Epistolary communications are a marked feature of New Testament revelation. In the Old Testament there was comprised, under the threefold division of the law, the prophets, and the Psalms (Luke 24:44), the whole of that portion of God's written word. By the law was meant the Pentateuch. Under the prophets the historical books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings were classed with the writings of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the twelve minor prophets. Under the Psalms the rest of the books forming the canon of Old Testament revelation were ranged; this portion being so called, probably, since the book of Psalms stood first in the third great division of the Hebrew Scriptures.
In the Old Testament we have related the history of man from the creation to the exodus of Israel out of Egypt, as far as God has been pleased to make it known, when for the first time there existed upon earth, and was seen, a people which the Lord Jehovah owned, and would have others to know were His peculiar people. To them the law was given, God's revelation of that which was suited to man in the flesh (Rom. 7:5), and which was holy, just, and good. What response there was to that revelation on the part of the people of Israel, or rather how they failed to respond to it, the historical books are chiefly concerned in narrating. The failure after the death of Joshua, and of the elders which outlived Joshua, was great and general. (Judges 2:7.) The solemn warnings of Moses recounted in Deuteronomy, the earnest entreaties of Joshua a little time before his death (Joshua 23, 24), as well as the predictions of judgments, including captivity, if they continued obdurate, and which were written in the law; all these failed to make any lasting or deep impression on them.
Hence arose a new kind of ministry, called prophetic, the purpose of which was to act on the consciences of the people, to recall them to their allegiance to the Lord their God. This ministry was instituted by God, who provides the means of communicating with His people when and how He pleases. So when priesthood had failed in Israel in the person and house of Eli, the Lord commences to open up communications with Israel by prophets, at the head of whom stands Samuel (Ps. 99:6), he being the instrument especially chosen by which to communicate the divine mind to the people, after judgment had been pronounced on the house of Eli. (1 Sam. 3:20, 21.) The grace of this was manifest. The failure on the high priest's part, the representative before God of the people, was not to hinder communications from God as often as occasion might call for them, whether unsought by the people, or as answers to their requests. For the prophet was not one who merely foretold the future. Rather he was one who had the mind of God, whether for that which was wanted for the present, or to reveal things future.
Both grace and sovereignty were displayed in the institution of prophets. Grace was seen, inasmuch as by such the Lord had a channel of His own selecting, by which He could still address the people, even if they should apostatise from the faith, as was the case with Israel during the prophetic ministry of Elijah and Elisha. Sovereignty, too, was displayed, since the prophetic office was not hereditary like the priesthood or the monarchy. It did not descend from father to son, though the Lord of course was free to make use of both a parent and his child in this service if it pleased Him. An instance of this we have in the case of Jehu, the son of Hanani, the seer, who reproved Jehoshaphat, as Hanani, his father, had reproved Asa. (2 Chron. 16:7; 19:2.) But such cases, as far as we know, were rare. The office, then, not being hereditary, the Lord exercised His sovereignty each time that a prophet appeared amongst the people, a token that Jehovah had not forgotten them, nor was indifferent to their welfare, however indifferent they were to Him.
Of the earlier prophets, no prophetic writings, as that term is commonly understood, have come down to us. We say, as that term is commonly understood; for certainly some of the historical books which are classed in the Hebrew canon amongst the prophets were written by men of that school. (1 Chron. 29:29.) Yet some of them did commit revelations to writing; witness Elijah, whose message to Jehoram, the son of Jehoshaphat, is incorporated into the sacred history (2 Chron. 21:12-15); and the prophecy of Ahijah, and the visions of Iddo the seer. (2 Chron. 9:29.) These last, however, did not form part of the canon of Scripture, nor were intended for our instruction; for all that a prophet uttered was not always committed to writing for preservation to a future day. Of this Jonah is an example; for we learn elsewhere (2 Kings 14:25) that we have not in the work that bears his name all that he predicted, though doubtless we do possess all that the Lord saw fit to preserve to later ages.
Hence, studying their writings, we learn in what manner the prophets carried on their work, and we can trace the forbearance and goodness of God as displayed in them. For attempting to arouse the people to a sense of their failure, and of that which became them if they would avert the threatened outpourings of divine displeasure, we see how the Lord was willing, if they had responded, to have turned away His anger from the nation. How often indeed did He do that, as the psalmist has placed upon record. (Ps. 78:38.) But a time came when there was no remedy. Israel would not hear, God's people would have none of His reproofs. As that drew near the prophetic communications were multiplied, warning the people of the coming judgments, but telling them also of the future and final blessing.
Commencing according to the common chronology with Joel, who lived in the reign of Uzziah, and going on to Jeremiah, who witnessed the capture of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, the Lord appealed by various servants to His people; but all in vain. Hence deportations from their land had to take place. Yet even then Jehovah did not forsake them. And Ezekiel, with the captives at Chebar; and Daniel at Babylon and Shushan, were proofs that God still cared for His people, and would minister by His servants the prophets to impress on them their sins, or to sustain the heart of any that were repentant, when tasting in the bitter way that they were called to do it the consequences of their guilt and of the national unfaithfulness. After the captivity the same kind of ministry was continued in the persons of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi; and the New Testament opens with prophecy bursting forth afresh from the lips of Zacharias, the father of John. (Luke 1:67.)
