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Confusion on the Covenants: Covenant and Testament

Some in churches of Christ are advocating that a covenant made by God with man should not be viewed as law from God. They urge us to believe that a covenant is a relationship of mercy rather than a law to be obeyed. They tell us that the new covenant of Christ is not a last will and testament (Jer. 31:31; Heb. 8:8, 13; Heb. 12:24; 9:15). For instance, they say that a “covenant is not a law, but it has law.” And again, “Covenant is not a set of laws” (Jim Puterbaugh, Classes on “The Covenant,” Tape 1, 2-6-95, held at Issaquah church of Christ, Issaquah, Washington).

The practical effect of believing a “covenant” is not a “testament” (a law with conditions to be obeyed) is this: If a “covenant” speaks strictly of having a relationship with God (as some are defining it), and not also of law given by God to man, then until a person comes into a relationship with God he is not under the law of God. There is a specific reason for defining “covenant” so as to eliminate “testament” as its synonym. As the reasoning goes, a person who has divorced and remarried before becoming a Christian is not under Christ’s marriage law, because he is not “in covenant relationship” with God. The idea is that until you become a participant in the covenant of Christ (until you are in relationship with Christ) you are not answerable to the terms of the covenant. The effort is being made to convince us that those lost in the sin of adultery are not amenable (answerable) to Christ’s marriage law. Therefore, only if and when you become a Christian does Christ’s law on marriage, divorce and remarriage apply to your life.

The Bible teaches that marriage was ordained by God for all of mankind “at the beginning” (Matt. 19:4; Gen. 2:23-25). Therefore, all men are to hold marriage in honor, and those who do not face the judgment of God (Heb. 13:4). Whenever a man and woman marry each other, they come under the authority of Him who established marriage. We should remember that marriage is not a “church ordinance” which is validated by the church. Marriage existed long, long before Jesus built His church. People who are not Christians can and do enter marriage, and when they do, they will answer to God for their conduct in that relationship (Heb. 13:4; 2 Cor. 5:10).

“Whosoever” (not just Christians) puts asunder what God has joined together and remarries another, commits adultery (Matt. 19:9; 5:32; Rom. 7:2-3). Jesus provided an exception, namely, that one may put away their mate because of that mate’s sexual immorality. In such a case, the person who did not commit sexual immorality, but who put away (divorced) their mate for such conduct, is free to remarry with God’s approval (Matt. 19:9).

As we enter this study, it is crucial that we consider the definition and usage of “covenant” as it relates to the matter of law or testament. Is Christ’s covenant with man a “testament” which universally applies to all men? Is a divine covenant a divine law, or can it only be said that a covenant has law as a part of it? What did Jesus mediate through His blood: A covenant? A testament? Can we use the same word to define and describe the same thing? We will see that in fact we can do so, for God in His word has done so.

It has already been noted that some are teaching that “covenant is not a law, but it has law.” This sort of double-speak clouds and confuses the subject. The fact is that the ten commandments which God spoke to Israel from Mount Sinai are described as “His covenant:” “So He declared to you His covenant which He commanded you to perform, the Ten Commandments; and He wrote them on two tablets” (Deut. 4:13). Clearly then, the ten commandments are called the “covenant” God established with Israel. He commanded His covenant to Israel. God’s covenants are indeed divine laws or regulations bound upon man by God for his good. When man obeys God’s law (God’s revealed will) he enjoys the blessings of that covenant. God “commanded” Israel to “perform” the covenant! Covenant and commandments are used as synonyms in this passage.

Take, for an example, the covenant of circumcision God made with Abraham in Genesis 17:2. God promised to make Abraham a “father of many nations” (Gen. 17:4, 6). Did the covenant of circumcision carry the force of law upon Abraham and his descendants? Yes it did, for in Genesis 17:9-11 God said, “As for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Every male child among you shall be circumcised; and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you.”

When God bound Abraham to the covenant of circumcision He placed him under the requirement of law (to circumcise himself and his offspring) – to “keep My covenant.” If one of his descendants disobeyed and did not obey the covenant, that person had broken God’s covenant (God’s law) and was to be cut off from the people of God (Gen. 17:12-14).

