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The Covenant Promise and Reality

“Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for. By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible. By faith Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did. By faith he was commended as righteous, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead.  

By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death: “He could not be found, because God had taken him away.” For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God.  And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that is in keeping with faith.

 By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise.  For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise.  And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.  

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return.  Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them” (Hebrews 11)

Throughout Hebrews 11, the author uses the phrase “by faith” in reference to the particular individuals singled out for mention in this well-known chapter of the Bible. Those mentioned here–who are found throughout the whole of the Old Testament, prior to the dawn of the messianic age–believed that God would keep his covenant promise. But for everyone on the list, the fulfillment of that promise was still far off in the distant future. As the author of Hebrews has been pointing out, it was not until the coming of Jesus Christ that the exact nature of God’s covenant promise and the wonderful benefits our Lord secures for us become clear. That for which these Old Testament saints longed, is for us, a glorious and present reality. What God had promised to the Old Testament saints, is now fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

…..the author of Hebrews is making the point that there has always been one covenant promise–“I will be your God and you will be my people”–and that this same covenant promise unfolds throughout the pages of the Old Testament. In Hebrews 11, the author appeals to a litany of well-known people who believed this promise. Although the people mentioned here serve as an example to us of sorts, the author’s primary purpose in this chapter is not to present these Old Testament saints as examples for us to emulate. Rather, his purpose is to remind his Jewish readers that the same promise which these Old Testament saints believed, pointed ahead to the coming of Jesus Christ, in whom the promise has been fulfilled. Therefore, the author’s emphasis falls on the continuity of the covenant promise..

The author’s concern throughout this epistle is with those in the original congregation who were Jewish converts to Christianity–many of whom had gone back to Judaism, or were considering doing so. Throughout the earlier chapters the author has made his case for the superiority of Jesus Christ to the angels, to Moses, and to Israel’s priests. Jesus is the Son of God, the creator of all things, and the only redeemer. Jesus possesses an eternal priesthood after the order of Melchiziadek, and serves in the heavenly temple (to which the earthly tabernacle and temple had pointed). Throughout Hebrews 11, the author has made his case that if there is only one covenant promise throughout the entire Old Testament, that the saints of God believed that promise, and that this promise is fulfilled in Jesus Christ (a point he’s made in chapters 8-10 and will make again in chapter 12), then there is no way to return to Judaism, without rejecting God’s covenant promises. To return to Judaism, ironically, is to reject the God of the Old Testament.

…after giving us a panoramic survey of the history of the Old Testament in Hebrews 11, the author of Hebrews makes his final point in verses 39-40.

“And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.”

Throughout this chapter, the author’s point has been that these Old Testament saints believed the same covenant promise. Yet, the promise they believed, was still a promise–not a reality. As the author told us in the opening verse of this chapter “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation.” Everyone of these people believed that which God had revealed to them at that precise point in redemptive history. But the promise had not yet become a reality. Jesus had not yet come. They looked ahead, believing that God would do what he promised, and that God would keep his word.

But for us (and for those receiving this letter in the first century), God has provided something better. Jesus Christ has come and fulfilled everything promised to the saints in the Old Testament. We are participants in a new and better covenant. We now see who Jesus is–God in human flesh, the creator and sustainer of all things. Jesus is the superior high priest in a better temple, having made a final once for all sacrifice for sin. In Jesus Christ we have been made perfect, unlike the Old Testament saints who looked forward to that perfection which we, and they, now possess. God did indeed have something better for us–a new and better covenant, grounded in Christ’s death and resurrection. But all the saints mentioned in Hebrews 11, along with those countless Old Testament not mentioned, have now received every blessing which we have. “By faith” they too have entered into the fulness of Jesus Christ, just as we have.

While they lived it was a promise. But now in Christ, it is a reality.

What, then, should we take with us from this passage? The whole point of Hebrews 11 is that there is one covenant promise, and all those individuals mentioned here believed it–by faith, these Old Testament saints looked forward to God’s gracious covenant promise becoming a reality. That is why all those mentioned here span the entire course of Old Testament redemptive history. But what for us is a reality, was for them a promise. God had something better for us–a better covenant, a better mediator, a better temple, and the knowledge that through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ we have been made perfect. Everything for which these saints hoped, we have. Everything they desired, is for us a reality. That for which they longed, we struggle not to take for granted. The difference between them and us, is the doing and dying of Jesus Christ, that one in whom all of God’s promises are fulfilled.

Source, Kim Riddlebarger sermon: “Something Better for Us” (complete sermon at link)


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