In the first part of this two-part series, I sketched some of the background to explain how and why, in our late-modern period, it seems plausible to so many to regard the institutional church as an agent for social change. On the face of the New Testament, this would seem rather implausible since neither Jesus nor the Apostles preached a message of “social justice,” which I defined in part 1. This absence of a clear, unequivocal message of social justice in the New Testament has led to some rather clumsy attempts to wedge a message of social justice into the New Testament. One sees interpreters doing this to Paul’s letter to Philemon concerning the slave Onesimus. It is reasonable to interpret Paul as intending to persuade Philemon to free Onesimus but if Paul intended to upend the institution of Greco-Roman slavery, he whiffed. Recently I heard an attempt to interpret 1 Peter 2:21–22 through the lens of social justice but that interpretation must be judged a failure since it quite misses Peter’s intention altogether. For an alternative interpretation see this commentary. 1 Peter 2:18 is quite clear and it must condition our understanding of Peter’s use of Christ as example.
The Prophetic Office Of The Church
Our Lord Jesus Christ has three offices: Prophet, Priest, and King. This is an ancient Christian way of understanding the person and work of Christ. In the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) the Reformed churches confess this threefold office (triplex munus):
31. Why is He called Christ, that is Anointed?
Because He is ordained of God the Father and anointed with the Holy Spirit to be our chief Prophet and Teacher, who has fully revealed to us the secret counsel and will of God concerning our redemption; and our only High Priest, who by the one sacrifice of His body, has redeemed us, and ever lives to make intercession for us with the Father; and our eternal King, who governs us by His Word and Spirit and defends and preserves us in the redemption obtained for us.
Our Lord Jesus, of course, is the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophetic office, which began with Moses. God the Son, in his pre-incarnate state, revealed through Moses the office of prophet that was to be patterned after Moses (Deut 18:15–22). The function of the prophet was to announce only God’s Word to the people. The Lord gave to the people a test to determine a true prophet from false prophets. If the word they spoke came true, it was from the Lord.
The office of prophet was part of the establishment of the temporary, Old Covenant (Mosaic), theocracy. In this temporary, national people of God, the Lord instituted on top of his moral law (revealed already in nature, in the garden) temporary civil (political) laws and temporary ceremonial (religious) laws. The rabbis counted 613 of them. In Galatians 3:15–29 the Apostle Paul characterizes the entire Mosaic period of redemptive history as distinct in character from the Abrahamic in that it was a temporary addition to the permanent Abrahamic covenant of grace. Like Moses, the prophets led this national, temporary people and administered the Mosaic covenant until the people demanded a king.
That national people had distinct, temporary civil and religious duties and the line between them was nonexistent We know this from the explicit teaching of Hebrews 7:11–14:
Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron? For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well. For the one of whom these things are spoken belonged to another tribe, from which no one has ever served at the altar. For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests (ESV; emphasis added).
According to Hebrews, the religious life of Israel was fundamental to her entire existence. When the priesthood changed, the law changed. The entire system rested, as it were, like an inverted pyramid, upon the priesthood. God sovereignly transferred the priesthood to Jesus because he alone brought perfection and with it an end to the daily offering.
National Israel was a theocracy. That state only was divinely commissioned to enforce religious orthodoxy. That state only was commissioned to conduct religious wars with surrounding nations (e.g., the Canaanites). Indeed, that people was commissioned to wipe out Canaanites and to inhabit their land. Throughout Christian history many (perhaps) most Christians have fail ed to see the unique, temporary nature of that arrangement. As Paul explained in Galatians 3 and in 2 Corinthians 3 the New Covenant is new relative to Moses not Abraham. Indeed, Jeremiah (himself an Old Covenant prophet) contrasted the old covenant in which he served with a future New Covenant. Virtually the whole of the New Testament book of Hebrews is taken up with the contrast between the old, inferior Mosaic covenant with the superior New Covenant. The old covenant priests offered daily sacrifices but the High Priest of the New Covenant, Jesus, offered himself as the sacrifice once for all.
One way of understanding the Medieval and Byzantine church is to see it as a re-institution of the old testament, theocratic state and sacrificial system. The Reformation was then, in that light, a return to a New Testament understanding of the temporary nature of the Mosaic theocratic system. To be sure, the Reformation was a child of 1,000 years of theocracy and few sixteenth-century figures could imagine a world without a state-enforced religious orthodoxy. It would not be until the 18th century, until after a century of religious wars over which church would be the state-church, that the West began to re-think that assumption seriously.
