Saturday, January 23, 2010

Jesus Revealed: Messenger of the Kingdom of God

The key word for this week is "Prophet." To say that Jesus is a prophet--or, rather, The Prophet--is to consider him in terms that would have been familiar to most of the ancient world. The Phoenicians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans--every ancient culture had its own version of the prophet. Moreover, the particular prophetic tradition with which Jesus was most readily associated, that of Israel's prophets, already had a very long history that was well known to Jesus' Jewish contemporaries and disciples. Some 500+ times our English translations render Hebrew (nabi`) and Greek (prophetes) nouns in the Bible with the word prophet(s). A quick study of these occurrences reveals much about Israel's prophetic tradition and the things that would have been expected of Jesus the Prophet.

An outside resource to consider this week is The Works of Josephus, as we continue with Part IV of a 12-week sermon series based on Jesus Revealed, a book by Dr. Mark D. Roberts. In the introduction to this week's chapter Dr. Roberts recounts the story of "Jesus the son of Ananias" from Josephus, The Jewish War (6:300-9). He tells the story of this other Jesus to remind us of the extent to which Jesus was a first-century Jewish prophet. Later in the chapter he will quote NT scholar Gordon Fee's reminder that we do not know Jesus at all if we ignore those aspects of Jesus' ministry that are the work of a prophet, especially his preaching of the kingdom of God.

So, what is a prophet? Or, more to the point, how can we better understand Jesus because we know that many people thought of him as a prophet?

The crowds were saying "This is the prophet Jesus, the one from Nazareth in Galilee." (Matthew 21:11) They sought to arrest him but they were afraid of the crowds because the crowds considered him a prophet. (Matthew 21:46) But others were saying, "He is Elijah"; and others were saying "He is a prophet like one of the prophets" [of old]. (Mark 6:15)

Jesus may not have claimed the title "prophet" directly, but neither did he correct those who wanted to call him by that name. And at times he even appears to embrace the designation, at least implicitly: Besides, I must keep on going today and tomorrow, because it is unimaginable for a prophet to be killed outside Jerusalem. (Luke 13:33. See 4:24, "No prophet is welcome in his own homeland.")

So, what sort of people were the "prophets of old"? What did they do? What sort of ministry did they have?

  • Messengers. Ancient Israel's prophets were considered messengers, mail carriers (2 Samuel 12:25) and eye-witness reporters, who were privileged (blessed or cursed) to have overheard or overseen (1 Samuel 9:9) something of importance that took place in the divine courtroom or throne room of God. Usually the thing heard or seen (sometimes in dreams, Numbers 12:6) had to do with a divine decree or decision about some person or group of people, often about earthly kings and nations. (For example, see Job 1-2, where Job was not given even the dignity of a prophet to warn him about what is about to happen; or 1 Kings 22:1-38). The message these prophets bring is not their own; they are merely the conduit for a word from the Lord. Hence the opening or closing line of many an oracle, "Thus says the LORD..., the word of the LORD."
  • Warn-ers and Bearers of Good Tidings. Often the message sent is one of warning or alarm (2 Kings 17:13-23). At other times the message is one of Good News (Isaiah 40:1-9).
  • Intercessors. Perhaps because of their proximity to the throne room of God, it is presumed that prophets have God's ear. E.g., Abraham (Genesis 20:7) and Moses. Their prayers are part of the routine of divine correspondence, sort of like sending a message express mail, or having a direct access line.
  • Anoint-ers. Prophets marked God's choice of a person to be king (or prophet, 1 Kings 19:16) by anointing him: e.g., Samuel anoints Saul (1 Samuel 9:16, 15:1), Samuel anoints David (1 Samuel 16:12-13), Nathan (together with Zadok, the priest) anoints Solomon (1 Kings 1:34, 45), an unnamed prophet is sent by Elisha to anoint Jehu (2 Kings 9:1-13).
  • Anointed. Prophets were marked as God's chosen by anointing, not always with oil perhaps, and in fact most often by the Spirit of YHWH, which could at times result in forms of ecstasy (e.g., Numbers 11:23-30; 1 Samuel 10:5-13, 19:20-24) or illness (the hand of the LORD is upon me). This in turn set prophets up to be the punch-line of many jokes: prophets were sometimes viewed as teched, partly or completely insane (prophecy is akin to madness, Hosea 9:7).
  • Makers of Powerful Enemies. (Often killed!) It should not come as a surprise that prophets had enemies. After all, "killing the messenger" is commonplace parlance. Some of the enemies of a prophet could be: rivals or false prophets (Deuteronomy 18:20-22, 1 Kings 18-19, 22); those whom the prophets caught abusing their power (Nathan to David, 2 Samuel 12; Elijah and Elisha to Ahab and Jezebel, 1 Kings 18:4); kings and officials who had fallen into disfavor with God, and the like.
  • Performers of Symbolic Acts. For example, Ahijah puts on new clothes and then cuts the new cloth into 12 pieces, giving 10 to Jeroboam to symbolize the division of Israel into two kingdoms. (1 Kings 11:29-31)
  • Performers of Great Works. Here we have in mind especially feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and reviving those who were dead. E.g., Elijah with the widow's son (1 Kings 17:18-24) or Elisha with the son of the Shunammite woman (2 Kings 4:31-36).

