Hebrews (Part 08) – Covenant and Testament
When discussing chapter 7, we skimmed over one thought to which we will now return for a moment. In the first few verses of that chapter, the author recounts almost all we know of Melchizedek from the Old Testament. The portion not specified has to do with the very first act of Melchizedek as he comes on the scene in Genesis 14.
Abraham has just returned from defeating Chedorlaomer and the other kings who had attacked Sodom and taken captive its king, people, and possessions (including Lot). After the victory, Moses writes that the king of Sodom comes over to meet Abraham. Immediately, however, the storyline switches to the arrival of Melchizedek. In other words, before any victory celebration is recounted and before any praise or thanks comes from the king of Sodom, the attention shifts to Melchizedek, priest of God Most High (el elyown).
Melchizedek brings bread and wine. This bread and wine is not to feed the victorious army (as many scholars surmise). Just a few verses later, Abraham indicates that the men have already eaten of the victory spoils (14:24). This bread and wine presentation is part of Melchizedek’s priestly duty. He did not run out to feed people, to congratulate Abraham, to join in some after-the-battle social event, or anything other than perform his ministerial duty. Now, he may have done a bit of socializing or congratulating; but the point of his short mention in the text is for one purpose only—the description of his activity as high priest of God Most High. In that office he presents the bread and wine, which symbolize life. His message is to Abraham to remind him that the victory was not of Abraham’s strength and wisdom. The victory was from God. With the bread and wine he tells him that life is from God. The presentation of the bread and wine is accompanied with a blessing—a blessing whose very words denote the bread and wine symbolism: “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!” (14:19-20). Note then the immediate reaction of Abraham. He acknowledges God’s hand in the victory by giving the tithe to God’s priest (14:20b).
Recognizing the meaning of Melchizedek’s presentation completes the emphasis of the story. This story is not about Abraham’s might or Sodom’s weakness. The story is included in Genesis (as many of the stories are) to portray relationship—relationship between God and his people. We learned last time that four elements or distincitves are included in relationship between humanity and God. Those elements are life, rest, righteousness, and rank. (Note the change in names from the last blog: life, peace, righteousness, and hierarchy. I believe the new names fit the concepts better. Just wish I could have thought up an “R” word for life.)
Now, notice these four distinctives in the Genesis 14 story following the victory. Life, illustrated by the bread and wine, comes from God. Rest, accomplished by the victory, comes from God. Righteousness is evident in Abraham’s keeping of the vow to God. Finally, rank is perceived in the tithes paid by Abraham to the high priest of God. These elements in place, Abraham is blessed by God, enjoying relationship with him.
These four distinctives find focus in the covenants, both the old and the new. But the new covenant is said to hold better promises (8:6). How is that so? It is because the four distinctives in the old covenant find only temporal or earthly fulfillment since sin causes failures for each covenant. The Noahic covenant promised life, but only of a temporal nature. God would not destroy all the world again with a flood, but people still all die. The Abrahamic covenant promised the land of Canaan which his descendants indeed possessed, but only for a while. The Mosaic covenant could not eradicate sin, but only pointed it out. And the Davidic covenant lost its earthly throne only within two generations.
The New Covenant, on the other hand, brings eternal life, heavenly rest, righteousness, and God’s supreme rule as all in all while we regain dominion of the rest of creation. It is God who makes these better promises because he defeated sin and its consequences.
Chapter 9 takes us to the next step. After declaring the old covenants faulty (or insufficient) in chapter 8, the author begins a description of how this is so. It is in addressing sin. The tabernacle structure contained within it the Most Holy Place—that place into which only the high priest could enter and that only one day a year. The blood of bull and ram sacrifices were brought in a picture of life offering for sin. But although the activity pictured atonement, it did not bring about actual atonement. Consciences were not purified (9:9), and access to God remained shielded (9:8).
Verse 11 begins the contrast of Christ. As high priest, he brings the effectual blood—his own—as a sacrifice and enters the very throne room of God (9:11-12; 24). The emphasis in the next few verses (15-22) provides an interesting discussion of the relationship of blood to both a covenant and a testament. The Greek word diatheke is used for both, but the ideas are slightly different. A covenant, as we have discussed before, is an absolute relational bond of faithfulness defined by God, initiated by God, and administered by God, involving obligations and promises. The clearest example of a covenant in the Old Testament is in Genesis 15. Animals are cut in two and placed on each side of a path. Normally, the two entering a covenant walk side by side along the path between the cut animals, indicating their agreement and that should either fail in their obligations, may their lives be so destroyed. Therefore, a blood sacrifice initiated the covenant and a blood sacrifice was required if the covenant was broken.
A testament was different. In modern terminology, we understand a last will and testament to indicate a transfer of inheritance. But in that sense, the death must occur first in order for the inheritance to be passed.
In 9:15-22, the author shifts back and forth between the covenant and testament concepts, showing that Christ’s death fulfills both aspects. Everyone failed at the old covenant except the man Christ Jesus. As covenant-breakers, all humanity deserves the death that failing a covenant requires. Yet, Jesus, the only covenant-keeper, took our guilt upon himself and took our place in sacrifice. By his blood he washed us clean from the guilt of sin. But more than that, in the testament sense, his death gave us opportunity to be born into the family of God. And when we became children of God, we inherited, by the death of Christ, the promises associated with the covenant. Now, in the New Covenant relationship with God, we have everlasting blessing without the spoiling threat of sin.
The point clearly brought out as the author closes chapter 9 in verses 23 through 28 is that the old covenant was merely a copy of the heavenly or spiritual reality. Remember that the author’s goal is to help the Roman Jews, who held only a surface-level grasp on their Christianity, recognize that the old covenant heritage which they had continued to exalt or at least mix with their Christianity, was inferior, faulty, and obsolete. It pictured well the necessity of atonement. But it was only a picture. Christ brought the reality.