If you haven’t heard, Jonathan Storment recently wrote a book called “How to Start a Riot“. To whet your appetite, here is chapter 4 from the book. This chapter is a call on the church to understand and embrace our prophetic role in the world. The chapter is entitled, “Calling All Prophets”. Comment on this post for a chance to get a copy of the book!
Calling All Prophets
“There was a time when the church was very powerful—in the time
when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer
for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely
a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular
opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.
Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power
became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians
for being ‘disturbers of the peace’ and ‘outside agitators.’ But the
Christians pressed on. . . . Things are different now. So often the
contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain
sound. So often it is an arch defender of the status quo. Far from
being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of
the average community is consoled by the church’s silent—and often
even vocal—sanction of things as they are.”
—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”
Recently, I was driving through a fast-food drive-thru when I saw a bumper sticker on the vehicle in front of me. It was a quote from the Roman philosopher Seneca, who said, “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.”1
I live in West Texas, and Taco Bueno is not normally where I go for profound ideas. Nobody ever says, I’d like a tostada and a side of Socrates. But I very much understand this quote. The dark side of religion, the part we don’t talk about, is that it can be misused by mis-leaders to maintain the status quo. It is, as Karl Marx said, “the opium of the masses.”
When I talk to my friends who are leaving their churches and giving up on following Jesus, I’ve learned that some of them have heard the message that Christianity is basically saying something like: Sure the world stinks right now, but if you just wait until you die, then everything will get sorted out.
For the past hundred years in some theological circles, resurrection has been misrepresented as a doctrine that promotes indifference. Somewhere along the way this core truth of Christianity changed from a revolutionary story to one that maintains the status quo. We started hearing the resurrection of Jesus presented as a way
of saying, “If you just wait ’til you die, things will get better. So don’t rock the boat now.”
But Acts offers us a different idea about what resurrection means. It’s not this idea that endorses the way things are. Instead it is a story about a person, and a hope that what God did for that person is going to happen for the entire world.
Some of the riots in Acts are directly tied to Jesus’ followers preaching the resurrection. Because the resurrection isn’t always seen as a good thing. If the status quo works for you, if the world benefits you, you might not like the idea of a God who is turning the world upside down.
“The last shall be first” sounds great for those who are at the back of the line; but if you are at the top of the food chain, it sounds a lot more like a threat.
The resurrection was, and still is, a revolutionary doctrine. It doesn’t just mean that death no longer has the final word. It is so much bigger than that. Resurrection is about God setting the entire world right. It is the energy that has sustained and fed the people of God for centuries.
Especially the prophets.
The Role of a Prophet
The prophet’s role in the Old Testament was not a popular one. Not a lot of little kids dreamed of growing up to be a prophet. Prophets weren’t exactly the Spiderman of the day. In fact, most prophets were only appreciated posthumously.
But the world needed prophets. And here’s why. In 1 Kings we read about a king named Ahab who lives next
door to a fellow named Naboth. Naboth just happens to have a vineyard, a fine vineyard that has been handed down in his family for generations.
Ahab begins to covet that property. Ahab approaches Naboth and offers him a good price for the vineyard. But Naboth says No.No amount of cajoling will make him sell. So Ahab gets all mopey and upset. That’s where his wife Jezebel finds him when she comes home. He’s sulking like a third-grader. When she finds out what the
problem is, Jezebel reminds Ahab that he is the King of Israel, and tells him “Cheer up! I’ll get you that vineyard.”2
Jezebel’s premise is that a king can take whatever he wants. So she sets up false witnesses to lie and say that Naboth had been blaspheming. Naboth gets stoned, and Ahab gets his vineyard.
Sounds like a happy ending, right?
But Ahab and Jezebel have not counted on one thing. A prophet named Elijah. Elijah comes to confront Ahab, telling him, “God is about to wreck your world for what you did to Naboth.” Which probably sounds normal to us. If a king acts unjustly, God enforces justice. But that’s not the way it used to be.
When a king did something in ancient times, it was the job of the gods (at least, the job of that king’s god) to legitimize it, to justify it. (This is why they used the blasphemy charges to get the vineyard.) But the God of Israel is a different kind of God, and he is trying to set humanity on a different path. One where those in power don’t lord it over others. This God doesn’t exist just to legitimize existing power structures; he actually calls them to be accountable.
