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Stretching our understanding and experience of the Messiah

The following is a paper I gave at the Oregon gathering this summer which was a joint meeting of the NFF and the Wider Conservative Friends Fellowship.  It is related to the blog I have been working on this year (2011) but has its own content.  May it be of use to you who read it.

 

Stretching our understanding and experience of the Messiah

“They asked one another, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us as he talked to us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?’” (Luke 24:32)

I begin with this familiar passage about the Road to Emmaus in hopes of accomplishing two things with this time.  I want to point to the early Friends experience of having the Scriptures come alive as they heard and obeyed the Lord.  And I want to lift up a treasure in Scripture that was barely visible before coming into this experience.   I apologize to anyone who has read some of my recent blog as some of what I say will come from there.

Here is George Fox’s summary of his calling and this theme:

Now I was sent to turn people from darkness to the light that they might receive Christ Jesus, for to as many as should receive him in his light, I saw that he would give the power to become the Sons of God, which I had obtained by receiving Christ.  And I was to direct people to the Spirit that gave forth the Scriptures, by which they might be led into all Truth, and so up to Christ and God, as they had been who gave them forth.  And I was to turn them to the Grace of God, and to the Truth in the heart, which came by Jesus, that by this grace they might be taught, which would bring them into salvation, that their hearts might be established by it, and their words might be seasoned, and all might come to know their salvation nigh.  For I saw that Christ had died for all men, and was a propitiation for all, and had enlightened all men and women with His divine and saving light, and that none be could be a true believer but who believed in it.  I saw that the grace of God, which brings salvation, had appeared to all men, and that the manifestation of the Spirit was given to every man to profit withal.  These things I did not see by the help of man, nor by the letter, though they are written in the letter, but I saw them in the light of the Lord Jesus Christ, and by his immediate Spirit and power, as did the holy men of God, by whom the Holy Scriptures were written.  Yet I had no slight esteem of the Holy Scriptures, but they were very precious to me, for I was in that spirit by which they were given forth, and what the Lord opened in me, I afterwards found was agreeable to them.      Journal of George Fox, p.34, Nickalls ed.

I did not take time to look up all these phrases in a concordance but there are likely a dozen quotations or allusions to passages of Scripture in what I just read.  As a young man George worked as a shepherd, and had many hours to read and imbibe these portions.  Yet this by itself was not sufficient to give life or hold despair at bay.  And the story of how he sought among various Christian groups the way out of the hole of sin and despair is familiar to many of us.  Hope was only established when he heard this voice, “‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, who can speak to thy condition!’  And when I heard it my heart did leap for joy.  Then the Lord did let me see why there was none upon the earth that could speak to my condition, namely, that I might give him all the glory; for all are concluded under sin and shut up in unbelief as I had been, that Jesus Christ might have the pre-eminence who enlightens, gives grace, and faith, and power.  And when God shall work, who shall let it?  And this I knew experimentally.” (Nickalls, p. 11)   As he continued to hear this inward teaching he came to understand that this experience was not isolated to him.  It was available to everyone and he was to proclaim this hope.  And it was not just available to individuals.  It brought people together where they could be taught by God and empowered to do what they were told to do and go where they were told to go.

I would like to say something of my own experience.  Several strands of Christian history and doctrine fed into the environment where I grew up.  One of my father’s passions was his involvement in the shaped note community.  Shaped note music has a long history in parallel to the music most of us of have had experience with.  It had a flowering in the early 1900s in the upper south where my family has its roots.  The music produced by this culture tended to be fairly snappy in tempo and always in four or five part harmony.  What theology it had came from the Baptist and Methodists who predominated in the towns and country where it was practiced.  I have decided to read the chorus of one of these to give you an idea.  The melody in this music often changes from tenor to alto to soprano to bass, so you will have to imagine a quartet singing:

                Now let us Have a little talk with Jesus;

                Let us Tell Him tell him all about our troubles.

                He will Hear our faintest cry

                And He will answer by and by.

                Now when you feel a little prayer wheel turning,

                Then you’ll know a little fire is burning!

                You’ll find that just a little talk with Jesus makes it right.

The music, tempo and words were meant to help the singers and listeners feel good and be reassured in the midst of their poverty.

Another strand growing up was that “by accident” I grew up in a Friends church.  Lip service was given to the possibility of being spoken to by the Spirit, but it was considered to be exceptional.  And anyone who actually claimed the experience was treated with some incredulity.  When there was open worship, it was often filled with people giving “testimonies” of God’s love in some circumstance or their thankfulness for Christ’s sacrifice for them personally.  If not, the organist helpfully played a hymn to assure us that it would be over soon.

