“Keeping the main thing the main thing” was the marketing slogan of Ford many year ago. In a struggling US industry, facing deep financial challenges, many motor car companies were diversifying as a means to stay afloat. Ford deemed it wise to stick to what they knew, and so they focused on manufacturing motor vehicles.
By all accounts, Ford is today one of the leading motor vehicle companies with a healthy bottom line and a quality product. Several years ago, when several US motor vehicle companies applied for government financial bail-out, Ford was the lone company who refused to do so. Today, they are out of debt and very profitable. Because they stuck to the main thing they are the better off for it. Shareholders are happy and customers are overwhelmingly satisfied. The adage that seemed to stick many years—Fix Or Repair Daily—rarely applies.
The writer to the Hebrews would have agreed with Ford’s slogan because keeping the main thing the main thing was precisely what he was seeking to do with this epistle. Of course, the main “thing” is not a product but rather a person, the second person of the Godhead, the Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ. In this epistle, the anonymous author seeks to focus all attention on the Saviour, our glorious High Priest. (Perhaps this was the major reason for his anonymity: He desired all the attention to be on Jesus Christ.)
You will recall that the writer was deeply concerned that some Hebrew Christians were being tempted to revert to Judaism. They were tempted to return to the temple rituals, thereby resulting in a departure—an apostasy—from Christ. They were being tempted to depart from the gospel message of salvation by faith alone, in Christ alone, by grace alone to a works-focused approach to God. They were tempted to turn back to a weak and ultimately useless means of drawing near to God (7:18–19). In other words, they were being tempted to fall away from the better hope of drawing near to God offered through God’s Son (7:25).
What is so sad is that the entire Judaistic system of worship with its Levitical rituals was designed to point to the main thing; that is, to the Lord Jesus Christ. These Hebrews were guilty of not keeping the main thing the main thing. In fact, this is precisely what he says in 8:1: “Now this is the main point.”
In every well-constructed sermon, the preacher has a main point, and the congregation is helped when this is pointed out. This is what our writer does here. It has taken him a while to get here, but here we are. If you want to know the theme of the epistle to the Hebrews, look no further than chapter 8.
So, what precisely is the “main point”? “We have such a High Priest, who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens” (v. 1). The vocational location of Jesus Christ is the main thing that we must keep the main thing. William Lane refers to this main point as the “crowning affirmation,” which, he says, “is not simply that Christians have a high priest who has taken his seat at God’s right hand but that he is the ministering priest in the heavenly sanctuary.”1 Again, the main point is the vocational location of the Lord Jesus. What He has accomplished and therefore what He is doing in heaven is the main thing that we must keep the main thing.
Having introduced the reality that, under Christ, we have a “better covenant” (7:22) because Jesus is a better Priest, in chapter 8 the writer drives home the superior nature of this covenant as he continues to show us the superiority of our High Priest. If we will keep the main thing the main thing then we must appreciate the superiority of Jesus. We will see this under several headings.
Jesus Has a Superior Seat
In v. 1 we learn that our great High Priest has a superior seat: “Now this is the main point of the things we are saying: We have such a High Priest, who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens.”
This is not a summary statement as much as it is the climax of an argument. That is, the writer is not summarising what he has said previously but is telling us the direction to which all of this has been heading. As Morris points out, “the writer is picking out the principal point and proceeding to develop it.”2 In the words of Solomon, he is saying, “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter” (Ecclesiastes 12:13). The crowning argument of Christ’s crowning achievement is seen in where He is located and what He is doing. The ‘ocational location of Jesus proves His supremacy.
To be “seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens” is to be seated in a place of supreme honour and authority. We saw this recently in our study of Psalm 110. No Aaronic priest ever entered such a place (see Zechariah 6:13).
