How Will It Be When None More Saith 'I Saw'?

In the realm of the mind, in letters, the arts, and in most of the sciences, it was the ancient Greeks, most educated people will concede, who walked off with nearly all the first prizes. It is hard to say anything on any but the most specialized and technical of matters that some Greek many centuries ago did not say better. If any people ever knew and lived life well and fully, it was the chosen spirits among the Greeks. They explored every avenue of human experience; they inquired into every possibility of broadening and improving the mind; they sought the truth as persistently and as honestly as men can ever be expected to seek; and, sounding the depths and skirting the outmost bounds of man’s wisdom, came to the unanimous conclusion that the wisdom of man is as nothing.

The man to whom the Greeks themselves always gave first place among their wisest, Solon of Athens, sums up his own experience in unambiguous elegiacs:

“Like gaping fools we amuse ourselves with empty dreams. . . . Do not doubt it, insecurity follows all the works of men, and no one knows, when he begins an enterprise, how it will turn out. One man, trying his best to do the right thing, steps right into ruin and disaster, because he cannot see what is ahead; while another behaves like a rascal and not only escapes the penalty of his own folly but finds himself blessed with all kinds of success.” 1

The greatest of their lyric poets told the Greeks in one of his greatest odes:

“The hopes of men are often exalted in one moment only to be dashed down in the next, as they roll helplessly in a sea of false expectations and miscalculations. For no mortal man ever got an absolute guarantee from the gods that his affairs would turn out as he thinks they would. There is always some unknown quantity that vitiates any attempt to predict the future.” 2

The soberest and noblest of the dramatists, that poet who “saw life steadily and saw it whole,” told the Greeks of Oedipus, who was all that a man could possibly be: great-hearted, noble, idealistic, intelligent, well-informed, clever and resourceful, perfectly courageous, and determined to do all in his power to help others. To these virtues Oedipus added an attribute that most men worship but few enjoy—luck, the most fabulous luck. Oedipus always got the “breaks.” And what was his end? Trusting in the perfection of his human endowments, Oedipus found himself at the end of the play in the ghastliest situation that a mortal could imagine, having perpetrated not only the most colossal blunders, but also having unwittingly committed the most monstrous crimes against family and society. We need not dwell upon his fate but can sum it up in the last words of the tragedy:

“Here, people, you have Oedipus—look at him! He knew the riddle of the Sphinx; he was the ablest man of his time; there wasn’t a man who didn’t envy his career—but look what he has come to! Don’t think for a moment that you can call anybody happy until you know for sure exactly what is going to happen to him right up till the end—that is, until he goes down into the grave without having tasted misery.”3

A final instance. The most popular Greek dramatist, Euripides, had a little ditty of which he was rather fond; he introduced it into a number of his plays to sum up the human situation:

“The gods take many forms indeed, they bring unexpected things to pass. And that which we have confidently believed in goeth not into fulfillment, while the gods manage to bring about the one thing that nobody expected. That’s the way things are.”4

The early Christian apologists made use of this confessed limitation of the wisest pagans, this fatal obstacle not only to human perfection but even to the enjoyment of a few brief hours and weeks of unsullied happiness, to display what they regarded as the peculiar advantage of their own religion. “Neither by nature nor by any human skill,” wrote Justin Martyr to the Greeks, “is it possible for men to know such high and holy things; but only by a gift that descends from above upon holy men from time to time.” Justin explains elsewhere that these men are called prophets and are a type of human entirely unknown to the heathen world. “They do not need training in speech or skill in controversy and argument,” he continues here, “but only to keep themselves pure to receive the power of the Spirit of God, so that the divine plectrum can express itself through them as on the strings of a lyre, making use of righteous men and revealing to them the knowledge of sacred and heavenly things. Wherefore they all speak as with a single mouth and a single tongue . . . concerning all things which is needful for us to know. . . . The fact that they all agree, though speaking at widely separated times and places, is the proof of their divinity.”5

Note the interesting musical analogy of sympathetic vibration. The holy men can receive God’s revelations because they are in tune to the proper wavelength, so to speak. God can play on them as a plectrum plucks the strings of a lyre because they are prepared to vibrate to his touch—not by virtue of any special training, and not whenever they choose to respond, but whenever it pleases God “from time to time” to move them from heaven. Such is the nature of the prophetic gift, says Justin. The early Christians felt that without this gift of direct revelation from heaven such as is received only by prophets, they would be no better than the heathen—well-meaning but bankrupt. The gift of prophecy—while it remained—was the boast and glory of the church. Thus when Justin wishes to prove to a Jewish friend that the truth has now passed from the Jewish to the Christian community, his one argument is that the gift of prophecy, once enjoyed by the Jews, has now been transferred to his own people, the proof of which, he says, is “that prophetic gifts are to be found among us to the present day, . . . such as were anciently shared among you.”6 Note well: the church boasts the possession of prophetic gifts a hundred and fifty years after Christ, and not merely the written words of the prophets of old—for the Jews had those—but the words of living prophets, no longer had among the Jews.

Origen, some eighty years later, used the same argument: “It can be shown [he tells Celsus] that the Jews were entirely abandoned [by God] after the earthly sojourn of Jesus, and that they no longer possessed those things in which their former sanctity was thought to reside; nay, that not the slightest indication of divinity was to be had among them. For they no longer have prophets or wonders, of which some traces may still be found among the Christians.” 7

For Origen, when it comes to a showdown, the possession of prophets and wonders is what proves a divine church. But note that Origen can claim only lingering traces of the gift of prophecy for his church. Apparently the Jews were not the only people who could lose the holy gifts on which all depended, and at an early day the Christians were reminded of this fact again and again by the so-called Apostolic Fathers, the first important church writers after the Apostles themselves. “Let us never relax and take it easy,” wrote Barnabas, “secure in the knowledge that we are the elect, . . . especially when we consider that after all those great signs and wonders were wrought in Israel they were at length abandoned in just such a manner.” 8 Barnabas, Clement, Ignatius, and others remind the saints repeatedly that what the Jews have lost the Christians can lose just as easily.

As the true church gloried in the possession of prophets as the surest sign of its divinity, even so, when prophecy ceased, as it did all too soon, the church sorely missed it. We shall tell of this at a later time. For the present we may quote some lines from Browning’s “A Death in the Desert,” which no less an authority than Kirsopp Lake has recommended as “the best preparation for understanding” the mood of the church after the passing of the Apostles.9 As the poet describes it, the passing of John, last of the witnesses, leaves the Christians with an overpowering sense of loss—without a real prophet they are no better than other men; without a prophet all is doubt and misgiving; without an eyewitness there can be no final certainty.

Still, when they scatter, there is left on earth No one alive who knew (consider this!) —Saw with his eyes and handled with his hands That which was from the first, the Word of Life. How will it be when none more saith “I saw”?

And the poet with characteristic presumption imputes his own doubts to John, too old to be a prophet!

Grasping the while for stay at facts which snap Till I am found away from my own world, Feeling for foothold through a blank profound, Along with unborn people in strange lands, Who say—I hear said or conceive they say— Was John at all, and did he say he saw? Assure us, ere we ask what he might see!

But must the church always have living prophets in its midst? Is it not enough that we have the words of the prophets of old preserved in holy writ? The answer to that is clear enough in the few passages we have cited. The true church must and will always have living prophets. But that is unwelcome news to the world. It has always been poison. It is the one teaching that has made the restored gospel unacceptable to the wisdom of men. A dead prophet the world dearly desires and warmly cherishes; he is a priceless tradition, a spiritual heritage, a beautiful memory. But woe to a living prophet! He shall be greeted with stones and catcalls even by pious people. The men who put the Apostles to death thought they were doing God a favor, and the Lord tells us with what reverence and devotion men adorn the tombs of the prophets whom they would kill if they were alive (Luke 11:47—48).

