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Designing maps or reaching destinations?

  • May 17, 2009
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Some thoughts about the handling of the prophetic word

And we 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)

Our feet 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.

The legacy 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 generations.

The world 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:

First of 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)

The 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.

Imagine 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.

The 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.

As the 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 aspired goal.

So much for my example.

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?

Na’aseh 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?!

Isn’t it 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“.

My concern 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?

The Lord 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)

Not until 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.

Abraham is 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.

The traditional 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.

But it 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 He?

Could it be that Jonah’s and our method of understanding prophecy contradicts the nature of the Word of God?

Abraham was 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….

Abraham 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.

Daniel 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 people.

Awhile ago 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!”

Let’s 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.

How 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?

What about 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.

After the 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.

After Peter 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?

One thought 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.

Translation by Nicola Vollkommer

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