Jeremiah 23:23-29. False prophets and their “dreams” are here contrasted with the voices of true prophets. True prophets can be distinguished by the fact that true prophesy is like fire and a hammer – that is, words that unsettle and disturb, rock the established order, and unmask hypocrisy and injustice. True prophets can only really be discerned in hindsight, and in private may be wracked by self-doubt.
Hebrews 11:29 – 12:2. The faith (and the suffering) of all the Old Testament figures is given to encourage the faith of contemporary Christians. They are included and lauded not just as figures from a long dead past but as a present “cloud of witnesses” to whom the current crop of believers owe a debt of responsibility. All of those figures were driven by faith in God despite themselves never seeing the fulfilment of God’s will – Jesus Christ – “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (12:1).
Luke 12: 49-56. Jesus describes the reality of the situation that his message of peace will ironically cause division, even amongst families. His “baptism” refers to his crucifixion (and St. Paul also describes Christian baptism as being baptised into Jesus’ death). Fire is also associated with cleansing and more positively with the Holy Spirit. Jesus then derides people for being able to forecast the weather accurately but are blind to the signs of the times.
How do you know that what I, or anyone taking a service is telling you is the true word of God?
One answer to that is that within the structures of the ordination process, the church tries to ensure that within certain parameters like high or low church, or theological emphasis, they have confidence in the person chosen to try and accurately discern, reflect and interpret what the Spirit reveals to them.
In short, the church tries to weed out false prophets. There wasn’t any kind of process in Jeremiah’s time of course. Who was a true prophet and who was a false prophet was a very grey area. Prophesy itself came into huge disrepute so that what turned out to be genuine prophets didn’t actually want to be associated with the title at all.
Amos, one of the most respected prophets tried to distance himself by saying,
“I was not a prophet, nor a prophet’s son but a sheep breeder and a dresser of sycamore trees” (7:14).
One way that Jeremiah offers to discern a true prophet from a false one, is that a true prophet’s words are like a fire and a hammer. That is, the true word of God unsettles, disturbs, shakes the foundations, and confronts hypocrisy and injustice. Today we might say it speaks truth to power.
The honeyed words of the false prophets just say what they think people want to hear. Prophesy not from conviction but by focus group and opinion poll.
A great modern hero of mine was Harry Williams CR, a monk at Mirfield when I was there, since sadly died.
Harry had been a great and highly thought of theologian, preacher and teacher, and had been a fellow, lecturer and Dean of Trinity college Cambridge.
Right up until his nervous breakdown caused by his cognitive dissonance between his life and the gospel he was preaching.
When he had recovered after years of psychotherapy his true ministry really started, when he became concerned by true experience.
He vowed never to ever preach anything ever again which didn’t have its roots in true lived experience and he became a true prophet, rather than just a “dreamer” as Jeremiah calls it.
Words and ideas can purify like fire, and shatter peace like a hammer and this is what Jesus rightly prophesied when he said to his disciples,
“Don’t think my words are going to bring peace, it’ll be more like a sword. I will divide opinion, split families”. His words and actions weren’t designed to do that – they were words of love and peace – but he correctly forecast that discord would be a natural result, because words and actions divide people.
For us it means that as long as we are as certain as we can be that we are speaking truthfully and representing as accurately as possible the nature and purposes of God, we shouldn’t be either surprised or deflated if our words cause division.
One of the most pertinent questions in the whole new testament is posed not by Jesus or an apostle but came out of the mouth of Pontius Pilate, when he asked Jesus “What is truth?” (John 18:38)
This itself was a retort to Jesus saying he was a witness to the truth, and John’s gospel contains the answer to that question when Jesus says “I am the way, the truth and the life.” (John 14:6)
We worship truth, embodied for a while here on earth in Jesus.
The way of Jesus is the way of sacrificial love.
The truth of Jesus is that he is the eternal word made flesh.
And in that truth and love is revealed the true nature of being, of life itself, which is God, which cannot be destroyed.
Whatever else we preach, to be a true prophet of God we have to preach that. Only God can save anyone. If Jesus is the true son of God and God is one, then true Salvation cannot be found anywhere else except in God and the truth of God is made manifest in Jesus. In that way salvation being found no-where else is not a statement that excludes anyone but states a fact about God who is entirely inclusive no matter what religion or none that you follow.