Selections From the Prophets Week 2
By Jeffrey Keuss
Seattle Pacific University Professor of Christian Ministry, Theology, and Culture
Read this week’s Scripture: Luke 4
At the end of our introductory comments on the prophets, we noted that Jesus states in the Sermon on the Mount,
Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill (Matthew 5:17).
The prophetic power found in the Old Testament doesn’t by any means end with the incarnation of Jesus as the final Word of God. Through the prophetic literature of the Old Testament, we are constantly reintroduced to the God who is present to us in Christ and is present with us today. Listening deeply to the Old Testament witness is a vital and essential way to encounter the living Christ.
Marcion of Pontus — Wrongly Dividing God Into Old and New
An early church leader named Marcion of Pontus argued that we didn’t need to listen to the Old Testament. While Marcion was one of the first to delineate a list of texts useful for Christian worship and growth that would develop into our biblical canon, he also felt that the texts found in the Hebrew Bible not only were subordinate to the texts we call the New Testament, but ultimately pointed to a God who was wrathful, vengeful, and violent in ways that are at odds with the peacemaking, grace, and mercy of Jesus’ ministry. To this end, Marcionism, as it came to be known, was a teaching seeking to divide and remove the Hebrew Scriptures from those of the New Testament by seeing the God of the Old Testament as utterly incompatible with the God of the New Testament.
In the early ecumenical councils of the Church, bishops and leaders of the faith denounced Marcionism as a heresy and underscored the unity of God [see Author’s Note 1], asserting that the God who called Abraham, flooded the earth under Noah’s ark, and spoke to David in the midst of his sin was the same God who came to the world incarnate as Jesus.
Yet while Marcionism was actively denounced as a heresy centuries ago, there are still echoes of this view whenever Christians underscore the priority of the works of Jesus proclaimed in the New Testament over and against the works of God proclaimed in the Old Testament. Churches will often give just the New Testament or even a single gospel to new members. In this way, churches can subtly if not overtly reinforce Marcion’s claim and renew the heresy.
To say that Christians are “people of the book” is to say that we are people of the full canon of Scripture and that, without the prophetic witness of the Latter Prophets (see the first Lectio of this series), the New Testament would not exist, nor would we even be able to see and understand the Messiah who comes as Emmanuel, “God with us.”
To Read the New Testament Deeply Is to Recall and Remember the Prophets
The experience of reading prophetic literature evokes a sense of déjà vu, or “haven’t I heard that before?” The prophets, as we discussed last week, draw the listener ever closer to the heartbeat of the living God and remind the people of what God has said, continues to say, and will forever be calling us to.
The gospel writers evoke this reminder by continually citing the prophetic literature in the narrative of Jesus’ ministry, showing direct connections to the past promises of the prophets now coming to full fruition. For example, in these New Testament passages, we see numerous direct citations of the prophets [see Author’s Note 2]:
|Matthew 1:23 Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, “God is with us.”
|Isaiah 7:14 Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.
|Matthew 2:6 And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.
|Micah 5:2 But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.
|Matthew 2:18 A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.
|Jeremiah 31:15 Thus says the LORD: A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.
|Matthew 9:13 I desire mercy, not sacrifice.
|Hosea 6:6 For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice ….
|Matthew 11:10 See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.
|Malachi 3:1 See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me ….
|Matthew 21:5 Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
|Zechariah 9:9 Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
|Acts 2:17–18 In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.
|Joel 2:28–29 Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.
These represent only a small sampling of direct citations drawn out of the prophetic witness and placed into the real time of Jesus’ earthly ministry and the life of the early church.
Jesus as the Prophetic Word Made Flesh
What we find throughout the New Testament is a manner of fulfillment of the prophetic literature in which Jesus himself steps forward as the fulfillment of promises and covenants made through the centuries, and the New Testament offers us a commentary on the manner and method of this fulfillment. In this, the New Testament reminds Christians of an important point — Jesus, not the New Testament, is the fulfillment of the prophetic promise, since it is Jesus who is the Word Made Flesh.
