Beginning the Journey (for new Christians).
1, 2, and 3 John
1 & 2 Thessalonians
1 & 2 Timothy
2 Peter, Jude
7 Last Words of Christ
Acts 1-12: The Early Church
Christ Powered Life (Rom 5-8)
Conquering Lamb of Revelation
David, Life of
Glorious Kingdom, The
Early Church: Acts1-12
Holy Spirit, Disciple's Guide
Jesus and the Kingdom
Lamb of God
Listening for God's Voice
Names of God
Names of Jesus
Rebuild & Renew: Post-Exilic Books
Sermon on the Mount
Songs of Ascent (Ps 120-135)
Dr. Wilson's Books
7. Jesus, Mediator of a Better Covenant (Hebrews 8:1-9:12)
The Covenant for Jews is bound up in the Torah scrolls. Detail from "Solitude" by Marc Chagall (1933), oil on canvas, The Tel-Aviv Museum. Larger image.
In the previous chapter of our study the writer of Hebrews has been arguing that Jesus is our High Priest, superior to the high priesthood of Aaron that was still offering sacrifices in the Jerusalem temple at that time. Now he turns from the High Priesthood to the Sanctuary itself, and beyond that to the Covenant.
Our High Priest in the True, Heavenly Sanctuary (8:1-2)
But first, he summarizes1 what he has established, and then transitions to the new topic:
"1The point of what we are saying is this: We do have such a high priest, who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, 2and who serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by man." (8:1-2)
Jesus is no mere high priest, but one who reigns as king as well, seated at the right hand of God. Now he contrasts the earthly tabernacle with a heavenly one.
After Moses led the people out of Egypt to an encampment at the base of Mount Sinai, God gave explicit instructions that they were to construct a portable throne room in the desert to serve as the dwelling place of God in their midst. It was called the Tabernacle, which means simply, "tent" (Exodus chapters 25-27 and 35-38). Hundreds of years later it was superseded by the Temple built in Jerusalem, first by Solomon (1 Kings chapter 5-8), rebuilt after the exile under Zerubbabel (Ezra chapter 3-6), and finally enlarged by Herod the Great (John 2:20), begun in 21 BC and completed finally in 64 AD.
Now our author makes the point that Jesus' service as priest2 is not in the earthly, man-made tabernacle,3 but in the original, true4 sanctuary5 that God himself has set up for himself in heaven.6 For the rest of our passage, our writer explains the implications of this rather startling assertion.
The True Sanctuary Is in Heaven (8:3-5)
"3Every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices, and so it was necessary for this one also to have something to offer. 4If he were on earth, he would not be a priest, for there are already men who offer the gifts prescribed by the law. 5They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. This is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: 'See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.'" (8:3-5)
The original Tabernacle in the Wilderness was specified in every particular by God down to the dimensions, materials to be used, and furniture in the courtyard outside and in the tent within. Our writer underscores this by quoting the Old Testament statement:
"See that you make them according to the pattern shown you on the mountain." (Exodus 25:40, compare verse 9)
The Hebrew word for "pattern" is tabnît, which means "pattern, plan, form, image, likeness."7 The Greek word used by our author is tupos, from which we get our English word "type." It has the basic meaning of "mark, trace." One of its extended meanings is as "an archetype serving as a model, type, pattern, model," here "of types given by God as an indication of the future in the form of persons or things." Examples of this usage are found in Romans 5:14; 1 Corinthians 10:6. Here in Hebrews is where the phrase "types and shadows" comes from.
This suggests that Moses had been shown something like a scale model or blueprint of what he should build. The tabernacle and temple on earth then are not originals, but copies, our writer argues: "They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy9 and shadow10 of what exists in heaven" (8:5). This may sound a bit like Plato's idealism, his allegory of the cave, in which shadows projected on a wall appear to be real, while they are only shadows of the actual people (Republic, book 7, 514A–520A). But clearly our writer's root ideas are based in the Old Testament.
