Hebrews 9:16 MEANING

Hebrews 9:16
(16) Testament.--As has been already pointed out, the greatest difference of opinion has existed in regard to the meaning of the Greek word diath?k? in this passage. (See Note on Hebrews 7:22.) It will be seen at once that the interpretation of this verse and the next entirely depends on that one question. If "testament" is the correct meaning of the Greek word, the general sense of the verses is well given in the Authorised version. A few commentators even agree with that version in carrying back the idea of testament into Hebrews 9:15, although in the other two places in which the word is joined with "Mediator" (Hebrews 8:6; Hebrews 12:24) they adhere to the ordinary rendering, "covenant." By most, however, it is held that a new thought is introduced in the present verse. The writer, it is urged, having spoken of a promise of an inheritance, (Hebrews 9:15), and a promise that cannot be made valid unless death take place, avails himself of the illustration which a second (and very common) meaning of the leading word affords; and though a covenant has hitherto been in his thoughts, he adds interest and force to his argument by calling up the analogy of a testament or will. It is further urged that this procedure will not seem unnatural if we reflect that the diath?k? between God and man is never exactly expressed by covenant, since it is not of the nature of a mutual compact between equals. (See Hebrews 7:22.) The position is chiefly defended by two arguments:--(1) Hebrews 9:16, being a general maxim, gives no intelligible sense in regard to a covenant, but is easy and natural as applied to a will. (2) A Greek word used in Hebrews 9:17, where the literal translation is "over (the) dead," cannot be used of sacrifices of slain animals, but of men only. This, we believe, is a fair statement of the case on the one side; and it may be fully acknowledged that, if Hebrews 9:16-17 stood alone, and if they were written of Gentile rather than Jewish usage, the case would be very strong. As it is, we are compelled to believe that the difficulties which this interpretation brings with it are beyond comparison more serious than those which it removes. (1) There is no doubt that in the overwhelming majority of New Testament passages the meaning covenant must be assigned. By many high authorities these verses are considered to contain the only exception. (2) In the LXX. the word is extremely common, both for the covenants of God and for compacts between man and man. (See Note on Hebrews 7:22). (3) The application of diath?k? in this Epistle rests on the basis of the Old Testament usage, the key passage being Jeremiah 31:31-34, quoted at length in Hebrews 8. With that quotation this passage is linked by the association of diath?k? with Mediator in Hebrews 9:15 and Hebrews 8:6, and with "the first" in Hebrews 9:15 and in Hebrews 8:13; Hebrews 9:1. (4) In the verses which follow this passage the meaning covenant must certainly return, as a comparison of Hebrews 9:20 with the verse of Exodus which it quotes (Exodus 24:8) will show. (5) It is true that the idea of "death" has appeared in Hebrews 9:15, but it is the death of a sin-offering; and there is no natural or easy transition of thought from an expiatory death to the death of a testator. And yet the words which introduce Hebrews 9:16; Hebrews 9:18 ("For" and "Wherefore") show that we are following the course of an argument. (6) Though to us Hebrews 9:16 may present a very familiar thought, we must not forget that to Jews dispositions by will were almost altogether unknown. Were it granted that a writer might for illustration avail himself of a second meaning which a word he is using might happen to bear, this liberty would only be taken if by that means familiar associations could be reached, and the argument or exhortation could be thus urged home. In an Epistle steeped in Jewish thought such a transition as that suggested would be inexplicable. There are other considerations of some weight which might be added; but these seem sufficient to prove that, even if the difficulties of interpretation should prove serious, we must not seek to remove them by wavering in our rendering of diath?k? in these verses. We believe, therefore, that the true translation of Hebrews 9:16-17, must be the following:--For where a covenant is, there must of necessity be brought in the death of the covenanter. For a covenant is of force when there hath been death (literally, over the dead); for hath it ever any strength while the covenanter liveth? In Hebrews 9:15 we have seen the two-fold reference of the death of Jesus, to the past and to the future. As High Priest He has offered Himself as a sin-offering to cleanse the conscience from dead works; the same offering is also looked on as a ransom redeeming from the penalty of past transgressions; and, still by means of His death, He has, as Mediator, established a new covenant. We are reminded at once of the words of Jesus Himself, "This cup is the new covenant in My blood" (1 Corinthians 11:25). It is this very thought which the writer proceeds to develop: a covenant cannot be established without death--cannot exist at all. That amongst Jews and Greeks and Romans alike covenants were confirmed by sacrifice we need not pause to prove; of this usage we have the earliest example in Genesis 15. In such sacrifices, again, there is "brought in," or assumed the death of him who makes the covenant. There will not, perhaps, be much difficulty in accepting this as a maxim. The conflict of opinion really begins when we ask in what manner this is assumed. The usual answer is, that the death of victims is emblematic of the punishment which the contracting parties imprecated on themselves if they should break their compact. It may have been so amongst the Greeks and Romans, though this is doubtful.[11] Amongst the Jews, however, the analogy of their general sacrificial system, in which the victim represented the offerer, renders such an explanation very improbable. As to the precise idea implied in this representation, it is not easy to speak with certainty. It has been defined in two opposite ways. In the death of the victim each contracting party may be supposed to die either as to the future, in respect of any power of altering the compact (the covenant shall be as safe from violation through change of intention as if the covenanter were removed by death); or as to the past, to the former state of enmity each is now dead. It is not necessary for our argument to decide such a question as this. The only material points are, that a covenant must be established over sacrifices, and that in such a sacrifice "the death of him that made the covenant" must in some manner be "brought in" or assumed. There remains only the application to the particular covenant here spoken of. If this be taken as made between God and man, the sacrificial death of Jesus in man's stead ratified the covenant for ever, the former state of separation being brought to an end in "the reconciliation" of the gospel. The peculiar character of Hebrews 9:15, however (see above), seems rather to suggest that, as Jesus is set forth as High Priest and sacrifice, so He is both the Author of the covenant and the sacrifice which gives to it validity. In this case we see represented in His sacrifice the death of each "covenanter." (The transition from "Mediator" to Giver of the covenant is not greater than that which the other interpretation requires--a transition from a mediator of a testament to a testator.) There are minor points relating to details in the Greek which cannot be dealt with here. Of the two arguments quoted above, the former has, we hope, been fully met; though (it may be said in passing) it would be easier to give up Hebrews 9:16 as a general maxim, and to regard it as applying only to a covenant between God and sinful man, than to divorce the whole passage from the context by changing "covenant" into "will." One point of interest must not be omitted. There are coincidences of expression with Psalm 1:5 which make it very probable that that Psalm, memorable in the development of the teaching of the Old Testament, was distinctly in the writer's mind. This comparison is also of use in the explanation of some expressions in the original of these two verses.

