Covenant Rather than Testament: Four Main Reasons
The glorious truth of this part of the apostle’s argument for the supremacy of Jesus Christ’s priesthood is that he has secured for us the blessings of the covenant of grace – all of them! This is a great encouragement to hold fast to him, for he is the repository of all graces and loves and joys. He is our life (Col. 3:4)! He has secured them all for us by his blood and upholds us by God’s power throughout our earthly pilgrimage (2 Cor. 1:20; 1 Pet. 1:5). Deeper than all other blessings is the peace with God we have through his blood, especially the expiation or cleansing for our sins and free forgiveness through faith in him. To be forgiven by God, for him to be at peace with us and to smile upon us as his children, are blessings worth more than all the entire universe. Our earthly troubles, like the fresh persecution facing these believers, must not quench our joy. We must set our affections upon Christ and what he has done for us, so that our difficulties, pain, and even death itself may be faced with confidence. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ.
Modern interpreters affirm that the apostle shifts from his normal use of the Greek word diatheke. Instead of translating it “covenant,” which is in line with the Hebrew, berith, he now means “testament,” as in “last will and testament.” The argument would then be that Christ’s death sets in force the new testament and all its provisions for our salvation. There is nothing in the analogy of faith that is opposed to this idea and much to commend it. It is especially important in that it stresses that nothing other than the blood of Christ, his death for us on the cross, secures the blessings of life and salvation. If this is apostle’s intended sense, then he may well be addressing the typical Jewish concern that the death of the Messiah hardly seems consistent with his glory and kingdom. His death may embarrass worldly souls, but the Scriptures clearly set forth the death of the Lord’s Suffering-Servant, his Messiah, and his death was absolutely necessary to take away our sins and seal the blessings of the covenant God made with the fathers and with us.
Despite the useful and very edifying interpretation that testament gives to the passage, there are strong reasons for retaining covenant. First, covenants, not testaments, have mediators. Nothing about a “last will and testament” requires a mediator to make peace between two estranged parties. Whatever else is true of this passage, mediator is the leading idea. Mediation is at the heart of God’s covenant with us, and testament muddies the interpretive waters. Second, a covenant, not a testament, requires the death of the covenant-maker. Remember that we are not talking about covenants in general but God’s covenant of grace with us. A will is in force even while the one who made the will is alive. He can change his will, but it is a legally binding document the moment it is properly witnessed and signed. God’s covenant with us, from Abraham to Christ, always required death, i.e., blood, to ratify his covenant. When God symbolically passed through the pieces of the slain animals, he was teaching this very truth (Gen. 15:17). His covenant is ratified by blood, and he takes upon himself the death required in the form of a self-cursing oath – may this happen to me if I do not keep my covenant with you.
Third, if the apostle meant “last will and testament,” what then would be the meaning of “transgressions against the first testament?” How do you sin against a testament? And closely related to this is the difficulty of identifying the one who died to secure the first testament? Was it an unsecured testament? Were its terms ever set in force? These difficulties lead us to conclude, fourth, that as covenant is the sense always given to diatheke through this letter, and that those who endorse testament say diatheke must mean covenant in verse 15, then it seems best to retain it throughout. The Hebrew berith means covenant, and it is clear that all the Old Testament references, some of them direct citations, have covenant in view. As we shall see, numerous interpretive problems are created when we say testament rather than covenant. The only difficulty with retaining covenant is the proper way to understand the word translated “testator” in verse 16. This is easily resolved within the flow of his argument if we simply say “covenant maker,” i.e., the one who arranges the covenant and establishes its terms (diati,qemai).
Covenant Blessings Secured by our Mediator’s Blood (v. 15)
The Expiation of Sins under the Old Covenant
The worthiness and cleansing power of our Savior’s blood means that he is and can be the only mediator of the new covenant (1 Tim. 2:5). God’s promises are too precious and our deadness in sin too horrible for us to be left without absolute certainty as to the grounds of our salvation. Who makes our peace with God? Jesus Christ, God’s Son, who shed his worthy blood for us. Whose blood washes away our sins? The Lamb of God, whom the Father set forth to be a propitiation, through faith in his blood (Rom. 3:25). Jesus Christ has already been called the Surety and Guarantor of the covenant (7:22; 8:6), and now we are led to see him as the Reconciler between God and man. This is the very heart of God’s covenant promise: “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” “I will walk with you and dwell with you.” This promise is the heart of God’s covenant with us, but the old covenant sacrifices could not provide a satisfactory ransom or redemption for the sins committed under it. The whole value of those sacrifices lay in the future – that they pointed the sinner to look ahead to the promised sacrifice that would take away sin. The specific transgressions refer not to any specific category of sin but to all the transgressions of God’s people. When Christ came, their faith was realized. Had he not come, all the blood shed under the old covenant would not have provided the slightest redemption for sin. Christ was their Savior, as much as he is ours. He is the only Mediator between God and man. There is salvation in no other name (Acts 4:12). He is the One who makes peace between the HOLY God and sinners.