If there is a temple here on earth that is the holy place of Judaism, our writer argues, it is merely a copy of a heavenly sanctuary. In the earthly temple (still standing when this Letter was written), the Aaronic priesthood ministers, but in the true heavenly sanctuary, Jesus serves as High Priest, ministering in a way that no mere human could.
A Superior Covenant with Better Promises (8:6)
Now the writer moves from the true temple to the true covenant:
"But the ministry11 Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior12 to the old one, and it is founded on better13 promises." (8:6)
Our writer introduces two words which we need to understand: "covenant" and "mediator."
The Greek word for "covenant" (diathēkē) can mean either "last will and testament" or "compact, contract."14 But the reference here is not to a Greek idea but to an ancient Semitic concept of "covenant" (Hebrew berît). The word is used between nations, as a treaty or alliance of friendship. Between individuals it is a pledge or agreement. Between a monarch and subjects it is a constitution. Between God and man a covenant is accompanied by signs, sacrifices, and a solemn oath that sealed the relationship with promises of blessing for keeping the covenant and curses for breaking it.15
God makes a number of covenants in the Old Testament, including:
- With Noah and his descendents (Genesis 6:18; 9:1, 9-16), signified by the sign of a rainbow.
- With Abraham and his descendents (Genesis 15:18; chapter 17), signified by circumcision.
- With Moses and the people of Israel (Exodus 19-24), signified by the blood of the covenant sprinkled on the people (Exodus 24:8), the Words of the Covenant, the Ten Commandments (Exodus 34:28), contained in the Ark of the Covenant (Numbers 10:33), which symbolized the throne of God who dwelt in their midst.
The establishment of a covenant was a solemn thing. Several covenants we find in the Bible have similarities with ancient suzerain-vassal treaties found in the ancient Near East. The suzerain, more powerful king, would make various promises of protection and help to the vassal, the less powerful king. In return the suzerain would expect complete and utter fealty and fidelity. For the vassal king to rebel against the suzerain would be tantamount to treason, would break the covenant, and would cause the suzerain's army to invade the vassal's territory and punish with great severity.
These covenants were sealed with terrible oaths. That is what we see in God's covenant with Abraham:
"So the Lord said to him, 'Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.'
Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half. Then birds of prey came down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away." (Genesis 15:9-11)
"When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram...." (15:17-18a)
It was called "cutting the covenant." There is widespread evidence that in the biblical world animals were slaughtered in treaty contraction ceremonies. When the parties to the treaty walked between the rows of freshly killed animal flesh, they placed a curse upon themselves: May they too be cut limb from limb if they violate the treaty or covenant, as in Jeremiah 34:18-20.
The people of Israel broke the Old Covenant, our writer argues, bringing upon the people an awful curse. But because of God's love, he sent Jesus to serve as the "mediator" of a New Covenant. "Mediator" is mesitēs, "one who mediates between two parties to remove a disagreement or reach a common goal, mediator, arbitrator" (1 Timothy 2:5; Hebrews 8:6; 9:15; 12:24; Galatians 3:19-20).16
Q1. (Hebrews 8:6) In what sense is Jesus the "mediator" of a new covenant? What did he do to mediate this?
Jeremiah's Prophecy Looks Forward to the New Covenant (8:7-13)
To support his assertion of a New Covenant, our writer quotes from Jeremiah:
"7For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another. 8But God found fault with the people and said:
'The time is coming, declares the Lord,
when I will make a new covenant
with the house of Israel
and with the house of Judah.
9It will not be like the covenant
I made with their forefathers
when I took them by the hand
to lead them out of Egypt,
because they did not remain faithful to my covenant,
and I turned away from them,
declares the Lord.
10This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel
after that time, declares the Lord.
I will put my laws in their minds
and write them on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
11No longer will a man teach his neighbor,
or a man his brother, saying, "Know the Lord,"
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest.
12For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.'"
(Hebrews 8:7-13, quoting Jeremiah 31:31-34)
Notice the promises of this "greater covenant":
- God's law will no longer be external, but will become internalized "in their hearts... on their hearts" by the Holy Spirit.
- They will be together as God and his people.
- They will all know the Lord personally.
- They will be forgiven from their sins.
These conditions were hoped for under the Old Covenant, but due to the weakness of our sinful human nature (Romans 8:3), we broke the Covenant and now had nothing to look forward to but certain judgment for rebellion against "the Majesty on High."
Q2. (Hebrews 8:7-13) Why did the Old Covenant fail? What are the primary promises of the New Covenant as prophesied in Jeremiah 31:31-34?
The Old Covenant Is Obsolete (8:13)
Now our writer spells out the status of the Old Covenant:
"By calling this covenant 'new,' he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear." (8:13)
It is obsolete, he says. "Obsolete" (NIV, NRSV) or "made old" (KJV) is palaioō, "to make old, to declare/treat as obsolete."17 While the Old Covenant was at the time Hebrews was written still being practiced in Jerusalem, he says it is obsolete and aging,18 and will soon be gone. "Disappear" (NIV, NRSV) or "vanish away" (KJV) is aphanismos, "the condition of being no longer visible, frequently in the transferred sense, destruction." Only a few years later temple worship ceased as the temple and Jerusalem were destroyed by the Roman army under Titus in 70 AD. Our writer's prophecy had come to pass with dramatic finality. The temple has never been rebuilt in Jerusalem. To this day, Jews pray at the only remaining part of Herod's "Second Temple," the western wall, known as the Wailing Wall.
Furniture in the Holy Place and Holy of Holies (9:1-10)
Here our author describes the set up of the tabernacle and its furniture.
"1Now the first covenant had regulations for worship and also an earthly sanctuary. 2A tabernacle was set up. In its first room were the lampstand, the table and the consecrated bread; this was called the Holy Place. 3Behind the second curtain was a room called the Most Holy Place, 4which had the golden altar of incense and the gold-covered ark of the covenant. This ark contained the gold jar of manna, Aaron's staff that had budded, and the stone tablets of the covenant. 5Above the ark were the cherubim of the Glory, overshadowing the atonement cover. But we cannot discuss these things in detail now." (9:1-5)
"Moses' Tabernacle in the Wilderness" (1979) by Norbert McNulty.
Copyright Mark and Jody McNulty. Distributed by Selah Art. Used by permission
We won't spend much time here. In Hebrews it seems like the golden altar of incense was in the Holy of Holies, while Exodus 30:6 seems to place it in the Holy Place, right before the curtain that separates these two rooms of the Tabernacle. Why our writer puts it this way, we don't know. Bruce suggests that the Holy of Holies "having" the golden altar of incense might have been referred to in this way in light of the special relationship between the altar of incense and the ark of the covenant that took place every year on the Day of Atonement. The high priest never entered the Holy of Holies on that day without incense from this altar (Leviticus 16:12-13) and sprinkling the blood of the sin offering on both the horns of the altar of incense and on the mercy seat or cover of the ark (Exodus 30:10; Leviticus 16:15).20 Unfortunately, the writer doesn't pause to answer the questions raised in our minds here, but continues on to describe the Day of Atonement.
