Is prophecy being fulfilled by Abraham’s descendants through Isaac and Ishmael sharing the promised land?

Q. I’d always thought of the promise of the land to Abraham as applying to his descendants through Issac. But now I notice that this promise, “To your offspring I will give this land,” comes prior to the birth of either of his sons, Ishmael or Issac. I also notice that when God later makes the conditional covenant of circumcision and reiterates the promise of the land, Abraham asks that God would bless Ishmael: “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!” In response, God reiterates that he will establish his everlasting covenant with Issac and his descendants, but then adds, “As for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him.” My thought is that since the land that had been promised is now being shared by the descendants of Issac and Ishmael, perhaps the promise of land has already been completely fulfilled. Is this a reasonable interpretation of the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis? Thank you for your thoughtful reflection.

You are not alone in reflecting on this promise and wondering how God wanted it to be fulfilled. The New Testament authors have much to say about this, and I would turn to them to help answer your question.

The author of the book of Hebrews, for example, comments on something very significant along these lines that he finds in Psalm 95. He quotes from the psalm, beginning with “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts” and ending with the place where God says of the disobedient exodus generation, “I declared on oath in my anger,They shall never enter my rest.'” The author then argues that the opportunity for members of God’s covenant community to “enter his rest” (that is, to settle in the promised land) must still be open: “If Joshua had given them rest” (that is, if the conquest and occupation of the land of Canaan had fulfilled the promise), “God would not have spoken later about another day.” But “God again set a certain day, calling it ‘Today,’ . . . when a long time later he spoke through David.”

So in the understanding of this inspired Scriptural author, the opportunity to “enter God’s rest,” that is, to settle down in the promised land, is perpetually open to all who trust God by faith: “There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his.” (I don’t have the space to develop this theme here, but the author of Hebrews is echoing the close connection that the Old Testament draws between Sabbath rest and the settlement of the land. To give just one example, in the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy: “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.“)

This is just one of the many passages in which the New Testament understands the promises to Abraham to be fulfilled in a spiritual sense, not a literal one, and to all of his spiritual descendants, not just his physical ones. Paul explains to the Galatians, “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” He tells the Romans, a mixed congregation of Jews and Gentiles, “The promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all.”

We see this same understanding in the book of Revelation, where a vision that’s initially of a finite number of people of a single ethnicity (“144,000 from all the tribes of Israel“) opens up to embrace “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language.” (See my discussion of this passage in this post.) This is the fulfillment of another of the promises that God makes to Abraham in Genesis, “You will be the father of many nations.” Paul cites this promise in Romans right after saying, “He is the father of us all.”

This, too, is a spiritual fulfillment, as Abraham is not the physical ancestor of these “many nations” (though the nations themselves are literal enough). As such, it helps us understand how the promise about the land also needs to be fulfilled more spiritually. It wouldn’t be possible to fit “every nation, tribe, people and language” into the small land of Israel! So the promise that Abraham’s offspring would possess this land is now fulfilled as those who place their faith in Jesus through the new covenant enter God’s spiritual “rest”—a life settled in God that is characterized by security, trust, dependence, and co-operative activity to advance his purposes in the world to reach out to every nation.

So then what about the land within the borders of the present state of Israel? My belief is that under the New Covenant, God’s purposes for the physical descendants of Abraham are the same as God’s purposes for every other group on earth. God wants to draw them into that great multitude from every nation, tribe, people and language who follow and worship Jesus as the one who brought all of God’s saving purposes throughout human history to their culmination.

This means, in my view, that the modern state of Israel should seek to fulfill God’s purposes for itself the way any other nation should: by providing the same full rights and privileges, including rights of property and land ownership, and expecting the same civic responsibilities and contributions, from all of its citizens, regardless of their ethnicity, background, language, or religion. I believe that it is in the context of such equality and freedom that people have the best opportunity to hear and understand the good news about Jesus and to respond to it honestly, without threats or rewards.

I hope these thoughts are helpful to you as you continue to reflect on God’s promises to Abraham and their fulfillment.

An image of Ishmael and Isaac growing up together. (I have not been able to determine the artist and I would appreciate any leads so that I can give credit. Thank you.)
An image of Ishmael and Isaac growing up together. (I have not been able to determine the artist and I would appreciate any leads so that I can give credit. Thank you.)

