Biblical Doctrine of Historical Covenants (1): Terminology and its Questions

Dr. S. Lewis Johnson explains the definitions found in covenant theology according to the originial languages of Scripture.

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[Prayer] Father we give Thee thanks for the privilege that is ours again. We especially thank Thee for the word of God given to us in such a plain way. We find it difficult, Lord, we know because we so often do not really apply ourselves to the study of the Scriptures. We are so often interested in other things and the things of the word of God are not preeminent with us. Forgive us for our indifference and lethargy and sin of not making the word of God our daily food in a serious and deep way. We recognize too that we need the instruction of the Holy Spirit and, Lord, we pray that we may have that not only tonight, but in the other times in which we turn to the Scriptures. We thank Thee for the breadth of the word of God so many parts of it have to do with the daily experiences of life and so much of it also has to do with the great principles by which this universe is carried on to its ultimate consummation and climax in the new heavens and the new earth. We look forward to that day. We look forward to the future with anticipation and undergird us with Thy strength and power and enablement and encouragement.

We pray through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

[Message] I did not finish last week and, I think, in all fairness I should say just a word about the rapture question before we move on to our subject for tonight. We were discussing at the conclusion of the hour the arguments for the pretribulational rapture and then the arguments for the posttribulational rapture. In fact, we did them in the other order. We took up the arguments for a posttribulational rapture, the argument from the nature of the tribulation. Essentially, the argument is that it is perfectly sensible to think of a person going through the tribulation, but, nevertheless, by God delivered from the wrath of God that is poured out although, subject to the persecutions that will be brought by those who are unbelievers; that persecution headed up, of course, under the work of the beast and the false prophet. We also made the point of several detailed points about the fact that when the time of our Lord is described in Scripture there is a remarkable similarity between the language of Matthew 24 and 25, and then Pauline descriptions of the second coming in 1 Thessalonians chapters 4 and 5, and in 2 Thessalonians chapters 1 and 2. I made reference to one particular argument, I think, that has some, I think, significance in that in 1 Corinthians chapter 15, verse 51 and verse 52, a passage that clearly by all concerned refers to the rapture is a passage in which the apostle applies two passages from the Old Testament citing parts of those passages as being in measure fulfilled at that time, but the context of the Old Testament passages seems seem to point not to a pretribulational coming of the Lord but to his second advent to the earth. That is one of the problems of pretribulational rapturism. We didn’t go into detail because I don’t think it’s good to do that in the kind of study we’re engaged in. That’s really a separate study in some detail by itself, but I made reference to difficulties in other sections.

And then, we were discussing the arguments for pretribulational rapture and we discussed the argument concerning exemption from divine wrath. Pretribulationalist feel that it’s incredible to think that one can pass through the great tribulation period with those vast judgments being poured out and being kept from them in the sense in which the Scriptures seem to speak about it. This is obviously an argument that has some force because those judgments are worldwide and universal. It’s very difficult to see how a person may go through the tribulation and not be exposed to divine wrath thereby. But on the other hand, it’s a conceivable fact that a person could go through and preserve from it and, nevertheless, suffer from persecution, other aspects of the tribulation period that don’t involve divine wrath. I made reference to the arguments around the one text, Revelation chapter 3, verse 10, we didn’t go into detail because that too is a subject that really will takes two hours to develop that one little argument but it is the feeling of many pretribulationalist that Revelation 3:10, is really a promise of a pretribulational rapture. There are pros and cons with reference to that and I suggest if again that you take a look at the book edited by or written by Douglas Mouw, Paul Feinberg, and Gleason Archer on the Rapture Pre, Post, or Mid, and that will at least acquaint you with some of the arguments, not all of them, but some of the major arguments for each of those positions.

