Jesus was a prophet. This is often ignored, understated or simply denied. The opposite of this is where it is overstated and generally misinterpreted which is also not helpful. To say Jesus was only a prophet is not what the Bible teaches. To say that Jesus was more than a prophet and quickly scurry past his prophetic status is not the right thing to do either.
In this post and God-willing in subsequent ones, I hope to further explore the relationship between Jesus and the prophetic. As I pondered over the matter I realised it is more complex and intimidating than I thought yet critically important if we are to correctly understand who Jesus is.
I began this piece with a simple, raw, four word sentence. As far as I am aware, this statement has not made any mainstream or popular creed neither is it mentioned in any statement of an ecumenical council or meeting. I am not saying we should make it some kind of creedal affirmation. What I am pointing out is that the prophetic status of Jesus is glaringly missing from our consciousness. Even in modern prophetic movements, though they mention it far more than most, it is clearly not central to their theology or praxis.
Well is it all that important? I think many Christians would easily concede that Jesus was a prophet. However, if the Bible itself does not state it as explicitly as I have, is it really that important? This is a fair question. Well there are quite a few mainstream teachings, like the doctrine of the Trinity, which are never explicitly mentioned yet we devote much energy to them. I think the prophetic status of Jesus is more visible than the example I cited and so it should be given a fair hearing. Apart from that, seeing Jesus as a prophet influences our view of him.
In the Bible identifying a prophet was very important. This is not to say they were preoccupied with prophet hunting. (People did not have their own domestic Egon Spengler designed PKE meter to detect prophetic activity.) The average Israelite knew the signs of a prophet since their people had a long, unique prophetic tradition. Have you ever been in an awkward position where you were supposed to recognise someone but you didn’t so you did not treat that individual the way you should? Identity certainly matters because it determines how we relate to people. In the biblical record encounters with prophets were momentous occasions that could cause seismic changes for the individual and the society at large. During Jesus’ time the rise of a prophet was of acute importance. History tells us that prophetic activity did not cease in the so-called intertestamental period. Yet in that period they had not had prophetic activity of biblical proportions. As I hinted in the Story of Stories, the prophetic office was a national institution. The Holy Land was under heathen occupation so the re-emergence of bona fide prophets was considered an important sign of national restoration. The prophetic status of Jesus would have therefore been an important issue to the people of that period.
And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household.” And he did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief. – Matthew 13:57-58 ESV
And the crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.” – Matthew 21:11 ESV
Here we have two incidents. In the first Jesus is rejected by the people of his hometown. In the second Jesus is hailed by the Jerusalemites as the prophet from Nazareth. From both these passages we see that Jesus thought of himself as a prophet and so did a lot of people. It was a controversial issue but Jesus himself expected them to think of him in that way. I could give further proof texts in various places in the New Testament. That’s usually what is done when talking about Jesus the Prophet but I do not think that approach is compelling enough. We need to rather explore certain questions. What convinced him in his earthly mission that he was a prophet? How did he present himself in the light of this? What did people see in him that convinced them that he was a prophet?
In the famous episode in the region of Caesarea Philippi (Matthew 16:13-28) Jesus asked his disciples what people thought of him. From his disciples responses it seemed the general consensus among the people was that he was some kind of prophet, even though they weren’t entirely sure what sort he was. We should take note that from there the conversation moved on to his identity and mission as the Christ. In another famous incident Jesus meets the Samaritan women at Jacob’s Well at Sychar (John 4:1-42.) Now the woman at the well correctly identified him as a prophet when he displayed intimate knowledge of her even though they had never met. Here as well, the conversation drifted into his identity and his mission as the Christ. I have brought up these different episodes because I believe they help to illustrate how Jesus expected people to interact with him. He wanted them to encounter him as a prophet but leave knowing that he is the Christ. Jesus’ prophethood was not irrelevant or peripheral. It was the entry-point, the gateway introducing the Son of God. Before I can better explain this point I have to first place Jesus firmly in the prophetic tradition.
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. – Hebrews 1:1-2 ESV
The prophetic vocation is not new. It spans the length of biblical history. There was rich diverse history the people of God could draw on in identifying men and women of God. The author of Hebrews argues that Jesus supersedes all things, including the prophetic, yet he still identifies Jesus within the prophetic tradition. In the case of the Samaritan woman I believe she identified Jesus as a prophet because his actions were reminiscent of the biblical prophets, particularly Samuel, Elijah and Elisha, since they all displayed intimate revelatory knowledge of people. When you take a step-back and observe Jesus’ ministry in general, there were many strong allusions and references to the prophets before him. His itinerant ministry, his message, his authority, and the signs and wonders that happened around him were like the prophets of old. Not only that, the heavy prominence and use of symbolism in his life, was unmistakeably reminiscent of the style the prophets. They too heavily relied on symbolism and metaphor.