What is a “man of the Trinity”?

Q. Several years back, a few of my close Christian brothers and I met a guy who was gifted, it was said, with the ability to prophesy. (That still exists, right?) If someone were to prophesy over you and tell you, “When I look at you, I see a man of the Trinity,” how would you interpret that?

First, I do believe that God still gives some believers the gift of prophesy. That is, God gives them insights about the character and gifting of a person or group to encourage them, and also gives them insights about the likely future consequences of the course that a person or group is on, either to warn or encourage them. But believers also have a responsibility to “weigh” what self-described or popularly-accepted prophets say, assessing it by the full counsel of the Scriptures and by the community’s collective wisdom. “Prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said.” “Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.

As for what a (presumably genuine) prophet might mean by a “man of the Trinity,” I suspect that this involves more than just a belief in God as three-in-one. I would take it to be describing someone who had a relationship with God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We know that in some mysterious way, God is three persons in one being. A man or woman of the Trinity, I’d say, would know each of these persons individually, without in any way compromising the unity that they have together.

In other words, such a person would know God as their kind, loving, generous, care-giving but also disciplining heavenly Father. (“As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him.” “The Lord disciplines those he loves, and corrects each one he accepts as his child.”)

Such a person would also know Jesus as their Lord and Savior and in addition as their brother and friend. (“Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family, so Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.” “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends.”)

And a man or woman of the Trinity would also know the Holy Spirit as comforter, companion, helper, counselor, and advocate—all the various translations of the term paraclete that’s used at the place in the gospel of John where Jesus promises the Holy Spirit shed a bit more light on the role that the Spirit is supposed to play in our lives.

So your question provides, for all of us, a good point of reflection. How well do I know each of the persons of the Trinity? Do I know God as Father, or do I have “father issues” that make me keep my distance from a God I regard as stern, harsh, and remote? Do I appreciate Jesus primarily for something he did for me 2,000 years ago, or can I say with the hymn writer, “What a friend we have in Jesus”? Is the Holy Spirit primarily a mysterious force to me, or do I speak and pray to the Holy Spirit and recognize the voice I hear in response? (If you’re not used to praying to the Holy Spirit, consider as examples the many hymns and songs that do this: “Gracious Spirit, Dwell With Me”; “Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart”; “Spirit of the Living God”; “Spirit Fall”; “Breathe On Us.”)

May we all become “men and women of the Trinity”!

Andrei Rublev's famous icon of the Trinity, representing all three as full persons. (Portraying divine symbolism behind Abraham's three visitors.)
Andrei Rublev’s famous icon of the Trinity, representing all three as full persons. (Portraying divine symbolism behind Abraham’s three visitors.)

Does Jesus have a tattoo on his thigh?

Q. In the book of Revelation, when Jesus appears a rider on a white horse, it says, “On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: ‘King of kings and Lord of lords.'” Does this mean that Jesus has a tattoo on his thigh?

The book of Revelation is so highly symbolic that I doubt we are meant to take this literally.  The name that’s “written . . . on his thigh” is a symbol of Jesus’ supreme authority.  At the time when the book of Revelation was written, in the AD 80s or 90s, the Roman emperor Domitian was being called “Lord and God,” so the book is disallowing his claim and asserting that Jesus is “Lord of lords” instead.

I talk about Domitian and the book of Revelation in this post.

I discuss tattoos in this post.

And there’s an excellent further discussion of tattoos and Jesus as the rider on the white horse in this post by Jannette Hicks, which is where I also got the image below.

When will the rapture take place, before or after the great tribulation?

Q. When will the rapture take place, before or after the great tribulation?

Probably the best way for me to begin answering your question is to explain that the doctrine of the rapture is a relatively recent innovation in Christian teaching.  It dates back only to about 1830 and the work of John Nelson Darby.

Darby’s starting point was the doctrine of the “ruin of the church.”  He felt that the church, the body of Christ on earth, had become hopelessly corrupt and compromised.  It could no longer fulfill its purpose in God’s plan.  However, as Darby considered the Scriptures, he came to feel that maybe this had been inevitable.  He decided that all of the promises made to Israel in the Old Testament had to be fulfilled literally, and for that to happen, Israel would have to become the “people of God” on earth once again.  Darby concluded that the church had only been a “parenthesis,” an interval between the times in the Old Testament and in the future when Israel played this role.  It therefore made sense to him that God would remove the church from the earth at some future point.

