Preparing for this Sunday’s sermon from Isaiah 35 on Joy, I’ve latched upon Hebrews 12:18-24 as an accompanying epistle text, and will spare my congregation (and burden you with!) this reflection :)
Much like 2 Corinthians 3:7-18 or Galatians 4:21-31, Hebrews 12:18-24 boldly contrasts the ‘old covenant’ with the ‘new covenant’. Now, I’m somewhat weary of patterns of interpretation that too easily and too carelessly either sweep aside or mis-apply texts from the old testament/covenant. The relationship between the ‘old’ covenant/testament and the ‘new’ must be characterised by both discontinuity and continuity; and our eagerness or disdain for this or that particular result too often determines which one of those two we hold to.
Having gotten that throat clearing out of the way, this passage is boldly stating the discontinuity between the Mosaic covenant and the new covenant instituted by Christ. Daringly and provocatively, yet without discarding or discounting the value and role of what had come before, the author describes the ‘old’ in the following ways:
- undesirable. The ‘word of God’ through the Mosaic Law were of a nature that “those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them”. God’s word was so fiery, dark, gloomy and stormy they begged ‘No more!’. There are a few passages that we can think of as especially ‘harsh’ to say the least. But the best and strongest sense here, considering the ‘old’ as a whole is that of someone giving a very public and very exhaustive report of all of your deepest darkest failings, to the point where you beg them to stop because the truth hurts so much.
- unbearable. The word of God (despite the claim of Deuteronomy 30:11-14!!) ended up being too high of a moral bar, not because the Law failed, but because “they could not bear what was commanded”. Stop God… please… I simply cannot take this.
- unapproachable. Animals stoned, sandals removed. The Law, which nonetheless had the purpose of instructing in Life and Love, showed how full of death and indifference we are. It is such a terrifying reality that like Moses we are “trembling with fear”.
By contrast, which couldn’t be any more strongly stated, the new covenant is gob-smackingly glorious and just plain ‘better’.
- better joy. The new and living covenant transcends earthly mountains and cities and is characterised by more joy than the image of ‘thousands upon thousands of angels’ can evoke. Whatever gloomy realities of life, temptation, struggle and pain that still persist, infinite quantity and quality of joy is available for us – even if all we can dare is to peek. Our guilt under the Law was depressingly accurate, whereas our freedom in Christ from precisely that guilt is shockingly liberating.
- better transformation. The Law was well able to declare guilty, but powerless to remove that guilt, at least permanently. Jesus, however, is more (though not less!) than a Judge, but also the teacher, leader and giver of the Spirit, who helps actually transform and change people, making them ‘complete’ or ‘perfect’, one (sometimes tiny) step at a time.
- better memory. The blood of Abel – remembered each time an animal sacrifice was made in the temple – reminded people of their lingering sin. The blood of Jesus – remembered each time the eucharistic Cup is shared – reminds people of his lasting forgiveness.
In addition to being a rather bold statement on the specific topic of covenant theology, this raises interesting questions about how we understand things like revelation and Scripture. God apparently always planned to reveal himself in a way that was not sudden and fixed from the start, but rather through an unfolding series of events and encounters that would indeed have identifiable and obvious thematic consistency, but nonetheless also very real and at times troubling variation and development.
It was always going to be a spiraling, turning, twisting and evolving story, whose end goal (or ‘telos’) was always going to be the person and work of Christ. As Hebrews begins, “In the past God spoke to our forefathers though the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe.”