A Proposed Interpretation of Hebrews 9:15-22

“15Therefore He is the mediator of the New Covenant, so that those called for an eternal inheritance might receive the promise, since a death has taken place for the redemption of the transgressions committed under the first covenant. 16For where there is a covenant, it is necessary for the one making the covenant to proffer a death. 17For a covenant is secured by deaths, since it is never strong whilst the one making the covenant is alive.

         18Therefore not even the first covenant was established apart from blood. 19For after all the commandments had been spoken in accord with the Law by Moses to all the people, he, taking the blood of young-bulls and goats with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, sprinkled both the book and all the people. 20He did this saying, “This is the blood of the covenant which God commanded you.” 21And both the tent and all the vessels used for ministering were likewise sprinkled with blood. 22Now it is almost the case that under the law everything is cleansed with blood, and apart from the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.”

 

The majority—if not all—of commentators understand a shift in these verses from the ‘covenants’ to the more specific form of a covenant known as a will (both the same word, διαθηκη, diathēkē). The problem, as I see it, is that the meticulous argumentation the author of Hebrews uses falls apart on this translation—the parallels drawn are purely verbal (a death occurs in both cases), not conceptual. Yet, there is another way to translate this verse. I suggest that the author is presupposing what he has established and what the OT and NT teach, that covenants require priestly sacrifices to cover the transgressions of their sinful participants (v. 15, 22): only if the sin problem is dealt with can the covenant be valid.

Why then is a death required to make the covenant secure? Because the sinful transgressions of the one side making the covenant require redemption. It is not that “wherever there is a will, the death of the one making it needs to be demonstrated”: the idea that we receive our inheritance because of a will, contingent upon the death of the one making the will, is not found elsewhere in Hebrews or in the Bible—our inheritance does not rest in the death of the one from whom we receive it but in Jesus Christ’s receiving of the inheritance through perfect obedience and our participation in His inheritance.

A better interpretation is to read διαθηκη (diathēkē) as ‘covenant’ and understand the genitive του διαθεμενου (tou diathemenou, “of the one making it”) not with θανατοv (thanaton, “death”) but αναγκη (anankē, “necessity”): where there is a covenant, “where there is a covenant, it is necessary for the one making the covenant to proffer a death.” That is, the one making a covenant needs to provide a sacrifice. Why? because “a covenant is secured by deaths”: notice the plural, the one making a will cannot die multiple times, but one making a covenant can slaughter many animals (v. 19). Why do we need the deaths of animals, or in this case Christ? Because “[the covenant] is never strong while the one making the covenant is alive”: if it was a covenant between God and God this would not be true, but in the case of finite and sinful men and women, every moment the human partner is alive, the covenant is in jeopardy! Any sin could snap the covenant, so it needs a sacrifice so that no matter the mistakes they make in their life, the covenant is upheld.

The logic then makes sense: why is a death necessary? because finite men and women necessitate it. Why can we, then, receive the promise? Because Jesus has died once for all time securing for us the forgiveness of sins and redeeming transgressions so that the New Covenant would be valid and secure in the place of the old.

Exegetical Look at 1 Corinthians 11:23-34

When we hear a communion message today it is often based on the synoptic accounts of Jesus’ words, but rarely have I heard a message based on Paul’s account found in 1 Corinthians 11. In this account Paul address the situation of His readers with a piercing challenge directed at the selfish ways they were practicing the Lord’s Supper. He clarifies what he received from the Lord (11:23) and delivers a scary pronouncement “29For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly. 30For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep.” This is a terrifying statement, I can understand why some would avoid it; but Paul is writing as an inspired author of Holy Scripture[1] and we need to heed the things that he has to say. The question is; what exactly does Paul mean with what he writes in this passage?[2]

