Wednesday, August 10, 2011

about prophetic, priestly and kingly gifts

At a certain website for a certain Christian organization I came across the following:

•Prophets: God’s messengers to his people
•Priests: Mediators who approach God on behalf of his people
•Kings: Rulers who govern God’s people
With Jesus established as Senior Pastor for all eternity, at xxxxxxxxx we’ve decided to follow his example and organize our human leadership according to the key roles he fulfills:

•Prophet – The people must be taught the Bible.
•Priest – The people must be loved.
•King – The people must be led.

Well, it's fairly normal for Baptists to say that the "prophetic" role involves teaching people the scriptures. This was not necessarily what prophets did. Consider the book of Ezra/Nehemiah where no prophets play any significant role in teaching the people at all. Priests taught the Law of Moses. Prophets in the Pentateuch are never described as having a normative role in God's people at all. They come and go at the Lord's bidding, if they are true prophets, and they are brought forth for particular challenges and occasions. This fundamental misrepresentation of what prophets did (or might do if they existed in the present) is typical of a lazy approach in evangelical Christian thought. It's disappointing to see it so often continued.

Priests did serve as mediators but Moses, who was not a priest, frequently mediated on behalf of Israel to allay the wrath of Yahweh. Aaron, the priest, was ironically the one who encouraged and abetted Israel's idolatry.

But the king, you know the thing about Israelite kings is that they weren't exactly the people who led the people. Old Testament scholars have pointed out that Israelite governance had some checks and balances. The king led the military and went to war against Israel's enemies but there was no king at the time the Torah was given. Clearly a kingly role was consider optional during the administration of the Torah prior to David. The Mosaic law refers to priests, kings and prophets but only the priestly and prophetic roles were established during the exodus.

It was more accurate to say priests led Israel in spiritual matters. Kings led military ventures when necessary but those ventures were undertaken by judges. Saul was to be beholden to the prophet/judge Samuel. The king had to be accountable to the prophet, not the other way around. The priest, prophet, and king all played significant roles in keeping each other in check. If the king were to go to war he needed to consult a priest to enquire of the Lord. If a priest were to ally himself with a king he needed to consult a prophet to discern whether this was a wise idea. If a prophet were to prophesy falsely or lead the people astray the priest and the king were supposed to put an end to that prophetic ministry.

The Kuyperian jargon that would apply for this kind of quasi-constitutional theocracy might be "sphere sovereignty". Neither a prophet, nor a priest, nor a king was to arrogate for himself the roles or responsibilities delegated to the other offices. A king could not truly say his role was to lead God's people at all. The king's obligation was to study the book of the Law and to fight battles on behalf of the Lord's people. Saul's wickedness as a king lay not merely in his reluctance to actually obey God's commands through Samuel to fight. Saul was also willing to take up priestly roles that were being handled by Samuel. Samuel was a prophet and a priest who served the role of judge as well. We can imagine Samuel was unhappy with having to appoint a king but that is a digression, perhaps, for another time.

Now even the most cursory examination of the prophets across the Torah and well, the Prophets, reveals that what the prophets were doing was NOT teaching God's people the scriptures. Not exactly. What the prophets did was challenge the priests and kings and people to obey what they already acknowledged (sometimes) to be scriptures. Prophets would also reveal things inherent within the scriptures that were not obvious to others, or that were ignored, or those aspects of scriptures that were being disobeyed or even straight up falsified by priests. There is a prophet who warned that even having the scriptures would be of no use to Israel because the lying scribes and priests had transformed even the Scriptures themselves into a lie!

This is important to remember. Moses may be described as a prophet who brought God's Law, so, yes, prophets can and have played a role in bringing the words of the Lord to God's people. But the normative role of the prophet was not to teach people the scriptures. Priests were to instruct the people. Deuteronomy 18 promises that the Lord would raise up a prophet such as Moses. Now, of course, what Christians automatically do is jump straight to Jesus and say this is a prediction of the coming of Jesus. Yes, there is that meaning, too, and we do well to meditate on it. But consider the literary context of Deuteronomy 18.

The Lord is warning through Moses that God's people not imitate the wickedness of the nations around them, specifically by avoiding soothsaying and other forms of sorcery. The Lord promises to raise up a prophet so that a person who wishes to enquire of Yahweh may do so without resorting to augury, spells, soothsaying, child sacrifice, or other methods of obtaining knowledge forbidden by Yahweh. There's also that bit about the Urim and the Thummim but we obviously do not have those.

