Sunday, October 19, 2014

C3. Jesus on earth was a prophet of the kingdom of God.

This is now the third post in a series on Christology, in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first set had to do with God and Creation.
Jesus on earth was a prophet of the kingdom of God.

1. It is characteristic to speak of the person of Christ, and then also of the work of Christ. The previous two articles have presented the person of Christ, namely, the fact that he was fully God and fully human. No view of Christ that does injustice either to his humanity or his divinity is appropriate.

With this article we move toward considering the "work" of Christ as we consider three "offices" or roles that Christ played and plays in relation to the world. The three "offices" of Christ relate to three titles he has. Christ is prophet. He is priest. And he is king. [1] This article discusses Christ as prophet.

On earth, Jesus was a prophet of the kingdom of God. A prophet is a messenger from God who delivers God's word to his people. It seems likely that the two primary ways in which the people of Judah and Galilee understood Jesus while he was on earth was as a prophet and as the Christ. We will look at Jesus as Christ under the office of king. While some thought of him in this way while he was on earth, it was probably not the primary way.

The primary way in which Jesus was probably understood while he was on earth was as a prophet. So when Jesus raised a young man from the dead at Nain, the immediate reaction of the mother is to say that, "A great prophet has appeared among us," and, "God has come to help his people" (Luke 7:16).

And Jesus did proclaim the coming kingdom of God, a word from God to the people of God. "Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 'The time has come,' he said. 'The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!'" (Mark 1:14-15). Jesus was a prophet to Israel of the coming kingdom of God.

Of course, a strand of the New Testament also connects Jesus to the "prophet like Moses" in Deuteronomy 18:14-16. In Acts 3, Peter indicates that Jesus was indeed the prophet like Moses to whom God's people should listen. Jesus is not just a prophet. He is the prophet, the one who brings the definitive message from God. As such, we see this role blur into the office of priest (for the definitive message involves final atonement) and the office of king (for Moses had royal overtones).

For the earliest Christians and the New Testament authors, Jesus also fulfilled the prophecies of the Old Testament. One of the most frequently used Scripture in the New Testament is Psalm 110:1, "The LORD says to my Lord, 'Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.'" From passages like Acts 2:33-35, we see that the earliest Christians connected this verse to the resurrection, when Jesus is enthroned as king.

The earliest Christians saw in many other passages key truths and events in the life of Jesus. For example, Isaiah 53 gives us a classic text Christians read in relation to the meaning of Jesus' death (e.g., Acts 8:30-35). In our discussion of Jesus as priest, we will consider other ways in which Jesus may fulfill the Old Testament.

2. In the past, some have distinguished between the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history. The idea here is that the "historical Jesus," Jesus as we would have observed him if we were there on the hills of Galilee, and the Jesus portrayed in the New Testament and the Jesus in which the Church believes, may not have been exactly the same.

A comparison of the Gospels does show that there are questions to be raised about differences between the accounts, as well as the way in which the Gospel writers may have told the story in a way that brought out their special themes and emphases. In that sense, the so called "quest for the historical Jesus" is an understandable quest. Some will see the difference largely as one of perspective. Others will see the difference as much more significant.

3. In our discussion of the incarnation, we might have discussed the humanity of Jesus more extensively. We did discuss the sense that, while he was on earth, Jesus played it by the human rules. That is to say, he chose to do the miraculous and extraordinary things he did through the power of the Holy Spirit rather than by his power as the second person of the Trinity, in order to show what true humanity can do. He did not operate by his intrinsic omniscience or omnipotence while he was on earth, but lived under the power of the Holy Spirit, as we also can.

When we think of Jesus as a prophet, we are also thinking of him serving in a fully human role, a role that other humans have served in the past and that, arguably, in which humans continue to serve today. [2] In this article, we want to pursue just a little further the manner of Jesus' incarnation, the way in which he took on human flesh.

Here let us suggest that Jesus did not assume or take on "generic" humanity but he took on "particular" humanity. That is to say, Jesus did not come to earth as "everyman" but as a specific man. In a profound way, Jesus came to earth as an individual, not as a universal.

It will help to give some specific examples. Jesus did not come as a Roman or an Egyptian. He came as a Jew. Jesus did not come as a male and a female. He came as a male.

Could God have come to earth as a Chinese person? Certainly he could have. It is just that he did not prepare his coming with that culture as the background story. Israel deserves a certain honor as the people through whom he came to earth, but they are not better than any other people for this reason. In fact, you might argue that God chose a small, powerless people in order to show his own greatness (Deut. 7:7).

Similarly, Jesus did not come to earth as a man because men are better than woman. Indeed, I would argue theologically that Jesus could just as well have come to earth as a woman. But, at least from our normal understanding, he had to pick a gender in the incarnation, and given the patriarchal nature of the ancient world, it made most sense in terms of his mission for him to come as a man.

Jesus came as a Galilean, a seemingly odd choice. Galilee was not in any way central to Israel, let alone to the ancient world. Who in the world had even heard of it? In Jesus' coming to earth as a particular human, he identifies with the fact that every human being is a particular human being with unique specifics.

Jesus likely had a specific personality. His personality presumably was not right in the middle between introvert and extrovert, between the concrete and the imaginative, between the thinker and the feeler, between the open-ended personality and the one that wants closure. He did not come as the ideal personality. He came with a specific personality--probably an introvert, a concrete thinker who cared more about people than logic, and someone who in day to day life was probably more about the journey than the destination.

We can dispute one or all of these, but it nevertheless seems true that Jesus came as a specific person, not as every person. In his humanity, Jesus identified with our human particularity without endorsing Jew over Gentile, male over female, Galilean over Judean, introvert over extrovert, and so forth.

4. Jesus was a prophet of the kingdom of God. That is to say, in his earthly mission he preached that the rule of God was soon returning to the earth and that the people of God needed to prepare themselves. The rule of God would involve the restoration of God's people and the judgment of those who were unjust, oppressive, and resistant to his rule.

We see in Jesus' earthly ministry how these dynamics played out. In his healings and miracles, we see the restoration of God's people. In his exorcisms and conflicts with various leaders, we see him preparing the way for the coming judgment. In his teaching, we hear the ethics of the kingdom and how God's people are to relate to each other. In his recruiting of disciples, we see him preparing leadership and establishing citizens of the kingdom.

In his earthly life, he gave us the example to follow, the example of Christ. The slogan, "What would Jesus do?" is a model for us to live in the kingdom in so far as Jesus modeled the love of God and neighbor, the cornerstones of Christian ethics (cf. Matt. 22:34-40). We must of course be careful not to assume that Jesus, the particular man, and Jesus, the man living in a specific situation and culture, are everyman. But we can take the life of Jesus in general as an example of how to live in the time leading up to the kingdom and then in the kingdom itself.

In his death, Jesus makes the final coming of the kingdom possible, and in his resurrection, he is established as its appointed king.

Next week: In his death, Jesus became the priest of all humanity and the creation.

[1] Although the idea of this three-fold office has been around since the early days of Christianity (e.g., Eusebius in the 300s), it was given new life by John Calvin in the Reformation.

[2] Certainly there will never be another prophet like Jesus. Hebrews 1:1-2 says, "In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe." However, the New Testament attests to the fact that there continue to be prophets in the New Testament age (e.g., 1 Corinthians 14).

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