Darby himself specified that the “ruin of the church” was an insight he had received from God by direct revelation, and that without it, a person would not derive his system from the Bible.  I personally find that the Bible teaches something very different.  I believe that Israel is actually the parenthesis.

The Bible begins with a universal scope, with God dealing with all of humanity at once, up to the story of the Tower of Babel, when humanity is divided up into languages and nations.  At that point, the Bible narrows to a particular scope, as God deals with Abraham and his descendants, who eventually become the nation of ancient Israel.  But the aim all along is to reach all of humanity through them.  God promises Abraham that through his descendants, all peoples on earth will be blessed.  On the day of Pentecost, the scope of the Bible becomes universal again, as the community of God’s people becomes multinational and speaks all languages.  Creating such a multinational community was God’s aim all along.  We see this purpose realized in the vision in Revelation of the “great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”

So it’s difficult for me to comment either way about the timing of the “rapture,” the presumed removal of the church from the earth, relative to the “tribulation,” another innovation of Darby’s system, because I don’t believe God will ever take the multinational community of Jesus’ followers off the earth until it is combined at the end of time with the multinational community of Jesus’ followers in heaven.  In its final scenes, the Bible depicts the creation of “a new heaven and a new earth.” It shows the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven, so that heaven and earth are joined together and “God’s dwelling is with humanity.”  So the whole idea of God’s faithful people, as an entire community, somehow being taken “away” from earth “to” heaven doesn’t seem to me to fit the Bible’s vision of the culmination of God’s purposes.

Nevertheless, it is true that the Bible promises Jesus will come back and gather his people.  In the gospel of John, in the Upper Room Discourse, Jesus tells his disciples, “My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”  Paul writes in his first letter to the Thessalonians, “The Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.”

I’m personally looking forward to this wonderful event very much, though I don’t believe I can fit it into a particular sequence of predictable events that will herald the return of Christ.  Rather, I try to live out what the Bible says are the practical implications of this hope.  The Bible says we should “say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.”

In other words, rather than feeling I can draw any definite conclusions about the timing of “the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him” (as Paul describes the event in his second letter to the Thessalonians), I ask myself, “Is there anything that will make Him ashamed of me, or make me ashamed of myself, when He comes for me?”  In my view, that’s the most important question we can ask about this event, and the one that most affects us right now.  May we all examine ourselves and, by God’s grace, live in a way that will make us glad to meet Jesus when He comes.

“The Second Coming of Jesus,” unidentifed stained glass window, photograph by “Waiting for the Word” via Flickr.


What is the doctrine of Balaam (and of the Nicolaitans) in Revelation?

Q. What is the doctrine of Balaam (and also of the Nicolaitans) in the book of Revelation?  Jesus says in his letter to Pergamum, “But I have a few things against you, because you have there those who hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality.” The New Testament tells us that all food is good, for example, in Romans and in 1 Corinthians. So why is this mentioned here as problematic?

Basically, the situation in western Asia Minor in the AD 80s, which the book of Revelation addresses, was different from the situation there in the AD 50s, which Paul addresses in Romans and 1 Corinthians.  Paul was speaking to social situations—a friend invites you to dinner in his home or even at the temple; you buy meat in the marketplace.  Revelation is speaking to a different situation, in which the Roman emperor is insisting on being worshiped as God.

The cities of western Asia Minor were competing with each other in the AD 80s for the emperor’s favor by building or improving temples to the various Roman gods, and holding feasts in their honor.  For Christians, it was a “choose up sides” moment.  You either had to say “I’m in” to the Roman emperor-as-god, and join these temple feasts, or say “I’m in” to Jesus and refuse to honor anyone or anything else as God.

The book of Revelation was originally written to warn believers that they must now face this choice.  The “Nicolaitans” and “Balaam” (probably symbolic names for a group and a leader) said instead—and this was their “doctrine”—“You have to go along to get along.  No big deal, just eat the food in honor of the Roman god and nobody will bother you.  You can then get on with your ‘witness for Jesus.’” The book of Revelation says in no uncertain terms that they are wrong about this.

