The Blood of the Covenant

Sermon preached on Hebrews 9:16-22 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 9/9/2018 in Novato, CA.

Sermon manuscript

Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
Hebrews 9:15-22

“The Blood of the Covenant”

As we’ve been going through Hebrews, we’ve been increasingly presented with the point of the new covenant. We Christians belong to a new covenant now in Christ. This new covenant fulfilled and replaced the old Mosaic covenant established with Israel at Mt. Sinai. In context, we saw this back at chapter 8 especially established by Old Testament Scripture when Jeremiah 31 was quoted which prophesied the coming of the new covenant. When that prophecy was given, the people had to wait for the future when one day that new covenant would be enacted and ratified. Hebrews is saying that day came with the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. That when Hebrews says here that this new covenant was ratified and went into effect.

Though, as we look at this passage, especially verses 16-17, we come to a part of Scripture that has given translators and interpreters some difficulty. The difficulty is rooted in the fact that the Greek word used for covenant in this passage can also be translated as “testament.” Or to put it another way, the word that our pew Bibles translates as “testament” in verses 16-17 is the same Greek word that gets translated as “covenant” in the other 15 usages in this book of Hebrews. Similarly, in the rest of the New Testament, this same Greek word gets translated in the NKJV as “covenant” in every other usage but one, where it arguably could be translated there as covenant as well (2 Cor 3:14). Yet, interestingly, when you look at the history of translation for this verse into English, as well as interpretation, you’ll find that there is a strong preference for “testament”. In our first point for today, I’ll discuss that view. However, there has been an alternative view put forth by a decent minority that thinks “covenant” is the better sense in verses 16-17. I’ll discuss that view in our second point for today. So, basically option one is “testament” as in the sense of a last will and testament which goes into action when the testator dies and leaves his inheritance to his heirs. Option two is “covenant” which speaks of how death and bloodshed is required in the ratification of a covenant. Let me point out, however, that regardless of which of those two views are correct, they both point to general biblical truths and make the point here that our new covenant benefits are effective for us because of Jesus’ death.

Let’s think then first about the more commonly held view that verses 16-17 and refer to a testament or will. This view understands that the word translated as “testator” in verses 16-17 refers to Jesus. It sees that Jesus has essentially given a last will and testament to bequeath to his heirs an inheritance. But of course, in last wills and testaments heirs don’t get the inheritance until the testator dies. That’s what this view thinks is being said here in verses 16-17. If this view is correct, then likely what the author is doing is a sort of play on words to illustrate the truth that in Jesus’s death we receive an inheritance. He would be taking this same word that he’s been using in the sense of “covenant” and momentarily drawing on its other meaning of “testament”.

There are a number of strengths to this view point. First, the primary use of this Greek word outside of the Bible is in fact about a “will” or “testament”. Some have even argued because of this that “testament” would be a better translation in many other occurrences in the New Testament. For example, the KJV does that very thing, translating this word as “testament” 13 times in the New Testament, compared to only 3 times in the NKJV. The point here is that a strength of this view is that Greek language does support a translation, in general, for this as “testament”. Similarly, the Greek word here for “testator” is also used that way primarily outside the Bible. So, lexically, there is support from the Greek language for these translations.

Arguably the best strength in support of this view is the necessity of death mentioned in verses 16-17 for the testament to be in force. If we accept the translation as given in the pew Bibles, it would say that death is necessary for the testament to be in force and that it has no power at all while the testator lives. Though we can easily understand the logic that an inheritance is not passed on until the testator dies, I do wonder if this notion would be a little overstated. Thinking even today how we formalize wills, someone typically has their will enacted by a notarized signature along with multiple witnesses signatures. After all these people have signed the will, the will is said to be executed, even though the testator has not yet died. So, there is arguably a sense of a will be enacted and valid prior to the death of a testator, but I digress.

A final strength to mention in this position is that we can see the context of verse 15 references an inheritance. Proponents of this view see this as what prompted the author to segway from his ordinary usage of “covenant” to reference this other meaning of the Greek word of “testament”. In other words, this is an argument from context that the inheritance reference sparked the author to make an illustration from last wills and testaments in connection with Jesus Christ securing for us an inheritance. Of course, just because “inheritance” is mentioned here, doesn’t require a will and testament concept. For example, Abraham in Hebrews 11:8 is described as receiving an inheritance from God, with no reference there to a will. Similarly, we find places in the Bible that root the inheritance idea in our adoption as sons of God, without reference to a will and testament.

It’s actually an appeal to context that I believe is one of the biggest weaknesses to this argument. Namely, the very next verse, verse 18, says that the point of verses 16-17 can be compared to how the Mosaic covenant was inaugurated with blood. There, Hebrews quotes the ceremony in Exodus 24 when God ratified the covenant with Israel at Mt. Sinai through a covenant ceremony involving animal sacrifices and their blood. In that Mosaic covenant ceremony, there is nothing about it being a “testament” in the sense of a last will and testament. This is why most translations immediately return back to the translation of “covenant” in verse 18 instead of “testament.” So, if verses 16-17 are talking about a testament, it seems odd that he uses what happens in Exodus 24 as an old covenant illustration, because clearly that was the ratifying of a covenant and not the execution of a will at the death of a testator. Of course, its possible Hebrews is just making a general connection between the two on the point that both legal enactments involved blood. Nonetheless, it seems the context of the ceremony from Exodus 24 would suggest both are some kind of covenant ratification ceremonies.

