Vos, The Teaching of the Epistle to the Hebrews, Chapter 3


Chapter 3 is the longest and most important chapter in this collection of lectures by Vos. It is about the redemptive-historical hermeneutics used by the author of Hebrews. The title is, “The Epistle’s Philosophy of Revelation and Redemption.” It also deserves a much more thorough review than what I will be providing in this post.

Vos argues that the big distinction that Hebrews makes is between the covenant made at Sinai with Israel (aka the “Old Covenant”) and the New Covenant. The historical dividing line between the Old Covenant and the New is the death or, perhaps even more precisely, the ascension of Christ. This is because there was a change of priesthood in Christ’s ascension; he entered into the true temple with the sacrifice that takes away sin.

Another way the distinction is made in Hebrews is between “this age” and “the age to come.” The Old Covenant pertains to this age. The New Covenant pertains to the age to come. Believers are already in touch with the age to come (cf. 6:5, 9:11, 10:1). Christ’s death and resurrection are the beginning of the age to come breaking into this world. Where Paul contrasts the two ages morally (the preset evil age and the age to come), Hebrews contrasts them in terms of perfection (the imperfect and the perfect).

So, the first thing Vos establishes is that there are two periods spoken of in Hebrews (Old Covenant and New Covenant, this age and the age to come, etc). Now the question is about what they have to do with each other. What’s their relationship?

Vos’s basic argument is that “the old prefigures the new.” He then uses his famous triangle to illustrate this relationship: the heavenly reality typologically breaking into the Old Covenant era, and anti-typically arriving in the New Covenant era.

As a time of prefiguration, the Old Covenant era was inferior to the new. In what way?

  1. The place. The Old Covenant was located on earth, whereas the center of the New Covenant is heaven.
  2. The substance. The substance of the OC was flesh and the substance of the NC is (the Holy) Spirit.
  3. The Efficacy. One is fleshly, inert and doomed to failure. One is Spiritual, dynamic and abiding forever.

Vos points out that this contrast seems to leave the Old Covenant looking very useless. What did it actually accomplish? The types and shadows revealed to Old Testament saints the better things to come.

Finally Vos turns to the nature of revelation in these two covenants. He argues that religion in both covenants flows out of revelation, and that this revelation reaches its climax in Christ the Son of God (cf. 1:1). Hebrews sees revelation as serving the practical function of developing fellowship between God and man.



Sinai/Pentecost Parallels

“By the time of the first century, the Day of Pentecost seems to have been associated with the giving of the law at Sinai. By the time of the second century, this was thought to have taken place in the seventy languages of the world, and this tradition may have already been commonplace. But even if that association in Judaism is questioned, a Sinai-Pentecost parallel is established in the New Testament itself. The revelation of God to Moses at Sinai had been accompanied by fire, wind and a divine tongue (Heb. 12:18-21). Moses had ascended the mountain. When he descended he had in his possession the Ten Commandments, the law of God. Christ too had recently ascended. At Pentecost he comes down, not with the law written on tablets of clay, but with the gift of his own Spirit to write the law in the hearts of believers and by his power to enable them to fulfil the law’s commands. Thus the new covenant promise begins to be fulfilled (cf. Je. 31:31-34; Rom. 8:3-4; 2 Cor. 3:7-11)” (Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Holy Spirit, 61).

After reading this passage the other day, I thought of another interesting parallel between Sinai and Pentecost: the reception of God’s revelation. At Sinai, Israel ‘responds’ to God’s law with rebellion; they create a golden calf in direct contradiction of the law they had received. Moses sent the Levites, with sword in hand, to purge Israel of this rebellion. We are told in Exodus 32:28 that three thousand men fell that day. Interestingly, at Pentecost we read that the number who believingly received God’s word was about three thousand (Acts 2:41). Three thousand slain at Sinai because the mere external word of the law had no effect in their hearts; three thousand saved at Pentecost because the Spirit was poured out, causing God’s external word to penetrate into the heart of man (Acts 2:37).