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Review of Luke Timothy Johnson’s Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church

By Robert P. Menzies, Kunming, China.

The modern Pentecostal movement was birthed in an environment that welcomed prophetic inspiration and encouraged the work of the Spirit. Early Pentecostals lifted up the experiences that shaped the life of the early church as a model for their lives and ministry. Thus, the narrative of Acts, filled as it is with prophetic outbursts, signs and wonders, and speaking in tongues, took a place of special importance for Pentecostals. These stories of prophetic inspiration and apostolic exploits became our stories. This heritage, to a large degree, shapes the faith and practice of Pentecostals around the world today.

So, it should be clear why the title of Luke Timothy Johnson’s latest book caught the eye of many Pentecostal readers: Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church: The Challenge of Luke-Acts to Contemporary Christians. This sounds like something out of our playbook. Yet, it’s written by a Roman Catholic New Testament scholar who teaches at Emory University. I am sure that my response mirrored that of many others: “This is a book that I have to read.” And I am truly glad that I read this remarkable book. I was encouraged, moved, challenged, and angered by this book, all of which shows signs of the prophetic insight of which Johnson writes. Let me explain why.


SUMMARY

First, I want to dwell on the many strengths of this book. I was encouraged by the fact that Johnson emphasizes a theme that Pentecostal scholars have been heralding for almost thirty years. Indeed, since the appearance of Roger Stronstad’s The Charismatic Theology of St. Luke in 1984, Pentecostals have affirmed, discussed, and detailed the prophetic nature of the Holy Spirit’s work in Luke-Acts. But at times we have felt like a voice crying in the wilderness. It seemed that few were listening. Johnson’s book, along with Max Turner’s writings and a spate of recent scholarship, shows that the tide is changing. It was encouraging to see a scholar of Johnson’s standing and location speaking of the “prophetic” Spirit in Luke-Acts.

Johnson also displays an impressive ability to creatively organize and summarize Luke’s message. He begins with introductory chapters dealing with the genre and literary structure of Luke-Acts (Chapter One), the literary significance of prophecy for Luke’s narrative (Chapter Two), and a biblical overview of the prophet and prophecy (Chapter Three). Johnson is at his best when he explains literary structure, details narrative connections, and discusses the development of specific themes. Although I question his suggested purpose for Luke’s writings, one cannot help but appreciate his careful analysis of the structure and themes. Johnson argues that Luke writes to assure Gentile readers that the God of Israel is faithful and can be trusted. Luke, we are told, seeks to answer a pressing question: “If they [the Gentiles] are now the clients of the God of Israel, what confidence can they have in that God, if he has proven capable of such fickleness?” Although this suggestion is plausible, I think it misses the mark. It seems to me that the evidence – indeed, the impressive evidence that Johnson himself compiles – suggests that Luke had a much more concrete need in view. He writes to give his church theological and methodological guidance for its mission to take the gospel to the Gentiles and the ends of the earth. Certainly Luke’s church must have wondered how the Jewish Scriptures could have such significant meaning for them, but too many features of Luke’s narrative and editorial activity point beyond this concern to an overtly missiological purpose. Questions of purpose aside, I found Johnson’s analysis of the narrative to be instructive and filled with insight.

The center of the book is comprised of two chapters entitled “The Prophetic Spirit” (Chapter Four) and “The Prophetic Word” (Chapter Five). Johnson’s treatment of Lukan pneumatology is generally on track. While he correctly highlights the prophetic nature of the Spirit’s work in Luke-Acts, I would suggest he stumbles at one point. After pointing out how Paul associates the gift of the Spirit with the promise made by God to Abraham (Gal. 3-4; esp. 3:1-3; 4:6), Johnson suggests that “Luke has exactly the same understanding of the Spirit’s role in fulfilling the promises to Abraham” (p. 53). He supports this judgment by pointing to the various texts where Luke speaks of the Spirit as the “promise” of the Father (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4; 2:33; 2:39). Yet surely here Luke is referencing Joel’s prophecy of an outpouring of the Spirit of prophecy cited in Acts 2:17-21. Nowhere does Luke relate the Spirit to the OT text so central to Paul’s new covenant theology, Ezekiel 36:26-27, or develop this theme.

Johnson is particularly skillful at summarizing the content of Luke’s message, often peppering his concise prose with particularly appropriate quotations. The impact is often powerful and deeply moving. At times I did wonder, though, about his proportions: his summary of Luke’s message highlighted Jesus’ ethical teaching and, in my view, seemed to downplay the preaching of the early church which features the resurrection of Jesus and the claim that Jesus is Messiah, Savior, and Lord (Acts 2:36; 3:20; 4:12, 33, etc.).