Now, I did not have time to say anything about the third argument, which has some force, I think, for the pretribulational rapture and that’s the argument that I listed under capital C: The argument from the necessity of an interval between the Rapture and the Advent. Simply put, the argument is this; if the millennium is to be peopled by some saints in nonglorified bodies as even some posttribulationalist grant, though not all by any matter of means, if the millennium is to be peopled by individuals who go into it not having been resurrected, that is not having been caught up at the Rapture and not having been raised from the dead and given a new body at that time, then one asks the question where shall they come from if the Rapture and the Advent coincide? In other words, if all believers are caught up to meet the Lord in the air and are given new bodies and our Lord comes right to the earth, and if the Scriptures do teach that there are people who enter the millennium in nonglorified bodies as seem suggested by some passages like Isaiah chapter 65, verse 20, and even Revelation 7 through 10, then where do they come from? Posttribulational premillenialists find this their more difficult problem as for example Professor Liu, a very good student, admits in that book. So if you believe after your study of the word in the pretribulational Rapture you might want to look into that argument. It has been answered in this way by some saying that Jewish conversion that is national conversion follows the Rapture. In other words, the Lord comes. The church is caught up to meet him in the air and as a result of that then the nation as a whole is converted as they see the Lord returning and it is they who then enter into the millennium. In that case, that particular difficulty would be solved for a posttribulationalist. There are some questions that might be raised with reference to that and so I again we don’t have time to deal with that but I just suggest to you that that is one of the, I think, one of the better arguments for a pretribulational position.

That particular view with Jewish national conversion has some difficulties because it introduces an extreme bifurcation in the people of God alla dispensationalism, which usually those who are post-tribulationalist do not want to have. So anyway, those are arguments that are debated back and forth and I recommend to you that particular book for further study if you’re interested in that question.

Two things I’d like to say about that question. It’s unfortunate, I think, in the history of the Christian church in particularly in the history of Evangelicalism today that the Rapture question has been made such a major questions and in fact, has been a question that has divided believers from other believers. If you look at the whole teaching of the word of God and consider its breadth all of the divisions of systematic theology and then recognize that the division of eschatology is simply one aspect of this vast doctrine of Christian things and then recognize that in eschatology the Rapture is again a small part of the teaching of eschatology you can say, I think, that it’s a mistake to make that the issue by which Christians are divided from one another. Unfortunately, it has been done, however, and so to my mind that is a mistake. The first place, it’s a minor issue. It should be kept as a minor issue. In the second place, it should by no means by a dividing doctrine dividing Christians from one another. If you look at that doctrine, I think, as plainly as you can, I think you will find that it hinges upon inferences derived from texts of Scripture. There is nothing wrong with inference.

In fact, if you can show by inference that something is scriptural, it’s just as significant as if you could find a text to say it. I often use the illustration of David was a king of Israel. Solomon was the son of David. Now, you could infer from that fact certain things about Solomon that might not specifically be said in Holy Scripture. For example, I don’t think there’s a single statement in Scripture that says that Solomon was the son of a king of Israel. It said he’s a son of David, but it doesn’t say he’s the son of the king of Israel but that’s a logical and reasonable inference isn’t it? Well, that kind of argument is just as strong as if the statement was said in Scripture. So when we come to the Rapture question, it’s largely inference. We don’t have texts of Scripture that are clearly state that our Lord is going to come after the Tribulation. We don’t have any statement like that and we don’t have any statement that clearly says that he’s going to come before the Tribulation. Revelation 3:10, is the only text that even pretribulationalists have appealed to as possibly saying that but it is a debatable point. So, I think, we should keep it as a minor part of the doctrine of eschatology and a minor part of the doctrine of the word of God, at least that’s my opinion. If the elders countermand that and say no it’s extremely important and want to base fellowship upon, I will bow to the elders, my elders, my elders. They’re younger than I am but, nevertheless, [laughter] they’re my elders and I respect them.

Now, tonight, we want to go on and look at covenant terminology. Now, I’m going to go through this as simply as I can because it could be very detailed and, in fact, I could get over my head in something like this. And so I’m going to try to be very plain and clear and try to emphasize two or three major points that will be significant as we turn to a consideration of the biblical covenants as they are unfolded in the word of God, which is the continuation of our study. So as the introduction suggests we are now turning to a consideration of the historical covenants.

