Detecting the Old Testament in The Gospels With Richard B. Hays

Reading Backwards - Richard B. Hays
Reading Backwards – Richard B. Hays

I finished reading Richard B. Hays’ “Reading Backwards” last week, and on an ordinary day, this blog post should be a review of the book. But these are not ordinary days, and Richard Hays is no ordinary New Testament scholar. And so with him as a conversation partner (more like mentor), I’ll like to address a problem that I’ve encountered within the church when we talk of Jesus “fulfilling” prophecy, and for which I’ve written about indirectly on this blog before.

The Problem

It is standard teaching within every church I have ever attended in my short lifetime that Jesus’s life fulfilled many Old Testament prophecies, and if the people of Israel had been paying attention, they would have accepted Jesus as Messiah. This is one of the “defenses” that is employed by many people eager to defend Jesus and the Bible from criticism. But many have pointed out – and any serious unbiased study shows – that the ways that the writers of the Gospels make use of the Old Testament to paint a picture of Jesus’s can sometimes seem as if these Evangelists (i.e. writers of the Gospels) are misquoting scripture to support their point. Unfortunately, many people – especially those unfamiliar with history and context of 1st century Judaism – are unwilling to consider this criticism because of its implications to their Christian faith. Some friends I have spoken to have indeed expressed this disquiet to me, but others simply ignore this dissonance in favor of a dogmatic defense of the Evangelists’ usage of the Old Testament. After all Paul says that the events of Jesus’s life happened “according to Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3), and the matter is ended by simplistically pointing out proof-texts that the Evangelists quote from the Old Testament.

But what if there actually is a way to acknowledge these difficulties, whiles still making sense of this usage pattern of the Evangelists? Along comes Richard Hays and his adoption of the method of figural reading of the Old Testament. In this book, he applies it to focus on Christology (Jesus’s divinity), and the results are stunning!! He traces far more passages than many standard proof-texts used to defend Jesus’s divinity, and so we’ll look at a few of them to see whether we can understand how and why the Evangelists (and Jesus) used the Old Testament the way they did.

Reading Backwards vs “Prophetic Predictions”

Hays sets the tone with the following statement, explaining how figural reading (aka reading backwards) is different from prediction.

There is consequently a significant difference between prediction and pre-figuration. Figural readings need not assume that the OT authors – or the characters they narrate – were conscious of predicting or anticipating Christ. Rather, the discernment of a figural correspondence is necessarily retrospective rather than prospective” (pp 2, my emphasis).

By this statement, Hays is pointing out an important fact – that the Gospels were written as a reflection on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus AFTER the actual events (in fact many decades after the actual events). The Gospel writers, especially Mark, do not hide the fact that Jesus’s life and ministry actually confused his own disciples, much more ordinary people who heard him. This is primarily because Jesus didn’t stay in character as just a messiah. He claimed to be these as well:

  1. The embodiment of Israel itself. Jesus’s usage of language regarding being “the vine” and his disciples being the “branches” in John 5 is language that the Old Testament uses to speak of the nation Israel e.g Isaiah 5:1-7.

  2. The embodiment of Yahweh. In Mt 12:6, whiles defending his “abuse” of the Sabbath, Jesus states that “something greater than the temple is here”. To make life easier, I quote Hays.

We are not told precisely what the “something greater” might be, but the inference lies readily at hand that it must be Jesus himself. What could be greater than the temple other than the one to whom it is dedicated, the one who is worshiped in it?” (pp 45)

  1. The replacement of the Temple. In 1st century Judea, the only legitimate place that one could go to receive forgiveness of one’s sins was the temple with it’s high priests and its sacrifices, and yet Jesus goes about telling people “your sins are forgiven”. Not only does Jesus become a “mobile temple”, he further calls down judgement upon the existing one in his act of scattering the tables of the money changers and driving away the merchants there, quoting Isaiah and Jeremiah (who prophesied the destruction of the 1st temple) to boot.

These and other angles were way beyond the simple category and prophetic expectations of a Messiah and only made sense after Jesus’s resurrection (a resurrection after which he still needed to spend much time explaining to his disciples like those he met on the Emmaus road in Lk 24). Speaking of these Emmaus road disciples, Hays says

The disciples on their way to Emmaus had already heard it reported that Jesus was live, but because they did not know how to locate this report within Israel’s story, it seemed a curious and meaningless claim” (pp 16).

Therefore the Evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke & John) were no longer reading the Old Testament with a simple one-to-one correspondence between what the OT said and what Jesus did – they were wearing a multifaceted lens to discover patterns of a multifaceted person that an ordinary Jew of Jesus’s day largely WILL NOT have understood. The Evangelists were “reading backwards” from the event of Jesus i.e. they were doing a figural reading. In fact, the Gospel of John makes this very explicit.

