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Thursday, March 26, 2015

Non-Canonical Episodes

Did Jude have the gift of prophecy?

I wonder. It certainly seems a strong possibility. Prophecy is not merely a feature of the Old Testament, but is also numbered with the gifts given by the Holy Spirit to the New Testament church.

Prophecy was a practical gift. In the early church it also appears to have been a fairly common one. It did not manifest itself in the expected esoteric, oddball mutterings but rather in “upbuilding and encouragement and consolation”. In this the prophet functioned similarly to the teacher in today’s church.

The Need for New Testament Prophets

The New Testament prophet’s gift was also a necessary one. Prophecy served to convict unbelievers of the reality of a new faith that was springing up in cities all over the known world as the message of the gospel spread. It served to warn the church of coming crises and opportunities. It functioned to enlighten individuals about God’s unique plans for their lives.

But most importantly, it glued together congregations of new believers who initially had only the Old Testament scriptures to go by, teaching them in the power of the Holy Spirit to apply the things they already knew to the new reality of life in Christ. Within a few years the New Testament would be completed and circulated, and the gift of prophecy would become increasingly rare. Paul tells Timothy that the written word of God can “complete” and “equip” him for every good work, from which we may draw the conclusion that the completion of the New Testament made prophecy unnecessary.

Are there prophets today? I can’t say it’s impossible, but I find it unlikely. Scripture has rendered the gift redundant. If we have everything necessary for life and godliness through the knowledge of Christ already extant, nothing more ought to be required. There are things it would be neat to know and insights from which much speculation and discussion would surely result, but on the list of things that matter to God, satisfying my curiosity is probably a good way down.

More Unique Revelations per Page …

Today, some Christians still use the word “prophet” but usually watered down to mean something like “really compelling teacher”. Because a “prophet” who says something already found in scripture is at best redundant, while one who seeks to supplement the word of God with “new revelation” is highly suspect and in danger of judgment.

But in the days of Jude, prophecy was still a big deal. It has been said that some of the letters written by apostles, notably Peter, consist of basic Christian doctrine duplicated elsewhere rather than new or unique revelation. For my money, Jude gives us more unique revelations per page than any New Testament writer, episodes that the religiously educated sometimes refer to as “non-canonical”. (The scholars are not, of course, passing judgment on whether such revelations are or are not inspired by God: they mean “non-canonical” in relation only to the Old Testament canon.) Possibly Jude is simply repeating stories and quotes with which every pious Jew of his day was familiar, but I think this unlikely. It seems to me that he gives us a master class on the New Testament use of the prophetic gift.

“But when the archangel Michael, contending with the devil, was disputing about the body of Moses, he did not presume to pronounce a blasphemous judgment, but said, ‘The Lord rebuke you.’ ”

The Devil and the Archangel

Michael the archangel disputed with Satan over the body of Moses? This is a fascinating piece of information found nowhere else in the word of God. Other than this mention, Michael appears only in Daniel and Revelation. We are told he is a “chief prince” who aided the angel sent to Daniel in his heavenly struggle with spiritual forces of evil in Persia. He is later named to Daniel as “your prince”, suggesting perhaps that he stands for God on behalf of the Jewish people. This is confirmed later in the same book, when we are told that Michael “has charge of your people”. Daniel also says at the end time Michael will “stand up” on behalf of Israel and that they will be delivered. This war in heaven is further described in Revelation.

But as far as Michael is concerned, that’s it. We have nothing else to go on, certainly not about this incident over the body of Moses. Moses was buried by God in the valley of Moab opposite Beth-Peor. The writer of that portion of Deuteronomy makes a point of saying that “no one knows the place of his burial to this day”. That God would personally bury his servant may be an indication of the esteem in which God held Moses or of the intimacy between them.

Searching for Moses

And there may be other reasons. William MacDonald speculates as follows:
“It is not unlikely that Satan wanted to know the spot so that he could have a shrine built there. Then Israel would turn to the idolatrous worship of Moses’ bones. As the angelic representative of the people of Israel, Michael would strive to preserve the people from this form of idolatry by keeping the burial site secret.”
While it presumes a fair bit not in evidence, MacDonald’s scenario is not inconceivable. In any case, Jude (and only Jude) reveals that there was an argument between Michael and Satan over the body of Moses. Further explanation awaits us in Glory, no doubt.

This is the danger of novel bits of information out of context: they quite reasonably lead to speculation. It is frankly fascinating to catch even these tiny glimpses of the hyper-real spiritual world usually invisible to us. Who wouldn’t want to know more? But we are not told more, and surely with reason.

Angels and Authority

There is an important lesson to Jude’s non-canonical story about Moses though, and it is this: respect for authority.

Boo, hiss! say the would-be angelologists; there’s nothing exciting about that. Respect for the authority instituted by God is a well-worn lesson repeated many times in the word of God: “Children, obey your parents”, “Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord” or even “Bondservants, obey your earthly masters …” We don’t always LIKE this particular lesson. Okay, much of the time we strongly dislike it, which may be the reason the writers of scripture see fit to repeat it so frequently. It certainly goes toe to toe with the spirit of the age we live in, which is individualistic and self-determining to a fault. But we can’t reasonably argue that the scripture gives license to reject authority, can we?

Sure, reminding us to obey the powers that be is nowhere near as thrilling as a mysterious war in heaven and the archangel who leads the forces of God. Nevertheless, this is Jude’s point, and we are wise not to miss it: respect for authority is so significant to God that even the captain of his angels speaks cautiously of the authority of Satan, though he has abused that authority, it seems, since the moment he received it.

Respect and Character

Respect for authority is also a surprisingly reliable indicator of character. There are certain things that for me have always been absolute stoppers where relationships are concerned: I’ve never had even the slightest interest in a woman who smoked, and even as a young man, I always had huge reservations about any girl who spoke disrespectfully to or about her father. It always indicates a character flaw. I’m even cautious today at work around those who are inclined to curse out the boss. Sure, you can get away with saying all kinds of things as a consequence of the enablers in modern HR departments and the fear of legal action by every conceivable special interest group, but those who habitually speak ill of their employer reveal more about themselves than about the boss.

Respect for authority has always mattered to God. The Christian who respects authority rejects the sin of Eden. He or she rejects Satan as both example and as god of this world. He or she follows the pattern of the Lord Jesus himself in his incarnation and in his role in the Godhead.

These are some pretty compelling arguments for obedience, are they not?

The false teachers of whom Jude speaks show no restraint where authority is concerned. They are happy to “blaspheme the glorious ones” with apparent impunity. This is a mark of the false teacher that we would do well to remember. Frivolous speech about that which is heavenly is a very clear indicator that something is not right with the speaker. Public disparagement of spiritual leadership in the church rings a similar bell with me.

Did Jude have the gift of prophecy? I think he did. But either way, there’s a lesson to be learned about the nature of the prophetic gift. It was not given to titillate or excite the senses. It was given to provide confirmation of things God has already made plain.

The story of Michael and the body of Moses gets our attention, certainly. But the lesson Jude draws from it is what should stick with us.

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