So we've established that the role of the prophet was to clarify the will of the Lord on those things not discussed in the Torah; this "should have" prevented the temptation to resort to witchcraft, sorcery, divination and other stunts God's people would be tempted to assimilate from the nations living in Canaan. But at this point it is vital to point out that no prophets were mentioned in Ezra/Nehemiah. It is also remarkably telling that after the Second Temple was built there was no manifestation of the Spirit of God filling the place as described for the consecration of the First Temple built by Solomon.

In fact we are told that people who had seen the old Temple and saw the new Temple wept. The new one was not as good as the old. Some commentators, eager to find something wrong with people who wept at the new temple, have opined on how lame those old fogeys were but what if this is not clearly what we're being told? What if those old-timers who wept did so because they were not seeing any signs that the Lord was manifesting among His people in His Temple in the way they had heard. They were not, as the modern lingo goes, "feeling it" and they realized that something was missing. In fact some things were missing, there's no sign that prophets were afoot. The Law in one passage can be read as either saying "when" or "if" a prophet arises to handle their ministries in particular ways. This should lead us to be cautious about assuming that every generation of Christians must have a prophetic role or office. It should also have us be cautious about those pastors who presume that because they are pastors they have prophetic giftings and roles. Pastors tend to have delusions of grandeur about that, just as self-appointed self-described prophets tend to have their own delusions of grandeur.

Moses told Joshua that he wished that all of God's people were prophets with the spirit of God resting on them. The prophets eventually promised that the Lord would, in fact, pour out His spirit on all His people. Bet it doesn't feel like you have that spirit in you a lot of the time, does it? Nevertheless, if you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ it is because the Spirit has given you faith.

Now all of this rambling has a point, which is to say that in order to live out the roles and functions of a prophet or a priest or a king among God's people we have to properly understand what those roles were and understand, further, if those roles are necessarily delegated to God's people today. A preacher/pastor/bishop is not really a prophet. Catholics and Orthodox have properly retained the understanding that the ones among God's people who teach His people the scriptures is the priest. It was only after Protestants got hung up about particular applications of the priesthood of all believers that American evangelical Protestants would begin to prefer to have their preachers think of themselves as prophets rather than priests. If you're a preacher you're more a priest than a prophet. It is possible for prophet/priests to be around (Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel and Samuel, for instance) but these would be hard to describe as normative.

But if a prophet was not always present in God's people and Jesus is the greatest prophet how, then, can Protestant pastors appropriate for themselves the title or role of "prophet"? Priests and scribes taught the scriptures as given but it was prophets who shared insights from the Lord that were not already given in such scriptures as were received. Moses was the prophet who went to the Lord and received the Torah/the Law. Jesus gave us the proper interpretation and direction of the Law. If as Deuteronomy reveals prophets were given so people would not turn to divination then temptation Israelites would face would be to get extra knowledge, insight or wisdom about things that troubled them, chiefly things that the Torah itself did not directly address or perhaps even address at all.

Now here permit me yet another digression. What does that observation above tell us about the nature of the scriptures? Yes, we can say how the Bible deals with everything one could possibly face in life. Yes, there's a sense in which that is true, but the Bible is never presented to us as a divine set of dice. We may face decisions that the scripture does not directly address or discuss. Does this mean there is no way the scriptures can speak to that issue? No, but we cannot downplay the significance of the Deuteronomic concession that prophets needed to exist at any point in the history of God's people.

Let me put it this way, the cessationist can look at Deuteronomy 18 and consistently say that there are no prophets anymore. Christ accomplished for us what all the prophets failed to do. For this reason we have no need of prophets not because there was no need for, say, Agabus, but because where salvation is concerned and the fullness of God's will are concerned we have the last word in the Word Himself. Anyone who takes the role of a prophet who affirms that scriptures cover everything has to concede that he or she doesn't quite believe this. He or she must grant a belief that he or she has access to divine oracles others may not. The Montanist risks inherent in this approach I trust I don't have to explain.

Turning my attention to the role of the king, it makes no sense to speak of kings as though kings were the formal leaders of God's people. It is already abundantly clear throughout the scriptures that the king ended up playing two roles. The king served as military leader and the king also ended up being the one who appointed judges and bureaucrats to ensure civil disputes were adjudicated. It was David's failure to establish such a network that allowed Absalom to form his insurrection. That the king's role was to see to military and civil matters meant that even a wicked king who did only evil in the sight of the Lord could, nevertheless, be a brilliant military leader and tactician who secured the borders of God's people. This is not something most theologians and Bible scholars bother to discuss but the military history of Israel is something to consider.

