It helps sometimes for us to forget that we know so many things about Yeshua, to back up and experience him from within the story and not from thousands of years after. I suspect that one reason the idea of Yeshua as prophet is neglected in religious talk is that it seems retrograde to some to consider his “lesser” roles in the divine plan.
But it is impossible to exaggerate the importance of the idea that Yeshua was a prophet of the kingdom from within the story, from within the experience the disciples and crowds had of Yeshua. For them Yeshua was a potential prophet, a healer, an exorcist. How does Yeshua come across as a prophet in Mark? What sorts of things do we learn from this?
Rather than go through a boring list of passages in which Yeshua plays a prophet role, I thought I’d look more deeply into one story and reflect on the others from within it.
The classical story is, of course, Mark 8:27-38. The disciples’ answer to Yeshua’s question is, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others one of the prophets.” Only one disciple goes further, Peter, and we wonder if all of the Twelve would have gotten this or if Peter had better insight than the others. (Yes, I know that in another gospel, John, we have Andrew telling Peter, “We have found the Messiah” (1:41)).
The popular notions of Yeshua’s identity all had to do with the role of prophet. John the Baptist and Elijah, of course, were prophets. If Yeshua wasn’t one of them returned to life, then who was he? He must be one of the other prophets (Malachi? Isaiah? It’s hard to know who else people might have imagined).
It’s curious that in Mark’s wording, it did not occur to anyone that he was simply “Yeshua the prophet,” but that he was “Yeshua with the spirit of one of the prophets upon him.” That is, we might wonder if people resisted the idea of a new prophet and thought that God might bring back one of the hallowed prophets in a kind of spiritual endowment on a contemporary person.
And what sort of prophet was Yeshua. What “prophetic” topics did he address? Leaving aside for the moment his healings and feedings, which put him in an Elijah-Elisha category, we would have to say that Yeshua was a prophet of the kingdom.
The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel (Mark 1:15).
I will make you fishers of men (1:17) said Yeshua, meaning either “catching people in kingdom faith” or “catching and judging those who prevent the kingdom” (Jeremiah 16 uses the image of fishing for people as judgment).
I came not to call the righteous, but sinners (2:17), said Yeshua. He was calling them to a realization of the kingdom.
The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day (2:20), which is a futuristic pronouncement of coming sorrow (a very prophet-like thing to say).
In 3:13; 6:46; and 9:2 he goes up on “the mountain” or “a high mountain” and gives revelation. It is a very Moses-like thing to do. In one of these instances, he said he would show those standing with him the kingdom (9:1).
To you has been given the secret of the kingdom, but to those outside everything is in parables (4:11), says Yeshua and then cites Isaiah as a precedent of a prophet, like himself, called to preach in a way that will bring judgment to the many but reward to disciples who hear and follow.
The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed upon the ground (4:26). Yeshua’s parables, even when not put into a form of “the kingdom is like” were generally understood to be about the kingdom.
The Pharisees and scribes sought a sign (8:11-13) from the prophet, perhaps not satisfied for some reason with the signs they already saw.
Yeshua made many other prophet-like pronouncements, including enactments with a fig tree and a long discourse on signs and coming events in Mark 13.
No wonder Schweitzer long ago depicted Yeshua historically in the category of a apocalyptic prophet. Likewise, Maurice Casey in his new and monumental historical Jesus book, Jesus of Nazareth, sees apocalyptic prophet as the main category for Yeshua.
In an upcoming series (“Messianism and Yeshua in Mark”) we will consider the further claim that Yeshua is Messiah. But from within the story, few could see that. Such a realization came mainly after the resurrection.
Even stories in which it seems people either hoped or actively pushed for Yeshua to take on some revolutionary role (deliverer from Rome), they may still have had prophet in mind more so that “king” or “one like David” or “Messiah.”
Ched Myers in Binding the Strongman summarizes well the ideas of resistance to Rome with the involvement of a prophet as the leader. Theudas (see Acts 5:36) promised to lead a group to the Jordan and part the waters, like Moses, Joshua, and Elijah. An action like this had military overtones, with Rome being like Egypt. In Acts 21:38 we have a reference to the Egyptian, a prophet coming from Egypt (but Jewish) who called followers to gather in the desert and come with an unarmed attack on Jerusalem. He said they would stand on the Mount of Olives and the walls of Jerusalem would crumble. This calls to mind not only Joshua, but also Zechariah’s words (chapter 14) about the Mount of Olives and the last battle. John the Baptist repeatedly denied he would lead any resistance movement, but he drew many followers out into the desert. His movement was packed with revolutionary potential.
The idea that many people regarded Yeshua as a prophet who might lead a popular resistance movement against Rome is not far-fetched. But Yeshua kept putting down such expectations. And as a prophet he gave off mixed signals, saying things about suffering, a cross, and being raised after three days.
What are we, as Yeshua’s followers now, to make of Yeshua as the prophet and even apocalyptic prophet?
It is in forgetting Yeshua’s role as a prophet that much modern religion has missed the mark. Prophets brought change in the present as well as cryptic foretastes of the future. Yeshua’s kingdom talk mysteriously is about future and present. Is the kingdom here now or coming? Many of Yeshua’s sayings can be read either way.
But when we combine Yeshua’s sayings and his actions, we find a pattern. He based present actions on the future realities of the kingdom. So, the kingdom now of Yeshua the prophet looks like the things he did and taught (healing, defeating evil, teaching love and service). The kingdom future will look like a world where everyone is healed, evil defeated, and love and service will be the norm.
So, if we take Yeshua as Messiah-for-the-future-only, as does so much modern religion, we miss the prophetic movement of Yeshua. It is about literal things, not spiritual realities to be realized in the future. Yeshua the prophet has a lot to say about how you relate to people now, to possessions, and to life itself.