How the Called Receive an Eternal Inheritance
And for this reason he is the mediator of a new covenant, in order that since a death has taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were committed under the first covenant, those who have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance. (16) For where a covenant is, there must of necessity be the death of the one who made it. (17) For a covenant is valid only when men are dead, for it is never in force while the one who made it lives. (18) Therefore even the first covenant was not inaugurated without blood. (19) For when every commandment had been spoken by Moses to all the people according to the Law, he took the blood of the calves and the goats, and all the people, (20) saying, "This is the blood of the covenant which God commanded you." (21) And in the same way he sprinkled both the tabernacle and all the vessels of the ministry with the blood. (22) And according to the Law, one may almost say, all things are cleansed with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.
You might think that God would be more careful in the kinds of comparisons and analogies he uses to explain his work. He is pretty daring in the way he uses human language and images. For example, he says that the coming of Jesus will be like a thief in the night; and so he dares to link his perfect Son with a thief. And there are other comparisons like that in the Bible. In one place he compares his wrath to a man being raised from a drunken stupor. Why does God do this? Why does he use comparisons that could be misleading?
The answer is that every comparison could be misleading when the work of God is being compared to the work of man. God is unique. There is no human experience that perfectly fits the way he acts or the way he is. But if God wants to communicate with us, which he does, he has no other language to use but a language we can understand, a human language that has been built around human experience.
For example, when we talk about servanthood, we use human language that has grown up on the basis of our experience of servants or various human services. Well, if God wants to communicate something about his own service of us, or our service of him, he will use this language. But, since he is God, who is utterly unlike us in many ways, this language of servanthood is going to be misleading in part. We will have to ask, "What part of this comparison is true with God, and what part of it is not true with God?" If we are servants of God, does that mean we are not children of God? Does it mean we are not heirs of God? Does it mean that we live in servants' quarters and have no place at the Father's table? What does God want us to understand when he calls us servants? That's just one illustration.
All comparisons between the way God relates to us and the way we relate to each other are like that. You have to ask what part of this comparison or analogy leads into the deep truth God wants to reveal about himself, and what part of it leads down a dead end road to misunderstanding?
Well, in today's text the writer introduces the comparison between the "new covenant" and a last will and testament. And so we need to be careful here to make sure we see what parts of this comparison are helpful, and what parts of it might be misleading.
The Nature of the New Covenant
First let's review just a moment and make sure we recall what the new covenant is, and how it is different from the "first covenant" that Paul refers to here in verses 15 and 18. The new covenant is the arrangement with his people that God promised in Jeremiah 31:31. The book of Hebrews quotes the terms of this arrangement in Hebrews 8:10-12. It says, This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people . . . for I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.
So in this arrangement God no longer writes his will on tablets of stone outside the heart; he moves, by his Spirit, inside and makes the will of God part of what we love. He changes us from the inside out so that we love his will. Not only that, it says that in the new covenant he is merciful to our transgressions and remembers our sins no more. In the old covenant there had been no sacrifice that could truly take away human sin. There had been animal sacrifices, but Hebrews 10:4 says plainly, "It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sin." So the new covenant promises that these sins will be taken away which means that the foundation of the new covenant is a better sacrifice, namely, the sacrifice of God's own Son.
So the new covenant is all about how God deals with sin to make us right with him, how he deals with the guilt and condemnation of sin by sending his Son to die for sinners and bear our guilt so that there could be forgiveness and cleansing, and good consciences before God, as we saw last time. And how God deals with the power of sin by writing the law on our hearts so that we hate sin from the inside and love God's will and walk in his ways freely, not merely by external legal constraint. That's the new covenant. That's Christianity. And the death of Christ, the shedding of Christ's blood, is the basis of it. By his blood-shedding he purchased our justification and he purchased our sanctification. He took away our guilt and he is taking away our corruption.