The Promise of the Eternal Inheritance
Therefore, we must hold fast to him. The Hebrew believers to whom Paul wrote (2 Pet. 3:16) must hold fast to him. God made many promises to the Jewish people, but the inheritance is secured through Jesus of Nazareth alone; he is the Christ of God. It is not enough to know the promises of God. It is not even enough to believe them. God’s promises were always made to the seed of Abraham, who is Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:16; John 8:56). Jesus must share with us the promised inheritance that belongs to him. He secured those promises by his blood. All who are truly called of God, true Jews, will embrace him (Rom. 3:28-29). And here we learn also the basis of our assurance of heaven. We must be reminded of this at all times, especially suffering times. This life has a way of holding us so tightly in its grasp that we can hardly be moved to let go of it to come after Christ. But we must let go of it (Luke 9:62); we must set all our hope and affections upon Christ Jesus our Lord (Col. 3:1-3). We are raised with him, and he secures our inheritance. He holds the keys of the kingdom. If we would enter and be received into mansions of light and glory and happiness, he must usher us by the hand into the kingdom that belongs to him. The old covenant saints looked for him and his city (Heb. 11:13-16). To let go of him, as these believers were being tempted, would be to lose the right to enter the city and to overturn the entire hope of the old covenant, which reaches its goal and glory in Christ alone (Rom. 10:4).
The Death Required of Our Mediator (vv. 16-17)
To Fulfill the Terms of the Covenant (v. 16)
It is not the case that the death of a testament or will-writer is necessary for the will to be considered valid. A man who has written a will may live for many years, and his will is valid and in force. But when it comes to God’s covenant, never is it valid, in force, sure, as the word in verse 17 properly signifies, until blood is shed. This is the reason for the sprinkling of everything under the old covenant with blood. It is the reason that for our Sabbath partaking of the “blood of the covenant” in the Lord’s Supper. It is the reason that the cross of our Savior is our only boast. It is the reason that we come to the Father for mercy hoping in the blood and intercession of Jesus Christ as the sole grounds of our forgiveness and acquittal before the throne of his majesty. God’s covenant is not between equals; his covenant is gracious, and therefore comes to us as sinners. All its blessings are secured solely through the blood of Christ (Heb. 12:24). He is the worthy recipient as our Mediator of all God’s grace, love, and mercy. All the promises of God come to us and are secured for us as a bestowal from our Mediator, merited by him through his worthy obedience and purchased for us through his precious blood.
If we could but once feel the force of this, how we should abhor sin (Ps. 97:10)! We should also love our Savior, for whether we speak of forgiveness of our sins, the gift of the Holy Spirit and all his graces, the sense of peace we have with the holy God through his witness bearing in our hearts, help and hope in dark times, strength to endure trials and overcome temptation, and patience to endure hardship with joy, each of these are promises of God’s covenant. His smallest promise we enjoy solely through faith in the blood of Jesus Christ. Can we ever love him sufficiently? Sing his promises with sufficient zeal and energy? Deny ourselves joyfully for him? Love our spouses, obey our parents, do our work heartily, or speak to fellow-sinners with love for him? All of God’s promises are YES AND A-MEN in Christ Jesus alone (2 Cor. 1:20). Think often and humbly and adoringly upon this. God made a covenant with us, and to secure its blessings, he sent his Son to die for us. His blood is called the “blood of the everlasting covenant” (Heb. 12:24). We shall praise our Savior forever! Let us begin now and daily sing his praises for bestowing such love and grace upon us as to make us recipients of such promises.
To Make Sure the Blessings of the Covenant (v. 17)
For his death has made firm all the blessings God promised – all the “covenants of promise” (Eph. 2:12). God’s old covenant people enjoyed by faith foretastes of his grace, but it required nothing less than the death of God’s Son (Acts 20:28) to make certain God’s promises. Looking to Jesus Christ, therefore, we have full assurance of God’s covenant of grace. Has he promised forgiveness to us? We may struggle to believe this, especially when we fall into sin, but let us look to Jesus. Has he promised us an everlasting kingdom? But this world and its troubles often press upon us with such force that we are tempted to doubt and even to sell our inheritance for a bowl of worldly sensuality or pleasure or safety. We must look to Jesus Christ. He died to make firm God’s promises. And he rose again to prepare a place for us in heaven. He was dead, but he is alive forevermore (Rev. 1:18). He died to remove our sins and satisfy God’s justice. He now lives at God’s right hand to ensure that none of God’s promises will ever fall to the ground. No matter what we see with our eyes, the weakness of our flesh, and the vexations of life in this fallen world, our Savior is securing our inheritance and our place. He has opened the fountains of God’s grace, the living waters that flow from his throne, given us the indwelling Spirit of holiness, and ever lives to make intercession for us. He is the covenant (Isa. 42:4), and he died to remove every barrier to our full enjoyment of life with God, now and forever.
