Sunday Meditations: Prophecy and History

Recently, Andrew Perriman made the provocative statement that “distant future” views of eschatology keep us from prophetically and apocalyptically engaging with our present, which is something he claims eschatological language was intended to do.  This is, he says, a “failure of nerve” on behalf of the church, today.  All that eschatological stuff is end of history stuff, many might say, but this would be in contrast to Jesus and Paul who used such language to describe the trajectory of their present circumstances that would work out in the future, but in the near future.  Their eschatology was a description of current events and where these events would lead, their hopes for God’s intervention, and what the ramifications were for life now in light of these soon to come events.

I largely agree with that, but I’ve had a few different conversations recently that remind me that the key premise there is highly contested in Christian circles: was the eschatology and apocalyptism of the early church primarily about their relatively immediate future expectations of what would play out on the world stage, or were they “end of the world” expectations slated for some indeterminate point in the future?

In order to give an example for us to consider, I’d like to turn to the Old Testament – for several reasons, really, but the most important one to this discussion is that the Old Testament has prophetic and apocalyptic descriptions of things that have already happened.

One example I like to use is Isaiah 34 – a prophecy of the destruction of Edom:

Draw near, O nations, to hear;
    O peoples, give heed!
Let the earth hear, and all that fills it;
    the world, and all that comes from it.
For the Lord is enraged against all the nations,
    and furious against all their hordes;
    he has doomed them, has given them over for slaughter.
Their slain shall be cast out,
    and the stench of their corpses shall rise;
    the mountains shall flow with their blood.
All the host of heaven shall rot away,
    and the skies roll up like a scroll.
All their host shall wither
    like a leaf withering on a vine,
    or fruit withering on a fig tree.

When my sword has drunk its fill in the heavens,
    lo, it will descend upon Edom,
    upon the people I have doomed to judgment.
The Lord has a sword; it is sated with blood,
    it is gorged with fat,
    with the blood of lambs and goats,
    with the fat of the kidneys of rams.
For the Lord has a sacrifice in Bozrah,
    a great slaughter in the land of Edom.
Wild oxen shall fall with them,
    and young steers with the mighty bulls.
Their land shall be soaked with blood,
    and their soil made rich with fat.

 

For the Lord has a day of vengeance,
    a year of vindication by Zion’s cause.
And the streams of Edom shall be turned into pitch,
    and her soil into sulfur;
    her land shall become burning pitch.
Night and day it shall not be quenched;
    its smoke shall go up forever.
From generation to generation it shall lie waste;
    no one shall pass through it forever and ever.
But the hawk and the hedgehog shall possess it;
    the owl and the raven shall live in it.
He shall stretch the line of confusion over it,
    and the plummet of chaos over its nobles.
They shall name it No Kingdom There,
    and all its princes shall be nothing.
Thorns shall grow over its strongholds,
    nettles and thistles in its fortresses.
It shall be the haunt of jackals,
    an abode for ostriches.
Wildcats shall meet with hyenas,
    goat-demons shall call to each other;
there too Lilith shall repose,
    and find a place to rest.
There shall the owl nest
    and lay and hatch and brood in its shadow;
there too the buzzards shall gather,
    each one with its mate.
Seek and read from the book of the Lord:
    Not one of these shall be missing;
    none shall be without its mate.
For the mouth of the Lord has commanded,
    and his spirit has gathered them.
He has cast the lot for them,
    his hand has portioned it out to them with the line;
they shall possess it forever,
    from generation to generation they shall live in it.

In the first bit, we have the image of all the “host of heaven” withering away and the sky being rolled up like a scroll.  When God has finished destroying the sky, he will level a sword against Edom that will kill them and their livestock.  Their rivers will be turned into pitch and the soil to sulfur and the land will be turned into a burning wasteland whose fires will never go out.

Edom was destroyed in the sixth century B.C. by Babylon, not too long after this prophecy was likely made (somewhere between the mid-700s and 600s B.C.).  After this, the Edomites who remained were pushed out of territories where they’d settle, harassed by other nations and armies, becoming a small, wandering people who took the wrong side in the Jewish Wars and just disappeared as a distinct people after that.

However, the land that Edom occupied is not currently on fire.  Smoke is not going up from her.  The rivers are not pitch and the soil is not sulfur.  Also, the sky was not destroyed in the sixth century B.C.  Also, there was nothing overtly supernatural about the whole thing – it was another army at work.

So, the way I see it, we have three, basic options:

One, the prophecy is wrong.  People expected God would tear the sky apart and turn Edom into a sulfuric, flaming wasteland for ever, and this clearly didn’t happen.  This just shows how gullible ancient people were and is evidence for how unreliable the Bible is, or at least how unreliable anything like “prophecy” is.

Two, the prophecy is correct but has not happened yet.  At some point in the future, Edom will be reestablished and God will destroy it in a manner that more literally matches the imagery – perhaps in a nuclear war.  We should all be on the lookout for a new Edom or current events that might somehow tie to the restoration of Edom, as this will be a sign of the end times.

Three, the prophecy is correct, but the imagery is not meant to be understood as a literal description of what would happen.  Rather, it vividly communicates the thorough extent of Edom’s destruction and the impact this would have on the world stage.  Edom was destroyed and their power was shattered and the world for them and their neighbors was never the same after that.  The literal descriptions didn’t happen, but nobody was literally expecting them to happen in the first place.  They are meant to describe world-shaking political events, but ones that do not involve the sky being destroyed or something set on fire forever, and the somewhat more mundane versions of these things actually happened.

Personally, I find option three to be likely.  We had a prophecy full of destroyed skies and stars killed with a sword and eternal fires and rivers of pitch – and in history, this nation was more or less wiped off the board as a power within a hundred years or two of the prophecy and eventually dwindled into nobody.  The prophecy was imagery describing that event and its impact.

If this is so, then it stands to reason that the apocalyptic perspectives of Jesus and Paul and John (and Ringo) would work in a similar way.  They are speaking of things within the radar of a few hundred years that occur on the world stage, and they are using images that are not necessarily intended to communicate a literal play by play of events that could only describe the end of the world.  They are doing this so that the people who are hearing them would understand their own times, have hope for the future, and know what they needed to do right now as they lived with those expectations.

If this is so, then why aren’t we doing it?

I know that there’s some leeriness to this because of all the end of the world predictions that have not come to pass or hyper-charismatic predictions about Donald Trump that he would cure cancer and shoot lasers from his eyes.

But keep in mind that prophecy in the Bible is neither used to discuss the end of the world nor unmistakably supernatural events.  They are used to discuss the threats that the people of God face in their age and how they believe God will respond to those threats and what practical implications this has for how they conduct themselves in the world.  The hopes for the future are used to shape an engagement with the present, which is the whole reason eschatological teachings are given to a people – they are meant to do something with it, and it’s not holing up in a bunker waiting for the world to end.

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Who Is the Son of Man: Matthew 16:13-20

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

Matthew 16:13-20 (NRSV)

I may be making a mistake biting off this entire passage for one post.  On the other hand, I’d like to get through Matthew before I turn 80, so here we go!

Because of our theologizing, there’s one part of this narrative we tend to get wrong from the get go.  Because we identify Jesus as “the Son of Man,” we read this passage as a contrast between who people in general say Jesus is and who Jesus’ disciples say that he is.  But that’s not what Jesus is asking.

Jesus begins by asking his followers who people say the identity of the “Son of Man” is.  The Son of Man, while sometimes just being a poetic designator for a human being, is an apocalyptic figure featuring most prominently in Daniel 7.  Daniel has a vision of four, terrible empires in the form of beasts who rule the world, then the “Ancient of Days” sets up thrones, takes up rule, and destroys the empire who rules the world.  But he doesn’t keep this rule all to himself:

I saw in the night visions,

and behold, with the clouds of heaven
there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion
and glory and a kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one
that shall not be destroyed.

Daniel 7:13-14 (ESV)

Daniel 7 clearly identifies the “one like a son of man” as the “saints of the Most High” more than once.  It’s neither the first nor the last time that faithful Israel is represented by a single figure in prophetic imagery.

At the same time, rabbinical commentary on the image points out that the use of the phrase “son of man” means that a human being will appear representative of these saints – the King Messiah.  This is how the image is used in the Similitudes of Enoch and in 2 Esdras – a figure who is an individual who is the ruler and representative of the faithful.

Needless to say, people would have their views on who this person would be, and that’s what Jesus is asking in his initial question.  “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” and he gets back a list of opinions that people have as to who this figure might turn out to be.  Here, we can tell that Jesus is not asking who people say he is, because while we might be able to understand Jesus as a revisitation of Elijah or Jeremiah, it would be bizarre for people to be saying that Jesus is John the Baptist, since they were contemporaries.

However, Jesus probably intends to tie the “Son of Man” identity to himself with his follow-up question: “But who do you say that I am?”  You’ve told me who people are saying the Son of Man might be; who do you think I am, while we’re on the subject?

In an uncharacteristically insightful move, Peter makes the connection right away.  “YOU are the Messiah,” he says, identifying Jesus as the Son of Man.  Jesus is the one to whom God will give rulership when God overthrows the fourth beast/empire.  Jesus is the saint of the Most High par excellence whose exaltation will mean that the saints receive the kingdom.  Matthew’s Gospel is full of this very theme.

Mark’s Gospel stops there, but Matthew includes the phrase “the Son of the living God.”

In Caesarea Philippi, where this story takes place, was a temple to Augustus that was built by Herod.  Josephus records that Herod built three such temples, apparently in response to authority granted to Herod over regions that had been Parthian.  These temples were built to worship Augustus as a living god.  Much like the confession that, “Jesus is lord,” is a challenge to Caesar’s authority, so is this phrase in Peter’s confession.  Augustus is not the living God; Israel’s God is the living God, and Jesus is His true Son.  It’s a challenge both to Augustus’ divinity and the authority of Tiberias (and possibly Caligula) who would succeed him.

This probably explains why Jesus is very gratified by Peter’s confession but also keen to have everyone keep it to themselves.  This has happened several times in Matthew’s Gospel, and I believe it makes sense that Jesus is trying to forestall premature persecution.  If you go around first century Judea saying Jesus is the Son of Man of Jewish eschatological expectations and the Son of God in opposition to Roman authorities, you are inviting swift retribution.  Both Jewish and Roman authorities would consider those claims blasphemous and treasonous, and both you and your disciples should be put down before your movement gets out of control.  This is, in fact, what eventually happened.

Here is where Jesus calls Simon “Peter,” which is the Greek name for “rock,” and declares that Peter is the rock on which Jesus will build his church.  I think it is highly unlikely that the “rock” Jesus refers to is Jesus himself or Peter’s confession – those are exegetical maneuvers largely designed to undermine the claims of the Roman Catholic church.  We are quite fine recognizing that Jesus deliberately calls Simon “the rock” and says “upon this rock, I will build my church” without also accepting papal authority and attached claims.  We ought not to let later controversies control our reading of Scripture.

But keeping in mind the narrative, the focus is on Peter being a steward in a time of crisis of what Jesus has begun to do.  This time of crisis will involve persecution of the faithful in the near term, but Jesus is constantly thinking about the upcoming destruction of Jerusalem.

Our first indicator is Jesus calling Simon the “rock,” which is an Old Testament image commonly used for God’s protection of Israel in times of trouble.  Deuteronomy 32, for instance, makes a great deal of this image, and verse 30 is one that I use in my prayers to this day: “How could one have routed a thousand, and two put a myriad to flight, unless their rock had sold them, the Lord had given them up?”  Jesus has, in Matthew, already used this metaphor specifically to talk about believing and following him as a way to make it safely through the upcoming catastrophe about to befall Israel.

Our second indicator is the bit about the “gates of Hades.”  A lot of theological hay has been made out of this portion of Jesus’ teaching, but the “gates of Hades” is an Old Testament image that simply means the proximity of death (just a couple out of several examples: Psalm 107:18 and Isaiah 38:10).  Death is near to the faithful, but it will not “prevail” over the church.  In other words, the faithful who follow Jesus won’t be overcome by the death that is so near them – the impending destruction of Jerusalem.

Our final indicator is Jesus giving the keys of the kingdom to Simon/Peter for opening and shutting the kingdom.

This image comes to us from Isaiah 22 where, lo and behold, Jerusalem is about to be destroyed.  This impending destruction was supposed to bring about repentance in Israel, but instead, the people decided to wine and dine themselves in comfort.

I want to pause here, for a minute, to contrast this with Jonah and Nineveh.  Jonah announces to Nineveh that God will destroy their city, and it produced nationwide repentance that averts their fate.  Jesus has already contrasted Nineveh with the Israel of his day.  It is possible this is why Jesus chooses to refer to Simon, here, as “son of Jonah.”

But getting back to Isaiah, in the midst of a Jerusalem that is about to destroyed and a people who refuse to repent, God rebukes Shebna who is the steward of Israel, saying that He will remove him from office (and uses a great image of God whirling around and throwing him away like a track and field hammer).  In his place, God will do this:

On that day I will call my servant Eliakim son of Hilkiah, and will clothe him with your robe and bind your sash on him. I will commit your authority to his hand, and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and no one shall shut; he shall shut, and no one shall open.  I will fasten him like a peg in a secure place, and he will become a throne of honor to his ancestral house. 

Isaiah 22:20-23 (NRSV)

God will replace the unfaithful rulers with a faithful one who will have the authority of the house of David.  However, all the sins of Israel will be laid on this servant, and the peg will fall, and Jerusalem will still be destroyed.  This image of being able to open and shut with the authority of the house of David is specifically used to describe Jesus in Revelation 3:7.

Jesus, here, is granting Peter this authority.  Jesus has arisen at a time of impending crisis for Jerusalem.  Israel is largely unrepentant.  The stewards are being replaced.  Jesus will soon fall, bearing the weight of Israel’s sins, but he passes this stewardship of the faithful over to Peter.

John captures this sentiment in a different way:

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

John 21:15-19 (NRSV)

And Peter, for his part, passes this stewardship to the faithful leaders of the early church:

Now as an elder myself and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as one who shares in the glory to be revealed, I exhort the elders among you to tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it—not for sordid gain but eagerly. Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock. And when the chief shepherd appears, you will win the crown of glory that never fades away. 

1 Peter 5:1-4 (NRSV)

And this brings me to today.

God has replaced the corrupt leaders of His people with the Lord Jesus, who loves His people with a thoroughly self-sacrificial love – a great King who will put Himself between the sheep and the wolves to keep them safe in her time of crisis.  And this King has commissioned apostles after Him to do the same, and they have commissioned elders after them to do the same.

There is still a church, there are still elders, and there are still crises.

And here we see in the cross a fundamental dynamic of what it means to have authority in the Kingdom of God – it means sacrificing your own life for the saving of the people under your authority.

See what a contrast this is with the degenerating leadership of Israel leading up to Roman occupation!  Their leaders used their position for their own comfort and welfare, growing rich while the poor they should have been be caring for were deprived.

Jesus, by contrast, shows another way – a way that has God’s approval – a way of giving up your own life for the welfare of the people under your authority.  Your authority has been given for their welfare, not yours.  Their prosperity, not yours.  If someone under your authority is struggling to pay their grocery bill and you are adding a wing to your house, God’s, to quote Johnny Cash, gonna cut you down.

Can you imagine the transformative power this dynamic would have for the church?  Our families?  Our corporations?  Our nations?  If leaders would look at their own comfort and prosperity and consider it a failure if their followers were suffering?  If authority asked, “How can I use my power for the welfare of the people under me?”

At minimum, those who would be leaders in Christ’s church ought to have the same mind in them that was in Christ Jesus.  What crises does the church face in our present day, and how can leadership safely bring us through those crises even at the expense of their own welfare?  That is what it means to be a leader in the church.  That is what it means to have the keys of the kingdom.

It isn’t your church, after all.  It belongs to Jesus.  You’re taking care of it for a time.  What sort of accounting will you give of yourself when that time is up?

Consider This

  1. What are the crises that face the church in the present age?  What would it look like for leaders to respond to those crises in ways that ensured the welfare of the church?
  2. We confess that Jesus is Lord over the church.  What does this look like, practically speaking?  What impact does that lordship have in the present, lived-out experience of the church?