February 1, 2019

Cultural Prophets versus Corrupt Priests

Today, as in the time of the judges, we are to pray and work for regeneration and reformation, over against the spirit of revolution against God and his Word, declaring the whole counsel of God to the culture without fear or compromise. 

The period of the Judges in biblical history was frequently a time when God’s rightful rule and law was being ignored and all the people were “doing what was right in their own eyes” – God’s Word and promise was not important to them (cf. Jdgs. 17:6; 21:25). Consequently, in the sovereignty of God, Israel was afflicted by a corrupt priesthood and the oppression of the Philistines. In other words, there were problems within and without for a nation that had chosen to abandon the Lord. There are always consequences to rejecting the Lord.

Yet God is always working with a remnant of people who are ready to trust and obey his Word. At this very time, a barren woman named Hannah, a woman of true faith, implored the Lord for a son. As a result, the prophet-judge Samuel was born. In response to Hannah’s faith and obedience, God acts to change the fortunes of his people – actions that will culminate in the kingship of David and ultimately that of Christ Jesus himself. The ministry of the prophet Samuel actually bridges the difficult period of the judges and the promising beginnings of kingship under Saul and David. Samuel’s life proved to be a faithful ministry of preparing the way for the king.

A change in the form of government from judges to monarchy, however, was no guarantee of godliness and faith among the people – something that soon became clear in the history of the people of Israel. The risks of kingship included both the danger of unfaithfulness to God in the appointed king, and therefore tyrannical rule, as well as the people’s tendency to put their trust in the king or the state rather than in God. For this reason, God had explicit expectations of kings:

And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests. And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them, that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel (Deut. 17:14-20).

Interestingly, these words had a profound impact on the development of Christian monarchy in the West.

The immediate fulfilment of righteous kingship in biblical history is, of course, the monarchy of king David. However, Hannah’s marvelous prayer of thanksgiving for her son in 1 Samuel 2 alludes to a greater coming King beyond David, the coming Messiah king, the Lord Jesus Christ himself and the sovereign government of God’s kingdom in the earth through his Son:

The Lord brings death and gives life;
He sends some to Sheol, and He raises others up.
The Lord brings poverty and gives wealth;
He humbles and He exalts.
He raises the poor from the dust
and lifts the needy from the garbage pile.
He seats them with noblemen
and gives them a throne of honor.
For the foundations of the earth are the Lord’s;
He has set the world on them.
He guards the steps of His faithful ones,
but the wicked perish in darkness,
for a man does not prevail by his own strength.
Those who oppose the Lord will be shattered;
He will thunder in the heavens against them.
The Lord will judge the ends of the earth.
He will give power to His king;
He will lift up the horn of His anointed (1 Sam. 2:6-10).

Critically, Hannah’s song brings together into a unity her personal life, the life of the nation, and the life of Christ and kingdom his rule, all into one great prayer of praise. This should be the direction of Christian prayer and of our lives as believers. The gospel is no private, spare-time spirituality; it is all-encompassing because it concerns one’s personal life, family life, cultural life, and the life of the nation in its relation to the kingdom of God.

Now, for a king to be identified and anointed, to establish the line of kings that would lead finally to the King of all kings, required a faithful prophetic ministry that heard the voice of the Lord and prepared the way for the king. Just as John the Baptist was called from his mother’s womb (like Samuel) to be the forerunner of Christ, God needed a prophet to prepare the way for his king. The people clearly needed to be made ready, because in Samuel’s day, the populace and their priests languished in a terrible state. The people needed to repent, turn to God and see the hearts of the children return to their fathers. This need was clearly manifest in the terrible family relationship existing between the High Priest Eli and his rebellious sons (recorded in 1 Samuel 2-4), and the rapid degeneration of Israel under their corrupt administrations.

It is very important to note what this episode in the history of Israel teaches us today – especially in view of the family of Eli, who was Samuel’s guardian and mentor. A church or a people which rejects the living God and his law-word inevitably produces a culture that rejects fathers, fatherhood and godly authority – for God himself is revealed as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In such a culture, family is threatened and collapses, just as Eli’s family collapsed and was judged emphatically.

The church is meant to model the fatherhood of God to the world, but we live in an age of a deeply corrupted church and priesthood in the West; a context where God’s faithful fatherhood as a covenant-keeping God who rules through his Son as King of all kings, is obscured or denied by many and God’s norms for complementarity in family and the church are badly distorted. Liberal-progressive women bishops, pastors and priests frequently preside over radically feminized, homosexualized and declining churches who call them to office, while emasculated men sit back and do nothing, or applaud apathetically from the sidelines. The present cultural rejection of fatherhood and its perverse reinvention of God’s norms for sexuality and the family, producing both a widespread delinquency and fatherlessness of children, should therefore be no surprise to us. Just as Eli’s sons rejected their father’s authority, apparently in part due to his negligence, our culture is in the grip of a radical denial of fatherhood, family and familial authority. God’s faithful people must restore the hearts of children to their fathers. This includes recovering respect and gratitude for our past, our Christian cultural heritage and our fathers in the faith – not tearing down their statues and trampling their legacy underfoot.

In addition, just as Eli’s sons, who served as priests, robbed God and the people in the tabernacle and committed sexual immorality, so ecclesiastical theft from God and the people in the form of faithlessness, disobedience, rebellion, sexual perversion and the misuse of God’s resources is a mark of large parts of the modern egalitarian church (in some cases, even evangelical movements). From liberal Protestantism’s enthusiastic adoption of LGBTQ affirmation, to a sexually perverse segment of the Roman priesthood abusing children, and an evangelical church all too often disinterested in God’s reign and law, declining to speak out for the king, we have greatly accelerated the collapse of our own culture. Most especially the established church in Britain and the informal establishment in Canada has dragged the nation down and robbed the people of truth, meaning, and the gospel. The spirit of Hophni and Phineas is the spirit of much of the modern church.

From Samuel’s era then, we must take warning. As surely as the priesthood was taken away from Eli’s house and its corrupt ministry was set aside and destroyed, so will the corrupt, idolatrous and faithless ministers of today’s churches be set aside, and those denominations and movements who treat the sacred as profane and blaspheme the name of a Holy God by their abominations and rejection of God’s Word, be overthrown. When corruption is manifest in the sanctuary, look out, for judgment begins at the house of God (1 Pt. 4:17). As God declares through the prophet Jeremiah, “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture.… Their way of life has become evil, and their power is not rightly used because both prophet and priest are ungodly, even in my house I have found their evil … their way will be to them like slippery paths in the gloom” (Jer. 23:1, 10-12).

Samuel was called by God at a critical moment in Israel’s history, when the decline of Israel’s culture was manifest in every respect. Samuel was a forerunner to the king because he was a judge who combined judgeship with prophecy. In like manner, the church today must restore its calling to judge righteously in terms of God’s law, as Paul commands in 1 Corinthians 6:1-11, and to prophecy by speaking the Word (the whole counsel of God) faithfully and boldly:

If any of you has a legal dispute against another, do you dare go to court before the unrighteous, and not before the saints? Or don’t you know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is judged by you, are you unworthy to judge the smallest cases? Don’t you know that we will judge angels—not to mention ordinary matters? So if you have cases pertaining to this life, do you select those who have no standing in the church to judge? I say this to your shame! Can it be that there is not one wise person among you who is able to arbitrate between his brothers? Instead, believer goes to court against believer, and that before unbelievers!

Therefore, to have legal disputes against one another is already a moral failure for you. Why not rather put up with injustice? Why not rather be cheated? Instead, you act unjustly and cheat—and you do this to believers! Don’t you know that the unrighteous will not inherit God’s kingdom? Do not be deceived: No sexually immoral people, idolaters, adulterers, or anyone practicing homosexuality, no thieves, greedy people, drunkards, verbally abusive people, or swindlers will inherit God’s kingdom. And some of you used to be like this. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

This is the kind of prophetic judgment required from the church, that prepares the way for the return of the King, that advances his kingdom cause in the earth till he comes.

The first prophetic message heard by Samuel as a young man serving under Eli was a terrible revelation, the details of which had been declared before to Eli (1 Sam. 2:27-36) by an unknown wandering man of God whose identity is known only to the Lord – a faithful man willing to speak out the truth. Samuel, however, was to be proven as the Lord’s prophet-judge by confirming this word. There were two difficult challenges that were now before the young Samuel. He was quite naturally reluctant to tell Eli that the judgment God had threatened was certainly coming soon – who wouldn’t be? Eli had been his mentor, his friend and guardian and very much like a father to him. Yet Samuel had been told that God would soon carry out the judgment on Eli’s house – and it was too late to do anything about it. All those who heard about God’s dealing with them would find their ears quivering with shock and dread. So first, Samuel had to repeat a Word that had been declared before. And second, he needed the courage to speak it when he knew it might be taken badly – in this case, by someone he knew well.

Samuel therefore had to be willing to declare God’s Word, even though it might sound familiar or worn to Eli. Sometimes, as Christians, we are in danger of getting too familiar (in the sense of taking lightly), even bored, with the truth. We are often reluctant to repeat the ancient truths of the word of the gospel, spoken down the centuries for our culture today, especially to people we know. We crave novelty and think that a new word, a softer word, a more palatable word, would be better. But such a course can only lead us astray. How tragic it is today that so much of the church has lost the Spirit of Samuel and, instead of listening to God and repeating His Word, craves a new word of its own and seeks to declare a message that is more acceptable to men.

Scripture is plain however that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. Heaven and earth shall pass away, but His Word shall never pass away! The grass withers and the flowers fall, but His Word shall stand. Let God be true and every man a liar! The spirit of the age demands a new word and originality. But if Christians want true originality, they must speak the truth! In a day when truth is rare, speaking the truth makes one original even when you are not aware of it. If we stay true to the Word, making God’s testimonies our meditation, then as King David discovered, we can have “more understanding than all [our] teachers” (Ps. 119:99). It certainly goes very much against our natural inclinations at times, to say what the Lord has commanded to a rebellious culture. Yet if the Word of God has come to us in Jesus Christ and the scriptures, we cannot break away from its influence – it is always there in our ears holding us to account. As the apostle Paul wrote, “woe is me if I preach not the gospel!” (1 Cor. 9:16).

After that first occasion of faithfulness on Samuel’s part, delivering an unpopular message and holding nothing back, we are told that God continued to reveal himself to Samuel at Shiloh by his Word. God had found a faithful prophet ready to speak, ready to serve. Here was a man who would say, “Speak Lord, your servant is listening.” And because of this, because he spoke in terms of that Word, none of his words fell to the ground (1 Sam. 3:19-21). God’s Word cannot return to him void. When we are faithful, we discover that God’s Word never falls to the ground when working in us or through us.

As Christians we serve the Lord Jesus Christ as prophets and priests in difficult and barren times in the church and culture, where corruptions of the gospel proliferate. Like the period of the judges, ours is an age of revolution, with all the people doing what is right in their own eyes. And God is still looking for a faithful and obedient people, ready to listen and to obey, preparing the way for the return of the king.

The reality of revolt against God is nothing new. The French Revolution in the West, as a cultural manifestation of the thinking of the Enlightenment, attacked the spiritual foundations of Western civilization with great vigour. Groen van Prinsterer, an important Dutch statesman, a contemporary of William Wilberforce and founder of the Anti-revolutionary party in the Netherlands in the years following the French Revolution, wrote with insight:

In its essence, the Revolution is a single great historical fact: the invasion of the human mind by the doctrine of the absolute sovereignty of man, thus making him the source and centre of all truth, by substituting human reason and human will for divine revelation and divine law. The Revolution is the history of the irreligious philosophy of the past century; it is, in its origin and outworking, the doctrine that – given free reign – destroys church and state, society and family, produces disorder without ever establishing liberty or restoring moral order, and, in religion, inevitably leads its conscientious followers into atheism and despair…For Christians of whatever church there is now a common cause. They have to maintain Christian faith and law against impiety and anarchy. But if they are to be adequate for this task, nothing less than Christian truth is required … the Gospel is, and always will be, the ultimate anti-revolutionary principle. It is the sun of justice that after every night of error, appears over the horizon and scatters the darkness. It destroys the revolution in its root by cutting off the source of its deceptive reasoning … we must take up once more the work of the Reformation and continue in it … the Reformation put the Christian principle – obedience out of love for God and as the servant of God – into practice, and when in every sphere it placed human authority under God’s authority, it validated power by putting it back on its true foundation … the Revolution starts from the sovereignty of man; the Reformation starts from the sovereignty of God.[1]

The challenge in our time remains the same. Regeneration and reformation, over against the spirit of revolution against God and his Word. This battle can only be won when Christ’s faithful prophets and priests hear the Word of God and declare the whole counsel of God to the culture without fear or compromise. A corrupt priesthood that strengthens the hands of evildoers will find itself, as the prophet Jeremiah declared, in slippery paths of gloom, “for what is straw compared to grain?” (Jer. 23:28).

[1] Guillaume Groen Van Prinsterer, Christian Political Action in an Age of Revolution (Aalten, The Netherlands: WordBridge, 2015), 8, 88-89.

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