The State of the Covenant

The president recently gave the State of the Nation address. Various heads of state and leaders have also delivered reports to their respective countries. As this period of sombre reflection draws to a close I wonder about the largest people group on the planet. Who reviews the state of Christendom?

I have explored in previous posts that the early Christians saw themselves as the heirs of Israel, the chosen people of God. They were a new ethnos, a peculiar race of people called the Church (1 Peter 2:9-10.) Unlike modern states ancient Israel did not grant itself sovereignty. They were a covenant people. This means they had entered a sacred contract with YHWH to be his people whilst he would be their God (Genesis 17:1-21.) Unlike the nations around them, who also had deities they worshiped, YHWH did not benefit from this arrangement. He chose them to fulfil his plans and purposes in the world (Isaiah 41:14, 42:6-7.)

The government of the ancient Kingdom of Israel also greatly differed from contemporary ones. They operated a theocracy. God dwelt among them as their king and all authority directly proceeded from him. The Law or the Torah, which was given by YHWH to his people, ratified the covenant he had made with Abraham forming a new kingdom with his descendants as he had promised. There were three key human representatives of theocratic rule. They are the Prophet, the Priest and the King. The most powerful in this triumvirate was the prophet. In the nations around them the king directed the prophets. The prophet was the chief representative of the true King so in Israel it was rather the prophet who told the king what to do (the saga of Micaiah and the false prophets comes to mind.)

The prophetic tradition originated with Moses, the lawgiver. Even though there were prophets before him, he was the first national prophet. He was the mediator between YHWH and his people in ratifying the covenant and establishing the new kingdom. He was the archetypal figure the entire prophetic tradition was modelled on (Deuteronomy 18:15-22.)

The role of the prophet in Israel was defined by the Torah, the chief covenantal document. In it was the word of God, the principal narrative of their call as a people. The Torah was essential to their worldview. Israel was authored by God and if anyone claimed to be YHWH’s mouthpiece, the word he spoke had to be consistent with that narrative and the worldview it articulated. When you survey the Old Testament prophets, faithfulness to the Torah was their hallmark. Jeremiah for instance, when you look at his prophecies regarding exile you can see they were drawn from the Deuteronomic Code.

The primary role of prophets in Israel was not prognostication even though it played an important role. A close survey of the scriptures reveals their main activity was providing commentary on the state of the covenant. It was not the King or the High Priest who had authoritative say on the relationship between God and his covenant people. God as the true Head of State, sent his mediators, speaking through them to his own. It was not mere social commentary but they addressed the nation regarding their status before God. It was through the prophet they knew if their sacrifices were being heeded or if the plague they were facing was because they had transgressed the covenant. Like Moses they functioned as mediators bringing God’s word to his people (Hebrews 1:1.)

In the New Testament there is a new regime and a new dynamic at work. The prophetic office remains distinct but we need to determine the nature of its role under the current status quo. Mapping out the New Testament prophet’s role has been challenging because it is not a major issue in the apostolic writings. I have indicated in The Charismatic Apologist that contemporary prophets with their experience and insight need to contribute more theologically regarding their own field. Since there is still a testament, albeit a new one, the prophet’s role commentating on the state of the covenant still holds. To see this at work we need to turn to the New Testament’s most explicitly prophetic book, Revelation.

The Book of Revelation is very similar to a lot of Old Testament prophetic texts particularly the Book of Daniel. Instead of the Torah being the lens through which Israel’s life and destiny was understood, in the Apocalypse the Gospel is the underlying narrative. The Torah was the centre piece of the Old Testament. The Gospel is not only essential to the New Testament, it is the central narrative of all Holy Scripture (Romans 1:1-4; Hebrews 1:1-3.) There are mini narrative summaries of the Gospel repeated in the book such as in 1:5-6 and 5:9-10. They help remind the reader the good news of God’s reign is the driving message of the events portrayed in it.

One important thing about Revelation is that in it Jesus Christ is consistently put in the same category with God. In that capacity he is portrayed as the true intermediary between God and man. It is actually through him that John receives the prophecy because it is the revelation of God that is given to Jesus Christ (Revelation 1:1-2.) The Messiah has exclusive access to the very mind of God. This among other things shows he has divine status in the text and therefore he is a capable mediator between God and men. He is the ultimate prophet of God (Deuteronomy 18:18-19; John 1:14-18; Hebrews 1:2.) The New Testament prophet is not modelled after Moses but after the Son of God who supersedes all (Hebrews 2:1-3, 3:1-6.)

Like the Book of Daniel where the main theme is that God will vindicate his covenant people, Revelation also shows his people should be patient. In spite of the cosmic forces mitigating against them God will grant them the victory and they will reign with him. In any story a relationship must be established between the principle characters. In Revelation that relationship is the covenant between the God of Jesus Christ and the Church. What John did was provide commentary on the contemporary and future state of the covenant relationship like the Old Testament prophets did. Even if you might not regard John strictly as a prophet, at least he mentions that prophets were also to receive a similar revelation.

The Book of Revelation helps provide a functional framework for the role of the New Testament prophet. Revelation, however, does not stand alone and we must bring the rest of scripture, both Old and New, to bear on our understanding of the prophetic. The New Testament prophet is a mediator modelled on the Messiah. He provides commentary on the state of the new covenant through the lens of the Gospel. The covenant relationship is between God, his Church and their mission in the world.

Christendom is in dire need of this prophetic review, hearing God’s very mind on who we are and our role in this world. We need men and women to rise to this solemn responsibility and heed the divine call.

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