John tells us, [that] the disciples’ understanding came only later, only as they read backwards to interpret Jesus’s actions and words in light of the paradigm shattering events of his resurrection. That is the point emphatically made in Jn 2:22: “After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. They they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken” (Jn 2:22). Even more explicitly than the other Gospel writers, then, John champions reading backwards as an essential strategy for illuminating Jesus’s identity … Only by reading backwards, in light of the resurrection under the guidance of the Spirit, can we understand both Israel’s Scripture and Jesus’s words” (pp 85)

So let’s look at some examples of how figural readings explain some ways in which Jesus didn’t “fulfill prophecy”, but actually DID fulfill prophecy. Are you confused yet?

Test Case 1

Matthew is the most “problematic” when it comes to statements about Jesus fulfilling prophecy. There are about 15 statements in which this Evangelist explicitly points out that Jesus fulfilled a prophecy by a certain action. Hays points out that this has somehow blinded many readers to the more than 100 allusions to OT prophetic fulfillment simply because he didn’t put the words that say those actions of Jesus fulfilled prophecy.

Our first test case will be Jesus’s childhood escape to Egypt in Mt 2:13-18. In this test case, Herod has heard about the baby Jesus, and intends to send out his soldiers into Bethlehem to kill all children under two years of age. An angel appears to Joseph, and instructs them to escape to Egypt. And out of the blue, Matthew the Evangelist says

And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Mt 2:15)

Here my NIV bible has a footnote pointing me to Hosea 11:1, which reads

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (Hos 11:1).

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to tell you that Hosea is not talking about a singular person, but about the nation Israel being rescued through the exodus by Yahweh. If you dispute it, just read the rest of Hosea 11. So on the plain surface of the reading, good old Uncle Matthew has certainly “proof-texted” scripture to “prove” his case, just as many Christians do today, sadly. And the frightening thing is that this is no mere Christian. This is in sacred scripture we call the Gospel of Matthew.

But wait? What did I say about a multi-faceted Jesus who refused to stay in one mold? Jesus’s ministry involved him claiming to be the embodiment of Israel. Therefore if one takes Jesus’s claims about himself to be true (and that’s what after the resurrection, the disciples did), then it is a legitimate usage of scripture to quote a text about Israel and apply it to the person of Jesus, not so?

Test Case 2

We take a look at a second test case, this time on how Jesus appropriated scripture in a way not consistent with expectations of the Messiah, but fully consistent with the portraits of himself he sought to reveal to his disciples as the embodiment of Yahweh, or the new temple etc etc. Here we look at a story recorded by John in John 1:35-50.

John the Baptist had already been preaching to everyone about the coming kingdom, the need for repentance and the imminent arrival of the Messiah. Therefore when he meets Jesus, he points him out as “The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29) to everyone, including his disciples. As a result, some of John’s disciples follow Jesus, and Andrew, Peter’s brother, goes to tell him that “We have found the Messiah”. This is simply in repetition of what John had already told them.

Jesus proceeds to call Philip and Nathanael, and in conversation with Jesus, Nathanael again declares Jesus to be “the son of God; you are the king of Israel” (again, in line with John the Baptist’s broadcast message and expectation of the Jews). Jesus’s response is totally unorthodox, and not the kind of response that a simple Messiah will give.

Very truly I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man” (Jn 1:50)

Here, Jesus is quoting Gen 28:12, where Jacob had a dream of a ladder between heaven and earth and angels climbing up and down that ladder. What did Jacob do when he woke up? He surmised that “Surely, the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it” (Gen 28:17), and so builds an alter and sacrifices to Yahweh on it, calling the place Bethel aka. house of God.

What has such a weird response got to do with being a Messiah? Not much, unless Jesus is trying to say that he is more than just a Messiah – the he is the actual temple of God walking about on this earth. It is not surprising then that in the chapter immediately following this conversation (Jn 2), Jesus overturns the tables of the money-changers and calls down judgement upon the temple of Jerusalem – because he Jesus was now the temple. It is not surprising also that it had to take his resurrection before the disciples made sense of this link (Jn 2:22, quoted above). At worst a Messiah may call for cleansing and re-dedication of the temple like Solomon did in 1 Ki 7 or like Judas Maccabeus did a few centuries before Jesus. But no right thinking Messiah would call for the destruction of the temple and claim they were the replacement of it. That is political suicide, as it turned out to be.

Observations

The above test cases point out some important things that modern readers of the New Testament, especially the Gospels need to pay attention to.

  1. The centuries old accusation that the 1st century Jews should have all believed Jesus’s message if they were actually minded to just because Jesus “fulfilled Old Testament prophecy” is a very simplistic accusation that we need to lay to rest sooner than later. Jesus fulfilled prophecy in his own way because he had a mission that stretched beyond simply being a political Messiah and saviour of the world. If we are quick to judge the Jews, maybe its because we ourselves are busy wearing the same unifocal spectacles that 1st century Jews wore when reading scripture – perhaps ours being the spectacles of dogmatism.

  2. Modern Christians need to shed their pious posture of thinking that they would have fared much better than 1st century Jews in terms of believing in Jesus. If Jesus’ own disciples needed the resurrection AND the Holy Spirit before it clicked what Jesus was about, maybe we need to be a bit more humble and acknowledge that many in our day will not recognize Jesus when he shows up as he did in the 1st century Judea. Incidentally, Jackson Wu just blogged last week on developing empathy so we can understand the failures of others and not repeat them, and he expresses my feeling on this issue much better than I could have put it here.

