Inviting the Prophets Back to Church
PAGES 6, 7
Can you imagine what would happen today if one of the Old Testament prophets came to one of our churches as the preacher, or even as a visitor? They seem to have a tendency to do things that make people more than a little uncomfortable. How would we react, for example, if Jeremiah showed up for morning worship wearing an ox yoke on his neck (Jer. 27:2)? Or if we found Ezekiel in the parking lot doing strange things with the hair he had just shaved off of his head (Ezek.l 5:1-4)? And it's not only their behavior that is odd. Their words are perhaps even harder to square with our current ideas of what is acceptable language in church. Would not someone who said to us, "I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies" (Amos 5:21), receive some form of church discipline (or at least a good measure of righteous indignation)? The prophetic writings also present us with all sorts of interpretive difficulties. They are full of bizarre visions, wonderful miracles, fiery discourses, seemingly irrelevant biographical details, and both clear and vague pronouncements concerning the future. Let's face it: we, like their contemporaries in the Old Testament, are uncomfortable with the prophets. We want to "be like Mike," not like Micah.
So what do we do with these discomforting people? I'm afraid we do what we usually do with people or things that make us uncomfortable—we avoid them. One rarely hears a sermon based on the prophetic books. We just don't invite the prophets to church anymore.
Let me suggest that this is, as we no doubt suspect, the wrong approach to take. In Amos 3:7 we find the utterly remarkable statement, "Surely the Sovereign Lord does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets." This has profound implications. It suggests that spending some time studying "his servants the prophets" holds the promise of yielding insight into everything that God does! Surely no better motivation exists for anyone interested in understanding God's special revelation and redemptive activity. Moreover, because Christ fulfills the prophetic office, a deeper understanding of that office has direct implications for contemporary Christians. Romans 8:29 informs us that "those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son." If one dimension of the Son is his fulfillment of the prophetic office, it is logically inescapable that those being conformed to his likeness must also have a prophetic task. Looking back at the Old Testament prophets, therefore, gives us some idea of the prophetic tasks that our Lord fulfilled and the prophetic tasks that we, as the people of God being conformed to the likeness of Christ, should be fulfilling today. Admittedly, we have to be careful here. Tapping into the benefits of a good understanding of the prophets is a little like petting a porcupine—it's possible, but you'd better go slowly or you're going to get stuck.
One common sticking point is a failure to appreciate the fact that everything in the prophetic books contributes to the prophetic message. This misunderstanding can (and does!) easily result in quick dismissals of non-speech-related materials, such as biographical details, as irrelevant or simply "filler" for the "real" message found in the oracles (prophetic speeches). Recent biblical scholarship has done precisely this for many of the prophetic writings. Instead of appreciating the complexity of these remarkable texts, some scholars routinely characterize them as crudely compiled combinations of various sources by agenda-driven editors. The truth is far more wonderful and complicated. Being a prophet was a 24/7 job that engaged every aspect of the prophet's being. We need to slow down our reading of the prophetic texts in order to receive their messages in the many ways they are trying to reach us. Probably the first thing we notice is that the prophets verbally communicate the truth about God to others. In New Testament passages, we see Christ doing this same prophetic task so precisely that it is no longer sufficient to say he "communicates" the word of God. No, Christ (being God) communicates God so clearly that he is "the Word" (see, for example, John 1). Therefore, if we, as individual Christians and as fellowships of believers, desire to be like Christ, we too must accurately speak the word of God to others.
But communication, as we know, does not only happen with words. Actions communicate too, and perhaps even more loudly. Much of the prophets' messages are bound up with their actions. Jeremiah smashes a clay pot (Jer. 19) to visually communicate to the people the coming of the judgment his words proclaim. Ezekiel shaves off his hair (Ezek. 5) to indicate what the Lord will to do to his people by means of Assyria, "a razor hired from beyond the River" (Isa. 7:20). Even the prophets' emotions communicate God's own emotions, ranging from his fiery anger against sin (exhibited, for example, by Amos) to his heartbreak over the judgment he must bring against his people (demonstrated, for example, by Jeremiah, the "weeping prophet"). Jesus, the perfect prophet, tells the disciples of John (who were questioning Jesus' messiahship) to report not only what they hear him say, but also what they see him do (Matt. 11:2-6; Luke 7:18-23), because both his words and his actions communicate the same message. Does our behavior communicate the same message of good news as our words? Or do unbelievers instead see a message that contradicts and garbles the message they hear from us?
