The NEW Testament and the NEW Covenant

Have you read your Bible today? Professionals in any job will keep reading and studying. A good doctor always keeps reading, researching and studying, and not always because anything has changed in medicine but because no one can remember it all. Why would a child of God do any less? No, nothing’s changed in God’s word, but no one ever “knows it all.” Keep reading. Keep studying. Keep praying. And keep loving the Lord your God!

New Testament and New Covenant

If you remember, the Greek used for the New Testament has multiple words for the one English word love. That makes for some confusion in studying the Bible in English unless we are careful to see the different meanings and appreciate what God is actually telling us.

A similar problem arises with studying the Bible when we look at the word covenant. The Old Testament uses the word covenant in a very specific way to teach important lessons about God and His relationship to us. When we come to the language of the New Testament we find a different word used in the Greek language that is missing much of the Hebrew meaning and actually introduces a new concept and lesson for us as Christians.

The writer of Hebrews will illustrate this very clearly for us. But before we get there, we must go back to the Old Testament and see God’s use of covenant there to appreciate the rest of the lesson. And before we get to the Old Testament word and usage, we need to define some terms.

We start by noting that testament and covenant are NOT the same thing as God uses them. A “TESTAMENT” in our English language may be either a creed or conviction of beliefs or the arrangements for disposition of property after death, that is, a will. A “COVENANT”, on the other hand, as defined by God in the Old Testament, is more like our treaty as it involves an agreement, a coming together.

Even more interesting is that the Hebrew covenants involved an action together that most often involved dining together. Read Genesis 26:26-30 and Genesis 31:51-54 and note that both sacrifices and a shared meal were involved. Thus covenants in general include specific terms, conditions and obligations for each party and usually involve a meal together to seal the deal. (Remember, too, that the very idea of having a meal together or “breaking bread” together in the Biblical world carries the meaning of a peace treaty between the parties! If you harm your host or harm your guest then you are guilty of a crime.)

A testament may or may not require such details. So a testament, or will, may or may not be a covenant. Likewise, a covenant may or may not be based on death and may or may not include a transfer of property as a will does. With those Biblical ideas in mind we begin to see the lessons that God has, both in the Old Testament and in the New.

In the Old Testament there were several covenants. God had an agreement or covenant with Noah, another one with Abraham and apparently others of the Patriarchs long before the covenant with the nation of Israel known as the Law of Moses.

That brings us to the New Testament. So let’s look at that lesson from Hebrews and remember that just because a point is made one way it doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the ONLY lesson to be learned.

The author of Hebrews uses the fact that the Greek word for a covenant (diathēkē) can ALSO mean the last will and testament. Writing to Jewish (Hebrew) Christians he certainly knows that the Hebrew words don’t make his point but he is writing to them in Greek so he can make this illustration. Read Hebrews 9:15-23 (also note Paul uses a similar turn of phrase in Galatians 3:15-18) and note the points being made.

Brothers and sisters, let me take an example from everyday life. Just as no one can set aside or add to a human covenant that has been duly established, so it is in this case. 16 The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,”[i] meaning one person, who is Christ. 17 What I mean is this: The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise. 18 For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on the promise; but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise.

In the same way that a last will only goes into effect at the death of the one who wrote it, the old covenant also used death. But there it was the sacrificial death of an animal that put the terms of removal of sin into effect. While under the OT sacrificial blood had to be shed every year; Jesus’ death as the mediator of the new covenant is, by contrast, once for all, AND that allows His covenant to be an “eternal covenant” (cf. Hebrews 13:20).

Do you see his point, his lesson? Yes, in a larger sense the death of an animal was never going to be the death required for a will or testament to go into effect. But it allows the preacher to make a valid point to help us appreciate how much greater is the sacrifice of Jesus.

There’s one more thing we need to back up to the Old Testament and appreciate about God’s law for us today. A covenant has both those set terms and involved both a sacrifice and a fellowship meal. Jesus brings to us the terms of our salvation. They are not negotiable; they are fixed by God. Jesus, Himself, becomes the sacrifice that pays the price and fixes with His blood the significance of the covenant.

But there’s one more part to the Hebrew covenant. The fellowship meal! And we find in Jesus’ own words as He institutes the Lord’s Supper the ultimate fellowship of the covenant. Reread 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 and/or the accounts of Matthew, Mark and Luke of that event. This is His body given for us. This is His blood (the new covenant of His blood). In eating and drinking we announce (proclaim) that we once more have “sealed the deal” of that New Covenant.

When you find the words covenant or testament in the New Testament it usually carries the meaning of the Old Testament word for covenant and the writer of Hebrews is uniquely making the point of a will but still with the force of a full covenant.

So all this leaves us with one more point to keep in mind. The Old Testament is called that because it is the Old Testimony of God’s dealings with people of that time. The New Testament is the life, teaching, death and implementation of the final way that God deals with sin to bring salvation. In that sense the New Testament is an appropriate name for the books of God’s word that give us the information. But the information, the saving agreement or covenant by which we must live and proclaim to others is the message contained in that New Testament.

—Lester P. Bagley

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