It should be remembered that there was no place in the earthly tabernacle for the priests to sit. The furnishings included no chairs. The closest thing to this was the mercy seat, which of course typified the throne of God. For a priest to sit there would be an act of blasphemy. The reason that the priests were not afforded a place to sit was because their work was never finished. Sins were covered but not cleansed. Sacrifices therefore had to be continually offered. So the fact that our heavenly High Priest is seated is significant. He is seated because His work was finished (John 19:30). He has entered into His rest (4:10). He is seated and resting in the very presence of God. It is for this reason that the writer uses the superlative in the phrase, “We have such a High Priest.” Such indeed!
Jesus Has a Superior Service in a Superior Sanctuary
In v. 2 we learn that Jesus exercises a superior service in a superior sanctuary. He is “a Minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle which the Lord erected, and not man.”
Jesus has a superior seat above any and all priests, and this seat is in a superior sanctuary. We learn this from two references.
In v. 1 we read that the Lord Jesus is seated “in the heavens,” and v. 2 indicates the place in the heavens where this seat is; namely, in “the sanctuary,” which is “the true tabernacle.”
The True Sanctuary
The word “sanctuary” means “a sacred place,” and the tabernacle referenced is said to be the “true” one. This does not mean true as opposed false. Rather, as the following verses make clear, he is contrasting the substance over the shadow; the antitype over the type; the eternal over the temporal.
The tabernacle that God commanded Moses to build was not a false tabernacle. It served a purpose. But it was limited in that it was earthly. Jesus, however, sits and serves (“a minister”) in the heavenly, perfect and eternal tabernacle in heaven. The point is that this was always the purpose of the tabernacle made by man: to point to the fulfilment in Christ.
But though the writer is not denigrating the tabernacle (and the later temple), it can be said that if a person rejected Christ in favour of sacrificial ritual at the temple, then indeed the temple could be said to be false.
The word “Minister” translates a word that is used in the New Testament for priestly service where God is the recipient of the “ministry.” Jesus is seated in the very presence of God, where He serves both His Father and us. That is both humbling and profound.
The Father gave His people to become Jesus’ people (John 17:1–2, etc.). He was to die for them and to rise from the dead for them. By doing so, He would grant them spiritual and eternal life. David Wells puts it beautifully, “The God who was with us in our history is the God who is for us throughout eternity.”3
Praying, Protecting, Preserving
Jesus honours His Father by His faithful stewardship of this gift. In John 17 (see vv. 1–12), we learn that Jesus had been given a people, and in John 18:1–9 we see Him protecting those people. In a profound sense, Jesus keeps us (those whom He saves) in honour of His Father. And, of course, He does so by interceding on our behalf (Romans 8:31–34; 1 John 2:1–2; etc.). Jesus serves the Father by serving us. Let that sink deep into your soul and then try to be grumpy!
Let me pause for a moment to observe that we should not imagine that there is an actual piece of furniture in heaven where Jesus is sitting, or an actual building called a sanctuary. However, we must at the same time guard the truth that our God does dwell above us. He does dwell in His third heaven. He is above, which means that the only way that we can be saved is if He reaches down to us. This is why an accurate translation of John 3:3 is, “Unless one is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Postmodern man has sought to internalise God. We must return to the biblical teaching of an external God whom we need to dwell with us and in us—on His terms.
Jesus is a Superior Sacrifice
In v. 3 we learn that Jesus is a superior sacrifice: “For every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices. Therefore it is necessary that this One also have something to offer.”
Hands that are Full
In the previous verses we are told that Jesus is serving in the heavenly sanctuary, in the true tabernacle. But in what sense is He serving? When you think of the priesthood, you usually do not think of them being empty-handed. You think of them bearing sacrifices. In fact, the word used in the Old Testament for the “consecrating” of priests literally means “to fill the hands.” The priests were consecrated upon their appointment with the offering up of sacrifices. They would come to the altar with their hands filled with offerings. So the question, of course, particularly to a practising Jew, would be, “What fills the hands of Jesus?”
The author has, of course, already answered this question. In 7:27 he wrote that Jesus “does not need daily, as those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the people’s, for this He did once for all when He offered up Himself.” A superior sacrifice indeed!
In actual fact, rather than saying that Jesus has a superior sacrifice we can say that He is a superior sacrifice.