So then, that brings us to our second point to consider the view that verses 16-17 refers to covenant ratification. That Jesus’s death was the necessary sacrifice in order to ratify the new covenant and make it go into effect. This view sees that covenants of this sort typically were ratified with the shedding of blood, where sacrifices were offered as representative substitutes of at least one of the parties who were entering into the covenant. This is how such covenants were entered into down through the ages. They were entered into by covenant ceremony where blood was shed representatively on behalf of at least one covenant maker in the covenant. The sacrifices in such covenant making were known as the “covenant-victims”. Here, in extraordinary fashion, we see that Jesus was the covenant-victim of the new covenant! This then is the view I commend to you as what I believe is the best read of the text. However, let me help offer some explanation because there certainly are some challenges with the text that would need to be addressed to support and clarify this view. The biggest perceived weakness, of course, is if verses 16-17 are understood as requiring the literal death of the person making a covenant. This would be hard to see how that is a requirement for covenants in general in order for them to be valid. Yet, if this is a reference to how at least one party in the covenant is representatively dying through the covenant-victims being sacrificed, then that is in fact how covenants of these sorts were enacted. Let’s walk through the details of verses 16-17 for this view.

First, let’s think about the lexical matter. The other view could appeal to the fact that normal Greek translation in verse 16-17 for “testament” and “testator” are “testament” and “testator”. However, that is true outside the Bible, not within the Bible. We’ve seen how Hebrews repeatedly uses the Greek words and constructions found in the LXX for quoting and talking about Old Testament concepts. When the LXX first translated the Hebrew into Greek, they made a choice back then to use this Greek word for “covenant” even though its primary usage was “testament” and only secondarily “covenant”. And when these OT translators made this choice, it’s abundantly clear that they meant covenant, not testament, just like the Hebrew word they were translating meant covenant and not testament. And so, starting in the LXX, this word that most commonly meant “testament” was used for “covenant” in biblical texts. The New Testament in general follows this LXX precedent to use this Greek word to mean “covenant”. And so, there needs to be compelling reason in a New Testament text to deviate from that established usage of the word in the biblical Greek. This same thing is true for the word “testator” here. Time and again in the LXX it is used to refer to covenant making, and not testament making, translating the Hebrew idiom for literally “cutting a covenant”, referring to how covenants were “cut” because they involved bloodshed in their formation. Psalm 50:5 is a helpful example here. The same word translated here as “testator” is used in the LXX of Psalm 50:5 to speak of the Israelites who “made a covenant” with God by sacrifice (“cut a covenant” in the Hebrew). That’s just one of numerous examples how the Bible repeatedly uses this word for “testator” to refer to covenant making. The strength then of this view is that this is the way the Bible lexically uses these words and that must have a greater bearing on this passage than how Greek in general uses these words. Therefore, this view argues that in verses 16-17 the translation of “testament” should be “covenant”, and “testator” should be “covenant-ratifier”.

Another strength for this view is to point to some of the language that suggests sacrifices in view here. In verse 17, the pew bible has the language of a testament being in force “after men are dead”. I appreciate how the NKJV there preserves the plural case, but it supplies the word “men” when the Greek simply has the plural adjective for “dead”. It could just as easily be translated as “dead ones” or “dead victims” or even “dead bodies”. The fact that it is plural when the word testament or covenant is singular is interesting, especially since the last half of the verse again mentions the singular covenant maker. This strange dynamic between singular and plural is easily explained by the way covenants were typically ratified but not by the way wills and testaments go into effect. A will goes into an effect when a single person dies. On the other hand, covenants were generally ratified when a person is represented as dying by many sacrifices being cut up and their carcasses strewn about in the covenant ceremony. Interestingly, I mentioned Psalm 50:5 a moment ago, and it also has this same construction as verse 17, but in place of “dead victims” it has “sacrifices”. The language has enough similarity to it that it’s possible Hebrews is echoing that general idea here.

This idea of covenant-victim sacrifices being in view is further confirmed in verse 16 by a word that really doesn’t make it into most translations. There is a Greek word there phero which means to bring. The verse literally speaks of the covenant maker’s death needing to be brought forward. This Greek word for bringing forward is not used in the Greek language in connection with disposition of wills, but it is used quite frequently in the LXX for animal sacrifices brought forward to God in cultic ceremony.

The point is that the language of verses 16-17 speak of the death of the covenant-maker in close connection with the sacrifices offered in enacting the covenant. This is the ordinary way such covenants got enacted in antiquity. They would refer to the covenant-victims as the person in the covenant. In some way, the covenant-victims would represent the covenant-maker or be a substitute for them. In that sense, the covenant-maker’s death happens representatively when the covenant is made and the covenant-victims are “cut” and killed.

