I’ve been a sports fan as long as I can remember and have enjoyed many a good sports movie. My earliest sports film recollection is one by Warren Beatty called Heaven Can Wait. Beatty’s character was named Joe Pendleton. He was the star quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams and on the verge of leading his team to the Super Bowl when he is struck by a truck while riding his bike. An overzealous angel prematurely removes him from his body, assuming that he was about to die. When he arrives in heaven, Joe refuses to believe that his time is up. So, he pleads his case that he needs more time on earth. He successfully argues his point with the overzealous angel’s supervisor, but there’s a problem—he can’t go back into his original body because it’s been cremated. So, they have to find another dead body for him to enter. Lo and behold, there’s this multimillionaire who’s just died, murdered by an unfaithful wife.

Joe comes back to life in the multi-millionaire’s body. Then he buys the Rams so that he can become their starting quarterback and lead them to the Super Bowl. The problem is that his wife still wants him dead. Right before the Super Bowl, he’s shot. The Rams are forced to start the backup quarterback, but during the game the backup takes a brutal hit, and what happens? He dies. What happens after that? Right again. The angel’s supervisor sends Joe into the backup quarterback’s body, and he leads the Rams to Super Bowl victory.

At this point, you’re probably wondering what this story has to do with hope? I’m glad you asked. The message of the movie is that heaven can wait because it can’t possibly be better than getting what we want right now. Attaining a lifelong dream—that’s heaven! But the truth is when I do get what I want, I find out that there’s something else I want that’s even better.

In Hebrews, the Pastor demonstrates that there’s nothing better in the present life than the heavenly reality granted to those who have Jesus as their great high priest. As he presses even further in on the glory of Jesus’ priestly ministry, his message is that life is better in Christ now. It’s not simply that everything’s going to be better in heaven, so you’ve got to keep grinding through the life on earth until you get there. There’s some truth to that, but his message is that the reality of heaven has broken into the present and that makes all the difference in the world for God’s people. So he fixes the gaze and focus of his readers on heavenly realities so that they will understand its impact on them right now.

It’s All Better

What makes life better? There are as many answers to that question as there are people. However, when I say “better,” I don’t mean “easier.” When it comes to new technology, advertisers promise that the latest product will make our lives better through ease, convenience, comfort, and material prosperity. It’ll give me more control over my life. New technology has completely changed our day to day, making many things easier in a more connected world. But is life necessarily better because things are new or easier? The stress that comes with constant connection via technology is well testified. We’re not made to be “on” all the time. So you can’t just assume that new technology means a better life. Still, it is easy for our view of a better life to be tethered to our perception of how much control we have. The thought is that life becomes better to the degree that I can exercise control over everything from my self-definition to my environment.

During my undergraduate years I memorized the poem “Invictus,” written by William Ernest Henley in 1875. The last stanza of the poem declares,

It matters not how straight the gate,
How charged with punishment the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.

It is a fist-shaking defiance in the face of adversity. “I thank whatever gods may be for my unconquerable soul,” he writes in the first stanza. Every human heart resonates with the desire to be the master and captain of our lives. We find ourselves making declarations like this in response to the wearying battle for control. There are certainly times when the ability to summon this kind of defiant resilience in the face of adversity is a benefit.

On January 1, 2023, actor Jeremy Renner was tragically crushed under the steel tracks of his fourteen-thousand-pound snowcat. His body was literally broken from toe to head, and he groaned in agony for every breath. His neighbors and nephew desperately tended to him, exhorting him to hold on as they waited for emergency medical services to make their way through the snow and render aid. Miraculously, he survived. Diane Sawyer interviewed Jeremy and his family just a few months after the accident. She asked the family, “Are you amazed by this recovery? What do you attribute it to?” Jeremy’s sister, Kim, said, “Yeah. It’s just being stubborn as [bleep].” “That’s 100 percent what it is,” another family member chimed in. “He’s not going to let anything take him down.” Jeremy laughed and said, “I have that tenacious belief.” Sawyer replied, “I mean, this is like Hawkeye belief.”[1] “Well, I don’t know. It’s just belief, man,” was Renner’s response. “His fellow superheroes and friends already know that about him,” Sawyer tells us. “Jeremy Renner does not give up.”[2]

Whether or not Renner is familiar with “Invictus,” that’s the kind of fight he displayed while on the precipice of death. And it likely played a role in saving his life. At the same time, if his neighbors weren’t in their garage with the door partly open to allow his nephew to slide under and beg for help, if the wind hadn’t died down just enough to allow the medical helicopter to land and transport him to the hospital, no level of personal resilience would have saved his life. Renner, of course, is aware of this miraculous confluence of events. Friends, defiant resilience in the face of adversity may be a benefit but is unable to control life and make it better.