To put this more generally, there are some situations where something that’s otherwise neutral becomes wrong for a Christian to do.  For example, when I was in college, I had no religious objection to drinking in moderation.  But when I went to parties, I never drank at them, because the whole idea was that people there were drinking to get drunk, and I didn’t want to be part of drinking that had that purpose, even if I wasn’t going to get drunk myself.  In the same way, if eating food offered to idols was a declaration of allegiance to the emperor as God, then a person who otherwise had no issue with eating that food in an ordinary social situation shouldn’t and couldn’t do it, if they wanted to remain faithful to Jesus.

(Apparently the “Nicolaitans” also saw no problem with patronizing temple prostitutes, either—hence the reference to “sexual immorality.”  This was a different case.  Visiting prostitutes is not morally neutral so long as it is not done in honor of false gods!  There are strong moral and social-justice imperatives not only to refrain from participating in prostitution, but also to work actively to end the sexual exploitation it represents.)

Hope this is helpful.  We should all be very discerning about the situations we find ourselves in today, and make sure, when it comes to things that are morally neutral generally, that we are “free to do and free not to do,” depending on what the situation calls for.

Ruins of the temple at Pergamum. Photo by Carlos Delgado, CC-BY-SA.

Why hasn’t Jesus returned yet?

Q.  I’m wondering why Jesus hasn’t returned yet. I realize it’s not our lot in life to know the exact time, but it sure seems like this would be a good time.  Throughout the ages folks have made predictions but of course we are still here.  I don’t want to second-guess God, but I gotta say in my opinion I would love to see Jesus return tomorrow.

The question of why Jesus hasn’t returned yet was being asked even in New Testament times, just one generation after Jesus lived on earth.  In his second letter, Peter speaks of “scoffers” who were asking, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised?”  These were people who were arguing that if Jesus hadn’t come back yet, he wasn’t coming at all, and they were using as an excuse to “follow their own evil desires.”

But Peter also speaks to those who, like you, are genuinely longing for Jesus’ return, in distress over the condition of the world, explaining, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”  For me, that’s the essential reason why Jesus hasn’t returned yet: God wants as many people as possible to have the opportunity to hear the good news and respond.  When we consider that, because of the exponential growth of the human population, half of the people who’ve ever lived on earth are alive today, we realize that if Christ had returned a generation ago, only half as many people would have had the chance of knowing him as the Lord and Savior.  So this is reason both to wait patiently and to give a good testimony for Christ in the way we live, how we treat others, and what we say.

It’s also a mandate to live charitably and constructively as we await his return, doing all we can about the conditions around us as a way of expressing our faith in the kind of world Jesus will bring about when he does return.  He himself cautioned his followers that he might not return as soon as they expected, but that they were entrusted with a positive duty in the meantime.  He told this parable: “Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom the master puts in charge of his servants to give them their food allowance at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whom the master finds doing so when he returns. Truly I tell you, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. But suppose the servant says to himself, ‘My master is taking a long time in coming,’ and he then begins to beat the other servants, both men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk. The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the unbelievers.”  (Ouch!)

So we should “make the most of every opportunity in these evil days,” as Paul wrote to the Ephesians, even as what we see around us makes us long and pray for Jesus to return.  And all the while we can remember, in the words of the hymn “The Church’s One Foundation”:

Yet saints their watch are keeping,
Their cry goes up, “How long?”
And soon the night of weeping
Shall be the morn of song!

A depiction of Christ as triumphal conqueror by Gustave Dore, c. 1868

Is the United States talked about in the book of Revelation (or Daniel)?

Q. Is there any proof that Revelation talks about the United States (or that the book of Daniel does)?

Whether we see the United States (or any modern-day individuals, nations, or institutions) in the biblical apocalyptic books of Revelation and Daniel depends on the interpretive presuppositions we adopt as we approach these books.  As I explain in my Daniel-Revelation study guide in the case of Revelation (similar things might be said about Daniel):

The book of Revelation is interpreted in four major ways.  The futurist approach understands it to be a description of the events of the “end times,” at the end of human history.  (Works like the novels and movies in the Left Behind series follow this approach.)  The historicist view sees the book as a prediction of the whole course of history, from Jesus and the apostles down through the present to the end of the world.  The idealist interpretation is that Revelation depicts the struggles and triumphs that followers of Jesus will experience everywhere, but it doesn’t have any particular place or time in view.  The preterist approach is to try to understand the book by reference to the time and place it was written in–western Asia Minor towards the close of the first century.

I personally believe that a preterist approach is the most responsible one to take, as it is consistent with the way we approach every other book of the Bible, trying to understand it in light of its original historical and literary context.  From that perspective, the characters and symbols in Revelation have directly in view the resumption of imperial persecution of Christians under Domitian in the late 80s or early 90s A.D.  The visions in the book of Daniel, for their part, are initially envisioning the suffering of the Jews under Antiochus Epiphanes IV, who ruled from 175-164 B.C.

Applications to any other historical periods are secondary and need to be made by inference and analogy, although these biblical books can certainly inform us very effectively about what conditions are like, and what a faithful response should be, in comparable situations.  Certainly those who are suffering for their testimony to Christ in our world today can and should find encouragement and challenge in many of the admonitions in the books of Daniel and Revelation, for example, “This calls for patient endurance on the part of the people of God who keep his commands and remain faithful to Jesus.”

I think we are better advised, in fact, to understand Daniel and Revelation as speaking to us today out of situations of persecution in the past, and so calling us to sympathy and solidarity with those who are suffering now, than we are to try to synchronize their characters and symbols with modern-day actors. That is a necessarily speculative exercise that may not lead to any response or action on our part.

A depiction of America as the “whore of Babylon” in the book of Revelation, from a recent blog post that follows a “futurist” interpretation. I would argue that a “preterist” approach is more constructive.

How was Jesus from the line of King David if his real father was not Joseph?

Q. How does the genealogy of Christ work? Because if this is recorded in a patriarchal society, this is the line of Joseph, right? Doesn’t that mean none of this genealogy actually flows through Jesus’s blood? How is he from the line of King David if his real father is God and not Joseph?

The purpose of the genealogy in Matthew’s gospel is to demonstrate that Jesus is “the son of David, the son of Abraham,” that is, the legal heir of both of these men and thus the beneficiary (and ultimate fulfillment) of the covenant promises that God made to them.

All Jews were descended from Abraham.  But Jesus was not descended from David, who was from the tribe of Judah, through his mother Mary, because she was instead a descendant of Aaron from the tribe of Levi.  We know this because Luke’s gospel tells us that Mary was a “relative” of Elizabeth, who was a “descendant of Aaron.”

But when Joseph, who was descended from David, married Mary, this also constituted his legal adoption of the son she would bear. The language of Matthew’s genealogy reflects this legal understanding: “Joseph, the husband of Mary . . . the mother of Jesus.”

Later in Matthew’s gospel we see from the narrative that Jesus was considered to be Joseph’s son just as much as the other children that Mary and Joseph had together.  The people of Nazareth ask, after Jesus tells a series of parables, Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? Aren’t all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?”

Accordingly Paul can say of Jesus at the beginning of his letter to the Romans, “who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead.”

Luke says similarly in his genealogy that Jesus was “thought” or “supposed” to be the son of Joseph; the International Standard Version says that he was “legally calculated” to be Joseph’s son, and I think that’s a good way of expressing the meaning here.

So Jesus was the son of Joseph in the full legal sense, because he was adopted when Joseph married Mary, and thus Jesus is also considered to be a legal descendant of David.

Why did Jesus tell the women of Jerusalem, “Weep for yourselves, not for me,” when he was going to the cross?

Q. This morning I was reading Luke and was confused about Jesus’ response to the women who were following him, wailing and lamenting, as he walked towards his crucifixion. His remarks seem hard to understand at first glance and harsh. The women seem to be doing a very human and appropriate thing, that is, mourning the mistreatment of the Son of God. I see myself doing exactly the same thing. Yet he turns to them and says, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and your children.” That’s confusing enough, but then he goes on to say, “Blessed are the childless women.”  His words seem very out of context with the events that are taking place.

I believe that even here, on his way to the cross, Jesus is looking ahead to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 at the end of the first Jewish-Roman War, and he is expressing his pity and compassion for the victims of that impending conflict.

This is actually the third place in the gospel of Luke where Jesus does this.  The first time is when he approaches Jerusalem on this final visit and sees the city in the distance. He weeps over it and says, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”

In other words, by rejecting the understanding of the kingdom of God that Jesus brought, and by following other leaders into a political and military revolt, the Jewish people would put themselves on a collision course with Rome that within a generation would have this tragic result.