Often this was done as a way to place a threat over your head – a self-maledictory oath; that the slaying of the covenant-victims was what would happen to you if you broke the covenant. Such covenant signs would often be used by lining up the slain animal pieces so there was a path down between them. Then, when ratifying the covenant, they would walk through the pieces of animals and say something like, “These animals are me if I break the covenant.” We see such a self- maledictory oaths for example in Jeremiah 34:18, referencing how God’s people at that time had passed through animal parts in covenant ceremony like this – presumably unto God. Sadly, God says there he would make them like those cut up animal pieces because they transgressed the covenant. Or in a similar but amazingly different sort, we see in Genesis 15 that God has Abraham setup the animal pieces but then God himself passes through in a manifestation of a firepot, seemingly taking the covenant curses upon himself, while not requiring Abraham to walk through.

Another reason why a covenant-ratifier might be representatively killed through the death of covenant-victims is for purposes of atonement. The covenant-victims that are slain would be making substitutionary atonement for the covenant-ratifier. It’s this representative, substitutionary sense in terms of atonement that’s especially in view in the ceremony quoted here with Moses and Israel from Exodus. The substitutionary atonement aspect is certainly in view here with Jesus’ death. And so, all this makes the point that in fact these kinds of covenants do require the death of the covenant-ratifier to put the covenant into effect, at least their death as represented by the sacrifices of the covenant-victims in their place.

The last strength to this argument to point out is that it best fits the context. It would seem strange for this book to talk about covenant, covenant, covenant, and then suddenly using the same word to take a two verse aside and mean something different. Furthermore, chapter 8 had declared via Jeremiah that a new covenant was coming; this passage explains when it was ratified. Furthermore, this makes the most sense with what follows in verse 18, that the covenant ratification ceremony referred to with Moses and Israel in Exodus 24 is the same sort of thing we are talking about happening with Jesus’s death and the new covenant.

So then, look briefly with me at that old covenant ratification ceremony mentioned for Moses and Israel starting in verse 18. Observe the representative and covenantal nature of the blood, which confirms our understanding of verses 16-17. On the one hand the blood came from calves and goats. On the other hand, the people were sprinkled with the blood. There was an identification going on here between the sacrifices and the people. The animals’ blood was shed so that the people’s wouldn’t have to be. Similarly, we see the covenantal nature in the that book of the covenant was also sprinkled with this blood and the blood is called the blood of the covenant. This shows that this was a covenant ratification ceremony going on.

In terms of representation, we could certainly think of the self-maledictory aspect, in that the people were being called to keep covenant with God lest they face the divine curses of that covenant. Certainly, that is something we see held out as part of the Mosaic covenant. Yet, in this ceremony in Exodus 24 the atonement and cleansing aspect especially shines through as well. How is it that a sinful people could enter into covenant with the Holy God? Their sins would need to be atoned for. They would have to be cleansed and purged of their sins. And so here at the start of that Mosaic covenant and as part of the ongoing Levitical priestly service, the blood of animals was being given to provide atonement for their sin, so that they could have their sins remitted. Here’s where the emphasis especially falls on the blood, as it says in verse 22; without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins. That should be understood in light of Leviticus 17:11 which says how the life is in the blood and so it can be used to make atonement. It’s again the idea there of one life substituting for another. Yet, as we’ll go on to see in Hebrews, the lifeblood of animals was not a sufficient representative to make atonement for a human. Yet, in contrast, Jesus’ lifeblood is more than sufficient, as we see declared throughout this chapter and book!

So then, we conclude again our message with the glory of Jesus’ blood and atoning sacrifice for us. Recall at the Last Supper that Jesus declared the cup to be his blood which is the blood of the new covenant. When the people drink that cup it’s akin to how Moses splashed the people with the blood of the sacrifices. But Jesus’ blood is better! So this is where this all comes to. Which covenant do you want to be a part of?

The very first time God covenanted with humanity was all the way back in the Garden. There, before the fall, there was no reference to bloodshed when God covenanted with them. He entered into a covenant of life with them. It wasn’t until after the fall that then man’s blood was demanded of God because of our sin. If you are only operating under that original covenant of works made in the Garden, then your lifeblood will be required of you. Try to stand on your own and God will demand your lifeblood. Or, you can have Jesus represent you. And if Jesus is your representative covenant-victim then blood has indeed been shed that is effective for the remission of your sins. I point you again then to Christ and the gospel. Look to him as your sacrifice to represent you and atone for your sins. If you are represented in Christ, then you are a part of this new covenant which his death enacted.

Today we’ve talked of how and when Jesus formally enacted the new covenant. But we’ve asked the question about who is then part of this new covenant. Though in substance we become united to Christ in faith, he asks us to formally ratify that union through being baptized in his name and into his covenant. Similarly, it is fitting for children already baptized at infancy to confirm their place in this covenant through a public profession of their faith. If you have not yet done this, I urge you to talk to the elders today and begin to make plans to formalize your membership in the new covenant.

Praise God that Jesus not only shed his blood and died, but he also overcame death, rising from the grave, and ascending up into heaven. This is our Lord and Savior. Be renewed in your trust in him again today! It is not misplaced! Amen.

Copyright © 2018 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.


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