Right at the beginning of the biblical book of Exodus an Egyptian boss locks a yoke of slavery onto Israelite necks and shoulders. The nation chosen to be God’s people is back-bent under forced labor.
In response to tyranny designed to break and undo them, Israel grows and multiplies, bringing consternation to the heart of a tyrant, and leading him to intensify his oppression.
Moses, future liberator of these slaves, shows up, if babies show up, at a time when national law requires every male child born of Israelite women to be killed. Egypt’s boss is murderous, but the midwives fear God. They will not kill the boy children.
Moses’ mother conceives of her own peculiar means of aligning with the order for ethnic cleansing, infanticide for all males: “Throw every male child into the river.”
Besides the virgin who delivers and bears the Lord Jesus, Savior of all humanity, no woman in history will ever surpass Jochebed’s genius as mother.1 When Moses arrives, she has already birthed her nation’s future high-priestly lineage, and his sister—a singular prophet, musician, praise team leader. With Moses, her maternal genius commits a son to the river where he is to be drowned. Then, instead of being drowned, he is found. Found and elevated to royalty. The future emancipator of Israel receives training and nurture in the palace that issued the order for his death. So, and in other ways all His own (Job 26:14), God shows that He is God.
Moses grows up in the palace as “son of Pharaoh’s daughter” (Heb. 11:24), while his heart beats to rhythms synced with slaves, creatures unworthy to hold his hand or sit with him to eat. So clear is his sense of who he is, so strong is his bond with his people, that he murders an Egyptian one day (Ex. 2:11, 12). But it is not simply, as widely held, because he sees the offender ill-treating another Israelite. Such a telling declares a mere portion of the truth. The whole truth is that the abuse of Hebrews by their slave masters is everywhere, seen or unseen: it is the law of the land, and nothing new to Moses. The greater portion of the truth behind this murder is that its perpetrator at last finds—or perhaps more likely, situates—himself in a location that permits him, if only for this once, to pour out the profound passion of his soul on behalf of the people he knows are his own.
His identification with his slave brothers doesn’t go well. This is because the perversity of human nature is neither limited to nor controlled by our social circumstances. There may—or may not—be good masters of slaves: your rage against me for stating such a notion proves its own point; our cancel culture may deprive me of even the brief seconds it takes to complete my odious declaration. Nevertheless, I say: every human deserves their suspicion of innocence. There may or may not be goodness in the ranks of slave masters. Should there be, it may well derive from their having once been tyrannized; slaves who know the evil it is to be so, but then have earned their freedom, and will on no account subject another human, no, not even an animal, to the cruelty that they once lived. There may be good among slave masters. There surely is both good and bad among slaves, oppressed who will, if they can, further abuse their fellow oppressed; miscarriage of justice can be pretty standard in life: crushing and being crushed is the common lot of most; someone is always either above or below someone else, pushing and shoving and tugging and pulling (Eccl. 5:8).
Conscientious Moses rebukes a misbehaving fellow Hebrew; but this Hebrew is a bad slave. Were his tables capsized so that he should rule instead of render forced labor, so that he should be granted power over his fellow humans, whether Egyptian, American, Guyanese, or Hebrew, he would be a bad slave master. Speaking out of the abundant perver- sity of his heart (Matt. 12:34), he brazenly and outrageously accuses Moses of being a bully (Ex. 2:13, 14). The thought is frightening to the well-meaning , wannabe liberator: his own people may be his undoing. Moses escapes to Midian, some 600 miles away—enough to get this writer back to Andrews University, where he once worked, from the Seventh-day Adventist General Conference headquarters building, where he now does.
Moses’ murder was for a good cause: he figured “that his own people would realize that God was using him to rescue them” (Acts 7:25, NIV). His next-day encounter with the bully showed him that he had figured wrong. From that bully and otherwise, God got His message through to Moses that as much as He needed him, as surely as He would be working with him to grant him the desire of his heart—the liberation of his people—He wouldn’t be doing it by making men murderers: Moses knew, Israel’s elders knew, that Moses was God’s man.2 But God’s man would have to learn to do God’s work in God’s way. The God who is Lord of schedules, whose Son appears at just the time scheduled for the salvation of humanity (Gal. 4:4), also works in what He knows is the correct way of saving: He has His own thoughts and His own ways (Isa. 55:8). Humans too have ways, ways that seem right to us but end in disaster (Prov. 16:25). God’s way does not: His way is perfect, and ever the best for us (2 Sam. 22:31; Ps. 18:30).
Trying to outpace God was not new with Moses. Exalted father Abram had done it before—out of earnest desire to see the fulfillment of a divine prediction that the world would be as overrun with his descendants as the sky is with stars: The Lord had taken him out under the night sky and instructed, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them” (Gen. 15:5, NIV); and He had added, “So shall your off- spring be.” So Abram knows the goal. Knows where his God is going. And he’ll work with Him toward one more proof of His divine reliability. He’ll work as a true believer: “Abram believed the Lord” (verse 6, NIV); and the Lord knew it and rewarded him, “credited it to him as righteousness” (verse 6, NIV).
For at least a decade and a half thereafter Abram hoped, prayed, and pleaded that his effort be accepted and honored by his God.3 He colluded with his beloved wife, Sarai, to produce the seed who must start God’s course toward multiplication: Sarai had a good servant, a woman whom she trusted. The text identifies her as Egyptian—implying that her ethnicity matters. We should not mar- vel that we cannot see how or why at her first identification. Later, in Moses’ time, we may under- stand better. For now, it’s Hagar the Egyptian, and she can help Sarai do her part to fulfill God’s promise to Sarai’s husband, Abram. Sarai’s intent is explicit from the beginning—unlike textual reason for stating Hagar’s ethnicity: “Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her” (Gen. 16:2).
Neither Abram nor Sarai nor their instrument Hagar seems to have any idea how unhappy the Lord is about their brilliant, cooperative initiative or how much it will cost: “Polygamy had become so widespread that it had ceased to be regarded as a sin, but it was no less a violation of the law of God, and was fatal to the sacredness and peace of the family relation.”4 It had become very wide- spread—implying, to use the words of Jesus upon the associated question of divorce, “it was not this way from the beginning” (Matt. 19:8, NIV). “The world is too much with us,” William Wordsworth might say,5 as Pharisees lose the real and argue for the fake. But the God of valid, wondrous, and flawless beginnings had done everything right the first time—light, lights, foliage, worship, work, everything. At the climax of His work with matter, He built the woman as the perfect resolution of the man’s earliest known dilemma, human companionship. He wrought that resolution with intent: “That is why, . . .” the text (Gen. 2:24, NIV) says; so that human and supernatural observers might know from what follows, how, and on what basis, marriage is established and is to be established.
Marriage ceremonies vary wonderfully through country and culture. This is all as it should be. Ceremonies and participants may celebrate affection, creativity, and tradition in a thousand ways. But the institution of marriage itself is, for Jesus, formed and settled from Genesis. In Genesis and in Matthew and Mark, in the Old Testament Torah and in the New Testament Gospels, the terms of marriage are solid, permanent, and unvarying. Thinking otherwise, even invoking the divine as sanctioning variation, expresses the unconverted state of the human heart (Matt. 19:5).
Despite the admirable purpose of the transactional variation on marriage that connected Abram and Hagar, the God they tried to please could not approve of it as a way to accomplish His goals. Good human intent cannot trump divine order. And our innovative violations of the divine original are no more pardonable merely because we do not see their baleful consequences at first glance, or even after much reconnoitering. Consider now, millennia later, the fruit of the tree whose seed Abram and Sarai planted: “Abraham’s marriage with Hagar resulted in evil, not only to his own household, but to future generations.”6
Moses’ zeal that fired his run ahead of God ended up costing him a delay of 40 years! And how much the Abram-Sarai-Hagar triangulation cost our Lord I cannot say. Nor do I know how much my own perverse efforts at being in a hurry for Him have cost the truth. I now know for sure, though, that it does us much more good to tune in to the psalm- ist’s counsel: “Wait on the Lord: be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart: wait, I say, on the Lord” (Ps. 27:14, KJV). “Wait on the Lord, and keep His way” (Ps. 37:34); “Wait on the Lord, and he shall save thee” (Prov. 20:22, KJV).
1 Ellen G. White, Education (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press, Pub. Assn., 1903), p. 61.
2 Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1890, 1908), p. 245: “The elders of Israel were taught by angels that the time for their deliverance was near, and that Moses was the man whom God would employ to accomplish this work.”
3 “And Abraham said to God, ‘If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!’” (Gen. 17:18, NIV).
4 E. G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 145.
5 William Wordsworth, “The World Is Too Much With Us,” https://www. poetryfoundation.org/poems/45564/the-world-is-too-
6 E. G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 145.
Lael Caesar is an associate editor at Adventist Review Media.
When did the Adventist Review [AR] submit its application to be considered Adventism’s flagship journal?
Then what is the basis of its esteem? Consider its origins story of clear and simple beginnings.
It’s 1848: along with a few other earnest Christians, preacher James believes that his wife, Ellen, receives visions from God. Fol- lowing one of these, she tells him he needs to begin publishing “a little paper.” He does, calling it The Present Truth—called AR since 1978—a product of great conviction and great faith, undertaken without the means to pub- lish, but with the clear awareness that it is and will be God’s paper.
After more than 170 years, and now under its eleventh senior editor, what does the “little paper” do? Much the same as White first did.
His original focus, the doctrine of the Sabbath, spoke compellingly to future editors: Address current issues. Be relevant. Be biblical. Be open. Be faithful, full of faith.
AR editors are still listening. Today they share news, theology, or fellowship with the saints as part of a major multimedia operation—multiple plat- forms integrated with the ministry’s hard copy dimension. Along with kindred productions—Adventist World, KidsView—AR now plays unique print roles that emphasize its distinctive importance, while complementing the work of the ministry’s other platforms. This includes providing a distilla- tion of conversations following online responses to real-time situations, e.g., strongly principled pieces by Ella Simmons—July 2020; Gary Blanchard and Washington Johnson—August 2020, responding to boiling indignation in the streets of the world, following the murder of George Floyd. Also, featuring themes of current interest that are more amply dealt with online—e.g., the different Christmas concerts staged (yes, “staged”) in our pages and online, December 2020. Also, offering introduction to regular online programs—e.g., January 2022, where our samples of GraceNotes inform readers about a weekly program from the AR audio platform.
