The Unenviable Job of a Prophet

There are so many blessings to following the Lord. There is forgiveness, peace, joy, fellowship, hope for eternity, and so much more. But the truth is, following God is hard, sometimes very hard.

One person who understood this point very well was Jeremiah the prophet. Jeremiah saw miracles from God. Jeremiah had the word of God to communicate to the people around him. But Jeremiah had it hard. The people who lived around Jeremiah were not following God. And the people really did not like it when Jeremiah prophesied that God would bring judgment on the land by allowing the Babylonians to conquer Judah.

Look at this passage where Jeremiah laments his difficult position.

Jeremiah 20:7–11 – 7 O LORD, you have deceived me, and I was deceived; you are stronger than I, and you have prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all the day; everyone mocks me. 8 For whenever I speak, I cry out, I shout, “Violence and destruction!” For the word of the LORD has become for me a reproach and derision all day long. 9 If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,” there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot. 10 For I hear many whispering. Terror is on every side! “Denounce him! Let us denounce him!” say all my close friends, watching for my fall. “Perhaps he will be deceived; then we can overcome him and take our revenge on him.” 11 But the LORD is with me as a dread warrior; therefore my persecutors will stumble; they will not overcome me. They will be greatly shamed, for they will not succeed. Their eternal dishonor will never be forgotten.

Jeremiah declares that he feels deceived. Of course God has not deceived anybody, but Jeremiah is unhappy about the hardship he is facing. Jeremiah has the word of God. But as he communicates that word, the people attack him. Jeremiah has a message of life for the people. The people reject that message and then turn on Jeremiah, attacking the messenger. And, at times, Jeremiah just wants to quit.

But verse 9 tells us that Jeremiah can’t quit. When he tries to remain silent, he feels like he could explode. Jeremiah says, “there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.” Jeremiah wishes he could stop. He would like a nice, easy, soft life. But Jeremiah cannot have it.

This brings also to my mind the story of John Calvin. Calvin wanted very little more than to live a simple life of study. But he could not. Calvin, in passing through Geneva, was approached by the leader of the church in that city, a man named Guillaume Farel. Farel made it clear to Calvin that Calvin’s genius for theology and for organization was needed in Geneva, and Farel would pray that Calvin would have no peace if he did not do what he should to help. Calvin wanted nothing more than to travel on to Strasbourg, but he feared the curse of God pronounced by Farel, and so stayed and worked in Geneva. The work was hard. The people were often unappreciative and even hostile. Eventually the city banished Calvin and Farel, but then brought them back.

Calvin’s life of preaching and teaching was hard, and I wonder if he would not have spoken like Jeremiah did in our passage. In truth, I think many a pastor would tell you that we have days when we feel like Jeremiah. It would be easier not to confront people with their sin. It would be easier not to warn the culture around us of the judgment of God. It would be easier not to call people to repentance. It would be easier not to tell someone they are unqualified for the ministry they want to do. It would be easier not to tell someone that their doctrinal claims are unbiblical.

But the truth is, the Lord is great. The Lord’s word is perfect. And the ministry of communicating the truth of God to people, whether they be welcoming or hostile, is a privilege and an honor. The true follower of God will have a fire in his or her bones that will not go out until we tell people the truth, even if that telling costs us.

Healing Wounds Lightly

Which do you prefer, making people happy or making people sad? Would you rather have people like you or dislike you? Would you rather tell people things they want to hear or things they don’t?

Jeremiah had a hard job. He would preach to the people of Judah, promising things that nobody wanted to hear. As a prophet of God, this man spoke with the authority of the Lord. And the news that he delivered was not good news for most. You see, Jeremiah knew he was preaching a call to repentance to an unrepentant people. And Jeremiah knew that this unrepentant people would face the judgment of Almighty God.

What did prophets do? Often we think of prophets like fortune-tellers, but simply predicting the future was not their roles. For the most part, prophets speaking to Israel and Judah were men who reminded the nation of the law of God. A prophet would see the nation in violation of their covenant agreement with the Lord, warn that such violation leads to consequences that were clearly spelled out in the covenant, and remind the people that God promised favor to those who would turn back. Yes, the prophet might tell the people how God would fulfill his promises—e.g. which nation would come in and conquer as a judgment—but the prophet mostly applied to the people the terms of the covenant that the nation had agreed to centuries earlier.

The trouble, in Jeremiah’s day is that people were pretending to speak as prophets and promising the nation all sorts of blessings to come, even though they had no such promises from God. These preachers were giving the people feel-good messages of future prosperity without actually having a message from God to proclaim.

