Well, here we are, counting down to the Vernal Equinox – less than thirty days to go! Spring is moving north at a pace of about 15 miles per day. Robins, already widely present here in Northeast Ohio, are well ahead of Spring’s glacial (or perhaps anti-glacial) creep. Look for crocus blossoms soon. One more Lord’s Day and the month of March will be upon us.
I know it’s just me – but Spring is my least favorite season. Don’t get me wrong. I’m as tired of Winter as anyone. Snow has lost most of its charm for me and the days are well past when I only felt cold on my skin. Cold soaks right through to the bone these days and I recall ruefully all those times I shook my head over some ‘elderly’ person leaning against the pot bellied stove in the fellowship hall. (Yes, I am that old.) I pity the people of Texas whose state has been racked by what we would consider a fairly mild and brief Winter ‘event’. But the fact that we are better prepared for Winter this side of the Mississippi doesn’t make me enjoy it anymore.
And yet – Spring, not Winter, is my least favorite season. And as much as I look forward to Summer and Fall, the looming month of March gives me no comfort. Spring is my least favorite season but March is my least favorite month. I realize official Spring only occupies the last week+ of March – nevertheless.
What is my problem – I hear you ask. Well, I recall and agree with the wisdom of my paternal grandfather – a life-long farmer who observed, March is a cheat, April is a tease and you can’t always trust May either! I hear ya, grandpa! When are orchards devastated for the whole year by killing frosts? In the Spring! (I realize I have never lived in Florida. Well, everyone’s got problems!) If a farmer wants things in place come June he/she has to fight through the agonizing transitions of Spring! As a gardener in Northeast Ohio I can tell you that in 1999, 2000, and 2001 there was a frost or an actual hard freeze on the first day of June!
Early Spring is often very difficult to distinguish from late winter. It’s kind of like hearing the depression is over and thinking, Yup, this old bone I’m gnawing on tastes better already. Oh, Spring will try – occasional warmth followed by more cold, producing enough freezing and thawing to play havoc with paved roads. Spring is the season of roof and gutter damage – and power outages. In fact, all the worst and most destructive ice-storms I recall happened in March. Come to think of it, most of the really violent weather for a heart lander like myself – is Spring weather. I haven’t tried to figure it out but I wouldn’t be surprised if the flood of Noah happened in March – or at least Spring! In my lifetime, for sure, this observation stands - in March the world is made of mud – with a rime of ice on the mud about half the time! As a minister, I try not to laugh out load when people ask – Why don’t we have an outdoor Sonrise Service this year?
OK – rant over. You have probably surmised that even though I am tired of Winter, I would like to get to Summer without the aggravation of the messy transition. But, then, transitions tend to be messy and it’s little good wishing to hibernate through them. Wake me when the building program is over and the last tweak to the order of worship is made! Or, let me walk around in a dazed stupor until the Millennium gets underway. However one interprets the Apocalyptic portions of the New Testament, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the long Winter of sin will end in a period of violent transition. It is ours to endure to the end – make that – the beginning.
I did some research on Valentine’s Day for a sermon that I will share in this post. One way and another, the holiday is the remembrance of the martyrdom of St. Valentine in AD 270. But how did that morph into the holiday as we know it? Let’s start by noting that there were three notable martyrs at just about the same time that year. One of them was Saint Valentine. The problem, beginning not that long after the triple martyrdom, lay in lacking certainty about which of the three was actually Saint Valentine. Emperor Claudius II executed one of the men for converting his jailers to Christ. He executed another of the three men for helping convicted Christians escape harsh Roman prisons. He executed the third man for secretly performing unlawful wedding ceremonies. A word here: Claudius had decided that single men made better soldiers than married men. Subsequently, he passed a law that young men from the less ‘privileged’ portions of the population were not to marry until after they had served an acceptable term in the military – ‘acceptable’ being a matter to be determined case by case. Many young men were frantic about the prospect of being shipped off to war without the chance to marry. The Christian minister in question married them in secret ceremonies and paid with his life.
As time passed, the only name remembered from among the three martyrs of AD 270 was ‘Valentine’ and people from the home regions of each martyr wanted their guy to be the one remembered. Each of the three was claimed to be the true Valentine. In many quarters, the three were simply referred to together as ‘the valentini’ and remembered as a group rather than as individuals.
