What is a Biblical Prophet?

And the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth.”   (1 Kings 17:24)

On July 20 we Orthodox commemorate the Holy Prophet Elijah (Elias).

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“…the word prophet (a compound from the Greek word for “speaker”) does not mean in the first instance someone who predicts the future, but one who speaks out on behalf of God – not one who foretells, therefore, but one who tells-forth (which often also includes, of course, foretelling the future). The primary and defining characteristic of the biblical prophet, then, is to be sought in the divine vocation and mission of telling and speaking in the name and by the designated authority of Another.”  (Jaroslave Pelikan, Whose Bible Is It? p. 11)

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Prophecy of Example and of Word

St. John Chrysostom says the Old Testament was preparing us for the New, God providing prophecy not only in words but also by example.  All God’s words and deeds were preparing the world for the greater thing God planned to do – the incarnation of the Word in which God reunited earth to heaven.  Prophecy and promise were done so that people would not find the great work of God to be unbelievable.  God’s actions were done so people would be ready when God made Himself visible in the incarnation.

“Now, since we are delivered from the controversies with the Jews, I shall demonstrate this to you from the New Covenant, so that you will see the agreement of the two covenants. Did you see the prophecy that was made with words? Learn the prophecy that was made with examples; although even this is not yet totally clear, I wonder, what is prophecy by example, and I wonder what is prophecy by word? Shortly, I will make this clear, too. The prophecy that is made by example is the practical prophecy, and the other prophecy is the theoretical prophecy. In other words, the most prudent He persuaded with words, and the most unconscious He informed by showing them examples.

Because, in other words, something big was going to happen: God was about to take upon Himself human flesh. Because the earth was going to become heaven and our nature was going to be elevated toward the nobility of the angels. Because the word surpassed the hope and expectation of the future goods that were to come. So he would not confuse the people with the new and paradoxical event of the Incarnation, those who then would have seen it all at once, and those who were going to hear it, for this reason, He iconically depicted it beforehand with examples and words, and, in this way, He accustomed our hearing and vision.”

(The Fathers of the Church: St. John Chrysostom on Repentance & Almsgiving, p. 80)

When Old Testament Miracles Give Life to the World

Bible story lovers can often recite the details of many of the miracles reported in the Old Testament – Noah and the flood, Moses and the burning bush, etc.  For many centuries, really from the beginning of Christianity, much of the Old Testament including its miracles were often interpreted as prefiguring Christ or were prophecies of Christ.  Take for example what use Jesus Himself makes of the story of the Prophet Jonah being swallowed by a whale:

 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign; but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.   (Matthew 12:38-41)

Jesus doesn’t discount the historicity of the story of Jonah, but sees it completely as a prophecy of his death and resurrection.  The Jonah “miracle” is actually seen by Christ as something of small importance as a historical event.  But as a prophecy of the resurrection it looks forward to its fulfillment in Christ, both in this world and on judgment day.

So, too, in 1 Peter 3:18-22, we see how the story of Noah and the flood are not viewed as events of great historical importance but rather are a prefiguring of baptism and salvation in Christ:

 For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.
Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him. 

St. Photius the Great (9th Century) gave a sermon for the Annunciation  in which he shows a typically Patristic interpretation of some Old Testament miracles.  All three miracles were interpreted by the early Church as prophecies of the Virgin birth.  The three events are miracles in their own right, but Photius notes that by themselves these miracles are really rather minor events that actually did not contribute in any meaningful way to the life of the world.  By themselves the “miracles” really don’t show the glory of God because they are rather nondescript.  It is only when they understood as prophecies of the Virgin Birth that their real importance is understood.  In the quote below, Photius has the Archangel Gabriel talking to the Virgin.

