Covenants and Testaments
In Galatians 3:15 Paul starts a new paragraph in his discussion of the two covenants.
15 Brethren, I speak in terms of human relations: even though it is only a man's covenant, yet when it has been ratified, no one sets it aside or adds conditions to it.
Whenever men contract with each other, they cannot alter the contract that has been signed. They can only draw up a new one by agreement. However, if one violates the terms of a contract, the other party is not bound to fulfill his part of the contract either. For example, if I contract Joe to build me a house, but he builds a chicken coop instead, I am not bound to pay him the amount of money specified in the contract.
Conditional and Unconditional Contracts
Paul was speaking of a conditional contract, which is the most common type. This sets the stage for his discussion of the Old Covenant, which was a conditional contract. The Old Covenant (contract) specified that the people obey the Laws set forth through Moses. In return for their obedience, God would make them His “peculiar people” (Ex. 19:5). Other blessings are stated in Lev. 26:1-13 and Deut. 28:1-14.
Israel violated their agreement, of course, and so the Old Covenant was rendered null and void. God was not bound to bless them with salvation by that covenant. For this reason, an entirely new covenant was required in order to save them. God could not simply alter it by lowering its standards so that men might be able to meet its new conditions. This is why the New Covenant is not simply a revised Old Covenant. The Old Covenant has been made obsolete. The New Covenant is the unconditional Abrahamic Promise which came into effect when the Testator died.
Testaments are Unconditional
Here we see the distinction between a covenant and a testament, a distinction which has long been lost in the common language of the Church. A covenant is a contract between two people. Normally, it speaks of a conditional contract. A testament (as in a “last will and testament”) is a promise to bequeath a man's property to his heirs. Normally, a testament is unconditional, and the only restriction is in the timing of its effect. It takes effect at the death of the Testator.
Strictly speaking, Moses made a covenant with Israel, but God made a testament with Abraham and his seed, which came into effect when He died in the Person of Jesus Christ (Heb. 9:17). This is the connection between the Abrahamic Promise and the New Covenant established at the cross.
Dr. George G. Findlay, professor of Biblical Literature, Exegesis and Classics at Headingly College in Leeds from 1881-1919, wrote this:
“The testament is a covenant—and something more. The testator designates his heir, and binds himself to grant to him at the predetermined time (iv, 2) the specified boon, which it remains for the beneficiary simply to accept. Such a Divine testament has come down from Abraham to his Gentile sons.” [The Expositor's Bible, edited by W. Robertson Nicoll, 1940]
Who are the Heirs?
So who are the heirs of this promise to Abraham?
16 Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as referring to many, but rather to one, “and to your seed,” that is, Christ.
There are at least two layers of meaning in this, though Paul does not explain this further. First of all, in Abraham's day there were two contenders for the inheritance: Ishmael and Isaac. This dispute was eventually settled in Gen. 21:12, when God said, “in Isaac shall thy seed be called.”
The Hebrew word for “seed” is zera, which is a collective noun (as in English as well). The only way to know if it should be considered singular or plural is by the verb associated with it. In this case, the verb is singular, because it refers specifically to one man, Isaac himself. Isaac was also a type of Christ, and so this is also a reference to Christ Himself.
When Paul says in Gal. 3:16, “and to your seed, that is Christ,” the word christos can be transliterated as “Christ,” or it can be translated from Greek to English as “anointed.” In this case, the word refers primarily to Jesus Christ who is the type of Isaac—the heir of the promise. Yet secondly, it refers to the seed which is anointed, the co-heirs with Christ—His children.
Hence, Christ is THE HEIR to the Abrahamic promise. But the promise was also to the collective seed, because it was given to Isaac and to his seed, who would be as the stars of heaven and the sand of the sea in number. So it started with one seed, the Heir, and from him it continued to be passed down to his descendants.
Though the “seed” is singular, the co-heirs of Christ are His children, His sons. Jesus was not married, and He had no physical children (though some try to say otherwise in order to place themselves as heirs on a physical basis). The only way to become a co-heir with Christ is to be one of His spiritual children.
Two Covenants 430 years Apart
17 What I am saying is this: the Law, which came four hundred and thirty years later [after the Abrahamic Promise], does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise.
Here now we see more fully Paul's earlier point in verse 15 that the terms of a covenant, once ratified, cannot be altered. The Abrahamic Covenant had already been ratified in his day. One cannot say, then, that the terms were incomplete or that the Law of Moses must be added to it in order to complete it.
