Why Does Hebrews 8:13 Use the Present Tense?
“How does one reconcile the biblical statement that the law of Moses was ‘abolished’ by the death of Christ (Eph. 2:15), with a later passage (written long after the death of Christ) that seems to suggest that the Mosaic law was merely in the process of ‘vanishing away’ — that its end was only ‘near’ at that time (Heb. 8:13)?”
There are several important points that should be considered with reference to this alleged problem.
No Conflict with Clear Passages
No interpretation can be forced upon Hebrews 8:13 that brings it into conflict with other clear passages (even in this very epistle) that affirm the Mosaic law, as a divinely-operated religious system, was abrogated at the cross.
For example, there are several grammatical forms in the book of Hebrews that clearly represent the Mosaic system as a thing of the past. Note the following:
- “Now if perfection had been [imperfect tense — activity in the past] attainable through the Levitical priesthood. . . " (Heb. 7:11).
- The oath by which Christ was appointed high priest was “after the law,” i.e., in the post-Mosaic period (Heb. 7:28).
- “If the first covenant [law of Moses] had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second” (Heb. 8:7).
- The first covenant “had ordinances” (Heb. 9:1), etc. These phrases obviously view the Mosaic regime as a by-gone system — from the divine viewpoint.
On the other hand, when the writer of Hebrews spoke of the Mosaic Covenant as “becoming old” (“obsolete,” ESV), and being “near vanishing away” (i.e., ready to disappear), he may not have been speaking from the ideal vantagepoint as such would be understood by the informed Christian. Rather, he may have expressed the matter in terms of the current Jewish practice.
The vast majority of the Jewish community had rejected the Messiah and his New Covenant arrangement. Hence, they continued to rely upon the Levitical system. But such was a futile hope, for the entire Jewish economy (civil and sacerdotal) was on the verge of passing away. This eventuality would be realized in the downfall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 — which was imminent when this letter was penned. Some scholars take this to be the significance of the present tense forms in Hebrews 8:13.
But there may be another way by which to interpret the present tenses of this passage. The inspired writer had just quoted a declaration from Jeremiah that foretold the coming of a “new” covenant (Jer. 31:31-34). The writer of Hebrews, therefore, might well have been constructing an argument in this vein.
“When Jeremiah spoke of the coming of a ‘new’ covenant, he implied that the covenant ‘made with the fathers’ was the ‘old’ one. ‘New’ suggests something ‘old.’ Now it is a well-known fact that anything ‘old’ is near to the point of passing away. Even the prophet Jeremiah, then, hinted that the Jewish covenant would not abide perpetually.”
Viewed in this light, the present tense forms of the verbs are what grammarians would classify as gnomic presents, i.e., present tenses that affirm “a general, timeless fact” (cf. Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond The Basics, Zondervan, 1996, p. 523).
Hebrews 3:4 is a good example from this same document. “Every house is built by someone.” The present tense form, “is built,” does not refer to a particular house being built at that time; rather, it simply states a propositional truth — the building of a house always requires a house-builder.
With reference to the present tense forms of Hebrews 8:13, one writer observes:
“‘Near to vanishing away,’ like the descriptive present participles, does not refer merely to the present time of writing but to anything that at any time is in such a condition of decreptitude” (R.C.H. Lenski, Interpretation of Hebrews and James, Augsburg, 1966, p. 272).
We must confidently affirm, therefore, that no argument can be grounded in Hebrews 8:13 that provides comfort for those who allege that the Mosaic code remains today as a divinely-bound spiritual system.
Scripture references: Ephesians 2:15; Hebrews 8:13; Hebrews 7:11; Hebrews 7:28; Hebrews 8:7; Hebrews 9:1; Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 3:4