What is the Difference Between Testament and Covenant?
NCW 2, October 1992
Q. What is the difference between "Testament" (as in the "New Testament") and "Covenant" (as in the "New Covenant")? Aren't they the same thing?
The Bible is divided into two main sections: the Old Testament, which preserves the Hebrew scriptures from ancient times, and the New Testament, originally written in Greek (except Matthew's Gospel which was written in Hebrew -- though there is a good case for the whole NT having been written in Hebrew originally), which explains the New Covenant.
Though both sections describe covenants, they are called "testaments". But are they the same? Not exactly. A covenant is an agreement between two living parties, as in a marriage covenant, while a testament concerns the disposition of property and favours after one's death, as, for example, in "last will and testament".
Our word testament is based on the Latin testamentum. The Hebrew b'rit and the Greek diatheke were considered by the translators to be the equivalent of the Latin testamentum.
The Hebrew b'rit has the general sense of an agreement. Therefore, as the first major division of the Bible focuses on the story of the covenant made at Sinai, between God and the people of Israel, it could be accurately referred to as the Old Covenant.
Diatheke can mean both "testament" and "covenant", depending on the context. In most cases in the New Testament, diatheke should be translated as "covenant". However, there are a few instances where it can be understood in context as "testament".
For example: "In the case of a will, it is necessary to prove the death of the one who made it, because a will is in force only when somebody has died; it never takes effect while the one who made it is living" (Heb.9:16-17).
The writer is telling us that Christ remembered us in His will. He left us a priceless legacy: forgiveness of our sins, the removal of all guilt and the promise of eternal life.
These are all part of the New Covenant agreement Jesus proposed, but were not available until after His death. It was His "blood of the covenant, poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins" that made the process of salvation possible.
Thus the New Testament Scriptures are a record of both a covenant and a testament.
Therefore, perhaps the most accurate way of labelling the two main dvisions of Scripture would be the Old Covenant of the Patriarchs and Moses and the New Covenant and Testament of Jesus Christ.
This page was created on 18 April 1998
Last updated on 18 April 1998
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