“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)
Other Forerunner Commentary entries containing Hebrews 9:16: