The Last Will and Testament of Jesus Christ

Borrowing from the legal terminology of the first century, the New Testament writers used the figure of a “last will and testament” to characterize that body of doctrine to which mankind is obligated in the Christian age, i.e., that era of time from the day of Pentecost until the Lord’s return. In this article, we examine several important features of a “last will and testament.”
By Wayne Jackson | Christian Courier

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The word diatheke appears thirty-three times in the Greek New Testament. In the King James Version it is rendered by “covenant” twenty times, and by “testament” thirteen times. The word can convey a twofold sense — depending on the context in which it is found.

First, it may signify a covenant, or, as we might express it more commonly, a contract. Second, it can carry the meaning of a “last will and testament” by which one’s possessions are distributed after his death (see Danker, et al., 228).

In this article we will consider the use of diatheke as such relates to a “last will and testament.” There are four points that should be noted with reference to testaments.Consider these.

Multiple Testaments Not in Effect Simultaneously

Jesus Christ is said to be the mediator of a “new” testament (Heb. 8:8, 13). The Greek term for “new” is kainos, which signifies newness with reference to quality rather than that of time. But the writer of Hebrews also uses neos (“new” in terms of time) to describe the testament initiated by Jesus, which he deems to be a “better” testament (Heb. 12:24).

The testament of Christ, therefore, was new compared to the Mosaic regime, which was inaugurated fifteen centuries earlier, and it was new as to its nature, i.e., qualitatively superior (fresh).

In Hebrews 8:8ff, the inspired writer quotes from Jeremiah’s prophecy pertaining to the coming of a new covenant (Jer. 31:31-34) with special emphasis on the word “new.” When Jeremiah spoke of a new covenant, he signaled the eventual demise of the old.

His point was this. It is in the very nature of the case that when something is old it is destined to vanish away (Heb. 8:13). This argues against the coexistence of the two testaments.

Again, the writer of Hebrews observes, with reference to the mission of Christ, that he abolished “the first in order to establish the second” (Heb. 10:9). This phrase is one expressing purpose. It demonstrates that the second testament could not become operative until the first was cancelled. The two testaments simply cannot be mutually binding.

Using a different analogy, Paul argued that trying to live under two covenants at the same time is similar to being married to two women at once, which he designates as “adultery.” The apostle thus concludes that those who are joined [“married” KJV] to Christ are dead to (i.e., separated from) the Mosaic regime (Rom. 7:2-4).

Let us now illustrate this principle in a couple of important ways — because numerous religious folks do not comprehend the matter and are ever attempting to design a spiritual system that borrows from both testaments.


There are some groups that profess to observe the sabbath (e.g., the Seventh-day Adventists, Church of God-Seventh Day, etc.), and yet who also presume to observe the Christian communion. They are guilty of the mistake of not recognizing that the sabbath was an institution of the Mosaic regime (Ex. 20:8ff; cf. Ezek. 20:10-12), while the Lord’s supper is a New Testament obligation (Lk. 22:19-20). These sincere people do not understand that two testaments cannot be binding at the same time.

Old Testament Worship in the New Testament Age

Similarly, there are many religious bodies that ostensibly practice the Lord’s supper (at least on occasion), and they acknowledge that such was authorized only for the citizens of Christ’s kingdom (Lk. 22:30).

On the other hand, when they are challenged to provide biblical authority for the use of mechanical instruments of music in their worship, in desperation they appeal to the Psalms for their case law. But the Psalms were a part of the old law (cf. Jn. 10:34). These two systems did not operate jointly.

Incidentally, this appeal to the Psalms is a telling revelation that New Testament authority for the practice is not available.

The Death of the Testator

The writer of Hebrews also effectively argues that a testament is not of force until the testator is dead. Hear him.

“And for this cause he is the mediator of a new testament, that a death having taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament, they that have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance. For where a testament is, there must of necessity be the death of him who made it. For a testament is of force where there has been death: for it never avails while he who made it is still alive” (Heb. 9:15-17).

Let us reflect upon how an understanding of this principle would dissolve a great difficulty that remains lodged in the minds of many.

The denominational community vigorously protests the idea that water baptism is a requirement for the forgiveness of sins in spite of several clear passages that so affirm (Mk. 16:16; Acts 2:38; 22;16; Eph. 5:26; 1 Pet. 3:21).

Almost invariably, in attempting to negate the force of these texts, they will appeal to the example of the thief on the cross, who supposedly received pardon without baptism. A respected theologian, Wayne Grudem, attempts to argue this very point. He writes:

“The thief could not have been baptized before he died on the cross, but he was certainly saved that day. Moreover, the force of the point cannot be evaded by arguing that the thief was saved under the old covenant (under which baptism was not necessary to salvation), because the new covenant took effect at the death of Jesus (see Heb. 9:17), and Jesus died before either of the two thieves who were crucified with him (see John 19:32-33)” (981).

It is distressing that a man of considerable ability would make such a colossal mistake. Pardon was granted to the penitent thief before the Savior died. The man’s forgiveness, therefore, was not upon the basis of the terms of the new testament that became efficacious after the Lord’s death!

In addition, no one can prove that the thief had not been immersed at some time in the past — either by John the baptizer or by one of the Lord’s disciples (Mk. 1:4; Jn. 4:1-2). (See our article on The Thief on the Cross.

