“TESTAMENT OR COVENANT: DOES IT REALLY MAKE A DIFFERENCE?” For example, there are many Christians who call themselves “New Testament believers,” while others call themselves “New Covenant believers”? Does it really make a difference which one is used? Aren’t they just two different words that mean the same thing? Most Christians say they mean the same thing and use the two terms interchangeably, but should they? Many of them think they know what they mean, but when I hear them speak about God and the Bible, particularly about the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible), it quickly becomes apparent that they really don’t understand the biblical concept. They are, instead, mostly mimicking what they’ve heard others say.
DIFFERENT LEVELS OF MEANING TO WORDS
The problem behind people’s misinterpretation and misunderstanding of these two terms is NOT a problem with the original Hebrew or Greek, but what English words are chosen to translate the words in their original languages, whether it be Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek. As an ex-English professor, I’ve taught students for 25 years that in English, every word has its own DENOTATIVE (or dictionary) meaning, its CONNOTATIVE meanings (various associations we have with the word), as well as its own NUANCES (or subtle differences in or shades of meaning or expressions).
For example, the words “residence” and “home” have the same DENOTATIVE (or Dictionary) meaning, but their CONNOTATIVE meanings (those associations we ascribe to the word) are NOT the same. The word “home” has emotional associations attached to it that the word “residence” does not have. Also, consider the words “bum,” “vagrant,” “panhandler,” “street urchin,” “pauper,” “unemployed,” “vagabond,” or “hobo.” Which word one may choose to use has its own NUANCES, or subtle differences of meaning, and it will influence how many readers or listeners will view a person. And oftentimes, words do not just have only ONE meaning, but many.
WORDS OFTEN HAVE MULTIPLE MEANINGS
For example, the word “gay,” when I was growing up meant “someone who was happy and prosperous.” We have this meaning in mind when referring to the “Gay 20’s” in American history, but then the word has taken on another meaning, as referring to someone as a homosexual, and now with the younger kids, it has taken on yet another added meaning of referring to something as “dumb.” The same word, but three very different meanings, depending on its how it’s used.
The word “CONTEXT” refers to the “framework” that we use to interpret and understand something. For example, if I am reading a passage, then what came before and after the passage will influence the way that I interpret and understand that particular passage. In a form of writing, this would be the immediate CONTEXT. But then we need to consider whether it fits the CONTEXT of the entire chapter, the whole book, the whole Testament, or the whole Bible. In other words, if you’ve interpreted a passage from the New Testament, and it is in conflict with what’s said in the rest of the book, or in the rest of the New Testament, or in the Old Testament, then the interpretation is in error.
MOVING FROM ONE LANGUAGE TO ANOTHER
How words move from one language to another is an interesting study for me. For example, let’s look at the words TESTAMENT and COVENANT. In the Hebrew Old Testament, the word B’RIT (Strong’s #1285) is translated into English as COVENANT, but the word TESTAMENT is not an intrinsic part of this word’s meaning. However, in the New Testament, the Greek word DIATHEKE (Strong’s #1242) is used as the Greek equivalent to B’RIT, but DIATHEKE has an additional possible meaning that B’RIT does not have, TESTAMENT. Consequently, the Hebrew word means COVENANT, but not TESTAMENT, but the Greek word can mean either COVENANT or TESTAMENT.
Beginning in 200 AD, Latin versions of the New Testament began to appear, and by the time of the 4th century, there were several versions. Because Pope Damascus I wanted a standard Latin translation that all the churches could use, helping to standardize interpretations and doctrines, he commissioned Jerome, a scholar of languages, to produce the new Latin translation, which he completed in 400 A.D. This translation was the only official of the Bible from 400 AD until the Reformation.
In his Latin translation, commonly known as the LATIN VULGATE, Jerome translated the Greek word DIATHEKE into Latin as TESTAMENTUM, which in Latin can also mean COVENANT or TESTAMENT. It is from the Latin word TESTAMENTUM that we derive the English word TESTAMENT.
THE PROBLEM IS IN THE ENGLISH
Although the word TESTAMENT is directly derived from the Latin, the English meaning of this term does NOT include the concept of a COVENANT. And this is a major problem. Because the English meaning of the word TESTAMENT, as it’s commonly understood by most people, can only be seen in only TWO VERSES of the entire Bible. What should be the dominant meaning, COVENANT, is not really understood, because just as TESTAMENT is not an optional meaning for the Hebrew, B’RIT, so COVENANT is not an optional meaning for the English TESTAMENT, as it is in the Greek and Latin.
