Believe it or not, the Church is meant to be a prophetic community

Believe it or not, the Church is meant to be a prophetic community July 25, 2019
Prophetic writings
Photo Credit: Samantha Jayne Bentley Flickr via Compfight cc

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.

Jewish Roots

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.

For instance:

  • 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.

 

About Joshua Lawson
Josh Lawson is a pastor, writer, and small business owner. He lives in southern Ohio with his wife and kids and their cat Gryffin, which is short for Gryffindor. He loves strong coffee and good books. If you'd like, you can support his work at www.patreon.com/JoshuaLawson. You can read more about the author here.

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  • Pottendorf

    Good message. Many people know the chief priests and scribes are the leaders against Jesus when He was on earth.

    When Jesus came as a baby, Herod called on all the chief priests and scribes to counsel him to seek and kill the Anointed One. “King Herod was deeply disturbed when he heard this, as was everyone in Jerusalem. He called a meeting of the leading priests and teachers of religious law and asked, “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?” (Matthew 2)

    When Jesus was on the cross, They were there to witness the torture. “So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. ” (Matthew 27)

    In fact the LORD already prophesied this when Levi and Simeon went into Shechem to kill the prince of Shechem. The name Simeon (root word shama – שָׁמַע means LAW) is a shadow or type of scribes. And Levi was the progenitor of all Levites including the chief priests. This prophesy was made by Moses about Jesus 1500 years before Jesus came using the story of Jacob 1900 years before Christ. Now we know Christ Jesus is our LORD God. Amen.

  • Interesting point about Simeon! I’d never noticed that before.

  • Pottendorf

    Thank you Jesus for brother Joshua. When Jesus talked to the couple on the way to Emmaus, He told them the Moses and prophets are all about Jesus. This is the type, shadow, prophesies of all about Jesus even from the first verse of the Bible. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”

    The original language in Hebrew is made of seven words. But all the translations in the church or the world have translated only six words which is the number of man, six. The middle word has been deemed untranslatable or explained away somehow by the church scholars. The early Hebraic scripts were two characters Aleph (Oxhead) and Tav (cross sign).

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/28c638b6f33b00d0e315e84deecb315e77ef21df750617a762dfbf4d016a5b48.png

    This word is made of two Hebrew alphabets The first and last alphabets of the old testament Hebrews- Aleph and Tav. And it is akin to what Jesus said to the disciple that said Jesus loved: Alpha and Omega in Greek. That is the signature of our LORD Christ Jesus. He has always been there seating on the right hand of Elohim, God our Father!

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/0287aeebf2ea5b0604791c6fc83a1c06fe9ebaf43f117ca49134d015775b3703.jpg

  • davidt

    Josh the church totally “normal”… it needs adults. Agape along with Kairos is an adult topic understood chilldishly and thus not at all today.

    How do you understand agape?

    I can explain it
    “there is no condemnation in Christ.”
    That’s a very difficult thing to do for smart folk.

    I can explain how an orange tastes to someone who has never eaten. And they can be convinced the know how it tastes by reading about it. But never can writing ever replace direct experience to eat ever.
    And someone can read about “to eat, write a commentary, and others will be reading a commentary about something read about tasting an orange. Then someone can disagree based on their readings as well. Pretty soon it’s a complete zoo! Welcome to theology!!!! It’s as crazy as phds allow it to be!

    Extended universes are wierd but “normal”. The identical problem is going on in ecopsychology today. So it seems to be a reading problem of sorts! At the University level as well at the lay person level at the same time!

    .

  • Interesting thoughts, David, but I’m wondering what your main point is in relation to the post. Can you elaborate a little more?

  • davidt

    Prophetic in context to the Bible are incredibly grounded indivduals and wierd. belief has zero to do with them.

    Mental hospitals are filled with self described “biblical prophets” and the all are incredibly ungrounded and all want to be futurists. zero are actually aware enough to understand they don’t even practice breathing.

    Prophets aren’t futurists they don’t predict the future and actually very much the opposite. The “golden calf” of the old testament is a really grounded individual in nature making a statement about civilization itself. “Your doomed to fail” they fail. Is that predicting the future? Or does that appear to be predicting the future?

    I was involved in a fellowship of rally smart folk at Dartmouth in the 70’s all starting to use the terms prophet and apostles etc. Needless to say it went off the deep end rapidly. Like a crazy person not grounded at all in just simple breathing.

    They drowned collectively where mystics and this the prophets swim. To paraphrase Jung. Read Revelations. Right at the end it warns do not add to or take a word away. No translation period is allowed. Period. The Bible is wonderful it’s rather dangerous as well.

  • Robert Simmons

    I just want to put this out here… The only “prophetic” (predictive) tool humans have that have any real world basis, practical applications, or demonstrable reality are Mathematics. You guys are cute…this is cute. I have little kids and reading your little interactions here reminds me of when they are playing with their toys and sitting in a circle making up the rules to their little games as they play. Grow up.

  • Hello, Robert. When I say “prophetic” I’m not referring to anything predictive. But thanks for commenting.

  • Robert Simmons

    So when you’re using “prophetic” what is it exactly you are referring to? Is it this “truth” you keep asserting to have and continue to fail at demonstrating? The word prophetic literally means “to tell in advance.” Or is this a “needs defined word?” Am I talking to a kid sitting in a circle changing the rules to suit his needs as we play?

  • The prophetic tradition in ancient Israel was about the call to social justice and right relationship between one’s self and God/neighbor/world. That tradition was held in tension with the priestly line that focused more on matters of obedience to the Law and religious customs. The Jewish belief in an “age to come” – closely tied to their hope for resurrection – was about desiring and living towards a day when God would make all things right. So, it was a longing for a more just society wherein human beings no longer sought to dominate and oppress their neighbors. All this is what I had in view here in terms of the church being a “prophetic” community.

  • Robert Simmons

    So I am talking to a little kid.

  • Robert Simmons

    I’m just being honest here Josh. That last bit was nonsense. You do know that apologist is just another 4 letter word you shouldn’t use in polite company right?

  • Is this the part where I’m supposed to get defensive and shoot an insult back at you?