Jesus declared in the synagogue at Nazareth, “Verily I say unto you, No prophet is accepted in his own country” (Luke 4:24). The Gospel of John records this statement with a slight variation: “A prophet hath no honor in his own country” (John 4:44).
The Savior might have added, quite correctly, that few prophets find honor or acceptance in their own time as well.
Political leaders and social reformers understand this. Rulers and social activists with a mind to change the status quo have often been unappreciated till long after their death. Political reporter Scott Farris, in his book on defeated U.S. presidential candidates, summarizes this reality with exquisite brevity: “Dissent is an honored American tradition, but it is seldom popular in the moment” (1).
Peter the Great, one of the towering figures of Russian history, tried desperately to reform a system whose abuses eventually brought about—albeit two centuries later—the bloody overthrow Peter feared would happen. Yet his farsighted statesmanship and reformatory measures caused his people to resent and despise him. Nobles and peasants alike sought to remove him from power, even to the point of conspiring with foreign enemies.
The so-called “enlightened despots” of the eighteenth century—rulers such as Maria Theresa and Joseph II of Austria, and Russia’s Catherine the Great—attempted much the same thing in their own time and place, with similar results. Moving to the modern American experience, Martin Luther King Jr. was feared and suspected for some time by a majority of Americans; prominent officials such as J. Edgar Hoover denounced him as a Communist. One recalls with both fascination and amusement how, during the 1972 U.S. presidential campaign, a pamphlet was distributed titled, “52 Reasons Why (Senator George) McGovern Must Be Defeated.” One of these reasons voiced the allegation that McGovern was so radical he actually believed Martin Luther King’s birthday should be made a national holiday! One recalls the observation that yesterday’s radicalism has a way of becoming today’s common sense.
Many of the world’s great artists and poets have experienced the same lack of recognition while they lived. Many such persons have died in hardship, obscurity, and exile, the world’s praise for their splendid talents far in the future.
Historians often smile at the “good old days” mentality—the naïve longing for an age when, supposedly, issues were less complicated and dilemmas less difficult. (Years ago one Otto Bettmann wrote a book titled, The Good Old Days—They Were Terrible (2).) Many who were troubled by the protest movements of the 1960s looked with admiration on those who, a century earlier, had sought to abolish slavery, not realizing that in their day the abolitionists were seen as every bit the wild-eyed radicals many in the 1960s were considered to be.
How easy it is to honor yesterday’s reformers as heroes and role models, while dismissing the courageous souls of our own time as extremists, social misfits, and disturbers of the peace.
The Inspired Record
It should not surprise us that the tendency to honor past heroes while reviling present ones is found in the Sacred Record as well.
When Moses was alive, the children of Israel had little use for him. They despised his counsel, chafed at his rebukes, and on several occasions were about to stone him. And yet, in her recounting of Moses’ death on Mount Nebo, Ellen White explains why God chose to keep secret the resting place of Israel’s fallen leader:
Many who had been unwilling to heed the counsels of Moses while he was with them would have been in danger of committing idolatry over his dead body had they known the place of his burial. For this reason it was concealed from men (3).
While the Old Testament prophets lived, they were laughed at, persecuted, stoned, and sawn asunder. But once dead, national honor was accorded them. No wonder Jesus denounced the scribes and Pharisees of His day with the following words:
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchers of the righteous,
And say, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.
Wherefore ye be witnesses unto yourselves, that ye are the children of them which killed the prophets.
Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers (Matt. 23:29-32).
On at least one occasion the Pharisees would actually verbalize this mentality, when speaking to the blind man healed by Jesus on the Sabbath: “Thou art His (Jesus’) disciple; but 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). Many modern and postmodern Seventh-day Adventists echo similar thoughts when professing great regard for the Bible, while seeking to reduce the authority of God’s more recent prophet, Ellen G. White.
“A Lantern on the Stern”
Samuel Coleridge once lamented, “If men could learn from history, what lessons it might teach us? But passion and party blind our eyes, and the light which experience gives us is a lantern on the stern which shines only on the waves behind us” (4). Barbara Tuchmann, in her provocative account of political folly through the ages, responds thus to Coleridge: “The image is beautiful but the message misleading, for the light on the waves we have passed should enable us to infer the nature of the waves ahead” (5). Thus the renowned observation of George Santayana: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Ellen White speaks in similar tones when she declares:
We have nothing to fear for the future, except as we forget the way the Lord has led us, and His teaching in our past history (6).
A careful study of history provides abundant evidence as to why prophets, whether in the sacred or secular realm, usually find themselves without honor. The record of the past offers a stinging disappointment for those who think heroism is achieved by following Dale Carnegie’s rules on “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” (A great sermon title might be, “Dale Carnegie Meets John the Baptist.”) Sacred history offers the painful but persistent reminder that apostasy almost never wears an ugly face, that those in Noah’s day who most strongly rejected his preaching were not radical heathens but what we today might call spiritual “moderates” (7), and that Israel’s golden calf worship was announced by Aaron as “a feast to the Lord” (Ex. 32:5). Those who might quickly dismiss as grotesque and abominable the sacrifice of children to pagan deities, for example, would do well to understand the presumed sacredness and solemnity attached to such rites among such peoples as the Carthaginians of North Africa and the Aztecs of Mexico. Remoteness in time and culture makes it easy to assume that what seems morally obvious to us must have appeared the same in the long ago.