Overall, AR continues to share the news of inter- est to the global church wherever it happens (see, in this issue, Enno Muëller and Marcos Paseggi). Also, we engage on the relevant social, spiritual, and theological questions (e.g., May 2021: multiple scientists on “Science and the Gospel”; October 2020: the three angels’ messages). And we facilitate discussion on difficult topics (e.g., March 2021: “Can We Talk About Change?”; July 2020: econo- mist Malcolm Russell, “The Pandemic, Socioeco- nomic Impacts, and Adventism”). AR also orients readership on the Christian’s response to their sociopolitical times (e.g., January 2021: attorney and historian Nicholas Miller, “After the Dust Set- tles,” following a tumultuous year in American politics); and, of supreme importance, AR stays in contact with the saints through (a) their letters that give constant feedback; (b) manuscripts they submit that we are glad to publish; (c) articles we solicit from authors among our readers, in the area of their expertise.
As from its beginnings, AR continues in its commitment to establish the church in present truth, helping to lead people to Jesus Himself, who is the truth, as well as the way and the light.
Lael Caesar has loved the Adventist Review forever. He works there now.
The tyrannical reign of wicked King Covid the 19th shows little inclination of ending. By another three years his disease may have turned endemic: we’ll simply take our periodic vaccinations like some have taken flu shots for all their lives.1
Sadly enough, COVID-19 is not our first instance of welcoming bad neighbors. Consider familiar neighbor alcohol. David Williams and Peter Landless inform us that “there is no safe level of alcohol use.”2 Still, Americans consume an average of 2.4 gallons of pure alcohol per year,3 leading to such impacts on our bodies as high blood pressure, strokes, pancreatitis, liver disease, and cancers of the mouth, breast, head and neck, esophagus, liver, and colon. Beyond these, there is the increased risk of traffic accidents, violence, and suicide, and the death, annually, of about 95,000 people.4 Two other preventable causes kill even more of our friends, neighbors, and relatives: first is tobacco, then poor diet and lifestyle.
Welcoming these families—alcohol, tobacco, poor diet, etc.— into our neighborhoods and helping them to thrive at taking lives is not Christian. Sure, there may be numbers of Christian neighbors permitting or facilitating it. Which only increases the tragedy. And begs the question “Why?” Why should humans facilitate the presence and practice of murderous neighbors?
Robert Hart, in the American business magazine Forbes, reports that from June to December 2021, 163,000 COVID-19 victims could have lived if they had chosen to be vaccinated.5 Hart writes that “the vast majority of hospitalizations and nearly all deaths from COVID-19 are in unvaccinated people, who have cost the health-care system billions and diverted resources from other areas of medicine.”6 Why people in America—or people anywhere—should die by the hundreds of thousands—or one at a time—when they could live is a tragedy enshrouded in a mystery. Ancient prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel agonized over why their people would choose to die when they could live (Jer. 27:13; Eze. 18:31). The answer to their anguish is a mystery of human volition, a commentary on our powers of reason, and a window on our varied and competing ways of establishing facts and truth. One nation’s health-care system may be perplexed at its obligation to invest billions of dollars and experts’ time in simply avoidable crises. But the crisis of the choice for death is not even unique to humanity.
Seventh-century Israelite prophet Jeremiah flails his prophetic arms in desperation as Judah heads toward collapse at the hands of Babylonian invaders.
His dismay focuses on King Zedekiah [hereafter, King Z], whom he is trying to help, as the nation approaches its sad end. Except that, according to another prophet, Hananiah, no such end is approaching. Whom is the king to believe? The prophets compete with and contradict each other while claiming the same level of legitimacy, both self-identifying as spokespersons for God—an unsurpassable sanction. Consider:
Prophet Hananiah, month five, year four, of the current monarch’s reign: “The Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: ‘I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon. Within two years I will bring back to this place all the articles of the Lord’s house that Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon removed from here and took to Babylon’ ” (Jer. 28:2, 3, NIV).
Prophet Jeremiah, similar vein, year, and subject, to an international company of diplomats conven- ing in the nation’s capital, Jerusalem: “The Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: ‘Tell this to your masters: . . . I made the earth and its people and the animals that are on it. . . . Now I will give all your countries into the hands of my servant Nebuchad- nezzar king of Babylon; I will make even the wild animals subject to him. All nations will serve him and his son and his grandson until the time for his land comes’ ” (Jer. 27:4-7, NIV).
Nebuchadnezzar has but two years, Hananiah says, in the name of the Lord of heaven’s hosts! He has three generations, Jeremiah says, in the name of “the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel” (verse 4)! So how is poor King Z to know, when all claims derive from the same supreme authority? This is confusion—“lack of clearness or distinct- ness,” the dictionary says; and, by way of illustra- tion, offers a phrase that uses the term: “a confusion in his mind between right and wrong.”7 King Z is certainly confused. Why doesn’t God tell him what to do, and whom to heed? What a ques- tion! And we ask it too. But isn’t He? Is divine silence the reason for the king’s confusion?
For King Z’s benefit, in 594-593 B.C., and for ours today, God will speak clearly, dissipating the gloom where fungi and conspiracies hatch and creep around. God’s bright distinction between Himself and the shameless liar, between reality and the fake, between His truth and bewildering deception, will end all confusion. Or will it? The naked human eye cannot automatically see in the dark, so God will give a special revelation (1 Cor. 2:14).
Jeremiah presents: with a visual aid. It’s a yoke that dramatizes the subjection of all nations to Nebu- chadnezzar (Jer. 27:1, 2, NIV). And he has given his king the same message he gave the diplomats: sur- render to Babylon (verse 12). But Hananiah, Jeremi- ah’s prophetic competition, will lie with conviction, in God’s name, and appropriate any tool available. Jeremiah’s visual aid will do: it is a symbolic artifact resembling the implement that harnesses a pair of oxen. Hananiah lifts the yoke from off Jeremiah’s neck and, as he breaks it, he speaks: “This is what the Lord says: ‘In the same way I will break the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon off the neck of all the nations within two years’” (Jer. 28:11, NIV). His show-stopping, in-your-face drama carries the day! Hananiah, one; Jeremiah, zero.
Then God gives Jeremiah another message. He must go and tell Hananiah, “This very year you are going to die, because you have preached rebel- lion against the Lord” (verse 16, NIV). Also, because “you have persuaded this nation to trust in lies” (verse 15, NIV).
Two months later Hananiah is dead (verse 17).
Hananiah, famous by fraud, paid with his life for it. But his death does not end confusion. Six years later, King Z denounces and imprisons Jeremiah: “Why do you prophesy as you do? You say, ‘This is what the Lord says: I am about to give this city into the hands of the king of Babylon, and he will capture it’” (Jer. 32:3, NIV). Confusion dies hard! Moreover, confusion wasn’t invented in the sixth century B.C. Long before then, before Earth’s time, a bold creature stirred up and served his own bewildering brew to whoever would sip. A third of heaven’s angelic hosts smacked their lips, said that it was good, and, for it, were expelled from the hallowed halls of Eternal Truth. Confusion would not reign in heaven: there would be no indistinctness between Lord and creature (Isa. 14:12-15; Eze. 28:12-19; Luke 10:18; Rev. 12:4).
The bold creature, now outcast, introduced his beguiling potion to Earth’s first two humans. Our first parents drank, and found themselves morally poisoned, eternally doomed: they had succumbed to confusion, belief in a lie that mixed fact and fiction, engendering indistinctness: yes, God knows everything; yes, you will learn what you did not know before; but no, that will not make you like God; it will not bridge the unbridgeable chasm between you, the creature, and the infinite God, your Creator. Objective truth and reality do exist, independent of whatever intriguingly persuasive thing the liar may say. You will not become a deity; you will die (see Gen. 3:1-6).
Humanity’s founding couple fell by giving credence to the word of the original fraud Jesus identifies as “a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44, NIV).
Adam and Eve did not have to surrender to a lie. Confusion is difficult to figure out sometimes, but never enough for King Z or Adam or you or me to blame God for leaving us in error. Jesus is unequivocal: “Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own” (John 7:17, NIV). This is a hard saying, with forbidding implications: confusion is never God’s fault. I may be confused because I do not truly want to know. King Z’s vacillation six years after God had pub- licly cut down liar Hananiah seriously calls into question any alleged uncertainty about God’s voice in the matter. Am I just one more King Z? Do I clamor for clarity at the very moment that silence will allow me to hear (Ps. 46:10)? Am I (awkwardly) violating God’s order of silence (Hab. 2:20)? Is my confusion a simple failure to distin- guish genuine need from selfish craving, my per- sonal fascination with forbidden fruit (James 4:3)?
Humans have been shown too much to believe that our unclarity must be God’s fault. We may balk at heaven’s damning assessment, but we lack the means or credibility to falsify it: “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19, NIV). My own clarity about my faith, the strength of my conviction, may be greater than the Israel of Elijah’s time, double- minded and unstable, hobbling between two opinions (James 1:8; 1 Kings 18:21). But am I ready to declare before God again and again, “not as I will; but as you will” (Matt. 26:39, NIV)?
Those words are Jesus’ own principled sentiment: “Those who accept the one principle of making the service and honor of God supreme will find perplexities vanish and a plain path before their feet.”8 As the Lord has promised, categorically: “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jer. 29:13, NIV).
The space-time where we live out our thoughts and behaviors is moral first. And truth matters. Eternally. Lies may win us rhetorical contests and more, but winning is not what humanity most needs. More vaccines, perhaps. Francis Collins, retiring director of the National Institutes of Health, is amazed that 60 million Americans, despite the COVID vaccines’ lifesaving nature, “would still say, ‘No, not for me.’ ”9 But what human- ity most needs is saving truth. And Jesus who is saving truth and eternal life calls us all: “Come to me” (Matt. 11:28, NIV), I’ll set you free (John 8:32). Confusion may be its own perplexing matter. But God is not confusion’s author. Rather, He is the author of the wholeness that is peace (1 Cor. 14:33), and the antithesis of gray uncertainty: “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5, NIV). Why grope in confusion, why die when you don’t need to; when you may live in Christ, and thrive?
Hananiah’s fate is not inevitable. We have better models to follow.
1 https://www.cnbc.com/2021/12/17/pfizer-executives-say-covidcould-become-endemic-by-2024.html, accessed Dec. 20, 2021.
2 David Williams and Peter Landless, in Journal of Adventist Education, December 2013/January 2014, p. 29, citing Lorraine T. Midanik et al., “Risk Functions for Alcohol-Related Problems in a 1988 U.S. National Sample,” Addiction 91, no. 10 (1996): 1427-1437.
3 https://www.who.int/data/gho/data/indicators/indicator-details/ GHO/alcohol-recorded-per-capita-(15-)-consumption-(in-litres ofpure-alcohol).
5 https://www.forbes.com/sites/roberthart/2021/12/14/160000-unvaccinated-americans-died-from-covid-19-since-june---shots couldhave-saved-them-study-finds/?sh=38ae517d44e8; accessed Dec. 20, 2021.
7 2021 Dictionary.com, LLC.
8 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898, 1940), p. 330.
9 CBS News, “NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins on a Life in Science,” Dec. 19, 2021, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/nih-director-dr-francis-collins-on-a-life-in-science/, accessed Dec. 29, 2021.
Lael Caesar is an associate editor of the Adventist Review.
It’s altogether too difficult to dispute the uniqueness of Moses. As the human source of three great world religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Moses and his greatness may be freely asserted. His humility, however, turns out to be more of a problem.
Numbers 12:3 may well be the Bible’s most unforgettable parenthesis, and for no positive reason. Many find it impossible to accept that the height of humility would be for Moses, considered the book’s author, to describe himself as he does, “more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.” And besides the oddity of such an action, there is adequate room to wonder about Moses as meek.
Beyond his domination of early Israelite history he is seen as a major figure in the New Testament: the healed leper must carry out Moses’ instructions for ritual cleansing (Matt. 8:4); Jesus and His opponents all claim Moses’ support in their argument about marriage and divorce (Matt. 19:7, 8). In Jesus’ hypothetical, well-known story about the rich man and Lazarus, one thing is clear: it’s about Moses (Luke 16:19-31). Mentioned 80 times in the New Testament, Moses is an undying hero. Except that he does die in the Old Testament (Deut. 34:5-7), only to rise again before the New Testament gets too far along, so he can show up to encourage Jesus before His passion—which Luke actually calls Jesus’ exodus (Luke 9:28-36).
Moses’ support is not in vain: Jesus conquers devil and hell, bursts out of the mountain, and soars to glory with a promise to return for His friends. Once the news gets out to “every creature under heaven” (Col. 1:23), priests and Pharisees, Jews and Gentiles, plebes and patricians all want to follow the Nazarene’s way.
The Christian church holds its first deliberative council, seeking for process and practice that will be fair to all. James, presiding, reminds delegates of the pivotal presence and word of Moses for making things go right (Acts 15:13-21). All of which confronts us with a new question: are we even reading right in Numbers when we hear it say that this giant of a statesman, author, legislator, and nation builder was humanity’s humblest ever?
The questions aren’t done yet. For it may yet be that Scripture’s most remarkable lines about Moses relate to Jesus rather than to humility, to a prophecy in Deuteronomy rather than to a parenthesis in Numbers. Invoking that prophecy, Peter in Acts 3 and Stephen in Acts 7 both argue that Jesus is Jesus because He properly fulfills Moses’ prediction of a coming prophet who would be like him: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him” (Deut. 18:15). Both Peter in Acts 3 and Stephen in Acts 7 state that this prediction is about Jesus: Jesus is like Moses.
We now have three points to ponder: (1) How can humility declare itself most humble? (2) Can we be sure, given his accomplishments and stature, that Moses was all that meek? (3) Why should heaven and the prophets say that Jesus is like Moses? That’s the opposite of the directions of our Sabbath School songs: “I would be like Jesus. Be like Jesus, this my song, in the home and in the throng.”2
One major way to begin addressing the multiplied queries would be vis-à-vis the superlative claim of Numbers 12:3. Answers to our multiple questions may have their best starting point in the unforgettable parenthesis: “Moses was the humblest.”
We claim to value humility now only because Jesus does, and we want to sound Christian.
The term ‘anaw (“humble”) that Moses applies to himself in Numbers 12 was no coveted epithet among the “haves” of Old Testament times. Its possession did not contribute to superior status or constitute a position of power. Answering our first question, a pronouncement on humility in Numbers is not designed as a statement of greatness. That ‘anaw is sometimes confused with the closely related ‘ani (“poor,” “afflicted”) only underlines the fact that to declare oneself such is hardly to be heard as a braggart. To be ‘ani was to be the natural object of exploitation (see Ex. 22:22-24), so helpless in one’s affliction that the Lord Himself must personally intervene to help and deliver (Ex. 3:7, 8).
And because ‘anaw itself never represents high social standing or popular esteem, considering the famous parenthesis a note of conceit happens only by detaching it from its contextual moorings. Taken in its original context, the text seeks to communicate Moses’ indisposition about preserving his reputation. Or it pronounces upon his sheer inability to protect himself from slanderous verbal assault or rebellion against his divinely appointed authority. His personal dignity, his choice of spouse, his manner of leadership—all were subject to open attack and ridicule by his siblings and/or by hundreds of subalterns responding to strong urges to prove themselves superior to whatever he thought of them.
Moses’ story, as recounted in the relevant chapters of Numbers, presents a report consistent with the lot and experience of the biblical ‘anaw, a group whose divine support and blessing never relate to their community status or their role in the society. Indeed, it is their need that evokes God’s succor. Left to themselves they will be swept away by any onslaught of evil as they encounter people whose goal and practice is to “trample the needy and do away with the poor [‘anaw] of the land” (Amos 8:4).
In Numbers 12, Moses’ creative, assertive, extroverted sister—in the lead, with older brother Aaron trailing—unleashes a shameful insult against the man and his wife, stuffing her sad sentiments into an enveloped labeled “God’s Service”: “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Hasn’t he also spoken through us?” (Num. 12:2). If God had not told us explicitly, we would not know that Miriam’s holy jealousy is just a cover for her racism: “Miriam and Aaron began to talk against Moses because of his Cushite wife, for he had married a Cushite” (verse 1). Cush as location means Ethiopia. God Himself intervenes to severely discipline the gifted, prejudiced prophetess (verses 4-15; see also Ex. 15:20).
Moses is soon confronted with a new trial, this time the unnecessary and “evil report” (Num. 13:32, KJV) the spies bring back. Their “spy idea” was unnecessary and insulting to God because He had spied out the territory already (Eze. 20:6). He had long ago guaranteed the land of Canaan to Israel’s great ancestor Abraham (Gen. 15:18-21), even explaining the schedule for taking possession (verses 13-16).
Yet the people cringe at Moses’ wonderful announcement: “You have reached the hill country of the Amorites, which the Lord our God is giving us. See, the Lord your God has given you the land. Go up and take possession of it” (Deut. 1:19-21).
Comparing Deuteronomy and Numbers shows that though Moses and His gracious Lord accept responsibility for the commissioning of spies (Num. 13:1-16), they both knew it was wrong (disastrously so, it turned out). The faithlessness that inspired the idea of sending spies equally inspired their report. That same faithlessness riled up the congregation receiving the report, and inspired their desire to murder the ones who preferred to trust in God (Num. 14:10). Moses’ humility only encouraged their bold faithlessness: he was either so nice or so naive that they knew he would eventually surrender before their clamor; they could threaten to stone him and all God’s faithful, and he would back down; they could complain all night and his resolve would melt.
The rebellions keep piling on: the Numbers 16 attack is by the cream of the crop: “250 Israelite m
en, well-known community leaders who had been appointed members of the council” (verse 2). These are men who know their standing in society, and know they have huge followings on Twitter and Facebook, if not on Instagram and TikTok. They echo Miriam, though now Moses and Aaron are lumped together: they take too much on themselves; they lack proper respect for the capacity of others to do what they do; they think themselves superior to everybody else, “above the Lord’s assembly” (verse 3). When God miraculously destroys these champions of fairness for all, their followers scream at Moses and Aaron, “You have killed the Lord’s people” (verse 41).
Through these episodes of racist insult, bold faithlessness, and class warfare, Moses’ attitude gives us a consistent answer to our second query: can we be sure of his humility? In each of these three cases—(1) his brother and sister, (2) the spies, (3) the famous community leaders—it is God, even silencing Moses’ compassionate pleas, who takes hold of the situation and metes out appropriate discipline.
In the first case, Miriam, God, and Aaron—the other parties present—all speak before Moses does. When we do hear his voice, it is in a cry to God, brief and intense, for mercy on the sister he loves, whom God has struck with a defiling skin disease: “Please, God, heal her!” (Num. 12:13). The Lord shuts him up: He will not have the incident quietly disappear. The congregation will know of the shameful thinking and behavior; of God’s indignation; of Moses’ meek silence; of his plea swept aside by the God who owns justice (Deut. 32:35) and will sometimes administer stern discipline even when those oppressed plead for mercy on their abusers.
The story of Korah, Dathan, Abiram, and their 250 famous colleagues offers just as powerful a witness to Moses’ deferential character, though he is much more involved in the action this time, even passionately so (Num. 16:15). God shows again, by an unprecedented miracle of punishment, the level of His rage against rebels who confidently assault His order through abusing His servant Moses. When Korah and the gang of greats charge him with conceit, the best Moses can do is fall, facedown, to the ground (verse 4). At the story’s decisive moment, we hear Moses’ voice, crying out to God again, for mercy on scoundrels. God knows how deeply the poison of insurrection has already penetrated the entire congregation, and commands Moses and Aaron, “Separate yourselves from this assembly so I can put an end to them at once” (Num. 16:21). Moses begs God not to kill everybody. God agrees, but gives a new command: “Move away from the tents of Korah, Dathan and Abiram” (verse 24).
Then Moses speaks up: “If the Lord brings about something totally new, and the earth opens its mouth and swallows [these men], . . . then you will know that these men have treated the Lord with contempt” (verse 30). God has said that rebellion is like witchcraft, and “arrogance like the evil of idolatry” (1 Sam. 15:23). Spiritual discernment lets Moses see witchcraft and idolatry here: the geniuses have elevated their self-importance above any possible worship of the true God.
In Moses’ words we hear Jesus’ voice denouncing scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites ensconced “in Moses’ seat,” living church like a reality show, including respectful greetings (see Matt. 23:2, 5-7).
Jesus is not proud for delivering curses on those who have earned them: no, He is defining true humility: it is the opposite of what these religious authorities stand for, and Jesus is it. He invites: “Come to me,” “for I am gentle and humble in heart” (Matt. 11:28, 29).
Jesus answers all our questions about Moses.
Now, with Moses’ help, we know what to do when Jesus says, “Come,” “for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt. 11:28, 29).
Lael Caesar is an associate editor of Adventist Review.
As I write, summer’s season is still new. Not that its predecessor ever surrendered. No, Season Previous has run raging on right into summer, even where there’s nothing called summer.
Labeling this unrepentant, unrelenting season has inspired vigorous dispute. Suggestions scientific, subjective, offensive, witty, insensitive, or other all claim their adherents: GPS—global personal shutdown? COVID-19? SARS-CoV-2? Awkwardly: Kung flu? Zoom season, given the redefinition of all things—loved fellow humans included—as square frames inside the reality of screens!
Still, campaigners and protestants the world over now rage at yet another imposition on our screens of reality and our labels for seasons: Is there such a thing as legal murder season? Who knows what’s next?
The future we need to know is secure and guaranteed.
Turns out we can, you and I. For all our faith in squares and science, our focus on screens, our concerns for cops and their victims or campaigners and their law-and-order causes, there is reliability more grounded than protestants and their placards, and truth more transcendent than science, predating and outlasting the creation of matter and energy, and inspiring me to offer two lines for the next zoomed PowerPoint:
Line 1: The only constant in the universe is God: not your job or my president, not Judah’s King David or 2020’s King COVID; not anything else social, emotional, political, physical. God, whom none of us can either see or comprehend; God, who alone is immortal (1 Tim. 6:16), revealing Himself through His Son Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, forever (Heb. 13:8), and teaching us everything we need to know through His omniscient Spirit (1 Cor. 2:10; John 14:26; 16:13), God is reality.
Line 2: The future we need to know is secure and guaranteed. Omniscience created us with the knowledge that omniscience isn’t ideal for us. But what we do need to know about ourself or the world’s future is accessible: “The Sovereign Lord does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets” (Amos 3:7). You have questions: Zoom season, King COVID season, legal or illegal murder season? Go to adventistreview.org to see some we’ve addressed.
Keep listening to and learning from the prophets’ messages. The Spirit inspires the prophets (see John 14:26; Rev. 19:10), so we can know what needs to be known. Ask the prophets (the Word) the crucial, personal questions: about job, family, health, retirement, salvation—ask! This is not a platitude. God’s Word is no palliative. It is as secure as the One who utters it: we’re much more than lilies (Matt. 6:25-34); He’ll carry all our cares—emotional, spiritual; about our neighbors, our country, national/international health, loved ones on the front lines, loved ones on ventilators, loved ones struggling to breathe; and justice. He cares (1 Peter 5:7).
The Word/Jesus can tell us what Satan wants to do next; God knows what Satan means to do next (2 Peter 1:19). But Jesus has Satan’s neck. Jesus has our hearts. Come clean with Him, and He’ll clarify what He knows needs to be clear: if we want to know, we ask.
Lael Caesar is an associate editor at Adventist Review Ministries.
The Bible’s first five books are a unit called the Pentateuch. The third of those five has the Hebrew name Wayyiqra (the text’s first word). Its English name, derived from the Greek (Leuitikon), comes to us as a direct transliteration of the Latin Leviticus, and means “Levitical service” or “things about Levites.” So what might a book about Levites have to do with Jesus?
The Levites were descendants of Jacob’s third son, Levi. Jesus was no descendant of Levi. He was a Judahite, something the Gospels of Matthew and Luke explain from the outset. Their genealogies, the New Testament’s most extended, both detail Jesus’ Judahite ancestry. Matthew’s first word establishes Him as David’s and Abraham’s Son (Matt. 1:1). Then, beginning with Abraham, he traces Jesus’ lineage all the way to “Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, . . . [who] was the mother of Jesus” (Matt. 1:16).
Was Matthew introducing Jesus as Joseph’s biological son? Of course not. He chose his words to avoid any such misunderstanding: unlike standard genealogical linkage (e.g., Judah is Perez’ father, or Jesse is King David’s father), Joseph is not anybody’s father. He is the husband of Jesus’ mother.
Matthew knew the difference better than others; he got it from an angel of the Lord! The angel told Joseph (speaking of Mary, the baby’s mother), “What is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” (verse 20). But Matthew’s Spirit-guided Gospel genealogy served social and supernatural objectives in tracing Jesus through Judah. His genealogy ensures that Mary’s baby will stand forever as the ultimate challenge of all human conception. Mary’s baby is the unfathomable mystery in flesh and blood of the Lion born to Judah’s tribe, who is God’s own sacrificial Lamb slain from the world’s foundation; David’s and his father Jesse’s Root, who is also David’s Offspring; the priest forever, but of Melchizedek’s order; the Maker and Sustainer of all things, visible and invisible, material and logical, who is Creator God, the Word made flesh to save the world.1
When this unfathomable Jesus lived among us, God Incarnate, He sometimes pointed people to Leviticus. Some students of His life find it more hostile to, than supportive of, things about Levites. They may acknowledge that Leviticus includes much besides slit animal throats and roasted grain. It includes ethical teachings consistent with Jesus’ own elevated moral values. But they find the book’s elaborate ritual systems undesirable and dispensable. These scholars read Jesus’ fierce criticism of the ritualists of His day as denouncing everything such people stood for.
Their critique would make them authorities on what may stay in or be cut out of the book. But the location of this book at the heart of the Bible’s foundation unit hardly supports claims of even its partial dispensability or piecemeal application. Instead, its central location suggests its crucial importance to the God who authored the book.
The Israelites were mostly stuck on rituals and void of morals. They needed more lessons on integrity than they did on ritual process.
Abraham’s descendants, the book’s first recipients, were God’s chosen vehicle to channel His salvation history to all humanity, a history that climaxes with the life and passion of Jesus, the seed promised to Abraham who would bless the whole world (Gen. 12:3; Gal. 3:16). Much of God’s original purpose for His people, and about the kind of character He meant for them to develop as individuals and as a nation, is laid out in Leviticus.
One simple way of appreciating that purpose and character is comparing two names given to the five-book grouping to which Leviticus belongs: “Pentateuch” simply means “five scrolls.” “The Torah,” an older identification, states something meaningful about the books: they are “the teaching” or “the instruction.” The Torah is God’s unique instruction manual to His people Israel, provided to them through His genius servant Moses. Leviticus, its central teaching book, instructs on what, how, and who Israel was supposed to be, and why: “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:2). “Be holy, because I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 20:7).
God selected the Levites to lead out in His drama of holy being. There was hardly a thing they weren’t running: Moses—unique leader; Miriam—prophet and celebration leader; Aaron and his descendants—the priests; Kohath, Gershom, Merari, and their families—managing transport of the portable church called the tabernacle (mishkan), or sanctuary (miqdash). Church, work, peace, and even war: it was Levites all the way.2 The tribe’s link to all of Israel’s sacred rituals bestowed on them yet another honor: they are the only one of Israel’s 12 tribes to give its name to one of the Bible’s 66 books, namely, Leviticus, “things about Levites.”
Leviticus includes a lot of description of Levites’ work, which some have attempted to use, as mentioned before, to set the book against itself: setting ritual material against ethical material—chapters 1-16, more or less, against chapters 17-26. But the opposition of ritual to ethics makes a loser of both: ritual that is ethically void is no more rewarding than ethics that is practically irrelevant. The book of Leviticus includes both didactic rituals and practical ethics: witness, supremely, the life, ministry, and passion of their original Lawgiver, Jesus Himself, a fact worth emphasizing. For “it was He [Christ] who gave the law to Israel.”3
He who presented the instructions of Leviticus to Moses during a month of lectures at their meeting tent later came to Earth to magnify those teachings.4 Through 33 and a half years of love and inexhaustible service, sacrifice and singular passion, life and undeserving death, resurrection from hell and guarantee of soon return, Jesus, Author of Israel’s teaching, fulfilled its potential infinitely—surprising, delighting, dismaying, frustrating the eyes and ears, hearts, and minds that were privileged to witness His incarnation of Torah meaning.
As often as He could, He pointed to Leviticus to validate His actions and arguments, drawing as much on Levitical ritual systems as He did on Levitical ethics. Altogether, the four Gospels contain 40 references that produce 44 evocations of the book5—some brief, some extended—that connect Jesus’ life and teaching with words, ideas, rituals, and morals from Leviticus. In 23 of those 44 instances, Jesus actually quotes Leviticus. He needed to go back there for the sake of His people who had lost their way and needed His help in redirecting their steps through repairing their thinking.
The book itself never leaves any doubt as to the gloriously exalted status God intended for His people. Having extracted them from the clutches of their slave masters, He settled them in around the base of a desert mountain for a yearlong tête-à-tête, giving them some space to appreciate how much He cared about them; to reflect on what had just happened; to understand how, and why: “You yourselves have seen what I did . . . , and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself” (Ex. 19:4).
He shared with them what He was about to do for them: “Out of all nations you will be my treasured possession” (verse 5). This was the beginning of their training toward unimprovable ends: “You will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (verse 6). He would maintain the same level of interest and effort He had already invested to see them through to stellar success.
Everything depended on their willingness: “if you obey me fully and keep my cove
nant” (verse 5). God was interested in their perspective, in cooperation and mutuality; nothing would be by force or intimidation.
Recently liberated slaves found it hard to believe, but their God was insistent. Even before He gave Moses the material contained in Leviticus, He described their splendid future: “Youwill be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (verse 6). He was giving them the gospel: “The gospel is given in precept in Leviticus.”6
But it hadn’t quite worked out. They had become convinced that their best option would be mimicking their neighbors. They lodged a petition with their God-appointed leader: permission to mimic their neighbors (see 1 Sam. 8:4, 5). Something better than the gospel. By the time Jesus arrived, being like the neighbors had dragged them back into subjugation, so that their overriding fantasy was of a Moses who would liberate them again, and restore their independence and status (Matt. 20:20, 21). Jesus had come about an exodus too (Luke 9:28-31); He was the fulfillment of a prophecy Moses had given them (Deut. 18:15). But it wasn’t one that caught the leaders’ interests.
They were mostly stuck on rituals and void of morals. They needed more lessons on integrity than they did on ritual process. They must have known how to reinstate lepers to society once the skin disease that had shut them out of society had disappeared. So Jesus sent them lepers He healed, respecting procedures He had set up with Moses a millennium and a half before: “Show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them” (Mark 1:44; see also Luke 17:14).
The ritual of cleansing mattered. He Himself had prescribed it. But its lessons about purity were always supposed to have gone beyond the surface and skin diseases. Jesus could teach, as no one else ever could, about the depth of cleansing available beyond skin deep, cleansing He Himself could provide, and only He, the “washing of rebirth” (Titus 3:5), the new start, the truly clean and flawless life that ritual systems could graphically symbolize but never actually accomplish, because, though “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins,” nothing is impossible with God (Heb. 10:4; Matt. 19:26): His touch gave life and healing to the untouchable, but never brought defilement to Himself, because even becoming sin itself does not taint His righteousness (Mark 6:56; Luke 5:13; 2 Cor. 5:17). Indeed, it is only because of His sinlessness, while numbered with the transgressors, that He may intercede for us transgressors (Isa. 53:12).
God did not mind “sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings”; after all, “they were offered in accordance with the law” (Heb. 10:8). But they were not enough (verses 1-5). The sacrifices taught the horrible carnage sin causes. The instructions for lepers taught the repugnance to God that sin provokes. And the sacrifices taught humanity’s need for help from beyond ourselves: “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags” (Isa. 64:6). More expensive sacrifices make no difference; nor does roasting adorable babies (Micah 6:7)—this is neither show and tell, nor pity party extraordinaire. Leviticus taught our need for a substitute that is perfect.
On the other hand, Levitical ethics was too much: Jesus’ exegesis of Mosaic ethical positions was both noble and overboard: “Love your neighbor as yourself” was Levitical, all right (Lev. 19:18). But would you do it the way your Father in heaven does it? That’s your reference point; or as Jesus put it just before His passion, would you love as I love you (John 13:34)? It seems, in the end, that everything about Leviticus, from sacrifice to ethical pronouncement, leads to the same conclusion: the book is fine, after all. Why? Because it teaches our true need.
The book “about Levites” says we need more than an Aaron or Moses, or a Levitical priesthood: we need one to intercede for us, “not on the basis of a regulation as to his ancestry but on the basis of the power of an indestructible life” (Heb. 7:16). We need Jesus.
Lael Caesar is an associate editor at Adventist Review Ministries.
The song says: “Everyone needs compassion . . . the kindness of a Saviour, the hope of nations.”1 And the authors explain: “the hope of nations” is a reference to Matthew 12:21: “In his name the nations [Gentiles] will put their hope.”2 The nations need a place to put their hope. They need something to hope for. And there is hope for the nations.
But a brilliant confusion has distracted the nations. The theory of accidental development from nothing to something, from something to something conscious, from something conscious to someone responsible, is not a theory of hope. A theory of bullying, maybe, but not of caring. Semblances of caring occur because entities sometimes end up in relations that profit both parties. This mutual self-interest is said to be enlightened. Mostly, the “light” of hope that nations find in that scenario is being remembered by later generations—until life on this planet comes to its whimpering, hopeless end. No logic of pity debilitates the framework of natural selection and the survival of the fittest. “Having compassion one of another” (1 Peter 3:8, KJV) is not part of the macroevolutionary schedule. Instead, it engenders materialistic measurements of life in which society’s less useful may be thought expendable in times of national economic emergency.3
Oddly enough, millions who claim hope in Christ have united Him to this theory of intolerance. But Jesus is the hope of nations because, instead of bullying and exploiting, He constantly opens His hand—“at the proper time”—to make sure we all “are satisfied with good” (see Ps. 104:27, 28). Christ’s kingdom confounded the reigning political power from the beginning. Its principles were incompatible with whatever made sense to Rome. Marullus, of Shakespeare’s first act and scene in the tragedy Julius Caesar, denounces the frenzied populace that hail Caesar’s triumphant entry into Rome and “strew flowers in his way that comes in triumph over Pompey’s blood.” Slaughter is how Caesar achieved conquest. Christianity, in contrast, is not a story of bloodshed, but one of shed blood, the blood of “the messenger of the covenant” (Mal. 3:1), the one who incarnated the message of the covenant and, in delivering that message, confirmed the covenant with His shed blood.
Compassion is always connected to Jesus more than all its other usages combined.
The covenant had been long agreed upon and long misunderstood. Its promises had been variously repeated to multiple historical characters, including a man called fraud, earnestly struggling for moral victory over himself. Until the God whose grace alone granted him his holy victory, rewarded him for it, and changed his name to prince and conqueror (Israel, Gen. 32:28). His father and grandfather had received the covenant before him; as had diluvial Noah, and Edenic Adam.
Fathomed or distorted, the promise was constant: it came stunningly from the Lord Almighty to Jesse’s last son, David: “I have been with you wherever you have gone. . . . Now I will make your name great. . . . I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, . . . I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. . . . Your house and your kingdom will endure forever . . . ; your throne will be established forever” (2 Sam. 7:9-16). “Forever,” “forever,” “forever!” The Lord Himself would name an everlasting dynasty after the former sheep minder.
Despite the triple forever of the covenant’s Davidic articulation, the infinite dimensions of its promise are never more graphically and profoundly symbolized than when Abram’s—later Abraham’s—God, under cover of night, in the form of “a smoking firepot with a blazing torch,” passes between portions of animal carcasses He had instructed Abram to lay out on ground promised to him and descendants beyond him (Gen. 15:1-21).
Those pieces of meat the fire passed between spoke of the broken body of God’s incarnate Son as the way God’s covenant would be kept. This did not accord with the ritual protocols. In those ancient agreements unfaithful parties agreed to be slaughtered, as the animals had been, if they violated the terms of the covenant. It is wonder enough that God should name His own everlasting dynasty after a former sheep minder. But the wonder of all wonders, for Adam and me and all humanity, is that the impeccable God should bear torture for guilt that I earned by rebellious disobedience: God’s broken law demands the life of the guilty;4 but God so loves guilty me [and you], “that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
His covenant with humans has never depended on our politics or genetics; or been influenced by our genius for faux scientific racial distinction, or thoroughly scientific biological discrimination. It has always been the promise of His unfailing love to us all, an all-embracing incorporation where “there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Col. 3:11).
It has never been less than that, and His “all and in all” leaves no room for more than that. From Adam to Jew and Gentile, God’s covenant with fallen humanity has always been a commitment founded on compassion: “the Lord was gracious . . . and had compassion and showed concern . . . because of his covenant” (2 Kings 13:23).
Jesus came to teach compassion to His church and to the whole world. His first followers learned to care by being with Him. Speaking of the ordination of the 12 apostles, Ellen White comments that “the first step was now to be taken in the organization of the church that after Christ’s departure was to be His representative on earth.”5 That long-term goal depended directly on His immediate intention—that they be with Him (Mark 3:14).
Being with Him was primary. They would also do other things—go out and preach (verse 14); even sensational things—perform exorcisms (verse 15). But most of all they would be with Him. Being with Jesus means being in school: “Come to me. . . . Learn from me” (Matt. 11:28, 29). Jesus called them so He could “send them forth as His witnesses, to declare to the world what they had seen and heard of Him.”6 He knew what they needed to learn: “all their weaknesses and errors were open before Him,”7 and many of their strengths before us: money (Matthew and Judas), thunder (James and John), skepticism (Philip and Thomas), braggadocio (Simon Peter), nationalism (Simon the Zealot). Compassion? Not listed.
Being with Jesus would teach them compassion, for being with Jesus meant being with compassion. A comparison of English Bible versions provides simple instruction on this truth. The word “compassion” appears 18 times in the New American Standard Bible’s New Testament; of those 18 times, Jesus is speaking it or being spoken of 13 times. A selection of other versions shows 14/22, 8/14, 8/12, and 7/10.8 Despite the different translation strategies of these versions, compassion is always connected to Jesus more than all its other uses combined. The King James Version also features a single instance in which, rather than speaking or being spoken of, Jesus is addressed by a father on behalf of his son: his word speaks to Jesus as a source of compassion, and one who may be moved by compassion. The father begs, “Have compassion on us, and help us” (Mark 9:22, KJV). It is the wavering hope of a desperate parent; sentiment couched in uncertainty; tentative insight demanding both clarification and categorical emphasis; help from Jesus: “If [He] can do anything” (verse 22, NIV).
Compassion was a motive force impelling all areas of Jes
The father’s wish, fed half by hearsay and half by desperation, is nevertheless fully on point. For compassion was a motive force impelling all areas of Jesus’ ministry: He healed the sick because compassion moved Him (Matt. 14:14); He cleansed the leper because compassion moved Him (Mark 1:41); He taught the multitudes many things because compassion moved Him, compassion that transcended His physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion and His need for rest. Stretched and stressed, He and His team attempt to escape the crowds, but “many who saw them leaving . . . ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them” (Mark 6:33). The multitudes outmaneuver Him and show up at His hideaway before He arrives there.
And what is His response? “When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things” (verse 34). “Interrupted as He was, and robbed of His rest, He was not impatient. He saw a greater necessity demanding His attention as He watched the people coming and still coming. . . . He found a convenient place where He could minister to them.”9 He had come to earth to teach the truth about compassion, about the God who long ago had promised that humanity’s faithlessness would never exhaust His compassion. If they would repent, “the Lord your God will . . . have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you” (Deut. 30:3). And so it was that He, “being full of compassion, forgave their iniquity, and destroyed them not: yea, many a time turned he his anger away, and did not stir up all his wrath” (Ps. 78:38, KJV). In the end, He Himself would incarnate faithful Israel and guarantee, by His sinless and perfect substitution, the application, to whosoever wills, of every blessing and profit of the everlasting covenant (1 Peter 2:24).
Jesus’ disciples did learn compassion. They learned, and taught it to the world. They learned and taught so well that onlookers labeled them Christians—because they all were so much like Jesus the Christ: selling “property and possessions to give to anyone who had need” (Acts 2:45); maintaining a program of daily food distribution (Acts 6:1); institutionalizing mechanisms within the body of Christ that would ensure fair provision for all who were in need (verses 1-6); sharing sacrificially, beyond political and geographic borders, with fellow believers who were in difficulty, sacrificing out of their “overflowing joy and their extreme poverty” (2 Cor. 8:2; see entire chapter).
Early church leader Peter indicates that compassion became Christians’ climactic understanding of following their Lord: “Finally, all of you, . . . be compassionate and humble” (1 Peter 3:8). John showed that apart from compassion, Christian profession is a lie: “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity [‘compassion,’ KJV] on them, how can the love of God be in that person?” (1 John 3:17).
Christianity’s legacy of compassion has blessed the globe. As nations everywhere confront current public health challenges, they are acknowledging a Christian heritage that now serves all peoples, all faiths, and all political hues. For it was the Christian response of care for the victims of pestilence long ago that invented hospitals. Today, many hospitals have become centers of care, service, and scientific research. As they participate in pursuit of the next vaccine that will deliver us from current global evil, it is not inappropriate to acknowledge the debt owed to early Christians and to their Lord Jesus Christ, the God who is full of compassion (Ps. 86:15).
Lael Caesar is an associate editor for Adventist Review Ministries.
Missionaries used to be sent. Now some of them don’t seem to go anywhere—they’re missionaries without a passport. Missionaries used to all be foreigners. Now some of them where you are have lived there all their lives—they never had to get passports. Missionaries used to have lived in multiple countries. Now some of them never leave their homeland—they look just like lots of other people in their neighborhood. Missionaries used to all come from one part of the world—with their passports. Now the slogan is “From everywhere to everywhere.” Missionaries used to all be White. Now they’re all colors. They used to all be Christian. Now they’re from all religions, even from no religion at all. And though this article focuses on Christian missionaries, this list of differences validates the summary statement that missionaries ain’t what they used to be. The relevant question is, “How profound are these differences?” Or put differently, “How much do they matter?”
The word “missionary”—and its corollary, “mission”—come from a Latin word mitto, “I send.” There’s nothing in there about passports, air or sea travel, cultural or ethical complexion. None of those amounts to the defining issue for mission. No one is fairly disqualified for mission on the basis of their financial complexion [she’s in the red/black] or ethical elegance [we hate/love their rickshaws], or even because of a scarred or starry history. But in mitto there is everything about purpose and motivation: missionaries go because they have been sent.
Writing about the lost finding salvation, Paul raises this question: “How can anyone preach unless they are sent?” (Rom. 10:15). And he knows the answer: “No way!” Missionaries have gone and continue to go because something or someone has been sending them out through the ages to do what needs to be done. And whatever the changes between yesterday and today, the sense of the original missionary ID is still recognizable.
Modern missionaries are still good news bringers. They still exist and labor within the categories that identified past missionaries, warming the world with their love, inspiring the world with their spirit of surrender to the claims of Christ’s cross, motivating many a spectator to action by the total abandon of their service to God and their fellow humanity.
Our title asks what a missionary is. Trying to answer well, we consider two long-ago performers of missionary function, Paul and Jonah. Our comparisons are not rigorously parallel: Paul’s entire career stands over against Jonah’s performance on a single assignment, namely, Nineveh. Hopefully, this imbalance still allows for responsible comparison of their relation to God’s call, their performance on the clock, and their mood at the climax of their ministries. These three are treated under the subheads of (1) call and commissioning, (2) journey, and (3) climax.
If you know the call stories of Paul and Jonah, you already have a valid criticism: neither Jonah nor Paul has a typical stage-one story: light-blasted to the ground, struck blind and groping in three days of darkness as requisite for claiming a divine call or commission. Swallowed by special fish—or normal fish—as standard initiating ritual. True. But drama aside, these stories do supply the indispensable particulars of the missionary call and commissioning: the missionary goes because God has called, and because the call always includes a sending.
He said to Jonah ben-Amittai, “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it” (Jonah 1:2). And to Paul, “ ‘Get up,’ the Lord said, ‘and go into Damascus. There you will be told all that you have been assigned to do’ ” (Acts 22:10).
Because God’s grace is specifically for rebels, both Jonah and Nineveh survive.
Later still Paul’s commission was further defined—“Leave Jerusalem immediately, because the people here will not accept your testimony about me” (verse 17)—and fully clarified: “I will send you far away to the Gentiles” (verse 21).
Missionaries go because God sends them. They know where to go because He is particular about where He sends them: “Not more surely is the place prepared for us in the heavenly mansions than is the special place designated on earth where we are to work for God.”2 God’s specific directions to Paul include, “Asia, no” (Acts 16:6), “Bithynia, no” (verse 7), but “Macedonia, yes”: “We got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them” (verse 10); and “Corinth, yes,” for 18 months: “I have many people in this city” (Acts 18:10).
Divine specification is not always that particular. The way he speaks of it, Ephesus was one of Paul’s most highly valued mission stints. And it isn’t hard to see why: it was one of his longest—three years (Acts 20:31), and perhaps his most drama-filled of all (Acts 19:23-40). But he gives no indication that the Spirit named that city beforehand. In fact, it was in the very province, Asia, that the Spirit had earlier forbidden him to enter. The missionary may move on a hunch, but mostly she looks and listens, gathers information and processes it, draws thoughtful and responsible conclusions, then makes sound decisions as the Spirit gives light.
Summarizing, then, on the missionary’s call and commissioning, we may state that missionaries know where to go because they are attentive to and respectful of God’s directions.
Attentive and respectful? Not always: witness Jonah. The drama of Paul’s call was because he was a sincere persecutor of the people of “The Way.”3 The drama of Jonah’s Phase I grows out of his commitment to prophetic truancy and turns his Phase II into one of the Bible’s most absorbing stories on the persistenceof God’s patience. Just like Paul, he knew God had called, and he knew where he should go and what he should do: he was to go “to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it” (Jonah 1:2).
Jonah simply refused. His disobedience produced very little change in anything besides the length of his journey: the Ninevites’ wickedness, his responsibility, God’s love for and longing to save Assyrians were still all as before. Why do we still choose disobedience? Disobedience yields no help of any qualitative sort. For Jonah, more than anything, it made his Phase II a much more complicated affair: he would traverse the ocean, plumb the depths of “the realm of the dead” (Jonah 2:2), become the object of a fish’s ingestion and an article of its vomit before eventually arriving at his divinely appointed destination, Nineveh.
The miseries that presumption added to his journey may or do not transcend the list of trials that befell missionary Paul—beatings, stonings, shipwrecks, insomnia, hunger, thirst, and dangers of myriad other sorts (2 Cor. 11:23-28). But the God who called and commissioned him could also consistently console him that heaven’s grace was available to sustain him throughout (2 Cor. 12:9).
Where the dedicated apostle lived with soul consolation the renegade prophet lived with conscience torment. But because God’s grace is specifically for rebels, both Jonah and Nineveh survive: the special fish effects his resurrection from Sheol to life again and the renewed opportunity for gospel proclamation (Jonah 2:10-3:3). Nineveh hears of grace and hope that reach way beyond Jonah’s malicious version of the message. The entire city, royalty to commoner, repents before God. And He who ever longs for us to come to repentance “relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened” (Jonah 3:10). Whether we convey it well or poorly, the news that God commissions missionaries to take to sinners is always good news.
The end of Paul’s story overflows with a confidence that would be nothing but fake for the unenlightened sinner. How could any clear thinker face death with such words on his lips and such inspiration flowing from his pen! “The time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:6, 7). His last notes to Timothy, his son in divine service, enjoin him to “discharge all the duties of your ministry” (verse 5). For Paul, being sent by God amounted to something, everything. He was a missionary.
In fact, he was an “apostle,” not just “sent” [Latin, mitto] but “sent from” [Greek, apostolos] God. The New Testament title is associated with Jesus’ principal disciples, but with Paul more than any of them. He contends like no one else in the Bible for his right to it: “I was appointed . . . an apostle” (1 Tim. 2:7); and again in a second letter to Timothy, “I was appointed . . . an apostle” (2 Tim. 1:11). The popular warrant for labeling him as apostle is the claim, earnestly advanced by Paul himself, that he was an eyewitness, that he personally met Jesus: “Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” (1 Cor. 9:1). I may have seen him “abnormally” (1 Cor. 15:8), but I did see him. Thousands of Jesus’ followers and converts to “the Way” who saw Him and committed to His cause are never identified as apostles in the Bible. But Paul wouldn’t leave it to question: he knew for himself the truth that came to be written about the man who baptized Jesus: “There was a man sent from God whose name was John” (John 1:6). Paul knew he was another such man. And, perhaps because the title “apostle” said so, his identity is inextricably bound up with it.
Through the New Testament’s 79 occurrences of the term apostolos, Peter is the only individual besides Paul who applies it to himself (three times). Considering Paul’s 26 self-identifications, it seems safe to say that for Paul, being an apostle, being sent from God, amounted to something. He reveled in the privileges of apostleship, bore its insults and battery for three decades, testified to kings and plebes, to dedicated people of the Torah and pagan philosophers. He also wrote more than a dozen letters and treaties that have informed Christian history and are Spirit-preserved portions of the Holy Scriptures, about the Jesus he had seen and heard (see Acts 22:15). What a missionary Paul was!
And Jonah? Jonah has left us a much different climax. He is sour about the way God makes him look stupid by saving an entire city, and bitter about how God exposes him to the beating sun after temporarily sheltering him under a shrub He prepared just for that purpose (see Jonah 4). Outside the Garden of Eden, Jonah is the one character in all Scripture who is so uniquely and explicitly the direct recipient of such pampering from God—the preparation of a special fish for his transportation and, later, the creation of a special plant as his shelter from midday heat. Losing his umbrella affects him so profoundly and offends him so deeply that he wants to die (Jonah 4:8, 9). He offers no response to God’s concern about Ninevites and their cattle (verse 11). What a missionary Jonah was!
Lael Caesar, Adventist Review associate editor, repents of the Jonah stories in his own life and prays to be more like Paul.
Perhaps David, son of Jesse, deserves more than the plaudits he already gets—giant slayer, sweet singer in Israel, Messiah’s royal ancestor, celebrated in Messiah’s own word and that of throngs who hail Him as David’s Son (Matt. 1:1; 21:9; Mark 10:46-52; 12:35-37). So here’s to one more cheer for David: through five centuries of unbroken reign in Israel-Judah, only he and Josiah father three sons who attain to kingship.1
Solomon was David’s third son to become king of Israel. His older siblings who preceded him as king gave him good opportunity to learn crucial lessons in ethical decency. The first to reign was Absalom, remembered for his GQ status: “In all Israel there was not a man so highly praised for his handsome appearance as Absalom. From the top of his head to the sole of his foot there was no blemish in him” (2 Sam. 14:25). He cut his hair but once a year and made a show if it—both the hair and the annual haircut (verse 26). If charities like Locks of Love or Wigs for Kids had existed in his time, he may have donated his hair to the benefit of children who lose theirs to cancer treatment—all pronounced with blazing bulbs and flashing photography.
Much of Absalom’s life, including his ascent to the throne of Israel, seems to have been a performance. Becoming king was a painstaking production, a careful contrivance, a pompous patience of pretended interest in people’s lives: “He would get up early and stand by the side of the road leading to the city gate” (2 Sam. 15:2). The city gate was the place where people came to make their case and hear the judgments and rulings that guided the nation. People came by to lodge their complaints to the king himself. Whenever they came, Absalom would capture their attention and communicate concern: “What town are you from?” And: “Look, your claims are valid and proper,” though nobody’s listening to you. Then his punch line: “If only I were appointed judge in the land! Then everyone who has a complaint or case could come to me and I would see that they receive justice” (verses 2-4).
Absalom’s well-controlled deceit gave deep-tissue massages to economically and emotionally vulnerable people. His way of winning hearts undermined the norms of moral conduct. But it charmed multitudes of mindless stooges into supporting his protracted program of national seduction. In process of time they came to believe in the pied piper of Jerusalem promising them justice. Their need and his ambition, their gullibility and his grand deceit, his kindling vanity and their fire stick responses, sparked a raging national blaze whose fury drove his reigning father from his throne, his home, and his city. It was a forest fire that came close to consuming both royalty and nation.
Absalom’s high-quality showtime eventually yielded its craved result: his special chariot, elegant horses, and glittering retinue of guards, including 50 outriders ahead of him (verse 1), with others likely around and after him as well, powerfully persuaded the public. They thought, This must be something. His obvious importance and solicitude for their causes, his posture of disinterested meekness, his public pretense of enlightened care for his father’s citizens, his longing for them to get the justice they deserved, all this stole their hearts (verse 6). When they elevated him to the status of an object of worship—all part of his plan—his focus on the ultimate goal taught him to downplay the very adoration he consciously cultivated. So that “whenever anyone approached him to bow down before him, Absalom would reach out his hand, take hold of him and kiss him” (verse 5).
For years his dedicated hypocrisy nurtured public faith in his grand potential. Absalom could be patient. After Amnon raped his sister, Tamar, Absalom simply told her, “Don’t take this thing to heart” (2 Sam. 13:20). To rapist Amnon he never said a word (verse 22). Two years later2 he scheduled a party his father could not attend, then begged him to come (verses 23-25). When King David said he couldn’t attend, the master schemer had another suggestion: “If not, please let my brother Amnon come with us” (verse 26). Thus, by apparent afterthought, and with the king’s support, Amnon the rapist of two years before, arrived, invited, at Absalom’s party so Absalom’s servants could hack him to death (verses 23-29). Absalom was handsome, ambitious, cold, calculating, and disconcertingly patient in executing evil. To murder a prince, he needed two years.
Gaining the throne in a palace coup took more. Four years of skillful political charade went by
(2 Sam. 15:7) before he determined that the nation was ready for the climax. Two hundred carefully selected lackeys, chosen for the strength of their loyalty, followed him out of the capital city. They were people he could always count on. At his cue they would run or stop, applaud or demonstrate, be silent or shout as trumpets blared, “Absalom is king in Hebron” (verse 10).
They “had been invited as guests and went quite innocently, knowing nothing of the matter” (verse 11). The word translated “invited” is the standard Hebrew verb for “call.” The value of the call, whether the Lord to Adam (Gen. 3:9), Moses to his elders (Ex. 19:7), or seraphim to each other (Isa. 6:3), depends on the hearer’s ear. Absalom’s followers heard his call to lead a revolution and give their all in support and loyalty, even at the expense of their intelligence or integrity.
Solomon received a double coronation without having to fight his father.
Interestingly, the adverbial phrase “quite innocently” translates the Hebrew word “integrity.” There is integrity in innocence. But all innocence is not created equal: there is ethical innocence in childlike spiritual purity and innocence God longs for in all of us (Matt. 18:3). And to be fair, Absalom’s 200 may have been simply naive. Some innocence, though, is an elected posture, a corruption of free will, a choice not to know, a contrivance sometimes labeled plausible deniability. God loves both integrity and innocence. But His curse is upon whoever exploits the latter because they lack the former. Those who cause any of His little innocents to stumble await a horrible fate: “better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (verse 6).
The abuse of children’s trust is not the only abuse of innocence that God despises. The righteous God who will avenge the exploitation of innocents also promises stern damnation upon those who claim innocence because they have chosen willing ignorance. We pay the price of rebellion when our ignorance is because we will not see what God is showing us (Rom. 1:20).
Absalom would not come to a beautiful end. His public posturing, undergirded with personal conceit, his contempt for the very ones whose loyalty helped him up to the throne, were varied expressions of one thing: pride. Solomon saw how pride preceded his brother’s accession and, equally so, prepared his destruction and shameful death at the hands of Joab and friends (2 Sam. 18:9-15).
Sadly enough, Israel would relive Absalom’s pathetic show before Solomon ascended to his father’s throne. This time it was Adonijah, also famously handsome, applying Absalom’s rules, but substituting transparency and abruptness for his older brother’s hypocrisy and calculating patience. Where Absalom pretended to care about others, Adonijah was explicitly self-centered. He announced, “I will be king” (1 Kings 1:5). Like Absalom, he attracted some of the very best to his team. Absalom had Ahithophel, whose counsel “was like that of one who inquires of God” (2 Sam. 16:23). Adonijah snared Joab, David’s greatest general, and Abiathar, David’s priest.
Adonijah’s reign ended the day it started. Prophet Nathan, Solomon’s mother Bathsheba, and drunken shouts of “Long live King Adonijah!” helped advise David of the coup and bring a swift end to it.
By contrast with his brothers’ selfish scheming, Solomon received double coronation without having to fight his father (1 Kings 1:32-40; 1 Chron. 29:22). Once he was enthroned his only desire was wisdom to judge God’s people right (2 Chron. 1:10). God honored his focused humility, promising him what he asked as well as wealth and fame unprecedented and never to be repeated (verses 11, 12). In prophetic fulfillment we are still celebrating Solomon’s wisdom, and respecting it as divine—scholarship preserved for us in God’s holy Word.
But Solomon’s writings and the work of contemporary royal archivists remind of disconcertingly more than Solomon’s early humility. They remind of the vastness of his harem; the splendor of his court; the paganism of his political alliances; his abuse of certain elements of the populace, cementing them in second-class status; his exploitation of human beings to accomplish his grand architectural schemes; his self-indulgence; his disobedience to instructions divinely established a half millennium before his day.
Solomon’s atrocities defy God’s directives for royal behavior. When Israel’s rebellion against divine rule brought them to announce their desire for a king “such as all the other nations have” (1 Sam. 8:5), their gracious God had instructions prepared to help them with their inferior option for government. Solomon contradicted those instructions to the finest of degrees: according to Deuteronomy, when Israel decided on kingship their monarch was not to acquire lots of horses (Deut. 17:16); but Solomon’s stable numbers—1,400 horses—are part of his fame (1 Kings 10:26). God warned that the people were not to go back to Egypt to get horses (Deut. 17:16); but Egypt was Solomon’s equine supply source (1 Kings 10:28). The king was not to multiply wives (Deut. 17:17). Solomon had 700 (1 Kings 11:3). The king was not to accumulate large amounts of silver and gold (Deut. 17:17). Solomon “made silver as common in Jerusalem as stones” (1 Kings 10:27).
Solomon’s proverbs state principles that instructed his sane and youthful years.
His famed architectural projects were consistently dependent on royal abuse. The harshness that advanced their construction eventually helped undo the national unity that he inherited from his father. He failed to pass on to his son King Rehoboam the United States of Israel that he received from his father. Perpetually simmering social tensions (2 Sam. 19:40-43; 20:1, 2, 4-22) erupted after Solomon’s death. Ten of Israel’s 12 tribes broke away from the original kingdom, never to return. A gifted servant of his whom Solomon appointed to enforce his abusive labor policies became the rebels’ chief spokesperson and first king (1 Kings 11:28): Jeroboam was both a great soldier and a disciplined team leader, or driver, perhaps. King Solomon utilized him as a virtual slave-master who helped to drive his royal ambitions as grandeur replaced humility in Solomon’s vision. A prophetic word announced that God would enthrone Solomon’s enforcer over 10 of the 12 tribes Solomon ruled. For the king, it meant that Jeroboam should be eliminated (verse 40). He fled and found refuge with Egypt’s King Shishak. Court life taught him statecraft that enhanced and refined his brilliance. After Solomon’s death, Jeroboam, the runaway Israelite, and Shishak, his mentor, inflicted powerful military and political blows on his son and successor Rehoboam (1 Kings 14:25, 26). The nation never recovered.
Solomon’s precepts and three princes’ examples have left us history lessons on what not to do. Solomon’s proverbs state principles that instructed his sane and youthful years. Ecclesiastes is his retrospective, full of explicit and intimate reflections. Neither its sermon nor Proverbs’ precepts ever mention Solomon’s brothers, a fact that may help us find Solomon’s true target: us; we who need to know that as with Lucifer and Absalom, so with us: “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov. 16:18); we who must ever remember, for the sake of our own ascent, to “trust in the Lord with all [our] heart and lean not on [our] own understanding” (Prov. 3:5). Still, he must surely have been comparing coronations when he stated, “Let someone else praise you, and not your own mouth” (Prov. 27:2). It is wisdom that befits the commoner as much as it does the king.
Lael Caesar, associate editor at Adventist Review Ministries, ever welcomes Solomon’s reminder: “Remember your Creator.”
What’s wrong with Old Testament prophecy? Nothing! In fact, it’s because prophecy is so good that God gives us more of it in the New Testament. It is His heart to give good and perfect gifts (James 1:17).
For many faithful Bible students, prophets and prophecy are somewhat more strongly associated with the Old Testament than with the New Testament.1 But the consistent listing of the gift of prophecy among the church’s spiritual endowments helps us to see it as no less prized in the New Testament church than it was with Old Testament Israel (1 Cor. 12:7-11, noting verse 10). The New Testament church clearly thought that prophecy was a good thing. While comparative lists of spiritual gifts are not a feature of Old Testament Scripture, the location of “prophecy” high up on New Testament lists of spiritual gifts emphasizes the great esteem it enjoyed in the early church; in an ordinal list, prophets are named second to apostles (verse 28); elsewhere, prophecy heads the list in Romans 12:6-8, and is second in Ephesians 4:11.
Prophecy works in the New Testament in the same way that it does in the Old Testament, if we judge by the Bible’s earliest definitions of prophetic function. Enoch, seven generations from the first man, Adam, is the earliest human to receive the identification of “prophet,” though we must credit the New Testament with awarding the honorific (Jude 14, 15). Next labeled in historical lineage, Abraham is so named by God Himself (Gen. 20:7), but without any clear articulation of what prophets do.
Keeping God’s words echoing means much more than merely repeating Egyptian or Hebrew vocables.