To some people, that’s a new idea, even though it seems as if it should have been around forever. In fact, according to the Scriptures, if you are in power, God holds you more accountable. The prophets exist to remind us that God is larger than our power structures. When we humans get too big for our own britches, the prophets remind us that we answer to someone else. One more thing about Naboth: He is the only person in the Old Testament who is stoned unjustly. But he isn’t the last just man stoned in the Bible. In Acts 6 and 7, we find a story that kind of parallels Naboth’s. It’s about a man named Stephen.
Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)—Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia. These men began to argue with Stephen, but they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke. Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We have heard Stephen speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God.”
So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him
before the Sanhedrin. They produced false witnesses, who testified, “This fellow never stops speaking against
this holy place and against the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.” All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel. (Acts 6:8–15)
I know this story sounds weird. This guy gets backed into a corner and his noggin starts glowing. Which is unusual. Bible characters
don’t often transfigure into Tinkerbell. But one of the things going on here is that the Jewish people in power are worried that they are going to lose their power.
So they start claiming that they are the true Jewish faith and this group of Jesus’ followers are imposters. Specifically, they claim that Stephen is speaking words of blasphemy against Moses and God. That’s when Stephen’s face starts glowing. Which is like an
immediate conversation stopper, because these people know their Bibles. They know about the time in Exodus 34 when Moses had
been up on Mount Sinai with God. You may remember that strange story. When Moses came down off the mountain, he looked like a glowworm. His face was so shiny that the people he was leading were terrified.
Stephen’s enemies know this story, so they probably understand what God is showing them here. They are accusing Stephen of being against Moses, and suddenly he starts looking like him. But they just keep on attacking Stephen.
The Story of Subversion
They ask Stephen if their charges against him are true, and Stephen responds by saying, “Once upon a time . . . .” Then the high priest asked him, “Are these charges true?” To this he replied: “Brothers and fathers, listen to me! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran.” (Acts 7:1–2)
When I was fourteen, my parents sent me to stay for a week with some of our extended family in Russellville, Arkansas. Which
is about ten miles from the edge of the earth. To give you some kind of context, I grew up on a farm with goats and sheep and well-water, and these particular relatives called us “city folks.” They are great people, though. They raise horses and live
on a huge tract of land.
At one point that week, they decided they were going to have some fun with me. They were going to teach me how to ride a horse.
So they put me on this one horse that looked kind of gentle but had apparently been secretly possessed with an evil spirit. About five minutes into the ride, I suddenly found myself flying through the air and landing flat on my back. Not being one to give up easily, I climbed back on my bucking bronco to show this mare who is boss. Apparently that was her agenda, too. Not thirty seconds went by before I was back on the ground, wheezing for breath and wondering why cows are the main ingredient in hamburgers.
While that was not a pleasant experience, it did make a great story. When I got back home, I told all my friends about getting off
this massive beast of a horse. But what I failed to tell my friends, and what I haven’t told you yet, is that the horse I had been riding was actually . . . a Shetland pony.
The way I told the story to my family, they would have thought that I had been bucked off Sea Biscuit. We all tell stories with a slant. We emphasize certain things and minimize or leave out others. That’s exactly what Stephen is doing. He retells the story of Israel, but he tells it in a particular way. He is going to emphasize Abraham, and then Joseph and Moses and David. And here’s why.
Stephen is being accused of blaspheming the Temple. Stephen reminds them that in their own history, God showed up to people
and in places outside of the Temple. God is not confined to expensive, elaborate buildings. God does just fine revealing himself in
burning bushes or deserts.
The second point Stephen makes is even more powerful. He retells the story of Israel, but he emphasizes times in their history
when the so-called religious leaders of the day rejected someone through whom God was actually working. Joseph was rejected by
his brothers. Moses was rejected, twice, by the very people he was trying to lead out of captivity.
The point Stephen is making here is huge! He’s telling them their own narrative and letting them know that they are playing the wrong parts. This may explain why he ends his sermon the way he does. He calls them stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears, which in my experience is not a good way to endear yourself to the audience. And then he asks one of the most provocative questions in the entire Bible: “Was there ever a prophet that your fathers didn’t persecute?”
Did you know that, except for a few isolated incidents, prophets always were sent to the people of God? Prophets were sent to let them know they had wandered off track somehow. And it hardly ever went over well.