Dr. Elissa Epel is a world-renowned psychologist and expert on stress. In her book The Stress Prescription, she writes, “A sense of control is one of the pivotal factors that drives our stress levels up and down. We love control. . . . We want to know our future. And not only to know it, but to have the power to determine how it unfolds to the greatest extent possible.”[3] Even though feeling a sense of control helps to regulate our emotions, Dr. Epel points out that it is a double-edged sword. We respond to the uncertainty of life by attempting to exert more control so that our lives become more predictable and safer, which makes stress more of a constant in our lives and toxic to us.[4]

When it comes to God’s promise of a better life, better is not determined by the measure of control we are able to exercise over it. That’s the problem with the readers of Hebrews. I can hear them talking to the Pastor now. “You sold us a bill of goods! This whole life with Jesus is supposed to be better, but we’re catching hell!” They, like us, have to readjust their definition of better.

The Pastor wants to encourage his readers about the blessings they have as followers of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the great high priest who has passed through the heavens, who stands between us and the Father having paid the price for our sins, who eases our fear of God, and who strengthens us to endure. Life with Christ is better because he’s better. When you’re in the middle of a struggle, things always seem worse because you are not in control of the outcome. In a boxing match, the rounds are just three minutes, but if you’re getting beat up, that three minutes can seem like a lifetime. All you want is to hear the bell ring!

The Pastor has the audacity to tell these folks in the middle of their fight why things are better. Things are better now because Jesus has a better ministry. He’s the mediator of a better covenant that is built on better promises. This is true even though their struggles remain.

Better Ministry

People think a lot of things about Jesus, but rarely do you hear anyone refer to him as a minister. Yet, that’s exactly how the Pastor describes him beginning in chapter 8.

Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man. (8:1-2)

He has just shown in chapter 7 that Jesus is the perfect high priest—a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek. Then, in the very next breath he summarizes his point to make it as clear as possible. This perfect high priest is ours.

What’s significant about Jesus sitting down is that the priests who served in the tabernacle were continually making offerings for the people: burnt offerings, guilt offerings, peace offerings, sin offerings, bulls, goats, lambs, rams, even grain. Every day blood was shed in the tabernacle so that the people would not be consumed by their holy God. Thus, the Pastor rightly says, “Every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices” (8:3). Notice the difference when he talks about Jesus. In comparison he says, “Thus it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer.” Their offering is plural and ongoing. Jesus’ offering is a singular, once-for-all offering for sin.

When he made his offering, it was finished. There was no longer any further offering for sin. Jesus took his seat, but that doesn’t mean he’s not working. His seat is not just the seat of rest from his work of sacrificing himself on our behalf. It is also the seat of ministry. And it’s the best seat in the house. It is the seat of power and authority. It is his throne at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.

The Pastor says Jesus is a minister in the holy places, in the true tabernacle that the Lord set up. He fixes the eyes of his readers heavenward. He’s letting them know that they’re missing the boat trying to return to the earthly temple as the focal point of their worship. That’s just a copy and a shadow of the heavenly tabernacle. Here’s what gets us every time— what we believe is what we can see with our eyes and touch with our hands. They could see this glorious temple in Jerusalem, and their hearts were drawn to it. The Pastor wants to shake them up and say that’s not the original.

Jesus has a better ministry because he ministers with more authority in the true tabernacle. The Lord himself set this one up, not Moses. God the Son is right now, as you read this, ministering in the most holy place in the presence of God the Father on behalf of everyone who follows him. The Pastor is not talking theory or speculation. He is speaking fact. We have such a high priest.

The Pastor doesn’t say, “You’re blessed because I’m your pastor. You’re blessed because I’m the man of God in this house.” The ultimate blessing for any congregation is not the person who occupies the pulpit. The blessing is that Jesus is your senior pastor. Yes, Jesus appoints pastors and elders in his church. Yes, at the end of this letter, the Pastor will tell them in 13:17, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will give an account.” But he wants them to become preoccupied with the reality of Jesus’ heavenly priestly and pastoral ministry.

The problem is that they are preoccupied with the transitory. They are focused on what Jesus describes as “treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal.” And this preoccupation with stuff that is not permanent, with something that is at best a copy and shadow of reality, hinders their faith. The glory and splendor of an earthly tabernacle cannot come close to matching the glory of the heavenly tabernacle. Jesus is ministering in the most beautiful place you can imagine. And his ministry there is more excellent because it produces the fruit of endurance.