Here is the point that so many are missing. During his earthly ministry, Christ could grant pardon directly — as he did, for example, on behalf of the palsied man whose healing is recorded in Mark 2:1ff. While still on earth, the Lord had the authority to dispense forgiveness.

After his death, however, his determination of salvation’s conditions was to be expressed in his “Last Will and Testament.” And in that document, immersion is stipulated as a requirement of pardon (Acts 2:38; 22:16).

A Ratified Testament May Not Be Altered

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul makes this statement relative to the nature of a covenant or testament.

“Brethren, I speak after the manner of men: Though it be but a man’s covenant [diatheke], yet when it has been confirmed, no one makes it void, or adds thereto” (Gal. 3:15).

The immediate context has to do with God’s promise to Abraham. That promise was inviolate, and the fact that the law of Moses was later added, in the unfolding plan of human redemption, did not disannul Jehovah’s original pledge to the founder of the Hebrew nation.

A portion of the apostle’s argument, however, is the illustration from human contract law. Once the testator is dead and his testament has been ratified, it cannot be supplemented. It is fairly well acknowledged that diatheke in this context is used in the sense of a “last will and testament” (Balz, et al., I.299).

The implication of Paul’s statement is this: no man, or body of men, have the right to alter the will of Christ by means of human supplementation. But just as the Pharisees of the first century, cluttered the law of Moses with their unjustified “traditions” (Mt. 15:1-9), so, on numerous occasions, men of the modern world have acted in an equally irresponsible way.

Roman Catholicism, for example, insists that the “traditions” of the Church bear an authoritative weight equal to the Scriptures. Indeed, whenever there is a conflict between Scripture and tradition, they allege, the latter takes precedence over the former (Attwater, 41-42).

The human creeds that have been framed by Protestants are likewise affronts to the finality of the New Testament body of truth, even though such advocates frequently claim that they subscribe to the principle of sola Scriptura.

Conditional Testaments

There is another point in Paul’s letter to the Galatians that is worthy of note. Employing an illustration from what A. T. Robertson called the “law of inheritance” (IV.300), the apostle says:

“But I say that so long as the heir is a child, he differs in nothing [with reference to the inheritance] from a slave, though he is lord of all; but [he] is under guardians and stewards until the day appointed by the father” (Gal. 4:1-2).

A father may bequeath an inheritance to his son. He also may stipulate a condition or conditions, e.g., that the inheritance may not be accessed until the lad is twenty-one. Or it could be that the son may not inherit his father’s property at all, if, for instance, he has not completed his schooling or demonstrated himself to be industrious and of good character at the time he comes of age. The conditional nature of a last will and testament is an option too well recognized to need elaboration.

In view of the above, how can some, who profess a reverence for the New Testament, possibly contend that there are no conditions connected with the reception of salvation?

One writer says: “Even some Jewish Christians, who believed that Jesus was the Christ, felt that there must still be a place for obedience in the process of salvation” (Williams, 148). The author goes on to say that Paul had to contend with this erroneous idea in his epistle to the Galatians.

Another recent publication asserts: “The Bible is clear that God accepts people because of grace alone. Isn’t obedience part of faith? No.” (Marin, 17, 32). Again, the writer claims that God receives as his children “those who accept him by faith alone” (18, emphasis original).

These statements are woefully contradictory. If salvation is of grace alone, then not even faith is required. To suggest that one may be justified without obedience to Christ’s commands is absolute nonsense.

It was Paul himself, in his epistle to the Romans, who argued that Christians are “made free from sin” by virtue of their “obedience” to the divine “pattern of teaching” (Rom. 6:17-18; cf. Jn. 3:36, ASV; 2 Thes. 1:8; Heb. 5:8-9; 1 Pet. 4:17). This is what the apostle elsewhere calls the “obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5; 16:26).

A few months ago one of our critics sent us an article entitled, “Abraham’s Disobedience.” Therein he proceeded to introduce six alleged examples of the patriarch’s unbelief and disobedience, thus contending that Abraham was not saved by his obedient faith. Rather, he was “declared righteous in the midst of his disobedience and faithlessness.” The unavoidable conclusion to this argument is this: disobedient unbelief is as valid as obedient faith.

Has there ever been a more corrupt idea? Notice the exception clauses associated with various conditions of salvation.

  • “Except” one believes in Christ, he will die in his sins (Jn. 8:24).
  • “Except” a person repents, he will perish (Lk. 13:3,5).
  • “Except” an individual is born of water and the Spirit, he will never enter the kingdom of God (Jn. 3:3-5).

In order to access the blessings of the testament of Christ, there are conditions to be met.

Perhaps the crucial question at this point is this. Have you met them?

  • Attwater, Donald (1961), A Catholic Dictionary (New York: Macmillan).
  • Balz, Horst & Schneider, Gerhard (1990), Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans).
  • Danker, F.W. et al. (2000), A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Chicago: University of Chicago).
  • Grudem, Wayne (1994), Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan).
  • Marin, Richard, Editor (2004), Present Truth, Fallbrook, CA: Life Research International, (January — March).
  • Robertson, A.T. (1931), Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman).
  • Williams, David (1999), Paul’s Metaphors — Their Context and Character (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson).