The Greek word translated exclusively in modern versions of the Bible as ‘covenant’ is diatheke. The Hebrew word is berith. The history and etymology of these words is important to understand as it has direct bearing on how we understand God’s relationship to and with us, and how modern dogmaticians use (or misuse) this term in the development of their theology.
The Hebrew term berith, means ‘covenant’, and is generally understood as a conditional, two-sided arrangement that cannot be broken and which is perpetually binding on the parties involved until one of the parties is deceased. This is how we see covenants between people carried out in Old Testament, and how it is understood in its application between God and man, particularly in the Mosaic Covenant. The Abrahamic Covenant, and the prophecy of the New Covenant in Jeremiah and Ezekiel are to be understood differently, however, as the qualifying language surrounding this term in those contexts directs the reader to understand its use in those contexts differently. This is important to note as we look at the use of the correlative Greek term, diatheke, in the New Testament.
The Greek term diatheke was established in its meaning up to 400 years BC as last will and testament2. A ‘last will and testament’ requires no participation of the bequeathed and cannot be annulled – it is the benefit of the testator’s life work to the bequeathed and it is in effect in perpetuity from the moment of the testator’s death. It represents the blessing of the testator upon the bequeathed, which blessing belongs to the bequeathed once it has been received by him. It is thus a non-conditional and one-sided arrangement – the bequeathed, as a passive recipient of the gifts given to him in the ‘last will and testament’ of the testator, benefits from the work and life achievements of the testator after his death, simply because the testator wills it.
There is little if any evidence in extant, extra-biblical literature to indicate that the term diatheke was ever used to mean ‘covenant’, in fact there is little evidence to suggest that the idea of ‘covenant’ existed in the Greek culture; however, scholars indicate that the definition of the term is not so narrow as to exclude the idea of a ‘covenant’, strictly speaking3. Nevertheless, the first time diatheke appears in reference to ‘covenant’ is in the Septuagint – the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, circa 250 BC4 – and we also see it used in the Greek New Testament, particularly as its authors quote the Old Testament from the Septuagint. This is where matters get difficult.
Old Testament covenants as ‘testamental’ in their descriptions
As we look at the language of the Old Testament describing the Abrahamic Covenant, and particularly the multitude of qualifications in the Old Testament surrounding the prophecy of the New Covenant, it is unmistakable that they are quite ‘testamental’ in nature.
- “And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said unto him, I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect. And I will make my covenant between me and thee, and will multiply thee exceedingly. And Abram fell on his face: and God talked with him, saying, As for me, behold, my covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be a father of many nations. Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for a father of many nations have I made thee. And I will make thee exceeding fruitful, and I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee. And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee. And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God. And God said unto Abraham, Thou shalt keep my covenant therefore, thou, and thy seed after thee in their generations. This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised. And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you. And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child in your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any stranger, which is not of thy seed.”
- “I will make my covenant between me and thee”,
“[I] will multiply thee exceedingly”,
“a father of many nations have I made thee”,
“I will make nations of thee”,
“I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed”,
“I will give unto thee … the land wherein thou art a stranger”,
“and I will be their God”.
- “I will establish my covenant … for an everlasting covenant”.
- “the LORD appeared to Abram, and said unto him, I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect. And I will make my covenant…”,
“[t]his is my covenant, which ye shall keep…”
- “These all died in faith [Abraham and his descendants], not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them [through their faith] … wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city” (vv13,16b).
But they still had to ‘have faith’. Surely, this meant that they had to exercise some feat of intellect, or produce some profound work, to be confirmed in this faith and accredited the righteousness God required of them under the Abrahamic Covenant. Well, the so-called ‘work’ was circumcision, performed on 8-day old males by the hands of someone other than the one being circumcised, as a token of the faith (the fact that they were under the Covenant) that the circumcised already had (Gen. 17:11-12). The Covenant obligations of Old Testament believers were fulfilled by their faith (Gal.3:6-7; Heb 11:12-13), and the work of circumcision ‘sealed’ or marked the circumcised as having faith and thus under the Covenant that promised the Messiah (Rom. 4:11-13). Without circumcision, a man was in violation of and outside the Covenant (Gen 17:14).