Religious people did not usually respond, “Okay, you’re right. We’re sorry.” Instead, they figured out that the best way to silence
the prophets was by killing them. And they did. Jesus refers to this in Matthew 23:29–30 when he is talking to the religious leaders of his day: “You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’”
After Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, he was immediately blacklisted by the FBI as the most dangerous black man in the country. They suspected he was a communist.
Today we celebrate his birthday as a federal holiday.
We decorate the tombs of prophets. But it’s not the wrong action of the government in those civil rights days that disturbs me so much as it is the inaction of the church. Dozens of times I’ve read Dr. King’s letter to white clergy, a letter written from his Birmingham jail cell, and every time it haunts me. I’ve often wondered why the people of God so easily accept and maintain the status quo.
This line from Jesus is one of the most convicting things Jesus says to me. I’m religious. I’ve grown up in church. I love the Lord
and believe the Lord loves me. And that’s exactly the crowd Jesus is talking to in Matthew 23. To them, to me, Jesus doesn’t just say your ancestors did this, but he points out that they would have probably done it had they been alive. For the last few years a question has haunted me. I wonder what I would have done if I had been alive in 1960. And if I’m honest, I think I would have fought against civil rights.
Because I know me. I know how easy it is for me to play the wrong character in my own story. That’s why we need prophets, even
though we don’t always appreciate them.
Notice the way the story of Stephen ends:
When they heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. (Acts 7:54–58)
I love this. They cover their ears and start yelling! How mature. What’s next? I’m rubber and you’re glue? And tucked in the middle
of their murdering is a little detail about Stephen seeing Jesus. Being a prophet has lots of downsides—like being hated and disliked,
even being murdered. But for all the negatives, the one profit to being a prophet is that you get to see God. Think about it—Ezekiel,
Isaiah, Jeremiah, and now Stephen.
The heavens open up and Stephen sees Jesus. It’s a heavenly court scene. And that’s significant, because Stephen is currently in
court. He’s on trial for his life.
At the moment of condemnation by that earthly court, however, Stephen gets a vision of that heavenly one. One in which he is
loved and commended. In the middle of a ton of scowls, he knows he’s made God smile. This is something the prophets know that we tend to forget—that if God is smiling at you, all other opinions are inconsequential. The life of a prophet may be hard and short, but it’s worth it to get to see God.
That’s what I think gives Stephen the power to end his life on a note of grace and faith.
While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out,
“Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep. (Acts 7:59–60)
Stephen has just seen Jesus, the embodiment of resurrection, so he’s not concerned about what they can do to him. As Dr. King said
before he died, there is a certain kind of fire that no water hoses can put out.
Did you see the way that this story ends? Luke tells us, “He fell asleep.”
Prophets Never Die
This is the point of the resurrection. Prophets never die! Can you see the power that Stephen has found here? He knows that even if God allows him to die, it will not be in vain. And it isn’t, because right there in this murderous crowd is a guy named Saul.
The very guy who is going to spread the gospel to the entire world, we first meet while he’s participating in a murder. If you have read Acts, you know that he later will be named Paul, and he’s going to write more about the resurrection than any other New Testament writer.
He first sees the power of it right here. Years later, in his letters, when Paul refers to the saints who have died in Christ, do you know what his favorite term is for death? Sleep.
Death is so final and injustice is so permanent, unless you believe in the resurrection. In that case, death is just a nap.
Archeologists have discovered a first-century sign in Jerusalem that warns people not to steal bodies from graves. I can imagine why that was necessary. If one guy missing from his grave causes so much ruckus, they don’t want it ever to happen again. But they couldn’t stop it! The fuel for the book of Acts is the undeniable fact that death had been defeated.
And that is still the fuel for the church.
I love the last public words Dr. King ever spoke. On the night before he was assassinated, in his final speech, he said:
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming
of the Lord.3
That’s remarkable. He feared no one. This was the last speech Dr. King ever gave; he was shot in Memphis the next day. His reward for living a life that was not dominated by fear. But in so many ways, the influence of his life was just beginning.
The same hope and faith in the risen Lord that sustained Stephen in his final hour gave peace and calm to Dr. King on that last day. The resurrection is still what animates and sustains prophets everywhere.
This dangerous idea doesn’t belong just to apostles and visionary civil rights leaders. The heart of Acts is this grand message that the hope and strength of resurrection are God’s gift for everyone.
Calling All Prophets
Do you know who Stephen was?
Right before the Acts 7 story of his death, we read about a time when the apostles feel overwhelmed with people needing help.
