distinctive in Christian living. It’s terrific! Even if I say so myself.

Christianity is not about the imitation of Jesus Christ; it is about transformation by Jesus Christ.

Verse 3: “Every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices, and so it was necessary for this one also to have something to offer.” And what was he going to offer? He was going to offer himself. You see, in act 1 they always were going in there with something. You remember the story of Abraham and Isaac: “Hey Dad, we got the knife, we got the wood, we got the fire. There’s just one thing missing here. We don’t have a sacrifice.” And Abraham looks at his son and he says, “Isaac, the Lord himself will provide a sacrifice.”[14] Pointing us forward, because in that moment—remember last week, what a type is?—Isaac was a type of Christ. As he was laid upon that altar, he foreshadowed the reality which was to come in the giving up of the one who would offer his very life for sin.

So notice the superiority of this new covenant in verse 6, the absolute necessity of this new covenant in verse 7: “For if there had been nothing wrong with [the] first covenant, no place would have been sought for another [one].” Makes perfect sense. If act 1 was all that was necessary, then we would all still live in act 1. But since act 1 was not sufficient in and of itself, then it would be in act 2 that the reality would unfold and the necessity of the covenant would become clear. Verse 8: because “God found fault” not with his covenant, but he found fault, interestingly, “with [his] people.” And he says, “You know, the time is going to come when I will get a new covenant, and I’m going to write this covenant in the very center of their lives.”

Marcus Dods, the Old Testament commentator, says helpfully, “The old covenant was faulty because it did not provide for enabling the people to live up to the terms or conditions of it. It was faulty inasmuch as it did not sufficiently provide against their faultiness.”[15] That may be the best sentence of the morning. If you’re taking notes, it’s a winner: “It was faulty inasmuch as it did not sufficiently provide against their faultiness.”

That’s your external religion, Mr. Religious, this morning. What you’ve been holding on to is not necessarily all bad in itself, but it’s faulty, and the reason is because it does not deal with your faultiness. And that’s why you still feel the burden of your sin. That’s why you still have no assurance that heaven is your home. That’s why you still have a conscience that riddles you with guilt. Because that which you are holding on to is insufficient to deal with your faultiness.

The terms of the Mosaic covenant had been rendered null and void by the disobedience of the people; that’s what he’s saying in verse 8. And so God speaks in a new covenant. And this covenant can’t be broken, because it’s going to ensure the spiritual response of those with whom it is made, and that by providing for the internal renovation of their character.  See, Christianity is not about the imitation of Jesus Christ; it is about transformation by Jesus Christ . And that’s why many people who have embraced a “Christian” way of life still live in the guiltiness of their own sinful condition: because they have never come in repentance and in faith to the Lord and Master, Christ himself, the establisher of this new covenant, and trusted him to make real in their experience what he has made possible by his sacrifice.

You see, when the people of God could not rise to the heights of his standard, the Lord didn’t lower his standards to match their abilities; he determined to transform his people.  In other words, he didn’t look out on them and say, “You know, I can see that you’re having a rough time with these Ten Commandments. Why don’t I just make it Five Commandments? And you’re sinning so much that this annual deal that we’re doing is really not covering it all. Why don’t we make it a biannual event? Or why don’t we extend the length of the warranty coverage, as it were? Well, what we’ll do is, we’ll just drop it all down, because clearly you’re not doing so well.”

No. He doesn’t do that. He instead institutes his plan from all of eternity, which is to transform his people. The previous covenant that was established at Sinai, as verse 9 says, featured the promised blessings that were there in the land of Canaan, but the new covenant concerned blessings which were spiritual in nature and which were eternal in their duration. The old covenant couldn’t take away sin, couldn’t save, couldn’t justify, couldn’t make the people holy. Its obsolescence is clear for all to see , in verse 13. The contrast is obvious: What is there in Canaan in comparison to the reality of heaven? What in all these sacrifices and washings and liturgies in contrast to an enlightened mind, a pacified conscience, and a purified heart? 

There are so many religious people this morning who are holding on to that which is external to them. But they don’t have an enlightened mind.  You talk to them, and they talk absolute nonsense—if you’ll pardon me. You sit down, have coffee with them; they’re all over the place: “Well, I think maybe I believe this, and I believe a little of that, and I believe a little of the next thing.” You say, “How in the world can anybody come off with all this stuff?” It’s because their minds have never been enlightened by the truth.

You ask them, “How ’bout your conscience? Do you have a purified conscience? Is it pacified?”

They say, “No, I wake up at night. I am bedeviled by things in my past.”

“What about your heart? Is it new and clean and changed?”

They say, “No, I… I didn’t know that was possible.”