Much later (like a millennia) the official Feast Day celebrating the martyrdom of Saint Valentine was enshrined church wide. They chose the performer of forbidden wedding ceremonies as the true Valentine, leaving the other two as mere valentini. They did this not because they suddenly arrived at a more certain knowledge but because they were replacing a pagan fertility cult celebration already set in February- the Lupercalia. In the Lupercalia, for starters, goats were sacrificed to fertility gods/goddesses. Then, young men ran through the streets naked but for a thong made of a strip of the sacrificial goats hides with the genitals of the goat still attached and placed appropriately. Somewhere along the course, each young man hoped to meet a certain young woman. This, along with other practices, was thought to make the men more virile, the women more fertile and increase the next crop of babies for the given community. The church wanted a different picture of sexuality and an emphasis on God and the sacred covenant of marriage to take the place of the Lupercalia. Valentine, the performer of defiant marriages was the guy for the job and the essentials of the modern holiday were put in place – though our society has largely forgotten the emphasis on God.
For what it’s worth, modern scholarship has pretty much determined that the converter of Jailers was the actual Valentine after all but no one yet has started the crusade to revamp the holiday into something appropriate to that scenario.
I am uncertain how inspiring this particular bit of holiday history is. I suppose Hallmark and Whitman’s are more excited about it than most. But, whatever their methodology I will give the Medieval church their due. They did not forget those who gave their lives for the gospel and they strove to lead their society away from paganism and toward Christ. If I wish to find fault with the way they did it, I suppose I had better think up a better way and get on with implementing it! At any rate, I hope everyone had a great Valentine’s Day!
Though much more could be said, in the previous two posts I have tried to lay out some basic defining points for true Biblical prophecy – some from the linguistic analysis of the terms translated as ‘prophet’ and some from Scripture passages describing prophecy, warning about false prophets, etc. As I have laid them out;
*The prophet must be given a clear vision of God’s will for a time/situation,
* The subject matter of the vision must be ‘weighty’ (non-trivial) enough to constitute a ‘burden’,
*The prophetic message must create sufficient internal pressure that it must ‘flow forth’.
*Prophecy is a public rather than a private enterprise.
*Prophecy is for the sake of the already believing community rather than a more evangelistic endeavor.
*The prophetic message must be consistent with what God has already said.
*The prophet’s conduct (though no prophet is perfect) must be definable as ‘good fruit’.
*Any predictions made by the prophet must prove to be accurate.
All this said, distinguishing a ‘true’ prophet can still be difficult. And our own desires often get in the way. Consider the ministry of the prophet, Jeremiah. Jeremiah had a prophetic competitor named Hannaniah. The two preached exactly opposite messages. Jeremiah prophesied the coming Babylonian captivity. Hannaniah prophesied that no such captivity would occur. The two prophets had different takes on the reliability of Egypt. The people and the king(s) had to choose between the two competing prophetic messages. It is easy, in retrospect, to identify Jeremiah as the true prophet. The Babylonian Captivity happened and lasted precisely as long as Jeremiah foretold. I suspect at the time it seemed less clear. Even after the first two waves of captives were taken away, as long as Jerusalem stood, the captives in Babylon were not minded to hear the prophetic word of their fellow captive, Ezekiel. Of course, they might have heard Jeremiah and Ezekiel and Hannaniah and simply asked which agreed with the accepted earlier prophetic word of Isaiah. But, as I say, our desires get in the way – cloud our vision. Never think that we are immune to such effects.
So, rather than expand the criteria for recognizing a true prophet I will rehearse a story already known to one degree or another by most and let you draw your own conclusions.
In 1958 a young Pennsylvania preacher by name of David Wilkerson became acquainted with the murder trial of seven young Hispanic New York gang members. Wilkerson felt certain that God wanted him to do something to ‘help those boys.’ He got some time off from his congregation and rushed to New York to attend the ongoing trial. As a recess was called, Wilkerson tried to go to the front of the courtroom to ask the judge for permission to visit the defendants. Wilkerson was unaware of death threats against the Judge or appropriate extra security measures! The next days New York Daily News featured a great photo of Wilkerson being hauled off to jail. He never got to meet or help those seven individual young men – he also never resumed pastoring the PA congregation. Rather, he took to preaching to other gang members on the streets of New York. He raised money and founded a ‘house’ where gang members could come to get off drugs, get off the streets in cold weather, get a meal, receive counseling, etc. The rules were strict. Troubled youth worked if they wanted to eat. Drug rehab was strictly cold turkey. The first step in resolving legal conflicts was to go to the police and make a full confession. No services were received without the necessity to hear religious teachings.