Johnson’s chief organizing principle centers on themes that comprise “Luke’s depiction of Jesus’ prophetic character…poverty, itinerancy, prayer, and servant leadership” (pp. 96-7). These themes become the lens through which he discusses Prophetic Embodiment, Prophetic Enactment, and Prophetic Witness in Chapters Six through Eight. In these chapters Johnson discusses how Luke describes the character of Jesus and the early church in prophetic terms (Embodiment), how Jesus and the apostolic band act in a prophetic way (Enactment), and how they speak in a prophetic way (Witness). Each chapter ends with a section where Johnson seeks to flesh out the challenge Luke’s narrative poses for the contemporary church. His comments can irritate and anger, as when he offers a back-handed compliment to Pentecostals, who he sees as offering the larger church world a window, albeit a limited one, into the Spirit’s continuing work in the world today. He suggests that many Pentecostals “know that even for them, the gifts of the spirit tend to be restricted to the cultic expressions of tongues and prophecy and serve to support private piety” (p. 66). However, his words can also be edifying, as when he writes, “The prophetic agenda is radical, not because it calls for the restructuring of human society, but because it demands the transformation of the human heart according to the measure of God” (p. 83).

This is not to say that Johnson reads Luke-Acts or writes like a Pentecostal. At the outset, Johnson dismisses questions about the historical reliability of Luke-Acts and declares, “The pertinent question is not ‘Was the early church as Luke describes it?’ but rather, ‘How does Luke’s portrayal of the early church challenge the church in every age’” (p. 6). Although I agree that the ultimate issue is the shape and meaning of the inspired and authoritative text, this does not mean that questions of historicity are unimportant. As I have noted above, Pentecostals read Luke-Acts as a model for our lives. We take the account seriously as a pattern that shapes our experience, our call, and our mission. If the events Luke records really didn’t happen, if Luke is offering a “utopian” and idealized picture of the early church, then our approach would simply lead to frustration and certainly need to be discarded. I do believe, however, that the growth of the Pentecostal movement around the world – one scholar describes it as “the most successful social movement of the past century”[1] – suggests that this approach is doing quite well. So, while I am sympathetic to Johnson’s concern – we do want to focus on the text and not quibble over the precise nature of speculative sources or deny Luke’s editorial genius – fundamental questions of historicity cannot be dismissed as irrelevant.

In short, I was deeply impressed with Johnson’s ability to creatively organize and summarize Luke’s powerful message. I was also encouraged by his overall emphasis: Luke does call the church to follow in the footsteps of the Prophet like Moses. And, if we have the courage to take up his prophetic call, we too will inevitably experience opposition and persecution. Yet, in spite of this sober warning, the example of Jesus and the early church, along with the promise of the Spirit’s enabling, should encourage us all. Their story can become our story.


CRITIQUE

This brings me to the key weaknesses of this fine work. After reading the book, I couldn’t help but feel that Johnson’s vision for the contemporary church as a prophetic community is too restricted, too quiet, and too rational. 

TOO RESTRICTED

Johnson often speaks of Jesus and the apostles as prophets, but he seems to feel that only a select group in the contemporary church will take up this mantel. He does speak of the church as a corporate entity serving in a prophetic way, but what this actually means remains fuzzy. What I think Johnson misses is this: For Luke, the church is not simply a prophetic community; rather, it is to be a community of prophets.

Luke’s account of the Sending of the Seventy (Luke 10:1-16) is particularly significant here. All three synoptic gospels record Jesus’ words of instruction to the Twelve as he sends them out on their mission. However, only Luke records a second, larger sending of disciples (Luke 10:1–16). In Luke 10:1 we read, “After this the Lord appointed seventy–two [some mss. read, ‘seventy’] others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go.”

A central question centers on the number of disciples that Jesus sent out and its significance. The manuscript evidence is, at this point, divided. Some manuscripts read “seventy,” while others list the number as “seventy–two.” Although we cannot determine the number with confidence, it is important to keep the divided nature of the manuscript evidence in mind as we wrestle with the significance of this text.

Most scholars agree that the number (for convenience, we will call it “seventy”) has symbolic significance. Certainly Jesus’ selection of twelve disciples was no accident. The number twelve clearly symbolizes the reconstitution of Israel (Gen. 35:23-26), the people of God. This suggests that the number seventy is rooted in the OT narrative and has symbolic significance as well. A number of proposals have been put forward,[2] but I would argue that the background for the reference to the “seventy” is to be found in Numbers 11:24–30. This passage describes how the Lord “took of the Spirit that was on [Moses] and put the Spirit on the seventy elders” (Num. 11:25). This resulted in the seventy elders, who had gathered around the Tent, prophesying for a short duration. However, two other elders, Eldad and Medad, did not go to the Tent; rather, they remained in the camp. But the Spirit also fell on them and they too began to prophesy and continued to do so. Joshua, hearing this news, rushed to Moses and urged him to stop them. Moses replied, “Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!” (Num. 11:29).

