THE DEATH OF THE TESTATOR
By Wayne S. Walker
There is a theory that has been gaining a degree of popularity in some circles among brethren recently which claims that everything taught by Jesus during his personal ministry on earth pertained only to the Jews under the Old Testament and thus has no application to us under the gospel as an expression of God’s will for us today. This is a relatively new doctrine to me, although it may have been around longer than I am aware. Unfortunately, there are some among “conservative” churches who have apparently accepted it, perhaps altered or adapted it to suit their own needs, and are now teaching it too.
The claim is made that Jesus did not personally reveal or establish New Testament doctrine during his ministry to Israel as recorded in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and that only the teaching found in Acts 2 through Revelation 22 is the new covenant of Christ and the basis for our faith, salvation, and worship. Therefore, I wish to present a short series of articles to examine this issue in more detail.
One argument made is that a person’s will does not come into force until after he is dead, and we all recognize that this is true. “For where there is a testament, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator. For a testament is in force after men are dead, since it has no power at all while the testator lives” (Heb. 9:16-17). Therefore, it is alleged that nothing which Jesus said before his death can be an expression of his will for mankind today because that did not come into force until after the cross.
To begin with, we do recognize that the Old Testament went out of force when Jesus died on the cross. At the time Jesus shed his blood, he broke “down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances” and did so “through the cross” (Eph. 2:13-16). In fact, Paul writes, “Having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (Col. 2:14). In its place, he established a new covenant (Heb. 8:6-7). And, as we have already seen, the New Testament could not go into force until after Christ died. So the issue is not when the Old Testament law went out of force or when the New Testament went into force. We agree that Jesus lived and died under the Old Testament law.
However, some expressions of the content of Jesus’ New Testament were definitely made known before his death. “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him. He who does not love Me does not keep My words; and the word which you hear is not Mine but the Father’s who sent Me. These things I have spoken to you while being present with you” (John 14:23-25). Here, Jesus told his apostles, before he died, that at least some of the words which he had already spoken to them while present with them would be the basis upon which both he and the Father would come into a person and make their home with him and therefore must be kept.
Consider some examples. Jesus promised to build his church (Matt. 16:18). Is the building of the church a New Testament concept or is this merely an explanation of the Old Testament law? Jesus instituted the Lord’s supper (Mark 14:22-25). How could Jesus say, “This is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many,” if only those things stated after Pentecost can pertain to the new covenant? And Jesus taught about the new birth (John 3:3-5). Is this applicable only to the Jews, or is this an expression by Christ during his lifetime of something that would apply after his death? The answer to this question is found in 1 Peter 1:23. Peter said that what Jesus taught about the new birth would be applicable under the New Testament.
Some reply by saying that this is like Old Testament prophecies of the church. If the Old Testament could predict the church, but we are not under the Old Testament law, then Christ could talk about building his church, or the coming Lord’s supper in the church, or being born again into the church, and yet the words of Christ before his death are not necessarily law for us. However, this overlooks the fact that God makes a big distinction between hearing the words of Old Testament prophets and hearing the words of Christ. In Matthew 17:1-5, when Jesus was transfigured with Moses and Elijah before Peter, James, and John, God himself said, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!” We are to hear Christ, rather than Moses and Elijah. But that would not be true if what Christ said pertained only to the Jews, because what Moses and Elijah taught pertained only to the Jews too. Hence, what Christ said, even while on earth, is implied to be different.
Thus, this helps us to understand how God speaks to us today. God speaks to us by his Son (Heb. 1:1-2). Therefore, because God has chosen to speak to us by his Son, it would seem that what the Son himself had to say is important. What did the Son have to say? “Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel’” (Mark 1:14-15). Did that which was spoken by the Lord pertain only to the law of Moses? No, what was spoken by the Lord pertained to the gospel which both the Jews then and all people ever since then must believe.
Therefore, the teachings of Jesus, spoken while he was alive and recorded in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, do express some of the terms of his will or testament, even before those terms actually came into effect. “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away” (Matt. 24:35). If this theory is correct, then the words of Jesus did pass away at the cross! “He who rejects Me, and does not receive My words, has that which judges him — the word that I have spoken will judge him in the last day” (John 12:48). Yet, how can what Jesus said judge us at the last day if what he said pertains only to the Jews under the Old Testament?
The argument has been stated that if Jesus actually revealed any of the terms of his will before he died, then the people to whom he spoke were under two testaments at the same time. But this is simply not true. A person makes up his will before he dies, and may even reveal some or perhaps all of the terms, including any conditions that may have to be met, of that will while still alive, even though the will does not actually go into force until after his death. I guarantee that this will never happen, but to illustrate, suppose that my father called me and said, “Son, I have several thousand dollars and am stating in my will that this money will be yours if you bury me in a certain place after I die.”
There is absolutely nothing that I can do about this request now, because the will is not in force. But my father has stated something that is in his will and must be adhered to after his death to gain the benefit. And so it is with Christ and his will or New Testament. The fact that it had no power while the Testator lived necessarily implies that it did exist in some form while the Testator lived. Christ’s will may not have been fully revealed until later, but it did exist, and may well have been expressed, before his death, even though it did not actually come into force until after he died. And this is exactly what I believe to be the case.
—from Truth Magazine; February 17, 2000; Vol. XLIV, No. 4; p. 22