The first thing that strikes a reader approaching this passage in its context is Paul’s strong reprimand in vs. 17-22. Paul writes that when they come together in worship and as they practice communion, what is meant to celebrate their unity (10:16), they do not come together for “the better but for the worse” (11:17). As they come together there is much divisiveness—not all of which is completely harmful in their situation (11:19)—for they come and they eat and they drink without regard for one another. This resulted in some, who had nothing, being humiliated (20-22). Instead of treating communion as it was supposed to be treated, the Corinthians were acting as if it was just another feast (20-21). In the passage at hand Paul specifically addresses concerns about the way the Corinthians have been practicing the Lord’s Supper, they have shown disregard for the unity it represents and have approached it as a common feast looking out for their own desires above those of their brethren. Because of this division Paul reiterates what he had delivered to them before on the Supper and addresses the present results of their disobedience in practicing the Supper. As we come to 11:23-34 in the flow of Paul’s argument he has been addressing different concerns raised by the Corinthian Church. Starting in verse 2 of this chapter, and extending to the end of it, Paul begins to address concerns about their worship.

After addressing their divisiveness and failure to properly practice the Supper in vv. 17-22, Paul then gives the grounds for his charge in vv. 23-34. In vv. 23-26 Paul presents the content of what he received “from the Lord” (v. 23) about the supper, he then proceeds to draw an inference as to the guilt of those partaking of the Supper “in an unworthy manner” (v. 27) from the content of what he received. Finally, in v. 33-34, he concludes with a final inference—drawing on his argument in vv. 23-32—as to how the Corinthians should properly act in regards to the Supper. Paul, in addressing the disunity of the brethren in Corinth, calls their attention to the sickness and even death coming upon them (30) as evidence of a corrective judgment on the part of God (29-32). In the center of his argument is a rather difficult statement, Paul writes that they eat and drink judgment upon themselves if they do “not judge the body rightly” (29). We must ask, what does it mean to not judge the body rightly? Historically the position taken has been that “the body” is a shorthand reference to the blood and body of the Lord commemorated in the Supper. From this perspective what the Corinthians are failing to discern (διακρὶνω, diakrinō) properly is the true nature of the supper and are confounding it with a regular meal.3 Paul here simply writes “the body” and it seems to be a rather conspicuous absence for him to neglect “the blood” and “of the Lord” if this is what he is referring to, especially since the blood and the body are given in pairing in one sense or another 6 times in the previous verses.4 In speaking only of the “body” it would seem that Paul is harkening back to what he has already said about the bread and the body in 10:16. In this verse Paul writes of the bread, “the bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” In verse 17 he then follows up with “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” Paul in these verses argues that in partaking of the one bread they Corinthians are participating in the body of Christ, they are declaring their unity as one body. 5 For them to fail to discern the body rightly in 11:29 is for them to fail to acknowledge the meaning of the body in the communion service, in their disunity they are throwing out the core of what it is meant to represent. Overall, then, Paul is writing that the disunity of the Corinthians in partaking of communion has caused sickness and death, for those in disunity are drinking the corrective judgment of God. His imperative from this argument is that they are to come together in unity, waiting for one another and getting their fill at home so that they are not causing division with the pursuit of their appetites (11:33-34).

Today we can apply what Paul is speaking of here to our communion service by having a time set aside for self-examination. As we talk about the bread and blood and what they represent we need to remember that in instituting a New Covenant through His blood Christ has established a new covenant community of regenerate believers, as we break the bread we remember our unity as the body of Christ, a community of believers in covenant relationship with God. We must examine ourselves and ask ourselves where we are in relationship with our brothers and sisters; do our actions demonstrate our union with them or do we portray disunity? If our answer is disunity then we must takes steps to reconcile our relationships with these brothers and sisters and truly represent the united Body of Christ in our partaking of communion.


[1] 2 Tim. 3:16
[2] For the purposes of this paper, the passage under examination is 1 Cor. 11:23-34.
[3] Leon Morris, 1 Corinthians, 2nd ed., The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries 7 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1985), 161; Alfred Plummer and Archibald Robertson, First Epistle of St Paul to the Corinthians, The International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1911), 252.
[4] That is, referring to the action eating and drinking (28, 29[2]), the symbols of the cup and the bread (26, 27), or the blood and flesh itself (27). Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987), 563.
[5] See Fee’s discussion; Ibid., 563–564.

Bibliography:

Crossway Bibles. ESV Study Bible: English Standard Version. ESV text ed. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Bibles, 2008.

