Paul the Apostle, so I believe, wrote about a testamentary covenant in his letter to the Hebrews in Jerusalem. Six times (9:15, 16, 17, 18, 20) the KJV translates the Greek word diatheke as “testament,” not “covenant” in the KJV rendering of chapter 9. No more modern version follows the KJV translators, but settles for “covenant.” That is a serious loss to Christian teaching on the meaning of this chapter.
Why did the KJV use the word “testament,” in translating Paul’s thought here? Because he makes it clear in verse 16, as he writes he has a will (a testamentary disposition) in mind.
In v. 16 he said:
KJV Hebrews 9:16 For where a testament is, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator.However, in order to isolate the thought of a will in verse 16 from the wider context, thus allowing the word diatheke to be otherwise translated as “covenant,” the NIV adds to verse 16 the words, “in the case of a will.” But, these are words which the Holy Spirit never spoke!
NIV Hebrews 9:16 In the case of a will, it is necessary to prove the death of the one who made it.
The whole passage (9:15 – 20) runs as follows:
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. 16 For where a testament is, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator. 17 For a testament is of force after men are dead: otherwise it is of no strength at all while the testator liveth. 18 Whereupon neither the first testament was dedicated without blood. 19 For when Moses had spoken every precept to all the people according to the law, he took the blood of calves and of goats, with water, and scarlet wool, and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book, and all the people, 20 Saying, This is the blood of the testament which God hath enjoined unto you.
What is a testament? The key idea contained in the word is that it is a witness to something. Thus, we speak of a witness in court as testifying to the truth when giving his testimony, that is, saying what he heard and saw. [Lat: testari: to bear witness). When you write a will, you establish its power to determine what will happen after you die, by the validity of the witnesses who signed the written instrument in proper form. At the point of signature it becomes your “last will and testament,” unless you change your mind before you die. Change is evidenced by a new written will, which replaces the old one, and it shows what should happen to your property after you’ve gone.
The Greek word diatheke, however, does not have to refer to a written will. It’s basic meaning is “a settlement,” (1) - whether orally agreed or written – as when God entered into covenant with Abraham, promising to do certain things for him and for his progeny after he’d gone. Gal. 3:15-16 refer to God’s promise to him that in the covenant, he would receive the inheritance of the land of Canaan, Gen 15:18. However, we human beings are often untrustworthy creatures, and usually need something written, to give clear unambiguous evidence of what has passed between the parties to a covenant, and to hold us to do what has been promised. Interestingly enough, the book of Genesis is itself, not only a written covenant, but a testamentary one at that. Both the Abrahamic covenant and the Mosaic one were ratified by the death of a sacrifice:
“a smoking furnace, and a burning lamp that passed between those pieces.”
The bloodpath of Genesis 15
And in the case of the Mosaic covenant,
Exo 24:8 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.
The sacrificial death of an animal had to occur before the promise of God could be put into effect, just as you and I have to die before the promises of our “last will and testament” can be carried out. The promise of the Abrahamic covenant was the land of Canaan, which will one day become Israel’s property (in the exact boundaries laid down in Gen 15:18) to fully enjoy. The promise of the Mosaic covenant was that God would make Israel His own peculiar possession, Exo.19:5-6. Paul says in Hebrews 9:15 that the sacrifices involved in these covenants looked forward to the one perfect sacrifice of Christ, when He would become the mediator of a new testament, put into effect at the point of His death - when he gave His blood for our sins, Matt, 26:28.