The Numbers 11 proposal has a number of significant advantages over other explanations: (1) it accounts for the two textual traditions underlying Luke 10:1 (How many actually prophesied in Numbers 11?); (2) it finds explicit fulfillment in the narrative of Acts; (3) it ties into one of the great themes of Luke–Acts, the work of the Holy Spirit; and (4) numerous allusions to Moses and his actions in Luke’s travel narrative support the suggestion that the symbolism for Luke’s reference to the Seventy should be found in Numbers 11.[3]

With this background in mind, the significance of the symbolism is found in the expansion of the number of disciples “sent out” into mission from the Twelve to the Seventy. The reference to the Seventy evokes memories of Moses’ wish that “all the Lord’s people were prophets,” and, in this way, points ahead to Pentecost (Acts 2), where this wish is initially and dramatically fulfilled. This wish continues to be fulfilled throughout Acts as Luke describes the coming of the empowering Spirit of prophecy to other new centers of missionary activity, such as those gathered together in Samaria (Acts 8:14–17), Cornelius’ house (Acts 10:44–48), and Ephesus (Acts 19:1–7). The reference to the Seventy, then, does not simply anticipate the mission of the church to the Gentiles; rather, it foreshadows the outpouring of the Spirit on all the servants of the Lord and their universal participation in the mission of God (Acts 2:17–18; cf. 4:31).[4]

In Luke’s view, every member of the church is called (Luke 24:45–49; Acts 1:4–8/Isa. 49:6) and empowered (Acts 2:17–21; cf. 4:31) to be a prophet. Far from being unique and unrepeatable or restricted to a select few, Luke emphasizes that the prophetic enabling experienced by the disciples at Pentecost is available to all of God’s people. Their story is indeed our story. At Pentecost, Moses’ wish now begins to be realized. And Luke desired that this wish would continue to be realized in the lives of his readers.

TOO QUIET

Johnson’s portrait of a contemporary prophet is also far too quiet. As I have noted, Johnson tends to stress the ethical teaching of Jesus, and to a lesser degree speaks of the call to bear verbal witness. He does mention this call, but does so almost apologetically. He suggests that the contemporary church should not “repudiate” the call to bear witness, but it must deepen and broaden its understanding and practice at this point (p. 182). The “deepening and broadening” center on community related actions, especially living out the prophetic vision for a new way of living. Personal, verbal witness takes a back seat to both. But for Luke, verbal witness is a crucial element of discipleship and it represents a logical priority, since Kingdom communities can only be formed around a common commitment to Jesus as Lord.

Luke’s priority is clear. The theme of bold, prophetic witness is anticipated in his gospel (Luke 4:18-19; 12:11-12), as Johnson acknowledges, and it dominates the narrative of Acts, from Pentecost onwards. Luke’s motive in presenting models of Spirit-inspired ministry – Peter, John, Stephen, and Paul, to name a few – should not be missed. Luke narrates the ministry of these end-time prophets because he sees them as models of missionary praxis that his readers should emulate. These characters in Acts show us what it truly means to be a part of Joel’s end-time prophetic band and challenge us to fulfill our calling to be a light to the nations.

It is also striking that Johnson studiously avoids speaking about “speaking in tongues.” This silence is noticeable since Luke clearly views “tongues” as a form of prophecy. Of the four instances in the book of Acts where Luke actually describes the initial coming of the prophetic Spirit, three explicitly cite glossolalia as the immediate result (Acts 2:4; 10:46; 19:6) and the other one (Acts 8:14-19) strongly implies it.[5] This is the case even though Luke could have easily used other language, particularly in Acts 2, to describe what had transpired. The Acts 8 passage has various purposes. However, when it is viewed in the context of Luke’s larger narrative, there can be little doubt in the reader’s mind concerning the cause of Simon’s ill-fated attempt to purchase the ability to dispense the Spirit. The motif is transparent; Luke’s point is made: the Pentecostal gift, as a fulfillment of Moses’ wish (Num. 11:29) and Joel’s prophecy (Joel 2:28-32), is a prophetic anointing that enables its recipient to bear bold witness for Jesus and, this being the case, it is marked by the ecstatic speech characteristic of prophets (i.e. glossolalia).