[11] See Mr. Wratislaw's very interesting note in his "Notes and Dissertations," pp. 155, 156. The whole subject is very carefully treated in an admirable pamphlet by Professor Forbes, of Aberdeen.

9:15-22 The solemn transactions between God and man, are sometimes called a covenant, here a testament, which is a willing deed of a person, bestowing legacies on such persons as are described, and it only takes effect upon his death. Thus Christ died, not only to obtain the blessings of salvation for us, but to give power to the disposal of them. All, by sin, were become guilty before God, had forfeited every thing that is good; but God, willing to show the greatness of his mercy, proclaimed a covenant of grace. Nothing could be clean to a sinner, not even his religious duties; except as his guilt was done away by the death of a sacrifice, of value sufficient for that end, and unless he continually depended upon it. May we ascribe all real good works to the same all-procuring cause, and offer our spiritual sacrifices as sprinkled with Christ's blood, and so purified from their defilement.For where a testament is,.... The covenant of grace, as administered under the Gospel dispensation, is a testament or will. The Jews have adopted the Greek word, here used, into their language, and pronounce it and by it understand a dying man's last will and testament (d). Some of them make it to be of Hebrew derivation; as if it was said, , "this shall be to confirm" (e), or this shall be stable and firm; though others own it to be the same with this Greek word (f). The covenant of grace, is properly a covenant to Christ, and a testament or will to his people: it is his and their Father's will, concerning giving them both grace and glory; it consists of many gifts and legacies; in it Christ is made heir of all things, and his people are made joint heirs with him; they are given to him as his portion; and they have all things pertaining to life and godliness bequeathed to them, even all spiritual blessings; the witnesses of it are Father, Son, and Spirit; and the seals of it are the blood of Christ, and the grace of the Spirit; and this is registered in the Scriptures by holy men as notaries; and is unalterable and immutable: and this being made,

there must also of necessity be the death of the testator; who is Christ; he has various parts in this will or testament; he is the surety and Mediator of it; and he is the executor of it; what is given in it, is first given to him, in order to be given to others; all things are put into his hands, and he has a power to give them to as many as the Father has given him; and here he is called the "testator": Christ, as God, has an equal right to dispose of the inheritance, both of grace and glory; and as Mediator, nothing is given without his consent; and whatever is given, is given with a view to his "death", and comes through it, and by virtue of it: hence there is a "necessity" of that, and that on the account of the divine perfections; particularly for the declaration of God's righteousness, or by reason of his justice; and also because of his purposes and decrees, which have fixed it, and of his promises, which are yea and amen in Christ, and are ratified by his blood, called therefore the blood of the covenant; and likewise on account of the engagements of Christ to suffer and die; as well as for the accomplishment of Scripture prophecies concerning it; and moreover, on account of the blessings which were to come to the saints through it, as a justifying righteousness, pardon of sin, peace and reconciliation, adoption and eternal life.

(d) T. Hieros. Peah, fol. 17. 4. & T. Bab. Bava Bathra, fol. 152. 2.((e) T. Bab. Bava Metzia, fol. 19. 1. Maimon & Bartenora in Misn. Moed Katon, c. 3. sect. 3. & in Bava Metzia, c. 1. sect. 7. & in Bava Bathra, c. 8. sect. 6. (f) Cohen de Lara Ir David, p. 30.

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