Living the Prophetic Life

If Jesus was prophetic then the church that follows him is prophetic. If Jesus was a prophet, then the followers of Jesus are to embody a prophetic message in how they live. In fact, it was a characteristic of prophets to “embody” their message in actions (often called prophetic symbolic actions), actions like Isaiah lumbering around naked, Hosea marrying a prostitute, or Jeremiah burying a soiled loincloth.

How then can the church embody its message? How can it embody the following four characteristics?

Luke Timothy Johnson, in his new book Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church, suggests the following four elements of as the way the church can embody the prophetic message of Jesus:

1. Poverty
2. Itinerancy
3. Prayer
4. Servant leadership

I am convinced Johnson is right in seeing these actions as freighted with symbolic meaning for Jesus, the earliest churches and for us today. I’m not convinced these are analogous to the prophetic symbolic embodiments. Those were dramatic, one-off, exaggerated gestures. These are settled dispositions. Having said that, however, let’s get on with seeing what these four actions can say to the church today.

Johnson sketches each of these themes in Jesus (Luke) and then in the continued life of Jesus in the churches (Acts). He did not choose these in order to poke a thumb in the eye of America or American churches; he picked these four because these are four major embodiments of the kingdom in Luke-Acts.

Jesus advocated for the poor as one of the poor, and the foxes have holes and the Son of man has no place for his head is a good text (Luke 9:58). This connects to the theme of itinerancy in Jesus’ ministry and in the ministry of his followers. Jesus is on the move, and Luke 9:51 is a good text. Luke emphasizes Jesus’ prayer life: Luke 3:21; 6:12; 9:28; 22:32,41-44; 23:34; 23:46; cf 11:5-13. And Jesus embodied servant leadership: healing, hospitality, feeding miracles, and esp 9:48 that the greatness is service and 22:29-30 at last supper when Jesus counters his form of leadership with that of the Gentile rulers.

These themes are shown embodied in the community in Acts, and the obvious places to begin are 2:42-47 and 4:32-37. The itinerancy theme is perhaps stretching it because the evidence suggests a combination: apostles, et al, traveling while others are fixed in their local communities and churches. Prayer is common in Acts. Leadership: Acts 6:1-6 but esp when the apostles deflect congratulations (e.g., Acts 10:25-26; 14:11). He sees the whole narrative that leads to Acts 15 as showing the surrender of the Jewish apostles to the work of God among Gentiles.

Today, what about today?

1. Are our prayers expressing our prophetic calling or are they consumed with nothing more than praise and personal petition? (Both goods, acc to LT Johnson, of course.)

2. Is our life an embodiment of the prophetic poverty of Jesus and the early churches or is it a life consumed by possessions and more possessions? He (as a Catholic) critiques the glittering gold and grandeur of the Vatican; but he’s not afraid to point at the Crystal Cathedral and other Christian symbolic places where wealth is embodied.

3. Is our life locked in or capable of motion? He knows of missionaries — Benedictines, Franciscans, Wesleys, missionary movement — but what of ordinary folks? Are we responsive to the Spirit?

4. Do we serve as leaders? Do we take “minister” for what it means? Or do we see ourselves being served? Are we privileged, entitled, do we have expectations of others?

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Susan N.

    In a discussion group at church yesterday, a seasoned social justice activist challenged the notion that our prophetic calling *is* by necessity political; and that, not just within the Church, but also in terms of world systems.

    I have a tremendous amount of respect for this group of individuals. The collective wisdom and list of accomplishments are humbling.

    But I’m really struggling to sort out the junction at which point my faith intersects with political activism. Most days, I think that if I raise my children well, and honor that commitment, then my life will have served its purpose. Of course, I live “in” the world as well, and encounter many other people in my day-to-day life, with whom I have an opportunity to be a “light” force (i.e., my nursing home “ministry”).

    I guess it’s a good thing to keep wondering if I am doing enough. At times, though, thinking these things only causes me to get discouraged at how *little* I seem to be doing! (And doing *well* at that, from my vantage point anyway.)

    This bio of the Apostle Paul reminds me why I began to really *like* him — after reading his story in Acts. He came across to me as a scrappy dude, smart, and humble… A rare combination! I, consequently, forgive him that convoluted Letter to the Romans :-)

  • TSG

    To be honest, the church isn’t close to a trajectory of embodiment of prophetic similar to this. The prophetic currently is heavily influenced mainly by pentecostals and charismatics all tied in one way or another to the “5-fold” concept. It has undergone several incarnations, mainly latter rain influenced networks(Christian International), shepherding influenced, the kansas city prophetic influenced, and the new apostolic reformation as a term used by Peter Wagner to describe current trends.

    Montantism is rightly regarded as the prototype of those many religious revivals which become movements thanks to their disapproval of the Church as established, and to their sense of the contrast between the empirical and ideal Christianity. Starting with the promises and apocalyptic visions of scripture, nourished on the great word of Joel ii, and of the lost pentecostal springtime of the Church, the restorative minded in all ages have gone the way of Montanus and his followers. Their belief in the presence and activity of the Spirit, lead them to action and emphasizing the continuance of prophecy in the life of the Church. The evolution of Montanism has been repeated often since the second century. We don’t know our history, or notice that the issues they raise are still with us.

    The Church erected a triple bulwark of creed, canon, and episcopate against the Gnostic heresy. In opposing primitive spontaneity to this regimentation, Montanism is essentially Christian enthusiasm surging up again as a revival and as a survival. When Wesley was charged with enthusiasm by his detractors, it was in this sense. The “Phrygia prophets” spread to the west because of excommunication by the bishops, the “nova prophetia” spread from Pepusa to Rome and Carthage, the “Irvingate Tongues” spread from Scotland to London. Up until now in Church history, this “Montanist” type of prophetic movement has always lived on the fringe of the Church.

  • Tim Franklin

    I’m pondering the meaning of itinerancy and how it relates to the idea of being connected to and rooted in a particular community. I’ve read a lot about the benefits of long-term ministry in a specific locale, and have been ministering in my present church for 13 years. What does itinerancy imply for me, and for the church?

  • http://www.soulation.org Dale Fincher

    I wonder where the embodiment of Israel as a light to the nations comes into play? Israel serves as an example of a very large community following the God of Israel. If we reduce it down to Jesus alone, we miss the communal aspect (that is, societal, national, etc) and identity of all the needed working parts. Jesus lived only one kind of way for his purposes and depended on others who were not living like him to allow his ministry to happen.

    But what of the rest of those who are faithful? “Some” are prophets, says Paul. If all are poor, how does Lydia help? If all are itinerant, who teaches in the locale?

    Jesus was prophet, priest and king… does that mean we are all of these thing as well? “A royal priesthood” says Peter, refers to Israel.

    Is there equivocation going on between the Messiah’s work and ours? That is, is there a place for admiring the life of Abraham or David or the guy we never hear of who is considered a blue-collar worker in Israel who is faithful to the God of Israel and loves his neighbor but isn’t poor and is stuck in one place all his life?

    I think “imitating Christ,” in a manner of speaking, can take us away from embodiment (in this post’s definition), don’t you think? And I think that thinking of the church in these ways alone is a small vision for what the people of God are about in this world.


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