Another text that reflects Luke’s desire to foster a noisy church (i.e. joyful praise, glossolalia, and bold witness) is found in Luke 11:13: “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!” As Johnson notes, the parallel passage in Matthew’s gospel contains slightly different phrasing: “good gifts” rather than “the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 7:11).[6] It is virtually certain that Luke has interpreted the “good gifts” in his source material with a reference to the “Holy Spirit.”[7] Luke, then, provides us with a Spirit-inspired, authoritative commentary on this saying of Jesus. Since this promise is addressed to disciples/Christians and not realized until Pentecost, it is evident that Luke highlights the relevance of this saying for his post-Pentecostal readers. Luke’s usage elsewhere coupled with the fact that this saying is directed to Christians, suggests that Luke has a prophetic enabling in mind.

What sort of prophetic activity did Luke anticipate would accompany this bestowal of the Spirit?   Certainly a reading of Luke’s narrative would suggest a wide range of possibilities: joyful praise, glossolalia, visions, bold witness in the face of persecution, to name a few. However, several aspects of Luke’s narrative suggest that glossolalia was one of the expected outcomes in Luke’s mind and in the minds of his readers.

First, as we noted, Luke’s narrative suggests that glossolalia typically accompanies the initial reception of the Spirit. Furthermore, Luke highlights the fact that glossolalia serves as an external sign of the prophetic gift. These elements of Luke’s account would undoubtedly encourage readers in Luke’s church, like they have with contemporary readers, to seek the prophetic gift, complete with its accompanying external sign.

Secondly, in view of the emphasis in this passage on asking (vs. 9) and the Father’s willingness to respond (vs. 13), it would seem natural for Luke readers to ask a question that again is often asked by contemporary Christians, how will we know when we have received this gift? Here we hear echoes of Paul’s question in Acts 19:6. Of course, Luke has provided a clear answer. The arrival of prophetic power has a visible, external sign: glossolalia. This is not to say that there are not other ways in which the Spirit’s power and presence are made known to us. This is simply to affirm that Luke’s narrative indicates that a visible, external sign does exist and that he and his readers would naturally expect to manifest this sign.

I would add that this sign must have been tremendously encouraging for Luke’s church as it is for countless contemporary Christians. It signified their connection with the apostolic church and confirmed their identity as end-time prophets. I find it interesting that so many believers from traditional churches today react negatively to the notion of glossolalia as a visible sign. They often ask, should we really emphasize a visible sign like tongues?   Yet these same Christians participate in a liturgical form of worship that is filled with sacraments and imagery; a form of worship that emphasizes visible signs. Signs are valuable when they point to something significant. Luke and his church clearly understood this.

Finally, the question should be asked, why would Luke need to encourage his readers not to be afraid of receiving a bad or harmful gift (note the snake and scorpion of vs. 11-12)?[8] Why would he need to encourage his church to pursue this gift of the Spirit? If the gift is quiet, internal, and ethereal, why would there be any concern? However, if the gift includes glossolalia, which is noisy, unintelligible, and has many pagan counterparts,[9] then the concerns make sense.[10] Luke’s response is designed to quell any fears. The Father gives good gifts. We need not fret or fear.

In short, through his skillful editing of this saying of Jesus (Luke 11:13), Luke encourages post-Pentecostal disciples to pray for a prophetic anointing, an experience of spiritual rapture that will produce power and praise in their lives, an experience similar to those modeled by Jesus (Luke 3:21-22; 10:21) and the early church (Acts 2:4; 10:46; 19:6). The reader would naturally expect glossolalia to be a normal, frequent, and expected part of this experience.

Luke’s prophets are much louder that Johnson acknowledges. 

TOO RATIONAL

We Pentecostals have always read the narrative of Acts, and particularly the account of the Pentecostal outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2), as a model for our own lives. The stories of Acts are our stories. Pentecostals the world over identify with these stories, especially since so many face similar challenges.[11] This sense of connection with the text encourages us to allow the narrative to shape our lives, our hopes, and our dreams.[12]

We Pentecostals have never viewed the gulf that separates our world from that of the text as large. The fusing of our horizons with that of the text takes place naturally, without a lot of reflection, largely because our world and that of the text are so similar. Whereas western theologians and scholars of the past two centuries have exerted great energy wrestling with how to interpret biblical texts that speak of God’s miraculous activity, Pentecostals have not been afflicted with this sort of angst.[13] While Rudolph Bultmann developed his demythologizing approach to the New Testament,[14] Pentecostals quietly (well, perhaps not so quietly) prayed for the sick and cast out demons.

