A Reformed Baptist Perspective on Public Theology – The Prophet Amos

In the last blog, we examined the public theology of John the Baptist who was the last Old Testament prophet. A question that we asked concerning our discussion was: Did John the Baptist operate according to the principles outlined for us in these days? In other words, are John the Baptist’s actions in the gospel accounts normative for the Church? In our article, we argued that there was much that we, as the Church, can learn from John the Baptist’s interaction with the religious leaders and the Roman leaders of his day. In this blog, we are going to examine another Old Testament prophet who dealt with numerous matters of social injustice in his time – the prophet Amos. This blog will primarily answer three questions: (1) How did Amos respond to the culture in his day? (2) Is his response to the culture normative to the church?

A Word of Caution

We must first start this discussion with a statement of caution. With regards to Amos, we must keep in mind that Amos is writing in a time when Israel was still supposed to function as a theocracy within its borders, both geographical and ethnic. In other words, Israel was still formally under the Mosaic covenant as the moral law and the law of the land. This fact governs our interpretation and application of the prophet Amos. This point is discussed in Chapter 19, Paragraphs 3-5 in the 1689 London Baptist Confession:

  1. Besides this law, commonly called moral, God was pleased to give to the people of Israel ceremonial laws, containing several typical ordinances, partly of worship, prefiguring Christ, his graces, actions, sufferings, and benefits; and partly holding forth divers instructions of moral duties, all which ceremonial laws being appointed only to the time of reformation, are, by Jesus Christ the true Messiah and only law-giver, who was furnished with power from the Father for that end abrogated and taken away. (Hebrews 10:1; Colossians 2:17; 1 Corinthians 5:7; Colossians 2:14, 16, 17; Ephesians 2:14, 16 )

  2. To them also he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the state of that people, not obliging any now by virtue of that institution; their general equity only being of moral use. (1 Corinthians 9:8-10)

  3. The moral law doth for ever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof, and that not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God the Creator, who gave it; neither doth Christ in the Gospel any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation.

Paragraph 4 is most relevant to our discussion. Based its scriptural justification, Paragraph 4 suggests that the general equity of the civil and ceremonial law applies most pointedly to the covenant community of the church, not unbelieving civil magistrates, since Christ’s first advent. However, Paragraph 5 states that moral law binds all persons, whether it is the church or unbelieving magistrates. Whatever principles we apply from the prophet Amos to the culture at large must keep these considerations in mind.

The Background

Amos was a shepherd from a rural area in Judah whom God called to preach at Israel’s royal sanctuary. His prophesying took place during the reign of Jeroboam II and lasted only a few days. Amos found in Israel great social extremes of comfortable prosperity and abject poverty. His message was against the wealthy. The poor were being exploited and cheated. Merchants were greedy and dishonest. The judicial system was corrupt. There was religious arrogance, as well, and even the attempt to corrupt some of the religious leaders. In essence, affluence had lulled the wealthy into such apathy that they refused to recognize the sickness of their society. Amos’ warning to the worshipers at Bethel was that, because of their sins, destruction was coming upon them from both Egypt and Assyria, a prophecy all the more bold because the international scene was relatively quiet, and Assyria was still in a period of decline. Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, made it clear to Amos that he was not welcome and that he should go home to his own country. Amos refused to back down, explaining that he was not a professional prophet, but he was there solely because God had sent him.

The Judgments on the Nations

Before addressing the sins of the covenant community, Amos delivers a series of six oracles from God, showing that no one can escape the consequences of his action. Hence, the major theme of the nations is the universal justice of God.

Amos pronounces his first oracle to Damascus in 1:3-4. In using the picture of separating grain kernels from their hulls, Amos says that Syria has treated the people of Gilead as though they were nothing but a pile of grain, crushing them to the ground. For this ill-treatment and extreme cruelty of the people, the Syrians were being sent back to where they started (Kir) with nothing to show for the intervening years.

