Justice in the Church

512px-120.The_Prophet_Isaiah

The Prophet Isaiah, Gustave Doré

In recent days Kathleen and I have been reading through the eighth century prophets — Isaiah, Amos, Hosea and Micah.

These are less familiar to the church than virtually every other part of the Bible. My friend, Pastor John Hendricks, referred to them as “the clean part of the Bible.” He meant the portions of the Bible we don’t read much so they don’t have smudges or thumbprints on their pages or pencil marks in their margins.

Admittedly the prophets are not as easy to read as the gospels, and they often do not seem very warm and “evangelical.” But they are filled with passages waiting patiently to speak to the church today. We should listen to them more than we do.

The second half of the eighth century before Christ (the 700s B.C.) was a time of great prosperity and accumulated wealth for the nations of Israel and Judah, but this created problems. Abundance brings its temptations in every age. Wealth itself gives a sense of power and self-sufficiency; and unless treated as a sacred trust, power seems almost invariably to corrupt.

Amos forewarned the northern kingdom of Israel: “You oppress the righteous and take bribes, / and you deprive the poor of justice in the courts. / Therefore the prudent man keeps quiet in such times, for the times are evil” (Amos 5:12,13). There was a breakdown of just or fair dealings.

During the same period Hosea, speaking for God, says of the people of the capital of the Northern Kingdom (Samaria) “They practice deceit, / thieves break into houses, / bandits rob in the streets; / but they do not realize / that I remember all their evil deeds” (Hosea 7:1,2). There was a breakdown of moral order.

But in spite of all this secular decay these clear-eyed prophets noted that, curiously, there was no letup in the showy practices of religion.

Elaborate worship practices were an insult to the Lord when offered with soiled hands and from deceitful hearts. “The multitude of your sacrifices – what are they to me? says the Lord…. When you come to appear before me, / who has asked this of you, / this trampling of my courts? (Isaiah 1:11, 12).

You would think prophets of such courage and candor would sway the people. What giant proclaimers of truth they must have been! After all, their prophecies still occupy a place in the Bible 2800 years later.

But, religious or not, they had a stubbornness in the face of rebuke that would call down severe judgment.

These prophets were actually lonely men, an irritant to those who heard them. Their prophecies of impending judgment were scoffed at and rejected. Across history, true prophets have often disturbed consciences and paid for their courage with their lives.

When Amos went to the northern kingdom he was ordered by a man named Amaziah: “Get out you seer! Go back to the land of Judah. Earn your bread there and do your prophesying there.” (Amos 7:12). In other words, he was saying, our ears are closed to your words.

Yet, there was actually urgent reason for them to pay attention; the mighty Assyrian armies threatened attack and later the Babylonian legions would come. Before such hordes, without God’s protection there would be slaughter and destruction. But somehow pride, self-indulgence and greed blinded the minds of their leaders.

Are these prophets messengers to the church today? Times of abundance tend to blur moral boundaries. Leaders not kept accountable slip easily into the abuse of power instead of the rightful distribution of justice — the exercise of fairness for all. The ancient prophets would caution believers in every age: be alert!

The health of a company of God’s people, whether a local church, a parachurch body, or a denomination of believers spread across the land, must be measured not only by its evangelistic zeal but also by the clarity and firmness of its commitments to be righteous and deal justly in all situations.

 

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Image credit: The Prophet Isaiah, Gustave Doré [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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One thought on “Justice in the Church

  1. I read the prophets of the 8th and early 7th centuries BC , when I read the Bible cover to cover ,day by day. Amos,Hosea & Micah are books I hardly ever return to but Isaiah is the odd one out here. There is no book in the Old Testament I turn to more than Isaiah.

    I particularly notice whenever Isaiah is chosen as the Old Testament lesson at my church,, simply because it is my favourite book of prophecy,one of my favourite OT books,an old friend.

    I believe the Bible is first and foremost a book to guide ones life,a book of scripture, God’s Word to us.It’s important as our handbook for living, so much more than simply a great work of literature.

