The superiority of Christ over all that came before him (not just pagan but also God-given, first-covenant practice) is the theme that runs throughout the letter from the opening declaration (Hebrews 1:4) to the concluding lines (Hebrews 12:24).
When we lose our wonder, we are prone to wander.
Not only are we prone to lose the wonder that God made the world he did — with clouds and canyons, mountains and mammals, nutmeg and noses — but also that Jesus is the Lord and Savior he is. We are prone to lose a sense for the glory of the new covenant, the one we enjoy now “in these last days” (Hebrews 1:2). We grow blind to the miracle of Christianity in our specific culturally conditioned manifestations of it — until we compare those experiences to something else.
Simple comparison can be a powerful tool for keeping (and even deepening) the wonder of our faith. The epistle to the Hebrews was written to a group of Christian Jews who had lost the wonder — or perhaps never quite seen the wonder in the first place. Hebrews challenges its readers to “pay much closer attention” (Hebrews 2:1) and not neglect (Hebrews 2:3) the magnitude of the salvation we have received in Christ.
Comparing Christianity to other world religions can give us fresh love and appreciation for Christ — how the God of the universe has revealed himself to us and what he expects (and doesn’t) from us. And one of the most powerful comparative controls for Christianity is not pagan religion but the God-given, pre-Christian religion of the old covenant.
The Scriptures are full of important flashpoints of comparison for how God once appointed for his people to engage with him, in preparation for the coming of his Son, against how he now directs us to live, and draw near to him, since the climax of history has come in the life, death, and resurrection of his Son. Whereas the contrast with pagan religion is essentially bad versus good, the comparison with old-covenant religion can be illuminating because it is good versus better.
Jesus Is Better
Of the many places in the New Testament that make such comparisons implicitly and explicitly, the book of Hebrews does it most extensively and in the greatest detail. This is, in fact, the essential focus of the letter.
A group of Jewish Christians, perhaps persecuted by non-Christian kinsmen, are tempted to return to Judaism apart from Christ. The author to the Hebrews writes to warn and persuade them against such a (foolish and perilous) course. He argues not only that returning to Judaism isn’t actually possible (because old-covenant religion has been fulfilled in Christ and is no longer a valid approach to God apart from him), but also that Jesus is better than anything they could return to apart from him.
The superiority of Christ over all that came before him (not just pagan but also God-given, first-covenant practice) is the theme that runs throughout the letter from the opening declaration (Hebrews 1:4) to the concluding lines (Hebrews 12:24). Even though what came before was “holy and righteous and good” (to borrow the language of Romans 7:12), Jesus — and the new covenant he brings — is better. The line of comparison, then, is not bad versus good. Nor (beware) is it good versus just as good. It is good versus better. Old was good — and Jesus is better.
Five Crucial Contrasts
Hebrews chapters 9 and 10 serve as the culminating argument of the letter. All that comes before (and after) sets the table for (and extends application from) this climactic exposition about the work of Christ. In particular, Hebrews 9:11–14 is the crucial paragraph. Here at the very heart of the letter is the comparison of five (good) facets of old-covenant religion versus five (better) aspects of the new.
1. Superior Place
The old covenant had a ground zero in this world, “an earthly place of holiness” (Hebrews 9:1). God instructed his people, through Moses, to build a tabernacle with two sections. The first was “the Holy Place” into which the priests went daily to perform their duties (Hebrews 9:2, 6). The second was “the Most Holy Place” into which only the high priest went, and only once a year (Hebrews 9:3, 7). Given as it was by God, this tabernacle was still an earthly locale. It was a good arrangement, enduring for a millennium and a half as it was incorporated into the structure of the temple.
However, the place of Jesus’s work is better. When Jesus had accomplished his cross-work, and risen from the dead, he ascended bodily and entered into the ultimate holy place (“heaven itself,” Hebrews 9:24) “through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation)” (Hebrews 9:11). An earthly tabernacle, as the dwelling place of God, was only “a copy and shadow of the heavenly things” (Hebrews 8:5). Which is why God instructed Moses, “See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain” (Hebrews 8:5; Exodus 25:40).