Some friends and I are reading through the Old Testament this year. It's been quite a journey so far. We're more or less following the chronological story of the bible. I've never read through the whole bible, or even just the Old Testament, like this. I've usually just jumped around from book to book or focussed on smaller sections.
It has been an amazing journey so far - an exploration of this unique group of people, a community, a tribe "telling their stories, singing their songs, preaching their sermons, praying their prayers, asking their questions, having their children, and burying their dead" as Eugene Peterson has said.
Through the contours of the various books that make up the Hebrew bible (the Old Testament), we get to hear and respond to all sorts of voices. I'm now journeying through the various books from the Prophets. I've been so deeply impacted by Isaiah's cry of judgement against his own people - declaring that their rebellion against God's ways would come at a cost. He prophesied that their persistent idolatry (ie - worshipping, loving and serving created things instead of the Creator) and their oppression of the poor would lead them into judgement - in the form of being taken over, exiled and oppressed by the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires. In the midst of all that, Isaiah also presented a message of hope: that God would provide the needed king from the line of David, that God would somehow lead them into obedience to the law of the covenant of Mount Sinai, and that God would still bless them in order that the blessing would flow out to all the world (as God had promised to Abraham in Genesis 12).
It doesn't take Isaiah long to get going... Already in Chapter 1 he's not mincing his words:
"Your hands are full of blood! Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow." (1v16)
There are some incredible prophecies that point towards life and death of Jesus, like 7:14:
"Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel."
Some of my favourite parts are towards the end, when Isaiah envisages new heavens and a new earth. 'Heaven and earth' is what is called a 'merism' (which is where we use parts of something to refer to all of it - like 'hook, line, and sinker'). Here, heaven and earth refers to everything that God has created; so this is language to talk about a new creation. This new creation described explicitly in Isaiah 65 and in Revelation 21 & 22, is a renovated cosmos, a new creation birthed out of this present 'pregnant' creation (Romans 8). It is not a vision of somewhere else, but it is this creation that we live in, transformed into a reality where there is fulness of joy and no weeping or crying. All the divisions between enemies will be no more: "The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox" (Isaiah 65:25). All sin and injustice and forms of anti-creation will be no more.
Isaiah is typical of the biblical prophetic tradition: speaking truth to power; challenging and critiquing those within the community of faith who are colluding with and contributing towards the brokenness, injustice and evil in God's good creation; bringing hope and encouragement by speaking of a new and different way of life, a way of love, joy and peace - the way of 'the new creation' to which God is leading all of history. Indeed - it's the Way of Jesus.
In the bible, prophecy provokes, challenges, uncovers and critiques. It also encourages God's people, by painting their reality and their challenges in the light of God's broader story, which culminates in the future new creation.
Prophecy in the New Testament
As we get to the New Testament, there are two big 'software updates' for prophecy.
Firstly, the Spirit is poured out and manifested in way that invites all of the community of faith (women and men, young and old) to participate in this rich prophetic tradition (Acts 2) - not just a restricted few.
Secondly, the future hope of the new creation is 'inaugurated' through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. That is, we live in what is known as the 'now and not yet'; God's future new creation has been demonstrated and manifested in Jesus such that, in some mysterious way, that future reality is being drawn into our current existence. This new creation will only culminate and climax in Jesus' future return, but the role of the church is to witness now to that future new creation.
(If that's not something you've heard before, it might sound pretty weird or confusing - I can understand that! If you want to find out a bit more, here's a great Bible Project video which is super accessible and expands some of these ideas.)
Fast forward to the twentieth century...
So here we are today, 27 centuries after Isaiah and 20 centuries after Jesus. While Isaiah and Jesus both still have so much to say to us in the world we live in today, we need to recognise how different our cultural moment is.
Today (in the 'West' but in much of the rest of the world too), I think our cultures and worldviews are incredibly individualistic and consumeristic. I wonder if it's hard for us to truly notice how much our world is subsumed by these ways of thinking and being. It's the water we swim in, the air we breath, such that we often struggle to imagine another way of being.
So, let's do a thought experiment:
Take that beautiful, biblical prophetic tradition, which was coloured by the rich palette of new creation, which spoke truth to power and brought both critique and hope to the community of faith... and in your imagination transfer it into our day allowing it to be distorted and infected by our narcissistic individualism and vacuous consumerism.
What do you get?
Sadly, I think you get what is so prevalent, at least in some parts of the church today.
You get people preaching sermons and going to conferences and listening to talks and reading books and writing blogs and creating podcasts where the main focus is all about our 'individual prophetic destiny'...
You get shallow promises of 'breakthrough', and 'victory' over life's challenges, 'fulfilment of your prophetic dreams', 'tapping into the power of prophecy and launching into greater destiny'....
All this void of any discernible connection to the broader biblical story. You get endless 'prophetic words' given to individuals that make them feel encouraged not primarily on the basis of the future hope of new creation, but rather by a comforting promise of getting what is wanted, in some form, in this life, and often associated with prestige or comfort.
Now, I want to be clear: None of that is necessarily wrong in and of itself. It's just not what biblical prophecy is mainly about.
I think we're missing out on the beautiful gift of prophecy if we're:
continually focussed only on individuals, and ignoring the systems and organisations and power dynamics of which we are a part
continually overlooking the injustices of the world we live in - the evils which we are colluding with and contributing to in various ways
continually telling stories unmoored from the broader biblical story (which points towards and culminates in God's new creation)
not witnessing, in word and action, to this world of coming new, transformed world.
not speaking truth to power and not acknowledging our position of power in society today (many of us are in a position of privilege and power more analogous to Assyria or Babylon, than to Israel or Judah - a scary thought!).
If all of this is what characterises our 'prophecy', then I think we've hijacked prophecy and turned it into an individualised story catering to the 21st-century privileged consumer.
One of the many reasons why this really bothers me is that I think our faith practices should be re-forming us and re-shaping us into Christlikeness. But the subversive idols of individualism and consumerism mean that, unless we're consciously working against it, the brokenness of the world around us is actually deforming us - making us less and less like the beautiful God-imaging creatures we're designed to be. So, unless we're actively making sure our practices of 'prophecy' are biblical, our 'prophesying' might actually be deforming us - making us more narcissistic and greedy and in pursuit of comfort and convenience, more blind to the injustices around us.
We might be allowing ourselves to be shaped and formed so that we become more like Babylon, and less like Jesus.
So where are the biblical prophets today?
I'm sure there are many, in all different forms and denominations and tribes and tongues. I don't pretend to know everything about prophecy, or think that all prophecy needs to look one certain way. I deeply appreciate the many examples of prophets around us that stir and provoke and encourage. They remind me of God's new creation and the counter-cultural, upside-down Way of Jesus.
I think of Greta Thunberg: a Swedish activist who, at age 15, began protesting outside the Swedish parliament in August 2018 about the need for immediate action to combat climate change.
I think of a high church in East London which recreated the 'Three Billboards' (from the film) in their church yard by a main road calling out the council for not doing enough on homelessness.
I think of some friends who have been growing loads of food in their small back garden.
I think of some other friends who stopped buying clothing from anywhere that wasn't clearly ethically sourced.
I think of a man who once bravely challenged a church with regards to how they were perceiving of their finances.
I think of you, and I think of me. At least, what we could be... if we abandon the ways of individualistic, consumerist prophecy, and pursue and explore the life-challenging but life-giving, bible-vision-shaping, injustice-revealing, new-creation-witnessing biblical tradition of prophecy.