Widows need to be fed and food needs to be distributed, and the folks in one minority group are fussing because their widows don’t
appear to be getting their fair share.
The apostles tell the complainers it’s not right for the Twelve to stop preaching the gospel to wait on tables, so they pick seven guys
to deal with the feeding and the fussing.
Stephen is one of them. He is, in the words of the apostles, a waiter.
You’d probably never have known his name, and people wouldn’t name their little boys Stephen if this had not happened. But Stephen wasn’t just a waiter, and you’re not just a soccer mom, or a mechanic, or a member of the quilting club.
You’re a prophet. At least you can be, if you accept the opportunities the Lord opens up for you. This is one of the main points of
Acts. Peter’s first point in his first sermon tells us this:
This is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:
“In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.” (Acts 2:16–18)
This point, in a patriarchal society, is huge. No longer does God’s Spirit rest only on a select few. Now, through this new thing God
is doing through Jesus, the Spirit empowers young men and old women, seventh-grade girls and sixty-year-old truck drivers. All of
us can be God’s servants. His prophets.
At the church where I preach, we have a senior saint named Ruth who goes to the jail every week and teaches people art. Because she hopes that if she gives them a healthier way to express themselves, they won’t find themselves back in the vicious cycles that got them locked up.
She teaches art in the name of Jesus. Because God is on the side of justice, and our dear Ruth is on the side of God.
Another woman at our church, a woman named Susan, is a quiet, joyful servant who hates being in the spotlight. But every week you can find her at inner-city schools teaching at-risk kids how to read.
She knows what a difference this will make in their lives. God is on the side of justice, and Susan is on the side of God.
A couple of college students from our church named Jason and Steven have recently started going to some apartments across town
to try to make a positive difference in the lives of some refugee children. Jason and Steven have started a soccer league for these kids who wouldn’t be able to play otherwise.
Jason and Steven know God is on the side of justice, and they are on the side of God.
A woman named Linda was a flight attendant for thirty years. But she quit this job that she loved to start a non-profit agency called
Eternal Threads. Linda now goes all over the world equipping girls whose only options to make money tend to be pretty dark. She
teaches these young women how to make crafts to sell. She is giving them a way to eat that doesn’t involve selling their souls.
God is on the side of justice, and Linda is on the side of God.
It is inevitable that if you do this kind of thing for long, eventually you’ll bother people who don’t understand. You may even have to speak against some things they like. But that goes with the territory, because you’re a prophet.
God is calling all prophets, and in this sense we’re all called to be prophets. Stephen’s story is our story. This is the message of
Acts. The resurrection can turn cowards into apostles, and waiters into prophets.
It did in Stephen’s day. It still does.
A few years ago I heard the well-known preacher Tom Long tell the story of Flora Miller. Flora was a senior saint who lived during the heart of the civil rights movement in Atlanta. She was a white, third grade Sunday school teacher in a conservative, all-white church.
At one point, the civil rights workers in Atlanta adopted the strategy of sending African-American Christians to white churches
to force their hand on whether they would be as inclusive as the gospel requires. Flora’s church found itself in a predicament. They
knew their congregation might be “visited,” so the leaders of the church met to decide what to do if someone of color showed up at
One Sunday morning the leaders announced their decision. They stood up and told their people that, after much prayer, the elders of the church had decided that they would allow African-American guests to join the assembly “so long as space provides.” They repeated that statement, slowly enunciating each word: “So long as space provides.”
If you looked around that morning, you would have noticed that space was not an issue for this church. They met in a spacious
building that could accommodate hundreds of other believers. This statement was not an earnest decision to stand against the racism of their day. It was a public relations stunt. It was a sham, a front.
Then they said it one more time, just in case anybody didn’t understand the unspoken message. “They will be welcome, so long
as space provides.”
That’s when little old Flora Miller, who had been at that church most of her life and had served and loved these people for decades,
girded her loins and stood up. Right in the middle of the elders’ stinky announcement, this sweet, elderly, Sunday school teacher said, “Well, if we happen to run out of room, they can have my seat.”4
To most folks she looked like just your average Sunday school teacher, but Flora Miller was a prophet standing against religious bigotry.
Even though it was far from popular and even though it might have cost her valued friendships, she spoke truth.
The biblical word for that is “prophet.” Stephen found out that choosing to be one may put you in a grave, but the resurrection
assures us that prophets never die.