Perhaps least recognized among the prophetic tasks is the way they represent the community to which they belong. The prophets intercede for the people in prayer and visually portray the future of their community—both symbolically and in actual personal experiences. Jeremiah puts on a yoke of crossbars (Jer. 27) to show his countrymen that they will soon be wearing the yoke of the Babylonians. Ezekiel, representing his community's coming experience, rations out food for himself in order to show that "the people will eat rationed food in anxiety and drink rationed water in despair, for food and water will be scarce" (Ezek. 4:16-17). Jeremiah is imprisoned and placed in danger of losing his life (Jer. 37-38) to show by his own personal experience that the nation he represents will itself soon be imprisoned in exile and in danger of losing its national identity. This prophetic role of representing the community is so vital that it made the Incarnation necessary. In order for our Lord to fulfill this prophetic task he had to become like those he would represent. Thus, he not only is the Son of God (indicating his representation of God), but is also the Son of Man (indicating his representation of the human community of which he has become the head).
We, the community of God's people, can (and should) together carry out the prophetic tasks, including this task of representing the larger community to which we belong. Old Testament Israel prophetically pointed to the new covenant community by dramatically acting out on the world stage, by means of her experiences recorded in Scripture, what God would be doing through Jesus Christ for "every tribe and language and people and nation" (Rev. 5:9). Her calling, her deliverance from bondage, her gathering into a community of God's people in fellowship with and governed by him, her separation from the world, her battles, her victories, her failures, her purification, and her restoration—all have significance for the new covenant community. We represent the larger community of which we are a part—broken human-ity—by demonstrating to unbelievers the humanity God intends and is redemptively working to restore. Fulfilling our prophetic responsibility to represent a healed humanity in our behavior is absolutely critical for the effectiveness of the verbal message of good news. It makes no sense to call people to enjoy a new humanity when there is no evidence of that new humanity for them to see.
Everything we do as individual Christians and local congregations has prophetic implications. Once we truly grasp this, our programs, activities, committee meetings, events, and all other initiatives of the church will be carried out with a new health and vigor, and with an eye toward how they are perceived by unbelieving onlookers. This is not some alien assignment imposed upon the church, but is rather contained in the church's spiritual DNA, which traces back to the prophets of the Old Testament and comes to fullest expression in our Lord, Jesus Christ.
As we engage in this effort, we must be careful not to overemphasize one dimension of our prophetic witness to the detriment of the others. To do so would result in a faulty picture of God or of the restored humanity we are responsible to represent. It is very likely that every one of us has experienced local congregations in which one of these aspects of the church's prophetic witness was stressed at the expense of the others. Such overemphasis results in churches with wonderful doctrine but no comparably wonderful practice, churches with fantastic social engagement that appears to come at the expense of truth, or churches with such an emphasis on emotion that doctrine and practice seem to melt away into irrelevance. It is our task to ensure that the church prophetically represents God and a restored, healed humanity verbally, behaviorally, and affectively, and to make certain that our words, actions, and emotions are integrated and in balance.
The church's prophetic task is obviously enormous and extremely difficult. It is no wonder that so many of the Old Testament prophets objected to their prophetic calls. Yet the divine reassurance they received has also been given to us: "Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age" (Matt. 28:20). The Spirit of the perfect prophet, the Holy Spirit, indwells every believer and provides us with the understanding, the resources, and the power to fulfill our prophetic calling. Let's invite the prophets back to church and strive to become more like them as we communicate the good news of Jesus Christ to those with eyes to see as well as ears to hear.
Michael Williams' most recent book is The Prophet and His Message: Reading Old Testament Prophecy Today (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P and R Publishing, 2003).