The next three oracles deals with how the surrounding nations dealt with the capture and sale of Israelites during the reign of Jehoram (2 Chronicles 21:16-17). Amos pronounces his second oracle to the Philistines in 1:6-8. The Philistines are condemned for selling a whole population of Israelites into slavery. In his third oracle, Tyre is accused of the same inhumanity as the Philistines in 1:9-10, but it is considered more heinous because they repudiated the covenant of brotherhood with Israel. In his fourth oracle in 1:11-12, Edom is judged for their perpetual and implacable anger, which extended at least as far back as Israel’s journey from the wilderness to the plains of Moab.

The next two oracles demonstrate the fact that the judgments on the nation is not due to ethnicity, but on the basis of the universal judgment of God. In the fifth oracle, the Ammonites are accused of a horrific human rights atrocity – they have “ripped open pregnant women in Gilead that they might enlarge their border”. This particular atrocity was also practiced by Hazael of Syria (2 Kings 8:12), Menahem of Israel (2 Kings 15:16), and Assyria (Hosea 13:16) with the intended goal of eliminating descendants who might try to reclaim the land. In the sixth oracle, Moab is accused of burning the bones of the King of Edom, which seems to be a sign of special contempt for the Edomites.

In all of these oracles, God brings judgment through the Assyrians via exile or death. From the prophet Amos, the picture is abundantly clear – no person, king, or nation escapes the judgment of God.

The Judgments on the Covenant Community

At this point, one can imagine that Amos’s Israelite hearers were very pleased with his message since he was reinforcing exactly what they believed. The “Day of the Lord” was coming to the godless nations. However, the last, and by far the longest opening oracle is addressed to Israel. Israel is guilty of gross social injustice and sexual immorality.

First, Israel is accused of “selling the righteous for silver and the need for a pair of sandals.” This appears to be a direct reference to the corruption of Israel’s judicial system in which judges are willing to convict the innocent upon payment of a bribe. In the Law, the Lord placed a special concern for needy so that their basic rights are protected (Exodus 23:6; Jeremiah 5:28). However, because of the corruption of the judicial system, the needy are being sold into slavery even for insignificant debts (i.e. “a pair of sandals”). The point here is that Israel committed the same sort of social injustice as the surrounding neighbors and as a consequence, they will also be judged.

Second, Amos decries unbridled sexual immorality in Israel. In Israel, a “man and his father go into the same girl, so that my holy name is profaned.” Such behavior is contrary to the sexual ethics defined in the moral law (Genesis 2:21-24; Matthew 19:4-6) and would be otherwise forbidden through the Mosaic law (Leviticus 18:6-18). Their sins of sexual immorality are compounded in that they have slept on clothing taken as pledges for loans to the poor (Amos 2:8). According to the Mosaic Law, such garments are not to be kept overnight (Exodus 22:26; Deuteronomy 24:12-13).

After addressing Israel’s guilt and punishment, Amos turns his indictments to the wealthy citizens of Israel. Amos provides an extensive cataloging of their sins, which includes

  • The matrons of the wealthy Samaritans oppressing the poor and crushing the needy (Amos 4:1).
  • Trampling on the poor and exacting taxes of grain from them to build the own houses of luxury (Amos 5:7, 11).
  • Taking a bribe to afflict the righteous and turning aside the needy in the gate (Amos 5:12).
  • Living in luxurious ease without concern for sin and evil in the land (Amos 6:4-6).
  • Using false balances to unjustly profit from the poor (Amos 8:4-6).

It’s important to note that although each of these social injustices is definitely addressed within the Law of Moses, these sins are not peculiar to the nation of Israel (unlike the sins described towards Judah in Amos 2:4-5) – rather these are basic sins against humanity. These sins are violations of God’s moral law and thus are applicable to all peoples at all times. In particular, it is sinful for any judge to use their position of authority for self-aggrandizement and for their own glory, ease, profit, or pleasure. It is required that we should all act truthfully, faithfully, and justly in our contractual and business relationships with our fellow human beings so that we give to all what they deserve, rather than exploiting them. Moreover, we are to make restitution for anything we have unlawfully acquired from its rightful owners. Finally, we must do our best, by all just and lawful means, to acquire, preserve, and increase our own and others’ possessions.

