The writer of Ephesians says that the Church is like a building which is built on a foundation that is part apostolic and part prophetic.
Christ is the cornerstone, and the apostles and prophets make up the foundation (Ephesians 2:19-20).
Now, I can easily understand why Christ is the chief cornerstone. After all, none of this Christian stuff would exist without his presence and impact in history.
It’s also not hard to see why the apostles are part of the foundation. After all, they are the ones whom Jesus hand-picked to lead his movement after he was gone.
But why the prophets? Of all the groups in Jewish history, what is it about the prophetic tradition that makes it part of the Church’s foundation? The significance of this question recently dawned on me while I was preparing a sermon for the congregation I serve.
The Church began as a sect within Judaism. of course. Some people even viewed it as a heretical sect (Acts 24:14). But soon the new community that formed around the Rabbi Jesus took on its own unique flavor. In fact, after the Gospel broke the boundaries of Jewish circumcision, the Church quickly became more Gentile than Jewish.
None of that changes the fact, however, that Christianity sprang from the womb of the Jewish faith. Both Jesus and all the apostles were Jewish. It makes sense, then, that the foundation of the Church would be uniquely Jewish.
Yet scholars and historians are apt to point out that Judaism, like any other faith, was not monolithic. Throughout history, there have been many different brands or versions of Jewish religion. Or, at least you could say there have been multiple streams of tradition within the Jewish faith.
Prophet v.s. Priest
For instance, if you read the Old Testament carefully, you can see the conflict between the priestly and prophetic traditions in ancient Israel. In fact, one of the most outstanding characteristics of the prophets was the way they often critiqued the sacrificial system that was centered in the Temple at Jerusalem.
Take this famous line from the prophet Amos as an example. In contrast to the ceremonial observances the people were wont to trust in, the prophets emphasized the importance of practicing justice and living in right relationship. Speaking in the name of Yahweh, Amos says:
I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings, I will not accept them, and the peace offerings of your fattened beasts I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream! (Amos 5:21-24)
Then, as Amos does next in this passage, the prophets would often question to whom the people were even offering their sacrifices and offerings.
Was it to me you brought sacrifices and offerings for forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? You shall take up Sikkuth your king, and Kiyyun your star-god — your images that you made for yourselves… (Amos 5:25-26)
In similarly startling fashion, Jeremiah questioned not only the people’s motives but the very origin of the sacrificial system itself. Standing in the gate of the Temple, he said,
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: “Add your burnt offerings to your sacrifices, and eat the flesh. For in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to your fathers or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. Only this command I gave them: Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people. And walk in all the way that I command you, that it may be well with you.” (Jeremiah 7:21-23)
These few examples exhibit the conflict that existed between the priestly and prophetic traditions in ancient Israel. They also demonstrate the resounding message of the prophets to Israel, which was that nothing they did mattered if they themselves were not in right relationship with each other. No sacrifice or offering for sin would make up for the festering sore of injustice within the human community.
Jesus and the Prophetic Tradition
This all gets even more interesting when you turn to the New Testament and see how closely Jesus aligned himself with Israel’s prophetic tradition, both in his person and message.
- Like Amos, Jesus lacked the formal training that would typically qualify one to speak in God’s name (Amos 7:14, John 7:15)
- Jesus used Isaiah’s language to liken himself to a “cornerstone” that was rejected by the builders of the Jewish establishment (Matthew 21:43)
- Like Jeremiah, Jesus wept over the city of Jerusalem even while he pronounced its inevitable judgment (Jeremiah 9:1, Luke 19:41)
- Like all the prophets, Jesus critiqued the Temple system, particularly any practices that excluded or exploited the poor and outcast (e.g. Mark 3:1-5)
- Also like all the prophets, Jesus was not afraid to call out religious and political leaders for their hypocrisy and domination of the people (e.g. Luke 13:31-32, Matthew 23)
In short, Jesus was apt to violate social norms and shirk religious customs whenever it was necessary to emphasize the “weightier matters” of the Law, which he described as justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Like the prophets, his message resounded with a single, overarching sentiment: Nothing you do in terms of religious devotion matters if you yourself are not in right relationship with your neighbor!
The Church as Prophetic Community
When you see this connection between Jesus’ ministry and Israel’s prophetic tradition, it is clear why the prophets are listed alongside the apostles as making up the foundation of the Church.
The Divine-human community that formed around Christ was intended to be the continuation of that ancient prophetic tradition. As such, it is meant to bear all the marks of prophetic ministry:
- Speaking truth to power while avoiding entanglement with the political system
- Disrupting injustice by offering non-violent resistance to the powers and principalities of the world
- Urging faithfulness to the spirit of the Gospel over and above the letter of the Law
- Discerning and speaking to the specific needs of the moment in times of spiritual crisis and moral decay
Am I going too far to suggest that the western Church has lost its prophetic voice? I don’t think so. I believe it is painfully obvious that most churches have sold themselves into irrelevance by embracing the short-sighted agendas of either conservatives on the right or progressives on the left.
And it shows. Everywhere around us, it shows.
Is there any chance that we can turn things around? Time will tell. With any luck, the Church will rise from the ashes of its own irrelevance to live into its prophetic calling again. I just hope it happens sooner rather than later.