Why is it, if you’re a Christian, that you have not thrown in the towel in the middle of the fight? It’s not because you are in control of the situation. It’s because your ability to endure is the fruit of Jesus’ more excellent ministry in the true tabernacle. Here is a practical way that this plays out negatively when we do not believe that endurance is the fruit of Jesus’ better ministry. Social media platforms get blamed for everything from worsening political divides and providing a means of spying on citizens to enabling foreign governments to disrupt elections, destroying personal relationships, and devolving our cultural values. I’m sure there are other ways we can describe the undesirable influences social media has on our lives, but I would wager most users do not participate for any of those purposes. Our conscious reasons are things like connecting with other people, promoting ourselves or products, or becoming an influencer. Few of us will say that exercising control is a primary motive for our participation.

Dr. Chris Bail, Duke University sociology professor and director of their Polarization Lab, recently published his research on political polarization in social media. A prevailing sentiment in our polarized political culture is that one way out of the divide is to break the echo chamber by exposing people to views from the other side of the political spectrum. This exposure is supposed to help broaden their perspective. His research found that the opposite occurred.

Those who stepped outside of their social media echo chambers were not humanizing others more. Instead, stepping outside served to sharpen the contrast between “us” and “them.” Why is this?

Our focus upon Silicon Valley obscures a much more unsettling truth: the root source of political tribalism on social media lies deep inside ourselves. We think of platforms like Facebook and Twitter as places where we can seek information or entertain ourselves for a few minutes. But in an era of growing social isolation, social media platforms have become one of the most important tools we use to understand ourselves—and each other. We are addicted to social media not because it provides us with flashy eye candy or endless distractions, but because it helps us do something we humans are hardwired to do: present different versions of ourselves, observe what other people think of them, and revise our identities accordingly. But instead of a giant mirror that we can use to see our entire society, social media is more like a prism that refracts our identities—leaving us with a distorted understanding of each other, and ourselves.[5]

Social media addiction is related to our desire for control. We are enabled to present whatever view of ourselves we want. We can change that view based on how others respond to us. We can control the narrative we want to create about others, and it does not have to conform completely with reality or truth. In other words, our participation becomes identity forming for ourselves and the way that we perceive others.

Scroll through Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook. What do you find? “Representative Jane Destroys Liberal Representative Jessica!” “Congressman Michael Embarrasses Right Wing Congressman Justin!” The posts feed your disdain and contempt for the other side. Consider the impact this has on the church, whose identity is not to be shaped by partisan politics but by the Word of God. As Christians swim in these same waters, we are deceived into thinking that our participation is an exercise in controlling or promoting a righteous narrative.

Jesus’ ministry is to do all for those he saves. This is how Paul could say, “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might” (Ephesians 6:10); or to Timothy, “You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:1). This is how the Pastor can say, “Lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees” (Hebrews 12:12). This is how Peter can say, “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you” (1 Peter 5:10). The strength to endure through the fight is the fruit of Jesus’ more excellent ministry, not only because he ministers in the true tabernacle, but also because he is the mediator of a better covenant.

Better Covenant

The Pastor first mentions this better covenant in 7:22 when he says that God the Father swore to make Jesus the guarantor of a better covenant. He begins to flesh that out when he says that Christ has obtained a ministry that is much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better. Then he reminds them of God’s promise to establish a new covenant through the prophet Jeremiah.

For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second. For he finds fault with them when he says: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt. For they did not continue in my covenant, and so I showed no concern for them, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” (Hebrews 8:7-12)

Jeremiah ministered in the sixth century BC. He prophesied about the fall of Judah and the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians.

The Lord said to Jeremiah, “I have appointed you this day to root up, to tear down, to destroy and to devastate, to build and to plant” (Jeremiah 1:10). Most of Jeremiah’s message was harsh because God found fault with the people. The problem with that old covenant, that first covenant, was not that it was unholy or unrighteous, but that perfection could not be attained through it, as the Pastor has repeatedly demonstrated. Remember, God’s goal for humanity is not “niceness”; it’s perfection. And as the Pastor said in 7:19, the law made nothing perfect. The law reveals our sin, but it doesn’t change our hearts.

The covenant established through Moses was temporary because it could not bring perfection. They should have known that because in Jeremiah’s day a new and better covenant was promised. What’s implied but unstated in 8:6 is that the covenant Jesus mediates is better, not only because it’s established on better promises, but because Jesus is a better mediator. The Pastor doesn’t have to say it here because he’s already said it back in chapter 3.

For Jesus has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses—as much more glory as the builder of a house has more honor than the house itself. (For every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God.) Now Moses was faithful in all God’s house as a servant, to testify to the things that were to be spoken later, but Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son. (Hebrews 3:3-6)

John puts it this way, “The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). That’s a better deal. See, when the Pastor talks about a covenant, he’s not talking about a mutual agreement or contract that needs an arbitrator to settle disputes. You hear about arbitration all the time in the sports world. A player wants more money, and the owner doesn’t want to give him as much as he wants. So they bring in an arbitrator to settle the dispute based on the terms and conditions of the contract, and whatever the arbitrator decides is.

It’s not like that with God’s covenant. We’re not negotiating with God such that we need a mediator to handle the negotiations. No, God sets the terms and conditions of the covenant, and they are not up for dispute. You might not like them, but they are settled. The mediator in God’s covenant doesn’t bring the two sides together to hammer out an agreement. Instead, the mediator speaks and acts with divine authority. The message of the covenant that came through Moses was basically this, “Do this and you will live” (Leviticus 18:5; Ezekiel 20:11).

Nobody could meet the conditions of that covenant. What makes Jesus the better mediator is that he came and met those conditions for us to the perfect letter of the law. He did it so that he could mediate the new covenant. His perfect obedience and his perfect sacrifice make him the only one who could guarantee the better covenant that Jeremiah spoke of six hundred years before Jesus came on the scene.

Again, God’s goal for us is perfection because greater blessing is to draw near to him. The goal of the covenant is fellowship with God, a life of intimate fellowship in his presence. Jesus is a better mediator of a better covenant because he permanently secures our fellowship with God. Let’s not get it twisted, however. Just because the covenant is new and better doesn’t mean that it cannot be violated. I’m sorry to tell you, Christian— you and I are still covenant breakers. But having Jesus as our mediator, as our minister, as our high priest makes all the difference in the world. He has the power to secure permanent ongoing fellowship between us and God. That’s the better life.

Better Promises

The first indication that this covenant is better is that it’s not like the one he made with Israel in the exodus (Hebrews 8:9). Note that the Pastor isn’t writing new Scripture here. He’s quoting from a text that’s over six hundred years old. He’s saying that the time of this new covenant that Jeremiah prophesied about has come. Jeremiah’s prophecy was necessary because there was a need for reconciliation. A divorce had taken place between God and his people, and it wasn’t God’s fault ( Jeremiah 2:1-8). The Pastor says that there was occasion to look for a second covenant because God found fault with the people.

In Deuteronomy, Moses is giving the law to Israel a second time. In fact, that’s what the title of the book means, second law. They Israelites are about to take possession of the Promised Land, and Moses is reminding them of their covenant with their God. Listen to this interaction between God and the people in Deuteronomy 5:26-29,

“‘For who is there of all flesh, that has heard the voice of the living God speaking out of the midst of fire as we have, and has still lived? Go near and hear all that the Lord our God will say and speak to us all that the Lord our God will speak to you, and we will hear and do it.’ And the Lord heard your words, when you spoke to me. And the Lord said to me, ‘I have heard the words of this people, which they have spoken to you. They are right in all that they have spoken. Oh that they had such a mind as this always, to fear me and to keep all my commandments, that it might go well with them and with their descendants forever!’”

In Deuteronomy 10:12-22, God says that he set his heart in love on their fathers and chose their offspring after them above all peoples. He commands them to “circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn” (10:16). There, at the inauguration of the covenant, the problem is laid out.

After the Israelites took possession of the Promised Land, Joshua renewed the covenant with the people. He said to them,

“And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15)

The people said, “We’ll serve the Lord, for he is our God.” What does Joshua say? “You are not able to serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God” (24:18-19). The problem was evident from the very beginning. Despite their best intentions, the Israelites not only broke God’s covenant, they ground it to dust.

Do you get it? When it comes to God, good intentions don’t cut it. They had said repeatedly, “We’ll serve the Lord!” But what they needed was a different heart. God has a dogged determination to make his people perfect, and he will not stop until he has accomplished his goal. As he said through Jeremiah and now through the Pastor, the day is coming when he will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. He has promised to take care of the reconciliation problem himself.

And the glory of this new covenant is that it goes beyond simply reconciling people to God. His powerful promise brings reconciliation both vertically and horizontally. The devastating effects of the demolition job they did on the covenant was a church split. The one nation of Israel split into Israel and Judah. Harmony turned into strife. Peace turned into discord and even hatred. Yet God continues to promise he will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah to take care of their reconciliation problem.