Now, remember the term, historical covenants, is a term that refers to those covenants that are set out in Scripture specifically. In covenant theology, remember developed covenantal theology generally, I hate to have to say this over and over and I hope you’ve been here enough so that one of these days I’m not going to have to say this, because covenant theologians don’t agree on every point with one another just as dispensationalists don’t and others who are neither covenantal or dispensational but generally speaking covenantal theology is built around three covenants: The eternal covenantal redemption made between the persons of the Trinity before time in ages past in the eternal past, the covenant of works between God and Adam in the Garden of Eden, the covenant of grace, the covenant made between the persons of the Trinity or sometimes it’s constructed as between Jesus Christ and the elect either the persons of the Trinity and the elect or our Lord and the elect, those three covenants: The covenant of redemption, the covenant of works, the covenant of grace.

Now, actually the covenant of works is historically set out in Scripture. So it is both part of covenantal theology and it also is one of the historical covenants. The covenant of redemption is prehistory and the covenant of grace is supra-history that is above history. You won’t find any text in the Bible that speaks about a covenant of grace. You will find references to the promise of life and our Lord makes statements concerning receiving commands from the Father, which he is carrying out in his ministry having to do with the eternal covenant of redemption. So the term historical covenants refers to in my study to the covenant of works in the Garden of Eden looked at as simply as a covenant between God and Adam but specially the Abrahamic covenant made in history, the Davidic covenant made in history, and the new covenant made in history. Those three great covenants are primarily referred to by the term historical covenants. Although it’s been said there is the overlapping of the pademic covenant as a covenant of works.

Now, there are many questions that we could discuss but here I just want to give you an introduction to some of the questions that arise concerning the meanings of the term covenant, and, first of all, Roman I: The origin of the covenant concept. Many things have been written about the doctrine of the covenants. It’s one of the primary ways by which one seeks to organize all of the teaching of the word of God. In fact, people who are not covenant theologians recognize that the Bible can be structured around the term covenant. That’s to be expected because we have in the Old Testament Jeremiah’s new covenant given by the Lord and we have the Lord Jesus at the last Passover the first Lord’s supper saying that he’s fulfilling the new covenant and then we have the writer of the epistle of the Hebrews after that devoting an epistle to the significance of that new covenant. So covenant looms large in biblical study. In fact, biblical theologians as over against systematic theologians debate the question of whether you can organize the whole of the Bible around the term covenant. Most saying no we need more than just that term, but the very fact that they debate it will show you that the whole lot of the Bible can be gathered under the term covenant.

When man began his discussion of the question with the words the idea of a covenant between a deity and a people is unknown to us from other religions and cultures. That’s a very interesting statement. In other words, if you’re looking for the significance of the term covenant in other sources than the revelation of God’s dealings with the nation Israel, you will find it practically impossible to find anything that bears on the point. So, immediately, according to this statement, covenant is a biblical term. It’s primarily a biblical idea. It’s primarily an idea that originated with the Lord God and is especially used in his dealings with his people. This man, a Jewish man, says that whilst other ancient peoples may have had much claims to a covenant had such, I’m sorry, had such claims to a covenant.

Moab, for example, is called the people of Kemosh just as Israel is called the people of Yahweh. It’s only in Israel that the covenant idea is a special feature of religion. Israel was the only people having a covenant-making God demanding exclusive loyalty. It goes on to say the prophets, especially Josea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, expressed the idea of exclusive loyalty by describing the relationship between God and Israel as one between husband and wife, which itself is also considered covenantal. You read through the Old Testament and you will find that the relationship between the Lord God and his people is often described by the use of this particular phrase or this particular sentence and I’m sure you’ll recognize it because its simply this, “I will be your God and you will be my people.” That’s associated with the idea of covenantal relationship in the Old Testament. You find it in the Abrahamic covenant and then you find it repeated through Scripture even into the New Testament. So that expression, “I will be your God and you shall be my people” is characteristic of covenant thinking. In fact, it’s a legal formula taken from a marriage relationship. It’s attested by various legal documents from the ancient near east. So the covenant concept is a concept that arises within God’s relationships with his people.