In John 7:22-23 Jesus observed that the covenant of circumcision was also regarded as a part of the “law of Moses” (having originated with the fathers, namely, Abraham). So that the law was not broken, the Jews would perform circumcision on the Sabbath. They obeyed God’s commandment (His covenant, His law) to circumcise their sons according to the covenant God made with their father Abraham. From the very mouth of Jesus we learn that a covenant can rightly be termed a law which God placed men under and required men to obey. Jesus understood that a covenant can rightly be viewed as law from God. We would do well to have and apply the same understanding today.

 

The Universal Application of the Gospel
Inasmuch as the gospel is to be preached to all nations, we necessarily conclude that all men are answerable to the law of Christ (Matt. 28:19; 1 Cor. 9:21; Gal. 6:2; Jas. 1:25). By establishing the universal appeal and application of the gospel, one also establishes that all men are answerable to the terms of the “new covenant” or “new testament.” This being true, one must either obey the terms of the covenant to inherit the blessing contained therein, or through violation of the covenant bring punishment upon oneself (which is also specified under the terms of the covenant).That Jesus rules all men today through the word of His power (the gospel) cannot be successfully denied (cf. Psa. 110:1-3; Matt. 28:18-20; Heb. 1:3-5, 8). To reject His word is to invite God’s judgment of wrath in the last day (Jno. 12:48; Rom. 2:4-11; Acts 17:30-31). Since all men are under the blessings of the new covenant when its terms are obeyed, all men are also under the punishment of the new covenant when its terms are disobeyed (remember the covenant of circumcision which illustrates these points – Gen. 17:10-14).

 

Defining The Word “Covenant”
This study focuses on the covenant(s) God has made with man and whether it is scriptural to describe them as “testaments.” That is, can we regard the new covenant of Christ as a “last will and testament?” If we do not properly define the terms we are using we will surely misunderstand each other and the word of God (Eph. 5:17; 2 Tim. 2:15). Therefore, let us take some time to define the words we are using in this study.Out of the 284 times the Hebrew word ‘beriyth’ is found in the Old Testament, the King James Version of the Bible translates it 264 times by the English word “covenant.” By definition, it means “a compact” or “league” (Strong’s Dictionary, p. 24; Young’s Analytical Concordance To The Bible, p. 207). “It is probable that it is ‘to bind,’ but that is not definitely established” (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, II:727). And again, “if this root idea is to bind, the covenant is that which binds together the parties” (Ibid.). A covenant between God and man is a “divine ordinance with signs or pledges” (Online Bible).In the New Testament, the word “covenant” is translated by the Greek word “diatheke” which means:

1) “a disposition, a contract” (Strong’s Dictionary, 22).

2) Young says it is “an arrangement” (p. 208).

3) W. E. Vine says that diatheke (covenant) “primarily signifies ‘a disposition of property by will or otherwise’” (Expository Dictionary Of New Testament Words, 135).

4) Moulton defines diatheke as “a testamentary disposition, will; a covenant, He. 9.16,17; Gal. 3.15; in N.T., a covenant of God with men, Gal. 3.17; 4.24; He. 9.4; Mat. 26.28, et al.; the writings of the old covenant, 2 Co. 3.14” (The Analytical Greek Lexicon Revised, Moulton, p. 96.

So, by definition and by translation, what is a “covenant” of God with men may rightly be called a “testament,” since both words can be used to translate the same Greek word.

The law of Moses was a covenant (diatheke) which God made with Israel (Gal. 4:24; Heb. 8:9; cf. Deut. 5:1-3). The “tables of the covenant” were the laws “engraven on stones,” the Ten Commandments (Heb. 9:4; 2 Cor. 3:7; Ex. 24:12; 32:14-15). God said that the “tables of the covenant” was “the law and commandments which I have written” (Exo. 24:12). God regarded the Sinaitic covenant as commandments. When Hilkiah found “the Book of the Law” and read it to Josiah, it was also known as “the Book of the Covenant” (2 Kings 22:8, 11; 23:2). There was no difference.

The clincher is that in 2 Corinthians 3:14-15, the covenant given to Israel by Moses is called the “old testament!” The same Greek word (diatheke) is used interchangeably to speak of the “old covenant” and the “old testament” (Heb. 8:13; 2 Cor. 3:14). When it comes to defining and applying the words “covenant” and “testament,” some brethren are making a distinction where there is no difference!

