Sunday, November 13, 2016

Prophecy in 1 Peter 1:10-12

1Peter 1:10-12 (NRSV)
Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that was to be yours made careful search and inquiry, inquiring about the person or time that the Spirit of Christ within them indicated when it testified in advance to the sufferings destined for Christ and the subsequent glory. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in regard to the things that have now been announced to you through those who brought you good news by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—things into which angels long to look!

This passage appears to say that the Old Testament prophets directly predicted the suffering of Christ and they knew their prophecies of Christ applied to a time well into their future and not for their own times.

There is an exegetical problem with that understanding of the passage. It is a problem with Biblical consistency. The real problem comes in verse 12 where the writer says, "they were serving not themselves but you." That is, the prophets knew what they were predicting applied to people hundreds of years into the future. There is no prophecy that I know of that has no message for the people of the prophets' times (except one, discussed below). Verse 11 mentions "the sufferings destined for Christ" (NRSV) which might motivate us to look at the suffering servant of Isaiah 53. Indeed, Peter cites in this epistle that very chapter in Isaiah (1 Peter 1:19; 2:22, 23, 24, 25); but a careful look at those passages reveals that the writer is not citing them as prophetic of Jesus but is citing them because they appropriately apply linguistically to Jesus. However, 1 Peter 1:11 comes pretty close to saying that the Lord's suffering was predicted by prophecy.

I will report without extensively arguing the point that the suffering servant in Isaiah 40-55 is captive Israel (Isaiah 41:8-10; 44:1-2; 44:21; 45:1-4; 48:20 with Isaiah 42:1). Occasionally, the identity of the Isaiah servant blurs into that of the prophet himself; but never is the suffering servant a prophecy of a distant future Messiah.

Could the writer of 1 Peter mean the one prophecy that was definitely far reaching? God told Abraham:
I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families on the earth shall be blessed. (Genesis 12:3)
That statement by God to Abraham is prophetic and the rest of the history of God with his people in the Old Testament is obvious (in my view, anyway) divine working towards the salvation of all mankind through the seed of Abraham (e.g., Isaiah 11:16; 19:18-25; 24:3; 62:10). That is, in the Old Testament, Israel's vocation was to restore the world to God. That promise was finally fulfilled with Jesus and the establishment of the church. God is still working with the church for the salvation of all mankind (1 Peter 2:9-10).

Could that prophecy be the one identified in 1 Peter 1:10-12? As far as I have been able to ascertain, there is no prophecy of Israel's outreach vocation that includes suffering either for a future generation or for a Messiah at least as it might point directly to the Christians of the writer of 1 Peter's day.

Was the 1 Peter writer just reading the Old Testament wrong? I am not willing to resort to that solution without very strong argumentative proof.

What if the prophets mentioned here are not Old Testament prophets? What if they were prophets like John the Baptist? What if they predated the ministry of Christ just a little bit in advance (a few decades)? John Baptist had some predictive things to say about Jesus' ministry. Jesus himself had some things to say about the sufferings of his disciples once their own ministry began. There were definitely plenty of prophets contemporary with John Baptist. If they were the ones who predicted the suffering of Christ or the church (Revised English Bible translates 1 Peter 1:11 to mean Christian suffering), then the passage comes into contextual agreement with the rest of the Bible. If we understand the "prophets" as people prophesying around the turn of the millennium (shortly before Jesus and during the Lord's youth), the tension of the passage with the rest of the Bible is resolved.

Just how popular is this view of the identity of the prophets of 1 Peter 1:10-12? The vast majority of scholars believe the 1 Peter writer means Old Testament prophets; but the view is not unanimous. None that I consulted went so far as to accuse the writer of reading the Old Testament wrong; but the way I see it, they must have to accept that uncomfortable conclusion. One commentator who says the prophets here are John Baptist types is Edward Gordon Selwyn in a commentary he wrote in the 1940s. Another, and more interesting to me, is Duane Warden. He said the prophets here were John Baptist types. He argued the point in the Restoration Quarterly, volume 31, 1989. Unfortunately, that particular issue is not available online. In Warden's commentary on 1 & 2 Peter and Jude (Truth for Today, Searcy, AR: Resource Publications, 2009), he effectively argues that the prophets were New Testament prophets rather than Old Testament prophets, which include Christians who had the Spiritual gift of prophecy (pp. 56-59). (Some readers may be interested in an article by Warden in Evangelicalism & the Stone-Campbell Movement, Vol 2. In that article, Warden speaks quite favorably for Open Theism and the fact that, for the most part, it is already mostly accepted by Restorationists today. They just don't know it yet.)

First Peter 1:10-12 does not force a new way of reading the Old Testament, that is as prophecy that becomes suddenly clear when looking back through Christ. When the New Testament writers see Jesus in the Old Testament, they see him as an type of the things written there. The old words can be applied appropriately to Jesus.

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