THE MEANING OF TESTAMENT
Let me explain, in English, the dominant meaning of the word “TESTAMENT” refers to a persons will, like in one’s “WILL AND TESTAMENT,” and we understand in our English- speaking societies that an OLDER TESTAMENT (or WILL) can be REPLACED when a person writes a new and updated WILL or TESTAMENT. And like I just mentioned, there’s only TWO VERSES (Hebrews 9:16-17) that actually use the word TESTAMENT with this meaning in mind. In spite of that, when most people read the words “OLD TESTAMENT” and “NEW TESTAMENT,” they understand these terms in reference to a WILL; this means that they view the OLD TESTAMENT as what God had originally designed and written, but now a newer and more updated TESTAMENT has been written, like with a WILL AND TESTAMENT, so the NEW one REPLACES the OLD one. And if you listen to most ministers in churches or on television, this is how they present the meaning and relationship between these two testaments.
COVENANT VS. TESTAMENT
In contradiction to the idea of a personal will, the Hebrew word B’RIT and the Greek word DIATHEKE means “COVENANT” in all of the Bible, except for those two verses in Hebrews 9, and again a COVENANT is completely different than a TESTAMENT. For one thing, a TESTAMENT (WILL) can be replaced with a newer TESTAMENT (WILL), but a COVENANT can NEVER be REPLACED. Why? Because unlike the word TESTAMENT, which refers to a legal written document that states what should happen to the property and items owned once someone dies, a COVENANT is all about building, maintaining, and improving RELATIONSHIPS between “two parties,” whether those two parties are two individuals, two families, two nations, or between God and individuals, or God and the nation of Israel. To do away with a COVENANT is to bring an end to a RELATIONSHIP.
THE PROPER UNDERSTANDING OF COVENANT
If you look up the word “COVENANT” online, you will find multiple articles written about the ancient process of how COVENANTS were made. This is how they erroneously understand “COVENANT.” This is like someone understanding the meaning and essence of marriage by examining the marriage ceremony. Some marriage ceremonies are rather simple in their structure and what will happen, while others are extremely ornate and complex, with many components that need to be properly orchestrated at just the right time. But whether the marriage ceremony is simple or complex, it does NOT in any way indicate the passion and love between the bride and groom, and the same is true when it comes to COVENANTS.
The purpose of a COVENANT was nothing like a TESTAMENT. In the Bible, two people entered into COVENANT for one of the following three reasons:
- To reaffirm, strengthen, or intensify an already existing relationship.
- To resolve a relational conflict or difference.
- To renew, refresh, or re-establish a relationship that hand been broken.
A COVENANT is NOT about a list of “Do’s and Don’ts,” but about the RELATIONSHIP between two parties. The stipulations of the COVENANT merely lay out the expected responsibilities and obligations of both sides. This was a common practice during the biblical time period. I’ve heard people say, “Man, I’m glad we have relationships now, and not covenants!” Statements like this only demonstrate that the person really does NOT understand the concept and purpose of a COVENANT.
A COVENANT is a tool for two people who want to build, maintain and improve or strengthen their RELATIONSHIP. It provides an agreed upon basis or foundation upon which the two people can stand, and then continue to work on building and developing their RELATIONSHIP. In American dating, for example, people don’t always know where they stand, or what the other person expects, or where exactly the lines are drawn in the RELATIONSHIP. This leads only to uncertainty and confusion, and can hinder, if not introduce possible suspicions and hurt feelings into, the RELATIONSHIP they are trying to build. But in a COVENANT, many of these issues are settled upfront, so that without the confusion and uncertainty of these “unknowns,” the two are able, then, to build a strong, confident RELATIONSHIP.
BIBLICAL EXAMPLES OF COVENANTS
First, COVENANTS are used to improve, strengthen, or intensify an already existing RELATIONSHIP. For example, marriage between a man and a woman. Prior to marriage, the man and woman began and have an ongoing social relationship, but then at some point, they decide to strengthen and intensify that RELATIONSHIP, as well as make it more intimate, by getting married. Another example of this is the COVENANT that God entered into with Israel and the “mixed multitude” (Exodus 12:38) with them at Mt. Sinai. God and Israel were already in a RELATIONSHIP prior to Sinai. In fact, God refers to Israel as “My people” (e.g., Exodus 3:7, 10) and even His “first born son” (Exodus 4:22). Consequently, the Sinai COVENANT did NOT begin the RELATIONSHIP, but it strengthened and intensified an already existing RELATIONSHIP, moving it up to a higher, more intimate level.
COVENANTS are also used to resolve RELATIONAL conflicts or differences. For example, in the Bible, there was a conflict between Jacob and his father-in-law, Laban. For example, it was customary for men to pay an agreed upon dowry to the family, as a way of demonstrating that the man had the financial means of supporting the potential wife. The potential husband was expected to maintain, at least, the living standard that the woman was accustomed to living while at home with her parents. Consequently, the dowry was an objective way of showing the woman’s family that he, indeed, was able to do this.
However, in Jacob’s case, he did not have any money, so he agreed to pay the dowry by working for ban for seven years for Rachel, the woman Jacob wanted to marry. However, when it came time for the marriage, Laban switched his older daughter, Leah, for Rachel, without Jacob’s knowledge. Women, then, wore veils that hid much of their face, so Jacob was not aware of the deception until it was too late. Jacob had to then work another seven years for the woman he truly wanted. Once he had both wives, as well as had 11 sons and 1 daughter, he had to work another 6 years to acquire the wealth he needed to support his family. During this time, we learn that Laban changes Jacob’s wages 10 different times. After 20 years now, Jacob, afraid of Laban’s growing hostility towards him, leaves with his wives, children and herds.
