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Jesus and Messianic Prophecy: Rethinking Prophecy

February 3, 2014

Imagine that in the far future the modern world is being excavated as part of an archeological dig by pacifist aliens.  It is important that these aliens are not merely personally pacifist but belong to a species that cannot fathom the motives of a warlike species.  Furthermore, the first structures these aliens excavate are parts of a military base.  Needless to say these aliens will be horrified by human history.  Within short order it will be impossible for any alien writer to comment on humans without using the words “warlike”, “savage”, or “violent”.  This difference will assume paramount importance above all others and will become the lens through which this alien culture understands our culture.  When they first uncover a minivan they will reconstruct it as a troop-carrier designed to crush enemies under its tires.  Squirt guns will be envisioned as acid-sprayers.  Gardening implements will be seen as slashing and stabbing weapons.

In some sense these aliens are not entirely wrong.  Humans are more warlike than these hypothetical aliens are.  The aliens really did uncover weapons and both plans for and records of war in their first excavations.  Even when they are wrong they are not always entirely wrong.  Agricultural implements have been re-purposed as weapons for peasant armies for centuries and squirt guns do imitate real guns in some ways.  So what will tell these aliens that they have missed the mark?  Design, probably.  A squirt gun full of acid will drip on your own hand before it sprays an enemy.  A minivan could be used to deliberately run people over but there are dozens of changes that one would make to a minivan if one intended to use it for that purpose.  When peasant armies have fought with agricultural implements they have inevitably first fixed some of their shortcomings.

I use this metaphor to illustrate a problem we have with the Bible.  When we come to the Bible we are often surprised by one of the key differences between it and our ordinary life – the supernatural occurrences.  We tend to read these “out front” in the text and filter our understanding of the Bible through the lens of “the Bible is a book about supernatural things”.  Like our hypothetical aliens this can lead us to miss the mark.  Like our hypothetical aliens it is worth testing our reconstructions to see whether they really make sense.

One of the odder tests I have conducted was reading parts of the Book of Mormon.  I was challenged to do so by a Mormon friend1 and I got a number of books into it (like the Bible, the Book of Mormon is itself divided into books) before giving up.  While my Mormon friends assure me that the style of the Book of Mormon is one of the proofs that it is genuine, the style was one of the things that convinced me that it was not.  The style of prophecy, especially, felt odd to me.  Parts of the prophecies rendered in various parts of the Book of Mormon are identical to sections of Old Testament prophecies.  However, when differences are noticeable they are often such as to make the prophecies more specific and easily verifiable.  For instance, prophecies in various books name Mary and Jesus, make note of Nazareth (which would have saved Jesus’ audience in parts of John a lot of trouble), and give dates in relatively simple (if slightly imprecise) language.  I have trouble believing that anyone could have put together all that information (combined with the Old Testament prophecies which are largely repeated in the Book of Mormon) and not been able to correctly identify the Messiah with a great degree of certainty.  This prompts a natural question: why isn’t the Old Testament written like that?

If one can apparently design a better set of prophecies of the Messiah then why are the ones in the Old Testament so low-quality?  One option is to accept that they are low-quality and abandon orthodox Christianity.  The other option is to insist that they are not but instead that we have been understanding their purpose wrongly.  Just as our hypothetical aliens find that minivans make a lot more sense as people-carriers than battle-wagons, we might find that Old Testament prophecy works better if we revisit our assumptions about how it works.

The simple model of prophecy in general is that it serves two purposes: first, it alerts us to God’s work when it happens in the future by preparing us for specific signs that will mark it.  Second, it is an obviously-supernatural event that bolsters our general belief in God.  This second usage is, incidentally, entirely anachronistic.  It required the Enlightenment to divide the world into our modern categories of natural and supernatural.  The first readers of Isaiah were far less interested in whether the prophecies they received were explainable by rules of nature (that they often were not all that interested in knowing) or whether they required a divine intervention into the natural order than they were in what these prophecies said about their fate.

So what is prophecy for?  Why should it be so rarely specific?  My suggestion is (I hope obviously by now) that prophecy functions as a way to discuss God’s overarching plans.  You find yourself at point X in the story and prophecy reminds you of the story.  Where are you going next?  Where did you come from?  What choices should you make?

Simply put, prophecy is for the people who hear it.  In the simpler view of prophecy the original audience of a prophecy should put it on a shelf and check it every year, or in some cases stick it in a box marked “open in four centuries” because the prophecy isn’t for them, at least not yet.  In my view prophecy serves immediately to locate the audience within the cosmic story of God’s work.  It may also provide hope later down the line as others remember that God has promised to work salvation for His people but prophecy is not to be put on a shelf and checked occasionally.

This is the major point I am making with all of these articles about prophecy: our standard cultural idea of what prophecy is allows us to ignore God 99% of the time.  Under the simple model we can imagine devout Jews in 96 BC picking up their prophecy list, checking some dates, and putting the list away for their grandchildren to check.  Instead, what we see in the first century is that many devout Jews were constantly asking the question, “Is now the time?  Is this revolutionary calling for war on Rome the Messiah?  Does this rabbi know what we must do to turn God’s wrath aside and bring about redemption?”  This reading of prophecy, one that I believe both Matthew and John engage in, is very much alive.  When a Messianic claimant comes along then one must not merely check a list but ask, “Does this person act in a manner consistent with the God Who gave us these words?”  (Interestingly, in John I believe that Jesus deliberately breaks some Messianic expectations by showing that he meets this second criterion while remaining silent on whether he meets some of the clearer ones.)

It is easy for us to see prophecy as a way to disengage from God’s work.  “Oh good, here’s a script for the play – nice, I can take a fifteen minute nap, I’m not on until Act II.”  Instead, I think prophecy is about more serious engagement with God’s actions and character.

[1] This is a standard evangelistic technique for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) who generally claim that reading the Book of Mormon prayerfully and with an open mind will result in conversion.  When reading the book does not produce a conversion the response is generally to suggest that the reader did not approach the project with an open mind which is, of course, impossible to prove either way.

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