Roman II: The etymology of berith. Berith, the Hebrew word, is a word that means covenant. This is the common word. You can transliterate it as I have B-E-R-I-T-H and if you want to pronounce it berith you can. Many scholars pronounce it as if it were B-E-R-I-T, berit. Berit or berith, unfortunately, does not have any known etymology. Let me give you some of just some of the ways in which men have sought to find its derivation. Some have taken it to be a feminine noun from the root barah which means to eat or to dine and thus have referred to a festive meal that accompanied a covenantal ceremony. In fact, there’s some sacrifices in the Old Testament, the peace offering for example, when after the offering is made the people sit down to eat of the animal sacrifice. That’s one suggestion of its derivation. Another derivation taken from Akkadian is that the word berith comes from a word that means among or between and thus would correspond to the Hebrew preposition beyn which would be similar to it and the idea back of it would be, of course, two people have something between themselves and thus a relationship like a covenantal relationship might be suggested.

Not long ago, another Old Testament scholar suggested a derivation from the verb barah a second meaning of that term which meant to look for, to choose and that developed into determined to fix and of course the idea of selecting and choosing well that’s very harmonious with the idea of covenant, which you might expect. The most plausible suggestion is probably the suggestion that this word is derived from another Acadian word beritu which means to clasp or to fetter or to bind and so the idea of being bound together by a covenant is suggested by that particular derivation. That seems to make sense, but let us remember, of course, that we have no certain knowledge that is the word from which it comes. So we’ll just say that it’s likely but not a proven fact that lying back of the term covenant is the idea of a bond.

Now, as you know, the Latin word for covenant is foedus from which we get federal and we talk about federal theology that means covenantal theology and in Germany today you will see the Bundesrepublik. Well, bund B-U-N-D in German is the word for covenant bind. That’s the idea in it a binding, a clasping, a binding of people to the government according to certain articles that make up the constitution and we read of the United States as having a federal government that’s a covenantal government. The federal government has certain responsibilities, which they’ve largely forgotten, and we have certain responsibilities to the government, which we try to forget too if they are embarrassing to us.

So did you read today about all those students in high school who admit to cheating and even seek to justify it as preparing them for life. After all, how are they going to deal with the IRS if they don’t know how to cheat and so in all of the experiences of life cheating is justified that prepares you for life and so you cheat wherever you can. You cheat with the IRS, taxes, every kind of relationship you cheat. It goes to the marriage relationship and everything else. That’s sad. We’re in a federal relationship with our government but we sometimes forget that.

Palmer Robinson, a friend of mine, has written a book on the covenant and he calls a covenant finally a bond in blood sovereignly administered. Now, that’s not a bad definition, a bond in blood sovereignly administered, a sovereign relationship, which God establishes, and it’s in blood because there’s usually associated with it the shedding of blood in figure in the Old Testament in reality in the case of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Three Roman III: The extra biblical uses of the term covenant. Now, when we say extra biblical we mean usage outside of Bible language. For example, in our lifetime, a great discovery of manuscripts have been found over in the east and we all have read even if we don’t really understand all the details about the Qumran community. And the Qumran community was evidently a heretical sect that exited alongside Judaism, perhaps, related to the Essenes another sect like that. We have some of these mentioned in the New Testament. Some of these sects that were sectarian but existing in the time of the New Testament and it’s possible that Qumran was something like that. They evidently were an Essenic group that lived in the Judean desert and in those the manuscripts have been found and some of the oldest manuscripts of the Hebrew Old Testament are found as well as many other manuscripts as well.

