6. Covenant Phases in the Bible
Thus far we have spoken of only three phases in the history of the one covenant. We must now divide the third phase into two parts. We can begin by looking at human life. Human beings do not die and become fully mature in glory while they are in their prime as adults. Rather, at some point human beings begin to lose their strength; they begin to die in preparation for their final death and transformation into glory. Sometimes this death begins with some kind of mid-life crisis. With women it is associated with menopause. When men it is associated with the loss of power and the realization that they will not accomplish everything they had hoped to accomplish when they were young.
This is when human beings start to become elders. Their kingly wisdom matures into prophecy, the ability to speak life-changing words. Their hair turns white, and white hair is glory (Revelation 1:14). Thus, at the very time human beings begin to lose their kingly power and ability to act, they increase in their God-like glory and power to speak.
We can see this in Israel’s history. When we look at the Kingdom period, we see that it started in kingly glory. Then it split, and then each kingdom became weaker and weaker as well as more and more sinful. It is as the kingly power of Israel diminishes that the prophets emerge in the Remnant period. There is still a kingly aspect, but the more mature prophetic phase of the covenant is becoming more and more important. The kingdom of God is maturing into eldership. Then comes the death of Israel, in the exile. After this, the Jews are no longer kings. They no longer have a nation of their own. They can no longer act. They are spread out into the nations as prophets. The Oikumenical age is an age exclusively of prophecy.
This small history of Israel is a type, a small pattern, of the history of humanity. We have moved from the priestly Old Creation to the kingly New Creation, but our kingship consists of words. It is a prophetic kind of kingship, and as history moves along the Church will become more and more mature as a prophetic host. Finally, after the day of judgment, the Church will be fully mature. There will not just be a new Israel, but a wholly transformed creation.
This is the pattern not only of human life and of Biblical history, but also the pattern of the history of the New Creation. We are only 2000 years into the New Creation, but already we can see the pattern in the history of the Western Church. The Church began with a priestly emphasis: worship and doctrine were paramount in the early church. With Constantine, we begin to enter a kingly phase. In the late Roman empire and early middle ages, not only were their Christian kings, but the Church also had power in society; the Church ruled in a kingly way. In the later middle ages and in the Renaissance, both the Christian kings and the Church began to weaken and become corrupt. Prophetic movements arose, like the teaching friars and the Hussites, culminating in the Protestant Reformation. With the Reformation, the unified Church in the West died and was resurrected. For a brief time, the Reformation and the Counter-reformation continued to exercise some degree of kingly power and there were Christian rulers. But since that time, the Church in the West has been exclusively prophetic. Power was lost, but proclamation remained. As the prophetic time in Israel degenerated into Pharisaism and Sadducceeism, so has the Church today. A new cycle is beginning, one the embraces far more of humanity that the earlier Western cycle did.
Let us draw together what we have learned. There is one covenant in three large phases. These phases of maturation in history reflect in time the eternal maturation of the Son by the work of the Spirit. These three phases can be characterized as:
1. Priestly, childhood
2. Kingly, adulthood
3a. Historical prophetic, eldership
3b. Full prophetic, resurrection in glory
These 3-4 phases of the one covenant cover all of human history, and they also cover the full course of the normal human life (that is, for people who do not die prematurely). These 3-4 phases also cover smaller periods of history at various levels, as God’s Spirit causes humanity to mature through expanding cycles.
We can now begin to become a bit more familiar with some of these smaller cycles, as they are presented to us in the Bible. Let us begin with the last four covenants of the Old Creation. The first is the Sinaitic Covenant, which set up the priesthood and gave the Law, and which extended to the time of Saul and David. The second is the Kingdom Covenant, which extended to the destruction of the kingdom of Judah under Nebuchadnezzar. The third is the Prophetic Covenant, which was inaugurated by Elijah and Elisha. This was a prophetic time toward the end of the kingdom time, before the death and resurrection of Israel. The prophets proclaimed the coming end of the old world, and provided visions of the world to come after the judgment on Judah and Israel. Then came the fourth, the Oikumenical Covenant, which is described in Ezekiel 40-48 symbolically, and which was fully inaugurated through the prophet Zechariah in Zechariah 1-6. This is the fourth phase, after the death and resurrection of the people.
We can also see these four phases in earlier history, though not associated so closely with particular covenantal eras. Adam was created to be a priest in the Garden. He was exiled into the Land, though he and his true sons remained essentially priests, offering worship to God. Cain went out and built a city, and thereby became the first king, though a false one. Toward the end of this period, the prophet Enoch began to prophesy judgment in the larger World as the sons of Seth began to marry the daughters of Cain. (Jude 14-15). Then after the death and resurrection of the world, Noah came as a prophet to set up the new world (Genesis 9:25-27).