So how did the circumcised receive faith? How did 8-day old males believe what they lacked the power of language and intellect to understand and affirm themselves? The same way that the New Testament believer receives faith through Baptism today: “Faith is the free gift of God” (Eph. 2:8).
Thus the Abrahamic Covenant is seen as ‘testamental’ in nature: God did all of the work, including the fulfillment of the obligations placed on man, by giving man faith and crediting it to him as the righteousness He required of him; and man was passive, receiving from God faith and the eternal blessings promised under His covenant as a result; and it is everlasting – all those with faith in the Messiah and His work were counted as children of the promise made by God to Abraham (Gal. 3:7,9,14).
Prophesies of the New Covenant
- “Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the LORD: But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the LORD: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
- “And now therefore thus saith the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning this city, whereof ye say, It shall be delivered into the hand of the king of Babylon by the sword, and by the famine, and by the pestilence; Behold, I will gather them out of all countries, whither I have driven them in mine anger, and in my fury, and in great wrath; and I will bring them again unto this place, and I will cause them to dwell safely: And they shall be my people, and I will be their God: And I will give them one heart, and one way, that they may fear me for ever, for the good of them, and of their children after them: And I will make an everlasting covenant with them, that I will not turn away from them, to do them good; but I will put my fear in their hearts, that they shall not depart from me. Yea, I will rejoice over them to do them good, and I will plant them in this land assuredly with my whole heart and with my whole soul. For thus saith the LORD; Like as I have brought all this great evil upon this people, so will I bring upon them all the good that I have promised them.”
- “Thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, I will take the children of Israel from among the heathen, whither they be gone, and will gather them on every side, and bring them into their own land: And I will make them one nation in the land upon the mountains of Israel; and one king shall be king to them all: and they shall be no more two nations, neither shall they be divided into two kingdoms any more at all: Neither shall they defile themselves any more with their idols, nor with their detestable things, nor with any of their transgressions: but I will save them out of all their dwelling places, wherein they have sinned, and will cleanse them: so shall they be my people, and I will be their God. And David my servant shall be king over them; and they all shall have one shepherd: they shall also walk in my judgments, and observe my statutes, and do them. And they shall dwell in the land that I have given unto Jacob my servant, wherein your fathers have dwelt; and they shall dwell therein, even they, and their children, and their children’s children for ever: and my servant David shall be their prince for ever. Moreover I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them: and I will place them, and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary in the midst of them for evermore. My tabernacle also shall be with them: yea, I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And the heathen shall know that I the LORD do sanctify Israel, when my sanctuary shall be in the midst of them for evermore.”
…from Jeremiah 31 (above)…
- “I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel”,
“I will put my law in their inward parts”,
“[I will] write it in their hearts”,
“I will forgive their iniquity”,
“I will remember their sin no more”,
“[I] will be their God”,
“they shall be my people”,
“they shall all know me”…
- “I will make an everlasting covenant with them”,
“I will gather them”,
“I will bring them”,
“I will plant them in this land”,
“I will cause them to dwell safely”,
“I will give them one heart”,
“[I will give them] one way”,
“I will not turn away”,
“I will rejoice over them”,
“I will put my fear in their hearts, that they shall not depart from me”,
“I [will] bring upon them all the good that I have promised them”,
“I will be their God”,
“they shall be my people”…
- “I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them”,
“I will take the children of Israel”,
“[I] will gather them on every side”,
“[I will] bring them into their own land”,
“I will make them one nation”,
“I will save them out of all their dwelling places”,
“[I] will cleanse them”,
“I will place them”,
“[I will] multiply them”,
“[I] will set my sanctuary in the midst of them”,
“I the LORD do sanctify Israel”,
“I will be their God”,
“they shall be my people”,
“they shall also walk in my judgments, and observe my statutes, and do them”…
‘New Covenant’ prophecy as ‘testamental’, given its qualifications
Notice also, the qualification on the New Covenant with Israel in Jeremiah 31: it was “[n]ot according to the covenant that [God] made with their fathers in the day that [He] took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt”. That is, the prophet distinctly says that this ‘new’ covenant was not going to be like the conditional, two-sided Mosaic Covenant. God considered this ‘old’ Mosaic covenant to be deficient (Heb. 8:6-8), and the prophet Jeremiah goes to great lengths to inform us that the ‘new’, better covenant was not going to be like it at all. This is especially evident in the prophet’s choice of the word ‘new’ to describe it. The Hebrew term for ‘new’ (chadash) qualifying the ‘New’ Covenant, not only means recent in age, but principally means newness of nature – ‘new’, ‘fresh’, or ‘unheard of’. Was this to be the same type of ‘covenant’ common in Hebrew culture, of the same type they had understood since Moses – the point of comparison in this reference? It seems that it was not even going to be close.
