An excerpt from “A Prophet’s Reward” by Hugh Nibley

Before considering the test of a true prophet, we must make clear the fact that a prophet is a witness, not a reformer. Criticism of the world is always implicit in a prophet’s message of repentance, but he is not sent for the purpose of criticizing the world. Men know the world is wicked, and the wickedest ones often know it best. To denounce human folly has been the avocation of teachers and philosophers in every age, and their reward, surprisingly enough, has not been death but usually a rather handsome fee. The age of Christ, like the nineteenth century, was a remarkably tolerant one as far as ideas were concerned. On the one hand we find quacks, impostors, and miracle mongers flourishing throughout the Roman empire; and on the other, traveling philosophers and high-powered professors indulging in the most unsparing and outspoken criticism of all established institutions, sacred and profane, while the world applauded. It was not the Sermon on the Mount that drove men to crucify the Lord. It was not for their moral tirades that the prophets of old and the Apostles were stoned. In the age of Apollonius and Dio Chrysostom people liked nothing better than to sit in fashionable congregations while being scolded by picturesque crackpots. No Christian writer ever made such devastating attacks on prevailing manners and morals as the pagan satirists did; no Christian apologist ever debunked heathen religion as effectively as Cicero did—with perfect safety. Ovid was banished, not for criticizing the corruption of the times, but for being too lenient toward it, thereby thought the authorities, encouraging vice.

What, then, did Christ and the Apostles do and say that drove men into paroxysms of rage? They performed tangible miracles such as could not be denied, and they reported what they had seen and heard. That was all. It was as witnesses endowed with power from on high that they earned the hatred of the world, of which John speaks so much: “We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness” (John 3:11).

“Many good works have I shewed you from my Father [says the Lord on one occasion]; for which of those works do ye stone me?

“The Jews answered him, saying, For a good work we stone thee not; but for blasphemy; and because that thou, being a man, makest thyself God.

“Say ye of him, whom the Father hath sanctified, and sent into the world, Thou blasphemest; because I said, I am the Son of God?

“Therefore they sought again to take him: but he escaped out of their hand” (John 10:32—33, 36, 39).

On another occasion the enraged multitude cried, “Art thou greater than our father Abraham, which is dead? and the prophets are dead: whom makest thou thyself?” (John 8:53.) When Christ in reply said that Abraham had actually seen His day and rejoiced, while he was before Abraham, “Then took they up stones to cast at him” (John 8:53—59).

And as soon as the Apostles said, “We are his witnesses of these things,” the council and the high priests “were cut to the heart, and took counsel to slay them” (Acts 5:32—33; italics added). Again, we are told that the multitude “were cut to the heart” when Stephen accused them of rejecting what had been brought “by the disposition of angels” (Acts 7:53—54). But the last straw was when he had the effrontery to say, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God. Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord, and cast him out of the city, and stoned him” (Acts 7:56—58). If Stephen had spent his life, as innumerable philosophers have, denouncing the vices and follies of the age, he might have died peacefully in bed. But those fatal words, “I see,” were his death warrant. And what did Paul say to make the Jews cry out in utter horror: “Away with such a fellow from the earth: for it is not fit that he should live,” as “they . . . cast off their clothes, and threw dust into the air?” (Acts 22:22—23.) What indeed? These were the unforgivable words that made him unfit to live: “Suddenly there shone from heaven a great light round about me. And I fell unto the ground, and heard a voice saying unto me, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? And I answered, Who art thou, Lord? And he said unto me, I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom thou persecutest” (Acts 22:6—8). Paul could have won his audience over by speaking as a scholar, but when he bore witness to what he had seen and heard, he was asking for trouble.

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