Worship in the Tabernacle (9:6-7)
"6When everything had been arranged like this, the priests entered regularly into the outer room to carry on their ministry. 7But only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance." (9:6-7)
Our writer is referring to the high priest's ministry on the Day of Atonement, outlined in Leviticus 16. In short, the involved ritual for the Day of Atonement included:
- Fasting on the part of all the people
- Offering a bull for the high priest's sins
- Taking a censer full of coals and incense from the altar of incense into the Holy of Holies
- Sprinkling the bull's blood on the mercy seat of the ark
- Offering a goat for sin offering
- Sprinkling the blood of the goat on the mercy seat for the sins of the people
- Making atonement for the altar with blood of the bull and the goat on the horns of the altar
- Sending a goat into the wilderness bearing the sins of the people (the scapegoat)
- Offering burnt offerings for his sins and for the people
Forgiveness for Intentional and Unintentional Sins (9:7b)
When people became aware of sins, they were to bring a sin offering to make atonement for it (Leviticus chapters 4-5). On the Day of Atonement, the high priest offered sacrifices for sins committed unintentionally. "In ignorance" (NIV), "unintentionally" (NRSV), and "errors" (KJV) is agnoēma, "sin committed in ignorance/unintentionally." The word is related to agnoeō, "to not know, be ignorant of," from which we get our word "agnostic."21 The Old Covenant also provided for sacrifices to be made for cheating, stealing, or deceit (Leviticus 6), as well as sins which spring from the weakness of flesh and blood, through ignorance, hurry, want of consideration, or carelessness. But there were no sacrifices to atone for intentional rebellion against the Almighty King, the Suzerain. The Old Covenant had no way to handle sins committed intentionally, "defiantly" (NIV), "presumptuously" (KJV), or "with a high hand (RSV).22
"But anyone who sins defiantly, whether native-born or alien, blasphemes the LORD, and that person must be cut off from his people. Because he has despised the LORD's word and broken his commands, that person must surely be cut off; his guilt remains on him." (Numbers 15:30-31)
The phrase translated "defiantly" (NIV), "presumptuously" (KJV), or "with a high hand (RSV) is literally, "with uplifted hand ... as though the transgressor was about to attack God or rebel against Him wantonly."23
Fortunately, Jesus died for all our sins, intentional and unintentional. We receive that forgiveness through faith, by humbling ourselves in repentance and receiving pardon. We do not deserve pardon for what we have done, it is granted through the grace of God. The only "unpardonable sin," I believe, is one in which a person persists in unbelief and does not humble him or herself in faith and repentance so that he can receive forgiveness.
Q3. (Hebrews 9:7) Did the Old Covenant provide forgiveness for intentional, active, maintained rebellion against God? Does the New Covenant provide this forgiveness? What is required for forgiveness to be granted?
The External Awaiting the Actual (9:8-10)
After outlining the ritual on the Day of Atonement, our writer draws several lessons concerning the earthly tabernacle or temple:
"8The Holy Spirit was showing by this that the way into the Most Holy Place had not yet been disclosed as long as the first tabernacle was still standing. 9This is an illustration for the present time, indicating that the gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper. 10They are only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings -- external regulations applying until the time of the new order." (9:6-10)
Under the Old Covenant, the tabernacle/temple system literally "had standing,"24 that is "remained as a recognized institution.25 Under that Covenant, "the way into the Most Holy Place," that is, the Holy of Holies, the very presence of God, was barred to ordinary humans. The thick veil that separated the two parts of the sanctuary was a barrier -- thus the immense significance recorded by the Gospel writers, that when Jesus died, this veil was torn in two from top to bottom (Matthew 27:51; Mark 15:38; Luke 23:45), showing that the way to God was now open. Until then the way to God wasn't open, wasn't known.26
The temple veil, says our author, is a parable or illustration27 of the dilemma of the inner person, the conscience,28 the "consciousness" of sin.29 Bruce puts it this way:
"Now we see what our author wishes to teach his readers. The really effective barrier to a man or woman's free access to God is an inward and not a material one; it exists in the conscience."30
Temple sacrifices illustrate the need for the death of a sacrifice to atone for sin, but they are essentially regulations31 that pertain to the "external" (NIV, literally sarx, "flesh" or "for the body," NRSV). Even the Old Testament writers recognized the vital importance of a tender, willing heart toward God in contrast to formal sacrifice (Psalm 51:6, 16-17; Psalm 40:6; Proverbs 15:8; Isaiah 1:11-15; Hosea 6:6; Amos 5:21-23; ) The sacrifice of bulls and goats does nothing for the inner person, the conscience, that inner barometer of sin and guilt. They cannot "cleanse" (NIV) or "make perfect" (KJV)32 the conscience. And so the nagging guilt and consciousness of sin inhibits the sinner from approaching God's holy presence with freedom and boldness (compare with 4:16).