    Nevertheless ,as a literary masterpiece ,the collection of books which make up the Bible contains the greatest writing ever,in many genres, Taking the Old Testament alone, .let alone the glory of the Gospels & Acts , the profound teaching in the Letters and that extraordinary Apocalyptic letter of John to several churches : :- the Bible is a treasure trove.

    In the OT are books of absorbing history with page turning historical chronicles.

    There is Genesis, which tells of a pre historic human past and even speaks of pre human creation itself.To my understanding Genesis is so rich in meaning , so far beyond mere narrative,as to give we mortals a glimpse of God – time and God- size events.So we can begin to understand the nature of creation ,almost as if we were there.No human witnessed some of these events.Moses cannot have written this without God’s help .Only God could have given us the Book of Genesis.This is above history,super- history.

    Some Bible books appeared very dry to me on first reading.The long lists of generations required great effort of mental focus,I confess.I found parts of Leviticus with it’s desert hygiene rules difficult.I wanted to get to more Bible stories ,the first time I read the Bible cover to cover

    Dry too were the detailed mesasurements for building the Ark of the Covenant and The Temple .All those cubits The detailed designs for priestly garments too..My mind glazed..Some pre King James Bibles which I discovered later,provide detailed diagrammatic illustrations of the Temple,the Ark and other artefacts.I wished I’d had those on first reading the Bible.

    The Matthews Bible of of 1537 ,translated by William Tyndale and Miles Coverdale helped translate the Biblical words into images by providing illustrations.. .I found particularly helpful the very clear detailed illustrations in the 1560 Protestant Geneva Bible Everything was made clear. A picture tells a thousand words.These illustrations brought the text alive for me.

    I love these old Protestant Bibles which folk read in secret,in forbidden bible study groups.If caught they faced torture and death.Their faith was magnificent when reading the Bible in one’s native tongue was forbidden.

    In most Bible books the words convey mental images with astonishing power.Psalms is a book of the most beautiful hymns and songs by King David and perhaps others.

    In the Song of Solomon we have beautiful lyric love poetry written by David’s son.One day we read Solomon’s Song and it seems clearly a marriage poem.Another day there seems more than a hint that this is about the love of the soul for God or the love of a people and their church for God.And vice versa.Perhaps both meanings are intended.

    In the Wisdom books ( Proverbs & Ecclesiastes ) , also written by Solomon,I think, ,we find pithy aphorisms. No better collection of aphorisms exist in all literature to my knowledge.Here is deeply profound wisdom to live one’s life by.

    Then there are the Books of Prophecy .5 are major books ,one each by Isaiah,Ezekiel & Daniel and two books by Jeremiah. 12 are minor books of Prophecy,These books are major and minor not because of the importance of the prophets or prophecies,but simply according to length of text.N or do they appear in the Bible canon, in order of composition

    .As you teach us ,Pastor Don – ,Isaiah ,Hosea ,Amos and Micah are prophecies of God’s judgement and condemnation made from the 8th century before Christ’s birth.

    Of course ,when one reads these Prophecies through to the end ,one finds after the judgement and condemnation comes prophecy of great future hope.In Isaiah comes the greatest hope of all.Isaiah prophesies God’s offer to us of salvation.For to us a child shall be born,a Son given,a most wonderful counsellor.Yes ! ,Isaiah is the Messianic prophet !

    The Book of Isaiah is ,sometimes called the 5th Gospel and the prophet Isaiah I’ve heard called an evangelist, as well as prophet.

    In hindsight we now know Isaiah foresaw exactly the events of Christ’s birth & ministry ! How could he have known ? I think the answer is exactly the answer as to how Moses knew the details of creation.God put this knowledge into the prophets heart or mind.This is what a prophet is,: a spokesman chosen by God,vouchsafed with some of God’s own knowledge for a purpose.. In this sense,perhaps Moses to should be considered God’s prophet.

    Isaiah is a great piece of writing.I find such great poetry in the Book of Isaiah .What a a monumental masteropiece of writing.It is ,great and beautiful writing.The style is extraordinarily cultivated.The effect is astonishing,in almost any translation.

