Covenant or Testament?
Hebrews 9:11-15 (ESV), Epistle Reading for Judica, The Fifth Sunday in Lent
But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.
The Greek term translated as “covenant” (διαθήκη) in Hebrews 9:15 can also be translated as “testament,” as in, “last will and testament.” In legal and biblical terms, “covenant” and “testament” are quite different concepts. Legally, a testament is a person's will, especially the part relating to personal property, and a covenant is an agreement or contract. The Latin testamentum has the same meaning as our English term, and St. Jerome translated διαθήκη as testamentum in the Vulgate translation of the New Testament. The King James Version, likely under the influence of Jerome’s translation, rendered διαθήκη as “testament” in the New Testament as well.
Given that translation requires us to pick one term or another, Jerome and our beloved KJV did better in opting for “new testament.” Most of our English translations today render passages dealing with the Lord’s Supper and verses like Hebrews 9:15 as “new covenant.” This is because the overwhelming influence of Reformed theology on American translators of the Bible (including ESV) leads them to prefer “covenant” over “testament.”
Now is not the time to get overly technical, but the problem with “new covenant” is that it could imply that we are entering into a two-way agreement with God, in which we sort of meet in the middle: He sent Jesus to pay for our sins, but then we have to decide to enter into the covenant by accepting Jesus and giving our heart to Him. This ends up making our act of will and our obedience a factor in salvation.
On the other hand, “new testament” places the emphasis on God’s decision, God’s will, God’s grace in not only sending Jesus to die for our sins but then giving us regeneration and salvation completely as a gift, without our works or obedience as a contributing factor. This is the point of Hebrews 9:15, where the death of Jesus redeems us from our sins against the Mosaic Law and grants us “the promised eternal inheritance.”
“New testament,” then, emphasizes the central article of our Christian faith, that Jesus “has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death” (Small Catechism, 2nd Article). Likewise, when Jesus gives us “the New Testament in His blood” in the Lord’s Supper, He delivers to us forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation without measure.
Prayer: Lord God, heavenly Father, You promised Abraham that he would be the father of many nations, You led him to the land of Canaan, and You sealed Your covenant with him by the shedding of blood. May we see in Jesus, the Seed of Abraham, the promise of the new covenant of Your Holy Church, sealed with Jesus’ blood on the cross and given to us now in the cup of the new testament; through the same Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Prayer requests: Lynn Cottle, hospitalized. Bessie Mahaffey and Alma Gause, under hospice care.