“Time past and time present are both together in time future,” wrote T.S. Elliot. His rhythmic words simply and eloquently describe the ordinary flow of history. But the letter to the Hebrews presents a very different perspective on God’s purposes and patterns in the flow of history. There, it would be true to say, the future determines the past and the present, rather than the other way round.
To understand Hebrews — and thus to understand how the Bible as a whole works — we need to understand this riddle: The invisible is more substantial than the visible. The future comes before the past. The new is more fundamental than the old. What does all this mean? Simply put, it means that the story of the Lord Jesus, His person and work, is not a divine afterthought, a heavenly “plan b” hurriedly scrambled together when “plan a” went horribly wrong in Eden. No — the coming of Christ was in the plan before the Fall. Everything that precedes it chronologically actually follows it logically.
From one point of view, of course, the Old Testament serves as the model of what Christ would come to accomplish. But Hebrews teaches us never to lose sight of the fact that the priesthood, sacrifices, liturgy and life of the Old Testament church are simply a rough copy. Christ is the original; He is the antitype, the pictures of the Old Testament form the type.
This principle is given its clearest expression in Hebrews 9:23 which refers to the Old Testament tabernacle, priesthood and sacrifices as “the copies of the heavenly things.” Yet more picturesquely, Hebrews 10:1 describes the law as “but a shadow of the good things to come.” Copies depend on an original; a shadow does not exist apart from the person whose shadow it is and from whom it takes its shape.
Hebrews works this idea out in a fascinating series of ways. The new covenant shapes the old that prepares for it and gives indications of its character and significance. The result is that the old prepares for the new and gives hints of what it will be like.
The priesthood of Christ is the true priesthood which is foreshadowed in the Aaronic priesthood. The inner meaning of the sacrifice of Christ is expressed in a fragmentary way in the Mosaic sacrificial system. But it is clear that these copies are simply that — shadows, hints, outlines — and no more. The daily repetition of priestly sacrificial ministry at the altar, the obvious inadequacy of an animal’s blood to deal with the blood-guilt of a human being — are hints that this arrangement, although divinely commanded, is not the final one. Something lies beyond it, to which it points; here is a greater, more enduring, more satisfying reality yet to come (Heb. 11:39–12:3).
In his famous children’s books, C.S. Lewis describes the land of Narnia that has been placed under a spell by the White Witch. Her magic is deep, creating a world where it is “always winter, but never Christmas.” But through the sacrifice of the Lion-King, Aslan, a “deeper magic from before the dawn of time” is released, through which the land is set free and saved from the curse. Time future was already prepared for in time past.
So it is in the gospel. God has a plan. It has been called the covenant of redemption, or the covenant of peace (pactum salutis). Theologians as great as Thomas Boston and Jonathan Edwards have disagreed as to whether the plan should properly be described as a covenant at all. But the debates over nomenclature are incidental to the thing itself.
The triune God had a plan, involving the mutual commitment of Father, Son and Spirit to save a people. About this the reformed theologians speak with one voice.
Before all time; prior to all worlds; when there was nothing “outside of” God himself; when the Father, Son and Spirit found eternal, absolute and unimaginable blessing, pleasure and joy in their holy triunity — it was their agreed purpose to create a world which would fall, and in unison — but at infinitely great cost — to bring you (if you are a believer) grace and salvation. This deeper grace from before the dawn of time — pictured in the rituals, the leaders and the experiences of the Old Testament saints (cf. Heb. 11:39–12:3) — is now ours. These are the dimensions of what the author of Hebrews calls “such a great salvation” (Heb. 2:3). Our salvation depends on God’s covenant, rooted in eternity in the plan of the Trinity, foreshadowed in the Mosaic covenant, fulfilled in Christ, enduring forever. No wonder Hebrews calls it “great.”
You considered your salvation to be “great” early in your Christian life didn’t you? Do you still think about it that way today?
Dr. Sinclair B. Ferguson is a Ligonier Ministries teaching fellow and Chancellor’s Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary. He previously served as senior minister of the First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, S.C., and he has written numerous books, including The Whole Christ, In Christ Alone, Devoted to God, Some Pastors and Teachers, In the Year of Our Lord, and Maturity.