Dear Fathers, Friends in Christ,
"And the Jews marvelled, saying, How knoweth this man letters, having never learned? Jesus answered them, and said, My doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me" (John 7:15-16).
When our Lord, as recounted here by St. John, went up into Jerusalem at the time of the October Harvest Festival to teach, he had about six months left before his crucifixion the following spring. His choice of this time and place for his teaching was prophetic, in the tradition of the Old Testament Prophets, whose actions often spoke as loudly as their words.
The Harvest Festival, celebrating the harvest of fruit, oil, and wine, was called "Booths" or "Tabernacles" because the people would camp out in little huts set up in the fields as a memorial to their ancestors’ time in the wilderness after the Exodus from Egypt. In Jewish religious thought, that Exodus from slavery in Egypt had always represented God’s redemption of his people from bondage to sin and death. Thus, by teaching at this time in the Temple, our Lord was announcing that he is the "new Exodus," the redemption of God for all men, at all times, and in all places. He is the "harvest" or fulfillment of all of God’s promises of hope and life.
Of course, other things can be harvested, too. Our Lord preaches at this last great harvest before his death in order to explain his death as not just the work of the devil, but as the harvest of the bitterness and hate of all those who reject him in any time or place. He acknowledges that there are those already who wish to kill him (John 7:19), and the people’s answer, "Thou hast a devil" (v.20), betrays the same attitude that had led to the murder of earlier, lesser prophets by the Jerusalem mob.
No prophet, after all, is entirely welcome anywhere. On the contrary, since a prophet speaks by and for the holiness of God, he must always call into question the truth of the people’s beliefs, whatever compromises they have made between faith and expediency, and the morality of their daily lives. And when we look at Jesus Christ’s teaching in Jerusalem in those days, we are looking at a real case of prophecy. Christ himself tells us that this is so.
One of the classic, if cheap and essentially worthless defenses against the divine Gospel, or against even a merely human argument that is difficult or impossible to answer, is to ridicule the person who delivers it. But this is nonsense, since the truth is the truth, no mater who expounds it, even if he is an idiot in all other particulars, and Jesus Christ is no idiot.
His teaching astounded those gathered in the Temple, professional scholars and common folk alike, and so the counter-attack began, in an effort to discredit the messenger in order to discredit the message: "How knoweth this man letters, having never learned?" (John 7:15).
Jesus Christ had been born in the city of David, but he had been raised in what Jerusalemites considered an "uncouth" region, Galilee. He was not the acknowledged student of one of the famous professional teachers, the Rabbis, so why should anyone have to pay any attention to him? We can see that this is just a game, if we pause for a moment to consider St. Paul, who had studied formally under the Rabbi Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). St. Paul was no better treated in Jerusalem than our Lord was, and he had to invoke his Roman citizenship and his right to a trial before Caesar to escape death at the hands of the mob.
Our Lord, however, appealed to One higher than Caesar. He told those who mocked him, "My doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me" (John 7:16). In this way, the Lord Christ claims for his teaching the very same authority that set the Old Testament Prophets apart from other men. A prophet does not speak for his religious party. He does not speak for his educational credentials. He does not speak for his hometown. A Prophet speaks for God, and he speaks by God, delivering God’s message and not his own. And here we see that even the Son of God made flesh does not speak for himself, but for his Father in heaven.
Now we might think that what we have here is a good lesson about how carefully we should listen to the Word of our Lord Jesus Christ and to the words that his Father gave through the Holy Ghost to the ancient prophets, lest we join all the scoffers and the crucifiers. And we would be right, but only partially so. What we would be missing are the equally important lessons about how we are to live and to speak, and about how our living and speaking are to be connected in Christ.
The Church is the Body of Jesus Christ, and so it is a prophetic Body. As Jesus Christ is prophetic in his earthly ministry, teaching the will of God both by word and by deed, so are the members of his Body, the people we call "Christians," to be prophetic in their earthly lives, in everything that they say and do. If we are among the number of Christians, then we are meant to be among the number of the prophets.
Our gift of prophecy is supernatural, because it is of grace, but it is not a "super power." Rarely, if ever, will God demand that we speak of the future, except as the future bears the consequences of what we do and believe here and now. Our prophecy, as is true of virtually all of the prophecy found in the Bible, will be to declare God’s gracious will, for now and for always, by what we say and do, and God’s decrees will always be consistent with what he has already declared through his Prophets and his Incarnate Son in the Holy Scriptures.
But where will we get the wisdom we will need to be God’s prophets? The old "Book of the Churchman" (called Ecclesiasticus in Latin) tell us: "If thou desire wisdom, keep the commandments, and the Lord shall give her unto thee" (1:26). If we keep God’s commandments, he will make us wise in our living and speaking, and our living and speaking will be, by his grace, a prophecy of his good will for all men.
St. Paul says much the same thing in today’s Epistle, when he declares: "Therefore, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh. For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live" (Romans 8:12-13). We are not obligated by earthly wisdom, schools of thought, or philosophies. What the fallen world has to offer is always a road to death. The Word of God, however, by which we kill the things of this world in our lives with the help of God the Holy Ghost, who indwells every faithful Christian, leads us (and all who follow our good example in Christ) to eternal life. The faithful of God are the prophets of God, because in the communion of Jesus Christ and the fellowship of the Holy Ghost, they make the will of God the Father visible and active even in this fallen world.
But we must not waver. We must not bend to the fallen world around us, either out of the kind of sentimentality that tempts us to tell those whom we love that they are safe living a life other that the life that God commands, or out of fear of God’s enemies, who will become our enemies if we remain faithful. Before the birth of Christ, the Churchman warned us of what to expect: "The parables of knowledge are in the treasures of wisdom; but godliness is an abomination to a sinner" (Ecclus. 1:25).
Our Lord warned us, too, of other kinds of "prophets"—of the false prophets who claim to obey him but do not, of the false prophets that we shall become if we do not obey him and his Father in all things. As we read in today’s Gospel, "Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits" (Matthew 7:15-16). No matter how kind a face we might like to put on disobedience to Jesus Christ and to all the commandments of the Scripture, if we disobey Jesus Christ and teach others to disobey him, Christ will see us as "ravening wolves" devouring the innocent, and death will be the fruits of our words and actions.
The Lord Jesus Christ also said, "Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven" (Matthew 7:21). To enter the kingdom of heaven we must first do the will of the Father who rules in heaven, and that divine will includes our service as his prophets in this world. We may not have asked for this job. We may not even have thought about it before this morning. But it is the job that we have been given, to prophecy the will of God by the obedience of our lives, as Jesus Christ and all the Scriptures attest to us this morning and forever.
Father Ed Bakker
Anglican Catholic Church / Original Province
Mission of Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne