“The promise of the eternal inheritance” harkens back to the inheritance that God promised to Abraham, of which we become heirs through having the same faith as Abraham. It includes justification by faith, being part of a spiritual nation, and eternal life. As Paul writes in Galatians 3:29, “if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise.”
Gilbert Wakefield offers an alternative translation of Hebrews 9:16-17 that brings out an important detail:
For where a covenant is, there must be necessarily introduced the death of that which establishe[s] the covenant; because a covenant is confirmed over dead things, and is of no force at all whil[e] that which establishe[s] the covenant is alive.
Similarly, Young's Literal Translation finds a commonality between the two covenants by using the term “covenant-victim” rather than “testator”:
. . . for where a covenant [is], the death of the covenant-victim to come in is necessary, for a covenant over dead victims [is] stedfast, since it is no force at all when the covenant-victim live[s].
In verses 16-17, most translations use “testament” and “testator,” which are indeed possible meanings of the Greek words. Like a “Last Will and Testament,” the New Covenant goes into effect only when the testator dies. This nuance, though, can apply only to the New Covenant, while the context of Hebrews 9 is both the Old and New Covenants. Both of them were sealed with “covenant-victims”—living beings that had their blood shed for the sake of establishing the respective covenants.
In the covenant with Israel, the covenant-victims were oxen and goats (see Exodus 24:5-8; Hebrews 9:19). The New Covenant, though, was confirmed with the bodily death of the Son of Man. Hebrews 10:5 says, “a body You have prepared for Me”—a body capable of having its blood drained out in sacrifice, both for the remission of sins and for the establishing of a covenant.
For Abraham, the covenant victims were mere animals. However, despite it not being explicitly stated, that covenant also required the life of the Creator. Paul explains in Galatians 3:8 that the promise that “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” indicates that God would justify the Gentiles by faith. Justification by faith is possible only through belief—trust—in a sacrifice of equal or greater value to the life forfeit due to sin. The blood of bulls and goats could never pay the life-debt of any human being; only the death of the sinless Creator could provide propitiation—justification—for all people. In this way, even though the Abrahamic covenant was confirmed only with slain animals, inherent within it was a promise of a future sacrifice so great that it would justify all those who believe in it.
David C. Grabbe
Why Was Jesus Not Crucified as Passover Began? (Part Two)
Hebrews 9 opens with a description of the earthly sanctuary and its contents. Instructions from Leviticus 16 begin in verse 7: “But into the second part the high priest went alone once a year, not without blood, which he offered for himself and for the people's sins committed in ignorance.” Verses 11-15 show Christ's fulfillment of the cleansing ritual and how He entered the Most Holy Place in heaven with His own blood. Verse 15 points out that our promise of eternal inheritance is based on His mediation; neither He nor we are awaiting Satan to fulfill any part of the sin offering. Verses 22-25 also explain Christ's cleansing of the heavenly sanctuary with His own blood, once for all, in contrast to the yearly purification of the physical sanctuary.
Comparing these explanations with the instruction in Leviticus 16, we see that both passages follow the same general order. Leviticus 16 begins with the instructions for the high priest on Atonement, just as Hebrews 2-9 presents Christ's superior High Priesthood. Next, Leviticus 16 proceeds to the slaughter of the first goat and the use of its blood to cleanse the sanctuary and holy objects. The bulk of Hebrews 9 explains Christ's role in fulfilling that.
David C. Grabbe
Who Fulfills the Azazel Goat— Satan or Christ? (Part Three)
Christ did this so that we can serve God. Thus, in order for us to serve God personally, we must be close to Him. Sin separates! What does sin do to relationships, either with humans or with God? It divides. When a person steals from another, do they become closer? If a spouse commits adultery, does that bring a married couple closer? No, it drives them apart. If a person covets something belonging to another person, does their relationship blossom? Sin separates.
Above all, it separates us from God. How can we be close to Him as long as we are sinning? Something had to be done, first of all, to bridge the gap: The sins had to be forgiven. Therefore, Jesus Christ, when He qualified by being blameless, voluntarily offered Himself to be the sacrifice that would overcome the division.
Before He did this, knowing He would die, He made out a will. He said, "When I die, those who take advantage of My death will inherit what I have inherited." The inheritance is to be in His Family! With it goes all the other promises: the promises of the Holy Spirit, eternal life, all the gifts, continual forgiveness, etc.
Whatever is needed, He will supply it. He will continue to stand between God and us, for a priest is one who bridges the gap between different parties to bring them together. He is saying, "When I am resurrected, I will always stand in the gap and be there when you need Me, and I will administer the Spirit of God."
