Do you remember early on in the pandemic when everyone discovered Zoom? After realizing that our temporary shutdowns were not so temporary, it seemed like our lives moved virtual in a heartbeat. To be honest, I thought it was kind of fun at first. There were endless memes to go around, everybody loved wearing pajamas all day, and we got creative with the ways we interacted with friends and family. (Did anyone else do game nights on Zoom?) Just as quickly as we flocked to Zoom and our virtual lives, though, we just as quickly tired of it. Virtual meetings are exhausting! In a rare moment of societal agreement, it became so very clear that the internet could offer no substitute for real life.
This concrete feeling of one way of life being far better than another helps us understand what the author of Hebrews is saying about Jesus and the new covenant. In chapter eight, the writer describes how priests “serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven” (8:5). In contrast to these priests, Jesus would not serve at a sanctuary (8:4) because his ministry comes straight from the source—not a copy or a shadow of what is in heaven, but heaven itself. While priests do their work in service of the old covenant, Jesus works in service of the new covenant which is “established on better promises” (8:6).
What is this new covenant though? What makes it different from the old one? To explain, the author of Hebrews quotes from the prophet Jeremiah:
This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. (Hebrews 8:10; cf. Jeremiah 31:33)
In this new covenant, the relationship between God and God’s people is not mediated by the Temple or any other religious institution. God’s laws are not written on scrolls, but on people’s hearts; they are not put in a temple, but in people’s minds. Institutions like the Temple are, as the author of Hebrews puts it, copies or shadows of something greater. These institutions are certainly important. They are meant to be accurate copies of something greater (e.g., Moses had to follow the pattern for the tabernacle perfectly [see Heb. 8:5]), but they will never be that greater thing itself. While the religious institutions of that day did offer the promise of mediating a relationship with God in heaven, an even better promise is this: God showing up in the flesh and heaven being brought to earth. No more curtain separating God from the people. No more waiting for God’s reign to come.
With the coming of Jesus, something new happened. His message was this: The kingdom of God has come near. It is within you; it is amongst you—if only you have eyes to see.
Every time Jesus cast out demons, healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, forgave the sinner, and restored the honor of the shamed he was releasing more and more of heaven into our world. It’s as if there had always been a curtain as the backdrop to our world—a curtain that none of us even knew was there but that hid heaven from us. Then Jesus came along and slashed holes into the curtain and the light from behind it came pouring through. Suddenly we realize that what we thought was the real world was only a part of the real world. There is so much more.
In the film The Truman Show, there’s this great climactic scene where Truman has a strong hunch that there is something fake about his world, so he sails out far into the ocean and then suddenly his boat rams through a wall. At that point, Truman’s hunch is confirmed. There is no going back now that he has discovered the truth about his world.
Something similar happens to us when we discover what Jesus was revealing all along. When we have eyes to see and ears to hear, we realize that the kingdom of God is all around us. Those better promises of the new covenant are accessible here and now. The presence of God can truly be experienced. Real grace can be given. Redemption can be realized today. Shalom in our neighborhoods is a real possibility, not a utopian dream. Love of neighbor and even love of enemy are real expectations and real possibilities today. Hungry stomachs can be fed, addictions can be broken, and fears can be overcome.
Of course, there is a certain kind of tension in all of this. Theologians and biblical scholars help us see that there is an “already, not yet” aspect to the kingdom of God. There are times when it is made clear in the New Testament that the kingdom of God is here already—this very moment. Yet there are also times when it is made clear that the kingdom of God is not yet here—we are waiting for something to be completed. This matches our lived experience as well. We see transformation take place in lives today. We catch glimpses of resurrection life springing up around us. Yet, we also experience so much suffering, evil, and death in our world.
In those “not yet” moments, though, let us also remember the “already” aspect of God’s reign. We are not on hold. God is not in the waiting room of a Zoom call. God is with us today. God’s ways of love are being inscribed on our hearts and placed in our minds. And God is king right here and right now—not simply in some metaphorical, abstract way. God’s reign as revealed in the life and work of Jesus is alive and active today. That is good news! That is a better promise!