  3. Peter’s accusation that the Jews killed Jesus (Ac 2:23) is a legitimate accusation, but should not be used to prevent us from digging into the history and understanding the complexity of events surrounding Jesus’s ministry and the “fulfillment of prophecy”. Such language is normal throughout the New Testament and is a form “corporate solidarity” (thank you to Bruxy Cavey for this one). A simple example is a President or King deciding to go to war. It doesn’t matter if we participated in it ourselves, but we as citizens of that nation headed by the king/President are deemed guilty of whatever excesses happened during the war. I’ve been around enough Germans to know how this guilt works in regards to Hitler’s atrocities in World War 2, especially amongst the generation during and immediately after that war.

  4. If we are going to be a people who understand Jesus’s behaviour in the Gospels properly, as well as the Evangelist’s usage of Old Testament, or Paul’s statements of “according to Scriptures”, we need to do better than simply quoting proof-texts from the Old Testament. Here are two warnings from Richard Hays on this matter.

    What would it mean to undertake the task of reading Scripture along with the Evangelists? First of all, it would mean cultivating a deep knowledge of the OT texts, getting these texts into our blood and bones” (pp 103).

    Scripture was not merely a repository of ancient writings containing important laws or ideas or images; rather it traced out a coherent line that stretched out from creation, through the election of Israel, to the telos of God’s redemption of the world … One implication of this is that a Gospel-shaped hermeneutic will pay primary attention to the large narrative arcs and patterns in the OT, rather than treating Scripture chiefly as a source of oracles, proof texts, or halakhic regulations” (pp 105).

Conclusion

In conclusion, there’s a reason why I can’t wait for the release of Hays latest work “Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels”, (coming out in a few days from now) where he applies “figural reading”  beyond just the divinity of Jesus, but widens it to other major themes that the Evangelists were trying to communicate about him. The amount of lessons to be learnt in this small, 108 page “Reading Backwards” is belied by its size. Thank God for the likes of Richard B. Hays, and may his tribe increase. I pray that knowledge like his spread into the church and teaches modern Christians a little bit more humility, empathy and “appropriate” love for the Old Testament as we read the bible and see the Jesus who is prefigured in all of it, not just in places quoted by the Evangelists and other NT writers as “fulfilling prophecy”.

Oh, So You’re A Prophet?

Russian icon of the prophet Hosea
Hosea” by 18 century icon painter .

One of the sections of the bible that used to get me all confused and riled up in my reading of the bible, especially the Old Testament, was the prophets. From the books of Kings with Elijah and Elisha, to the Major and Minor prophets, it had been very difficult for me to understand what exactly qualified these enigmatic, weird people as prophets. But with a better understanding of the history of the people of ancient Israel, I think I get them now, though they still mess up my brain in more than a few places. And with that understanding comes a certain feeling of sadness at watching people getting confused by the recent wind of “prophets” and “the prophetic yyyy” (where yyyy is any fashionable term like “encounter”, “movement” etc) that is blowing across the Ghanaian and Nigerian Christian landscapes. But let’s plow on, and you’ll see where I’m coming from. I wrote a little bit about this here, but will add some additional points to that in this post.

The Three Themes

Many people are referred to as prophets in the bible. Some of these include Moses, Samuel, Eli, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, John the Baptist, Jesus of Nazareth etc. I believe that there are certain key themes by which one may understand their activity and why they did what they did, before one can translate to what we should expect of prophets today. These themes are “creational monotheism, election and eschatology” of which I wrote a series based on NT Wright’s “New Testament and the People of God” here.

You see, the people of Israel believed in Yahweh as the one and only real god and creator of the heavens and the earth (creational monotheism). They believed Yahweh had chosen the nation of ancient Israel as his “called out” people with a task to be a blessing to the rest of the world (election). As part of his covenant with them, he’d given them the Torah by which they must live so that they will sustain their status of being elect before God, and also fulfill his task of them being a blessing to the world. Also they believed that Yahweh had intentions of fixing the problems with this world, and he himself coming to dwell with amongst men in his own time (eschatology). These 3 themes can be shown to be the pillars that underlie much of the activity in the OT and NT as well.

Using these themes to evaluate the prophets of ancient Israel and those documented in the NT, we get 2 clear pictures of what prophets and prophecy was about.

  1. Ensuring that the people of ancient Israel remained faithful to Yahweh as their only god, and listening to him only.

  2. Keeping the terms of the covenant as given to them in the Torah, so that they will show their faithfulness to Yahweh and will keep Yahweh’s favor on ancient Israel.

Before the Exile

Because ancient Israel as a nation had a covenant relationship with Yahweh (a point which we’ll come to later), and the nation always had leaders amongst them (either as judges or later on as kings like David, Solomon etc), it was obviously expected that ensuring that the leaders of the nation did the right thing will lead to the nation as a whole doing the right thing. This is not rocket science, and a principle of human societies well proven over the course of history. One perceives therefore a close relationship between the earlier prophets like Eli, Samuel and Nathaniel and kings like David, Solomon etc. The point of the prophets relationship with these leaders was not as people that David could consult as to know how many slices of bread to eat in the morning, but as people who had insight from God as to the nation’s direction, as well as the leader’s choices which has an effect on the whole nation.