Our Response

Many of the social injustices described in Amos occur within our American society and in our world in general. The basic question is: how should Christians respond to this? I think we can learn much about how we should respond by examining how Amos responded to these things. Amos did not simply call for judgment, but he pleaded with the judges and wealthy.

“Seek good, and not evil that you may live; and so the LORD, the God of hosts, will be with you, as you have said. Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate,” (Amos 5:15).

And again

“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” (Amos 5:24).

Amos’ response was to address the sin directly and to call the guilty to repentance. Amos is compelled to directly address this sin – “The Lord GOD has spoken, who can but prophesy?” (Amos 3:8). Even when Amaziah the priest tells Amos that he should go back to his own country (Amos 7:12), Amos remains resolute in his call. This is similar today to the idea that Christians should keep the law of God and the Scriptures out of the public sphere and only speak about them among other Christians in church (i.e. the so-called “freedom to worship” vs. “religious liberty” debate).

Some may say that it is not enough to simply call out the gross sins of our culture and to call them to repentance – there must be tangible social activism attached to it. It is at this point in which we can learn much from Amos. Amos is not a professional prophet, nor is he a wealthy Israelite. Amos was simply “a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore figs” who was called to prophesy to Israel. In dealing with the great social evils around him, Amos realizes that the only weapon that he has is the prophetic Word. He doesn’t have a coalition of faithful Israelites around him who can rally to the cause – all He has is the prophetic Word which he proclaims. Amos reproves the guilty and labors to persuade them of their guilt by the prophetic Word.

The same basic principle applies to the Christians in the public sphere. If we were honest, we would acknowledge that we hold a minority position in our culture. Today, we are not only considered backwards and outdated in our beliefs, but today, our views are considered immoral within our culture. We don’t have tactical allies that we can pull together to change the hearts of people; the weapon that we have is the prophetic Word, which is the written Word. We have the full counsel of God in the written Word – the Law and the Gospel. It is through the Law that we expose the sinfulness of man in the public sphere (such as the social evils that is discussed in Amos); however, it is through the Gospel that we found our deepest motivation to confront our society and that we call men and women out of darkness and into His marvelous light. It is only through the Gospel that lives are transformed by the grace of God. Since Christ is the Great Prophet, the Church is the steward and guardian of both messages and it is His Word that we proclaim, admonishing and warning every man. We confront, exhort, reprove, and persuade every man through His Word, relying on God to accomplish His purposes through it.

A Reformed Baptist Perspective on Public Theology – John the Baptist

Read the first eight posts here, here, here, here, here, herehere, and here.

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It’s been a long road to get here, but now we move into the section of our discussion of Public Theology where we observe pertinent biblical texts. There are several places in Scripture where one might start but, for our purposes, an examination of the life of John the Baptist will help us to understand some of the more important questions to ask as we proceed. The first glimpse that we see of John’s approach to Public Theology can be found in his interactions with those who came to him for baptism.

“So he began saying to the crowds who were going out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits in keeping with repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father,’ for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham. ‘Indeed the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; so every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’ And the crowds were questioning him, saying, ‘Then what shall we do?’ And he would answer and say to them, ‘The man who has two tunics is to share with him who has none; and he who has food is to do likewise.’ And some tax collectors also came to be baptized, and they said to him, ‘Teacher, what shall we do?’ And he said to them, ‘Collect no more than what you have been ordered to.’ Some soldiers were questioning him, saying, “And what about us, what shall we do?” And he said to them, ‘Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages.’” (Luke 3:7-14; NASB).

General Depravity

The first thing that we notice is John’s assertion of the universal depravity of mankind. John understood that all men, whether they be Jewish leaders, the Jews themselves, or Greek converts, were a “brood of vipers.” All men are born of Adam. We are all born into the City of Man and, therefore, we all have been blinded by the god of this world. A proper understanding of Public Theology, then, must start with a proper understanding of our inability to reason with a proper, biblical rationality.

