The New Covenant-Testament (Hebrews 9:16-22)
In the text, you will notice that the word “testament” is used. The Greek word is diath𝑒̅k𝑒̅, and in the first century A.D., it almost universally carried the meaning “testament.” However, in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament that was used by the early church, the same word was used to translate the Hebrew word (berith) for “covenant.” It turns out that the King James Version translates diath𝑒̅k𝑒̅ as “covenant” also. In fact, in the book of Hebrews, it translates this word as “covenant” a total of 11 times, and as “testament” a total of 6 times (as “covenant” in 8:6, 8, 9, 10; 9:4; 10:16, 29; 12:24; 13:20, and as “testament” in 7:22; 9:15, 16, 17, 20). But why translate a word in two different ways, especially when a covenant is not the same thing as a testament? Which is it?
In verse 15, I argued that the word should be translated as “covenant.” Indeed, Jesus is the mediator of the new diath𝑒̅k𝑒̅, and you don’t generally have mediators for testaments or wills, but you do have mediators for covenants. Interestingly, 8:6 reads that our Lord “is the mediator of a better covenant,” instead of “mediator of a better testament.” Again, you wonder why. The reason is that the Old Testament passage (Jer. 31) upon which this is based tells of covenants, new and old. So this would seem to indicate that this is way we should translate the word, as “covenant.”
However, it is hard to understand other parts of our text in this way. When the author of Hebrews writes that “where a testament is, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator” and that “a testament is of force after men are dead” (16, 17), this seems to indicate very strongly that our author understood the word in the sense of a testament, or will. A will certainly comes into force when the one who made the will (the testator) is dead. So this would seem to indicate that this is the way we should translate the word, as “testament.”
Well, I think this can be confusing to us because our words for covenant and testament signify two different things. It is true that they both refer to legal arrangements that are in some sense binding. But beyond that, there are more differences than commonalities. A covenant is an agreement between two or more parties, and the covenant or compact dictates the terms of a relationship between the parties who enter into it. One thinks of the marriage covenant, for example, when a man and a woman enter into a binding relationship based on promises and vows made to one another. Or we might point to the Mayflower Compact, which was a covenant that the first settlers of Plymouth Colony made in order to determine the political arrangement for the colony.
On the other hand, a testament or will determines the beneficiaries of an inheritance and perhaps the terms upon which they will receive the inheritance. It doesn’t establish a relationship per se but bequeaths an inheritance. One can see that often a big difference between the two is that a covenant is a two-way agreement or a bilateral enactment, whereas a testament or will is more or less a one-way thing, a unilateral enactment.
In New Testament times, although the word diath𝑒̅k𝑒̅ primarily referred to a testament, the connotation was still wide enough to refer to either covenant or testament. This is why the author can switch between the ideas of covenant and testament using the same word. But it turns out that in the case of the covenants between God and man, and certainly in terms of the New Covenant, this is especially fitting. In other words, it’s not either-or, it’s both. It’s a covenant-testament. We need both ideas to reallyunderstand the nature of God’s promises to save us in Christ. Now this is fitting because God’s covenants with man can take on the character of a testament in the sense that they are unilateral enactments by God for the good of man, and God alone determines the conditions by which we enter into a relationship with him. Unlike a human covenant, we don’t enter into the New Covenant as if we were on equal terms with God; far from it. Nor does our relationship with God depend upon our promises to him, but in the New Covenant we see that our relationship with God depends entirely upon his promises to us (cf. Heb. 8:10-12).
There is another sense in which the New Covenant is like a testament: it lies in the fact that it was inaugurated upon the death of our Lord. Now a covenant is not generally enacted upon the death of one of the folks who make it, but a testament is. And the text is very clear on this: the way our Lord is the mediator of the New Covenant is by dying: “And for this cause he is the mediator of the new testament, that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance” (15).
Even though the Old Covenant was a genuine covenant, it pointed to this aspect in the way it was inaugurated. For it too was enacted by the death of a sacrifice, and this is the point of verses 16-22. The author goes back to Exodus 24 when the children of Israel formally entered into covenant with the Lord. God had given them his terms, particularly in the Ten Commandments, and they responded with the promise to obey (ver. 3). However, this is not all that happened, and in verses 5-8, we read this: “And[Moses] sent young men of the children of Israel, which offered burnt offerings, and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen unto the LORD. And Moses took half of the blood, and put it in basons: and half the blood his sprinkled on the altar. And he took the book of the covenant, and read in the audience of the people: and they said, All that the LORD hath said will we do, and be obedient. And Moses took the blood, and sprinkled it on the people, and said, Behold, the blood of the covenant, which the LORD hath made with you concerning all these words.” This is the primary text that is behind our author’s words in Heb. 9:18-21. And they show us that just as a testament is inaugurated by death, even so the Old Covenant was inaugurated by death.
