Loveless Prophecy and Loveless Faith
by Ted Schroder
“If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but I have not love, I am nothing.” (1 Corinthians
Prophecy is one of the highest spiritual gifts. St. Paul says that we are to especially desire the gift of prophecy. (14:1) Prophecy is inspired speech, setting forth what God has revealed, even to prediction of things to come. It is the ability to inspire people with the message of God or to communicate words directly inspired by God. It is here associated with understanding mysteries, or the secret truths, made known in the Gospel, of God’s purposes and acts at the end of time. To “fathom all mysteries and all knowledge” is to have a perfect understanding of what is going to happen to the church in the last days. It is to claim being privy to information not generally known, and the ability to make that knowledge available. Paul is reminding us that “I may know everything there is to know, but if I have no love I am nothing.”
He also says that I may claim to have miracle-working faith – faith that can move mountains – which was a proverbial expression which meant ‘to make what seems impossible possible,’ but if I have not love I am nothing.
There is the temptation for a Christian in every generation to claim to know everything, and to claim to be able to do anything, in the name of revelation and faith. But if it is done without regard for the care and concern we need to have for others (what Jesus defines as love for our neighbor as ourselves), if it is not motivated by love, then all this knowledge and faith is worthless.
I believe that much prophetic teaching (a preoccupation with the end-times), and much faith teaching (the health and wealth Gospel) – is loveless. It is arrogant in its predictions and in its promises. It shows little humility and acceptance of suffering that is the mark of the Gospel of Jesus. It is triumphalist, desiring an earthly victory over evil, rather than incarnational, like Jesus, who was willing to take upon himself the sufferings of the world.
Basic to this conviction is the belief that the references to Israel in the Bible, can be applied directly to the political state of Israel today. Take Zechariah 12 for instance. Written around 520 B.C., both Haggai and Zechariah were encouraging the people of Israel, who were returning from exile in Babylon, to rebuild the Temple. Zechariah is also extensively quoted in the New Testament (seventy one times) for its Messianic prophecies. One third of these appear in the Gospels and thirty-one are found in the book of Revelation. Of all the Old Testament books, Zechariah is second only to Ezekiel in its influence on the book of Revelation. Its message was meant to strengthen the faith of the Jews as they faced opposition from the surrounding nations, by assuring them that God would protect them. “I will set out to destroy all the nations that attack Jerusalem.” (12:9)
That prophecy was fulfilled during the sixth century when the Temple was rebuilt. There are many today who would apply the prophecy to the events of today, and identify the Jerusalem of then to the Jerusalem of today. They would say that Bible-believing Christians should support the state of Israel based on what the Old Testament prophesies. In what I have to say I do not want to be interpreted as being anti-Israel. We may support the state of Israel for many good reasons: the right to exist in peace, the right to self-defense, support for democracy and freedom, opposition to anti-Semitism. But I don’t think that biblical prophecy is a legitimate reason. I believe that references to Israel and Jerusalem in the Old Testament do not apply to the political, secular state of Israel today.
George Eldon Ladd, Professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary states that Old Testament prophecies must be interpreted in the light of the New Testament. The New Testament applies Old Testament prophecies to the New Testament church and in so doing identifies the church as spiritual Israel. Abraham is called “the father of all who believe.” (Romans 4:11,16; Galatians 3:7,19). If Abraham is the father of a spiritual people, and if all believers are sons of Abraham, his offspring, then it follows that they are Israel, spiritually speaking.
This is what leads Paul to say, “For he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal.” (Romans 2:28,29) “For we are the true circumcision, who worship God in spirit, and glory in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:3) Paul applies prophecies to the church which in their Old Testament setting belong to literal Israel. He calls the church the sons, the seed of Abraham. He calls believers the true circumcision. It is difficult therefore to avoid the conclusion that Paul sees the church as the spiritual Israel.
