We hear the words during the consecration, “this cup is the new testament in My blood.” However, most English Bibles will translate the words of Jesus as the “new covenant” (the Authorized or King James Version being a great exception). While this might seem like an unimportant matter, historically Lutherans have seen great Gospel comfort in the translation of that word as “testament.”
Interestingly in Luther’s German Bible, he translates the old promise of God (berith) as “covenant” (bund in German) whereas the new (diatheke/διαθήκη) as “testament.” Many English translations of Lutheran theological works are not consistent in their translation of this terminology. While this could be called rather inconsistent, Luther understands something important about the transition from old covenant to new testament. Now with covenants in the ancient world, it was like a contract. However, God’s Gospel covenant in the Old Testament is not so much a two-way (bilateral) contract but a unilateral promise of God to suffer for any violation of faithfulness. A classic example of this is the covenant in Genesis 15:7-21 with Abram. Ordinarily both parties would pass through the sundered animal parts, saying basically, that the violating party would suffer the same fate as the animals there sacrificed. But in Genesis 15, Abram sleeps and God passes through with the sign of the smoking fire pot (like a mini pillar of cloud and fire). Here is a sign of God’s presence and the unilateral establishment of a promise that involves a vicarious (substitutionary) death.
In the Old Testament the covenant was made with the shedding of blood and the death of an animal. This is a type or foreshadowing of the fulfillment in Christ’s person and work. Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The new, the fulfillment, far surpasses the prophecy and foreshadowing. The new wine bursts the old wineskins. In his book, Light from the Ancient East, Adolf Deissmann observes:
There is ample material to back me in the statement that no one in the Mediterranean world in the first century A.D. would have thought of finding in the word διαθήκη the idea of “covenant.” St. Paul would not , and in fact did not. To St. Paul the word meant what it mean in his Greek Old Testament, “a unilateral enactment,” in particular “a will or testament.” This one point concerns more than the merely superficial question whether we are to write “New Testament” or “New Covenant” on the title page of the sacred volume; it becomes ultimately the great question of all religious history: a religion of grace, or a religion of works? [Adolf Deissmann. Light from the Ancient East: The New Testament Illustrated by Recently Discovered Texts of the Graeco-Roman World. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1976), p.337-338]
Jesus comes as the mediator of the new covenant (or testament). The new covenant or testament is the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy and type. The substance is in the arrival of the new. The old is of a lamb and is repeated year after year. The new is of the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, the Word who became flesh and made His dwelling among us. Jesus is the once-for-all-sacrifice. The new surpasses the old.
Hebrews 9:15-18 says (NKJV):
15 And for this reason He is the Mediator of the new covenant [διαθήκης], by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant [διαθήκη], that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance.16 For where there is a testament [διαθήκη], there must also of necessity be the death of the testator. 17 For a testament [διαθήκη] is in force after men are dead, since it has no power at all while the testator lives. 18 Therefore not even the first [contextually supplied for translation: διαθήκη] was dedicated without blood.
Interesting to compare is the 1545 edition of Luther’s German Bible:
15 Und darum ist er auch ein Mittler des neuen Testaments, auf daß durch den Tod, so geschehen ist zur Erlösung von den Übertretungen, die unter dem ersten Testament waren, die, so berufen sind, das verheißene ewige Erbe empfangen.16 Denn wo ein Testament ist, da muß der Tod geschehen des, der das Testament machte.17 Denn ein Testament wird fest durch den Tod; es hat noch nicht Kraft, wenn der noch lebt, der es gemacht hat.18 Daher auch das erste nicht ohne Blut gestiftet ward.
In his Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible, St. Jerome translated the Greek word diatheke with testamentum in the New Testament. From St. Jerome we have the Bible terminology of Old and New “Testaments.” The Eastern Church father St. John Chrysostom also spoke of the testament of our Lord Christ (for example see Homily XVI on Hebrews 9:15-18 in Schaff’s Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Volume 14 beginning at p.443). Chrysostom, in a Homily on Matthew comments on the word “testament” in the Words of Institution [Homily LXXXI, Matthew 26:26-28]:
And He calls it blood of a New Testament, that of the undertaking, the promise, the new law. For this He undertook also of old, and this comprises the Testament that is in the new law. And like as the Old Testament had sheep and bullocks, so this has the Lord’s blood. Hence also He shows that He is soon to die, wherefore also He made mention of a Testament, and He reminds them also of the former Testament, for that also was dedicated with blood. And again He tells the cause of His death, “which is shed for many for the remission of sins;” and He saith, “Do this in remembrance of me.” Seest thou how He removes and draws them off from Jewish customs. For like as ye did that, He saith, in remembrance of the miracles in Egypt, so do this likewise in remembrance of me. That was shed for the preservation of the firstborn, this for the remission of the sins of the whole world. For, “This,” saith He, “is my blood, which is shed for the remission of sins.” [Schaff ed, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Volume 10, p.491].