The new covenant is therefore, God’s determination to put those He has called into the possession of the inheritance He has bequeathed. The Abrahamic covenant promises a legal bequest of actual land, and is yet to be fulfilled when Jesus Christ returns to this earth - although the conditions for its fulfilment have already been met in the death of Christ. Isaiah 53 expounds the latter fact in a prophetic way. The new covenant will be literally fulfilled on Israel’s behalf, as explained in Heb. 8:10. Its significance is more than material, and is spiritual, Heb 8:10. Meanwhile, as the body of Christ, we enter into all the benefits and privileges of that new covenant, not because we deserve to do so, but because it is an unconditional testamentary covenant. It witnesses to the death of the Son of God, which enables all the promises of God to be fulfilled to us. Matthew Poole puts it this way:
So that for what was spoken, v. 14 [the purging of the conscience from dead works ] even the effects of his sacrifice, the justification and the sanctification of sinners, is he the great gospel High Priest, the mediating person between God and sinners, confirming and making effectual by His death God’s testamental covenant, which is for the very administration of it the very best and last, in which God bequeathed pardon, reconciliation, righteousness, holiness, adoption and heirship to an eternal inheritance to penitent believing sinners. (Heb 9:15)
F.F. Bruce sums up the evidence for retaining the word “testament” in Hebrews 9:15 -20 as follows:
As used elsewhere in the epistle, the particular kind of settlement which diatheke denotes is a covenant graciously bestowed upon his people, by which he brings them into a special relationship with Himself: in other words it is used . . . as the equivalent of the Hebrew berith. But in verses 16 -17 [of chapter 9] it is used of another kind of settlement, a last will and testament, in which property is bequeathed by the owner to various other persons on the understanding that they have no title to it until he dies. There are, in fact, some scholars [refs. given], who have maintained that “testament” is the sense of diatheke throughout this epistle if not throughout the Greek Bible. “Testament” is certainly the predominant sense of the word in Hellenistic Greek . . . On the other hand, there have been exegetes who have endeavoured to retain the meaning “covenant” even in Heb. 9:16f . . . . But it simply is not true to say that “where a covenant is there must of necessity be the death of him that made it” – nor of necessity the death of anyone else. . . . The death of him that made it” is . . . “the death of the testator”; a testament is the only kind of diatheke which depend for its ratification on the death of the person who makes it.(1)
You may say, ‘well, all right, you have shown at least that “testament” is a valid and helpful way of translating diatheke, but why is it actually necessary to translate it that way?’ How does the idea of a testamentary covenant add anything to the simple word “covenant”?
The essential point is that every testament is a covenant, but not every covenant is a testament. Therefore omitting the idea of “testament” diminishes the meaning, if the writer had “testament” in his mind – and we have shown (from the obvious reference in v. 16) that he did so have it in mind. There are several Old Testament examples which prove the point of this difference. The first three major covenants of Scripture (with Noah, with Abraham and with Moses) all had a testamentary aspect. A death of an animal sealed the covenant in each case by the shedding of blood. However, this is not true of the Davidic promises. When God said, Psa 89:3 I have made a covenant with my chosen, I have sworn unto David my servant, He was referring to His everlasting promises to him in 2 Samuel 7:12-16. God spelled out these specific benefits to undeserving David, who had simply to respond in faith and say ‘thank you,’ which he did, 7:20-29. No death took place, and no sacrifice. It was ‘merely’ a covenant, though a very important one for the world’s destiny. “Covenant” is also used to describe marriage, in Ezek. 16:8; Mal. 2:14; Prov. 2:17.
Similar one-sided promises are made every day of the week. When my neighbour purchased his property, he bought it subject to a covenant to allow me to use his land to access my garage. When he signed up on his property, he impliedly entered into covenant with me, giving me the stated right to use his drive, even though I was not a party to the purchase. But this covenant was not a testament. No death took place. It was merely a promise witnessed to, when he signed off on the property. It was not a contractual promise, for I had no legal interest in the property. But, it was nevertheless a promise made for my benefit - a covenant, not a conrtact.
“Testament” is the correct and proper translation in Hebrews 9:15-20, because v. 16 proves a specific testamentary instrument (i.e. a written will) is in the Apostle’s mind, as an essential part of the discussion. For the NIV to add “In the case of” a will denies the natural context of the passage, which focuses on the death of Christ. That death is the means by which the promised inheritance is bequeathed. A mere glance at the passage proves this: verse 12 refers to blood, so does v. 13, and see v.14 and v. 18, and again in v. 19, and v. 20 and v. 21, and finally v. 22! The verses surrounding v. 16 (this verse refers to a will) discuss death in each verse. The whole passage is about a ‘will and testament’, and not merely the reference in v. 16. Also, “in the case of” is not a translation, for there are no Greek words in the Text, which correspond to it. They are thus added words, and we are told not to add to God’s words, lest we incur the plagues described in the book of Revelation (Rev 22:18).
Secondly, “testament” is not a mere option in Hebrews 9, because only that word brings out the meaning and nature of the new covenant. It is a promise effected on the death of Christ. That promise has been solemnly witnessed to, by two classes of men: the prophets of the Old and the apostles of the New (Eph 2:20). The Testament is in written form, evidencing the meaning of the death of Christ - it leaves mankind without excuse.
By refusing the word “testament,” we too easily overlook we need all the help we can get, to enable us to appreciate the meaning and value of the Cross – especially when it comes to actually reading Scripture. That’s why the early church celebrated the Lord’s Supper every week, on the Lord’s day (Acts 20:7; Rev 1:10). We need to be constantly reminded that we are sinners, even while we are at the same time saints.
The apostle Paul said:
Gal 6:14 But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world.I will not boast in anything,
No gifts, no power, no wisdom.
But I will boast in Jesus Christ,
His death and resurrection
Why should I gain from His reward?
I cannot give an answer,
But this I know with all my heart,
His death has paid my ransom.