Fee, Gordon D. The First Epistle to the Corinthians. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987.
Morris, Leon. 1 Corinthians. 2nd ed. The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries 7. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1985.
Plummer, Alfred, and Archibald Robertson. First Epistle of St Paul to the Corinthians. The International Critical Commentary. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1911.

A Communion Service

It seems fitting for us this, at least for Canadians, thanksgiving weekend to partake of communion, the Lord’s Supper, and remember our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and His work on the Cross. This time of year is traditionally one where people gather together and give thanks for all they have in their lives. What is more fitting than for us as the body of Christ, a united family of sons and daughters of God our Father, to gather together in remembrance of that which we have most reason to give thanks?

 

We practice Communion today because we believe that it is something Jesus commanded us to do, and because it is something we read being done throughout the early Church. In our Bibles we find 4 accounts of the Lord’s Supper; 3 are in the Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and the last is found in 1 Corinthians. Today I want to take a look at Luke’s account, turn with me in your Bibles to Luke 22:14-23. Here is what Luke recorded about the last supper of Christ with His apostles:

“14 And when the hour came, he reclined at [the] table, and the apostles with him.15 And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. 16 For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” 17 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves. 18 For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” 19 And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 20 And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” (ESV)

When we partake of communion we drink the bread and the juice, replacing wine, in remembrance of what Christ did almost 2000 years ago; God Himself in the flesh coming into His creation to give His life so that we may be forgiven of our sins and have eternal life with God Himself.

 

As we partake of the bread we remember our Savior Jesus Christ as He, after being beaten and scourged by Roman soldiers, carried the Cross upon which He would be hung from Jerusalem to Golgotha where He would be crucified. We remember Him nailed to a cross, the most vicious and barbaric form of capital punishment known to man, bearing not just the painful weight of His body suspended above the ground by nails in His wrists and ankles, but taking upon Himself the full weight of God’s righteous wrath towards our sins, a punishment we could never bear ourselves; dying in our place bearing the punishment we deserved so that we may know God and follow Him. We remember Him crying out “Into your hands I commit my Spirit” as He breathed His last breath and finished the work He came to earth to do; surrendering His life for us. Let us eat of the bread together and remember our Saviour, no longer on the Cross, but having defeated sin and given Himself for us, now resurrected and alive forever more. You may eat the bread.

 

As we drink of the juice let us remember Jesus’ words; “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood”.  We have been going through the book of Hebrews since the beginning of summer and throughout the various sermons Tom, Joel, and I have drawn attention to a theme that undergirds the entire book; that of God’s covenant with us as those who have faith in Jesus Christ. In Hebrews 8 the writer of the book draws attention to Jeremiah 31 and promises that Jeremiah made about the coming of a New Covenant, one that would replace the one that God made with the Jews at Sinai. When I preached Hebrews 8 at the end of August I mentioned three promises that this New Covenant ushered in: all those who believe in Jesus Christ have been given new hearts with which we desire God and are able to, however imperfectly, follow Him; all those who believe in Jesus Christ know God personally in a way only a few under the Old Testament knew Him, we have the same relationship characterized by the prophets like Jeremiah; and all who believe have received the forgiveness of their sins by the blood of Christ shed on the cross taking away a punishment we deserved. Jesus, as recorded by Luke, told His disciples that the communion cup represents His blood shed instituting a new covenant; this is the New Covenant that Hebrews 8, Jeremiah 31, Isaiah 54, Ezekiel 36, and many other Scriptures speak of, this is the Covenant with God within which we find ourselves by our faith. As we drink the juice let us remember what Christ accomplished on the Cross; in bearing the full brunt of the wrath of God He ushered in a New Covenant whereby we—those who believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour—are freed from the guilt and punishment of our sin, we desire God and are being progressively transformed so that we act and think more and more like Jesus, and we experience daily relationship with God whereby we can freely approach Him in prayer and worship, bringing before Him our needs and desires and joyfully lifting up our praise to Him as we express in word and action the grandeur of who He is and all that He has done in and for us.

You may drink the juice.

 

Let us pray…