Well, that’s the whole point of this amazing quote from Jeremiah, which is verse 8–12. And there are two things I want you to note, and we’ll make this the wrap-up. Notice what is possible here. First of all, a knowledge of God. A knowledge of God. “I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts.” In other words, “I’m gonna make this transformation such that when I renew their hearts, I’m gonna make their hearts the shape of my law, and my law will fit perfectly into their hearts. And so they will now say, ‘I delight to do your will, O Lord.’ Previously it was irksome to them. Previously it was only a condemnation to them. But now it has become a joyful reality. Now, to live in purity and in wholeness and in faithfulness, in the same way as within the bonds of marriage, it has become a joy.” It is not that it is impossible to break the bonds; it is incongruent to break the bonds. When he puts his law in our hearts, it doesn’t mean that we are perfect. But it means that now, as he has transformed us and fashioned us in this way, it is absolutely incongruent that we would then fly in the face of his truth. 

“And I’m gonna give them a knowledge of myself,” he says. “All of those who are in my covenant will have their own intimate personal knowledge of God, and the reason they will is by means of my Word. The knowledge will not come by way of sacraments, it will not come through a hierarchy of self-styled priests; each will know God for themselves.” That’s the significance of verse 11. It’s not negating Sunday school teachers, Bible class leaders, or pastors and teachers. “No longer will a man teach [a] neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord.’” The reason is, “They will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” A man may be able to talk about God, but only the Spirit of God can create that knowledge within the heart. 

And this, loved ones, stands in direct contrast to so much that is before us today. If you listened this week to National Public Radio and the exposé that they did on the Church of Scientology, it was very, very interesting—and for multiple reasons, but not least of all on account of this whole aspect of knowledge. Because, as within other systems of religion, the key to progress in the Church of Scientology is making your way into different levels of knowledge. Costs you a lot of money. You start at the street level in wherever you are—Santa Barbara, there’s one there next to a burger place and somewhere else—and you can walk in there and just find out about yourself, just a kind of $50 introduction. Once you make the $50 introduction, if you want to go forward, that’ll cost you a $150 for stage 2. Stage 3 may take you up to $3,000, and if you finally graduate to the level of having the Church of Scientology explain to you their theory for the origin of the universe, it may be costing you as much as $10,000 for the initiation to that knowledge. One young couple on the radio confessed to the fact that in a period of four or five years they spent $100,000 trying to gain the necessary knowledge to triumph within the church.

A man may be able to talk about God, but only the Spirit of God can create that knowledge within the heart.

It is the exact same as Masonic ritual. And those of you who are caught up in that ought to get out of it today. It’s the same nonsense. It is blackness, it is darkness. And you go through the stages. Stage 1, everybody gets in stage 1. Stage 2 is another handshake, it’s another little deal. Stage 3 is something else. And there are twenty-three stages, I think it is, before you get to a point where you have the knowledge necessary.

Exact same thing in Mormonism. Listen to even a child tell you about Mormonism, and it is immediately apparent that the Mormons progress through certain stages of knowledge until they finally reach the priestly functions that allow them to know the “real truth.”

What is it in Christianity? This is for the boy or the girl, the man in the street, the whole deal, from cover to cover, with no price of admission.  It is here for the youngest and the oldest to read their Bible and understand. There are no hidden passages here. There’s no secret rooms. There’s no special place. It is all in the Lord Jesus Christ, and from the least to the greatest, from the youngest to the oldest, from the dumbest to the brightest, “they will all know,” he says. Because it is from the same Book, by the same Spirit, and the same truth.  Oh, we can grow in maturity, and we can grow in our understanding, but there are no special passageways to special rooms—unlike the cults: there always are.

So don’t start this nonsense about, “Oh, well, it’s just your preference, and Jesus, he’s just the same. You know, he’s one of a group in the smorgasbord of religious preference.” Absolutely bogus! You gotta be really dumb to come out with that stuff, you know? You call that tolerance? You want me to accept that as tolerance? There is legal tolerance, which ensures everybody’s rights, for which we need to stand, right? The freedom to profess, the freedom to practice, the freedom to propagate. That tolerance is part of the constitutional privileges of being an American citizen. As a Christian, I uphold it. Social tolerance that respects every person, irrespective of their background or their way of life or their approach to things, that recognizes that irrespective of their views, nevertheless, they were made in the image of God, no matter how messed up I might think them to be—and within the realm of social life, there has to be a measure of tolerance. I uphold that.

But the notion of intellectual tolerance, which cultivates a mind that is so broad that it can tolerate every opinion without ever detecting anything in it to reject, is not a virtue. It is a product of a feeble mind. So when we talk about knowing God, we’re not talking about, “Well, just find a way to know him, and come back and let me know, and that’ll be fine. We’ll fit you in somewhere or another.” Because knowing God is directly related to my final point, which is the forgiveness of sins.

Isn’t this wonderful here? “[And] I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” He can’t forgive a sinner except in a way that is consistent with his holiness. And therefore, it has to be the innocent that dies for the guilty. “Why did this Jesus die upon the cross?” you say to yourself. “After all, he never did anything wrong.” And then the Spirit of God drops the penny in your head and says, “Because you did everything wrong.” In act 1, the principle was established: the innocent for the guilty. And in act 2, it is God himself, in all of his innocence and in the fullness of his humanity, who dies in my place on a cross so that me in all of my wretchedness may know forgiveness of my sins.