When my Dad was forced into early retirement by his health, one of the first things he did was join the Gideons, an inter-denominational group that distributed Bibles wherever they could.  Their meetings included long prayer sessions where one man after another would pray often repeating one another in a kind of formula.

As I was becoming convinced of the message we have been talking about in these meetings, I had a talk one day with Dad about prayer.  I asked him, “Is prayer a conversation with God?”  He said “Yes” without hesitation.  Then I pounced, “Well if it is a conversation, shouldn’t God get at least 50% of the time to talk?”  He was quiet for some time considering this.  My dad was already Clerk of the Meeting as the church I grew up in.  This seemed an important step in his gradual convincement as a Friend.  He came to value waiting worship before the end.

I had come to realize that though the song above exhorted us to “have a little talk with Jesus” it usually meant “have a little talk at Jesus” in practice.  And the worship I grew up in had little room for listening.  There was some theology that listening to God was possible but it was rarely played out.  The Spirit’s role was comfort.  In the churches round about the Spirit’s role was either completely a theological concept or the giver of gifts, particularly ecstatic speaking in tongues.  All these groups held up this or that passage of Scripture as their basis of authority for what they believed.   Jesus was in heaven waiting for the Second Coming.

Let’s return to the message of early Friends.  What were they saying that was different then what I had heard and learned during my early years?  Following is a portion of one of George Fox’s sermons:

Christ is exercising his offices as a counselor, and as a bishop to oversee, and as a king, priest and prophet, who renews men again up into the image of God as man was in before he fell.   Let your eyes be turned to this bishop and prophet, and as Moses saith:  “Like unto me God shall raise up a prophet “ (Deut. 18:15).  Let your eyes and ears be turned after him.  This prophet, he must have both the eye, the ear, and the mouth.  Hear every word that proceeds out of God’s mouth; it is fresh meat, daily meat.  Then must every man and woman [know] from whence their food comes.  The serpent feeds upon dust.  They that lead people from God’s teaching feed on dust.  “The Seed of the Woman shall bruise the serpent’s head.”  Here is God’s love to men and women.  Feed on Him, and live; and be nourished by the bread that is eternal.  And so come to be taught, and come under that bishop, and teacher, and priest.  This teacher is over the household of God, and so all are to be under this teacher.

That Thy Candles may Always be Burning, p. 146 (Sermon VI, 1677).

This was a different message than I had grown up with.  It implied a different relationship with God and the expectation and experience of an interactive relationship with Jesus.  As I begin to have some worship experiences of the kind this describes, things changed in me and there was no place to go back to.

But I wanted to know where this was in Scripture.  Part of my church upbringing was a strong expectation that I would read and study the Bible regularly.  I persevered in this even though much of it seemed meaningless and disjoint.  The only parts I liked were the stories in the Old Testament and some of Paul’s epistles where there seemed to be some rules to help us get by.

As I came slowly into this new convincement passages that had seemed meaningless or impossible began to be “opened’.  In the past 30 years there have been new glimmers every now and then.  Other passages I thought I understood took on new meaning. 

I have longed to find, as George said, that things opened to me; the message of my convincement agreeable to the Scriptures.  I have felt burdened that many around me seem to come out on either side.  Many have a fear for the Scriptures and their particular interpretation that stands in the way of coming fully to the Spirit of Him who inspired them.  Others have tasted this life but fear prevents them from coming to the Scriptures, which their old beliefs still keep shut.  These fears may look like opposites but fear is fear.  It is pernicious and the anchor of belief and trust is less likely to hold when fear reigns. 

This last winter, I had an inspiration to start on a project that is still going.  My hope is that it might be of value to folks struggling with either fear.  I want them to come to find the Scriptures precious in the way George described and which I experience.

Let’s look again at the paragraph from the sermon:

Christ is exercising his offices as a counselor, and as a bishop to oversee, and as a king, priest and prophet, who renews men again up into the image of God as man was in before he fell.   Let your eyes be turned to this bishop and prophet, and as Moses saith:  “Like unto me God shall raise up a prophet “ (Deut. 18:15).  Let your eyes and ears be turned after him.  This prophet, he must have … the eye, the ear, and the mouth.  Hear every word that proceeds out of God’s mouth; it is fresh meat, daily meat.  Then must every man and woman [know] from whence their food comes.  The serpent feeds upon dust.  They that lead people from God’s teaching feed on dust.  “The Seed of the Woman shall bruise the serpent’s head.”  Here is God’s love to men and women.  Feed on Him, and live; and be nourished by the bread that is eternal.  And so come to be taught, and come under that bishop, and teacher, and priest.  This teacher is over the household of God, and so all are to be under this teacher.

