Some thoughts about the handling of the
have the prophetic word made more sure. You will do well to pay attention to
this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning
star rises in your hearts. (2 Peter 1:19)
stand on a broad foundation of tradition – thank God! Our spiritual fathers
took what Moses urged upon the Israelites seriously: “And these words
which I command you this day shall be upon your hearts; you shall teach them
diligently to your children…” (Deuteronomy 6:6-7). Many valuable
traditions, thought patterns and insights were thus passed on from the fathers
to the next generation.
of the Reformation is the examination of tradition in the light of Holy
Scripture. Many a prophetic model of the past challenges its own claims. These
models were not able to stop the majority of Christians from being deceived by
the Nazis. Things which respected Bible teachers preached three or four decades
ago are shrouded today in an embarrassed silence. The indifference, apathy, and
aversion which we encounter today when prophetic texts from the Bible are up
for discussion are part of the fruit of the speculative zeal of past
in which we live is dark. We need orientation. We need the prophetic word if we
want to bring fruit. Muteness or confusion of speech characterize the Church of Christ today and are symptoms of the
communication problems which exist between God and ourselves. We need genuine,
Holy-Spirit-inspired prophecy which not only tells us what is going to happen,
but also predicts when and how the living God works today. Clearly-defined
guidance is urgently needed if we want to position ourselves today in a way
which we will not regret tomorrow. The Apostle Peter continues:
all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of
one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man,
but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God. (2 Peter 1:20‑21)
Scriptures are not negotiable. As the Word of God they remain unconditionally
trustworthy. What should stand scrutiny is, however, our handling of what men
have spoken and written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. We must learn
to identify the spectacles through which each one of us reads the Bible. Our
handling of Scripture becomes fatal when we put the original Word of God on a
par with mens’ interpretation of it, or even go so far as to confuse the two. A
consequence of this can be that young people, who quite legitimately ask
critical questions about the things they have been taught, lose hold of their
trust in the Word of the Living God, when all that they can see is a human
system with cracks in it.
This is not
about introducing the “one and only” new, decisive model of making
the Word of God comprehensible. That would be presumptuous. What I would like
to see is a dialogue in churches and fellowships which take the Word of God
seriously. A dialogue in which, under the authority of Holy Scripture, every
kind of thought is permitted, may be expressed and scrutinized in a critical
and loving manner.
Allow me to
give you an example.
that we are organizing a seminar. It’s called “The Right Way”. We
have 12 workshops all working independently from ach other. Every group gets a
set of directions, which go like this: “Drive on the A7 motorway till you
reach the exit for Jerusalem.
Then turn off in the direction of Niniveh. Go straight on until a petrol
station appears on your right after a few kilometres. From then on, follow the
signs to Babylon.
After a few kilometres there is a forest on the left of the road, on the right
there’s an open field. When you see two large trees on the right hand side,
you’ll come to a crossroad. Take the right turn….”
Our twelve workshops
have the job of drawing a map which is as exact as it can possibly be, using
these directions. There’s no shortage of experts, each group has its own
cartographer. The directions were originally written in Chinese. But there’s a
Chinese expert in every team too. Everybody knows where the A7 motorway begins
and in which direction Jerusalem
lies. But on-one knows the land or the geographical lay-out with which they are
working. No-one knows how long the distances between the different orientation
points are. The only thing which is clear is the destination, and everyone
wants to get there.
directions are absolutely reliable. All the participants of the seminar agree
on that. That’s why there are soon fierce discussions going on in the different
groups. All of them are taking the wording and even the smallest details
extremely seriously. In one group, an argument has broken out about what kind
of petrol station is supposed to appear on the right-hand side, a few kilometres
after the exit to Bethlehem.
Others are fighting about what kind of trees are to be anticipated before they
reach the crossroad.
seminar day draws to a close, we not only have twelve different designs for the
map. A whole collection of different “power fuel denominations” are
all entirely convinced that their particular refinement process and that
process alone will take travellers safely to their goal. And in a herd of
religious fraternities and fellowships too large to count, every knows exactly
what kinds of fruit the two trees are supposed to produce, and when. From time
to time they may have to adjust their findings, but, far from compromising
their perceptions, this serves rather to deepen them. The larger and quieter
majority of seminar participants is frustrated and feels instinctively, without
knowing exactly why, that something has gone very wrong. Everyone has somehow
become more enlightened – but not a single seminar participant has reached the
So much for
Could it be
that we misuse the prophetic word of the Bible as an instruction for designing
maps, although it was intended to be a set of directions leading to a goal?
VeNishma,” replied the people of Israel when the Book of the Covenant
was read at Sinai: “All that the Lord has spoken, we will do, and we will
heed.” (Exodus 24:7) That was short, concise, and easy to remember.
From today’s point of view the biblical sequence here appears, if nothing else,
totally illogical. First we should obey it, and then listen?!
true that we have been trained to read the Scripture first, if possible, in the
original language or a literal translation? Then we take desperate pains to try
and understand what the text originally meant and what it could mean for us,
and whether it’s relevant at all. And when at last we think we have understood
what Scripture has to say to us today, that doesn’t by a long way mean that we
really intend to obey it – because, you see, we are no longer “under the
Law”…To be quite honest, we behave in a way which is in direct contradiction
to “Na’aseh VeNishma“.
is that I don’t just read the Bible – only subsequently to interpret it under
the critical gaze of my modern humanistic values and make it fit into my modern
philosophy of life. I want to read the Bible as the Bible itself wants to be
read. God stands under no obligation to answer my questions, but I stand under
the obligation to answer his questions! How, then, do we go about understanding
the Bible in a biblical way?
said to Abram “Go from your father’s house….. to the land that I will
show you” (Genesis 12:2). As far as we can see from the biblical
text, Abram had no idea which land God was talking about. In the same way, ten
chapters and half a century later: “Take Isaac, your only son, whom you
love, and go to land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon
one of the mountains of which I will
tell you.” (Genesis 22:1‑2)
he had taken the path of obedience would Abram understand more. If Abram had
not taken this road, but instead simply woven together some theoretical,
theologisch ideas about the path he should take, he presumably would never have
found out which land God wanted to give him and what the mountain on which his
descendants would one day build the focal point of their spiritual culture, was
called. Obedience is the key to further knowledge.
for us the Father of Faith (Romans 4), the example par excellence of what
our relationship with God should be like. If we want to find out how God wants
to deal with us, we must look at Abraham – not at our own desires, ideas and
traditions. And in no way should we be influenced by the spirit of the age
which urges upon us its own ideas of what a relationship should be like. The
worst thing that can happen to us is to think that everything is clear, because
this is the way it has always been…and then, we don’t even spare a thought
about our relationship with our Father in Heaven.
way in which we handle prophesy can be found in the Holy Scriptures. “In
forty days Niniveh will be destroyed!” (Jonah 3:4) The prophet
Jonah’s job was not to preach a message of repentance. There were no conditions
attached, such as “If you do not repent, Niniveh will be destroyed!”,
neither was there a call to repentance. Jonah’s message was a simple
prediction. And the prophet does just what we would do today, were we to
discover a similarly clear-cut prediction for our day and age in the Holy
Scripture: he sat down on the slope of a hill at a safe distance from the Assyrian
capital and waited for God to fulfil His Word.
obviously didn’t occur to God to stick to His Word and apply it in a literal
way to the day’s events. That’s why, at the end of the book of Jonah, we find
the prophet sitting under a withered castor oil bush. He is angry with God,
furious, in fact. “It is better for me to die than to live!” (Jonah 4:8)
This sums up his mood at the time.
To be very
candid with you, if I were in Jonah’s situation and you, dear reader, had heard
my message as clearly as we can read it today in the book of Jonah, I too would
be annoyed. Jonah knew very well the criteria which Moses had given the people
of Israel back in the desert days for discernment between right and wrong
prophecy: “When a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does
not come to pass or come true, that is a word which the Lord has not spoken.
The prophet has spoken it presumptuously” (Deutoronomy 18:22). With
His change of mind, God had obviously turned Jonah into a lying prophet, hadn’t
Could it be
that Jonah’s and our method of understanding prophecy contradicts the nature of
the Word of God?
carved from a different kind of wood than Jonah and many of his modern
imitators. If God had come to me and announced “I must now destroy Sodom and Gomorrah!”
I certainly would not have contradicted Him. “Thy will be done!” I
might have perhaps murmured (the moral condition of those folk living down at
the Sea which wasn’t yet Dead was beyond dispute – but to define that as
“sin” is today no longer “politically correct”) – and
perhaps I would have added, “Can I watch you doing it?!?” After all,
I am a journalist and must be in a position to report everything first-hand….
wasn’t like that. He began to negotiate with God. It’s interesting to note that
the Old Testament text, otherwise so economic in its use of words, describes
this scene in Genesis 18, verse 16 onwards in such great detail. God had said
to Himself “How can I conceal from Abraham what I am about to do?”
Abraham could have gloated over this, and leaned back in his chair, gleeful
that “God is confiding things in me that no-one else knows about!”
But that’s not what he does. He wrestles with God – and there are interpreters
of Scripture who say that the Father of the Faith only made one mistake: he
shouldn’t have stopped at ten when he was bargaining with God. Then he could
have saved Sodom and Gomorrah.