Many, even among the most devout advocates of the church’s Bible-based teachings, remain reluctant to connect current divisions and theological camps within Adventism to the transcendent categories of right and wrong identified by inspired counsel and traced through the inspired narratives. And perhaps it is understandable, for more than one reason, why even the most faithful among us hesitate to see—for example, in a charismatic professor teaching false doctrine—a spiritual kin to the scientists who scoffed at Noah, to Balaam, to Jezebel’s priests, Pashur, or Herodias. And certainly none must presume to judge the heart of such an offender, even if it is clear such a one teaches error and must therefore be held accountable. But thoughtful reflection compels us to ask if our reluctance to draw such parallels is due less to Christian charity than to the desire not to make waves, the fear of being labeled, or perhaps our own vulnerability to the charm and winning personality of one with an honored reputation and presumed expertise.
One is deeply sobered by Ellen White’s statement, regarding the reluctance of so many to utter the voice of stern rebuke, that “it is not love for their neighbor that they smooth down the message entrusted to them, but because they are self-indulgent and ease-loving” (8). Reflection on the relevance of the past to the present invariably poses other questions: Were not the same positive attributes we see in today’s compromisers possessed by opposers of truth in times past? Were all of Noah’s critics ill-mannered and unlovable? Were those who mocked Jeremiah obviously evil? Did Caiaphas really come across to his contemporaries as the monstrous, roguish, easy-to-hate villain depicted in many Bible-story dramatizations?
At the bottom line, those with even a limited knowledge of history are constrained to recognize, as they witness the opposition suffered by the reprovers of sin in the contemporary church, that there really is little difference between yesterday and today. The reticence of so many to speak out boldly against wrong in our present day might be more justifiable if all God’s messengers through the ages, with the exception of Jesus, had suffered opposition and revilement by the majority. It might then be argued that the more human beings become like Jesus, the less antagonism they are likely to encounter. But alas, such is not the case. The fact that the Personification of love Himself was rejected by the majority and condemned to an ignominious death, is the ultimate rebuke to those who stubbornly cherish the illusion that a faithful Christian witness promises likeability, a career free of controversy, and a file full of good recommendations.
Years ago a close friend of mine, who had served as student body president on a large North American Adventist campus, used his influence to curtail the performances of a music group at the college whose specialty was “Christian” rock music. This friend of mine—now a professor at the SDA Theological Seminary at Andrews University—has one of the least offensive, most polite personalities I know, one who bends over backwards trying to avoid the wrong spirit. And yet the members of this music group despised and scorned his appeals, causing him no small agony as he wondered if perhaps he, not they, was more deserving of correction.
It is one thing if the written counsel of God forces us to re-examine our message or methods, but the mere unpopularity of what we say or do is no ground for such re-examination. It doesn’t seem to matter how often we repeat those Bible verses which remind us that the trademarks of deception in every age have always been sincerity, subtlety, and angelic loveliness (Prov. 14:12; II Cor. 11:14-15; II Thess. 2:9-11). We still seem to think, in our heart of hearts, that when Satan appears he will make himself obvious. If the students in the rock music group noted above had approached my friend under the influence of LSD, denouncing Christianity and taking God’s name in vain, perhaps my friend would have faced fewer doubts that his corrective efforts were necessary. But such a blatant manifestation of evil would not likely test the sanctity of believers. Only a subtle appeal—blending emotion, logic, a magnetic personality, and diabolical finesse—can truly make possible such a test.
The way God’s servants often wish for more explicit guidance in dealing with current issues is reminiscent of the fictitious American President in Allen Drury’s Advise and Consent, who wonders during a crisis just how each of his predecessors would have handled the situation:
They (his predecessors) never indicate by so much as a lifted eyebrow that they have heard, and of course they never deign to reply, now in this haunted hour or any other time, though when they ask him the same question he finds it easy enough to respond. He would have bought Louisiana, he would have broken the Bank of the United States, he would have put upon the South the moral burden of opening conflict, he would have taken Panama, he would have offered Fourteen Points and maneuvered the Japs into striking first and gone into Korea and sent the troops to Lebanon. He is willing enough to endorse what they have done; why can they never give him comfort, particularly when he needs it most? (9).
How often have we uttered similar words, to ourselves if to no other. We would never have left Adam’s side, we would have gone into Noah’s ark after the animals marched in, we would never have pitched our tents toward Sodom, murmured in the wilderness, offered our children to Molech, laughed with the mockers at Calvary, or exchanged the memorial of God’s creation for the “venerable day of the sun.” If only today’s issues were as delightfully simple!
But the Biblically informed, sanctified Christian understands that the issues of history were no easier in their time than those of today are for us, that God’s heroes have almost never been popular in their historical context, and that only when faith becomes sight and grace is lost in glory will the praise of multitudes be assured for God’s redeemed.
1. Scott Farris, Almost President: The Men Who Lost the Race But Changed the Nation (Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 2012), p. 227.
2. Otto L. Bettmann, The Good Old Days—They Were Terrible (New York: Random House, 1974).
3. Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets, pp. 477-478.
4. Samuel Coleridge, quoted by Barbara Tuchmann, The March of Folly From Troy to Vietnam (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984), p. 383.
6. White, Life Sketches, p. 196.
7. ----Patriarchs and Prophets, pp. 95-96.
8. ----Prophets and Kings, p. 141.
9. Allen Drury, Advise and Consent (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co, 1959), p. 451.