The Qumran community attributed great importance to the covenant. They believed that the new covenant of Jeremiah had been fulfilled in their midst. One thinks of Jehovah’s witnesses who think they, of course, thought for a long time that they were the one hundred forty four thousand until they came to be one hundred forty four thousand of them and then they had to modify their viewpoint a little bit to take care of that, but the Qumran community call themselves the new covenant in the land of Damascus. In the manual of discipline, you’ll find that particular statement. In classical Greek the terms two terms predominate. One term means covenant but usually as a covenant between people who enter into a contract with one another each having responsibilities and then another term that means a disposition and was often used of a will or a testament.

Now, these two terms are the Greek terms suntheke and diatheke. You can tell by even just listening to the pronunciation of it that they were related. One refers to an agreement in which two partners engaged in a common activity engaged in a common activity accept reciprocal obligation each having obligations and then on the other hand, diatheke meaning will or testament or a disposition. And since it was a will or testament, generally it was a irrevocable decision on the part of that person non-cancelable like some of those policies insurance companies try to sell you a non-cancelable policy and this would be non cancelable after the death of the disposer. We’ve learned by our legal system we can change wills after a person dies by engaging it in certain legal procedures if we possibly can and breaking a will or a testament but ideally a will or a testament cannot be broken.

It’s very interesting that the word diatheke which means a will or a testament or a disposition sovereignly administered a unilateral kind of will is found only once in the sense of the other word. In other words, it ordinarily means a one sided unilateral kind of thing. Of course, the important thing I’ll try and point out in a moment is that the term that is used in the New Testament is that term and, in fact, in the Old Testament as well. So, Roman IV: The Old Testament usage of the term covenant. The Old Testament term bariyth has a two sidedness about it and yet Scripture always represents it as based upon the sovereignty of God in its origin and in the determination of its content. In other words, in free grace God imposes upon his people his commands after having chosen. After having choosen them. [Laughter] The choice, however, is first fundamental and in grace. The original meaning of the word bariyth is not agreement or settlement between two parties, as sometimes it’s argued but first and foremost the notion of imposition, obligation but purely from the “it” imposed by the Lord God. He commanded his covenant, we read in the Old Testament, which certainly cannot be said to be a mutual agreement. The common term for making a covenant in the Old Testament is the phrase cut a covenant. That’s the way the Hebrews says to make a covenant they say cut a covenant, karath bariyth. The idiom derived from the ceremony accompanying the covenant usually involved in cutting of animals, putting the animals over against one another, and passing between the pieces and thus making an agreement in which you pledge yourselves to the terms of the agreement and the cutting of the animal in pieces and the death, they should of used squirrels but they didn’t. [Laughter] The death being, signifying the fact that you would be faithful to death to the terms of the covenant. You will find that referred to, for example, in Genesis 15. We’ll talk about that peculiar sense in which that covenant is ratified by the Lord God but you’ll also find it in Jeremiah 34:18, that kind thing of thing too.

Now, when the Old Testament great translation rendered these expressions, they would render it to covenant a covenant to establish a covenant and that suggests that it was not an agreement between two parities with equal rights. It was an exclusively divine action and the term that the Old Testament used to translate the Hebrew word was a word that referred to a unilateral covenant. That is one in which a person imposes certain conditions upon the other or in which he makes certain promises unilaterally. In other words, there’s no entering into agreement which responsibilities and obligation equally on the backs of two partners. Vinefeld distinguishes two kinds of covenants as being obligatory and promissory. Obligatory types being like the mosaic covenant where God said you will do this and Israel was responsible to obey that law. Then promissory covenants are like the Abrahamic covenant in which God makes certain promises and says that he will fulfill them.

Now, of course, he may lay down conditions for enjoying the benefits of the covenant as he did with the Abrahamic covenant, but the ultimate fulfillment of the covenant depends upon the faithfulness of God in his work. This unconditioned nature of the gift is explicitly stated in 2 Samuel 7:13 through 15, in the words regarding David. Listen to what he says, “I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. When he commits iniquity,” I’m picking out phrases in this particular thing just to save time, “I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever, when he commits iniquity, I will chasten him but I will not take my steadfast love from him.” In other words, the Davidic covenant is an unconditional covenant so far as its ultimate fulfillment is concerned. It will be fulfilled. In the meantime, Davidic kings may be disobedient and suffer discipline and chastisement and actually come to be lost men descendants of David but the covenant promise still holds.

