Posts Tagged ‘prophecy’

ACTS 3:12-19

12 When Peter saw it, he addressed the people, “You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk? 13 The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. 14 But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, 15 and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. 16 And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you.

17 “And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. 18 In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. 19 Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out.

The whole temple area was a flurry over what Peter had done on behalf of a lame man who had been begging for alms by the entrance fate. Peter told the man to look into his face, and when he did the apostle declared, “I have neither silver nor gold, but what I have I will give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk.” And the moment Peter took him by the hand, the story says, the man’s ankles and feet were made strong and he began to walk and jump and sing praises to God. This is when Peter took advantage of his ad hoc assembly of astonished bystanders for the occasion of another sermon.

Early preaching did not hesitate in fingering the blame for Jesus’ death on “you Israelites,” that is, on the Jews. But beyond the Jewish rejection of Jesus, lying deeper and standing farther behind the individual choices and group actions, was the providence of God in the fulfillment of prophecy. In a way and to an extent that no one could possibly comprehend, the will of God had been at work throughout the events leading up to and centered around the Messiah and his suffering. However the early Christians understood it, the accusation against the Jews (which would become the basis for later antisemitism throughout Christendom) was not absolute. Turning from sin and receiving God’s forgiveness was a “live option” equally for them, as it is for all people today.

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NUMBERS 11:24-30

24 So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. 25 Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again.

26 Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. 27 And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” 28 And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, “My lord Moses, stop them!” 29 But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” 30 And Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp.

The later writer of what is known as the Gospel of Luke used this episode from the Book of Numbers as one of three Old Testament sources for his story of Christianity’s charismatic beginnings (Pentecost, Acts 2) – the other sources being the Genesis myth of Babel (Gen 11) and the prophecy of Joel (2:28-29). The common theme throughout is this gift or visitation of God’s spirit on human beings.

There is a tendency in every religion – even in every form of human organization – to eventually erect out of the spontaneous sympathies of communal life a hierarchy of “command and control.” Those who put themselves or are perhaps elected to occupy the pinnacle of this hierarchy inevitably, it seems, begin taking to themselves certain attributes and privileges that separate them from everyone else farther down. In religion especially, we often find individuals trumpeting themselves as divine mediators, high holy reverends whose god-appointed position makes them exceptional.

This passage comes out of a minority report which was critical of what must have been the Old Testament’s equivalent to our pompous evangelical stage performers of today. Moses was the archetype of charismatic liberators: standing against Egypt’s pharaoh, calling down plagues, and ascending the holy mountain to meet with Yahweh, the Sinai warrior deity who rescued the Hebrews and helped them conquer settled villages on their rampage through Canaan.

Moses was a stand-alone leader. He didn’t meet with committees or consult the people in deciding his next course of action. God spoke and he did as commanded, regardless the human cost in victims.  The message: You don’t mess with Moses.

But out of this minority tradition comes a story of a time when Yahweh’s spirit was taken from Moses and distributed among seventy second-tier leaders – seventy-two (a symbolic number throughout near-eastern religions) if we count Eldad and Medad who were not with the group at the time. And we need to count them, for they are what makes the story both controversial and instructive. They were not among the Mosaic Pentecostals when the spirit was parsed out, and yet they were given the ability to prophesy.

                                                                                               

The power to prophesy is not quite the same as the ability to “speak in tongues” (or other known languages) as happened in Luke’s story. And neither is it anything like what confronted the apostle Paul in that Corinthian congregation where individuals began “speaking” ecstatically in a private “language” no one else could understand. In fact, Paul puts his favor on the gift of prophecy over that of ecstasy, since it is something intended for the edification of the community rather than the validation of an individual’s uniqueness.

In the Bible, to prophesy is literally to “speak before” – announcing, predicting, or forecasting something before it happens. This is what Moses had done, and so consistently that it became his identity. He announced the day of liberation (exodus) and spoke to the people of what Yahweh would do with them and through them – or to them, if they didn’t cooperate. Prophets were men and women who reputedly had a god-given ability to foresee what is coming and help people anticipate, prepare, or change their ways so as to avoid it.

This ability can be highly coveted, as you might imagine. The one who can put an ear to the ground or see changes on the horizon of the future is typically someone you want to listen to. Unless he’s a fraud, where he might manage to pick your pockets before you even realize he’s skipped town. To put some controls around this, Christianity (for instance) has tended to elevate prophets to a special status, regulating them with education and ordination requirements even as it venerates them as supernaturally gifted.

So when Eldad and Medad started demonstrating prophetic abilities outside of Moses’ awareness or consent, the lesson was simple: The spirit of God moves of its own will and is not a respecter of titles, reputations, or positions. Just like that, the hierarchy is pulled down and everyone stands equally before God.