No, the hermeneutic of most Pentecostal believers is not overly complex. It is not filled with questions about historical reliability or outdated worldviews. The hermeneutic of the typical Pentecostal believer is straightforward and simple: the stories in Acts are “my” stories – stories that were written to serve as models for shaping my life and experience.

Johnson’s approach is quite different: “Only prayer…remains recognizably the same in Luke’s world and ours” (p. 161). His prophetic vision for the contemporary church, while it does not categorically exclude the possibility, largely ignores “visions and dream,” “inspired witness,” and “signs and wonders,” three key elements of Joel’s prophecy as quoted by Peter on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:17-21).

Many in our age shy away from the enthusiasm of the apostolic church, viewing it as a primitive and relatively uncouth response to religious truth. They feel that enlightened and civilized people should respond in a more cognitive and serene manner. But none of this has dissuaded Pentecostals from embracing the biblical record and seeking a profound encounter with God in Christ through the Holy Spirit.

In a world filled with people who long to experience God, to feel His presence and encounter Him at a deeply personal and emotional level, this kind of approach is desperately needed.[15]


FOOTNOTES:

[1] Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 8.

[2] For the various options see Metzger, “Seventy or Seventy-Two Disciples,” pp. 303-4 and Bock, Luke 9.51-24.53, p. 1015.

[3] For more detailed support of this position, see Robert P. Menzies, The Language of the Spirit: Interpreting and Translating Charismatic Terms (Cleveland, TN: CPT Press, 2010), pp. 73-82.

[4] Keith F. Nickle, Preaching the Gospel of Luke: Proclaiming God’s Royal Rule (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), p. 117: “The ‘Seventy’ is the church in its entirety, including Luke’s own community, announcing the in-breaking of God’s royal rule throughout the length and breadth of God’s creation.”

[5] Paul’s experience of the Spirit is not actually described (Acts 9:17-19); rather, it is implied.

[6] Italics are mine.

[7] Reasons for this conclusion include: (1) the fact that the reference to the Holy Spirit breaks the parallelism of the “good gifts” given by earthly fathers and “the good gifts” given by our heavenly Father; (2) Luke often inserts references to the Holy Spirit into his source material; (3) Matthew never omits or adds references to the Holy Spirit in his sources.

[8] It is perhaps significant that Luke’s comparisons feature dangerous objects (“snake” and “scorpion,” Luke 11:11-12), where as Matthew’s comparisons include one that is simply useless (“stone” and “snake,” Matthew 7:9-10). This might suggest that Luke was consciously seeking to help his readers overcome their fear.

[9] For Jewish and pagan examples of ecstasy and inspired utterances see Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit, pp. 304-5.

[10] Note that the Beelzebub controversy immediately follows (Luke 11:14-28). Some accused Jesus of being demon-possessed (Luke 11:15). The early Christians were undoubtedly confronted with similar charges. It is thus not surprising that Luke “takes pains to show [that] Christianity [is] both different from and superior to magic” (Richard Vinson, Luke [Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 2008], p. 380; cf. Acts 8:9-24; 16:16-18; 19:11-20).

[11] On the Pentecostal orientation of the Chinese house church movement, see Luke Wesley, The Church in China: Persecuted, Pentecostal, and Powerful (AJPS 2; Baguio: AJPS Books, 2004).

[12] On the role of imagination in the hermeneutical enterprise, see Joel Green, “Learning Theological Interpretation from Luke,” in Craig G. Bartholomew, Joel B. Green, and Anthony Thiselton (eds.), Reading Luke: Interpretation, Reflection, Formation (Scripture and Hermeneutics Series 6; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), p. 59.

[13] Sociologist Margaret M. Poloma notes that “Ever since the famous Azusa Street Revival (1906–1909) in Los Angeles…the Pentecotal/Charismatic (P/C) movement has battled the forces of modernity with revival fires” (Main Street Mystics: The Toronto Blessing and Reviving Pentecostalism [Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press, 2003, p. 15).

[14] Rudolph Bultmann, “New Testament and Mythology,” in H.W. Bartsch, Kerygma and Myth: A Theological Debate by Rudolf Bultmann and Five Critics (ET New York: Harper & Brothers, 1961), p. 1-2: “The mythical view of the world which the New Testament pre-supposes…is incredible to modern man, for he is convinced that the mythical view of the world is obsolete.”

[15] Scotland notes that whereas “Western evangelicalism was very much a one-dimensional affair in which the middle classes…looked for ‘sound teaching’,” the charismatic movement, with its experiential focus has met a growing desire for “deeper emotional and spiritual satisfaction” (Charismatics, p. 24).

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