Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church 3

If Jesus was prophetic then the church that follows him is prophetic.

That means, first, that the church listens to, is empowered by and is confident in the Spirit of God. Johnson: “The prospect is at once thrilling and frightening.” Why? If we as a/the church learn to listen to the Spirit, we have to do what the Spirit directs us to do. We lose control.

Do we really believe the Spirit guides? Or do we say the Spirit guides — but through Scripture — so that in effect the Spirit is captured and contained by the Bible? Do you think the Spirit moves us beyond the Bible?

Luke Timothy Johnson’s new book Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church examines what Luke-Acts says about the Spirit with eloquent clarity.

Johnson develops about seven themes and then sketches what Spirit-prophecy means for the church today. I begin with his themes:

1. We need to avoid thinking of “Spirit” in Luke-Acts in terms of later Trinitarian theology.
2. The dominant characteristic of Spirit in the NT is “power” (eg., Rom 1:4; 1 Cor 2:4, etc).
3. Spirit refers to the Spirit who was promised and now is fulfilled.
4. Jesus’ childhood is filled with Spirit stuff (read Luke 1-2). All the characters in these chps are filled with the Spirit: Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, Jesus, John, Simeon, Anna.
5. Jesus’ ministry is filled with the Spirit — Luke 4:1, 14, 18-19 …
6. The disciples are prepared with the Spirit.
7. Acts is loaded with Spirit descriptions, from Luke 1 and Luke 2 on.

What about today?

1. Reality is shaped by the power of God at work every moment. God continues to disclose in our world — if we are faithful to Luke-Acts. We need to learn from the charismatic and pentecostal dimensions of the church — where Spirit shapes what happens. What this means is radical: we answer to the activity of the Spirit of God in the church today, and not just to (or even to) institutions and traditions.

2. God’s preferred mode of communication in the Bible is the prophetic voice. From Moses to Samuel to David to Elijah and Elisha … to Jesus and the apostles and others.

Are we willing to recognize the voice of the prophet today? Will we be scandalized by the particular person, as was the contemporaries of Jesus and John and the apostles, or will we see God speaking even through fallible humans? Will we recognize that God often speaks outside our expected circles?

3. Theology becomes not so much protection of tradition but listening to the Spirit. It can’t be “systematic” (his expression); the Spirit continues to speak. In Acts, God speaks through human experiences (see Zecharaiah, Mary, Peter); the Spirit leads to new insights into the Bible (Peter and Joel; eunuch and Isaiah).

4. Church: the issue is if the church is listening to the Spirit. Institutional forms are challenged, but that’s not the whole issue. It’s about total dedication to responding to the call of God in our world — and cultivation of the gifts of the Spirit.

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  • Paul W

    “We need to avoid thinking of ‘Spirit’ in Luke-Acts in terms of later Trinitarian theology.” — I wonder why?

    I know this is an overly broad sweeping statement but I tend to think of the liturgically oriented Churches as those most attuned to listening for what the spirit is saying to the church.

  • I’m really struggling to get my head around Paul W’s comment. Mine would be the opposite – I tend to think of the liturgically oriented churches as those *least* attuned to listening for what the Spirit is saying to the church.

    I suppose the difference hinges on Johnson’s seven themes, and in particular his first. In other words, it’s all a matter of who we think the Spirit is and how we think he acts amongst us.

    What a wide divergence! I look forward to more views and some analysis.

  • Paul W

    Chris Jefferies,

    What a divergence, indeed! I think my suprise might have matched yours when I read your comment to the contrary.

    I agree that who we think the Spirit is and how we think he acts will loom large in a discussion like this. I wonder, additionally, if our geographic locations on either side of the pond is a significant factor into our perspectives with this topic and our experience with the Spirit.

  • I would prefer to say, the Spirit never guides contrary to Scripture. Scripture is after all the Spirit speaking.

  • DRT

    As I read this post I had visions of all the people who say that god led them to this and god led them to that when it does not take a whole lot of outside assessment to realize that what they are doing is not very godly.

    But, then I came to the third of Scot’s points, that theology provides the guard rails for our spirit discernment. I have always been a fan of the traditions that make overt use of things like discernment councils. This overtly acknowledges that a single person’s view of the spirit lead can be wrong, and that it takes thought, prayer and analysis using theology to discern the wisdom and truth of the perception.

    In my old church the pastor said he does not want to discuss theology because it is divisive. But this is exactly why we need to have a good theology. The actions undertaken by a church following a Calvinist theology will be different from an Armenian one. Without a good theology to discern the message of spirit we can easily be led down the wrong path!

  • Fish

    “I would prefer to say, the Spirit never guides contrary to Scripture. Scripture is after all the Spirit speaking.”

    Did not the Spirit guide us to rid ourselves of slavery, despite the fact that Scripture takes it for granted? I have read some very good, logical, compelling sermons from the old South defending the practice on Scriptural grounds, but clearly in retrospect those pastors were wrong and actually doing false teaching.

    Perhaps the spirit guides us through the great arc of scripture as it unveils itself to our progressing minds.

  • Rick

    Fish #6-

    Would that not fall under point #3? New, but not contrary, insights.

  • Danny Sims

    It’s the Fruit not the gifts that needs cultivation in the church.

  • T


    I appreciate your desire for fruit. But, frankly, the scriptures contradict your comment. The scriptures are unequivocally pro-gifts and pro-fruit. That love is the core, the bullseye, does not make works of power (by the Spirit!) bad or undesirable.

    Most of the western church has long-standing momentum in disobeying the call to “eagerly desire” spiritual gifts, especially those that build up the church, like prophecy.

    I have to agree with the author. The prospect of God speaking to us is both “thrilling and frightening.” Obviously, not everyone experiences these in equal measure.

    In any event, prophecy can be done, God can lead in that way, and it can happen while letting scripture remain supreme. Further, prophecy (as is easily seen in the NT, especially I Cor.) is best done in community, just like most things.

    The upside, too, is that in my experience, many folks who don’t believe in prophecy today have experienced it at various times and ways, but haven’t labeled it as such, either out of ignorance or reluctance or some of both.

  • T

    Sorry, “especially” in the second paragraph should have been “even.”

  • T


    Let me add, “Wow.” It’s refreshing and pretty rare to have someone at a school like Emory to say anything like this, especially any implication that the wider church might have something (anything!) to learn from the charismatic and pentecostal parts of the Body. Let me add too that the routine disbelief, skepticism, ignorance or avoidance in the wider church of all things charismatic does wear on the soul. It’s nice to hear an accomplished academic voice of reason and encouragement write such a book.

    Also, to Paul W’s point about liturgical folks. IMO, the contemplative branch of the church and the charismatic branch of the church are like neighbors who generally don’t know they live right next door to each other. I can think of no branches of the Church that would not only learn greatly from one another, but could have such joy and satisfaction doing it, if they could only approach one another humbly and with love.

  • We may need to avoid talking about the Spirit as assumed in trinitarian thinking, but I don’t think we can. Annanias and Saphira lied to the Spirit. You can’t lie to a power like electricity or wind, but you can lie to a person, namely The Spirit! The third person of the trinity, the Spirit, is inescapable in spite of his being associated with power.

  • Amos Paul

    Good, good post.

    @4 John Thomson

    I think you’re missing the point about Scripture. “Every good heretic quotes Scripture,” as they say. The early (and contempory) church was literally packed with competing interpretations of Scripture due to the fact that it’s not a modern, formulaic text. It’s a bunch of texts offering many complex themes and questions. And many of the interpretations are equally intellectually rigorous. There is no single scholastic “Biblical” answer. There are many “Biblical” answers, among which we are adrift.

    The church, theology, and the Spirit are all *crucial* for approaching Scripture in intellectually honest and faithful ways.

    Just listen to Jesus when he responds to a technical and Scripturally thoughtful question offered to him from the Sadducees–a well learned group.

    Mark 12:24
    Jesus said to them, “Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God?”

    Without the objectively real power of God playing an important role within our perspective of Scripture, we cannot have a good perspective on Scripture.

  • “If we as a/the church learn to listen to the Spirit, we have to do what the Spirit directs us to do. We lose control.”

    I’ve often shared this line of thinking – following the Spirit is fearful because I lose control. In the past few months though, I’ve really begun to see this as a cover-up for a greater, more authentic fear – fear of responsibility.

    Now, I know that some people really do fear losing control, but my fear is more about being held responsible for the content of my life. If I/we have the Spirit to guide us, if the Spirit really is guiding us, then we need to “trust ourselves,” which means trusting the Spirit in us. I guess another way of saying it is that the fear shifts from the Spirit controlling me “from above” to a fear of the Spirit controlling me “from within.” In the former sense, it seems like I become a robot-like creature and the fear arises from losing my will. In the latter sense, the opposite is true – I am divinely empowered by the Spirit and my will, since it is now being led by the Spirit, is not lost at all. However, I am now held responsible; robots are not accountable for their actions, but Spirit-indwelt Christians are.

    Are we really scared of “losing control” or are we scared of the responsibility and accountability and the risk of failure that comes with maturity?

  • Point 1 makes sense if we are talking about being careful not to read later Trinitarian theology into Luke-Acts, but it doesn’t work for me if the accuracy of that later Trinitarian theology is being called into question.