If we trust that the Lord raises and deposes leaders as He wills then we must grant that not all leaders were raised up because they were righteous men, sometimes unrighteous men were raised up because despite or through their wickedness they had qualities God had in mind for reasons we won't be able to discern in our lives. This should also give anyone appointed any authority a massive dose of humility. You do not know, dear leader, that you got the leadership position you got either because you deserve it or because you are a good person. God has raised up many thoroughly wicked leaders since the dawn of humanity.

All of this is to say that if you misunderstand or misrepresent what the three roles in God's people were actually appointed for then it becomes that much more difficult for you to live them out or embody them in any meaningful way among God's people. A king was not there to rule God's people. A king was there to serve and protect God's people from military enemies! The king was there to form even a priestly role for God's people but in the military sphere. The priest was there to look after the education and purity of God's people to avoid improper methods of worship. The prophets, when they were available, were those to whom the people could turn when they might otherwise be tempted to soothsaying, spells, and other forms of witchcraft or idolatry to obtain special knowledge about how to obtain success in life.

It is critical to repeat here that prophets were not unambiguously promised for every generation of Israelites but their role was explained. It is also critical to repeat that the presence of a prophet in ancient Israelite would and did indicate that the priests, the king, and the people were deficient either in their understanding of the scriptures or that they were going against what they clearly understood. In other words, a priest would be someone to educate you about the Lord's will in the Torah if you were ignorant of it, and a prophet would be someone to educate you about the Lord's will that the Torah did not address but also to confront you about your witting or unwitting disobedience to what was in the Torah you were supposed to already know about.

We should be cautious about describing ourselves as having kingly, priestly, or prophetic gifts. This can become an invitation to vanity. How, precisely, do we know that we have kingly gifts? Because we run things? Because we have a gift for administration? Many Christian pop culture artifacts describing spiritual gifts are little more than a Christianized variation of Meiers-Briggs personality tests. Frequently these things are little more than methods to divine what one is already doing and to extrapolate from that. Yet if the Spirit of God blows where it will and you can hear its sound but not see where it is going and so it is with all those born of the Spirit, then perhaps what our spiritual gifts are is less clear. The Spirit may appoint people with gifts at one time and not another, for one task and not another.

One of the errors I believe was perpetuated in Pentecostal circles is the idea that spiritual gifts are without recall even though Paul clearly states in Corinth that one day tongues and prophecy will cease. Clearly then the gifts of the Spirit have a recall date when the Lord returns! Saul had the Spirit descend upon him and he prophesied and yet he ultimately was crushed by the Lord. We must beware that we do not interpret our potent mystical spiritual experiences as signs of the Lord's favor. They may be signs of the Lord's discipline or even judgment.

Equally important, if we do not have any numinous experiences we should not consider ourselves forsaken by the Lord if we do not "feel" His presence. The greatest temptations to idolatry God's people face may well be precisely because we are so eager to "feel" the presence of the Lord we insist on whatever magical means are necessary to usher in the presence of the Lord. For some this may be a special kind of "worshipful" or "joyful" music. For others it may be "good preaching" or, really, exciting preaching. For others it may be feeling good doing acts of service. All these things are precious and valuable in their way but if we do them to feel closer to God we may find ourselves wildly disappointed and embittered.

The prophets were given so that magical means of summoning up the will of Yahweh would not be tried and if at the beginning of the Second Temple period Ezra and Nehemiah had no prophets among them to clarify the will of the Lord it may be said that they were coming into an epoch when Israel was so removed from knowledge of the Lord and the Torah that simply rediscovering the Torah itself and observing it was what they needed to do. They did not need a king for that! They did not need a prophet for that! They had just come back after years in exile that the Lord said they would be sent into by prophets as discipline for their idolatry. The Torah itself predicted this exile. Why should they have needed a prophet to have told them that what previous prophets and the Torah itself had warned about had come to pass? Some of these men and women hearing the words of the Torah would have been born while in exile.

And we who trust in Christ are, as it were, born into exile ourselve.s We have Christ as our prophet, priest, and king and this does not mean we have no need of prophets, priests or kings in our own lives. What may be said, however, is that we must continually guard against the abuse of these titles and ranks by those who wish to vaunt themselves as having this or that gift without its disposition. My quibble with the above cited texts is that I am not convinced the sales pitch for what prophets, priests and kings did in Israel is accurate, nor am I convinced that the person who wrote the above has come up with a persuasive application for the roles that he, in my study of scriptures, seem to come off as misunderstoof or misapplied.

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