Likewise, the Mosaic Covenant cannot set aside the Abrahamic Covenant 430 years later. “When it has been ratified, no one sets it aside or adds conditions to it,” Paul says in verse 15. Paul's logic is designed to refute the Judaizers' argument that the Mosaic Covenant either added something to the Abrahamic Covenant or replaced it altogether.
Paul was referring to the ratification in Gen. 15, as requested by Abraham in verse 8,
8 And he said, “O Lord God, how may I know that I shall possess it?
Abraham already had received the promise verbally, but he knew the principle of the double witness by which all things were “established.” In the case of a covenant, the double witness ratified it and made it immutable. So God told him to cut up seven animals and birds (Gen. 15:10). Blood covenants between two men in those days were done by interlocking arms and walking together between the pieces of flesh. In doing this, they were vowing, “May God do this to me if I do not keep this covenant.”
But when the time of ratification came, God put Abraham to sleep and walked between the pieces of flesh by Himself.
12 Now when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and behold, terror and great darkness fell upon him. . . 17 And it came about when the sun had set, that it was very dark, and behold, there appeared a smoking oven and a flaming torch which passed between these pieces.
A time frame of 400 years (vs. 13) is given as well. It dates from Abraham's seed being a stranger in a land that was not his. That seed was Isaac, who was born in Canaan as a stranger and pilgrim like his father (Gen. 23:4).
At that time Canaan was under the protective authority of Egypt. Hence, legally speaking, Isaac was born in Egypt. From the birth of Isaac to the Exodus from Egypt was 400 years. We know that Isaac was born when his father was 100, precisely 400 years before the Exodus from Egypt. Thus, 430 years before the Exodus was when Abraham was 70 years old. That is when he first received the promise (12:1-3), which was later ratified (15:8-18).
Paul’s main point is that the Abrahamic promise had been ratified long before Moses was even born. Once ratified, changes could not be made to it. Hence, the Mosaic covenant did not alter the Abrahamic covenant. The Mosaic covenant was conditional and was therefore broken almost immediately after being made with Israel. Its conditional nature itself ensured that it would be a temporary covenant, for a broken covenant is null and void.
The Death of the Testator
God ratified the Abrahamic covenant by a blood covenant. Those animals, like all the sacrifices, were types of Christ, showing that the death of the Testator would be necessary in order to receive the inheritance promised to Abraham and his seed.
Galatians 3:18 says,
18 For if the inheritance is based on law, it is no longer based on a promise; but God has granted it to Abraham by means of a promise.
Our inheritance has been promised in God's Last Will and Testament. The God of the Old Testament then came to earth, born in Bethlehem, and the Testator's death on the cross set into motion the transfer of inheritance to the heirs of the promise. Paul reminds us in Heb. 9:17 that “it is never in force while the one who made it lives.” This proves the deity of Christ and establishes Him (in His pre-incarnate form) as the One who made the Covenant with Abraham.
When the executors of a Will read its provisions to the heirs, it is for the heirs to believe in its validity and that the Testator really did give such a promise. There are no pre-conditions established that might link the inheritance to performance. It only remains to be accepted as is by faith in the One who made the Promise.
Then in verse 19 Paul answers the argument of the Judaizers, who were insisting that God made a further Covenant with Moses. This two-step process, they argued, shows that the second covenant is necessary to complete one's perfection. In other words, they said, the Mosaic covenant put conditions upon the Abrahamic covenant, so that some legal performance must be done before one can receive the inheritance. Abraham was indeed given the promise, but one must be perfected by Moses before one may receive it.
Paul's response is to clarify the purpose of the Law of Moses. He does not claim that God made a mistake, nor does he tell us that the Law was evil. It served a good purpose, as long as we understand it:
19 Why the Law then? It was added because of transgressions, having been ordained through angels by the agency of a mediator, until the seed should come to whom the promise had been made.
In other words, after God drew up His Last Will and Testament with Abraham, promising divine blessing to the Heir and His sons, He thought it good to tell the heirs what it was that they were inheriting. Their inheritance, as seen in the light of the New Testament, was to receive the glorified body, called "the tabernacle," "building," or “house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (2 Cor. 5:1).