Gabriel tells her that it is not his job to interpret what God is doing or how God can accomplish the miracle of the incarnation of the Word of God.  However, God gave hints in the three Old Testament miracles which were given to help her and all of us understand the real miracle of the incarnation of God.  The three Old Testament miracles turn out to be rather small events but they both confirm the current big miracle of Christ and also help break it down into smaller events which we humans are better able to digest and comprehend.  When we bring together the three smaller events we begin to understand the real significance of the incarnation of God.  So the Archangel says these words to Mary:

“One thing I know, one thing I have been taught, one thing I have been sent to tell.  This I say: the Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee (Luke 35:1).  It is that which shall teach thee how thou shalt be pregnant.  It shall interpret how thou shalt conceive.  It is a participant in the Lord’s wish, since they are enthroned together, while I am a slave.  I am a messenger of the Lord’s commands, not the interpreter of this particular command.  I am the servant of His will, not the expounder of His intent.  The Spirit shall set everything in order, for it searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God (1 Cor 2:10).  I cry out, ‘Hail, much-graced one,’ and I praise the miracle in song, and worship the birth, but I am at a loss to tell the manner of the conception.  But if thou wishest to accept credence of my tidings by means of examples, inferring great things from small ones, and confirming the things to come by things past, — thou shalt conceive in thy womb and bring forth a son in the same manner as Aaron’s rod was budded without cultivation, acting like a rooted plant (Num 17:23).  As the rain borned down from heaven on the fleece watered that alone but did not refresh the earth (Judges 6:37), thus thou too shalt conceive in thy womb and bring forth the Lord.  This thy ancestor also, David, announces in advance, inspired by God of thy pregnancy: “He shall come down like rain upon a fleece, lie a drop falling upon the earth’ (Ps 71:6).  As the bush received the fire, and feeding the flames was not consumed (Exod 3:2), thus shalt thou conceive a son, lending Him thy flesh, providing nourishment to the immaterial fire, and drawing incorruptibility in return.  These things prefigured thy conception, announced in advance thy delivery, represented from afar thy pregnancy.  Those strange things have been wrought that they might confirm thy child’s ineffable birth.  They happened beforehand that they might delineate the incomprehensibility of the mystery: for the flaming bush, and the bedewed fleece, and the rod bearing leaves would not have contributed anything useful to life, nor would they have incited man to praise the Wonder-worker, nay, the miracle would have fallen to no purpose, unless they had been set down as prefigurations of thy giving birth, and been, as it were, the advance proclamations of the Lord’s coming. “ (THE HOMILIES OF PHOTIUS PATRIARCH OF CONSTANTINOPLE , Tr. Cyril Mango, p 119-120).

Photius was unimpressed by the three Old Testament miracles – one could easily imagine God doing greater things than these.  He feels no one who was told of these three Old Testament miracles would be over awed.  But when the events are read in the light of the incarnation of God in Christ, suddenly the importance of the three events is made clear – and that they are events significant to the life of the world is suddenly made known in the Virgin birth of the incarnate God.   In Christ, the events help explain what God is doing and how it is possible for God to enter into the human condition.  Mary does not need  long theological explanations about the incarnation – Gabriel tells her to think rather about the three stories, the three Old Testament miracles, and she will understand the significance for the entire world of her pregnancy.  The prophecies are fulfilled as well as given historical importance and cosmic meaning in Christ.  The incarnation of God the Word in the Virgin is made comprehensible by the events which prefigured and prophesied it.

Reading the Bible in Christ

The issue is not that we are taught by the advent of Christ to read the Scriptures retrospectively, but that the Christ in whom Christians place their trust and now worship is the same Christ who long ago revealed the ways of God in the Scriptures. The Venerable Bede, commenting on 1 Peter 1:12 early in the eighth century, put it this way:

He had said previously that the Spirit of Christ had foretold his sufferings and subsequent glories to the prophets, and now he says that the apostles are proclaiming the same things to them by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven.

Hence it is evident that the same spirit of Christ was formerly in the prophets as was afterwards in the apostles, and therefore each was preaching the same faith in the suffering and subsequent glory of Christ to the peoples, the (prophets) that it was still to come, the (apostles) that it had already come; and because of this (they preached) that there is one Church, part of which preceded the bodily coming of the Lord, part of which followed (it). Interpretively, then, Israel’s Scriptures testify to the Christ (and no other) who first inspired them.”

(Joel B. Green, Seized by Truth, pp 38-39)

The take-away is that the entire Bible – both the Old and New Testaments – bear witness to the same Lord Jesus Christ.  It is the same Holy Spirit who inspires the authors of both covenants.