Bottom Line: The Great Gospel Comfort in the Word “Testament”
- The Testament is unilateral, that is, it is a pure gift, another facet of salvation being by grace alone. Luther says, noting how the Words of Institution are the “gospel in a nutshell”:
‘For if you ask: What is the gospel? You can give no better answer than these words of the New Testament, namely, that Christ gave his body and poured out his blood for the forgiveness of sins…. Therefore, these words, as a short summary of the whole gospel are to be taught and instilled into every Christian’s heart, …’ ‘…they are the sum and substance of the whole gospel.’ [Luther quoted in Spinks. Luther’s Liturgical Criteria and His Reform of the Canon of the Mass, p.34]
- Understanding the Word of Institution as Christ’s testament points to a proper understanding of the two natures in Christ (that He is true God and true man in one person). As we said previously, the new testament in Christ’s blood far surpasses the old covenant made with animal sacrifices. The new wine bursts the old wineskins.
In Jesus there is the union of the true human nature, born of the Virgin Mary, and the eternal divinity of God the Son, united, not as two boards of wood glued together but in the profound mystery of the Word that became flesh. Jesus is the fulfillment of the burning bush, His human nature is like a rod of iron joined to an eternally burning fire and His divinity known, revealed, and exercised through His humanity forevermore. In theological terms, we call this the communication of attributes. This shows us that truly Jesus is the One mediator between God and Man, through His person and work. In Himself and His work, Jesus completely bridges the gap of sin and death for the life of the world. This communication of attributes is a Gospel comfort also because it reminds us that we can boldly confess of Christ’s humanity what we can’t of other human beings, because Jesus’ humanity is uniquely joined to the eternal, almighty divinity of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. (So, for us, the Ascension of our Lord is no bummer! He ascended on high to fill all things from the right hand of power!) The Formula of Concord-Solid Declaration says (Article VIII, paragraphs 44-45), quoting Martin Luther:
Dr. Luther says also in his book Of the Councils and the Church: We Christians must know that if God is not also in the balance, and gives the weight, we sink to the bottom with our scale. By this I mean: If it were not to be said [if these things were not true], God has died for us, but only a man, we would be lost. But if “God’s death” and “God died” lie in the scale of the balance, then He sinks down, and we rise up as a light, empty scale. But indeed He can also rise again or leap out of the scale; yet He could not sit in the scale unless He became a man like us, so that it could be said: “God died,” “God’s passion,” “God’s blood,” “God’s death.” For in His nature God cannot die; but now that God and man are united in one person, it is correctly called God’s death, when the man dies who is one thing or one person with God. Thus far Luther.
45] Hence it is manifest that it is incorrect to say or write that the above-mentioned expressions (God suffered, God died) are only praedicationes verbales (verbal assertions), that is, mere words, and that it is not so in fact. For our simple Christian faith proves that the Son of God, who became man, suffered for us, died for us and redeemed us with His blood.
The testament is put into effect by the one who made it. A testament is not put into effect with the death of an animal, as in the old covenant. The new is a testamentary promise made in the blood of the eternal Son of God. Not only that we have the joy of knowing that we receive the inheritance of Christ who died, and yet He also rose victorious from the grave! We have an inheritance of forgiveness, life and salvation from one who came back alive. We gather around the throne of the Lamb who was slain and yet lives every time we are gathered by the voice of Jesus in the Divine Service as His baptized children and heirs. His testament is the inheritance for us without end and beyond measure. So indeed, we who eat and drink at His altar, proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.
Some would compromise God’s Gospel promises with law and make faith and the Lord’s Supper into a “deal” – a federation or business contract. Some would deny the profound union of the two natures in Christ and all that this implies in His conception, birth, death, resurrection, ascension and His bodily presence in the Eucharist. But let us rejoice in all the freight the Lord put in this word “testament” that is offered to us in the weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper (see Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article XXIV.1-2).
The use of the word “testament” confesses more fully the Gospel promises and cross-focused content of Christ’s person and work that is distributed Sunday after Sunday in the Divine Service. It is the “last will and testament of Christ” who died and has been raised from the dead and is glorified. Eating of that blessed bread and drinking of that blessed cup, we go forth by God’s blessing to confess Christ until the Lord appears in power and glory. Then we shall partake of the marriage feast of the Lamb in His kingdom which has no end. We rejoice that this translation of the Lord’s new promise is preserved for us in our Catechism and hymnal.