ISAIAH 9:1-4

But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
    on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation,
    you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
    as with joy at the harvest,
    as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden,
    and the bar across their shoulders,
    the rod of their oppressor,
    you have broken as on the day of Midian.

A prophet is one who is able to look beyond the conditions of current reality through a vision of future possibilities. Abraham Heschel has characterized the prophets of the Bible as individuals gifted with “depth perception,” where the envisioned possibilities of the future are in fact the concealed potentialities of the present. In other words, the prophet is able to discern the underground movement of history and seeks to bring this awareness to his or her contemporaries in parables of warning, consolation, and hope.

The eighth-century prophet Isaiah flourished during the rise of Assyria to world power, and his basic message was concerning the holiness (divine otherness) of God and the need for Israel to resist the temptation to protect herself against the Assyrian threat by building up her Department of Defense and forming alliances with neighboring nations.

To put her faith in such investments and strategies would amount to abandoning confidence and trust in God. “Pull yourselves together,” Isaiah urged, “and return to the faith you once had.”

It wasn’t a going back to some distant apostolic age that the prophet was advising, but a going within to the inner ground of spiritual power. Don’t misunderstand: neither was this a world-renouncing withdrawal into some sectarian fortress of ascetic practice or dogmatic fundamentalism. Instead it was a call to connect with the God who is the very ground and hope of existence itself.

                                                                                                  

Isaiah’s confidence in God, even in spite of his guarded optimism over the likelihood of his generation returning to faith, made him hopeful for Israel’s future. He was sure that God had brought this nation out of bondage and onto the world stage for a purpose, and that this purpose had not yet been fully realized.

This purpose would achieve greater clarity and focus through the ministry of Isaiah’s successor, the so-called Second Isaiah who took up the prophet’s main themes and transformed them for the situation of exile a century-and-a-half later.

One of the dominant themes of this tradition is that of light, explored for its attributes of radiance and warmth as well as its power to purify. Used poetically, light is also a metaphor for awareness and higher knowledge (fittingly called enlightenment).

The prophet looked with expectancy to the time when God’s truth would dispel the dark shroud of ignorance that blankets the collective consciousness of the world. His “land of deep darkness” is a poetic reference to the global conditions of spiritual confusion and dogmatic blindness, along with the violence, oppression, and suffering that spin out of these.

The thing about such prophet-mystics is that they know, because they’ve seen it, that the holy light of truth is already there beyond the veil of ignorance, shining in all the fullness of power. Now the veil just needs to be pulled aside.

MATTHEW 3:13-17

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

John’s baptism was for repentance and the forgiveness of sins, although the developing traditions of New Testament Christology tended to dismiss it as irrelevant in the case of Jesus. The mainline tradition had already captured the metaphor of sacrifice as the key to interpreting his crucifixion, which in turn required that the sacrificial victim (Jesus) be sinless and pure.

Consequently the baptismal episode in the Gospel narratives becomes more an ordination and empowerment scene than the resolution of commitment that it likely was for Jesus originally. In the conversation between John and Jesus there at the river we get the strange impression of a photo-op being staged for our viewing than a real moment of decision on Jesus’ part.

The important thing at any rate is that we see this as one more epiphany – another occasion where the truth of Christ is made to “appear through” the man from Nazareth. He wasn’t a mere man, but one who was chosen by God, ordained from above, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and appointed for the work of world salvation.

                                                                                                

Of all the Gospel storytellers, Matthew will make use of Isaiah’s suffering servant motif to the greatest extent, time and again making the comment that Jesus’ passion and death were the fulfillment of this ancient “prophecy.” (We put the word in quotations because prophecy, in the sense of predicting some far-off future event, was not how Second Isaiah himself intended his metaphor to be used.)

The point of it all is that we understand Jesus as God’s servant, as the one through whom the higher purpose of God’s will was fully realized. This means that not only did Jesus accomplish something of strategic and saving value on humanity’s behalf, but that in him we can see God’s purpose for humanity itself.

What is the human being intended to become? How can we envision human fulfillment? Matthew’s answer is: Look at Jesus.

This is a point of such importance that we must be very clear in representing its implications for the spiritual life. What is “seen through” Jesus is a sanctified humanity, an incarnated divinity, the glory of God in the human being – fully alive.

Beyond the several ways the story is told, whether we start from above or from below, whether its axis of meaning turns on the symbols of Pentecost, resurrection, baptism or virgin birth, it is always this image we are being invited to contemplate. But then our contemplation must deepen into faith, our faith must come to focus in decision, and our decision must move us into action – to see, to trust, to choose, and to follow.