We find a
handling of the prophetic word similar to that of Abraham almost a century and
a half later when we come to the prophet Daniel. Daniel had read in Jeremiah
(25:12 and 29:10) that his people would return to their land after 70 years in
Babylonian captivity (Daniel 9). But he didn’t just content himself with
this knowledge and wait for God to fulfil His Word. He “refined” his
prophetic insight into a prayer, and prayed in a way which we Christians seem
to have completely forgotten.
prayed, “We have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled, we
have turned aside from thy commandments and ordinances…” (Daniel 9:5).
Nowhere in Scripture do we find any evidence that Daniel sinned or did wrong,
acted wickedly or rebelled. On the contrary, if there is a man in history who
was full of righteousness and free of corruption, that man was Daniel! But he
identifies himself fully and completely with the wrong-doing of the chosen
I mentioned casually in a conversation that “we” were responsible for
the Holocaust and that we had to live with this historical background. I was
not personally or actively involved in the Holocaust. I wasn’t even alive at
the time. But I belong beyond doubt to the German people. I am German. A German
Christian lady who heard me say that, flew in my face: “You didn’t do it –
it was Germans who know nothing of God!”
return to the present time for an up-to-date example. I’m concerned about
“our” German Pope, who in May 2006 managed to give a speech in
Auschwitz without identifying hatred of the Jews as the cause of it all, and
now, in May 2009, presents himself at the Israeli Holocaust Memorial Yad
Vashem without demonstrating the slightest trace of regret or repentance.
Instead, he gave an academic speech full of theological accuracies. That he is
supposed to have said some things afterwards (or on other previous occasions)
which were appropriate, or which Jews wanted to hear, isn’t relevant here. It’s
all about heart attitudes. Words are mere symptoms.
differently the prophet Jeremiah handled his knowledge – above all, his
knowledge about the guilt of his own people. When God spoke about the
inevitable approaching judgement, Jeremiah more or less flung himself into
God’s arms. Three times God forbids him to intercede for Israel (Jeremiah 7:16;
11:14; 14:11) before He really goes for the tenacious prophet: “Though
Moses and Samuel stood before me, yet my heart would not turn toward this
people. Send them out of my sight, and let them go!” (Jeremiah 15:1).
Is it a coincidence that Jeremiah of all people, and no other, was allowed to
be a prophet of salvation for Israel?
Was his intercession the reason why God could entrust him with even more?
our interpretation of the prophetic word, our reaction to what God speaks in
our day and age, our character, what we think and speak, our desires and
prayers? Do they reflect the Holy-Ghost-inspired influence of He “who has
no pleasure in the death of the wicked” (Ezekiel 18:23)? An orthodox
Rabbi, with whom I was talking about the correct handling of the prophetic
Word, said to me some time ago something in the line of, “God’s threats of
judgement should drive us to repentance. They are dependent on our conduct,
they are attached to conditions. God’s “Good News” messages, on the
other hand, are unconditional” – because we can earn nothing, absolutely nothing.
Everything, the whole package – is grace!
Can it be
that the reason we Christians so often get stuck with the judgement prophecies
is because we’ve forgotten the right way of handling them? If I understand the
words of Jesus rightly, He has called us to follow Him, not to go around
knowing things in advance. That also means, however, that, in a practical way,
he only entrusts us with the knowledge which we need now, today, in order to
take the right steps – or in order to influence our behaviour in such a way
that we will make the right decisions in important situations.
resurrection, Jesus revealed Himself to His disciples at the Sea of Galilee. He
still had an account to settle with the Apostle Peter. Jesus had, in fact,
promised him, “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my
church” (Matthew 16:18). This “rock” then proceeded to
conform with great expediency to the spirit of the age. He had invoked a curse
upon himself and sworn “I do not know this man of whom you speak”
(Mark 14:71). Three times the risen Lord now asks this disciple:
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?” (John 21:15ff). Jesus asks
Peter a concrete and personal question, expects a direct answer and gives him a
mandate which is exclusively and untransmittably his own.
has weathered this somewhat embarrassing conversation with his Lord, he asks
the question which is so typical for Christian prophecy experts: “Lord,
what about his man?” – and points to the Lord’s favourite disciple John.
We too so often want to know so much about the others – objectively, from a
safe distance and without any true relevance for the path that Jesus would wish
to lead us. The Lord’s answer to curious questions is “what is that to
you?!” (John 21:22). Could it be that many of our prophetic queries
have deserved the same answer?
to close with. When comparing the Holy Scriptures with directions to a
destination, I am in no way devaluing them. No-one should think, “if the
Bible is ‘only’ a set of directions, then I don’t need to put so much effort
into understanding it.” On the contrary, if I want to respond correctly in
a decisive moment while travelling this road, it’s very important to know the
directions right down to the letter, if not learn them off by heart.
by Nicola Vollkommer