The essential point to under here, however, is this: when we invoke the prophetic office of the church, we must invoke it in light of the New Testament. When we see the mainline denominations and increasing numbers of evangelicals and ostensibly confessional Reformed folk call the visible church to take up her prophetic mantle to speak to the social ills of our age, we are witnessing people ignoring the progress of redemptive history. There is a reason why our Lord Jesus, the Prophet, the Priest, and the King said nothing to the powers of this age, even when he had opportunity, about their oppression of the poor or their manifold injustices. That was not his office. He came proclaiming an eschatological kingdom, a heavenly kingdom, which had, in his person, descended into history in a unique way. He healed, he raised the dead, and he spoke the truth but he never fundamentally challenged the political or economic status quo. If that troubles you, then perhaps you have replaced the Jesus of Scripture with the Jesus sought by the crowds on Palm Sunday, the Jesus in whom Judas hoped? When Jesus disappointed the crowds and the revolutionaries, they turned on him and cried out for Bar-Abbas. They wanted someone to deliver them from Roman oppression not a suffering Savior, who must die for the sins of his sheep but that was the message that Isaiah the Old Testament prophet preached: “Behold, my Servant shall act wisely” (Isa 52:13–53:12). This is why the Apostles, the heirs of Jesus’ prophetic mantle, repeatedly refused to challenge the socio-economic status quo. Yes, they said that we must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29) but they held no protests and no boycotts. They went to prison for the gospel, they were stoned and beaten for the gospel, and they died as martyrs (witnesses) for the gospel of Christ but not as revolutionaries. They were emissaries of the Kingdom of God and of the Kingdom of Heaven. Their weapons were spiritual: the Word of God, the sacraments, and the keys of the kingdom (Matt chapters 16 and 18 [all]).
So far we have considered how we got here, what social justice is and what is the prophetic office of the church but we have not considered the Old Testament prophet Samuel. Samuel was one of the greatest of the Israelite prophets because he was the last of the prophets before the Kings and in him we see the truly theocratic nature of the Old Testament (Mosaic-Davidic) prophet office. Nowhere is the theocratic nature of Old Testament prophetic office more clear than in 1 Samuel 15:24–33:
Saul said to Samuel, “I have sinned, for I have transgressed the commandment of Yahweh and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice. Now therefore, please pardon my sin and return with me that I may bow before Yahweh.” And Samuel said to Saul, “I will not return with you. For you have rejected the word of Yahweh, and Yahweh has rejected you from being king over Israel.” As Samuel turned to go away, Saul seized the skirt of his robe, and it tore. And Samuel said to him, “Yahweh has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you. And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret.” Then he said, “I have sinned; yet honor me now before the elders of my people and before Israel, and return with me, that I may bow before Yahweh your God.” So Samuel turned back after Saul, and Saul bowed before Yahweh. Then Samuel said, “Bring here to me Agag the king of the Amalekites.” And Agag came to him cheerfully. Agag said, “Surely the bitterness of death is past.” And Samuel said, “As your sword has made women childless, so shall your mother be childless among women.” And Samuel hacked Agag to pieces before Yahweh in Gilgal.
This was not personal revenge for a slight. Samuel was fulfilling the revealed Word and will of God, which King Saul had refused to do. This gruesome, bloody, typological episode illustrates very well the necessity to be careful about invoking the “prophetic church” in the interests of this social cause or that. It will not do. It is not possible to go back to the Old Testament theocracy selectively as folk are wont to do. When we invoke the prophetic office of the church to speak to immigration, gentrification, or income disparities, we are diminishing the prophetic office of the church: to announce the inauguration of the heavenly Kingdom of God in the person of Christ (Mark 1:15): “Behold, the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Christians as individuals and groups are free to speak to social ills and issues as they will but the mission of the institutional church is controlled by Scripture alone (sola Scriptura). The Kingdom of God is inaugurated. It shall be consummated and in the interim the Roman Empire has passed away. The Holy Roman Empire has passed away and countless other kingdoms and duchies of this world have come and gone. The gospel of the resurrection is still true. The gospel of the impending return of Christ is still true and Christ is still reigning over all of them but that reign is not civl nor political. The God of peace was soon to crush Satan under the feet of the church in Rome in AD 55. Some of them were martyred in AD 65 but Christ was reigning even as they died for him.
We cannot resurrect Samuel without bringing with him his sword still dripping with the blood of Agag but the bloody cross is empty and the wrath of God against his elect has been exhausted there. Christ our King is ascended and our citizenship is in heaven (Phil 3:230). Our message is the reconciliation of all of God’s people, from every “tribe, tongue, people, and nation” (Rev 5:9), the cancellation of the record of debt (Col 2:14), and the tearing down of the wall of hostility (Eph 2:14) by the death of the Son of God (Rom 5:10). Social goods shall surely follow from this message, as they have always done, but they will not come through the re-institution of Samuel’s bloody war against Agag.
—R. Scott Clark, Escondido