However, over time the relationship between these prophets and their leaders became fraught with tension, as evidenced by Ahab and Elijah/Elisha. Because as prophets they were supposed to be people who were zealously guarding the nation from going against Yahweh’s and his covenant relationship with the people, Ahab’s flirtations with Baal via his wife Jezebel would definitely not sit well with them. In addition, the more these leader’s desires departed away from faithfulness to Yahweh and the Torah, the more the nation drifted to idolatory, injustice and oppression, as worshipping these other gods always led to. Being men of insight and power from Yahweh, he did of course use them to perform some miracles to show that Yahweh was still Lord over the world, but as we will see, that is not what qualifies them as prophets.

Close To And After the Exiles

Prophets like Jeremiah, Amos, Hosea and Isaiah continue the tradition of speaking Yahweh’s mind to the people. By this time however it would seem that the leaders surrounded themselves with only those who would tell them what they wanted to hear, so these kinds of prophets became hated and hounded. This went on till Northern Israel (Ephraim) was captured by Assyria and southern Israel (Judah) was captured by Babylon (note that Torah had spoken specifically of exile as the punishment for departing from Yahweh). Even whiles in exile, some of these prophets continued to prophecy of how Yahweh will save them from this exile if they looked back to him in faithfulness. When one looks at the career of all these prophets you will realize that

  1. they spoke vehemently against idolatory, and the danger of relying on other nations for their security instead of on Yahweh (which was further evidence of lack of faith in Yahweh and rather reposing faith in the god of the other nations). Their warnings sounded a lot like “love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind”, spoken by a certain Jesus of Nazareth.

  2. They spoke of injustice, of the treatment of the poor, the stranger, the widow and the fatherless. They sympathised with the downtrodden, and criticised those who had the power to change things but rather defended the wicked and horded to themselves. This was again a betrayal of their election and purpose as encapsulated in the Torah. Their warnings again sounded a lot like “love your neighbour as yourself” to this same Jesus of Nazareth.

One will note that few of all of these prophets were active in performing miraculous signs. The real basis of their qualification was whether they spoke the mind of God concerning his nation Israel, especially whether they called the nation to focus on Yahweh and repent of their idolatory and wickedness towards one another or not.

In the Gospels

In the Gospels, 2 people are named as prophets – John the Baptist, and Jesus of Nazareth. Both of these had 2 things in common – they criticized the people for their lack of faith in Yahweh, especially their constant appeal to violence to remove their “enemies”, the Romans; and secondly, they identified with the downtrodden, hopeless and desperate.

John the Baptist spoke of a coming wrath if they didn’t repent and “produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Jn 3:7-8). And when asked specifically what to do, he advises them to pursue justice and compassion, saying “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same”(v11). He encourages the tax collectors not to be corrupt, and the soldiers as well(v 12-13). John shows the 2 classic concerns – faithfulness to Yahweh and observing the Torah, including its call for justice and compassion.

Jesus is also called a prophet by many in the gospels, and for good reason. He definitely was more than just a prophet, but for the people to have considered him to be one, he must have shown traits that the people of ancient Israel already knew was common place for true prophets. In this regard, Jesus didn’t disappoint, for he showed that faithfulness to him was now equal to faithfulness to Yahweh. Also not only did he lay an emphasis on justice and compassion, he acted it out fully, identifying with the poor and oppressed, the outcast and the downtrodden, and encouraging a redefinition of who was our neighbour and how his disciples should care for one another.

As can be seen from this whole survey so far then, prophets were people who were zealous for faithfulness to Yahweh and conformity to his law. They didn’t mind how people mistreated them or hated them for speaking the truth of Yahweh’s mind about the people’s non-conformity. They did this knowing that Yahweh indeed had a special relationship with them ancient Israel, and they needed to continue to be faithful to their side of the covenant for him to be faithful to his.

Bringing these lessons to our Christian world, the following observations can be drawn.

  1. Yahweh’s people are now defined as all who are faithful to Jesus the Messiah, whether Jew or Gentile aka the church. Prophecy must therefore expend itself mostly about keeping the church in faithfulness to the Messiah, by doing the one thing he asks – taking up it’s cross and following him.

  2. The same concerns of justice, peace and compassion that characterized Yahweh’s Torah continue to persist with an even more hammered stress under Jesus the Messiah in the Gospels. Prophecy must remind the elect people of God (the church) about how faithfulness to the Messiah means being busy about his task for the church as expounded in the Gospels, same as true prophets did from Moses to John the Baptist.

That is why when Paul writes about prophecy in his epistle to the Corinthians, he encourages them to desire it more than tongues speaking (1 Cor 14:1), because it was a gift meant to direct and guide the whole church as God’s elect people. As with all other gifts, this was also a gift “given for the common good”(1 Cor 12:8). This gift then could serve to guide the church to navigate the difficulties that it will face in attempting to follow the Messiah, and to keep the focus on his tasks set out for the church. This gift was beneficial to Paul when Agabus told him of what suffering he was to face, but taking on the attitude of his master, he still went ahead to face that suffering anyways.

And So …

In the midst of all this then, I find it sad to watch the “prophetic” landscape and fever that has gripped sections of Ghanaian and Nigerian Christianity. Some prophets claim to be giving football predictions, predicting natural disasters, plane crashes, presidential illnesses and deaths, prosperity and success, marriage partners and the like. Not only have they missed the plot, they are not even acting in the play. Some are posing themselves as advisers to national presidents and governments (appealing in a flawed manner to OT prophets, not realizing that Yahweh has no covenant with the nation Ghana or Nigeria, but to his church). Others are busy gathering people to them so they can tell them what they want to hear, rubbing the bottle to reveal a genie god ready to fulfill all their desires. Our prophets are loved and celebrated as “men of God”, when they should be hated for speaking the truth and condemning the corruption, injustice and division that exists in our churches, before even talking about what exists in our societies.

With these kind of prophets, the only people who will find compassion are the rich, the only people who will have peace are those who are already soaked in violence, the only people who will receive justice are those who have the money and power to buy it. And that, my friends, is what false prophecy led to then, and will lead to now.

The Gospel – Is It About Salvation From Sin?

I’ve felt the urge to share my thoughts on the gospel that we preach for a while, but having spent the last few weeks reading T. Austin-Sparks “Prophetic Ministry” (which is freely available here), I came across a passage that reminded me of the need to put these thoughts down. There are few recognized books on prophecy, and Austin-Sparks’ is definitely a must read for those who are interested in what the prophetic gift is supposed to be all about. Suffice it to say that from Austin-Sparks’ perspective, our “prophets” of today have quite a ways to go to reach the purpose that God defined prophecy for. But I digress.

You do not find anything concerning Israel that suggests or indicates that they came out of Egypt, and were in the wilderness and later in the land, to declare as their gospel that God brought them out of the land of Egypt. That was not their message. Of course, it is recounted many times, but that was not their message, not what they were proclaiming. What was it that was always in their view? It was what they were brought out for. It was God’s vision in bringing them out. So many of us have settled down to preach just the ‘coming out’ side – salvation from sin, from the world. It goes just so far, but the Church does not get very far with that. It is good, it is right, of course; it is a part of the whole; but it is only a part. It is the full vision that is needed to go right through … They come to a standstill, in a realm of limited life and power and influence, because their vision is so small” (T. Austin-Sparks, Prophetic Ministry, pg 39-40).

The Mindset

This passage captures exactly the mindset of Israel after their salvation from Egypt to the time of Christ’s coming. The people left Egypt behind to reach where God had intended them to be and to build what God had intended to build – the land of Canaan. Although they recognized the wonderful and marvelous deeds of God in redeeming them from Egypt, God’s interaction with them was focused on making them a nation through whom his plan of redemption of mankind will be fulfilled. As a result, Jesus Christ came to meet a people who were very proud not of their salvation from the grips of Egypt, but of their heritage as children of the promises of God to Abraham. Indeed Christ had a lot of altercations with the people discussing this particular heritage they felt they’d acquired simply by being born Israelites and being circumcised. There’s very little reference by Christ himself (and in all the Gospels) to the Israelite salvation from Egypt. Fast forward to today, and compare the Israelite message focusing on God’s intended vision and purpose for them to our focus on Christ coming for salvation of mankind from sin, and you’ll see that there is something very deficient in our gospel.

In fact, I’ll encourage you to take a look at the three instances in the book of Acts where the speeches of people preaching the gospel are recordrd (the other is Stephen’s statements when he was about to be stoned which again follows the pattern, but we’ll skip that for now). Take a deeper look at Ac 2:14-39 (Peter’s gospel at Pentecost), Ac 10:34-43 (Peter, speaking to Cornelius and his household) and Ac 13:16-41 (Paul speaking at Pisidian Antioch). In the first two, sin and it’s forgiveness are mentioned somewhere at the end of the message. In the case of the third, there’s actually not even a mention of forgiveness of sins in over 25 verses of a gospel message. How intriguing! However, their focus was on how Christ was the fulfillment of all the promises that God had made to the people of Israel through their fathers Abraham, David and co. Look at what Paul calls the “good news”.

We tell you the good news: What God promised our fathers he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus.” (Ac 13:32).

Again, Paul states why exactly he was being persecuted by his fellow Jews in Ac 28:20 when he was speaking to the leaders of the Jewish community in Rome after being put under house arrest there.

For this reason, I have asked to see you and talk with you. It is because of the hope of Israel that I am bound with this chain.” (Ac 28:20)

Obviously from the above, their message was more about something that transcended forgiveness of sin, to something which God had laid down a long time ago, and which was now being fulfilled amongst them. And therefore, the gospel must be preached with these perspective in mind and with the appropriate emphasis, and then we can begin to see a true transformation of the lives of men in their relationship with God, Christ and his body.

Christ, The Center Of God’s Eternal Purpose

One of the questions which I’d never asked myself before until recently (and I bet many Christians also never have) is what would have happened if man had not eaten the forbidden fruit – if man had passed the test? In fact, if our God is an omniscient God and knows everything, why did he not foresee that man will fall to the devil? Had his omniscience somehow been outwitted by the devil? Or maybe he’d gone to sleep, like the gods of Baal in the days of Elijah.

In answering these questions, let us not forget that in the same garden of Eden where there was the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, there was also the fruit of the tree of life. As we see later, when man failed the test, God cut off access to the tree of life. Interestingly, Christ has told us in Rev 2:7 that he will give overcomers the right to eat of the fruit of life in the paradise of God. Add to that the fact that Christ as part of the Godhead, existed before the creation of the world, and the facts stated in Eph 1:4 and we have some sort of picture forming up.

For he chose us in him (Christ) before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.” (Eph 1:4)

It is safe to conclude then that God had intended our holiness, righteousness, salvation, divinity etc to come through Christ even before the foundation of the earth and the creation of man, whether sin came in or not. Christ was still the one to give us to eat of the fruit of life, and sin coming into the picture is only one of the possible paths that things could have gone to still reach that destination. We still had and have to go through Christ. This is why Paul says such wonderful things about who Christ is in Col 1:15-23, such as the fact that in him the fulness of God dwells. The Ephesian epistle describes God’s intended role for Christ as ff:

… to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ” (Eph 1:10).

This is what Paul calls the mystery that God had revealed to people like him to go out and call others into. It’s very clear from the NT that Paul was not a harbinger of “forgiveness of sins”, but rather of the glorious gospel of an eternal Christ.

Confronting the Israelite Mentality

Christ immediately came into confrontation with the Israelite mindset concerning their selection as the only sons of Abraham and therefore as the heirs of all the promises of God. God had already determined that all mankind, not just Israel, will be partakers of the nature of God (2 Pe 1:3-4) i.e. become an extension of the Godhead, and he spoke these through Abraham that many nations will be blessed through him. These promises of God superseded the giving of the Law, but the Israelites only held on to obedience to the Law as a means to be partakers of this promise. In the same way, they expected a descendant of David to come and save them from their enemies and establish an everlasting kingdom. They’d forgotten that God had always intended to be their king (1 Sa 8), and he himself through Christ, will be the fulfillment of that promise.

These and other issues were the mentalities that Christ faced in his ministry, and to these he commanded “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near”. The people had to repent from their mindset that they could somehow be considered worthy of sharing in that kingdom simply by means of being descendants of Abraham, though indeed it is a kingdom with a king – Jesus Christ. It is a kingdom which transcends both heaven and earth. It is a kingdom which belongs to God the father, whose king is Christ and whose nobles and heirs are sons (not just children) of God by virtue of adoption through Christ and maturity through suffering (Heb 2:10;5:8:12:7). This maturity was to be achieved through active engagement with and within the body of Christ – the church. As a matter of fact, Paul was not accused of preaching “forgiveness of sins” in Thessalonica when the people brought Jason with whom he stayed before the city officials. He was accused of preaching about a king called Christ (Ac 17:1-9).

Confronting the Contemporary Mentality

Like Austin-Sparks said above, it was not that Christ coming to die for our sins was a trivial and unimportant event. Au contraire, it is one of the important issues that has to be dealt with in the process that Christ is using to bring us back to the divine purpose. Therefore, a gospel that is centered around salvation from sin and from the world’s troubles tends to get the people into the pews, but they stay there and never move on into the real purpose of their being called.

It’s just like the Israelites on their way to the promised land. Whenever they lost sight of the ultimate intention of God to take them to Canaan and got sidetracked into focusing on their everyday troubles, they easily gravitated towards dissatisfaction with and lack of absolute faith in God. It is not therefore surprising that after having seen all the miraculous handiwork of God in the desert including the parting of the Red Sea, they still couldn’t realize that it wasn’t they who were taking themselves to the promised land, but God who was taking them there and that he was entirely capable of doing so in the face of any giants that they will meet there.

To those interested in Christian history, the focus of the gospel on redemption from sin can be attributed to the work of Christian leaders in the 1800s, from the years following the Great Awakening. These include Charles Finney, C. H. Spurgeon and most importantly, D. L. Moody. These men were deemed to be great preachers by virtue of their fervent preaching in hammering on sin, and driving people to Christ by means of guilt. For them the driving force was to “show the sinner their sins”, and then they would repent. There is probably more reference to the word “sinner” in each of their sermons than you will find in all the books of the NT put together, and it is their influence that has made evangelical Christianity today see the church gathering as the station to win souls in, not as a gathering predominantly of those who already believe and are supposed to be engaging one another in building up the body of Christ.

I’ll try to illustrate what the problem is using a recent occurrence with a cousin of mine who is a part of our church. He asked me how he would preach the word to a friend who he felt was living a bad life i.e. involved in drinking, smoking etc. I responded by reminding him that Cornelius was probably one of the most pious men of his time, but needed to become a part of Christ. Therefore his interaction with this friend should not focus on the particular “sin” which they were engaged in. He should rather present him with the wonderful purpose of God in calling us into his kingdom – that we may be co-heirs with Christ in that kingdom. As that person comes to understand Christ’s purpose and to be involved in a certain body of believers who meet somewhere close, he will begin to see the need and also through engagement with them, find the strength and help to overcome those sins without a hostile judgmental environment which will not even listen to him but assume that a Christian cannot be engaged in these sins.

People say that “Come and listen to the word of God and you’ll never be the same again”. I say that “Come and be part of the purpose of God, and you will never be the same again”. Transformation is best achieved in engagement with others, not with magically “hearing” the word of God.

Maybe it’s time we updated our gospel to the world. Christ is light years more than just about redemption from sin.

How Prophetic are our “Prophetic Messages” ?

There has been a general increase in the use of the word “prophetic” in the diction of the contemporary Ghanaian Christian, and the tentacles of prophecy are stretching from football predictions to 31st night watch services prophecies of “dominion” in the coming year. It seems your everyday Christian is ready to swallow hook, line and sinker any such “prophetic” message, without a whiff of suspicion or a finger lifted in questioning. However, to say the prophetic gift and working of the Holy Spirit in our times is highly misunderstood and wrongly applied is quite an understatement. And all the while, the actions of our so called “prophets” are justified by an appeal to the prophets of the Old Testament (OT), an appeal which when one takes a very critical scriptural look at, will keel over.

This is because though the principle is the same, there is a fundamental and monumental difference between the application of the principles of the Old Testament and New Testaments, and if you’d take the time to read my post on “New Wine, Old Wineskins”, you may find a lot of education on the differences. But I will limit my discussion to the topic of prophecy and it’s application to the contemporary church.

Having learnt from Paul’s attitude of stating who Christians are in Christ and what makes them different from the Jews & Gentiles, I’ll start off by making this distinction of the OT and NT with regards to prophecy as apparent as possible.

OT – God Calls a People

From the time of Abraham, God had been interested in not him alone, but his descendants that will come after him. And this fascination with Abraham’s “people”, is made very obvious in the exodus of the Israelites and his dealings with them afterwards. God has always been interested in a people and a nation – a distinct people who are set apart for his own purpose. As a result, the OT depicts an attempt by God to preserve the sanctity and establish his possession over the Israelite nation, and half the time that effort was frustrated by the same people.

This is what you are to say to the house of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’” (Ex 19:3-6) – [God speaking to Moses]

You are to be holy to me because I, the Lord, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own” (Lev 20:26) – [God speaking to Moses]

From the rocky peaks I see them, from the heights I view them, I see a people who live apart and do not consider themselves one of the nations. (Nu 23:9)” [from Balaam’s First Oracle]

As a result of this special relationship with them, God provided prophets, who served two basic purposes – foretelling and forth-telling. The former concerns things that will happen in the future, the latter is an explanation/exposition of what is happening now. Except in very few cases, and this is the important part, their work was targeted at the nation Israel, and not at individuals. The notable individuals who received instructions from prophets were the kings or leaders of the Israeli people, who were simply the embodiment of the people themselves. After all, from all biblical examples whenever a king began following false gods, the people also followed suit (in some cases they actually forced the people to do so). Therefore, prophecy directed at a king is ultimately aimed at preserving the sanctity of the Israelite nation. This is the case for the work of Samuel towards Saul and David, Nathan towards David, Elijah towards Ahab etc.

It is abundantly evident from scriptures that the majority of the work done by these prophets was towards the nation and it’s tendency to rebel towards God, and not towards individuals, granted though the examples of Naaman etc. Just look at the book of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the rest, as well as the lives of Elijah and Elisha as documented by the books of 1 & 2 Kings. Add to this the fact that God actually grudgingly agreed to the Israelite nation having a king of their own because he wanted to be their God and King, and there is no need to stretch the point further.

Also worth noting are prophecies to other nations. Here again, these are not prophecies to individuals.

NT – Again, God Calls a People

Just as I stated that the principle was always the same, in the NT God again begins the process of setting apart “a people for himself”. That work began with Christ’s promise, which is not to build individual super disciples, but to build a church, an ekklesia, an assembly. That ekklesia is made up of a combination of Jews and Gentiles, not either alone. This is captured in Paul’s statement to the Corinthians.

“Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God” (1 Cor 10:32

Nothing could be a stronger statement of the nature of the church. In the dispensation of the NT, everyone could only become a part of Christ by submitting to membership of his body (e.g. Ac 5:14 should correctly be translated “added to the Lord” not “added to their number”). To God, there is no longer a Ghana, Nigeria, Israel or China. There are three nations: Jews, Gentiles (here referred to as Greeks because of the context of the letter) and the church of God. Again, this conglomeration of all sorts of people into one nation before God is reiterated in these passages below.

You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:26-28)

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God …(1 Pe 2:9)

It is obvious from an examination of the OT and NT in the light of God’s desire for a people that the church of Christ has become the God’s Israel – God’s covenanted nation. God’s desire to extend the Godhead to encompass a people special and separate unto him is finally achieved in the NT – and it’s achieved through Christ and in Christ’s body. Interestingly, these are a people who according to Rev 13:8, have their names written in the book of life before the creation of the world. I’ll leave that for you to ponder on your own.

