The Covenant-Victim

by William J. Stewart

Unless you are familiar with Young’s Literal Translation, the title of today’s article will be foreign to you. I believe Young’s (YLT) is a unique and excellent translation of the Scriptures, but seldom used.

One text in particular where the YLT rendering is perhaps better than any other is Hebrews 9:16-18. There, we read:

…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 liveth, whence not even the first apart from blood hath been initiated…

Most translations render the Greek diatheke in the text as “testament” or “will,” which Strong’s indicates as appropriate:

…properly, a disposition, i.e. (specially) a contrast (especially a devisory will): – covenant, testament. (Strong’s)

In fact the World English Bible (WEB) reads:

…where a last will and testament is, there must of necessity be the death of him who made it. (v 16)

This thought is presented in every translation I have read, namely, that for Jesus’ will to become active, it was necessary for him to die. This, of course is true, but would appear to be a thought borrowed from the more modern practice of writing and enacting a “last will and testament,” which was a practice that appears to have begun with the Romans. It would seem odd for a document penned to the Hebrews to use a Roman practice to reveal the better way brought about by the Lord Jesus.

Young’s Literal Translation presents a different thought. The Gospel is not characterized as a “will,” but rather a “covenant.” Likewise, Jesus is not identified as a “testator” in YLT, but a sacrifice to be offered (ie. covenant-victim). Why does it matter? What is the difference?

In Genesis 15, God promised Abram that his family would inherit the land of Canaan. The patriarch inquired, “…how shall I know…?” (v 8). To this, God commanded him to bring a heifer, a goat, a ram, a turtledove and a pigeon. These were sacrificed, after which God affirmed, “To your descendants I have given this land…” (v 18). These sacrifices served to establish and confirm God’s covenant with Abram.

Return again to Hebrews 9, and notice the context. At verse 18, we read, “Therefore not even the first covenant was dedicated without blood.” A comparison is established between the establishment and confirmation of the Law of Moses and the establishment and confirmation of the Gospel. The writer goes on to describe how Moses “…took the blood of calves and goats… and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people…” (v 19). He referred to it as “…the blood of the covenant…” (v 20, Exodus 24:8). He also “…sprinkled with blood both the tabernacle and all the vessels of the ministry” (v 21). The writer draws his conclusion in the next several verses, indicating the blood is needed to affect purification, and that now Christ, who is our “better sacrifice” has been given, that He might “…put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself” (v 26).

As much as Jesus is a testator, and the Gospel is his will, the thought expressed by the Hebrew writer is that Jesus, by the sacrifice of Himself, as our covenant-victim (ie. emphasis on His shed blood), has both established and confirmed God’s covenant with us—the Gospel of Christ. The focus of the text is on the shed blood of Christ—Him as a sacrifice, not as a testator. Notice just a few verses earlier:

Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse our conscience from dead works to serve the loving God?  (Hebrews 9:12-14)

What a wonderful picture, as the Lord has established His covenant, through His death; His blood giving confirmation that what God has revealed in the Gospel message, He will do.


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