In the New Testament, the word “testament” is used to translate the same Greek word — diatheke — as is used to translate “covenant.” Scholars in the Greek language understood that one of the aspects of a covenant is the commanding of certain conduct if one wanted to obtain the benefits of the covenant. So, when the context warrants such a construction and translation, the word “testament” was used to translate diatheke. Notably is this regard is Hebrews 9:16-17:

    “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.”

Just as a human will or testament is brought into effect upon the death of the one who made it, even so the covenant or testament of Christ became active upon His death. He is the Mediator of a “new covenant” which is described as a testament in Hebrews 9:15, 16-17. Again, brethren are making a distinction between “covenant” and “testament” where there is no difference!

 

The Commanding of a Covenant
There are essentially two types of covenants. A covenant which is made between equals is called a “parity” covenant. The covenant between Abraham and Abimelech illustrates this sort of covenant (Genesis 21:22-27, 31-32). In this type of covenant, both parties participate in the formation of its provisions (its terms and conditions) and agree to the finished product (negotiate a mutual agreement) before it is a binding contract upon the participants. In the covenant between Abraham and Abimelech, the conditions were set (21:23), there was a process of negotiation and agreement followed by recognizing the binding nature of the covenant (21:24-26, 27, 31-32). Both parties are said to make the covenant between themselves. Obviously, since man and God are not equals, this is not the sort of covenant which exists between God and man.A covenant between God and man is known as a suzerainty or vassal covenant. This sort of covenant is made by a stronger party and bound upon the weaker party (as a conqueror over the conquered). The stronger party establishes the terms and conditions of the covenant and commands them upon the weaker party. And, the weaker party is bound by the provisions of the covenant at the point of command. It is not a mutual covenant to which the weaker must agree before its terms and conditions become binding. When a stronger party commands a covenant upon a weaker party, it is in force when the stronger party says so, whether the weaker party agrees to it or not! If he wants the favor of his lord, he submits to the terms of the covenant. If not, his rebellion against the covenant will surely be punished.Psalm 111:9 describes this as the type of covenant God makes with man: “He has sent redemption to His people; He has commanded His covenant forever: Holy and awesome is His name.”

God’s covenants with man are not parity covenants, they are vassal covenants. Man does not stand in a position of strength or power before God. Rather, we are those who have been overcome by sin, and God in His mercy has established a covenant which will bless us when we, by faith, obey His word and will. Man does not validate God’s covenant so as to make it effective. God’s covenant is binding from the point at which He commands it.

Please note that God commanded His covenant with Israel:

  1. “My covenant” (It is not a covenant Israel had to approve before she was obligated to submit to it) – Exodus 19:5-6. “They did not keep the covenant of God; They refused to walk in His law” (Psalm 78:10).
  2. God “declared” His covenant to Israel and “commanded” her to perform them, “the Ten Commandments” which He wrote on two tablets of stone (Deut. 4:13). If Israel was to enjoy blessings in the land of promise, she had to observe His commandments (His covenant), Deuteronomy 4:14. God made this covenant with Israel – not the other way around (Deut. 4:23).
  3. Israel was told to “keep the words of this covenant, and do them, that you may prosper in all that you do” (Deut. 29:9).

These passages teach us that the old covenant (the old testament) was commanded to Israel, not merely offered to her. To disobey the covenant or testament brought punishment (Deut. 28-30; Jer. 31:31-32).

 

The New Testament Has Been Commanded To All Men
The New Covenant or New Testament of Christ is similar in this respect to the covenant God made with Israel. Christ’s covenant (testament or will) became binding at His death and was announced to the world through preaching it to all nations:

    “And for this reason He 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.” (Hebrews 5:15-17) “And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’ Amen.” (Matthew 28:18-20)

All men are under the authority of the gospel of Christ whether they agree to it or not. If man is not under the authority of and answerable to the new covenant of Christ, then he bears no responsibility to hear it, believe it and obey it. The Great Commission to preach the gospel to the world is thereby stripped of its binding authority.