Q4. (Hebrews 9:9) Why were external sacrificial regulations unable to cleanse or perfect the conscience? How does a guilty conscience keep us from intimacy with God? What is necessary for us to be able to come "boldly" (4:16)?
Christ Entered by His Own Blood (9:11-12)
What the external sacrifices of Old Covenant were unable to cleanse fully, once and for all, Christ, the mediator of the New Covenant was able to accomplish:
"11When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation. 12He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption." (9:11-12)
Look at the contrasts:
Man-made, earthly temple
Perfect sanctuary in heaven, God's own presence
The blood of goats and calves
Christ's own blood
Once for all
Two words stand out to me in verse 12:
First, finality:"Once for all" (NRSV, NIV) or "once" (KJV) is Greek ephapax, which we looked at previously and means "taking place once and to the exclusion of any further occurrence, once for all, once and never again" (Romans 6:10; Hebrews 7:27; 9:12; 10:10).33 There is no necessity of re-doing the crucifixion. Its cleansing of sin can never be depleted by our weakness. If we sin again and again -- a thousand times (and we do!) -- Christ's sacrifice for sin is more than adequate. His reservoir of forgiveness is inexhaustible! "Once and never again."
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Second, freedom:"Redemption" is lutrōsis, a legal and commercial technical term in the papyri, "redemption of something for a price," here the transferred sense of "ransoming, releasing, redemption."34 We are the ones set free -- free from our slavery to sin and free from our death sentence on account of our sins. The ransom price to free us from slavery is Christ's own blood, offered freely, offered willingly, offered lovingly for our sins. As a result, our freedom has been obtained35 for ever and ever, for all time.
Hallelujah! It is finished!
Q5. (Hebrews 9:11-12) What does "redemption" mean? What were we redeemed from? What was the price of our redemption? How long does our redemption last?
Father, thank you for the redemption we have in Christ Jesus. Thank you that it is more than enough for all our sins. Thank you that it is inexhaustible. Thank you that we are forgiven fully -- to the uttermost. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.
"But the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, and it is founded on better promises." (Hebrews 8:6)
"By calling this covenant 'new,' he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear." (Hebrews 8:13)
- "Point" (NIV, NRSV) or "sum" (KJV) is kephalaion, "a brief statement concerning some topic or subject, main thing, main point." (BDAG 541)
- "Who serves" (NIV) or "minister" (NRSV, KJV) is leitourgos, from which word group we get our English word "liturgy." In Classical Greek it means, primarily, "one who performs public service." In our literature it always is used with sacred connotations.... of priests (BDAG 591-592). In the Septuagint the noun and verb are used as a technical cultic terms. The noun leitourgia becomes a technical term for priestly ministry. The adjective leitourgos, used here, is rare in Greek and uncommon in the Septuagint. Used in a cultic sense in Isaiah 61:6, 9 (Hermann Strathmann and Rudolf Meyer, leitourgeō, ktl., TDNT 4:215-231).
- "Tabernacle" (NIV, KJV) or "tent" (NRSV) is skēnē, "tent," here referring to the "Tabernacle" or "Tent of Testimony." (BDAG 928).
- "True" is alēthinos, has the basic meaning, "true, trustworthy." Here it means, "pertaining to being real, genuine, authentic, real" (BDAG 43).
- "Sanctuary" is hagios, an adjective with the basic meaning of "dedicated to God, holy, sacred." It is used as a substantive, "the holy thing," here referring to the "sanctuary" (Hebrews 8:2; 9:1-3, 12, 24-25; 10:19; 13:11) (BDAG 10-11).
- "Set up" (NIV, NRSV) or "pitched" (KJV) is pēgnumi, "make firm," here "to set up or erect a construction, put together, build" (BDAG 811).
- Bruce K. Waltke, bānā, TWOT #255d.
- Tupos, BDAG 1019-1020).