Men can read the words of a dead prophet and apply his heavy charges to that dead generation to which the prophet spoke, piously shaking their heads the while and repeating, “If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.” By that very statement, the Lord tells those devout lovers of dead prophets, “Ye be witnesses unto yourselves, that ye are the children of them which killed the prophets” (Matthew 23:30—31). Christ predicted that he, too, like the other prophets, would be eagerly sought after once he had left the earth—but then it would be too late:

“When once the master of the house is risen up, and hath shut the door, and ye begin to stand without, and to knock at the door, saying, Lord, Lord, open unto us; and he shall answer and say unto you, I know you not whence ye are:

“Then shall ye begin to say, We have eaten and drunk in thy presence, and thou hast taught in our streets.

“But he shall say, I tell you, I know you not whence ye are; depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity” (Luke 13:25—27).

After the Lord is gone, men will gladly knock on the door, but it will not be opened. “In vain do they worship me,” he says (Matthew 15:9, Mark 7:7), speaking of times to come—not “in vain do they worship idols.” Once the Lord has departed this earth, men will number him among the prophets and march under the banner of his name, saying on every side, “Lo, here is Christ! and Lo, there!” And when that time comes, the Master warns, “if any man shall say unto you, Lo, here is Christ, or there; believe it not” (Matthew 24:23). At the time when all shall be calling upon his name just as their predecessors painted the tombs of other prophets, he will refuse to recognize any of them.

Here we have something in the nature of a general principle. The rejection of living prophets and the veneration of dead ones is not a folly limited to one nation or to one generation. It meets us throughout the long history of Israel as a sort of standard procedure. Nor did it cease with the coming of Christ, who promised his disciples that they would be treated as badly and rejected as completely as he. The wise men of his time had a ready answer to Jesus: “Abraham is our father” (John 8:39), they protest. “We be not born of fornication; we have one Father, even God (John 8:41). “We are Moses’ disciples. We know that God spake unto Moses: as for this fellow, we know not from whence he is” (John 9:28—29).

God had visited the earth in remote times; he had spoken to Abraham and to Moses. Venerable traditions burdened with a magnificent weight of art, poetry, scholarship, and ritual attested the sincere devotion of the race to the memory of God’s visits to men in times past. But to ask men to believe that that same God had spoken in their own day, and to a plain man who walked their streets—that was simply too much to take! That was the test that Christ’s generation could not pass.

It was a test that few have ever passed: the humiliating test of recognizing a true prophet and taking instruction from the weak and humble things of the earth. Was the wondrous modern age of applied science that began in the nineteenth century to be excused from taking the same test of authority? Remember that the prophets of old came to generations that were very modern in their thinking, smart and sophisticated, advanced, liberated, intellectual; the Hellenistic world, if anything, surpassed our own in those qualities of social advancement. But to come to our own age, do you think the God of heaven is going to come unannounced by prophets? God’s declared policy of testing the world by the sending of prophets from time to time was not abrogated two thousand years ago. Men have not so changed, and God has not so changed but that this sure touchstone of past ages can be employed with full effect in our own day. It is precisely those ages which think themselves beyond such things that are most eligible for the warning voice of the prophets. Our message is that God has called prophets again in these days and that the world might well heed their words.

1.   Stobaeus, Eclogue III, 9, 23: Solon. The text is given in Ivan M. Linforth, Solon the Athenian (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1919), 166—67.

2.   Pindar, Olympian Odes XII, 5—9.

3.   This is the closing chorus of Oedipus the King by Sophocles, lines 1524—30.

4.   No less than five plays of Euripides end with these lines. They are the Alcestis, Medea, Andromache, Helena, and Bacchae.

5.   Justin Martyr, Cohortatio ad Graecos 8, in PG 6:256—57.

6.   Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 82, in PG 6:669.

7.   Origen, Contra Celsum II, 8, in PG 11:805—8.

8.   Epistle of Barnabas 4; cf. 14.

9.   Kirsopp and Silva Lake, An Introduction to the New Testament (New York: Harper, 1937), 62.