The second quotation from Genesis 3 is familiar and is regarded by most Christian groups as the first prophesy of the Messiah.  But the first quotation is less familiar.  George even stops to include the reference.  Here is the whole of Deuteronomy 18:15 from the Jerusalem Bible, “Yahweh your God will raise up for you a prophet like myself, from among yourselves, from your own brothers; to him you must listen.”

Bible scholars differ about what this passage means, but the early church (and early Friends) were clear that it applied to Jesus.  Peter quotes the Deut 18 passage in his second sermon (Acts 3) as integral to understanding Jesus as Messiah.  And Stephen in his defense before the Sanhedrin specifically sites the Deut 18 passage as a part of his indictment of the leaders for failing to believe Moses and recognize Jesus as the Messiah.

In part of the study for the blog I focused on the Book of John.  In post 4 I discussed passages in John 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9, 10, 14 and 15.  It seems that many of the Jews of the time did not connect the Prophet like Moses to the Messiah.  And I concluded that a major focus of the book of John is Jesus’ claim that he is that prophet and that to accept him as the Messiah means to heed him, listen to and believe him.  In chapter 4, the Samaritans did this without much fuss.  Because they had only the Pentateuch as their Scriptures, their Messianic expectation rested solely on the Deut. 18 passage.  They knew they were to listen.

There are other references in the Gospel accounts.  I found Jesus in Mathew 11 connecting himself both to the Prophet described in Isaiah 61 and the prophet Moses foretold in Deuteronomy.  And in the Transfiguration accounts, God’s exhortation to the disciples to listen to Jesus is the same as that of Moses regarding this Prophet.  Even if the Transfiguration account is not a direct connection to the exhortation in Deut 18, than the message is the same.

The later passages in the book of John assure us that this experience of hearing the Son of God will continue after his death.  And the book of Acts testifies to this happening.

The writer of the book of Hebrew sets out to prove the high priesthood of Jesus but the way he describes Jesus working among us is similar.  He is the Son who has spoken to us.  Today, if we hear his voice we must not harden our hearts. For example, check out 1:2, 3:7, 8 and 15, and 12:25.

In the blog I am still working up to Paul, but I will mention a few passages that assure me that he did not lose sight of this experience either for himself or the community:  Rom 2:28 and 29, 3:15-23, 8:9-11, 10:6-8, I Cor 2:7-16; II Cor 3:12-18, Gal 3:25-29, 5:16-26, Titus 2:11.

My conclusion is that most Christians are further behind the Jews of Jesus’ time in this understanding.  They hardly even know this theme in Scripture, let alone see it as central to understanding our experience of Jesus as Messiah.  Many liberal Christians look to the Sermon on the Mount as Jesus teaching in the past.  Many conservative Christians focus mostly on Jesus’ death and resurrection for the theological assurance it gives them of their salvation.  Pentecostal Christians emphasize the ecstatic experiences of the gifts of the Spirit.  Few lift up this good news that Jesus is the Prophet Moses spoke of and that our response is to listen.

I will even throw in that I believe that standard Christian theology is partly to blame for many liberal Friends not connecting the Spirit to Jesus.  Christian orthodoxy nearly has them disconnected.

Let’s go back to the paragraph from the Sermon again:

Christ is exercising his offices as a counselor, and as a bishop to oversee, and as a king, priest and prophet, who renews men again up into the image of God as man was in before he fell.   Let your eyes be turned to this bishop and prophet, and as Moses saith:  “Like unto me God shall raise up a prophet “ (Deut. 18:15).  Let your eyes and ears be turned after him.  This prophet, he must have … the eye, the ear, and the mouth.  Hear every word that proceeds out of God’s mouth; it is fresh meat, daily meat.  Then must every man and woman [know] from whence their food comes.  The serpent feeds upon dust.  They that lead people from God’s teaching feed on dust.  “The Seed of the Woman shall bruise the serpent’s head.”  Here is God’s love to men and women.  Feed on Him, and live; and be nourished by the bread that is eternal.  And so come to be taught, and come under that bishop, and teacher, and priest.  This teacher is over the household of God, and so all are to be under this teacher.

George is not just talking theology here.  He is exhorting his hearers and us to listen to, to give our full attention to Jesus.  Jesus is the Prophet we are to hear, now.  And the goal of His teaching is to return us to the experience of man and woman in God before the fall.  As we hear and obey, God’s righteousness, God’s kingdom, works through us and among us like the yeast in the dough.  The Seed of the woman bruises the head of the Serpent and delivers us from fear.  As we are brought out of fear fellowship becomes possible.

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