- "Copy" (NIV), "sketch" (NRSV), or "example" (KJV) is hupodeigma, from the root deiknumi, "to point out, reveal." Here it means "an indication of something that appears at a subsequent time, outline, sketch, symbol" (Hebrews 8:5; 9:23). (BDAG 1037, 2.). In Hellenistic Greek it means "example" as well as "document" or "proof." The Septuagint has it for "model" and "copy." (Heinrich Schlier, deiknumi, ktl., TDNT 2:25-33).
- "Shadow" is skia. It can be used figuratively as "a mere representation of something real, shadow" (from the sense of insubstantial aspect, such as shades of the dead). Used in both Hebrews 8:5 and 10:1. (BDAG 929-930).
- "Ministry" is leitourgia, "service," used in a similar way to leitourgos in verse 1, here of Christ's high priestly office. (BDAG 591).
- "Superior" (NIV) or "more excellent" (NRSV, KJV) is the comparative of diaphoros, "pertaining to being different, with focus on value, "outstanding, excellent," here and at 1:4. (BDAG 239-240).
- "Better" (NRSV, KJV) or the second use of "superior" (NIV) is kreittōn, "pertaining to being of high status, more prominent, higher in rank, preferable, better." (BDAG 566). Used several times in Hebrews as a major theme of the letter (1:4; 6:9; 7:19, 22; 8:6; 9:23; 10:34; 11:16, 35, 40).
- Diathēkē, BDAG 228-229.
- Elmer B. Smick, brn, TWOT #282a. Gottfried Quell and Johannes Behm, diatithēmi, diathēkē, TDNT 2:104-134.
- Mesitēs, BDAG 634. The word is used in Hellenistic Greek for the umpire or guarantor, the legal arbiter, and in other ways. Jesus does not use the terms, but the concept is present in his demands, his claims, his remission of sins, etc. (Albrecht Oepke, mesitēs, mesiteuō, TDNT 4:598-624).
- Palaioō, BDAG 751-752; Heinrich Seesemann, palai, ktl., TDNT 5:717-720).
- "Aging" (NIV) or "growing old" (NRSV, KJV "waxeth") is gēraskō, "grow old" (BDAG 196).
- Aphanismos, BDAG 155.
- Bruce, Hebrews, pp. 201-202.
- Agnoēma, BDAG 13.
- The Hebrew word is rûm, "be high, lofty, rise up," used here of arrogance and pride (Andrew Bowling, rûm, TWOT #2133), of "obstinate rebellion" (Ralph H. Alexander, yād, TWOT #844). See Hebrews 10:26, 29; Psalm 19:13.
- R.K. Harrison, Numbers: An Exegetical Commentary (Baker Book House, 1992), p. 227.
- Bruce, Hebrews, p. 206, fn. 48.
- Vincent, in loc.
- "Disclosed" (NIV, NRSV) or "made manifest" (KJV) is phaneroō, "to cause to become known, disclose, show, make known," passive as here, "become public knowledge, be disclosed, become known" (BDAG 1048, 2.a.β.).
- "Illustration" (NIV), "symbol" (NRSV), or "figure" (KJV) is parabolē, from which we get our word, "parable." Here it means, "something that serves as a model or example pointing beyond itself for later realization, type, figure," here and at 11:19. (BDAG 759-760).
- "Conscience" is suneidēsis, "the inward faculty of distinguishing right and wrong, moral consciousness, conscience." (BDAG 967-968).
- So Ellingworth, Hebrews, p. 442.
- Bruce, Hebrews, p. 209.
- "Regulations" (NIV, NRSV) or "ordinances" (KJV) is dikaiōma, "a regulation relating to just or right action, regulation, requirement, commandment." (BDAG 249-250).
- "Clear" (NIV), "perfect" (NRSV), or "make perfect" (KJV) is teleioō, with the basic meaning, "complete, bring to an end, finish." Here it means, "make perfect." (BDAG 996, 2.e.α.).
- Ephapax, BDAG 417.
- Lutrōsis, BDAG 606; see Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (Eerdmans, 1955, reprinted 1972), pp. 9-59.
- "Obtained" is euriskō, "find," here "to attain a state or condition, find (for oneself), obtain." (BDAG 411-412).
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