Seeing the New Covenant More Clearly
Now in Hebrews 9:15-22 the writer gives a new slant on the new covenant. He compares it to a "last will and testament." Look at verses 15 and 16. In verse 15 he calls Christ the "mediator of a new covenant," and he refers to Christ's death that redeems from sins that the "first covenant" could not take away. And he says that this new covenant, based on this death of Christ, happened so that all who are called might receive an "eternal inheritance."
So far this sounds wonderfully familiar. But then in verse 16 he makes the comparison between this new covenant and a "last will and testament." Now you all know what that is. But maybe the children don't. A "last will and testament" is a very important and very official, legal paper that a person writes down to say what should be done with his possessions after he dies. That's a "last will and testament." Every adult should have one. That's the comparison with the new covenant that the writer makes in verses 16-17. He says For where a covenant is [RSV and NIV say "will," though it is the same Greek word as the one translated "covenant" in verse 15], there must of necessity be the death of the one who made it. For a covenant [a "will"] is valid only when men are dead, for it is never in force while the one who made it lives.
So you can see that the term "covenant" in verse 15 is given the meaning "last will and testament" in verses 16 and 17, which most translations show by translating it "will" even though it is the same word in Greek as "covenant."
Now why does this writer make this comparison? Why does he bring in this idea that the new covenant is in fact a "last will and testament"? I think there are at least five reasons.
1) This is the ordinary meaning of the term in the common Greek culture of those days: a "diatheke" was a "last will and testament."
2) The basis of the new covenant is the death of Christ. A death had to take place to give force and validity to the new covenant. So it is like a last will and testament. A death makes it come into effect.
3) Even the first covenant was associated with a death. Look at verse 18, "Therefore even the first covenant was not inaugurated without blood." In other words, even though it wasn't clear in the old covenant that the death of the Messiah would be the foundation of the new covenant and the forgiveness of sins, yet there were pointers. Death was required of animals. And that anticipated and foreshadowed the death of Christ, and so even the first covenant was validated by a death, and was like a "last will and testament" in that sense.
4) The fourth reason the writer treats the new covenant as a "last will and testament" is that in verse 15 he has just referred to an "eternal inheritance." You see that: "Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, in order that . . . those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance." And we can all see that if there is an inheritance there must be some kind of last will and testament that tells who the heirs are and what inheritance they get. That is what he says the new covenant does.
5) Finally, he compares the new covenant with a "last will and testament" because a "will" is not something the heirs negotiate about. It comes unilaterally from the one who wrote it down and the heirs take it or leave it as it is. They can't change the decisions of the one who wrote the will. The new covenant is drawn up by God without consulting the heirs, or anyone else. It is a sovereign expression of God's will, not a negotiated agreement.
For these five reasons, at least, the writer says that the new covenant is like a "last will and testament." Yes, but this is a daring way to talk about God's relation to his people.
This analogy is fraught with possible misunderstanding. 1) Did God write a last will and testament because he would one day die, and wanted to leave his possessions to another? 2) Who is he executor of God's last will and testament? A will usually specifies that, and it is never the dead person who executes his own will. 3) Was this will not in force before the death occurred? If not, how did David and Moses and all the saints get forgiveness for sins? 4) Who are the heirs of this last will and testament? Often the heirs of the second generation are not known to the one who makes the will. Is the inheritance of God left to an uncertain, indefinite group? Or are there names written in the will? Let's look at the answers to these four questions and let each one have its powerful effect to deepen and strengthen our security in God and our confidence that the eternal inheritance, eternal life, is ours.
1) Did God write a last will and testament because he would one day die, and wanted to leave his possessions to another?
The closest answer we get to that question in Hebrews is in 2:14. "Since the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death he might render powerless him who had the power of death." In other words, No, God, as God cannot die. He is "immortal" as 1 Timothy 1:17 says. But Yes, he wills to experience death so as to destroy death from the inside and deliver those who are enslaved to death. How can the immortal experience death? He takes on the flesh-and-blood human nature as his own and in that nature experiences death. So the answer is Yes, God wrote a last will and testament because he intended to experience death in the death of his Son through the human nature that he took on in the incarnation.