Now, of course, we know the Lord Jesus Christ has come as the son of David has offered the sacrifice ratifying that covenant and now is at the right hand of the Father and the Davidic king is a sinless impeccable Son of God and thus the covenant will be fulfilled in God’s own time in the future. The son of David has done the work necessary to bring that covenant to its marvelous conclusion. The obligatory kind of covenant is modeled on the suzerain-vassal type of treaties, which are often found in the ancient world but the promissory covenant is modeled on the royal grant. That is a king giving certain things with no strings attached.

Now, when we come to the covenants of the Bible, those that are significant for spiritual blessing are unconditional covenants. There are covenants like that. They are royal grants in which God promises to fulfill his word. I like that. As a matter of fact, if it were not like that not a one of us would have those blessings, but we have them because there are that kind of covenant and the Lord Jesus Christ has ratified the covenant in his blood and we shall enter into the blessings of it because it’s a sovereign unconditional grant on the part of the law of God.

Now, that ought to make even members of Believers Chapel happy. It surely does me to realize that my salvation rests upon an unconditional sovereign and gracious promise of the Lord God. Isn’t that great? Come on now. Isn’t that great? Five or six of you think it’s great.

Roman V: The Septuagint uses of the term covenant. Now, let me explain. The Septuagint is the Old Testament is the Old Testament Greek is the Greek translation of the Old Testament. The Septuagint was made before the time of Christ. It’s uncertain precisely when. In fact, most scholars believes its made over a lengthy period of time, parts of relatively early, parts of it late, but finished before the time of our Lord perhaps two and half centuries before the time of our Lord. The Greek translation of the Old Testament was very commonly known. It would be comparable to the King James Version in the sense that it became the Bible of so many people. Greek became the lingua franca of the Roman Empire remember. It was the way they communicated. English, incidentally, is becoming something like that today in the Western world. That’s why when I went over to the Netherlands to teach Tyndale Theological Seminary, the instruction there in that theological seminary in the Netherlands is in English. Every Dutch child takes English in school. And all over Western Europe because of the predominance of the English speaking people today, they learn English not because they like English and not because they like Americans or like the Britishers, but they need it in their economic and business dealings and so they learn it for that reason.

Well, in the days of the New Testament and before the New Testament when the Romans conquered that world Latin, of course, became very prominent but when under Alexander, Alexander conquered the world around the Mediterranean. Greek became the lingua franca. Greek was spread all over that area. That’s why the New Testament is written in Greek. The men who wrote it were not Greeks. They were not naturally Greek speaking people. If you read Paul, you could read Paul in the Greek text and know he was a Semite because there’s certain ways in which the style of Hebrew is found there. Do you know that, for example, that when you read the book of Luke, the Gospel of Luke, the first two chapters of the gospel of Luke are Semitic in structure but then beginning at the third chapter the language becomes a relatively good kind of Greek. In other words, the first two chapters were derived from people who were very strongly influenced by Semitic language. So in the case of the people of that time when they read the Bible, they read it more often in the Greek translation then they did in the Hebrew original.

Even in the synagogues by the time of our Lord when the Bible was read in the Hebrew synagogues, it was generally read in, the text was read in Hebrew in an Aramaic paraphrase because the Greeks the Hebrews had learned Aramaic in the captivity an Aramaic paraphrase accompanied it. So when Paul writes his epistles, he writes them in Greek because that would be widely read. It was part of the providence of God and when he cites Scripture he frequently cites from the Greek translation of the Old Testament. The writer of the epistle of the Hebrews writes his epistle in excellent Greek and cites almost universally every passage. And remember he cites the Old Testament more than any else by page. He cites only from the Greek translation of the Old Testament. So that was the common text of the Old Testament, which they read. They knew it like you would know the King James Version. So when you think about the usage of terms, the usage of terms found in the Septuagint the Greek translation of the New Testament are often the usages that are found in the New Testament. Instead of basing their terminology and their theology on the Hebrew words of the Old Testament often they based what they were saying on the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. So when we talk the Septuagint usage of the term covenant, we’re talking about the usage of the term that is found in the New Testament and the usage that is found in the Greek translation of the Old Testament Hebrew text.