Jeremiah 6:13-15

13 “For from the least to the greatest of them,
everyone is greedy for unjust gain;
and from prophet to priest,
everyone deals falsely.
14 They have healed the wound of my people lightly,
saying, ‘Peace, peace,’
when there is no peace.
15 Were they ashamed when they committed abomination?
No, they were not at all ashamed;
they did not know how to blush.
Therefore they shall fall among those who fall;
at the time that I punish them, they shall be overthrown,”
says the Lord.

When I read that passage, I am always caught by verse 14, “They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.” And the reason this gets my attention is that it sounds to me like the words coming from many a pulpit today. But I know that the word of God would show us that to heal a wound lightly, to promise peace with God where no such peace can exist, that is a terrible thing to do.

Who would proclaim peace with God where there is no peace? There are several categories of folks who do this. Preachers and writers who want to be well-thought-of by the outside world will do so. These folks will strive to look more intelligent, more progressive, more nuanced than other Christians by accepting worldviews and behaviors that God actually calls sin. They will try to build their congregations by appealing to unrepentant sinners and saying to them that God now happily accepts them as they are and does not want them to change their behavioral or thought patterns.

Other false teachers will heal the wounds of God’s people lightly by preaching a prosperity that God never promised. This is more popular on the shallow end of the pool as smiling men with expensive suits, expensive cars, and expensive homes tell people that the faith is not so much about sin and righteousness as it is about God giving to their greedy hearts everything they want if they will just believe hard enough; believe hard enough and perhaps send in a donation. They gloss over issues of sin and of false doctrine to draw in people who have more of a superstition than a faith and who desperately want to be lifted out of their current condition. Some who follow these men are sweet and genuine people who are duped by a person offering them healing from a disease or protection from an oppressive regime. Others who follow these men are as greedy as the prosperity preachers, seeking earthly blessing rather than the God who would give us himself.

To find those who preach peace where there is no peace, just listen for those who preach salvation without focusing on our genuine need of a Savior because of our genuine, personal sin. Listen for a person who tries hard never to offend the sensitivities of the one in sin. Listen for a person who focuses the message on a few Scriptures out of context rather than a person who walks through the Bible to preach the sweet stuff and the hard stuff alike. Listen for a person who would hide part of Christianity to make it more marketable to outsiders.

No, I do not ever strive to be offensive on purpose. In truth, I do not like delivering bad news to anybody. But if we are going to be faithful Christians, if we are going to point people to genuine peace and not a false peace, we must be willing to preach a true gospel. And the true gospel includes the holiness of God, the sinfulness of man, the person and work of Christ, and the need of a person to repent and believe to find eternal life. That message will offend people who do not believe they are sinners or who simply do not desire to repent of sin.

If I went to a doctor and had a deadly disease, what should the doctor do? Imagine, by the way, that the doctor has the cure. Would it be kind of the doctor not to tell me of the disease for fear of hurting my feelings? Of course it would not. She does not have to tell me in a mean way, an arrogant way, a holier-than-thou way. She can tell me kindly, but she must tell me. If the doctor knows I am dying, she needs to let me know. She needs to offer me the cure. If I reject treatment, then the fault is my own. But it would be an evil thing for her to say to me that I am healthy and strong if I am not.

Christians, may we never offer false hope. May we never promise what God does not promise. May we never declare a person to be at peace with God if they are not at peace with God. May we never heal anybody’s wounds lightly.

A Prophet Has Been Among them

There are some single lines in the Bible that ring in my ears every time I hear them. One such line is found in Ezekiel 2. I hear the sound of this sentence, and it sort of has the impact of hearing the Rocky theme for a preacher who cares about what he is doing.

Ezekiel 2:3-5- 3 And he said to me, “Son of man, I send you to the people of Israel, to nations of rebels, who have rebelled against me. They and their fathers have transgressed against me to this very day. 4 The descendants also are impudent and stubborn: I send you to them, and you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God.’ 5 And whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house) they will know that a prophet has been among them.

God is sending Ezekiel to a people who have been stubborn and disobedient. His job will be to tell this rebellious people the word of God. And any preacher would wonder what he should think about the mission. What if I’m not successful? What if they will not listen?

God says to Ezekiel, and this is what rings in my ears, “And whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house) they will know that a prophet has been among them.” No matter what they do, whether they listen or not, they will know that a prophet has been among them.

Christians, does this not set your blood aflame? We are in a stubborn and fallen world. We have a gospel to proclaim. They may not listen. But do we not want them to know that there have been preachers of God’s word among them?

And pastors, does this not set your heart aflame? We will stand in pulpits. We will bring the word of God to a people, some of whom care and some of whom are ticking a box on their to-do lists. But you and I, we can preach the word. We can tell the truth. We can refuse to compromise. We can make sure they know that a prophet of God has been among them.

What Makes a Pastor

There are many attributes that should mark a biblical pastor. There are things that should be true of your pastor. Sadly, I do not know that many churches these days have this all figured out.