    Try reading The Message. God’s condemnation ,through Isaiah ,of mere formal and ritual worship is memorably scathing.This tour de force shook me when I first read Isaiah in Pastor Eugene H Petersons Bible translation ,written at the end of the 20th century, Isaiah, in the Message, came to life for me.

    Here God tells us to clean up our act,,in contemporary parlance.

    “Quit your worship charades.
    I can’t stand your trivial religious games:
    Monthly conferences, weekly Sabbaths, special meetings—
    meetings, meetings, meetings—I can’t stand one more!
    Meetings for this, meetings for that. I hate them!
    You’ve worn me out!
    I’m sick of your religion, religion, religion,
    while you go right on sinning.
    When you put on your next prayer-performance,
    I’ll be looking the other way.
    No matter how long or loud or often you pray,
    I’ll not be listening.
    And do you know why? Because you’ve been tearing
    people to pieces, and your hands are bloody.
    Go home and wash up.
    Clean up your act.
    Sweep your lives clean of your evildoings
    so I don’t have to look at them any longer.
    Say no to wrong.
    Learn to do good.
    Work for justice.
    Help the down-and-out.
    Stand up for the homeless.
    Go to bat for the defenseless’’ from The Message,Isaiah

    On first reading Isaiah in Pastor Peterson’s ‘The Message’ ,I was simply astonished by the force of this prophecy.The style is alive with God’s judgement.

    Isaiah’s writing style is distinguished,elegant and poetic.Clearly an able composer of words,iIt is Isaiah’s message which is most important of all.His message is from God.

    What is a prophet? During study of this week’s blog I asked myself this question many times..I think prophets are humans God has chosen to speak in His name.Through prophets God lets us know His Will. In that sense,prophets are messangers of God,like the angels.

    Except angels are not humans.It’s interesting to consider the different ways God’s angels and God’s prophets are His messengers.I notice angels carry a specific message for a specific time ,to a specific person or group of people at a specific event.So a special angel, archangel Gabriel,announces to Mary that she will bear Jesus.And Joseph is told his fiancée Mary has been specially chosen to bear the Saviour.

    .An angel at the Ascension ,which we commemorated last Thursday,carried God’s message that Christ will come again,the way He now ascends.

    Prophets seem to be messengers to whole nations ,conveying God’s Will. Isaiah is of the utmost importance,his prophecy like a 5th Gospel..The prophet’s very name carries the message that Salvation comes only from God.I think Isaiah means God will save us.

    Angels and Prophets are messengers of God.The greatest messenger of God is God’s Word Himself.The Word! Born in Bethlehem ,it is Jesus Himself,God’s Son,the living Word of God.As the beginning of his Gospel ,John explains this.It is John’s nearest thing to an infancy narrative,to my mind.

    Isaiah is the prophet who prophesies the coming of Jesus our Christ.

    Isaiah carries God’s condemnation ,His judgement.And yet – hope of salvation is offered at the end of all prophecies which carry God’s judgement and condemnation to us for our deviations from His way.At the end of Isaiah’s book of prophecy comes the great Messianic Prophecy.

    Isaiah told us ,7 to 8 centuries before Christ’s birth,these facts:

    He will be born of a virgin,His ministry will begin in Galilee. He will be a descendant of King David,will be spat upon ,slapped and despised,will be an atoning blood sacrifice,will be our substitute bearing our sins,will be silent before Pilate’s accusations,will be the King of the Jews and also the Lord of the gentiles,will be buried in a tomb provided for by a rich merchant ( Joseph of Arimathea) .Also we are foretod ,the Holy Spirit will descend upon Him and ,He will judge the world.

    Who but God could have known this?Isaiah was God’s prophet ,speaking God’s word to us.

    For me Isaiah is the most sensational of all God’s prophets.But all prophet’s speak God’s word.I shall make a point of returning to the books of Amos,Hosea & Micah in the coming weeks, as the Pentacost season approaches.I look forward to this.

    Once again,thankyou Pastor Don,for yet another inspiring ‘Just Call Me Pastor’ blog.I build my bible study round your blog themes.

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