The Prophet

Jesus' contemporaries expected not just another in a long line of ordinary prophets; their expectation had been enlarged to the point that they longed for a final, extraordinary prophet, who would usher in the Kingdom of God. This expectation had roots in exemplary Hebrew prophets from Israel's "golden ages" and in the promise that God would some day again raise up their equals:

  • A prophet like Moses. A prophet from your midst, one of your brothers, one like me, YHWH your God will raise up for you. You shall listen to him. (Deuteronomy 18:15) Perhaps the reminder that God still had not raised up a prophet "like Moses, whom YHWH knew face-to-face" (Deuteronomy 34:10; Numbers 12:6-8) served to increase the anticipation of the fulfillment of this promise.
  • A prophet like Elijah. Behold I am sending to you Elijah the prophet before the coming great and fearful Day of YHWH. (Malachi 4:5)

The question becomes, of course, how Jesus compared to the expectations of his people. How did Jesus fulfill their expectations and how did he "break the mold" and crush their stereotypes and preconceptions about God's prophets? And how does knowing Jesus as our prophet help us see him more clearly, love him more dearly, and follow him more nearly?

One key may be Jesus' proclamation that the Kingdom of God is near. That sounds very much like the proclamation of some of his predecessors. (E.g., as Dr. Mark Roberts suggests, in Isaiah 33:22, Malachi 1:14, Zephaniah 3:14-20; though, as he also remarks in footnote 15, the exact phrase "the Kingdom of God" does not appear in the OT prophets. Perhaps this is in part because of the pronounced ambivalence of Israel's and Judah's prophets toward the notion of earthly kings and their problematic relationship with God, Israel's one true King. Perhaps it is because the prophets of old viewed every earthly kingdom, especially those of Israel and Judah, as by definition God's Kingdom, though the evidence of God's rule might be hidden, or apparent for a time only in God's judgment against Israel and Judah. The expectation had surely been heightened by Jesus' day and long before that God would some day take the reigns of the world firmly in hand.) Jesus shared his predecessors' notion that God would work God's will on earth--and he announced the message that the time announced by the prophets of old had come. Jesus came into Galilee announcing the Good-News-Message of God and saying that the appointed time has arrived and the Kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the Good-News-Message. (Mark 1:14-15)

By conveying God's message about the arrival of the Reign/Kingdom of God, Jesus is fulfilling the role and cultural expectations for a prophet. So is it any wonder he earned that name? Can we be more specific about the nature of the message Jesus brought?

Dr. Mark Roberts does a good job of talking about the Kingdom of God, what it is and what it is not--and how it both is-and-is-not already here. I'll not belabor the points he makes here, but simply list them: 1) the Kingdom of God is more than internal (interpreting Luke 17:20-21 as "the Kingdom of God is among you"; i.e., Jesus is saying that he is exhibit number one for the advent of that Kingdom); 2) God's Kingdom is "already" (Luke 11:20) and "not yet" (Mark 14:25); 3) Jesus' Mighty Works are evidence of the Kingdom (Matthew 11:3-5; Isaiah 35:4-6); 4) the unexpected politics of the Kingdom (Rome remains in power); 5) the enemy of the Kingdom; 6) from self-rule to the rule of God.

Finally, I enjoyed discovering this week at the prompting of Kathy Rockey an Orthodox podcast on the names of Jesus, one of which is specifically about this week's topic. I thought readers of this blog might also enjoy listening to that broadcast:

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