To the surprise of many, Wilkerson had remarkable success. The ‘house’ became ‘Teen Challenge’ and sprouted chapters all over the world. Out of this ministry came the book and the movie – The Cross and the Switchblade – and the lifelong ministry of evangelist Nicky Cruz (played in the movie by Erik Estrada). Wilkerson gained international fame – and a fair chunk of personal wealth in the form of royalties from the movie and over forty books he would author moving forward. It needs to be said right here than Wilkerson never confused ministry money with personal money and is one of those rare ‘big timers’ among ministers for whom there was never a hint of scandal financial, sexual, or otherwise. Wilkerson came to like fancy cars, expensive shoes and very nice homes but they were all purchased with his personal wealth – not ministry funds – and he still gave away as much of his personal money as he kept.
As Teen Challenge became a HUGE international organization, Wilkerson discovered that he didn’t like administering huge international organizations. He just wanted to preach! So he turned Teen Challenge over to one of his associates and took off for California in 1970. The ministry he envisioned on the west coast did not materialize as Wilkerson developed, of all things, a terrible fear of flying. He was still in demand all over the country (and internationally) as a speaker. In 1971 he moved to Dallas, Texas from where it was easier to operate his Bible Belt travelling schedule in a bus! He also developed in Texas what he meant to do in California – the Twin Oaks Ranch for Boys. This ministry also found great success until Wilkerson found he was spending more time with architects and accountants than with the Lord. He sold the ranch to YWAM for a fraction of its worth, built a new home and started World Challenge – mostly writing books. Later, Wilkerson would withdraw his own support from five of his own books saying he head foolishly written them to raise money rather than as the result of a mandate from God.
Over the first three years of World Challenge, Wilkerson shifted from ‘preaching’ to ‘prophecy’ – feeling that he had been given a prophetic burden. This is where the rubber hits the road for this blog post. In 1973 his prophetic burden ‘flowed forth’ in a book called – The Vision. (Talk about hitting the points!) He predicted that at an unspecified date in the ‘near future’ America would enter a terrible tribulation. Predictions included,
*Roller coaster pricing for precious metals that would wipe out fortunes.
*Expansive union busting by the government.
*Bankruptcy for almost every large American corporation.
*The death of American agriculture.
*The exhausting of American food reserves.
* Continent wide famine in Africa.
*An explosion of pornography.
*The worst earthquake in American history.
*The legalization of Marijuana.
*Roving bands of homosexuals assaulting citizens publicly on the streets.
In addition to the predictions, Wilkerson denounced ‘contemporary Christian Music and musicians as back-sliders singing ‘rock & roll born in the womb of the devil’ and almost all televangelists as ‘Prosperity Gospel Hucksters’. He named several prominent televangelists by name. He had almost as unkind words for most of the non-televised church services in America. He called TVs in general the ‘Babylonian Idiot Box’ and an ‘idol’.
Former fans and supporting congregations could hardly abandon Wilkerson fast enough. World Challenge – his prophetic ministry – became his first ministry endeavor not to result in explosive success. He conducted ‘Call to Repentance’ seminars which drew a few hundred at a time – as opposed to the thousands and tens of thousands of days gone by for Wilkerson. His numerical few but hard-core supporters christened Wilkerson ‘America’s Jeremiah’.
But Wilkerson lost even many of those devoted followers with his 1985 release of the book, Set the Trumpet to Thy Mouth. In this prophetic work, Wilkerson identified America as the Babylon of the book of Revelation and forecasted that God was forging a hammer in Moscow for our destruction. His prediction was fairly specific. Russia would launch a first strike over the North Pole. Our missiles, perhaps due to the hand of God, would never leave their silos. We would be wiped out in a single hour. Again, Wilkerson did not name a date other than ‘the near future’. In discussions outside the printed book he flirted with 1996 as, he considered, the close of sabbath week of millennia.
Shortly, after almost everyone abandoned the World Challenge ministry, Wilkerson received the call from God to return to New York, This post is already getting a little long and I have hit the portion of Wilkerson’s career appropriate to the question at hand. So, I will leave to you to research the Times Square Church ministry if you are interested. Wilkerson died in an automobile accident in 2011. His final blog post, titled – When All Means Fail – relays a message profitable to us all.
I have done my best to apply what I see as the Biblical criteria for prophecy to Wilkerson’s ministry. I will not, at this time, share my conclusions – tentative as they are. I would be happy to discuss points any of you may raise. But for the moment I simply ask you – David Wilkerson, prophet or not?
Is ‘prophecy still active in the church and if so, how do we recognize it? Those are the questions I began with on the previous post. As explained in that post, analyzing the Biblical vocabulary leads me to a baseline definition for ‘prophecy’ –
A public exercise for the sake of those who already believe, carried out by one who has been given a clear vision of God’s plan for a situation or time (often including predictions of the future) and to whom the message is weighty enough to be called a burden, possessed of sufficient internal pressure that it must flow forth and, where predictions are concerned – 100% accurate.
I will now add a point to this baseline definition by considering I John 4:1-3.
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is from God; and every Spirit that does not confess Jesus is from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist. Of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world.
And I Corinthians 14:37-39
If anyone thinks he is a prophet or spiritual, let him recognize the things which I write to you are the Lord’s commandment. But if anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized. Therefore, my brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy and do not forbid to speak in tongues. But all things must be done properly and in an orderly manner.
Both passages obviously have relevance in terms of ‘qualifying’ a prophet. In both passages it is necessary to take the words in their larger context to gain a fuller understanding. In I John, John is concerned with three points about Jesus Christ – each of which is presented as non-negotiable in the course of the letter. That is to say that one cannot be considered a Christian if they do not agree that –
In I Corinthians 14, Paul is finishing a discussion about the work of the Holy Spirit in the church: the manner in which the Spirit dispenses gifts, the manner in which the gifts work/work together and the manner in which the gifts are to be ‘recognized’ or ‘carried out’ in the life of the church. It is this, I believe, Paul insists the prospective prophet must agree to. If a prophet does not recognize the source of his/her gift, uses the gift in a way that does not compliment the gifts of other Christians, does not bring about the common good, does not maintain proper order, etc. – If one calling himself a prophet fails to exercise his/her gift according to these points Paul has laid out, perhaps goes so far as to say the points themselves are invalid – such an ‘alleged prophet’ is not to be recognized.
There are a other passages in this vein – Deuteronomy 13:1-4, Isaiah 8:20, etc. Taking them all together, I draw a conclusion. God, who sees the end from the beginning is never surprised by developments and thus, never contradicts Himself. A prophet – given a clear vision of God’s will and plan for a specific situation or time – operating by the Spirit of God – will not contradict God either. If we have decided that God has spoken through Scripture, we cannot accept any prophet (or an angel from heaven either) who offers a message contradicting what God has already said.
A prophet cannot contradict Scripture on the nature or office of Jesus Christ. A prophet cannot contradict Scripture on the nature or exercise of Spiritual gifts – like prophecy! A prophet may well speak a ‘new’ word as John – in that same first epistle offered ‘new’ commandments. But those new commandments are not a contradiction of anything God has already said – rather a fulfillment of previous commandments. Love was always the essence of the law and Jesus was always the essence of prophecy. The new commandments are simply to love one another and believe what God has said about Jesus.
So, yes, a prophet may well issue a new word for a new situation but the new word will not contradict what God has previously said. Rather, the new word will more fully apply what God has previously said to the current situation. The new word may call for a new and more radical obedience to what God has already said. But the new word will never legitimately proclaim – God has changed His mind! Adultery is ok now – so give me your daughters.
Add to this Matthew 7:15-20
Beware of all false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravening wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles are they? So, every good tree bears good fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruit.
Not only must the prophet’s message not contradict what God has already said, the prophet’s life must not contradict it either. I am quick to note that, aside from Jesus, there are no morally perfect prophets. God worked with Jonah despite his obvious need for an attitude adjustment and God met Elijah’s bout of suicidal depression head on. But neither Jonah nor Elijah (nor Isaiah, Amos, Jeremiah, Zechariah, etc.) lived lives defined by drunkenness, gluttony, sexual immorality, deception, or exploitation.
So, we add another point to the definition – the Prophet speaking for God will not, by the message spoken or the lifestyle lived, contradict what God has previously said. David Koresh (were he still living) is no more a prophet than Harold Camping.
There is still more to be said – another post?!?