Many Old Testament passages, which applied in their historical setting to literal Israel, have in the New Testament been applied to the church. “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God.” (1 Peter 2:9)
It is my contention that prophetic interpretation is loveless when it stridently asserts a literal interpretation of the Old Testament, and then fits the New Testament into it. The apostolic writers of the New Testament received from Jesus that the promises of God no longer applied to the land of Israel, but to the kingdom of God that had no geographical boundaries, and was to be open to all people of all nations. The Promised Land was to be seen as the Jerusalem that is above, the Holy City of heaven, not an earthly city in the Middle East. That is the truths our hymns proclaim: Isaac Watts, “We’re marching upward to Zion, The beautiful city of God.” John Newton’s, “Glorious things of thee are spoken, Zion, city of our God.”
Loveless prophecy feeds a craving for conspiracy theories, and a sense of superiority to the rest of the world. The book of Revelation was written, like the book of Zechariah some six centuries before, to encourage the faith of God’s people, who were experiencing opposition and persecution. The imagery is that of the Old Testament prophets, but it is applied to the disciples of Christ, who were in symbolical exile in the metaphorical realm of Babylon, the idolatrous Roman Empire. Today it can be applied to Christians everywhere who are suffering for Christ. The stoking of alarm that many end-time preachers indulge in to heighten the importance of their message is artificial and inaccurate. They give the impression that current events prophesy a countdown to disaster (an Armageddon) that will bring in the kingdom. I call this loveless because it fosters fear and anxiety in their listeners, and demonizes others. The media’s daily tally of the dead and wounded in the current conflicts give rise to a scenario that implies that events are spiraling out of control. To put this into historical perspective it is sobering to realize that during five months of 1916 in World War I (the Great War to end all wars, to make the world safe for democracy!), the battles over Verdun and the Somme in France resulted in one million dead.
Loveless faith is the message that God will invariably prosper and heal you if you trust in him. It is to take the faith teaching in the Bible and to interpret it literally without qualification. Paul quotes Jesus, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20,21) Jesus was using a popular colloquial phrase that referred to tearing up, uprooting, or pulverizing mountains as a hyperbole for removing difficulties. William Barclay comments: “Jesus never meant this to be taken physically and literally….What he meant was: ‘If you have faith enough, all difficulties can be solved, and even the hardest task can be accomplished.’ Faith in God is the instrument which enables men to remove the hills of difficulty which block their path.” At no point did Jesus say that faith will cure every person, or prosper every person. The impossible that faith makes happen is that in the midst of suffering, in pain, in poverty, you can find the presence, and the strength, and the hope of God.
Loveless faith condemns the poor and the sick to second class Christianity. It is the religion of the wannabes, and the successful. It encourages self-righteousness, and the false assurance that God is on your side, and that is why you are blessed, and why others are not. It shows no compassion for the multitudes of the needy: the hungry, at-risk children, the disabled, and the dying.
Jesus said, “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me you evildoers!’” (Matthew 7:22,23)
Why were these prophets and miracle-workers deficient? They were out of the will of God for their lives. They had confused their will with God’s will. They wanted to be successful, and when they had become so, they became proud of it. They boasted of their prophecies and their miracles of faith as evidence of their knowledge, their cornering of the mysteries of God. They gloried in their lavish lifestyles, and their fame. They were religious hucksters, peddling spiritual snake oil to the gullible and the desperate, who understandably longed for healing and for prosperity.
Contrast this example with the attitude of Jesus, which are meant to emulate, who ‘made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness… he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on the cross!’ (Philippians 2:7,8)
Love for God, and love for your neighbor, is the willingness to humble yourself, to become like a child, to be willing to suffer, to be concerned for the other person in need, to show them mercy and compassion. It is to “look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Phil.2:4) It is to face your difficulties with courage and hope, knowing that God has better things in store for you in the future kingdom. It is to face each day as your opportunity to conquer evil in the name of the Lord, and by God’s grace to battle the enemy. God has promised to defend you and to protect you because you are his holy people. He will never leave you or forsake you. “For you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven.” (Hebrews 13:22,23)
August 13, 2006
(A portion of this article has been
modified from its original publication - Carl Caton, Editor)
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