- Locate the passage.
Hebrews 8:1–2 serves as a significant transition in the overall discourse of Hebrews. There is an immediate connection with the previous paragraph in 7:26–28 and also a thematic connection with what will follow through 10:18 Christ’s high priestly work is developed. There is a major shift in 8:1 indicated by the author’s mentioning his point in writing and a semantic shift, where Melchizedek drops from the scene and the priesthood of Jesus in relation to the old covenant, sanctuary, temple practices, and law become the focus of 8:1–10:18.
Expository. This entire section (8:1–10:18) contains no imperatives or hortatory subjunctives and is characterized by third person indicative finite verbs. Hebrews 8:1–10:18 is the longest section of sustained exposition in the epistle.
- Determine the structure of the text
Hebrews 8 contains two major discourse units: 8:1–6 and 8:7–13, the latter being a lengthy quotation (the longest in the New Testament) of Jer 31:31–34 which ends at v. 12, followed by a short explanatory comment by the author in v. 13.
Heb 8:1–6 is marked by lexical inclusion with the repetition of leitourgos (one who serves) in v. 2 and leitourgias (ministry) in v. 6. The author marks prominence in vv. 1 and 6 by the use of the first person plural in v. 1 and the use of nuni de (“but now”) plus the reference to Jesus in v. 6. There is also a concentration of emphatic particles in this short paragraph.
Ellingworth outlines the “broad logical structure” of the passage in syllogistic fashion:
Major premise: Jesus as a high priest (v. 1)
Minor premise: Jesus cannot be a priest on earth (v. 4)
Conclusion: he must be a priest in heaven (v. 6)
The Jeremiah quotation is introduced by the subordinating conjunction gar, “for,” and provides the grounds for the previous paragraph, especially for the statement in v. 6. The prominence marking the author gives to v. 6 coupled with the introduction of the quotation by a subordinating conjunction combine to furnish the theme of Heb 8:1–13 is the superiority of the new covenant inaugurated by Jesus and the obsolescence of the old covenant as a result.
- Exegete the passage
In Heb 8:1 the author clearly alludes to Ps 110:1 for the purpose of establishing that Christ as the high priest is not on the earth, but in heaven. This point is a crucial linchpin for the author’s argument in 8:1–10:18.
Verse 2 is in apposition with and identifies “high priest” in v. 1, indicating the capacity in which Christ took his seat at God’s right hand. The theme introduced here in 8:1–2 awaits development in Heb 9:11–28.
The author subordinates v. 3 to vv. 1–2 by the use of gar, which is sometimes left untranslated. The point the author makes concerns the fact that God appoints high priests to offer (present tense in Greek) gifts and sacrifices. The use of the present tense here and elsewhere in Hebrews to describe the activity of the Levitical priests offering sacrifices has iterative force and is contrasted with the aorist tense when the author is speaking about the final once-for-all sacrifice of Christ on the cross.
In v. 4, since Jesus is also a high priest appointed by God, he too must have a sacrifice to offer. The author does not develop this thought any further, but rather reverts to his comment in vv. 1–2 by pointing out that Jesus is not practicing his priesthood on the earth, but rather in heaven.
Verse 5 continues the contrast between the ministry of the earthly high priests and that of Jesus in heaven.
The argument in vv. 3–5 proceeds along the line of a comparison between the Levitical priestly ministry on earth to that of Jesus’ priestly ministry in heaven (v. 3). Verses 4–5 contrast the differences between the two ministries by highlighting the superiority of Jesus’ heavenly ministry on the grounds that the Levitical ministry takes place in an earthly sanctuary that is a “copy” of the heavenly.
Verse 6 shifts the topic back to Jesus. The contrast is continued by the use of de, “but,” followed by a direct statement concerning the superiority of Jesus’ priestly ministry. A new topic is introduced with the words “as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one.” This topic will be developed by the quotation of Jer 31:31–34. The two concepts of “covenant” and “mediator” will play significant roles from this point through Heb 10:18.
A new paragraph begins with v. 7, signaled by the use of the subordinate gar, “for.” The author lexically frames Heb 8:7–13 with the use of protos, “first,” in vv. 7 and 13. Two propositions are stated in v. 7: the first covenant was faulty, and as a result, a new covenant was initiated by God.
The new covenant is mentioned in Hebrews explicitly three times: Heb 8:8, 9:15, and 12:24. It is also referred to in 7:22; 8:6, 10; 10:16, 29; and 13:20. Implicitly the new covenant is referred to in 8:7 and 10:9. Only twice (Heb 9:16, 17) is the word given the translation “will” or “testament.” The first two occurrences (7:22 and 8:6) both identify Jesus as the guarantee and the mediator of a “better covenant.”
Hebrews 8:8–12 contains the quotation of Jer 31:31–34 (LXX- Jer 8:31–34). Jeremiah 31:31–34 plays a crucial role in the New Testament. In addition to its reference in Heb 9:15, 10:13 and 12:24, it is referenced by all three Synoptic Gospels writers as well as Paul concerning the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:20; Matt 26:28; Mark 14:24; and 1 Cor 11:25. Paul makes two additional references to it in Rom 11:27 and 2 Cor 3:6.
The quotation concludes in 8:12 with a final sentence introduced by hoti, “for,” expressing the grounds for the preceding statements concerning universal knowledge of the Lord: God’s promise to “forgive their wickedness” and “remember their sins no more.
The author’s first comment in v. 13 following the quotation is vital and foundational to his argument in chapters 9 and 10. The quotation began with the statement “I will make a new covenant.” Now in 8:13 the author references that statement and draws a conclusion: since God has called this covenant “new,” he has declared the Mosaic covenant to be “obsolete.”
See Neva Miller, The Epistle to the Hebrews: An Analytical and Exegetical Handbook, 220–36.; J. Harold Greenlee, Hebrews: An Exegetical Summary, 274–301; and David L. Allen, Hebrews, 438–56, for more detailed exegetical and semantic analysis of the text.
- Let the structure of the text drive the structure of the sermon.
The two most important verses in the passage are v. 6 and v. 13.
In preaching this text, the focus should be on the information conveyed in v. 6 and the concluding summary of v. 13 (note bolding in the outline).