The text should not be erroneously read as indicating that Jesus needs to continually offer this sacrifice. That is not what it means. What it means is that for Jesus to be High Priest He needed an acceptable offering to enter the Holy of Holies. And this He had and this He did when He offered up Himself “once for all.” As Morris says, “The author is referring to one offering made once for all, not a continuous offering always being made in heaven.”4 Jesus is the superior sacrifice, and His one-time sacrifice will be efficacious forever (7:25).
Since Jesus’ sacrifice was accepted, in a very real sense therefore His hands are empty. But at the same time His hands are filled with the scars from that sacrifice. And we therefore are safe and secure in those hands. We are continually forgiven, continually accepted, and (as we will see) continually empowered to overcome sin.
Jesus is Superior to all Shadows
In vv. 4–6 we learn that Jesus is superior to all shadows:
For if He were on earth, He would not be a priest, since there are priests who offer the gifts according to the law; who serve the copy and shadow of the heavenly things, as Moses was divinely instructed when he was about to make the tabernacle. For He said, “See that you make all things according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.” But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, inasmuch as He is also Mediator of a better covenant, which was established on better promises.
Here, the writer reinforces his argument by reminding his readers that Jesus’ priesthood was distinctively superior.
He points out, again, that Jesus would not qualify to be a priest on earth. After all, He was not a Levite (7:14–16). But of course this genealogical anomaly was divinely purposeful. The Levitical priesthood and ceremonial system was only a shadow of the true. By the very nature of a type there had to be a discontinuity, a dissimilarity. The substance is always superior to the shadow. There was no perfect parallel, just as a physical shadow is not a perfect reproduction of that which casts the shadow. The type and the antitype are distinct. Therefore, this incongruity between the heavenly priesthood (in which Jesus is qualified) and the earthly one (in which He is not) is perfectly consistent.
The main point is that Jesus is the perfect substance and He is therefore superior to the mere shadow. But this argument is dependent upon the remainder of the passage. That is, it is because Jesus is the author of the new and more excellent covenant that there is this difference in the priesthood (see chapters 5–7).
A Priestly Incongruity
In v. 6 we are told something that helps us to connect the dots with what has been said in vv. 4–5.
When the Lord told Moses to “make all things according to the pattern shown you on the mountain” (see Exodus 25:40), Moses obeyed explicitly. The furnishings and the structure of the tabernacle were akin to God’s heavenly abode. Yet there was one essential element of the tabernacle on earth that was not in place in heaven: the priesthood. In space-time history, there was no mediator in heaven. Job wished for one but he, like all Old Testament believers, would have to wait. But when Jesus came to earth, He lived a perfect life, died on the cross, rose and ascended. He was then seated as our Mediator, our High Priest. God with us has now become God for us (Romans 8:31–34).
This is why we read in v. 6, “But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry.” The word “obtained” means “to meet with the mark” or “to attain an end or a goal.” Jesus, in contrast to sinful priests, did not miss the mark of God’s holiness. This is why there is no comparable priesthood. And because of this qualification, the writer can make the bold statement, “He is also Mediator of a better covenant, established on better promises.” This was a stumblingblock for most Jews. The main thing of the cross has always been a stumblingblock. Nevertheless, it remains the main thing.
What is a Covenant?
We can say, for simplicity’s sake, that a covenant, as revealed in the Bible, is a bond that establishes the terms of a relationship. Just as the marriage covenant establishes the terms of the lifelong relationship between husband and wife, so a biblical covenant established the terms of the relationship between God and those with whom He chose to enter into such a relationship.
The covenant with which the writer is contrasting the “better covenant” of Jesus is the Mosaic covenant, established at Sinai.
Fundamentally, it was a conditional covenant. If Israel obeyed, then God would bless the Jewish nation.They would be His people and He their God. But if they disobeyed, they would be guilty of breaching the covenant and the relationship would come to an end. And this, of course, they did, and God, true to His word, brought judgement upon them (see Matthew 24; Revelation).