I spoke to the prophets; it was I who multiplied visions, and through the prophets gave parables. – Hosea 12:10 ESV
Choosing 12 disciples, speaking in parables, being crucified at Passover, calling himself the Son of Man, as well as, the baptism in the Jordan, the circumstances of his birth and lineage, and the transfiguration among other things all have profound symbolic value in the light of the scriptures. When we see such symbolism it is safe to assume that someone is trying to get a message across.
Not only did prophetic symbolism feature prominently but direct prophecy itself. Jesus fulfilled prophecies and also prophesied events himself (Matthew 24.) The Gospel is itself a prophetic message. The phrase “Gospel of the Kingdom” is a strong allusion to the prophecies of Isaiah, especially from chapter forty onwards.
The connections between Jesus and the prophetic scriptures are uncanny. They were of such a striking nature that people thought they were truly divinely orchestrated. People in those days did not have “Prophets for Dummies” but in the light of the biblical narrative they saw the portrait of a prophet in Jesus.
In any story characters have various roles they play. Characterization and role play are interconnected. For instance, we cannot read the accounts of Ruth and Deborah in the same way. Ruth is a very important woman in the Messianic line but we cannot interpret the events of her life like Deborah. She was not a judge like Deborah so our expectations of her are different. Deborah was a judge and also a prophetess. Prophets play a certain role in the Bible. This affects how we read the text when their influence or presence is seen. In the same way, we need to read the gospels in the light of the prophetic tradition because the main character Jesus was a prophet. If this is how Jesus intended people to see him then we need to take it seriously.
Earlier on, I mentioned Jesus was introduced as a prophet. Introductions, as we all know, do not tell us the whole story. They do, however, set things up for a better understanding of things to come. Jesus being the Messiah had great implications. There could only be one Messiah, the true King of Israel. Prophets, however, could be many. The role of a prophet was very important yet it was not as intimidating as the singular role of the Messiah. Jesus is both the Prophet and the Messiah and so it was easier for people to receive him as a prophet at least. Being a prophet wasn’t unheard off even though it wasn’t particularly common at the time.
In terms of Jesus’ prophetic status, he did not just think of himself as one of the many prophets but rather as the Prophet. He regarded himself as the prophet like Moses whom Moses himself long ago predicted (Deuteronomy 18:15-18.) I think he expected people to grow in their relationship with him from a prophet, to the Prophet, to the Messiah. Baby steps.
For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?” – John 5:46-47 ESV
Moses held a very special place in Israel. Deuteronomy ends saying there was no prophet like Moses in the history of Israel. What Moses did in Israel defined the nation. Jesus thought of himself as Moses’ successor but even greater. He said that Moses testified of him. He did not appeal to Moses but rather Moses appealed to him.
But the testimony that I have is greater than that of John. For the works that the Father has given me to accomplish, the very works that I am doing, bear witness about me that the Father has sent me. And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness about me. His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen, and you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent. – John 5:36-38 ESV
In this passage Jesus clearly stakes his claim to being a classic prophet in the Biblical tradition. He claimed to have had some kind of visionary encounter with God and had been specially commissioned like Moses, Isaiah, Ezekiel or Daniel before him. Like any prophet his words and his deeds were under the inspiration of God. What was peculiar about Jesus’ is he did not simply claim to have a message but to be the message. He personally was the content of the message, the word of God made flesh. According to Jesus God was uniquely testifying about him as a human being. God had not done this to any prophet or person before. God communicated through them but as Zechariah the prophet asked, ‘the prophets, do they live forever?’ (Zechariah 1:5.) The prophets were mortal men with limitations. What Jesus was implying put him on a level beyond any other human being. The prophets before him were the media to get the message across. Jesus claimed that he was the message God was carrying across to his people through the prophets. In other words the entire history of Israel, in fact the history of the entire world, was climaxed in him. Either Jesus is the most deluded individual to have ever lived or he is in fact the Messiah, the Lord of all.
As I draw this study to a close I conclude with this. The identity and mission of Jesus are excellently positioned in the prophetic tradition. We cannot properly understand him without it because it provides an entry point into how we must engage with Jesus in sacred writings.
Worship God for the testimony of Jesus is the Spirit of Prophecy – Revelation 19:10