What is “The Eternal Covenant” in Hebrews 13:20? (Fred G. Zaspel)
Coming to the close of his letter to the Jewish Christians, the writer of Hebrews prays for the blessing of God upon his readers in words that are as memorable as they are encouraging:
May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.
Our question here is, simply, How are we to understand this reference to “the eternal covenant”? Is this a reference to the covenant of redemption? Or perhaps the covenant of grace? My purpose here is not to dispute whether the covenant of redemption or the covenant of grace are properly referred to as covenants. My question here is simply whether either of these are in view in Hebrews 13:20. I am persuaded that they are not. There are compelling reasons to understand this phrase, “the everlasting covenant,” in reference to the new covenant.
First, the concern of this epistle to the Hebrews, in large part, is the contrast between the old / Mosaic covenant and the new covenant and the superior glories of the new covenant. This is a dominant theme, and the new covenant is a subject in mind as close as Hebrews 12:24 and 13:11-16. It would be strange to throw in a reference to some other covenant unannounced and without some clear indication.
Moreover, seven times in the Old Testament the new covenant is referred to as “the everlasting covenant” (Jer. 32-33 [cf. 32:40]; 50:5; Ezek. 16:60; 37:26; Is. 24:5; 55:3; 61:8; cf. Hos. 2:14-23). In a book (Hebrews) that is focused so on the new covenant and on the fulfillment of the Old Testament in that new covenant, if this reference is not also to the new covenant it would be difficult to know why not.
Third, throughout the discussion of the new covenant in Hebrews, “the blood” of that new covenant is a prominent emphasis. Hebrews 13:20 refers to the blood of the everlasting covenant, which of course is Jesus’ blood. Hebrews 9:12 says that Jesus entered once for all into the holy place by his own blood, having obtained an eternal redemption. Jesus’ blood, the blood of the new covenant, obtained an “eternal” redemption. It established a permanent, eternal covenant, whereas the blood of bulls and goats only established a temporary, now obsolete covenant.
Again, within this sustained “the new covenant is better than the old covenant” context, Hebrews13:20 easily seems to be a reference back to Isaiah 63:11, again a contrast to Moses, the shepherd of the old covenant people, who is but a figure / type of the great shepherd of this new covenant people.
Finally, there seems to be yet another connection in Hebrews 13:20 that points to the new covenant. The writer’s argument in chapter 7 is that Jesus’ new covenant priesthood is superior to the levitical priesthood precisely because he has been raised from the dead. That is, his resurrection status renders him an eternal priest with a never-ending ministry. This all seems pretty easily in mind when in Hebrews 13:20 the writer speaks of an “eternal” covenant.
In short, the context of Hebrews 13:20 and the language of the verse itself point to a continued old covenant – new covenant contrast. If this reference (Heb.13:20) is not to the new covenant, but to some other covenant, it would be difficult to demonstrate how we could know it.
Fred Zaspel (Ph.D., Free University of Amsterdam) is pastor at the Reformed Baptist Church of Franconia, PA. He is also Professor of Systematic Theology at Calvary Baptist Seminary in Lansdale, PA, and is the executive editor of Books At a Glance. He is the author of The Theology of B.B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary and Warfield on the Christian Life: Living in Light of the Gospel.