But the “better covenant”” of which Jesus is the Mediator, is “established upon better promises”—that is, the promise of unconditional acceptance because of the full acceptance by the Father of the Son. With Christ as our seated High Priest in heaven, we have the promise that we can draw near to God.
Further, as the remainder of the chapter reveals, we have the power to keep the law of God and to overcome sin.
It is for this reason that He has “a more excellent ministry” than any earthly priestly ministry could ever even imagine. Yes, Jesus is far superior to the mere shadows that pointed to Him.
Jesus is a Superior Saviour
Verses 7–13 reveal that Jesus is a superior Saviour. That, my friend, is the main thing.
For if that first covenant had been faultless, then no place would have been sought for a second. Because finding fault with them, He says: “Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah—not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they did not continue in My covenant, and I disregarded them, says the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. None of them shall teach his neighbour, and none his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them. For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.”
In that He says, “A new covenant,” He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.
Having introduced the theme of the better covenant, the writer now expounds just why it is better. Here we find, for the first time, the mention of the “new covenant.” It is new, not in chronology, but rather in kind. We will return to this passage sometime in the future, but for now let me make the point that the difference between the new and the oldcovenants is not that one is by grace and the other is by law. In fact,each contains elements of both. According to v. 9 the deliverance of Israel from Egypt was by grace, for the Lord “took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt.” It was only after they experienced grace that God gave them the law at Sinai. So although grace does characterise the new covenant, the old covenant was actually predicated on the same grace. In other words, the grace of the new covenant has always been a reality throughout redemptive history.
Without going into too much detail, the prophecy quoted from Jeremiah 31:31–34 was given to the Jews in Babylon. They were being judged by the rod of Babylon precisely because they had broken God’s covenant. But the Lord told them that the day was coming in which He would“make a new covenant” with them. The writer to the Hebrews clearly sees this new covenant as coming into effect with the coming of the Lord Jesus. In fact, Jesus used these very words at the Last Supper (Matthew 26:26).
What’s the Difference?
There are several features of the new covenant that are distinct from the old covenant. But perhaps the major differences are that the new covenant is both more personal and powerful.
It is more personal in that, under the new covenant, God says, “I will put my laws in their mind” and will “write them on their hearts,” for “all [in the new covenant] shall know me.”
Under the old covenant, religion was very external. The law of God was, in fact, to be written on their foreheads and on the door posts. However, under the new covenant, the law would be written on their hearts. This brings us to the second distinction; namely, that the new covenant is more powerful. There is a power and ability of the new covenant that the old covenant never had. Let me explain.
Faulty and Faultless
The writer says that the old covenant was not “faultless.” God, in fact, found “fault with them.”
He does not mean that the old covenant was a failure. After all, the law is holy and just and good (Romans 7:12). The problem was not with the law and not, of course, with the Lawgiver; rather, the fault was with those who received the law. You see the old covenant could command but it could not compel obedience. As Jones says, “The idea of ‘finding fault’ is that of a charge being proved…. The charge is that it could not give blessing to the disobedient. It could not give life…. But the blame for this lies in human nature and not in the law.”5
Let me put it this way: The law could command but not convert. Man’s default to sin trumped the law’s command to obey. But the new covenant has the power to change hearts and to empower such transformed lives to obey the law (Romans 8:1–4).
The new covenant, as other Old and New Testament passages reveal, is enacted by the redemptive work of Christ and by the regenerating work of the Spirit. Because Jesus ascended to sit, the Spirit was sent and the new covenant has been fully set in space-time history. Souls are being saved and therefore lives are being transformed. Law-breakers are being transformed into love-fuelled law-keepers.
Pardon Full and Forever
We should also note that the new covenant distinctly provides forgiveness, unlike the old covenant, that is both full and forever. Because Jesus Christ offered Himself as the spotless sacrifice “once for all” God is able to forget (“I will remember no more”) and therefore He can fully forgive—once for all!
Obsolete and Vanishing
It is for these reasons that we are told that the Mosaic covenant has become “obsolete” (literally, “to become old”) and that it is disappearing (“ready to vanish away”). With the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 AD, it would become forever literally obsolete and would forever vanish away. And that is okay for, after all, who needs the shadow when you have the substance?
The Main Thing
In other words, the writer is making the main point that Jesus is a superior Saviour; He is the superior Saviour. And since this is so, those who have professed Him as their Saviour had better keep the main thing the main thing and stop running after any other thing.
Conclusion and Application
So, what can we say as we bring this to a close? I am sure we can say much, but nothing perhaps more important than the need for the Christian church to keep this main thing the main thing. The supremacy of Jesus as Saviour must remain the main message we proclaim; it must be the main motivation behind our worship; it must be the main mindset of our walk; and it must be the main mission of our work. It is in fact the main membership issue of the local church.
The Main Message of our Proclamation
Sadly, church history is rife with examples of Christian leaders, local churches, whole denominations and Christian ministries who failed to keep the main thing the main thing. To use business terminology, they diversified, with the result that they lost their true profitability. Sadly many churches have gained the world and lost their soul by moving away from this main thing. When Jesus is no longer valued for the supreme Saviour He is, then the church is in trouble.
Secular Therapeutic Theologies
In some cases, churches have sought respectability in the world and have gotten it. But it cost them the gospel with the eventual cost of their identity. Many churches have become baptised secular social institutions.
In other cases, local churches have been influenced by a man-centred therapeutic ethos, and in the end the patient is worse off than when he came for help. David Wells laments this very thing in his latest book, God in the Whirlwind. He makes the observation that many churches have embraced this paradigm shift, having lost sight of the main point, with terrible consequences. He notes that “there is no evil in a therapeutic world. There is only pain.”6
The problem, of course, is that if there is no evil then there is no need for the gospel.
Sadly, it appears that it is not the world that is resistant to use the label “evil,” but also many in the church. Yet without this category we have nothing to offer a lost and painful because evil world. The gospel is not primarily a painkiller; it is a sin eater. And when sin is dealt a mortal blow, the consequences of pain are also eventually removed. There are plenty of institutions that can apply plasters to the cancers of pain in this world, but only the church has the message that can cure the cause. The gospel must be kept the main thing.
In the early 1500s, God saved a German monk by the name of Martin Luther. He had been enslaved by a religious system that had everything but Christ. It had many things, but not the main thing. In many ways, the religious system to which Luther was initially so passionately devoted had many elements with which Judaism would have been quite happy. It had a liturgical and mediatorial priesthood; it had ceremonial law; and it even claimed to have a daily sacrifice—called “the Mass.”
But this religious system was also attractive to many who claimed to be Christians. After all, it had crosses and crucifixes and Bible verses. What it did not have, in spite of regularly using His name, was Christ. In the words of Michael Horton, it was a Christless Christianity. It had no gospel. This monolithic and mammoth religious system failed to keep the main thing the main thing. But by God’s grace, Martin Luther was eventually born again. He then sought to help the Roman Catholic Church to get back to the main thing. And his life was threatened for his efforts!
Of course, the great Reformation came about through the efforts of Luther and others. They laboured to return the church to the main thing. But that reformation is not complete. And in fact, many churches that did reform according to the gospel lost their way again. They once again lost sight of the main thing, and so deformation resulted. Reformation is needed again. Because of our sin nature there has persisted the need for ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda—that is, “the church, having reformed, alwaysreforming.”
I am simply emphasising that we need to guard the gospel (1 Timothy 6:20). If we do not keep the main thing the main thing then we will ultimately be nothing as a local church.
The Main Mission of our Work
The local church must be sure to keep the main thing at the heart of our main mission. We need to beware of the danger of emphasising social, compassionate ministry in the place of gospel proclamation. As I have argued before on several occasions, this is not a simple either/or choice. What we must always keep before us, however, is the need to keep the main thing the main thing.