The earliest explicit introductions to, and depictions of, a prophet’s work come from Moses as he relates to God’s summons to discharge a specific assignment. God’s effort to extract him from Midian’s desert and return him to service in Egypt as liberator of His people opens up the window to what prophecy is and what prophets do: the God who “is a consuming fire” (Deut. 4:24; Heb. 12:29) confronts Moses with the miraculous spectacle of fire and no consuming (Ex. 3:1-3).
However startling that would have appeared, it seems that God would also have us notice something else. There is present another phenomenon that He would have us recall perhaps even more clearly: not sight, but sound—the sound of words, of echoing words. Prophecy, as definable from this early instance, is words that are echoed. Echoes are what God will not let us forget.
In fact, echoing God may be the supreme prophetic function: Moses will tell Aaron what to say (”put words in his mouth”) once God has told Moses what needs to be said. Aaron will then relay Moses’ words from God to the people of Israel, or whomever God has prepared them for. As God Himself explained to Moses: “I will help both of you speak. . . . He [Aaron] will speak to the people for you [Moses], and it will be as if he were your mouth and as if you were God to him” (Ex. 4:15, 16). What we may call the “prophetic proclamation chain” exhibits a specificity that God deems necessary: Moses will echo God, and Aaron will echo Moses.
Prophets of New Testament times understood and celebrated this specificity just as well as their Old Testament antecedents. The early articulation, “The Lord says thus,” which becomes predictably familiar with Old Testament respondents to God’s call into prophetic service,2 is spoken with no less authoritativeness among New Testament prophets, because they know that their commissioning God means for His spokespersons to utter “His words”—a phrase that we shall clarify—to their audience, rather than words born of their personal genius or some other inspiration.
In Tyre Paul hears from disciples “through the Spirit” that he is not to go to Jerusalem (Acts 21:4). Even if the disciples are not labeled prophets, we are told that it is the Spirit who is the authority of their utterance, the same Spirit who inspires all prophetic utterance (2 Peter 1:21). Agabus is labeled, and he says, “Thus says the Holy Spirit” (verse 11, NKJV).3 Prophecy was authoritative in New Testament times because it conformed to the same divinely imposed requirements of Old Testament times for qualifying as authentic.
At the same time, and importantly so, keeping God’s words echoing means much more than merely repeating Egyptian or Hebrew vocables Moses may have heard God utter. God’s most important Old Testament declaration, Exodus 20:1-17,4 gives good illustration of this truth. The Ten Commandments are twice identified as “10 words,”5 though the fourth of the 10 alone contains either 35 or 56 words, according to two different and well-established methods of counting Hebrew words. The phrase “10 words” allows us to clarify what God means by “His words.” For it is surely not God’s intent that we haggle over consonants and vowels, phonemes and syllables, numerical or numerological traditions. It is His determination that we strive to fathom and apply the particular ideas communicated in His commands.
In the case of the Ten Commandments He wants us to understand and cooperate with Him on ideas about idolatry and blasphemy, respect and obedience, greed and selflessness. The prophetic proclamation chain is no meaningless ritual echoing of sounds. It is meaningful communication of ideas from God to human audiences. It is getting the message out, whether by word or by drama: Old Testament Jeremiah buries and later digs up a linen waistband (Jer. 13:1-11) to dramatize God’s message against the pride of Judah and Jerusalem; New Testament Agabus binds himself with a belt (Acts 21:11) to dramatize his prophecy that Paul will be arrested in Jerusalem.
New Testament prophecy, like its Old Testament antecedent, communicates content, data from heaven, be it on contemporary issues or events in the near or distant future: Moses warned Egypt’s pharaoh of imminent judgment;6 Peter warns his contemporaries, and generations since, of final judgment (2 Peter 3:10). Old Testament prophetic voices demanded moral living (Isa. 55:1-3; Micah 6:8); New Testament prophets also declare God’s will for His people’s everyday living (Rom. 12:9-21; 2 Peter 3:11).
Often enough, New Testament prophecy takes up (echoes) an issue already addressed in the Old Testament, either in reiteration, expansion, or fulfillment of its Old Testament predictions: Every chapter ofthe Revelation of Jesus Christ, the final New Testament book, is better understood through studying the Old Testament book of Daniel: the book of Revelation connects to and significantly expands upon Daniel’s explanations of world history, and notably, his end-of-time sanctuary and judgment message.7
At other times, a New Testament prophetic statement highlights the typical function of a historical Old Testament event—Noah’s times and the days of Sodom and Gomorrah are types of the end-times (Matt. 24:37-39; Luke 17:26-37). Sheer familiarity with the scope of Jesus’ teachings may keep secular minds and even believers from realizing how consummately prophetic He is. His statements about His future return to earth include brief parables, longer sermons, responses to hostile queries about His kingdom or royalty, or sympathetic questions inspired by admiration of Herod’s temple,8 with the varied literary genres involved not mutually exclusive.
Apart from these climactic presentations, His predictions involve a variety of grand happenings treated tersely and unpretentiously: Nathanael will see greater things than he has so far (John 1:50, 51); the centurion will find his servant healed when he gets home (Matt. 8:13); some of the disciples will soon experience a glimpse of the glory of His future kingdom (Matt. 16:28; Mark 9:1; Luke 9:27); the temple and the city of Jerusalem will fall (Matt. 24:2; Luke 21:20-24); He will be glorified as a result of Lazarus’ illness (John 11:1-4); Lazarus will come back from the grave (verse 23); He [Jesus] will give His followers eternal life (John 6:27); believers in Him will never hunger, thirst, or die (John 4:14; 6:35, 50, 51; 11:25, 26); they will go free in the judgment (John 3:14-18); He will resurrect His followers at the end of the age (John 6:40, 44); there will actually be two resurrections at the end of the age, one for life and one for punishment (John 5:28, 29); His enemies will eventually arrest Him (Luke 13:31-33); they will arrest Him today—the hour “has come” (John 16:32); His disciples will all be undone (“offended”) that night (Matt. 26:31; Mark 14:27; Luke 13:27); one of His disciples will prove a traitor (John 6:70, 71; 13:21, 26); Peter will deny Him (John 13:38); He [Jesus] will be crucified (John 12:32, 33); He will die for the sake of His followers (John 6:51; 10:11-18); He will spend three days and nights “in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:40); He will raise Himself from the grave (John 2:19); He will return to heaven (John 7:33, 34); people will see it (John 6:62); He will be gone only for a little while (John 16:17-23); His followers will be hated (Luke 21:17), maltreated (Matt. 23:34; Luke 21:12), even martyred (Luke 11:49; John 16:2-4); He and the Father will send the Holy Spirit (John 14:26; 15:26); the Spirit will convict people of their guilt and lead them to truth (John 16:8-15); some urban dwellers (from Bethsaida, Capernaum) will fare worse than others (from Sodom and Gomorrah, Tyre and Sidon) in the final judgment (John 10:14, 15; 11:21-24)—a monumentally incredible remark if by any being but God Himself.
After Jesus’ return to heaven, the Holy Spirit continued selecting people to be prophets, a job that is His unique responsibility, depending on spiritual rather than technical or academic considerations. God’s Word then echoes through the prophets’ ministry: they speak as He moves them (2 Peter 1:21). As in the Old Testament, some of them produced Bible books—the four Gospel writers, Peter and Paul, etc. Others, such as Agabus and the evangelist Philip’s daughters (Acts 21:8-10) did not. And because prophetic qualifications are wholly a divine determination, Christians throughout history have always needed to depend on God’s guidance in deciding whether or not to accept a given individual’s prophetic claims.
Through the centuries individuals have claimed to possess the prophetic gift, and followers of Jesus have had to determine the validity of their claim. The Bible gives sound instruction on how this is to be done: the witness of true prophets will be in accordance with God’s law and with the work of earlier prophets of God (Isa. 8:20; Rev. 19:10). Even accurate predictions of future events do not count if a prophet’s teaching contradicts the principles of God’s law (Deut. 13:1-5). Jesus warned of the critical role of false prophets in Satan’s commitment to deceiving as many as possible (Matt. 24:5, 11).
Through the centuries various men and women from Asia to America have claimed the gift: Montanus, as well as Priscilla and Maximilla, in the second century after Christ; Mary Baker Eddy and Edgar Cayce in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the United States. Second-century Montanus believed that the church’s access to spiritual gifts is to be continuous through time. Though his case continued to be debated for centuries after his time, he is to be admired for his yearning after the simple godliness and spiritual anointing of the Apostolic Era.
That yearning for holiness was a character trait of a nineteenth-century child, Ellen Gould White (née Harmon), from the time she was 11 years old. With others who were many years older, White passed through what came to be known as the Great Disappointment of October 22, 1844: on that day Bible students in many parts of the world expected Jesus to return to earth. When He did not appear, they were profoundly disappointed.
In the New England region of the United States three different groups emerged from the Disappointment: one group consisted of people who rejected the Bible as a source of reliable predictions; a second group persistently set new dates for Jesus’ return, each one passing unceremoniously; a third group reviewed the biblical evidence to determine where they had blundered in interpretation. Continued study clarified their error and deepened their conviction on the reliability of Jesus and of God’s Word. It also led them to other significant Bible truths: death as a completely unconscious state; the second and investigative phase of God’s salvation program, equivalent to the once yearly, Day of Atonement rituals connected with the Most Holy segment of the sanctuary service. That new phase of God’s thoroughly organized program involves a review of cases, an “examination of character, of determining who are prepared for the kingdom of God.”9
On August 30, 1846, Ellen married James White. Along with retired sea captain Joseph Bates, the Whites are recognized as the principal nineteenth-century founders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Over a period of almost 70 years, from 1844 until her death in 1915 at the age of 87, White received more than 2,000 visions and produced more than 100,000 written pages of work.
The development of the Adventist Church is inextricably bound up with her ministry. Her individual, familial, and personal life as woman, wife, and mother; her professional life as author, gospel preacher, educator, Bible student, and theological thinker; her agitation for social justice, Christian education, temperance, and, more broadly, the practical necessity and spiritual profits of healthful living: all of these, through the testimony of her peers and the study of her writings, continue to be available for public and academic scrutiny by anyone interested in investigating the claim that she represents a nineteenth- to twentieth-century manifestation of the spiritual gift of prophecy. Adventists believe that her life and body of work amply validate the New Testament prediction that spiritual gifts, prophecy included, will be present to work in Christ’s church “until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13).
That day is near. Praise God.
Lael Caesar is an associate editor of the Adventist Review.