But not just any kind of death. For the death that brought the Old Covenant into being was the death of a sacrifice, and as we have seen the entire sacrificial system of the Mosaic Law was there primarily to point to the person and work of Jesus. Just as the sacrifices of the Old Covenant were meant to bring about ceremonial cleansing from sin, even so our Lord’s willing sacrifice of himself for us purges our conscience from dead works to serve the living God (9:14).
On the other hand, the New Covenant really is a covenant because in it God is establishing a relationship with us in Christ. He is binding us to him in an everlasting commitment of love and grace. He is not simply handing us an inheritance and then walking away; he is drawing us to himself by the Spirit so that we respond to his call in faith and love and obedience. He who is faithful is calling us to the fellowship of his Son (1 Cor. 1:9).
The character of the New Covenant as a covenant-testament is rich with important implications for the gospel and our hope. That is what we want to look at together this morning. In particular, I want us to consider the melding of these two ideas in the covenant God makes with us in Christ. Because it is like a testament, it is something which is bestowed upon us and something which bequeaths an inheritance to us. And because it is like a covenant, it is something by which God binds us into a saving relationship with himself. And because it is inaugurated by death, because it is blood-stained, it simultaneously takes on both the character of a testament and will. My prayer as we consider these things is that we will more fully appreciate the richness of God’s promise of salvation to us in Christ.
The New Covenant is bestowed.
When I say that the New Covenant is bestowed, I mean that it is something gifted to us by grace. It is not something we create. It is not something we earn or merit. It is not grounded in our commitment to God; rather, it is grounded in his commitment to us. Like a testament, God’s covenant with man is a unilateral enactment. It is his purpose in which it was originated, his promises which determined its character, and his power which brought it into being.
We need to be reminded from time to time that God did not have to save us. I think sometimes we can slip into an attitude that thinks God owes us something, that of course he would have saved us, and that it would have somehow been wrong if he had not. But this is entirely false; in fact, it is wicked to think that. It makes me think about the old Puritan minister who in order to determine where they were at with God would ask his children if they thought they deserved to go to hell. When they responded that they truly believed this, that is when he knew that God was doing a work in them. Indeed, it does take a work of grace in our hearts to turn us from our pride and overweening confidence in ourselves. We are so blind to the ugliness that is in our hearts.
If you call yourself a Christian, it should absolutely amaze you that the God of heaven would stoop down to save a wretch like you. We sing “Amazing Grace” by John Newton, but do we really believe what we are saying?
Wretched, lost, and blind: is that how we see ourselves apart from Christ? Does the weight of that land on us the way it ought? Even apart from our sinfulness, we who are creatures of the dust, why should we think that God would ever take notice of us? Like the Psalmist put it, “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; what is man, that thou art mindful of him? And the son of man, that thou visitest him?” (Ps. 8:3-4).
But the reality is that we are not only fragile creatures whose every breath is in the hand of God, but we are sinful, treasonous, rebellious against God. We who owe God everything, deny him, are ungrateful, and disobedient. God, who is holy, would of course be entirely just to destroy us forever. It would not be a mark against his love or kindness to do this. It does not make a judge unloving to uphold the law. God’s goodness would not be one whit less for doing so. His justice and his power would be magnified. The angels would praise him for his righteous works in the judgment of sinners.
And yet, despite all that, God has not only chosen to save sinners, even the chief of sinners, and he has done so at the unfathomable cost of his own Son. It boggles the mind! What should really amaze us is not that God doesn’t save everyone but that he saves anyone. It should stagger us to think that he would save us. Our salvation being entirely of grace should be an end to all our pride and arrogance and high- mindedness. God didn’t save us because we were good; he saved us despite the fact that we were very bad. God justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:5).
So God’s covenant is a reminder of his sovereign and matchless grace. It is a reminder that the provision for our salvation does not lie in us but has come to us entirely from the riches of God’s grace and mercy.
The New Covenant is blood-stained.
At the end of the text, in verse 22, the author makes this trenchant observation: “And almost all things are by the law purged with blood: and without shedding of blood is no remission.” The great point of these verses is that the covenant could not have been inaugurated apart from the death of Christ. In this way, it is like a testament or will, in that Christ who is the testator had to die for its provisions to take effect.
And the point of verse 22 is to remind us why Christ had to die: he had to die because one of the chief provisions of the New Covenant is that of the forgiveness, or remission, of sins. In quoting the terms of the New Covenant, we are reminded of this: “For I [God speaking here] will be merciful to their unrighteousness and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more” (Heb. 8:12). In the New Covenant, God promises to forgive the sins of his people; forgiveness cannot be achieved apart from blood-shedding; hence, Christ had to die in order for God’s people to have it.
Now I know that a lot of people will scoff and ridicule the gospel because of its insistence upon blood- shedding for atonement. They will say, “Why didn’t God just forgive sins? What is the purpose of all this blood? This is more pagan than enlightened. It is not worthy of God to imagine him demanding blood as the price of human sins.” To this I only say that to have such an attitude is just a reflection upon their lack of appreciation of the holiness of God and the sinfulness of sins. Those who take such a position have never really reckoned with the utter despicableness of their depravity. And that really is because they have never really reckoned with the utter transcendence of the holiness of God. To say that this is unworthy of God is just to reveal that you have really no idea who God is in the first place.
In the New Covenant, therefore, we see both the necessity and the sufficiency of the blood-shedding of Christ for the forgiveness of sins. If you would have the forgiveness of sins, you must come through Christ. There is no other way to have it. As the apostle Peter would put it to the Sanhedrin, “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
But we must not only see the necessity of his death for us, but also the sufficiency of his atoning sacrifice. What I mean by this is that his blood really does cleanse us from all our sins. As the apostle Paul put it in his sermon in the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch: “Be it known unto you, therefore, men and brethren, that through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins: and by him all that believe are justified from all things from which you could not be justified by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:38-39). How many condemning things are we justified from? All things! Or as the apostle John put it: “But if we walk in thelight, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin” (1 Jn. 1:7). From how much sin does the blood of Christ cleanse us? From all sin!
What does this mean? It means that if you are in Christ by faith, there is not one sin that you have to atone for, not one sin that you have to make right, not one sin that you must erase or purge. Now of course we are called to repentance, and we must repent. There is no salvation for those who refuse to walk away from their sins. But our repentance does not contribute one whit to our justification before God. We are justified and forgiven on the basis of the righteousness of God in Christ alone. As Charles Wesley put it so well,
The New Covenant binds.
Covenants bring multiple parties into a binding relationship. The New Covenant is no different. In the New Covenant, by the means of the death of Christ, we are brought into a binding relationship with God: “I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people: and they shall not teach every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest” (Heb. 8:10-11). And thank God, this relationship is based, not upon our worth and merit, but solely upon God’s promise in Christ. What binds us together in a relationship with God is not the steadfastness of ourcommitment to him but rather the steadfastness of his commitment to us. Because this covenant is a unilateral enactment, the relationship that it creates is a relationship based on grace. And being based on grace, it is a relationship that will endure.
So here you have a characteristic of the covenant-testament that is more covenantal in nature than it is like a will. For as we pointed out, the purpose of a will is not typically to establish a relationship between the testator and the heirs of the testament, but this is exactly what a covenant tends to do. Hence again we see how we are not just dealing with a covenant or a testament but with a diath𝑒̅k𝑒̅, with a covenant- testament.
In binding us to himself, God has adopted us into his family. He has made us heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ (Rom. 8:17). God the Father becomes our Father, and Christ our Brother. To claim this would almost be unthinkable if God had not revealed it to us. But this is exactly what God has said. What does this mean? It means that God loves us with all the tenderness of a father, only in this case our Father is perfect and holy and without fault and folly. This is the uniform testimony of Scripture: "Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him" (Ps. 103:13). Or as our Lord put it, “If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good gifts to them that ask him?” (Mt. 7:11). It is no wonder then that the apostle Johnexclaimed, “Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God!” (1 Jn. 3:1).
Some may complain, however, of the ways in which they think God has unjustly treated them, and think that there is no way that God could be a loving Father given what has happened to them (or perhaps what they have seen happen to others). What I would say to this person is, first of all, look to the cross. God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life (Jn 3:16). In the cross, you have the ultimate example of innocent suffering and what must have seemed at the time to be utterly meaningless, but you also have the ultimate example of the love of God shining through for our salvation.