The Main Mindset of Our Walk
Another area in which we need to apply this is our manner of living in this world. As we have observed time and again, there is always the danger of an insidious legalism slithering its way into our hearts and minds. We who have been saved find ourselves discouraged by our sinful failures, which fundamentally rise from the besetting sin of unbelief. We then hear the hissing lies of the evil one telling us that either we have been forever rejected and that God will not forgive us, or we listen to the venomous lie that we in fact can save ourselves by our own efforts. Like the primordial temptation, we assume, to some degree, that we are “like God” and we behave as if salvation is of ourselves. It is not. When we keep the main thing the main thing we are able to fight against the despair arising from a sense of hopelessness. We are able to take seriously the revelation from God Himself that He remembers our sins no more. When we keep the main thing the main thing we embrace the reality that God is able to forget and therefore to forgive.
When we keep the main thing the main thing then we are humbled to look above to the one who is seated on the right hand of the Father interceding for us. When we do this, then all thoughts of self-salvation are forced to flee as we experience afresh the mercy of the Lord at the throne of grace. Yes, keeping the main thing the main thing is vital for our spiritual health and growth. Keep it!
The Main Motivation of our Worship
We must keep the main thing the main thing corporately in our worship. As we gather on the Lord’s Day, having focused throughout the week on the main thing, we should expect that the service leaders, the musicians, the preacher, and the teachers will point us to the main thing. Excellence is important in worship. Preachers need to work themselves nearly—if not actually—to the point of exhaustion in their sermon preparation. They should be read up, fed up and fired up as they enter the pulpit. But if all of this is done apart from focusing on the main thing, then whatever transpires will in the end miss the point.
When we gather we should have the expectation that the gospel will be proclaimed and therefore that Christ as our High Priest will be emphasised. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, you should expect nothing less than Jesus Christ and Him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2).
Many churches today have left the main thing—and many quite unwittingly—because they are obsessed with relevance.
Now, of course, at one level we should be concerned that we not be irrelevant. It is for this reason that I believe that some of our Reformed brethren need to move out of a sixteenth century Northern European ecclesiastical mindset and into the present century, recognising our own cultural persona. But having made this qualification, we should appreciate that the church that takes the gospel seriously, the church that keeps the main thing the main thing, will always be relevant! The reason, of course, is quite simple: The gospel addresses the problem that plagues mankind across every generation and every culture—the problem of sin, which alienates man from God. So let us work to keep the main thing the main thing and thereby assure a fruitful relevance.
The Main Thing is the Main Membership Issue
As I said, if the local church will be truly, meaningfully and helpfully relevant, then we must keep the main thing the main thing. And one way to ensure this is for each member of the church to keep the main thing the main thing.
By the way, Ford gets this. Ford’s business strategy includes four things under the heading “ONE Ford Plan.” The last point is: “Work together effectively as one team.” Ford’s goal is then summarised: “Building on this plan, ONE Ford encourages focus, teamwork and a single global approach, aligning employee efforts toward a common definition of success.” And further on they make the statement that one of their corporate goals is to “make the world a better place” (in which, I suppose, everyone drives a Ford!).
Though I am not advocating taking our cue from the marketplace, I simply want to illustrate that this is precisely what the New Testament teaches. If the current president of Ford was not Buddhist I might think that he has been studying Scripture!
It is important that, as local churches, we keep the main thing the main thing. But that requires that each member be committed to doing so. This is one reason that the writer will exhort in 10:23–25 that these saints continue to gather together. Their corporate togetherness—centred on Christ and His gospel—is a means towards the individual Christian, as well as the church, keeping the main thing the main thing.
And when you really think about, if you have Christ, why would you even want any other thing?
- William L. Lane, Hebrews: Word Biblical Commentary, 2 vols. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1991), 1:204. ↩
- Leon Morris, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 12:74. ↩
- David F. Wells, God in the Whirlwind: How the Holy-love of God Reorients Our World (Wheaton: Crossway, 2014), ??. ↩
- Morris, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12:75. ↩
- Hywel R. Jones, Let’s Study Hebrews (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2002), 88–89. ↩
- Wells, God in the Whirlwind, 110. ↩