Suffering & Symbols (A Closer Look at Jesus as Prophet)
It should be clear to you by now that I am not messing around when I talk about prophecy. We are already touching on some very powerful ideas that will prove deeply disturbing for both us and our culture. We will forever after boldly go where angels fear to tread! Make no mistake, if you are not pissed off about some of the things covered here yet, you will be soon enough… or you will have the whole world pissed off at you, which is also biblical (Luke 21:17).
Let’s not forget, you slept out in the street last night! You did not get there all on your own; you had help from war-related PTSD, Jack Daniels, Playboy Magazine, Visa & MasterCard and countless other entities or organizations that legally and continually generate millions and billions of dollars by selling you false hopes and dreams. Yes! You had help getting into the jam that “Christians” in this town will regularly drive past like a priest or a Levite would a man that Jesus would call “your neighbor!” (Luke 10:30-37). This “Christian” culture is only too happy to indulge in and even endorse the kind of world-order that ruins lives and scars God’s creation when it affords some of us political leverage. This is a glaring inconsistency in the image we are meant to bear.
And guess what? You have a message from God about that! You have something to say! The word of God comes mightily against that kind of stuff, and he doesn’t care if it hurts the feelings of a few rich people when he calls them “cows of Bashan!” (Amos 4:1). Yes! The word of God is powerful like dynamite you handle with your hands.
Make no mistake. I aim to equip you and empower you to be a prophet of the Living God who will shake the foundations of the earth. So what if he wants to shake things up in your life or in your town?
But let’s recall that you are merely his errand boy (or girl), and you don’t possess his authority or power. Likewise you do not find in this vocation a license to “play the victim card.” You must be humble, and “the victim card” knows no humility. No. You had help getting into the jam, but you are also complicit as well. You made poor choices as did all who helped you get there.
And so, at this juncture, as we move ever deeper into our calling as prophets, I want to recall two terms we discussed earlier and work them into our mission a little more. We need to talk about suffering and symbols.
Two Features of Three Foundational Proph-O-Dramas
It is obvious in Scripture that Jesus engages in three main PROPH-O-DRAMAs once he rides that donkey into Jerusalem that fateful Passover so long ago. Each of these prophetic dramas involves suffering and symbols in imaginative and powerful ways that we will want to consider. I do not mean to suggest that any or all of our prophecies must spring from these examples, but since Jesus is the cornerstone of The House of God, we may as well start here. One of these prophetic acts is spoken of as having become routinely rehearsed in the early church whenever they come together (Acts 2:42, 46; I Cor. 11:26).
The three things Jesus prophetically engages in once he comes to Jerusalem are these: (1) He turns tables in the temple (both physical and proverbial); (2) He institutes the Lord’s Supper; and (3) He goes to the cross. My thought is that we take these scenes and extract some principles, and even content, by which we produce our staged dramas. The key features I am asking us to focus on at this moment are suffering and symbols.
Picking a Prophetic Fight
When Jesus turns tables in the temple, this is the raw thrill of confrontation at its best. Jesus comes forcefully and unexpectedly against a corrupt establishment of people who claim to represent God but really make a mockery of all that is true and holy. That whip (driving out the money changers) looks like John Wayne or Clint Eastwood style justice! There is no doubt that Jesus, here, is picking a fight!
In the scenes that follow on the heels of that, Jesus teaches and preaches oracles in the temple that upset a lot of key establishment folk. But they fear him because the mob of peasants thronging to him thinks he is a prophet. They might break out in a riot if the authorities try to arrest Jesus as he preaches there. Think of it. The cops are afraid to arrest a preacher in church lest the pilgrims at worship turn the place into a bar-brawl!
The thing is… Jesus is picking on the symbols and getting away with it. Such is the way of prophetic imagination. That temple is meant to symbolize the presence of God, which ironically accompanies the critique of it instead. Houses of worship typically symbolize the presence of God and are intended to be tranquil or festive by those who establish them. But if the True and Living God of creation shows up there and finds that the symbol is not true, what do you think he will do? He will do what the master of any house does when he returns home to find the servants goofing off. He throws a fit!
However in this case Jesus, who represents God, comes in great vulnerability and throws the fit of God as if he expects everyone to realize who he really is. Of course he gets away with it for a couple of days, but once the establishment folk devise a plan to arrest him when no crowds are around, then Jesus bears the suffering for having dramatized the return of God.
The analysis I offer here is brief, but it highlights the confrontation with idolatrous symbols and the suffering the prophet embraces. At that level it reveals some principles we need to internalize. These principles may not be universal, but they are common to prophecy in the Bible, and they are key to these foundational prophecies of Jesus. Messing with symbols gains access to imagination; prophets will suffer the cost of that access.
Sharing The Messianic Banquet
We see these principles again in the Lord’s Supper. Here Jesus celebrates the Passover meal with his disciples. The meal is deeply symbolic for both the past and the future on the occasion when Jesus institutes the Christian meal which is based on that ancient one. It symbolizes the moment when God frees his people, when he joins them, and the covenant he makes with them.
I can tell you from personal experience that staging this meal, at various times and places, is a profound and powerful witness to God’s word in the world. I once was involved in staging this meal on the mean streets of Lubbock at midnight when the Spirit of God manifest himself from that table and stopped a murder. (More on that later.) My point here is that if all you ever do as a prophet is stage this meal, you will be a powerful witness to the world for God.
Then Jesus takes the bread which is his body and breaks it. He takes the wine which is his blood, and he pours it out. This is the prophet of God embracing his own suffering. Next he feeds his own body and blood to us – and we eat it for all we are worth. We feed off his suffering! And a prophet of God learns not to shun suffering, not to avoid suffering, but to seek the mysterious work and Spirit of God in it. Ours is a call to suffer and to call others to suffer also.
Turning A Death Sentence Into A Coronation
Finally, we come to the cross of Christ. The cross is Rome’s symbol of shame, pain, and death. It is devised by evil men to act as a billboard of suffering, shame, and death. The idea is that rebels and/or run-away slaves will die slowly as they cry for mercy. Then the bodies, normally, are left there to rot as a warning to all that this is what happens when you mess with Caesar! “Caesar is in charge of this world,” they would tell us, “and if you don’t fall in line with his kind of order, this will happen to you too!”
Jesus, though, takes that symbol of shameful suffering and shows us the image of God becoming King of creation. Jesus bears the image of God, the Creator, who established him as the image bearer – and he goes to the place of shame, pain, and despair to do it.
Following This Prophet
Yes. If you slept out in the street last night, you have something to say to the bluffing powers that put you there. You have a powerful word from God. But you are a mere errand boy (or girl). Do not confuse John Wayne or Clint Eastwood with Jesus. Those guys come in pride, not God’s power. It looks the same on the surface, but not underneath the bluffing and not for long.
You are signing on for a revolution of sorts. You are no victim; you are a prophet. And it is time to consider how God wants his word dramatized in this community – using you.