Then, when Jesus and his disciples are touring the temple, he predicts that it will be destroyed, so that “not one stone will be left on another.”  When his disciples ask when this will happen, he describes the destruction of the city in more detail. (This is in the so-called Olivet Discourse, a long speech that also looks farther ahead, at its end, to Jesus’ Second Coming ).  Once again Jesus expresses his compassion for the innocent people who will suffer: “How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! There will be great distress in the land.”  This is a second reference to the destruction of Jerusalem in the Jewish-Roman war, in which Jesus recognizes the suffering it will bring to innocent people.

The statement Jesus makes to the women of the Jerusalem as he is walking towards his crucifixion is a third such reference.  The suffering will be so terrible, we discover, that people will consider women fortunate who have not had children who will have to go through it.

And so it’s not that reflecting on Jesus’ sufferings and expressing sorrow over them is a bad thing to do. It was appropriate for those women, and it is still appropriate for us today.  But Jesus knew that terrible sufferings also awaited them, so he both warned them and expressed compassion for their impending fate.

Showing concern for others’ sufferings, even as he was about to be crucified, demonstrates our Savior’s heart of selfless compassion for others.  And so I believe he is honored in this Lenten season not only when we meditate on his sufferings, even weeping over them as these women did (and as countless believers have done in the centuries since), but also when we show the same compassion for the suffering of the innocent that he did.

A modern icon of the “Eight Station of the Cross,” where Jesus speaks to the weeping women.

Who was “The Prophet” that the Jews were expecting in the time of Jesus?

Q.  I’m pretty sure I know what they mean when they ask John the Baptist at the beginning of the gospel of John,“Are you the Christ?” I kind of know what they mean when they ask, “Are you Elijah?” (although I don’t know if they were thinking actual reincarnation, or just a similar spirit, or whether they would have thought of those as two different things). But I don’t know what they are referring to when they ask, “Are you the Prophet?”  Was there a particular prophet they were expecting whose coming was predicted by earlier prophets? And why does John the Baptist say no to this question?  It seems like he is at least “a” prophet, right?

“The Prophet” who is asked about here is the one foretold by Moses in Deuteronomy:  “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites.”  Later in the gospel of John, the people wonder whether Jesus himself might be this Prophet:  “After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, ‘Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.’”  This was one version of the deliverer figure, along with the Christ or Messiah, that the Jews were expecting in the time of Jesus.

The expectation about Elijah came from a prophecy of Malachi:  “See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes.”  John the Baptist’s father Zechariah explained in his song of rejoicing over his son’s birth that he would fulfill this prophecy:  “And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah.”  It was accepted that the “spirit” of a prophet might come to rest on successor.  Right after Elijah himself dies, the narrative in Samuel-Kings reports:  “When [Elisha] struck the water, it divided to the right and to the left, and he crossed over. The company of the prophets from Jericho, who were watching, said, ‘The spirit of Elijah is resting on Elisha.’”  I think it was in this sense that Jesus could say about John, “If you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come.”

From episodes such as the one you’re asking about, as well as the episode reported in Matthew, Mark, and Luke in which Jesus is associated with John the Baptist (presumably raised from the dead after Herod had executed him), Elijah, or another one of the prophets, it appears that the Jews in Jesus’ time were expecting a figure who would come and turn around the fortunes of the nation, fulfilling the prophecies made in the Old Testament about the Christ or Messiah; Elijah; and “the Prophet.”  These figures seem not always to have been clearly distinguished from one another in the popular imagination, as a given person might be regarded as potentially embodying any of them. But there was an important distinction between one of these figures and the other two.

John the Baptist, as we have seen, was definitively identified by both Jesus and his father Zechariah as the “Elijah” who was to come.  For his part, the apostle Peter identified Jesus both as the Messiah and as the Prophet when he spoke at the temple after the healing of the lame man there.  So while all three of these figures were popularly identified with one another, i.e. regarded almost as if they were one and the same person, it was John the Baptist who fulfilled the prophecies about Elijah, while Jesus fulfilled those about the Messiah (the anointed one) and the Prophet (the successor to Moses).

Peter preaching at the temple. In this sermon Peter identified Jesus as both the Messiah and the Prophet whom the Jews of his time were expecting.