The Cleansing Blood of Our Mediator (vv. 18-22)
Filthy: All Things Sprinkled with Blood
The necessity of blood was evident throughout the first covenant (v. 18). At its dedication, after Moses had read all God’s precepts to his people, he took the blood of the sacrificial animals, with water, wool, and hyssop, and sprinkled the book of the law and the people. He sprinkled the book because God’s word condemns us unless he makes provision of mercy through the shed blood of the substitute. God’s law, as wise, holy, and good as it is, sets forth the sentence of death to all unwashed lawbreakers. Moses sprinkled the people to show that they were under the blood of the covenant, set apart to God, and forgiven of their sins through faith in his promise of mercy through the shed blood of the substitute. Blood signified guilt; the provision of another blood than the sinner’s set forth God’s promise to cleanse and forgive through the coming Savior, the seed of the woman.
Terms: Blood Secures the Covenant
To the outward sign of sprinkling, Moses added the word of explanation, without which the signs cannot do us any saving good. “This is the blood of the covenant which God has enjoined upon you.” This prefigured, along with the sprinkling, our sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Through the application of the baptismal water in the name of the triune God, he signs and seals the blood of his Son for our cleansing. Our Lord took the institutional words for his Supper from Exodus 24:8. Jesus’ blood is the blood of the new covenant, for he is the covenant (Matt. 26:28). His blood washes our filth away by satisfying God’s just claims upon our blood. His blood is the propitiation that satisfies God’s justice and the ransom that obtained our redemption (vv. 13-14). Let none who come to Christ despair of receiving mercy from God. In every way, he tells us that we have in his Son a faithful Redeemer. Our sins may be like scarlet in terms of their provocation to God’s justice, but Jesus Christ was pierced through with its sword so that his flowing blood would wash us white as snow. When we make supplication to him – and do so now – God is faithful to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).
If we feel our filth at all, Moses’ words are like light in a very dark place, water in the desert of sin. Our sins scream for divine vengeance, but our merciful God poured out his justice upon his Son in our place. Moses sprinkled the people with animal blood; we are sprinkled by the Holy Spirit with the blood of the Son of God. Would we go back? Should anything entice us away from Jesus Christ? Can anything or anyone else satisfy our souls? Appease God’s just wrath against sin and sinners? Conscience must eventually reassert its rightful claims. Will you trust your words, tears, or promises of reformation? What if conscience resumes warning of danger only upon your death bed? That would be almost certainly too late, for the sinner can never know the motive for his repentance, and motive is key when there is a question of true versus false faith (John 2:23-25).
Forgiveness: Nothing but the Blood of Jesus
Moses also sprinkled with blood the tabernacle and the utensils and vessels used in the sacrifices. What else did this teach but that our sins must be forgiven before we can enjoy God’s fellowship and saving presence? And it is not just any sacrifice and worship that he accepts, but it must be one purified from all stain. Who can provide this but Jesus Christ? Once we accept the idea that there is a holy and just God who will not leave the guilty unpunished, we are led inescapably to the conclusion of verse 22: “Without the shedding of blood, there is no remission.” No forgiveness? What about the essential goodness of our race? What about good intentions and sincerity in religion, even in a non-religious life? Does not a man receive some credit for living honorably, uprightly, and with a helping hand to his neighbor? What if a man’s good deeds far outweigh his evil ones? All things even in the law were purged with blood. It is as if God was saying, “No one can ever mount up to me and the righteousness that I demand in that way. You must enter by stooping through the door of blood atonement. It is the only way that I will ever receive you or look at you favorably.
God is just and will by no means clear the guilty (Ex. 34:6), but he is also merciful and wise. He has provided a substitute, a scapegoat. Our hands are like a murderer’s hands stained with blood and gore that he cannot clean off. He scrubs and scrubs, but it is no use. He is permanently stained. He is forever marked out as a murderer. We are forever marked out as filthy sinners, but God says, “Look to me; I, even I, am he that blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and will not remember your sins” (Isa. 43:25). Wait! Is this promise for me? Is this possible? Only through the bloody death of Jesus Christ, by which he took our judgment upon himself and healed us by his stripes. Nothing but the blood of Jesus can cleanse our corrupt hearts and filthy hands.
This is basic gospel truth, but these Hebrews were seriously thinking about walking away from it. To avoid persecution, they would give up cleansing and forgiveness. Perish the thought! Our lives are not worth a penny unless we are cleansed and forgiven. And since our Savior loved us to the end and became sin for us, rather than forsaking him when the devil turns up the heat, let us instead resolve to delve more into his unsearchable riches and devote ourselves to him. It is not a question of repayment or deserving what he has done for us. It is a question of one thing, perhaps two. Do we love him? And, if we are going to call him Lord, should we not do what he says? Love and obedience. Love for the great Lover of our souls and obedience to our resurrected Savior. Did the One who now reigns in shining glory at the Father’s right hand really humble himself so very low? When we see him, shall his wounds still be visible so that our amazement never diminishes? Yes, he is now all glorious, all loveliness, the King in his beauty, but still looking as the slain Lamb. Let us look upon him now, by faith, and the world’s threats will be less fearsome and its madness less bothersome. We are part of the blood-washed throng waving the palm and singing “Hosanna to the Lamb.” Sing praises, and you will not flee. Love the Savior, and obedience will be more delightful. Trust him. He will bring you safely through to the end of your course and receive you into everlasting habitations.