John understood that the crowd that was coming to him for baptism—a crowd comprised of all types of men: tax collectors, soldiers, Jewish leaders, etc.—was coming to him with flawed thinking. The first thing they needed to understand was that they were the offspring of Satan, a “brood of vipers.” Only after they rightly understood their spiritual poverty could they rightly assess the riches of Christ. And understanding the riches of Christ, His mercy and His kindness, is what leads us to repentance.

John came preaching a message of repentance: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” (Mt. 3:2; NASB). Notice also that this is the same message Christ Himself came preaching (Mt. 4:17). However, the repentance they preached was not devoid of specificity. Once the hearts of the people were pierced to the core by the gospel John preached, they naturally wanted to know specifically what repentance looked like for them. John addressed them one-by-one according to the sphere of influence in which they operated. What should be observed here is that John the Baptist directly applies God’s moral law to the sphere of influence of each individual person.

Children of Abraham

For the Jewish leaders, it was important that they not teach a false hope in fleshly inheritance. Christ would prove to be the Seed of Abraham (Gal. 3:16) in Whom all who believe as did Abraham would come to be descendants of Abraham. Thus, for the Jewish leaders to insist that they were the rightful heirs of Abraham’s promises, due to their heredity or the circumcision of their flesh, was to rob Christ of His rightful position as Covenant Head. Therefore, John called for the Jewish leaders to repent of their heresy:

“Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance; and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham” (Mt. 3:8-9; NASB).

The Faith / Works Principle

Secondly, John addressed the entire group who asked, “Then what shall we do?” He responded, “The man who has two tunics is to share with him who has none; and he who has food is to do likewise,” (Lk. 3:11; NASB). John was not here teaching works-based salvation. Rather, he was demonstrating what true, faith-based repentance looks like. As the apostle James explained, “What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,’ and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself,” (Jas. 2:14-17; NASB).

John wanted the people to understand that mere lip-service to the Savior is not genuine faith. Faith without works is dead. If a man truly has faith in God, true saving faith, it will change the way he lives. He will love God, and he will love his neighbor. He will not merely say to his neighbor in need, “Go. I have faith that God will be with you in your affliction.” Rather, the true Christian, saved by faith alone, will act in love to help his neighbor. This is the evidence that he truly has saving faith.

It’s important to note that John’s message is consistent with the message of previous Old Testament prophets. As Moses instituted, “If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be.” (Deuteronomy 15:7-8). Here, we have specific application of the Law given to the crowd.

Tax Collectors

Thirdly, John addressed the tax collectors. Tax collectors were agents for the government who were notorious for exploiting the people. Many of them were Jews themselves and were seen as traitors for the way they took advantage of their fellow countrymen. When John saw these tax collectors coming, he had specific instruction for them as well concerning their repentance: “Collect no more than what you have been ordered to.”

Notice he did not tell them to stop being tax collectors. He did not tell them that a true Christian would have no part in government affairs, so they should find a new job. He did not tell them, as the Jehovah’s Witnesses would, that governments are run by Satan, so they are working for Satan and must repent. Rather, he told them to take only what they were ordered to by the civil magistrates. In other words, one can be a Christian while living and operating in a public office. However, being a Christian means that we will operate according to Christian principles in that particular sphere of life. For tax collectors, this meant that they would not rob their fellow countrymen.

It’s important to note that John the Baptist is holding them accountable to the eighth commandment, even when they are operating in public office. The eighth commandment requires us people to act truthfully, faithfully, and justly in our contractual and business relationships. Previously, these tax collectors violated this trust with the people, but repentant sinners, the entire ethical code for tax collectors should change. Instead of being extortioners, they should be individuals who “love justice” (cf. Mic. 6:8) and refuse to oppress the poor through exploitation (cf. Zech. 7:8-10).  This message should continue to be proclaimed since we live in a day where numerous politicians enrich themselves off of the poor.

Soldiers

Fourthly, John addressed the soldiers that came to him: “Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages.” Now, it might be observed that these principles are universal principles to be observed by all Christians. However, they have specific significance for the particular groups John was addressing.

