Friday, July 16, 2010

The Eternal Nature of the Eternal Covenant in Hebrews

I have been asked about how we should understand the eternal nature of the eternal covenant in Heb 13:20. The connection between this verse and Bullinger’s language of “the One and Eternal Testament or Covenant of God” is intriguing. His idea seems to be that there is one covenant that is eternal in the sense that it began with Adam and continues on forever, and this is one way of understanding the idea of the eternal covenant in Heb 13:20.

It is correct to speak of one covenant relationship that God has had with his people since the time of Adam, but the purpose of the author of Hebrews is actually to distinguish the Mosaic administration of this covenant relationship from the post-cross administration of this covenant relationship. The author argues: if the revelation given to Moses and the prophets was special (Heb 1:1; 2:2), then how much more so the word given to the Son of God himself (Heb 1:2; 2:3)! There is continuity, but also discontinuity in the sense that a greater revelation has been revealed, which must take priority, to which we must be committed, and from which we must not turn back.

So, in speaking of an eternal covenant, the author of Hebrews means the new covenant, which he contrasts with the old covenant. Jesus is the guarantor and mediator of a covenant that is “better” than the Mosaic covenant (Heb 7:22; 8:6). Jesus’ ongoing life means that he exercises an eternal priesthood, and this underpins this better covenant (Heb 7:24). Jesus’ mediatorship is linked with his death, which opened the way for the called to receive an eternal inheritance (Heb 9:15). This inheritance is not eternal in the sense of being timeless, but it is eternal in the sense that it continues on for eternity from a particular point in the past. The context suggests that this point is the time of Jesus’ death, when the new covenant was inaugurated.

It is clear that the author of Hebrews views the new covenant as beginning formally at the point of Jesus’ death. A covenant is made valid, i.e., it comes into effect, through the death (usually symbolic) of the one who made it (Heb 9:17). In relation to the Mosaic covenant, the necessary death was symbolized through the shedding of sacrificial blood (Heb 9:17-21). But the new covenant was established through the literal death of the one who made it. His death was a “better” sacrifice, which has opened the way to enter into heaven itself, not just into the tabernacle/temple, which was the Mosaic copy of this awesome place (Heb 9:23-26).

It is also interesting to consider how the author of Hebrews uses the word αἰώνιος, which is usually translated as eternal. In Hebrews, it usually designates continuation into the future rather than something that is timeless. Eternal salvation in Heb 5:9 refers to the salvation that results from obeying Jesus. It is an eschatological concept that continues on forever. The timeframe of eternal judgment in Heb 6:2, eternal redemption in Heb 9:12, and the promised eternal inheritance in Heb 9:15 are similar. The eternal redemption was only secured “by means of his blood” (Heb 9:12). Even though the effects of Jesus’ sacrifice applied to the old covenant saints, the redemption obtained by this means did not really begin until Jesus secured it through his death on the cross. In a similar way, the idea of the eternal inheritance being promised means that it did not exist in consummate reality from the beginning. The called only receive the eternal inheritance promised to them through the death of Jesus which redeems them from the sins committed under the first, i.e., the Mosaic, covenant (Heb 9:15). The only time when αἰώνιος is used in Hebrews to denote the idea of a timeless existence is in Heb 9:14, where the Holy Spirit is described as the eternal Spirit.

All in all, according the manner in which the writer of Hebrews uses his language, the eternal covenant is the new covenant in Christ. It is eternal in the sense that from the point of inauguration at the cross, it endures forever. More theologically we could speak of how this “eternal” covenant has been the foundation for God’s unitary covenant relationship with his people ever since Adam was kicked out of the garden, but this is to delve into an area that is beyond the purview of this particular epistle.

As the writer puts it: Once upon a time God’s people only knew Sinai;

but [now] you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel (Heb 12:22-24)!

The sprinkled blood that is better than the blood of innocent Abel has inaugurated the better and eternal covenant, namely, the new covenant in Christ.


sujomo said...


I think the key point is when you wrote: “the purpose of the author of Hebrews is actually to distinguish the Mosaic administration of this covenant relationship from the post-cross administration of this covenant relationship.”

I think Hebrews is referring to the Mosaic administration of the covenant. Hebrews marshalls together many reasons why the post-cross administration of the covenant is far superior to that of the Mosaic administration and why the Mosaic administration, therefore, is ‘obsolete’.

One of these reasons is that the priesthood of Christ (of the order of Melchizedek) is superior to the Aaronic priesthood of the Mosaic administration. I think it may well be the case that the reference to Melchizedek as being “without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life” refers to the fact that the priesthood of Christ goes back to the very beginning.

If this is a correct inference, then the ‘eternal covenant’ of 13:20 could also refer that it began with Adam (ie Genesis 3:15). In your next post you list OT passages that refer to the everlasting covenant (berith olam). Perhaps the most interesting of these is Genesis 17:7 where the Hiphil theme of qum is used. This may well be interpreted to mean that God is referring to an already existing eternal covenant which He will cause to stand or establish. The Hiphil theme of qum is used throughout Genesis 6-9.

Cheers, sujomo

Steven Coxhead said...

Thanks, sujomo. I like what you said about the “obsolesence” of the Mosaic administration within God’s ongoing covenant relationship with his people, and how you linked that with Christ’s priesthood.

The question about the eternal nature of Christ’s priesthood that you have raised is very interesting. When did Christ become a priest after the order of Melchizedek, or has he always been such a priest? The answers, I believe, are found in Ps 110 and Hebrews. But I feel that this topic requires a post all of its own! Thanks for your stimulating thoughts.

John Thomson said...


Just dropped in after a fair absence so not been following previous blogs.

I agree, the new covenant is in view.

I would argue that although Christ (Christ as God-man, for priests are 'chosen among men') was always morally a priest he only became officially a High priest on resurrection. He became so then on the basis of 'the power of an indissoluble life'. The reference to Christ being 'holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners' has as its main focus his heavenly session'. Hebrews says, 'were he on earth he would not be a priest - wrong tribe'.

His lack of distraction and personal weakness/weariness and his great strength in resurrection mean that he is fully focussed on the needs of his people.

Having said all this, I have not looked at this topic recently so I am opened to being exposed as wrong.

The biggest problem to this is that his cross work is presented in Hebrews as the work of the High Priest on the day of atonement. The only point I would make is that when the High Priest functioned on the day of atonement he did not wear his high priestly garments. It is only after atonement is accomplished he puts on his high-priestly garments - his official office.

Steven Coxhead said...

Thanks, John. Good to hear from you. You make some good points.

Hopefully tomorrow I'll post my investigation of Ps 110, Ps 2, and Hebrews on this matter. It backs up what you are saying, I think.

The link between resurrection, ascension, and session, and the official functions of Jesus (royal and priestly) in all of this, is often not fully appreciated by Christians today.