“You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me . . .  If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me.”  (John 5:39, 46)

Blessing Water: A Passage into the Kingdom

Philip found Nathanael, and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”  (John 1:45)

Jesus and Moses

Then Jesus said to them, “These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures   (Luke 24:44-45)

And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. (Luke 24:27)

One of the clear claims of the Gospels is that Moses in composing the Torah was writing about Jesus the Christ.  Whatever insight Moses was given prophetically about the Messiah, no matter how little he might have understood it, he was preparing the people of God to recognize the Messiah when He appeared on earth.

Jesus said: “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me.”  (John 5:46)

The notion that the Old Testament, the Jewish Scriptures, are really a foreshadowing  of the reality of the Messiah, is well established in the New Testament as well as in the Patristic writers through the centuries.  That one could search the Old Testament to find evidence that Jesus is the Christ, was how  early Christians tried to convince their fellow Jews to believe in Jesus.

These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so.   (Acts 17:11)

The early Christians saw throughout the words of the Scriptures and in the divine actions recorded there glimpses of the Christ.  Nearly every action in the life of Christ was seen as foreshadowed in an event written about in the Old Testament.  Thus the baptism of Christ described by all 4 evangelists (Mark 1:9-11; Matthew 3:13-17; Luke 3:21-22; John 1:29-34) was understood to be foreshadowed in events of the Old Testament involving water.  So Roman Catholic scholar Jean Danielou writes about the notion of typology and how events of the Old Testament foreshadowed, or were types of the baptism of Christ:

“In all three cases a Divine judgement must strike a sinful world, sinners at the time of the Flood, Egyptians at the Exodus and the inhabitants of Jericho: in all three cases only those who have passed through water and are assembled in a dwelling-place will escape the judgement: in all three cases a man is selected by God to be the instrument of salvation. The three essential components of typology, the sacramental, the eschatological, the Christological are here united. They prefigure that salvation which will be finally secured when sinful humanity, secure in the ark of the Church under the leadership of Jesus Christ, will escape the coming judgement.” (From Shadows to Reality, p 286)

Every major event in the life of Christ was done for our salvation.  We better understand how these events in Christ’s life (many which are celebrated as Feast days in the Orthodox Church) are saving for us, when we fully understand the events in the Old Testament that foreshadowed them.  Noah’s ark at the time of the flood, the Israelite crossing the Red Sea during the Exodus, and the Israelite crossing of Jordan before taking the city of Jericho are all clear stories about God’s saving actions with His people.  Whatever truth they tell us about history, their real significance is comprehended only in how they reveal Christ’s life to us.  Jesus is the person in whom our salvation is accomplished.  This is how Moses and the prophets and the Psalms were written about Jesus.

The Holy Prophet Jonah

On our Church calendar the Holy Prophet Jonah is commemorated on September 22.  Here is a meditation on Jonah:

“It is only through suffering that Jonah, so bent on going along paths directly opposed to Yahweh’s plans, can be made to think again. It is only in suffering that Jonah turns to Yahweh. Even though Jonah knows all about God, can give Yahweh’s message to the pagans, can even dare to tell Yahweh all about himself, only suffering has a chance of making Jonah sympathize with the way that Yahweh runs his world. Perhaps the satire of the book is that a half-hearted prophet can convert Sin City in a day’s bad preaching; but God has to mobilize half of the forces of creation to teach his prophet anything.

If suffering poses a problem for Christians today, it posed even more of a problem to the people of the Old Testament times. Before there was any concept that God would reward the just and punish the wicked in the life to come, it was patently obvious that he should do it here and now. Suffering was therefore something reserved for the wicked; if good people suffered, it was a temporary measure to correct a fault (as in Ps 119:67 or Ps 32). Religious people may have pondered the problem of suffering, but there was no real mystery to it; the function of suffering in the divine plan for humanity was predictable, a mechanical corrective to imbalances in the human cosmos. To the author of the Book of Jonah, however, suffering had greater potential. The main character of the book is painted as a comic hero, and comic heroes are expected to suffer; slapstick remains the first language of humor. But the suffering of Jonah is not gratuitous. The suffering in Part One might be construed as a just and effective corrective to Jonah’s misguided flight, but the same construct can hardly be applied to Part Two. Jonah has fulfilled the commandment placed upon him, and still he suffers; in fact, his suffering is far deeper, for it provokes an anger that cries out for death. The suffering of Jonah in both parts of the book enables the prophet to see what God is about.”(Carmel McCarthy, RSM & William Riley, The Old Testament Short Story, pgs.136-137)

Next: The Prophet Jonah (II)

Hearing Isaiah 58 in the Gospel

Since we are in the time of the Apostle’s Fast, it is appropriate to consider biblical ideas regarding fasting.  I was reading chapter 58 of the Prophet Isaiah in the New English Translation of the Septuagint which reminded me more of the Gospel than I had ever thought of before.  There are numerous scholars today who write about how the New Testament doesn’t merely quote the Old Testament, but more often the New Testament “echoes” ideas and concepts which are found in the Old Testament without explicitly quoting a reference.

While the authors of the New Testament may have had quotes from the Jewish Scriptures echoing in their minds as they wrote, it is more likely for me that as I read the Old Testament, I have the New Testament echoing in my mind as I’m more familiar with the New Testament than the Old.  Below is the passage from Isaiah which I was reading, 58:5-12 (NETS) followed by some the New Testament passages which I heard echoing Isaiah’s words.

[5] This is not the fast that I have chosen, even a day for a person to humble himself; not even if you bend your neck like a ring, and spread under you sackcloth and ashes – not even so shall you call it an accepted fast.   [6] I have not chosen such a fast, says the Lord; rather loose every bond of injustice, undo the knots of contracts made by force; let the oppressed go free, and tear up every unjust note. [7]   Break your bread with the one who is hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; if you see one naked, clothe him, and you shall not neglect any of the relatives of your seed. [8] Then your light shall break forth early in the morning, and your healings shall rise quickly; your righteousness shall go before you, and the glory of God shall cover you. [9] Then you shall cry out, and God will listen to you; while you are still speaking, he will say, here I am. If you remove from you a bond and a stretching of the hand and a murmuring word, [10] and give to one who is hungry bread from your soul and satisfy the soul that has been humbled, then your light shall rise in the darkness, and your darkness shall be like the noonday.

The parallel between Isaiah 58:6-7 and the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-15) and the parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46) seem obvious to me with references to loosing the bonds of injustice, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, clothing the naked and caring for one’s needy relatives.  Here is Jesus teaching about the Last Judgment in which I hear the voice of the Prophet Isaiah:

Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee?  And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’  And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’   (Matthew 25:34-40)

Matthew is considered by many to be the most Jewish of all the Gospel writers and he is often concerned with presenting Jesus as not violating Torah.  Matthew however does accept Jesus’ interpretation of the Torah which is influenced by Isaiah’s Word from God.  Fasting frees us from selfishness and self-centeredness.  Godly fasting leads us to help our fellow human beings to become freed from all manners of oppression and slavery and suffering.  Thus Christ echoes what Isaiah proclaimed – or Isaiah prophetically foresaw what Christ would proclaim.  Christ accomplished in His ministry and signs exactly what God in Isaiah claims is the kind of fasting He approves of: losing bonds of injustice and liberating the oppressed.  What was perhaps unexpected is that Christ frees suffering people from bondage to sickness, sin, suffering and Satan.

In Luke 4:16-21 we have Christ reading from the Prophet Isaiah in the synagogue with another message of Christ bringing liberation to the oppressed through the proclamation of the Gospel.  Christ claims to fulfill the scriptural prophecy.

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and he went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the sabbath day. And he stood up to read; and there was given to him the book of the prophet Isaiah. He opened the book and found the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” And he closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

The theme of Christ liberating the oppressed is Christ fulfilling the kind of fasting God revealed through His spokesman Isaiah.

Next: Christ Fulfills Isaiah 58 through Signs and Wonders

Unless You Repent…

“’Unless you repent…’ is a message of hope, a message that man is able to put a limit to his sinful fatalism, that he can change, that he can choose the will of God. The mission of the prophets is to set hearts on fire with this call, to turn them toward this choice. Prophecy is from God, from the Holy Spirit. For it is not given to our earthly knowledge to see the mysterious and divine meaning of everything that occurs in the world. It may even be said that the broader our knowledge of the world (and in our day it has reached unimagined breadth), the less and less deep it becomes. It is in order to proclaim this deep knowledge that the Holy Spirit sends the prophets.”

