by Richard Alan Fuhr, Jr. and Gary E. Yates
Here are four specific ways in which the message of the Twelve—the Minor Prophets—continues to speak to the church as the people of God.
(1) The Book of the Twelve enriches the church with its distinctive portrayal of God.
In their preaching of judgment and salvation, the prophets reveal both God’s justice and grace. When Israel sinned by worshipping the golden calf at the beginning of their history as a nation, the Lord revealed himself as a God who is compassionate, slow to anger, rich in faithful love, and truth (Exod 34:6–7). These attributes led God to keep his covenantal commitments and to forgive the sins of his people.
The Book of the Twelve is the story of how Israel experiences these same attributes of Yahweh centuries later. At the beginning of the Twelve, the Lord promises Israel that he cannot give them up and that he would not “vent the full fury” of his wrath even when disciplining them for their sins (Hos 11:8–9). The Twelve as a whole reflect how the Lord keeps this specific promise to preserve his people. The Lord brings his various “days” of judgment against Israel and Judah, but even at the end, a remnant remains.
When the people ask the Lord, “How have You loved us?” (Mal 1:2), the fact that they survived in spite of their repeated rebellion answers the question. When believers today question whether they can be certain that nothing will separate them from the love of God in Christ (Rom 8:37–39), the Book of the Twelve offers powerful testimony to the Lord’s enduring faithfulness to his covenant people and promises.
(2) The Book of the Twelve challenges the church with its ethical call for the people of God “to act justly, to love faithfulness, and to walk humbly” with God (Mic 6:8).
The covenants between God and his people in the Old and New Testaments involve both blessings and obligations. The prophets challenged Israel’s defective understanding of the covenant that led them to believe that being God’s chosen people meant that the Lord would bless them no matter what. Enjoyment of the covenant blessings required obedience to the covenant commandments. This obedience was not external conformity to a legal code but was the grateful response from a people transformed by God’s grace. The Lord’s hesed to his people demanded a response of hesed from those who had experienced his grace. Today, the responsibility to live transformed lives is increased rather than lessened in the new covenant because the church has received an even greater measure of grace and an even greater demonstration of God’s love in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
The primary obligation to which the Twelve calls Israel is exclusive love and loyalty toward Yahweh as the one true God. Paul House reminds us that reverence for the Lord is what anchors our lives and is what leads “to affection for conversion, character, community, friendship, stewardship, service, good work in good places, and concern for others, particularly those in future generations.” Ethics flow from a right understanding of God and commitment to him, and Israel had abandoned the principles of love and justice because they had turned away from the Lord. Individuals and societies ultimately become like what they worship. Worship of the violent gods of the ancient Near East produced one kind of society, while devotion to Yahweh as a God who rescued slaves from Egypt and who cared for widows and orphans was meant to produce a people with very different values and priorities.
The return to the Lord envisioned by the Twelve would involve return to the ethical standards of Yahweh’s commands. Christopher J. H. Wright reminds us, “The prophets uncompromisingly adopt an advocacy stance in favour of the poor, the weak, the oppressed, the dispossessed and the victimized, claiming to speak for the God of justice as they do so.” The calls for justice and concern for the needy in the Book of the Twelve should especially serve as a wake-up call for affluent Christians in the West. The Minor Prophets continue to call God’s people to guard their hearts against the idolatry of greed and to recognize their responsibility to serve the disadvantaged in their own communities and around the world. The Mosaic law reminded the people of Israel of their obligation to “open their hands” to their needy brothers and sisters so that there would be “no poor” among them (Deut 15:4–11). And the early church took seriously its calling to live out that ideal and to become that kind of community (see Acts 4:32–36).
Greater attention to the Old Testament Prophets will help in the restoration of this others-centered ethic in the church and will help to remind followers of Jesus that the priority of preaching the gospel to the nations does not diminish the church’s responsibility to minister to the whole person and to implement peace and justice in a fallen world. Expecting that the soon return of Jesus Christ will bring the consummation of the kingdom of blessing and peace promised by the prophets should not lead followers of Jesus to abandon the present world to its sin and decay.