Being brought close to God not only enables us to serve Him, it also enables the Father to serve us. Because we are in His presence, He can distribute to us the gifts than enable us to continue. Christ, then, is shown to be the Sacrifice for forgiveness of sin; the Mediator of peace between God and us; the Testator who died, passing on the benefits to us. These benefits work to remove the flaw, allowing us to keep the terms of the New Covenant.
We can then have a sustained and wonderful relationship with God. We can have His laws written on our hearts (Hebrews 8:10) and so be transformed into His image, qualified to share the inheritance of the promises with Him because we are like Him.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Covenants, Grace and Law (Part 13)
The word "new" is translated from the Greek word kaine. This is interesting because, while it does mean "new" in terms of time, the emphasis in the use of the word, when compared to something of the same kind, in this case, covenants, is on quality - not time. Hence, the emphasis in the use of kaine is on this covenant being better rather than being newer.
In Jesus' Parable of the Old and New Wineskins, kaine also appears. Using this understanding of kaine, the difference between the wineskins is not necessarily age (though that is implied) but quality. One wineskin is dried and cracked, while the other is supple and resilient. Though it may also be newer, it is decidedly better.
Putting this into a modern context, we can make a comparison between a 1910 automobile and a 1995 automobile. The 1995 automobile is a continuation of the same general kind as the 1910 automobile. Both have the same necessary parts: engine, wheels, steering wheel, seats, transmission, brakes, lights, and a nut behind the wheel. But the 1995 model has made the 1910 model obsolete as a viable mode of transportation.
So it is in the comparison between the Old Covenant and the New. Both have the same necessary parts, so that they may be considered of the same "kind," but the New Covenant is so much better and has so much more going for it that it has made the Old one obsolete.
Is there a difference between a testament and a covenant? The word "testament" does not even appear in English translations of the Old Testament, but it appears thirteen times in the New Testament. The Greek word is quite interesting because it does not even mean "covenant" as we think of it. In fact, researchers have been able to find only one usage outside of the Bible - in classical Greek - in which this word is used in the same way that the English and the Hebrew words are. The Greek word is diatheke, and it is the equivalent of our English word "testament" or "will" - not "covenant."
A covenant is an agreement between two parties. The emphasis in on the words "agreement" and "parties." However, a diatheke is a testament or will. As in English, it is a unilateral - a one-sided - declaration of the disposition of property that a person makes in anticipation of his death. Before we die, we usually draw up a declaration of what we want done with our property, and most people do not consult with the people they want to leave their possessions to. It is usually a private matter.
Paul used this singular word - diatheke - where two different words normally would have been used. The interesting thing is that the Greeks have a word for a covenant, suntheke, "a bilateral agreement," but the apostle did not use it.
The use of diatheke - which seemingly does not fit - has given the translators great difficulty trying to determine when Paul meant "covenant" and when he meant "will" or "testament." Why did he even do this when he could have used suntheke? The overall reason is very encouraging. Paul wanted to emphasize how much God has done unilaterally - that is, that He took upon Himself to do without consulting with others involved in the covenant - to tip the scales drastically in our favor for the purpose of our keeping the covenant and making it into His Kingdom.
For instance, "God so loved the world that He gave" Jesus Christ in our stead! It was a completely voluntary act on His part. God gives us grace and forgives our sins, and we are justified on the basis of that sacrifice and on the declaration of our faith and repentance. God gives us access to Him in prayer, again on the basis of the work of Jesus Christ. God gives us the very faith that saves. God gives us His Spirit, which is a downpayment of eternal life and empowers us to keep His laws. God gives us gifts, by that same Spirit, to serve Him and the church. He promises never to give us a trial that is too great - which translates into Him giving personal attention to each of His children! He promises never to forsake us and to complete the work that He has begun in us.
Now, brethren, some of these - in a very limited form - appear in the Old Covenant. But it is no wonder that Paul wanted to emphasize better rather than "new." The Old Covenant (because of what God has unilaterally done) is but a pale shadow of the new (covenant) in terms of what God is working out. It is nothing more than a pale shadow of the promises and of the hope that is derived by those of us who understand the New Covenant's terms.
To the unconverted who read the Bible - who look into these things - these terms are so enticing that it lures them into saying that there is nothing that we have to do. Some will go that far! They will say that it has all been done for us. They can read the terms, but they reach the wrong conclusion. It leads people to say, "There is no law," and "You don't have to keep the Sabbath. It's just ceremonial." However, the truth is that it is so one-sided, so much to our benefit, that it leaves us without excuse for failure to keep the terms - and those terms include lawkeeping.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Covenants, Grace, and Law (Part 10)
Other Forerunner Commentary entries containing Hebrews 9:15:
1 Corinthians 9:19-22