The promise of the reunion of Israel and Judah was symbolic of the healing of every human breach, and the reconciliation of all nations and persons in Christ points to the seed of Abraham in whom all the peoples of the earth are blessed and united (Galatians 3:8, 16, 27-29) because he “has broken down the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14). What God accomplishes through Christ is nothing less than the reconciliation of the world to himself (2 Corinthians 5:19).[6]

The promise of the new covenant is a promise to reconcile! God is going to once again be a husband to his people. He’s going to bring all his people together into one redeemed humanity, a beautiful global community. What are the issues tempting you to neglect the fact that the Lord is in the business of reconciling us to one another? Reconciliation is impossible apart from Jesus Christ, but it is the expected way of life in the new covenant because of regeneration. God fixes our heart problem. He said in Deuteronomy 5:29, “Oh that they had such a heart as this always, to fear me, and keep all my commandments, that it might go well with them and their descendants forever!” That’s the heart the Lord promises to give in the new covenant.

In Ezekiel 36:26-27 the Lord promises,

“I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”

In the new covenant, the Lord fixes the heart problem by replacing our hearts of stone with hearts of flesh. The law that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai on those tablets of stone could not penetrate the heart. Something different needed to take place, and it was never going to happen as long as keeping the law was an external matter only.

The stipulations and promises of both the old covenant and the new covenant are based on keeping the Law. Jesus said in Matthew 5:17, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” The new covenant is not called “new” because it contradicts the old. Jesus’ words make it clear that both covenants demand obedience to the law. But the new covenant is not based on our obedience. It’s based on the obedience of the Son of God.

Jesus obeyed the law of God perfectly, and because of that, when someone is united to Christ by faith, the law becomes an inside-out matter. The crazy thing about the new covenant is that obedience is promised! In the old covenant, God promised to be the Israelites’ God on condition of their obedience. In the new covenant, because of the obedient one, Jesus Christ, God promises to put his law on our minds and write it on our hearts. The result of regeneration is that you will open this Word and you will find delight in following what God says. You will find encouragement in his promises. You will be glad for him to correct you because what you will want is to do all for him.

In 2 Corinthians 3, the apostle Paul provides a parallel promise to Hebrews 8. Here’s how he describes what happens to those who receive this heart transplant from God, “We all, with unveiled faces, are looking as in a mirror at the glory of the Lord and are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory; this is from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18 CSB). Remember, the goal that the Pastor has been emphasizing is perfection, and the Spirit of God, through the Word of God, regenerates hearts and transforms people into the same glorious image we see of Jesus Christ in the pages of Scripture.

In this case, new is definitely better! Christian hope becomes inextinguishable because the better hope is secured by a better priest who ministers as mediator of a better covenant with better promises. This is the point the Pastor has built from Hebrews 5:1–10:18. The meat of his exhortation has been doctrine dominant, driving home the message that this is what we are to believe about Jesus Christ. He is a high priest after the order of Melchizedek. Therefore, he holds his priesthood for all time. Unlike the priests of old, he made one all-sufficient offering for sin, securing an eternal redemption. He has permanently cleansed his people. This is what he’s doing for you now. He lives to make intercession for his people, appearing now in the presence of God the Father on our behalf. The old covenant is done away with. He has abolished the old to establish the new.

Taken from Hope Ain’t a Hustle by Irwyn L. Ince Jr. Copyright (c) 2024 by Irwyn L. Ince Jr. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press. www.ivpress.com

[1] Jeremy Renner plays the character Hawkeye in the Marvel movies and TV series.

[2] “Jeremy Renner: The Diane Sawyer Interview—A Story of Terror, Survival and Triumph,” directed by Dave Hoffman, aired April 6, 2023, on ABC.

[3] Elissa Epel, The Stress Prescription (New York: Penguin Books, 2022), 28.

[4] Epel, Stress Prescription, 30.

[5] Chris Bail, Breaking the Social Media Prism: How to Make Our Platforms Less Polarizing (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2021), 10.

[6] Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, The New International Commentary on the Old and New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977), 300.

Rev. Dr. Irwyn Ince, a native of Brooklyn, New York and resident now in Washington, DC, is the Coordinator of Mission to North America in the Presbyterian Church in America and the former Director of the Institute for Cross Cultural Mission. He holds an M.A.R. from Reformed Theological Seminary and a D.Min. from Covenant Theological Seminary.

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