My renewed interest in studying covenants started with a Greek dictionary. Typically, I would define covenant as “a binding agreement between two parties,” which is a very basic description of the Hebrew word berith (H1285). For the New Testament, though, Spiros Zodhiates says diatheke (G1242) refers to “the disposition which a person makes of his property in prospect of death, i.e. his testament” and shows “a unilateral demonstration of the will of the testator.”
I’ve always been confused by the discussion about testaments in the book of Hebrews because it didn’t all line-up with my idea of covenants. Do we enter covenant with God as a mutual agreement, or are we benefactors of God’s unilateral will (whether we want it or not)? And how, exactly, do we become partakers of this covenant? After 3 weeks of study, I realized the answer is a little bit of both and that clarity for this question is found in Jesus Christ (that should have been obvious, right?)
In The Complete WordStudy Dictionary of the New Testament, Zodhiates proposes a definition of covenant that covers both the unilateral enactment of diatheke and the established relationship of berith. He writes that what we describe as a covenant “is a divine order or agreement which is established without any human cooperation and springing from the choice of God Himself whose will and determination account for both its origin and its character” (entry G1242, section IV).
Indeed, we always see God as the initiator of covenants. He made promises to Abraham and David that they did not ask for nor expect, and those promises could not be nullified by their descendant’s actions. Yet we also see that the covenants are mutual to the extent that people can chose whether or not to keep the terms of the covenant, particularly the Mosaic covenant. That covenant was initiated by God, but responding is our choice. (If this sort of discussion is new to you or you’d like a refresher on covenants, click here to read “Covenants 101”.)
Prior to Jesus Christ coming to this earth, the covenants were limited to Abraham’s descendants/physical Israel. The Davidic covenant was even more specific, applying to one line of the tribe of Judah. It was possible for a stranger to join themselves to Israel and “take hold of the covenant,” as Rahab and Ruth did, but it was apparently quite rare and more often than not was discussed in a prophetic context (Is. 56:6-7).
In the New Testament, Paul writes to Gentile believers that they were “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” until the time of their conversion. They were not previously heirs to the covenants, “but now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:12-13). The way this happened provides further insight in the connection between covenant/berith and testament/diatheke.
The True Heir
Jesus came to this earth as a physical descendant of Abraham, an Israelite heir of the covenants with God, and a man in the lineage of David (Acts 2:29-31). He was born into the physical position of an heir to the covenants, and He was also a promise contained in the covenants (Deut. 18:15-19 and Is. 9:6-7.
Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as of many, but as of one, “And to your Seed,” who is Christ. (Gal. 3:16)
A few verses later, Paul says that the Law was “added because of transgressions, till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made” (Gal. 3:19). He also says the law was a guard to keep us safe and a “tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Gal. 3:24). This Law — the words of the Mosaic/Sinai covenant — defines sin for us and reveals the penalties for breaking God’s covenant law.
As transgressors of the covenant, we deserved to inherit the curses contained in the covenanting words. The only one who perfectly kept God’s covenant was Jesus Christ, and so He’s the only one who truly deserved to inherit all the promises. Once He inherited, He died and “willed” those promises to us.
For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. … And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Gal. 3:26-27, 29)
That’s the beauty of using the Greek word describing a “last will and testament” to refer to God’s covenants. It ties the idea of inheritance to our adoption as God’s children (Gal. 4:1-7; Rom. 6:14-17). Now, finally, these scriptures in Hebrews start making sense.
And for this reason He [Jesus Christ as High Priest and sacrifice] is the Mediator of the new covenant, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant, that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance. For where there is a testament, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator. For a testament is in force after men are dead, since it has no power at all while the testator lives. (Heb. 9:15-17)
Jesus is filling the covenants to the fullest extent on so many levels. For one, as the Word of God He is (most likely) the One who delivered the first covenants in the Old Testament, and now as the original testator He dies so we can be freed from the old covenant and betrothed to Him (Rom. 7:1-4). On another level, He died to take on Himself the penalty we earned for breaking the covenant, purify us with His blood, and bring us into a new covenant (Heb. 9:18-28). Yet another layer is that He inherits all the promises, wills them to us at His death, then rises again to inherit as well.
This study is so exciting to me, and I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of covenants. Perhaps the whole inheritance aspect was obvious to you, but it’s a revelation to me. That Jesus inherited everything and then gave it to us — it adds another, deeper layer to the transition between old and new covenant that I just didn’t grasp before. I hope this study has been helpful to you all as well 🙂