The following selection is from John Owen’s Exposition of
Hebrews 8:6-13, as found in Covenant
Theology: From Adam to Christ [I’ve made
some slight changes to the formatting]. This section is focused on Hebrews 8:8,
which contains a quote from Jeremiah 31:31, “Finding fault with them He says,
‘Behold, the days come,’ says the LORD,
‘And I will make a New Covenant with the house of Israel and the house of
Judah.’” Following the [admittedly lengthy] quote from Owen, I’ll give a few
The Persons with
Whom this Covenant [i.e. the New Covenant] Were Made
The persons with whom this covenant
is made are also expressed: “The house of Israel and the house of Judah.” Long
before the giving of this promise, that people were divided into two parts. The
one of them, in way of distinction from the other, retained the name of Israel.
These were the ten tribes, which fell off from the house of David, under the
conduct of Ephraim; by reason of which fact they are often also in the Prophets
called by that name. The other, consisting of the tribe properly so called,
with that of Benjamin and the greater part of Levi; took the name of Judah; and
with them both the promise and the church remained in a peculiar manner. But
although they all originally sprang from Abraham, who received the promise and
sign of circumcision for them all, and because they were all equally in their
forefather brought into the bond of the old covenant, they are here mentioned
distinctly, that none of the seed of Abraham might be excluded from the tender
of the covenant. To the whole seed of Abraham according to the flesh it was
that the terms and grace of this covenant were first to be offered. So Peter
tells them, in his first sermon, that “the promise was to them and their
children” who were then present, that is, the house of Judah; and “to all who
were afar off,” that is, the house of Israel in their dispersions (Acts 2:39).
So again he expresses the order of the dispensation of this covenant with
respect to the promise made to Abraham, Acts 3:25-26:
“You are the children of the
prophets, and of the covenant which God made with our fathers, saying to
Abraham, ‘And in your seed will all the kindreds of the earth be blessed.’ To
you first, God–having raised his Son Jesus–sent him to bless you” (namely, in
the preaching of the gospel).
So our apostle, in his sermon spoken to them, affirmed that
“it was necessary that the word should be first spoken to them” (Acts 13:46).
And this was all the privilege that was now left to them; for the
partition-wall was now broken down, and all obstacles against the Gentiles
taken out of the way. To that end this house of Israel and house of Judah may
be considered in two ways: [1.] as that people who were the whole entire
posterity of Abraham; [2.] as they were typical, spiritually symbolic of the
whole church of God. Because of this fact alone it is that the promises of
grace under the old testament are given to the church under these names,
because they were types of them who should really and effectually be made
partakers of them.
the first sense, God made this covenant
with them [i.e. ethnic Israelites], and this on various accounts:
Because he in through whom alone it was to be established and
made effectual was to be brought forth among them of the seed of Abraham, as
the apostle Peter plainly declares (Acts 3:25).
Because all things that belonged to the ratification of it
were to be transacted among them.
Because, in the outward dispensation of it, the terms and
grace of it were first in the counsel of God to be tendered to them.
Because by them, by the ministry of men of their posterity,
the dispensation of it was to be carried to all nations, as they were to be
blessed in the seed of Abraham, which was done by the apostles and other disciples
of our Lord Jesus Christ. So the law of the Redeemer went forth from Zion. By
this means “the covenant was affirmed with many” of them “for one week” before
the calling of the Gentiles (Dan 9:27). And because these things belonged
equally to them all, mention is made distinctly of “the house of Israel and the
house of Judah.” For the house of Judah was, at the time of the giving of the
promise, in the sole possession of all the privileges of the old covenant;
Israel having cut off themselves by their revolt from the house of David (being
cast out also, for their sins, among the heathen). But God, to declare that the
covenant he designed had no respect to those carnal privileges which were then
in possession of Judah alone, but only to the promise made to Abraham, he
equals all his seed with respect to the mercy of the covenant.
In the second sense the whole church of elect believers is intended
under these denominations, being typified by them. These are they alone, being
one made of two (namely, Jews and Gentiles) with whom the covenant is really
made and established, and to whom the grace of it is actually communicated. For
all those with whom this covenant is made will as really have the law of God
written in their hearts–and their sins pardoned–according to the promise of it,
as the people of old were brought into the land of Canaan by virtue of the
covenant made with Abraham. These are the true Israel and Judah, prevailing
with God, and confessing to his name.
The covenant of grace in Christ
is made only with the Israel of God, the church of the elect. For by the making of this covenant with any, the
effectual communication of the grace of it to them is principally intended. Nor
can that covenant be said to be made absolutely with any but those whose sins
are pardoned by virtue of it, and in whose hearts the law of God is written,
which are the express promises of it. And it was with respect to those of this
sort among that people that the covenant was promised to be made with them.
(See Romans 9:27-33; 11:7.) But in respect of the outward dispensation of the
covenant, it is extended beyond the effectual communication of the grace of it.
And in respect to that did the privilege of the carnal seed of Abraham lie.
Those who are first and most
advanced as to outward privileges are oftentimes last and least advantaged by
the grace and mercy of them. Thus was it with these two houses of Israel and
Judah. They had the privilege and pre-eminence above all nations of the world
as to the first tender and all the benefits of the outward dispensation of the
covenant; yet, “though the number of them was as the sand of the sea, a remnant
only was saved.” They came behind the nations of the world as to the grace of
it; and this by reason of their unbelief, and the abuse of the privileges
granted to them. Let not those, therefore, who now enjoy the greatest
privileges be high-minded, but fear.
I believe that the above exposition is true to Scripture and
is pure gold. However, I believe that it
could be improved in one important respect. Owen writes of “Israel and Judah”
referring to ethnic Israelites and to “the whole church of elect believers.” In
his discussion of ethnic Israelites, he mentions Christ in passing as the seed
of Abraham. I believe that it would be far better to devote an entire paragraph
[another “sense” in which “Israel and Judah” is intended] to discussing Christ
as the unique fulfillment of “Israel and Judah” before transitioning from
ethnic Israel to “the whole church of elect believers.”
In passing, I should note Owen’s use of Acts 2:39. In
another setting, I’ve cited that verse as a proof for Gentile inclusion into
covenant promises. A Dispensationalist brother challenged me on this, noting
that Peter’s mention of “those who were afar off” could not refer to Gentiles,
since Peter was later surprised by Gentile inclusion into the Church, as
recorded in Acts 10-11. Though I argued the point at the time–and still believe
that this verse is part of a thematic trend in Acts, pointing toward greater
inclusion in the covenant promises–Owen’s understanding of the text [that Acts
2:39 is primarily expressing “the order of the dispensation” of the covenant
promises: with ethnic Israelites–even those scattered abroad–being the first
beneficiaries] is certainly correct.
Labels: Reformation Theology