Greek: διαθήκη (diathēkē)
English: covenant, agreement, will, testament
by Mark D. Taylor, NLT Bible Translation Committee
The Greek word diathēkē (pronounced dee-ah-THAY-kay, with a soft TH, as in “thaw”) appears thirty-three times in the New Testament. In English translations, it is usually rendered as “covenant,” even though that word is not used much in everyday speech. But “covenant” is an extremely important word in biblical theology, so English translations, including the NLT, generally retain it.
When Jesus instituted the new covenant at the Last Supper, the Gospel writers used the word diathēkē:
After supper he took another cup of wine and said, “This cup is the new covenant (diathēkē) between God and his people—an agreement confirmed with my blood, which is poured out as a sacrifice for you.” (Luke 22:20)
But what did Jesus mean by saying that he was instituting a new covenant? For context, we have to go back to the covenants of the Old Testament. The Hebrew text uses the word berith (typically translated “covenant”) to describe the nature and terms of God’s relationship with his people. God established multiple covenants in the Old Testament. We see the first covenant in the story of Noah:
I have placed my rainbow in the clouds. It is the sign of my covenant with you and with all the earth. (Genesis 9:13)
God later established a covenant with Abram (Abraham):
So the Lord made a covenant with Abram that day and said, “I have given this land to your descendants, all the way from the border of Egypt to the great Euphrates River.” (Genesis 15:18)
This covenant with Abraham (and his descendants) forms the basis for God’s intervention on behalf of his people in the Exodus:
God heard their groaning, and he remembered his covenant promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (Exodus 2:24)
Following the Exodus, God established another covenant with his people through Moses:
Then Moses took the blood from the basins and splattered it over the people, declaring, “Look, this blood confirms the covenant the Lord has made with you in giving you these instructions” (Exodus 24:8).
Finally, God established a covenant with David, promising that his descendants would reign forever:
But the Lord did not want to destroy David’s dynasty, for he had made a covenant with David and promised that his descendants would continue to rule. (2 Chronicles 21:7; see 2 Samuel 7:1-17)
Throughout the Old Testament the term berith (“covenant”) is used to describe the relationship between God and the people of Israel. As the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek in the Septuagint, the translators employed the Greek term diathēkē, which can refer to an agreement, a will, or a testament, to render berith. So diathēkē was a familiar term to the Jewish people of Jesus’ day. With this background, Jesus indicated that his death (his blood) would institute a new relationship with his people. This notion is explicated in depth in the letter to the Hebrews, for example, in Hebrews 9:15:
That is why he [Christ] is the one who mediates a new covenant between God and people, so that all who are called can receive the eternal inheritance God has promised them. For Christ died to set them free from the penalty of the sins they had committed under that first covenant.
We are very familiar with the term testament (another possible rendering of diathēkē) because we refer to the two parts of the Bible as the Old Testament and the New Testament (though they could also be called the Old Covenant and the New Covenant). The King James Version uses the very term “new testament” in Jesus’ words at the Last Supper:
Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament [diathēkē] in my blood, which is shed for you. (Luke 22:20)
The NLT translators have opted to use the term covenant in line with the familiarity of the Old Testament covenants and its importance as a theological term.
May we be people who fully enter into a covenant relationship with God by accepting Jesus’ gift of an abundant life, which he freely offers to us.