(Alexander Schmemann, Celebration of Faith, Sermons Vol 1, I Believe, pgs114-115)

The Last Judgment (Meatfare 1995)

 Sermon notes for  The Last Judgment      February 26, 1995     Matthew 25:31-46  

  The Last Judgment is coming!

You all have heard today’s Gospel lesson from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. His teaching was straightforward and simple.

We may try to dismiss it, or say the world has always been the way it is and it will continue this way forever. But our Lord told you and I what was going to happen. He told us how He is going to judge us when He returns to judge the earth at His second coming.

And I do not want to soften His teaching in any way by explaining His teaching in this sermon. The lesson today is sobering. My role is much like the Prophet Ezekiel who said:

Now it came to pass at the end of seven days that the word of the LORD came to me, saying, “Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; therefore hear a word from My mouth, and give them warning from Me: “When I say to the wicked or to the righteous, ‘You shall surely die,’ and you give him no warning to save his life, that same wicked or righteous person shall die in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at your hand. Yet, if you warn the wicked or the righteous, and he does not turn from his sin, he shall die in his iniquity; but you have delivered your soul.    (Ezekiel 3:16-21, slightly paraphrased)

You and I my friends have been warned. The good news is that we can do something about the warning right now. We all are capable of doing the loving and kind acts which Christ our Lord spoke of.

We say that Christ is our Lord and teacher, let us now do his teaching. If Christ had demanded from us some hard labor, to carry some heavy burden, we might be able to object and say “this work is too hard, I can’t do it.” But, what Christ teaches us is easy, to care for the least of the brothers and sisters, to love, to be kind, to be merciful, to share our blessings and time with those in need. As St. Basil quipped about the blessings we have received, “If you hoard them, you won’t have them, if you scatter them you won’t lose them.”

Open your eyes Christian people and look for the little brothers and sisters of Christ who are in need of what you can share with them.

Reading the Old Testament with Christ

This the conclusion to the blog, Jesus the Key to Understanding Torah.

Some scholars and some Christians want to read the Old Testament as if it has no relationship to Christ and to proclaim the Law of God without Christ. But the basic understanding of Christians from the beginning was you cannot understand the Old Covenant without Christ.  As the Lord Jesus said to the Jews, “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf” (John 5:39). Christians claim the Old Testament is understandable and interpretable only in Christ, for the Old Testament speaks about Him, not just literally, but in symbols, shadows, prophesy, poetry, history, foreshadowing, spiritually, anagogically, allegorically, prototypically and in every way that the Scriptures can be properly understood.

 But to read or proclaim the Old Testament without Christ is to deny Christ and His role in salvation.  Thus the Orthodox don’t subscribe to “sola scriptura” as believe the Scriptures are not to be read alone, but rather in and through Christ, the Word of God.  We read the Scriptures with Christ, in Christ, through Christ, and by Christ. Of course Old Testament scripture can be read literally, but in doing so we may not see Christ in them. For if one can read the Old Testament only and exactly the same (literally or legally) with or without Christ, then perhaps we have not really understood Christ or the Old Testament, and perhaps we have embraced neither.

Christ has come and opened our hearts and minds to the scriptures – showing us how they witnessed to Him, not just literally, for some of what Christ claimed the Old Testament says about him cannot be found in a purely literal reading of the Old Testament.  But when one reads the Old Testament believing in the promises of the Messiah and the Kingdom, recognizing Jesus as the promised Messiah and the fulfillment of the prophecies and the promises, accepting Christ’s interpretation of the Scriptures because He is God’s Messiah and Son and the Rabbi par excellence, one realizes the entire Old Testament Scriptures were pointing to the One who would fulfill them and in so doing replace them with something entirely new. He opened us to the new revelation, what God had hidden previously but had prophetically hinted at and promised.

See also my blog series Reading Scripture:  The Old Testament, the Torah, and Prophecy, which is also available as one PDF file  Reading Scripture: The Old Testament, the Torah, and Prophecy (PDF).