Just a few important points to mention. First of all, the common rendering of the term covenant is the word that refers to a will or a testament or a disposition, a sovereign disposition. The other term that was used of an arrangement or an agreement between people like a contract is not used in the New Testament for the covenantal language. Now, that’s striking because you might have expected that the New Testament writers would have used that word but they do not. Another point, even if mutuality is of the essence of human covenants, it’s not the essence of covenants between God and man. That’s evident from the Old Testament usage as well. The term that means a contract between two people with each having obligations hardly ever appears in the canonical books of the Greek Old Testament being found only two or three times only once as a translation of the word bariyth. So you can see the tendency is to select the term that means a sovereign disposition, close to a will or testament.

Another point, the other term that one that means a sovereign disposition eventually it referred to the disposition of property by a will or a testament. It may have had the idea of an authoritative disposition and the use of this term in the Old Testament indicates that the words signified a transaction between parties in which one party held a decisive position. Laid down the conditions of the agreement and in general, imposed his will. The sole function of the other party being to accept or reject what was determined by the dominant party. So you can see then that the usage in the Old Testament as men translated the Hebrew text they used the term in Greek that suggested the unconditional covenant.

Now, let’s turn to the New Testament usage of the term covenant. You might expect since you have the term covenant mentioned in the Old Testament over three hundred times you might that you would have a lot of usage of the term covenant in the New Testament. Have you ever thought about that? Have you ever noticed the fact that covenant occurs so frequently in the Old Testament and so rarely in the New Testament? It occurs over three hundred times in the Old Testament but how many times do you think it would occur in the New Testament? Well, of course, Dr. Johnson I don’t have a computer for a brain. I cannot tap out a few things and the number thirty-three come up. Well, that’s, of course, how many times the term covenant is found in the New Testament only thirty-three times. That’s strange. Furthermore, when you look at those three thirty- three times over half of them are quotations from the Old Testament. So we’ve reduced it down to about half of that in the context of the New Testament by the New Testament authors themselves. Another five clearly look back to Old Testament statements. The few independent cases are almost exclusively in the epistle of the Hebrews. Rarely in Paul, never in the Pastoral Epistles does the term covenant appear. Rarely in the Book of Acts, never in John’s writings. Isn’t that strange? I find that really strange because obviously the term covenant is very important.

Now, there are some important usages of course. There’s the use of the term in connection with the Lord’s supper, and then there are a couple of passages over which there are some disagreement and I’m going to ask you to turn to those two just to take a look at them. The first one is Galatians chapter 3 in verse 15, Galatians 3, verse 15. Now, in this passage we find the use of the term and its debated a bit but here is the usage, “Brethren, I speak after the manner of men; though it be but a man’s covenant, yet if it be confirmed, no man disannulleth, or addeth thereto.” Now, that word translated addeth is a word that in Greek often was used of to add a codicil to a will. In other words, it’s recognized as a legal term. So no man disannuls a covenant, or adds to it. That is adds a codicil to it. Quite a bit of debate has taken place over how we should translate this term here. Should we translate it then covenant or should we translate it testament?