Fulfilling the Prophets to Overflowing: Jesus Reads and Fulfills the Prophecy of Isaiah
Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in the fourth chapter of Luke’s gospel. Here Jesus is teaching in the synagogue in Nazareth, where he would have been raised — his “hometown” of sorts. As we hear in Luke 4:22, Jesus is referred to as “Joseph’s son” — known by his family relations more than by his own merit.
One of the central portions of a synagogue service was when an appointed person would stand and read from the Hebrew texts following the recitation of the Shema, Deuteronomy 6:4–5:
Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.
A teaching of the text would then follow this reading.
Here in Luke’s gospel, Jesus is the appointed reader and reads a passage from Isaiah 61. Often in the gospels we have references to only the first few verses of a passage, such as Jesus’ words from Psalm 22 while on the cross — “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It is important to see these instances in a similar vein to hyperlinks on a website — sections of a larger truth claim that once clicked on opens to a fuller, deeper, and more profound reality. The short citation of Isaiah 61 in Luke 4 is an example of this.
Isaiah 61 has been titled “The Year of the Lord’s Favor” in some translations, since it points to the assurance of Isaiah that God has not forgotten his people, that there will be a specific, particular point in time and space when the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will bring reality into fullest focus through the coming of creation’s Messiah. The ministry of the Messiah will be framed and defined around these words (61:1–2):
The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn ….
As Jesus read from Isaiah 61, all who would have been listening would surely have known the power of these words. Yet, as Jesus completes his reading of this passage, he makes the bold pronouncement that turns the focus away from the text and onto himself. As we hear in Luke 4:20–22:
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”
There are three points to reflect on from the Greek text in Luke’s gospel that remind us of Jesus’ role in fulfilling the prophetic call of the Old Testament:
- The idiom “all spoke well” can be translated “to bear witness” in Verse 22 and is from the Greek word μαρτυρέω (martyreo),which is the root of our English word “martyr,” usually understood as someone whose belief extends to the point of death. We speak of those who were “martyred” as those who chose to die rather than renounce their faith in Christ.What is important to underscore is that when those listening to Jesus’ words bore witness, they acknowledged that faith was to mean something more than merely nodding their heads in agreement to some intellectual argument. To bear witness was to admit that they were being asked whether they would give their lives to see this truth become alive in the world in heart, mind, and soul. In short, a faith that is core not only to their individual lives, but to the very fabric of creation.In this account, those who heard Jesus’ words of testimony are faced with the reality that not only does the Messiah who is spoken of in Isaiah 61 have a central concern for those who are poor and those who are captives, but this same Messiah is standing before them “today.” To deny this reality will be to bring themselves to a point of death in all that they held to be true, and who they are and what they stand for will from this point on always hinge on whether they follow what this man has said or turn away from it.
- In addition to “bearing witness” to the deep reality of what Jesus is saying to them — a truth upon which turns the very core of life and death — they also are filled with a sense of wonder; they marvel (Greek, θαυμάζω) (thaumadzo) at his words. There is a standing back, a pulling back in the listeners that shows that there is a distance being held by those who hear Jesus’ words, a hesitancy in the face of something so impossibly pure, so fulfilling of hopes and dreams, so perfecting, that it is all that they have wished for — the promise of the Messiah fulfilled after generations of waiting and waiting — and they are left stunned in a state of marveling. “Can this really be true?” they ponder in their hearts and minds. “This one who is “Joseph’s son,” can this be the Messiah? Is this it? Is this he?
- What is striking in this wonder and marvel is that what they bear witness to is Jesus’ “words of grace” λόγοις τῆς χάριτος (logois tais charitos) — which is something not heard, let alone seen, before. While others may offer words about the grace of God, or speak of the gracious qualities of humanity, or even remark on the hoping for grace over the generations, here words and grace are one — intertwined and embodied and fully present in time and space. Logois tais charitos — the “words of grace” that had been promised for generations, as heard in Isaiah’s prophecy, are now, according to Jesus, not only spoken, but present before them. There is no time delay between the word and the speaker, the prophecy and the prophet, the priest and the poetry, the Messiah and the Message — they are one in the fullness of time. Emmanuel — God With Us. Today, says Jesus, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.
The challenge for us of these words of grace is to hear them anew just as the listeners did when Jesus first spoke them into being. That collapsing of time and space, of doubt and faith, of truest words and truest grace, is our legacy right here, right now. Like those in that congregation in Nazareth so many years ago, we have also heard these words of grace uttered by Emmanuel. Today — not yesterday in some historic past nor tomorrow in a distant galaxy far, far away — God is with us, and we who are the Body of Christ “bear witness” to the words of grace made manifest on Calvary. This is “the acceptable year of the Lord” — this year, today. This is the year that is founded and forged on good news to the poor and liberty to the captive.
We who have heard this scripture fulfilled are also “martyred” by it. Our lives are not to be the same any more — our lives don’t even exist in ways that this world can possibly comprehend, because this in-breaking of the Word of Grace is the overflowing of all reasonable attempts to make meaning. We have been grafted to grace by Jesus, as a branch is grafted to the vine, and so all our life flows from that source — not our occupations, not our status, not our pride or any accomplishments of our own making. It is understandable why this message is such good news to the poor and the captive.
Vincent Van Gogh once elegantly wrote that Jesus is the truest and greatest artist, since Christ “is more of an artist than the artists; he works in the living spirit and the living flesh; he makes men [and women] instead of mere statues.” [see Author’s Note 3] This was the reality promised by the prophets that we will encounter in the weeks to come. The words of God that the prophets spoke and embodied were always pointing forward to the horizon of the Incarnation and beyond. God has always been straining and reaching for us to hear and embrace the coming promise found in Christ Jesus. When we hear and embrace the words of grace offered by God in Christ we begin to fulfill beyond our imagination that which has been promised and proclaimed by God and now is in flesh and dwelling among us.
Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann in his important book The Prophetic Imagination underscores the importance of seeing Jesus both in the line of the prophetic tradition yet at the same time offering something completely novel:
Jesus of Nazareth, a prophet, and more than a prophet I argue, practiced in most radical form the main elements of prophetic ministry and imagination. On the one hand, he practiced criticism of the deathly world around him. The dismantling was fully wrought in his crucifixion, in which he himself embodied the thing dismantled. On the other hand, he practiced the energizing of the new future given by God. This energizing was fully manifested in his resurrection, in which he embodied the new future given by God. [see Author’s Note 4]
For, as we see and hear in the ministry of Jesus, this “release” that Jesus proclaims is indeed a true and all-encompassing release — a release to all captives in the spirit of Jubilee found in Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 15 — the tradition where Israel would forgive those in debt, and those with plenty would “release” their holdings to those in need. Jesus’ words are truly comfort to the afflicted, but they are affliction to the comfortable as well.
Questions for Further Reflection
- Marcion of Pontus tried to separate the Old Testament from the New Testament and to direct Christians to focus only on the New Testament. In what ways has the Old Testament been only a secondary set of texts to those of the New Testament in today’s church? How does your reading and witness of the Gospel change by thinking in terms of one canon of Scripture rather than two testaments?
- The Lectio writer refers to Jesus as the “Prophetic Word Made Flesh.” What is the significance of this title? In what ways did Jesus fulfill prophetic promise?
- Reread Isaiah 61. What themes resonate with you as “good news?” What implications emerge from this text in terms of how we ought to live?
- Hearing Jesus read from the scroll of Isaiah caused people to “bear witness” to what they had heard. In what ways does Jesus’ pronouncement that the Scriptures are now fulfilled in him cause you to “bear witness”? What are ways that you can see this “witness” in other people?
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