Years ago, I looked on line for a new pastoral position (Long story, Maybe I’ll tell you someday). As I looked, I found something disturbing. Churches listing for a new pastor listed what they wanted. They sought men who are leaders, organizers, driven, visionaries. They advertised for the men who would take their church to the next level or who would specialize in engaging the lost.

What was so often missing, however, was anything to do with the actual calling of a pastor. No, I’m not meaning a spiritual inner calling; I’m talking about the things that God has listed in his word that pastors are called to do and to be. I probably saw one church in ten, maybe twenty, looking for a man who would care for the church, who would be diligent in prayer, who would preach the word faithfully. Oh, many churches looked for a man who would be a good communicator, they wanted engaging and relevant sermons, but almost none listed a desire for a man who had a passion to feed the people of God with the clear, glorious, deep, unadulterated word of God.

Think of what Paul said about himself when he thought about preaching the word.

1 Corinthians 9:16- For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!

Paul said that he could not stand it if he did not preach the gospel. Something about bringing the inspired word of God to the people around him drove Paul. He pronounced woe on himself if he failed to preach. And, no, this passage is not merely referring to evangelism. Paul is clearly speaking of faithful biblical teaching of believers too.

I do not have any problem with a pastor being a good organizer or communicator. I’m fine with a man who is good at developing systems. But let us not be so foolish as to miss that a passion for proclaiming the word of God to the people of God is a clear necessity for a man to be a good and godly pastor. If a man has no fire in his bones for bringing the word of God to the flock, something is very wrong.

If you have a man who loves his systems and loves his organizational charts and is great at planning programs but does not love—I mean deep down in his bones love—the preaching of the word, pray hard. Pray either that God will bring that man spiritual healing and personal revival, or pray that God will give that man an understanding that he is in the wrong line of work. And if your church will tolerate a successful business man who does not love the word of God and who does not love proclaiming the word of God for the glory of God, for the benefit of the people of God, and then for the lost to hear afterward, be concerned. Your church might have a lay elder or two who still does not love preaching, and that makes sense. These guys are stepping out way past their comfort zones to do something many of them have not formally trained to do. But when your church is looking for the pastor who will regularly be preaching the word, may they not settle for anyone who does not love the proclamation of the word.

We’re In Trouble Now

When Josiah took over as king in Judah, it had to be like a breath of fresh air. Finally, on the throne of David, there was a king who, like David, desired to follow God with his whole heart.

During Josiah’s reign, he was presented with a book. It turns out that the book of the law of God, what we now think of as the first five books of the Bible, had been lost. The priests were doing their own thing in the temple, but the Bible that should have guided them was forgotten, misplaced, gone.

2 Kings 22:11-13 – 11 When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his clothes. 12 And the king commanded Hilkiah the priest, and Ahikam the son of Shaphan, and Achbor the son of Micaiah, and Shaphan the secretary, and Asaiah the king’s servant, saying, 13 “Go, inquire of the Lord for me, and for the people, and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book that has been found. For great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us, because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us.”

When Josiah heard about what had happened, and when he finally understood what was in the book of the law, he was terrified. Josiah realized that, for years, decades, maybe longer, the people had been living according to their own standards and violating the covenant that Israel had agreed to with God at Mount Sinai. But that covenant, the covenant with national Israel, contained in itself judgments for the nation when she violated the terms of her agreement with God. So Josiah knew that the nation needed to repent right now.

Josiah, of course, makes great changes in the nation. But his changes come too late to stop the judgment that the nation had earned under leaders like King Manasseh. So, though much changed, at Josiah’s death, the nation would begin its fall toward captivity in Babylon.

What got my attention as I read through this account in my daily reading is this question: How many churches have lost the word of God just as Judah did before Josiah? I wish that was a ridiculous question, but it is not. The sad difference is, the priests of Israel actually physically lost the book. In our day, churches and supposed Christian groups are led by people with Bibles in their hands. But it appears that many groups have lost any concept of the meaning and authority of the Bible they hold and even quote from time to time.

If we are to be the people of God who please the Lord as his church, we must never lose his word. That means that the Bible has to be front and center in all we do. It means that we need to know the word, respect the authority of the word, and obey the word. Even when the world around us rejects the word, we need to unashamedly proclaim the word of god as truth and authoritative, even if our culture thinks it outdated or offensive.

Has your church lost the word? Think well. Are the messages you hear preached actually fully dependent on the word, or are they dependent on the preacher’s own cleverness and advice? Is your pastor preaching through books of the Bible, or are his sermons borrowed from books by human authors? Is the Bible your standard for all things, or does your church compromise her actions based on what will make the church look good to the culture around her? May we not be people who have lost the word.