Baugh: Hebrews 9:15–18 Is Talking About A Covenant

I corresponded with John Hughes recently and complimented him on a detailed scholarly article he wrote some years ago where he gave a most helpful treatment of Heb. 9:15-22. He mentioned in return that it was disappointing that his work seems to have made no impression on English translations that have appeared subsequently. Let’s look the passage over (going only to v. 18 for time’s sake). I will rehearse the heart of Hughes’s interpretation of Heb. 9:15-18 and zero in on one phrase in particular that I find especially illuminating for accepting his conclusions.

Here is Heb. 9:15-18 in the English Standard Version (ESV), an excellent newer translation, but it does not adopt Hughes’s interpretation. The issue revolves around the translation of one Greek word, diatheke, that occurs several times in these four verses and is translated as either “covenant” or “will” (and are highlighted here):

Heb. 9:15-18: Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant. [16] For where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. [17] For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive. [18] Therefore not even the first covenant was inaugurated without blood.

It seems rather odd that the author of Hebrews should speak of Christ as “mediator of a new covenant” (v. 15) and then switch to discussion of a seemingly unrelated “will” in vv. 16-17. More odd is that the author draws out from his discussion of a “will” in vv. 16-17 a conclusion about covenant inauguration practice in v. 18. Why discuss a last will to make a point about a covenant?

The answer to this last question receives some interesting explanations in the literature, though even the best of them are not convincing. It is true that the Greek word diatheke may legitimately refer to either an OT type of “covenant” or to a “last will and testament.” These are two established meanings of this word. But the problems with rendering diatheke as “will” in vv. 16-17 remain, because it doesn’t make sense of the author’s logic in drawing out a conclusion regarding Christ’s death as covenant mediator.

Hughes makes the case that the author of Hebrews is not using a last will in vv. 16-17 to illustrate covenant practice in vv. 15 and 18, but is discussing covenant practice throughout the passage. Hughes wants us to render the one word diatheke with English “covenant” throughout vv. 15-18. His main interpretation is particularly strong and deserves to be highlighted. The rendering of this word as “will” or “last will” in vv. 16-17 makes it seem as if the author of Hebrews is concerned about when the inheritance is turned over to the heirs. The answer would be ‘at the death of the one who made the last will.’ But this would seem to suggest then that since Christ has died, we therefore have entered into our inheritance. Read more»

S. M. Baugh | “Words and Things (2) | 2011


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  1. Excellent exegesis! “but rather Hebrews is showing how the death of Christ inaugurates the new covenant.”
    And even Jonah too can testify to this interpretation when in the belly of the whale he says: “they that observe lying vanities forsake their own mercy, but I will sacrifice unto thee the voice of thanksgiving , I will pay my vows, Salvation is of the Lord.”

  2. It goes to show that the very best translations don’t always choose the best renderings specific words. Both the Geneva and KJV uses the word “testament” rather than “covenant” and the ESV/NIV/RSV all use “will”. I think the only translation the consistently uses the term “covenant” is the NASB.

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