We have looked at two progressions, and in each of them we have seen this sequence of important locations:
1. Garden-sanctuary | Pre-fall Adam | Sinaitic
2. Land | Post-fall Adam; Cain | Kingdom
3. Old World | Sethites | Prophetic
4. New World | Noah | Oikumenical
The age of the patriarchs also moves through these four phases. Abraham is essentially a priest, building altars and leading those around him in the worship of God. With Abraham we are in the sanctuary. Isaac failed in his task, so Jacob became the king, the man of action, who ruled flocks and sons, and who suffered for them. With Jacob we are in the land. Joseph, of course, is the prophet, and with Joseph we move into the wider old world. But it is Moses who, after the judgment and resurrection of the Hebrews, becomes the fully mature prophet and brings us into a new world after the destruction of the old.
We could look at the biographies of each of these men and see how he moved from priestly servant to kingly man of action to prophet in his old age. This is most obvious with Jacob, who served, ruled, and finally prophesied. In death, each man moved into a new world.
In a larger way, the whole Adamic period is priestly, down to Noah. God gives the right to exercise capital punishment to mankind through Noah, and thus we enter a larger kingly period. With the age of the Patriarchs, we come to a larger prophetic period, during which old worlds are condemned (starting with Babel, for Abraham is called in the context of the scattering of Babel) and a new world is awaited. This whole period is located in the priestly Garden-sanctuary in an important sense: There is no holy land, let alone a holy world. There are only holy sanctuaries. (Note Genesis 4:26; 8:20; 9:20ff.; and the tower [sanctuary] of Babel. Abraham and the patriarchs live in the land, but it was not yet theirs.)
With Moses, the new world arrives as a new creation, with Israel as a nation at its heart. Israel as a nation, and as a land for that nation, comes into being after the destruction of the old world of Egypt, and which starts a new cycle within the nation of Israel: priestly (Sinaitic), kingly (Kingdom), prophetic (Prophetic), and full prophetic (Oikumenical). This whole cycle takes place with a holy land at its center, but there is as yet no holy world.
In the first cycle (Adam, Noah, Patriarchs), there was one third or prophetic era. In this new cycle in the land, there are two: the Prophetic era in the latter part of the Kingdom era, and the Oikumenical prophetic era. We can see this division anticipated in the first cycle when, after the rebellion of Ham, Noah sets up the tents of Shem, so that the Shemites were like kingdom prophets before the call of Abraham.
Now notice that just as the patriarchs were sent from Babel-Ur to live in the land during their prophetic era without possessing it, so now in the second cycle Israel is sent from fallen Jerusalem into the empire, into the world, though without yet possessing it. The patriarchs had sanctuaries within the land they did not yet possess, and in the Oikumenical era Israel has a land within the world that they did not yet possess. The patriarchs ministered in the land as Israel was sent to minister in the world of the empires. God’s people finally possess the world as its true rulers with the coming of the New Creation.
The period from Adam to the end of the Oikumenical era covers the whole of Biblical history, with the New Creation beginning some 40 years before the end of the Old Creation in ad 70. This Old Creation history is marked by the seven covenantal periods we have been describing: Adamic, Noahic, Patriarchal, Sinaitic, Kingdom, Prophetic, and Oikumenical. These are explicit covenantal periods, not mere “covenantal phases of maturation.” They are marked out by events that start the new era.
In each case there is a transition through death into resurrection, a passage from darkness to greater light, an evening before a new day. This is how God’s Spirit acted in Genesis 1, and it is the same way He acts in Bible history.
Adam, the created son of God, fell into sin and was restored, but sin increased until judgment came in the Flood. Then God established the more glorious Noahic Covenant.
Noah’s son fell into sin, but there was restoration through the Shemites. All the same, sin increased until judgment came at Babel. Then God set up the more glorious Patriarchal Covenant, with greater promises.
Isaac, son of Abram, sinned and was restored. But sin increased until the people became idolaters in Egypt (Joshua 24:14) and full judgment came in the exodus and wilderness. Then God set up the more glorious Sinaitic Covenant.
The sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu sinned, but the priesthood was restored. Sin increased through the period of the judges until God tore up the Tabernacle and destroyed the house of Eli (1 Samuel 1-4). Then God set up the more glorious Kingdom Covenant.
David and then his sons sinned, but David and his house were restored. Sin increased during the Kingdom period until a great judgment came on northern Israel in the days of Ahab. At that time God established the Prophetic Covenant through Elijah and Elisha, with greater promises.
Sin continued to increase in a double way. The kings of Judah became worse and worse, and also the prophets began to become false prophets. Judgment came fully at the exile. Then God set up the more glorious Oikumenical Covenant.
The Oikumenical Covenant, of witness to the nations, failed early on when Mordecai disobeyed the king God had put over him and counseled Esther to conceal her Jewishness. But God restored the Jews. Still sin continued to increase until full judgment came with Jesus and the Apostolic Church, culminating in ad 70. This was the last event in the establishment of the New Creation, the fullness of the New Covenant.