It could be noted that soldiers in a land of occupation have a unique vantage point from which they can exploit the people being occupied. If a soldier is not content with his wages, he might be prone to take the possessions of those under occupation, either by force or by false accusation. This was likely a very common practice in John’s day, so he instructed these men to love their occupied neighbors with integrity rather than with wicked hearts.

Unbelieving Magistrates

Now, it might be observed that John is here instructing people who had come to him for repentance, so we as Christians might seek to instruct Christians in similar positions in a similar way. However, since John was talking to converts and instructing them on how they should repent, it would be improper to talk to our pagan neighbors who have yet to repent in a similar way. Rather, we should speak only the gospel to our unconverted neighbors. At first glance, this seems a glowing, gospel-centered policy to have when formulating one’s Public Theology. However, was that really the approach of John the Baptist? Let’s look at another instance in which John calls a pagan to repentance:

“For Herod himself had sent and had John arrested and bound in prison on account of Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip, because he had married her. For John had been saying to Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’ Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death and could not do so; for Herod was afraid of John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. And when he heard him, he was very perplexed; but he used to enjoy listening to him. A strategic day came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his lords and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee; and when the daughter of Herodias herself came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests; and the king said to the girl, ‘Ask me for whatever you want and I will give it to you.’ And he swore to her, ‘Whatever you ask of me, I will give it to you; up to half of my kingdom.’ And she went out and said to her mother, ‘What shall I ask for?’ And she said, ‘The head of John the Baptist.’ Immediately she came in a hurry to the king and asked, saying, ‘I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.’ And although the king was very sorry, yet because of his oaths and because of his dinner guests, he was unwilling to refuse her. Immediately the king sent an executioner and commanded him to bring back his head. And he went and had him beheaded in the prison, and brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl; and the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about this, they came and took away his body and laid it in a tomb” (Mark 6:17-29; NASB).

So we see that John not only called converted Christians to a specific repentance, but he even called unconverted pagans to repent of their specific sins. His call for repentance even rose to the ears of Herod himself, whom he rebuked in strong terms. This rebuke was not a safe rebuke. He did not simply, generally tell Herod to turn from sin. He called out Herod for his specific sin, and it cost John his life.

Questions Moving Forward

There are several questions this study of John the Baptist raises. In the articles to come, we hope to answer several of these by looking at other texts in the word of God. These questions may include:

  • What is the role of government?
  • What is the role of the moral law in relationship to government?
  • What is the role of the church in relationship to government?
  • Did John the Baptist operate according to the principles outlined for us in these last days?
  • Does the church have a mandate to preach anything other than the gospel to our pagan culture and pagan magistrates?
  • What is the role of activism in our Christian witness to our culture?
  • What expectations should Christians have of our pagan magistrates?
  • What Christian principles might be governing John the Baptist’s approach to Public Theology that may help us govern ours?

LBCF of 1677/1689 – Chapter Twenty-Four, Of the Civil Magistrate

1. God, the supreme Lord and King of all the world, hath ordained civil magistrates to be under him, over the people, for his own glory and the public good; and to this end hath armed them with the power of the sword, for defence and encouragement of them that do good, and for the punishment of evil doers.
( Romans 13:1-4 )

2. It is lawful for Christians to accept and execute the office of a magistrate when called there unto; in the management whereof, as they ought especially to maintain justice and peace, according to the wholesome laws of each kingdom and commonwealth, so for that end they may lawfully now, under the New Testament wage war upon just and necessary occasions.
( 2 Samuel 23:3; Psalms 82:3, 4; Luke 3:14 )

3. Civil magistrates being set up by God for the ends aforesaid; subjection, in all lawful things commanded by them, ought to be yielded by us in the Lord, not only for wrath, but for conscience sake; and we ought to make supplications and prayers for kings and all that are in authority, that under them we may live a quiet and peaceable life, in all godliness and honesty.
( Romans 13:5-7; 1 Peter 2:17; 1 Timothy 2:1, 2 )