For example, Mark 16:16 commands, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.” This is a part of the new covenant of Jesus Christ – the part which teaches how a sinner is saved from his past sins. Now then, can a lost person say, “I will not believe the gospel of Jesus and be baptized” and thereby be immune from the penalty of the covenant (condemnation of unbelief)? Not a all! He is obligated to obey Jesus at the point the command goes forth from Christ, his refusal notwithstanding.

A similar application can be made regarding divorce and remarriage. Should one say, “I will not abide by what Jesus said about marriage, divorce and remarriage – therefore, I am not under His law on the subject,” that does not grant him immunity from the law of Christ or the punish of violating His will on the subject (Matt. 19:6, 9; Heb. 13:4). Man does not dictate to God the terms and conditions of God’s covenant, and that includes the covenant (testament) of Christ.

 

Other Evidence that the New Covenant is a Testament
A testament dispenses the inheritance of the testator. A person draws up a will which, upon his death, directs the disbursement of his estate. In like manner, the inspired writer of the book of Hebrews describes` the blood of Jesus dedicating the “new covenant” (Heb. 9:15). He is the testator, and His testament or will is now in force through His death (Heb. 9:16-17). When a sinner meets the terms of His will, he obtains an eternal inheritance (Heb. 9:15).We should note that what is said of the new covenant is also said of the new testament. For instance:

  1. Jesus:
      a. Mediated the “new covenant (diatheke)” – Hebrews 12:24.
      b. Mediated the “new testament (diatheke)” – Hebrews 9:15 (KJV).
  2. The blood of Christ:
      a. Dedicated the new covenant – Hebrews 12:24.
      b. Dedicated the new testament – Hebrews 9:14-16, 17-22.

Hebrews 9:17 affirms that the new covenant or testament of Christ was powerless to dispense the eternal inheritance (redeem the sinner) before Christ’s death. “For a testament is in force after men are dead, since it has no power at all while the testator lives.” The blood of Jesus (His death) gave His testament the power to provide human redemption (cf. Matt. 26:28; Mk. 14:24; Lk. 22:20). Now, notice that Hebrews 10:29 speaks of the “blood of the covenant wherewith he was sanctified.” The blood of the testator gives power to the testament to dispense the inheritance. The blood of the covenant sanctifies the sinner. The expressions “blood of the covenant” and the “blood of the testament” speak of exactly the same thing!

 

Conclusion
A new covenant was set in place by the blood of Christ which is contrasted with the old covenant God made with Israel at Sinai (Jer. 31:31-34; Heb. 8:8-13; 10:16-18). The new covenant of Christ is an entirely different covenant from the one made at Sinai — a “better covenant” established on “better promises” (Heb. 7:22; 8:6).God’s promise to Abraham, that in his seed all the nations of the earth would be blessed, has been fulfilled in Jesus Christ (Gen. 12:1-3; Gal. 3:16, 19). Christians are the heirs of that promised inheritance — children of God by faith (Gal. 3:14, 26-29; Rom. 8:16-17).The Bible presents Jesus as the Mediator of a new and better covenant. He is also presented as the testator of His new testament. We must not deprive the gospel of its testamentary attributes, since Hebrews 9:15-17 ascribe such traits to it. We must be content to allow God to depict the covenant of Christ as He sees fit. He has described the new covenant as a testament which contains an eternal inheritance when the conditions of His will are met. The grace of God through Christ is available to all men, and the “gospel of His grace” establishes the conditions of faith by which sinners are saved (Acts 20:24; Titus 2:11-14). It is because all men are under the authority of Christ that His gospel is to be preached to every creature (Psa. 110:1-3; Matt. 28:18-20). His death on the cross accomplished human redemption (Rom. 4:25; Gal. 1:4; Eph. 1:7). By means of His New Testament, the conditions of faith are proclaimed so that we may redeemed from our sins (Jno. 8:24; Acts 17:30-31; Rom. 10:9-10; Acts 2:38). Whether alien sinner or a Christian “saved by grace through faith,” all men are obligated to conform to the stipulations of Christ’s testament or be judged for their sin against Christ (Jno. 12:48; Rom. 2:8-9, 16). Will you obey the new testament of Christ and become an heir of the eternal inheritance (1 Pet. 1:3-4)?