Hence, the New Covenant is seen as ‘testamental’ in nature – God does all of the work, making it nonconditional and single-sided, and it is everlasting, consistent with the definition of a ‘last will and testament’. In addition, the language describing the prophecy of the ‘New Covenant’ shows that if it wasn’t a ‘last will and testament’ it certainly was not going to be like anything the Hebrews were familiar with according to their common usage.
Testaments in the Old Testament?
So if the prophets meant ‘testament’ why didn’t they just say ‘testament’? Because the concept of a ‘last will and testament’ did not really exist in Hebrew culture – it certainly does not appear in the Old Testament scriptures – making such a ‘New’ Covenant ‘unheard of’ indeed! Thus, there is ample evidence in the Old Testament to cause the reader of it to imagine that the ‘New’ Covenant was something other than what was commonly understood by the ordinary use of the term, and, in fact, the modern reader can see very plainly that it seems to be describing a ‘testament’.
‘New Covenant’ for all who believe, not just for the nation of Israel
Finally, it may be observed that in the Old Testament the ‘New Covenant’ was issued to Israel, not to ‘the Church,’ and so it may be argued that our consideration of it in application to the Church may not be entirely relevant. However, as in the case of the Abrahamic Covenant, we have the clear and direct testimony of New Testament Scripture that the ‘New Covenant’ was established and fulfilled by Christ on behalf of the whole world of sinners, not just for Israel. At the institution of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus distinctly says that the ‘New Covenant’ was established in His holy and precious blood, given and shed for sinners for the remission of their sins (Matt. 26:26-28, Mk. 14:22-24, Lk. 22:19-20, 1 Cor. 11:24-25). Moreover, Romans 3:21-28 confirms that the “‘New Covenant’ in [His] blood” (Lk. 22:20) is valid for all those with faith in the propitiatory work His shed blood accomplished (v25), and that the righteousness of God is manifested (v21) unto and upon all them that believe (v22). Thus in the New Testament we are told, as the Old Testament also informs us, that God does the work of ‘walking’, ‘observing’ and ‘doing’ that is required under the ‘New Covenant’ (because mankind is unable to), that He did it in Christ for all of mankind (not just the nation of Israel), and that through faith mankind eternally benefits from Christ’s work (he is given Christ’s righteousness and his sins are forgiven):What is left for the sinner to “do” under the ‘New Covenant’? To passively receive the eternal blessings Christ’s work accomplished for him – in much the same way one would if named as the bequeathed in someone’s ‘last will and testament’. And so the Church is Israel now, the ‘New Covenant’ promises made to Israel having been fulfilled in the New Testament Church. Or is it a ‘covenant’ at all?
Is it a ‘covenant’ or a ‘testament’?
The question is, do the authors of the New Testament mean ‘covenant’ or do they mean ‘testament’ when they use the term diatheke? To answer this, one must ask, “What were the conditions at the time the ‘New Covenant’ was instituted?” On the night in which He was betrayed, did Christ institute a new ‘covenant’, or a new ‘testament’? Would a Man who knew He was about to die establish an agreement stipulating attending obligations and responsibilities that would, according to common usage and understanding, terminate with His death? Or would He write a last will and testament blessing the bequeathed with the benefit of His labour that would, according to common usage and understanding, be perpetually effectual subsequent to His death? It seems very likely that such a person would issue a ‘last will and testament’, not a covenant – and this fact was certainly not lost on the New Testament authors who were describing the events at the Last Supper according to terms that were in common usage at that time, and who were defining the nature of God’s relationship to man and to His Church.
(NOTE: Part 3, the final installment of this essay, will be published tomorrow)
Mr. Douglas Lindee
- Biblion Publishing. (1988). The New Testament: God’s Word to the Nations (GWN). Biblion: Cleveland, OH. pg 532.
- Ibid. pp. 532-533.
- Ibid. pg. 533.