But I would also say that you have not seen the whole story and you need to wait patiently to the end. This is what the apostle James tells us, for example: “Behold, we count them happy which endure. Ye have heard of the patience of Job, and have seen the end of the Lord, that the Lord is very pitiful, and of tender mercy” (Jam. 5:11). How do you see the pity and mercy of the Lord? By seeing what the Lord will do in the end. When we are in the middle of a trial, or when we are looking back on a tragedy and can only see all the hurt that it has caused, we are not in a position to judge either the wisdom or the love of God toward us. The Scripture is still true: all things work together for good to those who love God (Rom. 8:28), and though this doesn’t mean that all things are good in themselves, it does mean that God will work them out for good. And in the perspective of eternity, we will see it to be so.
In the meantime, God gives grace. Our good Father never forsakes his children. He is with us each step of the way. And all the trials he brings us through are meant to refine us, to perfect us, to enlarge the capacity of our souls to enjoy God and see the glory of God. I’m not saying that this makes things easy. I’m not saying that we will not go through things that may leave scars on our souls as long as we are in this world. Like Paul, many followers of Jesus can say, “From henceforth let no man trouble me: for I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus” (Gal. 6:17). What I am saying is that God has promised grace now, however painful the trials we are going through, and glory to come. And the glory we will enter into in the age to come will be all the sweeter because of (not in spite of!) the trials we go through now. Why? Because God loves his children with a never-ending and unbreakable love. He has proven it by the New Covenant that brings us into his family through Jesus and keeps us there. We are bound to him with the unbreakable cords of covenantal love and faithfulness.
The New Covenant bequeaths.
As heirs of God, we receive an inheritance. The covenant gives it to us. The blood of Christ gives it to us. The apostle Paul talks about “the riches of the glory of his [God’s] inheritance in the saints” (Eph. 1:18). When God speaks to us about our inheritance that he has laid up for us, it is in terms of riches and glory. Whatever poverty and loss we experience, it will give way to riches untold and unlosable. The riches we lay up right now we will inevitably lose. But not the riches of heaven. Whatever shame or lowliness we experience now, it will give way to glory undimmed and unfading. Glory now is fading and often even damaging. But not the glory to come. “The blessing of the LORD, it maketh rich, and he addeth no sorrow with it” (Prov. 10:22).
The Bible tells us that we will receive an inheritance in a New Heavens and New Earth wherein dwelleth righteousness. It tells us that we will enjoy God’s presence with an immediacy and joy and clarity that we simply cannot know now. In the age to come, the poverty gives way to riches, mourning gives way to gladness, want and hunger gives way to fullness. Brothers and sisters, we will inherit the earth.
How do we know this? Because the cost at which the New Covenant was inaugurated was itself the greatest gift that God could have given, and having given this, we can be sure that God will give us everything else. This is the glorious logic of Romans 8:32, “He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?”
We are meant to live in light of this. We are meant to live in light of eternity. As Jonathan Edwards put it, “Lord, stamp eternity on my eyeballs!” Live in expectation of the inheritance. When the apostle tells reminds the Colossian believers that the “Father . . . hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light” (Col. 1:11), he is expecting them to let that reality aid them “that they might worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God” (10). You cannot live the way the NT calls us to live without having an eternal perspective. But you cannot live out the practical implications of this eternal perspective apart from the hope of the future inheritance. And you cannot have this hope if you are not utterly and unshakably convinced that God has promised it to you. But if you are in Jesus, the mediator of the New Covenant, he has.
What shall we say to these things? Again, we are pointed to Jesus. How are these things given to men? Through the death of Jesus Christ for our sins, and in no other way. You must come to the Father through him. You that are weary and heavy laden, come! Our Lord himself beckons you. And the gospel tells us that those who trust him and receive him as Lord and Savior, to them all the blessings of the New Covenant belong. It means that you are a recipient of sovereign grace. It means that you are covered in the blood of Jesus and that all your sins are forgiven. It means that you have been adopted into the family of God. It means that you have been given an eternal inheritance that is “incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you” (1 Pet. 1:4).
God has not been miserly in his promises to us. On the contrary, they are breathtaking in their magnitude. They are hope-inspiring and joy-giving. In them the grace of God in Christ shines forth. Let us live in light of this covenant-testament with joy and peace and hope and love and faith and obedience.