But a new manner of dealing with the people was now to be attempted. By the ministry of John, than whom among the prophets none was greater, hearts were prepared to welcome the advent of the long-promised Messiah, the teacher for whom they had been taught to look, and to wait. (Luke 3:15; John 4:25.) At length He came, and taught the people, journeying through cities and villages, and teaching in the temple, till the time arrived for His death on the cross to take place. This leads to a consideration of the character of New Testament written revelation.
The Old began with the Pentateuch, commonly called the law; the New begins with the four gospels, describing, each in its own characteristic way, the life on earth and the death of Him in whose heart the law of God was hidden. (Ps. 40:8.) By the law God traced out what man ought to be. In the gospels we see what a perfect man is, dependant and obedient; for there was but One who has fully exemplified it. Following the gospels, comes the historical book of the New Testament, the Acts, detailing the progress of the work, in the spread of Christianity from Jerusalem to Rome, as far as God has been pleased to recount it, that book being chiefly occupied with Peter's early labours in Judea, and with Paul's missionary work among the Gentiles.
After this come the epistles, embracing those of Paul, Peter, John, James, and Jude, the whole volume closing with the one prophetical book of the New Testament, the Apocalypse, which treats of the judgment on the professing churches in apostate Christendom, and on the impenitent dead raised up for that purpose (John 5:29), and carries us on in thought to the commencement of the eternal state. (Rev. 21:1-3.) The Old Testament closed with the hope of the Lord's coming to reign, and the need of preparing hearts to receive Him, lest He should come and smite the earth with a curse. (Malachi 4:6.) The New Testament carries us on to millennial blessing, when there shall be no more curse (Rev. 22:3), and to the eternal state, when there shall be no more sorrow, nor crying, nor pain on earth, for the former things will have passed away. (Rev. 21:4.)
Now the character of the instruction vouchsafed us in the New Testament is very different from that which we meet with in the Old, but it is in perfect harmony with the opening books of this part of the sacred volume. God is not now making a claim on man, and telling him what he ought to do, and to be, as a creature sharing in divine mercy and goodness; but is now presenting to his eye a perfect Man, and to those who believe on the Lord Jesus Christ God is ministering of Christ to them. The Old Testament prophets reminded the people of the law, and endeavoured to recall them to the observance of it. The New Testament ministry is the presentation of Christ in various lights just as it was needed. And addressing, as the sacred penmen did, saints, in whose midst they were not at the moment, the written revelation of this part of the volume took the form of epistles, letters addresed to assemblies, as those at Thessalonica and Corinth; to companies of saints, as the Romans, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians; or to individuals, and in one instance to God's ancient people.
With the Lord Jesus Christ delineated in the gospels, the example for God's saints (Matt. 11:29; John 13:15; Eph. 5:2; Heb. 12:2; 1 Peter 2:21; 4:1; 1 John 2:6), the characteristic feature of apostolic ministry is the presentation of the Lord Jesus Christ, and truth about Him, as occasion called for it, whether arising from failure on the part of God's saints, or their lack of intelligence in the truth, or from their condition being such that the Holy Ghost could freely minister of the things of Christ for their profit and spiritual growth. The epistles to the Galatians, the Hebrews, and the Ephesians, may be cited as illustrations of these different conditions of the saints in the days of Paul.
By the preaching of the gospel God was sending out a message of grace to men in the world; by the epistles God was addressing those who professedly were His people, gathered out by the gospel from all around as believers on His Son. The only exception to this is the epistle of James, addressed to the twelve tribes scattered abroad. But the principle is in measure the same with reference to it as to all the others, in that God was addressing by it those who had a recognized position before Him as His people, once owned as such, though now for a time treated as 'Lo-Ammi,' and 'Lo-Ruhamah.' James wrote to God's earthly people; Paul, Peter, John, and Jude to those professedly Christians, described by the apostle of the Gentiles as saints in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 4:21.) To saints in general John and Jude wrote; to those gathered out from the Jews Peter addressed himself; to assemblies, chiefly composed of those once Gentiles, Paul wrote, besides addressing Christian saints as such, and certain individuals as well. In this last line John alone followed him. Paul wrote letters to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon; John to the elect lady, or Cyria, and to his well-beloved Gaius. In all these writings God's desires for His children come out to us. He is teaching them, whether by correcting evils which had manifested themselves amongst His saints, or by exhorting them to be faithful and patient, or by unfolding His purposes to them, and those counsels by which they were being worked out; for we are "predestinated according to the purpose of Him who worketh all things after the counsel of His own will." (Eph. 1:11.) This passage explains the difference between God's purpose and His counsels.
What grace to and interest in the saints does this character of ministry illustrate. In the Old Testament, with sinful man before Him, God gave Israel a law to show what man ought to be. In the New Testament, with the perfect man before Him, God ministers Christ to us as that which, since He is our life, we are to manifest before God, His saints, and the world. In short, it is the ministry of a Person, and not the promulgation of a code, useful, and needful to us, as that code was, and is still. (1 Tim. 1:8-10.) C. E. Stuart.