Someone says, “I don’t need to know forgiveness of my sins; I’ve been doing very well lately.” How well? Let’s just take one: “[You shall] love the Lord your God with all your heart … all your soul … all your mind and … all your strength.”[16] Have you, for every day of your life, every hour of every day, every minute of every hour, loved God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength? No. Okay, then you need a Savior. You don’t have to admit to being a rapist. You don’t have to admit to some heinous sin that you decided is the sin that really needs taken care of, but you have the sort of bourgeois, professional, nice, little, you know, sins. Do you know forgiveness of your sins? This is the amazing truth. “The covenant—I will come, and I will mark it in your life. And I won’t even remember your sins anymore.”

Buddhists don’t know that. Deliverance in Buddhism only comes as a result of self-effort, trying to abolish the desires in my life. If you meet a Buddhist, as I do from time to time—last time, I was going up a ski ride in New York. The guy told me he was a Buddhist; I asked him how he was doing with his dukkha. He nearly fell out of the chairlift. How would I know about dukkha? Well, I don’t know a great deal about it, but I know that in Buddhism, that’s the deal, the dukkha. They can’t deal with the dukkha; that’s the problem. And the only way to deal with dukkha is by somehow or another by self-effort. That’s why Buddha’s dying words were, “Strive without ceasing.” ’Cause there’s no forgiveness.

Hinduism offers no forgiveness. All they have is karma. Everybody in Hinduism eats the fruits of their own wrongdoings, for which there is absolutely no forgiveness. They live their lives in an endless cycle, which they refer to as samsara—an endless cycle of reincarnations, from which there is absolutely no escape. There is no possibility of forgiveness of sins. They read this, and it says, “And I will forgive your sins, and I won’t remember your wickedness again.” They have nothing like this! That’s why you need to speak to these dear people. Say, “You know, do you have any answer for your sins?” Say, “No. I believe in instant karma. Lennon was into that.”

The same in Islam. The Qu’ran has no forgiveness of sins—no message for sinners, who deserve nothing from God except his judgment, have no merit to plead. They understand sin. What is the symbol? Scales. Scales. The bad, the good, the good, the bad. Hopefully the bad will outdo the good. Hopefully we’ll make it there!

What’s our symbol? It’s a cross. A cross! A cross with no one on it. Why? ’Cause he left. Why did he leave? To sit down. Why did he sit down? Because his work was finished.

If you don’t know Christ, you oughta just fall down on your knees and ask him to save you—right now. And if you do, we oughta be out these doors, going crazy with the good news for many of our well-meaning religious friends, who are dealing with copies and shadows and have never encountered the reality.

Let us pray together:

Our God and our Father,

I cannot tell why he whom angels worship
Should set his love upon the sons of men,
Or why, as Shepherd, he should seek the wanderers,
To win them back, I know not how nor when.[17]

It is a thing most wonderful,
Almost too wonderful to be,
That God’s own Son should come from heaven
And die to save a child like me.[18]

Father, take the deafness from our ears and the hardness from our hearts and the pride from our minds, and lay us low at your cross, so that in taking hold, as it were, of the very feet of him who bled that we might be forgiven, we may rest in nothing else and no one else—that we may be able to say,

I need no other sacrifice,
I need no other plea.
It is enough that Jesus died,
And that he died for me.[19]

Remind us of your victory and of your triumph: that one day, every knee will bow before you. Save us from arrogance and presumption. Give us tender hearts, soft eyes, genuine compassion for our neighbors and our friends. For Jesus’ sake we ask it. Amen.

[1] John Bright, The Kingdom of God: The Biblical Concept and Its Meaning for the Church (New York: Abingdon, 1953), 197–98.

[2] John 1:29 (NASB).

[3] Hebrews 8:1 (paraphrased).

[4] See Hebrews 1:4–14.

[5] See Hebrews 3:1–6.

[6] See Hebrews 6:13–7:28.

[7] Philippians 2:9–11 (NIV 1984).

[8] Hebrews 12:2 (NIV 1984).

[9] Hebrews 7:24 (paraphrased).

[10] Hebrews 8:5 (paraphrased).

[11] E. E. Hewitt, “My Faith Has Found a Resting Place” (1890). Lyrics lightly altered.

[12] See John 14:1–31.

[13] John 14:23 (paraphrased).

[14] See Genesis 22:7–8.

[15] Marcus Dods, quoted in Geoffrey B. Wilson, New Testament Commentaries, vol. 2, Philippians to Hebrews and Revelation (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2005), 393.

[16] Mark 12:30 (NIV 1984). See also Matthew 22:37; Deuteronomy 6:5.

[17] William Y. Fullerton, “I Cannot Tell” (1929). Lyrics lightly altered.

[18] William Walsham How, “It Is a Thing Most Wonderful” (1872).

[19] Hewitt, “My Faith.”

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.