(3) The Book of the Twelve informs the church of the ways in which God deals with his people and the nations.
Because of the constancy of God’s character, how he dealt with Israel as his people in the past provides a model for how he deals with the church as his people in the present. In our study of the Twelve, we have carefully focused on explaining how the messages of the individual prophets’ related to their specific times and circumstances because we believe that a correct understanding of how the prophets’ messages applied to their contemporaries is foundational to proper application of how they are relevant to our times.
Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 10:6 that the things that happened to Israel “became examples for us.” Echoing Leviticus 11:44, Peter instructs the church to “be holy, for I [God] am holy” (NIV). Similarly, the Book of the Twelve reveals how the Lord blesses his obedient people and disciplines them when they are unfaithful. The message of the Twelve highlights how the response of his people to his word shapes their destiny. The Lord is willing to relent from judgment when his people seek him and turn from their sinful ways.
The prophets were above all preachers of repentance as they called the people to “turn” from their sin and to “return” to Yahweh so that they might enjoy all of the blessings that he had in store for them. Repentance is a continual and life-long process for God’s people. Even when the postexilic community repented by turning to the work of rebuilding the temple, there was still the need to address social issues and where the people stood in their relationship with God.
In Revelation 2–3, Jesus issues the same call for repentance to churches that had abandoned their “first love,” who were blind to their own spiritual poverty, or who had compromised with the pagan culture around them. In the Book of the Twelve, genuine repentance is rare, but the promise is that the Lord is the One who would ultimately transform the hearts of the people as they turned to him.
A lifestyle of repentance does not arise from a slavish fear, but rather from the constant desire to grow in discernment of God’s will and to more fully please the Lord (see Phil 1:9–11; Col 1:9–10). God’s promise is that he will turn to his people when they turn to him (Zech 1:3; Mal 3:7; James 4:8). Without the focus on grace and the promise of divine enablement, the preaching and teaching based on the Prophets can easily turn into a message of moralism and condemnation.
(4) The Book of the Twelve comforts the church with its message of restoration and its anticipation of the eschatological kingdom of God.
The book of Lamentations is testimony to the suffering and devastation that the exile brought on the people of Israel, but the prophets announced a message of hope that transcended what appeared to be the end for Israel as the people of God. Israel’s failures had brought the judgment of exile, but exile was not God’s final word.
Beyond the exile, there was the promise of Israel’s return to the land, the restoration of the house of David, and the spiritual transformation of God’s people so that they would perpetually enjoy the blessings of peace and prosperity in the land. The blessing of Israel would ultimately extend to the nations, and the nations would travel to Jerusalem to worship the Lord and learn his ways. The key promise of the prophets was that the Lord would become “King over all the earth” (Zech 14:9). The prophets convey the promise that the Lord will ultimately triumph over all evil and opposition to his rule, and God’s people will share in his victory. They may not provide all the details to satisfy our curiosity of what tomorrow may bring, but they do speak powerfully of the future by painting vivid images of how that kingdom will be completely different from the sin-cursed world of our present experience.
We see in the working out of salvation history that the restoration promised by the prophets arrives in stages. The first stage of restoration came with Israel’s historical return to the land following the Babylonian exile. The Lord kept his promise to redeem his people out of exile and to restore them to their homeland, but this return did not exhaust or completely fulfill the prophetic promises of restoration and renewal.
With the New Testament, the arrival of the eschatological kingdom of God becomes a reality through the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. Yet the full realization of kingdom promises still awaits a future, Second Coming. Rather than giving a detailed roadmap of how the kingdom will come, the eschatological message of the Twelve allows us to trace the hand of God through various acts of restoration and new creation that will eventually consummate with the future kingdom.
Faithful preaching and teaching of the Prophets is all about holding forth this hope of restoration and kingdom apart from the endless speculation about date setting, current events, and eschatological systems that too often distracts from the real focus of the prophetic message.
In this new 7-minute video Fuhr and Yates give a behind-the-scenes look at their book on the minor prophets and explain how it brings the messages of the prophets to life for students of Scripture today.
Request a faculty review copy here.