Written by Bill Scofield
Within early Jewish tradition the Holy Spirit had an unambiguous role. The Holy Spirit was the agent given by God by which He would direct the assembly. The Spirit rested upon Moses (Num. 11:17), upon the judges of Israel (Jdg. 3:10), and later upon David (Ps. 51:11). It could also be said that the Spirit was given to the prophets to do the work of a prophet. The link between the Holy Spirit and the prophet was so concrete in the Jewish mind that early Jewish literature uses ‘Holy Spirit’ and ‘Spirit of prophecy’ synonymously.
The Spirit was given both to instruct the prophets and to strengthen them to proclaim the message from God. Strength from God was vital to the prophetic calling since the message of the prophets was not only contrary to that of the more popular counselors and false prophets, but because the message also highlighted the guilt of the nation before God and called them to repentance.
Moreover, there is no other setting in which the stories of the prophets are communicated to us. The prophets appear exclusively amidst the backdrop of rampant idolatry and injustice with each scene concluding in a similar manner – the marginalization, persecution, and often martyrdom of the prophet. That such a response was anticipated is evident by the reluctance of the prophets when commissioned by God to deliver His message.
Jesus and the Prophetic Tradition
The life of Jesus is presented within the same tradition and is communicated along these same lines. His ministry began with a public receiving of the Holy Spirit, which would have been understood in no uncertain terms by those in attendance at his baptism – he was a prophet from God. He appears in the same setting as the prophets before him, has a message of cultural confrontation, calls the nation back to God, is rejected, and ultimately killed.
Jesus also encouraged his disciples to view themselves within this same prophetic tradition. A life of difficulty and rejection awaited them, just as it had the prophets before them.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Mt 5:10–12 NIV)
18 “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. 19 If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. 20 Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also.’ (Jn 15:18–20 NIV)
Also drawing from the prophetic traditions of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, they were to understand that there would be false prophets (Matt. 24:10f). False prophets appeared as sheep, but were inwardly ravenous wolves (Matt. 7:15). This was the implicit setting for their own calling. They were sent as sheep – like the prophets before them – amidst a culture of wolves – the false prophets. (Matt. 10:15)
Yet, their role as true messengers from God did not rely merely upon their association with him. They too, after being sent as apostles (Luke 6:12) were warned by him (Luke 6:20 ‘And turning his gaze towards his disciples , He began to say…’) to purge their own witness of those outward signs which were the distinguishing mark of the false prophets.
26 Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets. (Lk 6:26 NIV)
Their own calling, like the prophets before them, would assume rejection and suffering.
22 Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. 23 “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets. (Lk 6:22–23 NIV)
Thus, this pattern of life, marked by disagreement, marginalization, persecution, and martyrdom came to define the lives of John the Baptist, Jesus, Stephen, Paul, and the other Apostles. It was the apostolic ‘way of life’ (I Cor. 4:17) – not merely because it was the way in which the apostles lived, but because it was the way of life taught by the apostles.
Paul urges and warns the Corinthians against a foreign pattern of life. The things which marked Paul as a prophet/apostle sent by God were not merely marks of apostleship, but rather a way of life to be imitated.
9 For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings. 10 We are fools for Christ… We are weak… we are dishonored! 11 To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. 12 We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; 13 when we are slandered, we answer kindly. We have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world—right up to this moment. 14 I am writing this not to shame you but to warn you as my dear children. 15 Even if you had ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. 16 Therefore I urge you to imitate me. (1 Co 4:9–16 NIV)
Paul, likewise, reassured the suffering assembly in Thessalonica that they were ‘destined for those things’ (I Thes. 3:3f) as faithful stewards of the testimony of God (I Thes. 1:8f). Peter also assured the assembly of the diaspora that they should not view suffering and trials as a strange thing (I Pet. 4:12).
The author of Hebrews highlights the same pattern of life which defined the lives of the prophets and patriarchs as a ‘cloud of witnesses’. (Note that a Biblical ‘witness’ is not one who observes, but one who testifies about something – namely the Gospel. Thus, they are bearing witness to us, not observing us.) The lives of the men who were ‘stoned’, ‘sawn in two’, ‘put to death’, etc… have become to us a cloud or assembly of witnesses to the path of eternal life.
Suffering Before Glory
No one endures such things because of their inherent virtue, but because they have a hope in God that is proven unshakable through many trials. Such is the path of all of the prophets, and of all who will inherit eternal life – suffering before glory. The sufferings of the present age are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed (Rom 8:18) in us at the resurrection from the dead (Rom. 8:23). The assurance that eternal life awaits those who are conformed to Christ in his death (Phil. 3:10f) is the work that the Spirit works in us.
Like the prophets before us, bearing witness to the truth establishes us in a pattern of life that proves and tests our hope in God. To shrink back from the testimony of God is to follow in the tradition of the false prophets – loving this present age, pursuing a life of comfort, surrounded by the admiration of men. Let us press on to better things. A very good friend has reminded,
‘”You only live once”, they say. They are dead wrong. We will live again.’