This setting apart of the church as God’s nation is the reason why it is quite futile for us Christians to be busying ourselves claiming our physical nations for God. God is not interested in America being a “Christian” nation, neither is he interested in Ghana being one. He has already determined who his nation is, and it encompasses all who through Christ have come into fellowship with him. This is a fundamental difference between Christianity and other religions like Islam which Christians in our ignorance try to fight.

NT Practice of Prophecy

There are various men & women mentioned in the book of Acts as being prophets. These range from the 5 prophets and teachers of the Antioch church recorded in Ac 13 (including Paul and Barnabas), Judas and Silas from the Jerusalem church (Ac 15:32), Agabus, the four daughters of Philip who prophesied (Ac 21). It is interesting to note that in all the instances where the prophetic gift was used, it was intended at directly building the members of the body of Christ together up in their knowledge, faith and perseverance in Christ – not in prophecies of a personal nature. Indeed, one might want to use the example of Agabus prophecy to Paul concerning what would befall him in Jerusalem as an example of personal prophecy, but this is a woefully inadequate one, given that the prophecy was in relation to suffering as a result of Paul’s ministry to and for the body of Christ, not to his personal life’s circumstances (i.e. business, marriage etc).

Paul’s overriding concern whenever he wrote to any of the churches was that they would be granted further knowledge and depth of insight into Christ. This is evident in almost all the epistles to the churches, where he always offers thanksgiving for their current display of faith and love, and goes on to pray for them to further grasp the “unsearchable riches” of Christ. This same principle applies when Paul talks about the gifts of the Holy Spirit in 1 Cor 12 and how to use these gifts in 1 Cor 14.

Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” (1 Cor 12:7).

What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church” (1 Cor 14:26).

In commending prophecy over the speaking of tongues in the meetings of the brethren, Paul encourages the Corinthians to excel in gifts that build up the church (1 Cor 14:12).

Paul always had in mind the work of the Holy Spirit in the church corporately, not individually. And his belief reflected what Jesus said to his disciples concerning the Holy Spirit, that He was to lead us into all truth, which truth Jesus said was himself.

Therefore in keeping with the principle that the gifts of the Spirit are targeted at building up the body, it is so starkly obvious the lack of personal prophecies in the NT church. Interestingly there is a full book of prophecy called the Revelations which buttresses this lack of personal prophecy

Nonetheless, I believe this does not preclude personal prophecies – they should be seen as an exception rather than the norm. In addition because prophecy is primarily targeted at building the body of Christ, it should be an exception rather than the norm for this spiritual gift to be applied to the benefit of them that do not belong to the body of Christ.

The Modern Prophetic Movement

Having established the NT practice of prophecy, I’ll like to reiterate some of the points we have tried to establish as the principle which drives prophecy, whether OT or NT.

  1. Prophecy is primarily targeted at God’s nation, which in the OT was Israel, and in the NT is the church.

  2. Prophecy is meant to provide guidance to the church for the future, or to explain to and encourage the church in current happenings.

  3. Personal prophecy is an exception and not the norm. In fact, there is no example of personal prophecy in the NT church’s experience as recorded in the Bible.

  4. Again, because God’s nation in our dispensation is the church, prophecy targeted at nations e.g. that Ghana will win the World Youth Cup or who will win the next presidential elections should also be an exception rather than the norm. In fact unless under matters of extreme urgency, such prophets should be treated with a large dose of suspicion.

Coming from this background, it is saddening the contemporary Christian’s attitude to prophecy. Having already come into the church through an emasculated gospel which targets our personal needs rather than God’s need (the kind Paul calls “no gospel at all”), we then come to our “clergy” with the clarion call for prophetic messages. Interestingly all these messages are only about how “God is going to open doorways” for our businesses, marriages and personal pursuits, how He’ll make us a success and cripple (sorry, kill) our enemies.

Sometimes I really feel like crawling into a hole and hiding and denying Christianity when I hear all the adverts on radio and TV about “prophetic” services and sermons. From the whole TB Joshua saga concerning our current president and his predictions on football, to the most recent craze about 31st December watch night services being places to “expect prophetic messages to enter into the new year and grasp our destinies”, this whole yearning for the prophetic has become farcical. In fact, if we truly understood what prophecy was about, I believe some of the notable preachers of our times who have the title “Prophet” appended to their names would have removed them long ago. I honestly wish I could name some of them, but I might offend some sensibilities.

There is a phenomenon in Ghanaian Christianity today which I think most Christians are not realizing. Our preachers preach more from the OT than from the NT, and yet we claim that we are liberated from the law. Are we not rather being made slaves to the law? Is it not the case that it is very easy to use the OT to support every action that we take, from calling curses on our enemies to the practice of investing in magnificent church buildings and paying exorbitant monies to our pastors? Don’t we realise that there is now very little difference in principle and practice between a fetish priest and a modern day “prophet”?

Is the New Testament standard now too hard to live by?