Let this establish your faith and deepen your security and your assurance in God, because he wrote this will in eternity past. From all eternity God willed to pass on his "eternal inheritance" to you by grace (2 Timothy 1:9). The death is over and done that is required for the heirs to come into their possession. There does not need to be another one.
2) Who is the executor of God's last will and testament?
A will usually specifies that, and it is never the dead person who executes his own will. The answer is that the comparison breaks down, and the same person who dies to put the will in force is also the executor of the will. How can this be?
Answer: the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and the installation of him at the Father's right hand as High Priest of all the good things to come. When verse 15 calls Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, the last will and testament, it means not only that he is the one whose death releases all the inheritance of God for us, but also that once that inheritance is released, Jesus makes sure we get it. He is the one who dies. And he is the Executor.
You can see this in Hebrews 13:20-21:
Now the God of peace who brought up from the dead the great Shepherd of the sheep through the blood of the eternal covenant [Jesus himself was an heir of the last will and testament that his blood set in force; see Hebrews 1:2], even Jesus our Lord, equip you in every good things to do His will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight [that's the new covenant promise], through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
The new covenant inheritance of God's inner work in our lives is given to us, it says, "through Jesus Christ." He is the executor of the will. So let this establish your faith and deepen your security and your assurance in God, that Christ, the Son of God not only is the one who died to release the Father's inheritance in your life; he is also the one who rose from the dead and is the sovereign Executor of the Father's will and makes sure that you get all the inheritance in this life and the next.
3) Was this last will and testament, this new covenant, not in force before the death of Christ occurred? If not, how did David and Moses and all the saints get forgiveness for sins?
Hebrews 9:17 says, "For a covenant [= will] is valid only when men are dead, for it is never in force while the one who made it lives." That would seem to say, No, the forgiveness of the new covenant was not available in the Old Testament times before Christ died. But notice how verse 18 starts, "Therefore even the first covenant was not inaugurated without blood." And then he goes on to show how Moses made the shedding of blood central to the old covenant.
What's the point here? I think the point is this: in the old covenant Christ had not yet died, but all the blood-shedding of animals was meant to point forward to the day when a death would occur that would indeed purchase once for all the forgiveness of God, and if those saints put their faith not in animals, but in the grace of God, they could have a foretaste of that experience now. In other words, some, but not all, of the last will and testament was inherited before the death of Christ (Hebrews 11:39-40).
Here again the analogy is not perfect. Yes, without the death of Christ there would be no forgiveness in the Old Testament. But, No, those saints did not have to wait thousands of years to experience the forgiveness that the death bought for them. In Exodus 34:7 God says, as part of the Old Covenant, that he "forgives iniquity, transgressions and sins."
So let this strengthen your faith in the greatness of Christ's achievement on the cross: it was great enough to release the inheritance of forgiveness not only forward two thousand years to us, but also backward two thousand years and more.
4. Finally, Who are the heirs of God's last will and testament?
Most urgently, are you an heir? Are you listed in God's last will and testament? Does he bequeath to you the eternal inheritance? Is the inheritance of God left to an uncertain, indefinite group? Or does he have in view particular people that he loves as children, and to whom he leaves his eternal inheritance?
The answer is found in verse 15, specifically in the word "called." The writer says, "And for this reason he is the mediator of a new covenant, in order that . . . [leaving out the intervening clause] those who have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance." Who receives the eternal inheritance? "Those who are called." Called by whom? Called by God. In other words, God's last will and testament is not left to chance. God not only wrote the will; and he not only put it in force by the death of his own Son; and he not only raised his Son to be the executor of that will; and he not only spread the inheritance of eternal life backward for thousands of years and forward for thousands of years; but he is also today calling people out of darkness and death and unbelief to become fellow heirs with his Son. In other words, "from him and through him and to him are all things; to him be glory forever and ever."
Give heed to his call. Open your spiritual ears to the voice of your Shepherd, and your spiritual eyes to the glory of your God. And believe.