And furthermore, in verse 18, we read here, “For if the inheritance be of the law.” There is the term inheritance in the context and so if you’re thinking about how to translate covenant in verse 15, and you see inheritance in verse 18, and you realize that this term might mean either covenant or testament or will that might suggest that we ought to render it testament since we have the term inheritance here. So one might give the term diatheke here the sense of covenant in the light of that, but before you make your decision, this is the way you study the Bible did you know this? You have to study the context. You don’t just look at it. Pick something out of the context. You don’t want to skip by verse 17. Verse 17, says, “And this I say, that the covenant, that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none effect.” Is the law a covenant or a testament? Well, obviously the law is a covenant. It’s not a will. It doesn’t convey blessings. The law is a covenant clearly. So probably we should give the term covenant in verse 15, a sense of covenant rather than testament in spite of the fact of the term inheritance in verse 18. For the term inheritance in verse 18, is linked with what? The Abrahamic covenant that was an unconditional covenant. The law was a conditional covenant. So we’ll eliminate that. You cannot translate the word diatheke by testament in that passage.

We have one other passage where you might be able to translate diatheke by testament Hebrews 9, verses 16 through 17. Now, I’ll just read these verses and make again just a comment or so again this is an exegetical point that one might discuss, I think, fruitfully for some time. I know you’re getting a little tired by now. Some of you are thinking about things you have to do when you get home. So verse 16, says, “For where a testament is, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator.” Now, mind you the same word lying back of this is the root from which the regular term for covenant comes. “For a testament is of force after men are dead: otherwise it is of no strength at all while the testator lives.”

Now, if you read this in the Authorized Version, as I have just read it, you would conclude that probably the term here has the sense in which it often had in Old Testament times of testament. That is a will, but there are some other things it could be said against that. I haven’t time to deal with the details. I just want you to notice this. He’s clearly been talking about a covenant above. He talks about the old covenant the mosaic covenant verse 15, “And for this cause he is the mediator of the New Testament (or covenant), that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first.” Now, there’s no question that the Mosaic arrangement was a covenant not a testament. So we have to translate that under the first covenant that, “they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance.” But then verse 16, is connected with verse 15, by little four, four, where a well, the preceding verse was talking about a covenant wasn’t it mosaic? So it’s hardly possible to then suddenly say the word which is covenant, the Mosaic covenant, now has become a testament or will. So probably we should render verse 16, for where a covenant is there must also of the necessity be the death of the covenator. Further, verse 17, still explains more for a covenant is a force after men are dead.

Now, that is a paraphrase. It’s really a covenant is a force with respect to dead things. Otherwise, it is of no strength at all while the testator lives or the covenator lives for he can change his covenantal requirements. And then verse 18 says, “Wherefore,” in other words, this is a closely reasoned little paragraph and the first meaning of the term is clearly covenant and it would seem contrary to good rules of exegesis to change the meanings of terms when it’s a closely reasoned paragraph connected by for, for and wherefore. Verse 18, the conclusion, “Wherefore neither the first,” well, the Authorized Version here inserts the word testament when it would be covenant. “Whereupon neither the first testament was dedicated without blood.” Mosaic well naturally if the first was a reference for mosaic the second is probably is also then to be understood as a covenant.

All right, now, let me sum up what I’ve been trying to say. The term covenant as it is found in the Old Testament is ideally when promises from God are concerned such as are found in the Abrahamic, the Davidic, and the New covenants. The term covenant is a disposition. It’s a divine sovereign disposition in which God gives certain promises sovereignly and guarantees their fulfillment by his own character of being faithful to his work. So we have the unconditional covenants of the Abrahamic, the Davidic, and the New covenants as we shall see as we begin to study them. So that’s important because lying at the base of it all is the divine grace and salvation, the divine sovereignty and the fulfilling of the promises that he has made and grounded in that particular fact is the certainty with which we shall see those promises come to fruition. And, in fact, the promise of the Lord Jesus Christ and the work that he did is a testimony to the faithfulness of God in performing his promises. Well, this has been a little technical but it’s important for us to think about these terms.

Let’s close with a word of prayer.

[Prayer] Father we are grateful to Thee for the privilege of thinking about the meaning of these important terms. We thank Thee for the covenants revealed in Holy Scripture and for the great emphasis on the sovereign disposition of the promises that ultimately lead up to the Lord Jesus Christ. We thank Thee too for those conditional arrangements for the [End of Tape]

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