This “house” is an immortal body (5:4). However, of greater importance, perhaps, is that our inheritance is Christ Himself, and “being transformed into the same image from glory to glory” (2 Cor. 3:18). Under the Old Covenant, Moses received this glory in his face (Ex. 34:35), but it faded over time (2 Cor. 3:11). Moses was not allowed to experience the unfading glory of our heavenly inheritance, because he was a type of the Old Covenant.
Nonetheless, we can certainly look at Moses’ experience to catch a glimpse of our own inheritance that was promised to Abraham.
In the beginning, man was created to be in the image of God. Adam lost this when he sinned, but the purpose of God is designed to return to us the lost inheritance and more. Christ Himself is the prime Inheritor, proven by His transfiguration on the Mount (Matt. 17:1-8). At His death, the possession of the Testator was given to His heirs. As heirs, we are destined to become like Him in our Being, and this change will be reflected in our behavior.
The Law is our Tutor
Paul tells us that the interim time between Abraham and the death of the Testator would best be served by training the heirs in the righteous principles of the mind of Christ, as expressed in the divine Law. It was needful “because of transgressions.”
Since the heirs were still immature from Abraham to Christ, the Testator enrolled them in school, not simply to pass the time, but to teach them His ways. As we see in Gal. 3:24, He established the Law as their tutor.
24 Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, that we may be justified by faith.
What earthly Testator, in drawing up a Will, intending to bequeath His fortune to heirs who are yet children, would do so without putting them into the finest school in order to train them in the ways of righteousness? In giving His heirs rule over the whole world, would not a wise Testator teach those heirs how to treat others equitably and with equal justice?
The Promise came first and was unconditionally given to Abraham and his seed. The Law of Moses could not—and did not—change this fact. But the Will of God was revealed through Moses, so that the heirs would obtain a preview of the inheritance prior to the death of the Testator.
When the Law said, “Thou shalt not steal,” the tutor was not merely telling the students how to treat their neighbor with equity and justice; he was telling the students about the Promise. Some day, when the Holy Spirit was given, He would write this law in our hearts, so that we would conform to the image of Christ.
The tutor shows those who are transgressors how to live in accordance with the mind of Christ. Under the tutor, that is, the Old Covenant, these Laws were commands, imposed by discipline upon the unruly students. But at the same time, those same Laws were promises to us. “Thou shalt not steal” is a promise that when we receive the inheritance, we will steal no more.
Neither will we murder, commit adultery, or covet or have any other gods before Him. In other words, what was instruction, discipline, and a call to obedience under the Mosaic Covenant was actually a Promise under the New Covenant. It was a Promise that God would send the Holy Spirit to work from within the heart and change one's character to conform to the perfect mind of God as expressed in the Law of Moses.
Paul's argument is not that the Law was evil or unjust or even carnal. He confessed everywhere that the Law was holy, just, and good (Rom. 7:12) and even spiritual (Rom. 7:14). It was given in order to teach righteousness to the heirs of the Promise, so they would know how God intended them to reign with the impartiality of Christ Himself. The problem was not the Law itself but in our relationship to the Law. As long as the Law was our interim tutor, our time was being used wisely prior to the death of the Testator. But when the Testator died, activating the Will of God, the Holy Spirit was then sent to indwell us and change us into His image.
This change of Being and character did not come through the Mosaic Covenant. The tutor was not capable of transforming us into the image of Christ. The tutor could only reveal the righteousness of Christ in the Law. “You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink.” It was not possible for the heirs to be perfected by the tutor. The tutor had an impossible task in trying to perfect our flesh by diligent study, rigorous discipline, and fear of punishment.
The Promise was the Holy Spirit, Who would work within us to achieve what neither the tutor nor we ourselves could do. But this Promise could come only after the death of the Testator.
Mediating the Covenant
20 Now a mediator is not for one party only; whereas God is only one.
The Mosaic covenant was an agreement between two parties, making the blessings of God conditional upon the people's ability to do “ALL that the Lord has spoken.” In contrast, the Promise to Abraham was made while he was asleep (Gen. 15:12). God walked alone between the animals that had been cut in half (Gen. 15:17).
The New Covenant says, “I will put My Laws into their minds, and I will write them upon their hearts” (Heb. 8:10, quoted from Jer. 31:33). What Moses the tutor could not do, Jesus Christ accomplishes by means of the Holy Spirit. It is the same Law, though appropriate changes were made in its outward forms to suit the new conditions. In particular, there are new Executors of the Will. Cohen and Sons lost the contract, and their lawyers were fired for greed and murder. The new Executors are now Melchizedek and Sons.