When Laban and his sons pursue them with weapons, Jacob realizes the potential danger he and his family are in. It should be remembered that there was no police officers then, no one to go to in order to report a crime, so Jacob calmed the situation down and resolved the conflict and potential disaster by making a COVENANT with Laban. After the COVENANT is made, Laban stays the night with Jacob and his family, and in the morning, Laban kisses his daughters and grandchildren, and gives them his blessing. Therefore, through the use of COVENANT, Jacob was able to resolve a RELATIONAL CONFLICT that was on the verge of collapse. Jacob’s story begins in Genesis 25:19 and goes through to the end of Genesis 35.
Finally, COVENANTS are used to renew, refresh, and re-establish a relationship that has been broken. Two great examples of this is the “NEW COVENANT” (or “NEW TESTAMENT“) and the future “COVENANT OF PEACE.” God’s RELATIONSHIP with the Northern Kingdom of Israel (i.e., “the House of Israel”) and the Southern Kingdom of Judah (i.e., the House of Judah) had been broken because of sins. The Northern Kingdom had been taken off into Exile by the Assyrians in 722 B.C., and now the Babylonians were about to take the Southern Kingdom into exile to Babylon, which happened in 586 B.C. Consequently, God promises to renew, refresh, and re-establish His covenant with both of them through “the NEW COVENANT.”
Behold, the days come, says the LORD, that I will make a NEW COVENANT with the HOUSE OF ISRAEL and with the HOUSE OF JUDAH. (Jeremiah 31:31; Emphasis Mine)
Notice that the NEW COVENANT (or NEW TESTAMENT) is NOT made with the world, but it is made with the HOUSE OF ISRAEL (the Northern Kingdom of Israel) and the HOUSE OF JUDAH (the Southern Kingdom of Judah). The NEW COVENANT is NOT for the purpose of REPLACING the original covenant, but to RENEW, REFRESH, and RE-ESTABLISH it with these two Houses, and then to ultimately join them back together again into ONE NATION, ONE KINGDOM, under ONE KING, MESSIAH (Ezekiel 37:15-24).
What about those who are not of the HOUSE OF ISRAEL or the HOUSE OF JUDAH? Throughout the Scriptures, and throughout time, God has always been willing to accept anyone who would come to Him and accept His covenant. There’s been Rahab, Ruth, Doeg, and others in the OLD COVENANT (called the OLD TESTAMENT), and throughout the NEW COVENANT (called the NEW TESTAMENT), God has been reaching His hand out to all nations, all tribes, all people, to make ONE PEOPLE, ONE KINGDOM with only ONE KING, MESSIAH. Although God is always willing to receive all people unto Himself, we should not lose sight that the original purpose of the COVENANT is for the RESTORATION OF ISRAEL; therefore, to present this COVENANT apart from this purpose is to take it out of its proper CONTEXT.
Finally, another example of a COVENANT that God is going to use to RENEW, REFRESH, and RE-ESTABLISH His relationship with Israel is the future COVENANT OF PEACE. When the Messiah Jesus (Heb. Yeshua) returns to finish establishing His Kingdom here on earth, He will establish the COVENANT OF PEACE with His people Israel. This COVENANT is not the NEW COVENANT (called the NEW TESTAMENT) because it does not deal with the “writing of the law upon our minds and hearts” nor with the forgiveness of sin, but with the establishing the physical SAFETY, SECURITY, AND PEACE of the land of Israel (e.g., Ezekiel 34:23-31; Ezekiel 37:25-28). Consequently, the NEW COVENANT (called the NEW TESTAMENT) is NOT the last and final COVENANT.
Therefore, does it make a difference whether we use the word “COVENANT” or “TESTAMENT“? The same word may be used in the Greek and Latin for both, but in English, the two words are miles apart. Therefore, if we are going to use the best word possible to communicate what is written in the original languages, then the word COVENANT should be used, except for the two verses in Hebrews (9:16-17) where the word “TESTAMENT” is clearly appropriate. And instead of using two verses to understand the rest of Scripture, how about we take the more logical option of understanding the two verses in the light and context of the rest of Scripture?
It’s extremely important hat we remember that to end a COVENANT is to end a RELATIONSHIP. And contradictory to traditional Christian thinking, God does NOT, nor will He ever, end any of the COVENANTS or RELATIONSHIPS that He has established within His Word. Whether that COVENANT be with Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the children of Israel, the nation of Israel as a whole, the Levites, David, or the RENEWED AND REFRESHED COVENANT through Jesus Christ. Not ONE of these COVENANTS has God ended, abrogated, ceased, annulled, “done away with” or “nailed to the cross,” NOT ONE, NOT NOW, NOT EVER.