Thursday, 12 September 2013

The Last Will and Testament of Jesus Christ

Hebrews 9:15-17  Therefore [Jesus] 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.  For where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established.  For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive. (ESV)

There are many who disagree on the interpretation of the Greek word ‘diatheke’ here, which can mean either covenant or testament.  The reason some do not like the idea of a clear New Testament or ‘will’, as the context clearly denotes, is because they are striving to maintain the idea that the old covenant made with Moses and ethnic Israel was simply renewed by Jesus and not automatically revoked with the enacting of a New and ‘better Testament’ (Hebrews 7:22).  The motivation for this bizarre interpretation is essentially to preserve the tradition, within many ‘denominations’, of the Sabbath doctrine and the understanding that the ten commandments still apply to Christians and have applied to all human beings (Gentiles included) since they were first handed down to Adam.

The fact that the Old Testament is crystal clear that these commandments only applied to Israel and were first given to Moses, and that this was always the Jewish understanding, is not enough to convince them (Deut. 5:3, Nehemiah 9:13-14, Psalm 147:19-20 & Ezekiel 20:11-12).  Therefore, we must look at what the New Testament explicitly says the New Testament is in order to leave them with nowhere to run by denying this simple truth but the shadows of wilful ignorance.

The main resource for this study is the exhaustive scholarly effort of Dr. Norton: Norton, F. (1908) A Lexicographical and Historical Study of διαθήκη from the Earliest Times to the End of the Classical Period, University of Chicago Press

Norton examines the very earliest uses of this Greek word to identify the fullest meaning of Hebrews 9.  Interestingly, he notes that the ancient Greek law relating to wills was derived from the contract for the adoption of children.  But he also notes other meanings:

‘The disposition or arrangement which a man makes with reference to his property in view of death. The word is here used in the singular number to denote the instrument as a whole—a Greek will or testament in the legal or technical sense.’ (p.33)  This is essentially a will or testament.

The other main meaning is: ‘An agreement, or settlement, arrived at by means of a disposition or arrangement of points in dispute, a mutual settlement.’ (p.35)

It is interesting to note that God created an eternal Covenant which would accomplish all of these; we are adopted as His children and thus receive a glorious inheritance with Christ (Eph 1:5 & 11), who died as the testator of this will and this contract acts as a ‘settlement’ over any ‘dispute’ we had with God, having once been His enemies (Romans 5:1 etc.).

Nevertheless, as the Liddell-Scott-Jones Lexicon confirms, the most frequent and ancient usage of this word is in reference to the ‘
disposition of property by will’.  For example, this word is used in Homer’s Iliad when Agamemnon makes a will regarding his possessions.  When examining a real ancient Greek will, Norton shows that the inclusion of this legal understanding simply cannot be excluded by those who take this word as purely meaning a covenant:
 ‘The senses of “testament” and “compact” were so closely allied that the same word could be used for both, and the orator could have either or both in mind as suited his argument. In fact, we have no one word that exactly expresses the idea conveyed by διαθήκη to the Greeks.’ (p. 39, footnote to Isaeus)
This word all at once referred to wills, certificates of adoption, dispute agreements and, yes, contracts in general, as Norton also recognises:
‘A disposition or settlement of relations between two parties, wherein one party lays down the conditions, and the other accepts them and binds himself by an oath or solemn promise to keep them; a settlement, arrangement, compact, covenant.’ (p.41)
But, regardless, a will was the most commonly understood usage of the word and, when the context speaks of Christ’s death initiating this testament, it can mean nothing else in Hebrews 9.  Furthermore, even if this were just a covenant, the breaking of this in ancient Greek law meant that the covenant was revoked, not in need of renewal!  The Jews broke God’s covenant and thus it was revoked.  Likewise, if we take this to mean a testament, this also makes the older testament null and void.  Again, Norton confirms this: ‘[T]he testator…could revoke it by the substitution of another document’. (p.70)

So whether this verse refers to a covenant or testament, the Bible is clear: the covenant which was broken previously had ended and an entirely New Covenant had to be established.

Hebrews 8:6 ff.  But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second.

For he finds fault with them when he says:

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord,
when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel
and with the house of Judah,
not like the covenant that I made with their fathers
on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt.
For they did not continue in my covenant,
and so I showed no concern for them, declares the Lord.
For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel
after those days, declares the Lord:
I will put my laws into their minds,
and write them on their hearts,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.
And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor
and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’
for they shall all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest.
For I will be merciful toward their iniquities,
and I will remember their sins no more.”

In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.