A cleansed, non-prophet kingdom? (Zechariah 13:1-6)

Interested in seeing the gospel in the Old Testament? This example from Zechariah 13 shows how to (and how not to).

Open Zechariah 13:1-6.

The ideal kingdom is a wise king with a responsive community. Zechariah’s hope is for Israel’s failed kingdom to be restored after being exiled and dominated by foreign powers. He anticipates what life could be like on that day (13:1, 2, 4).

King and kingdom are reconciled as God gives them a spirit of grace and supplication, and they respond by seeing how they hurt him — looking on the one they have pierced (12:10). They stabbed God’s heart by rejecting his kingship, giving themselves to other rulers and their gods. This has been Zechariah’s core message: Return to me, and I will return to you (1:3).

So, on that day when they turn back to God’s kingship, God cleanses the house of David — the kingship God sacked because they were self-serving. On that day, God cleanses the inhabitants of Jerusalem — the people who gave themselves to other rulers and their gods.

Based on the Torah, Israel was to be a nation under God’s leadership. Their sovereign gave them his laws and defined how to remain ritually pure in his presence. Sin or impurity could make them unclean, so he provided cleansing rituals (e.g. wash occurs 35 times in Leviticus). So when they turn back to God, Zechariah declares that God will open a fountain to cleanse his people, so they’re devoted to him alone:

Zechariah 13:1–2 (NIV)
1 “On that day a fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity.
“On that day, I will banish the names of the idols from the land, and they will be remembered no more,” declares the Lord Almighty. “I will remove both the prophets and the spirit of impurity from the land.”

In returning to their true sovereign, they cannot serve other rulers. They cannot call on the gods of those rulers to support them. When no one even remembers the names of these false powers, the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem are the kingdom of God.

Back when Israel/Judah was God’s kingdom (1000 – 586 BC), prophets such as Elijah regularly confronted the kings for acting in self-serving ways instead of serving the Lord. Imagine a kingdom where that kind of prophetic correction was no longer needed! Here’s how Zechariah saw it:

Zechariah 13:3–6
And if anyone still prophesies, their father and mother, to whom they were born, will say to them, ‘You must die, because you have told lies in the Lord’s name.’ Then their own parents will stab the one who prophesies.
On that day every prophet will be ashamed of their prophetic vision. They will not put on a prophet’s garment of hair in order to deceive. Each will say, ‘I am not a prophet. I am a farmer; the land has been my livelihood since my youth.’ If someone asks, ‘What are these wounds on your body?’ they will answer, ‘The wounds I was given at the house of my friends.’

In summary:

  • Verse 3: Parents are often ardent supporters of their children, but not even parents will tolerate someone who falsely claims to speak for the Lord (compare Deuteronomy 13:6-10.)
  • Verse 4: No one will dress up like a prophet (compare 2 Kings 1:8) in order to deceive people.
  • Verse 5: No one will seek the power or rewards attached to being viewed as a prophet. (Compare Amos 7:14.)
  • Verse 6: Sometimes prophets were beaten and imprisoned by the kings they were sent to correct. But on that day, no one will present their scars as evidence of prophetic status. (Compare Jeremiah 20:2; 37:15; Proverbs 27:6.)

What does any of this have to do with the kingdom restored in Christ?

Misapplying Zechariah’s message

It’s so easy to grab a phrase and bend it to what we want. On that day a fountain will be opened … to cleanse them from sin and impurity. We could write a hymn about that:

There is a fountain filled with blood
drawn from Immanuel’s veins
And sinners plunged beneath that flood
lose all their guilty stains.

To make that application, you need to ignore the bit that says the fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem.

There’s another stream of Christianity that doesn’t ignore that bit. Dispensationalists expect the mass conversion of Jews to Christianity in the future. They believe these Old Testament texts have not been fulfilled, so they interpret them as relating to his second coming to reign as a literal king on a throne in Jerusalem for 1000 years.

Another group believes prophecy has ceased. God said, I will remove the prophets (13:4). Was Zechariah a cessationist? Did he say prophetic gifts would cease when the complete revelation of God arrived in Christ (as enshrined in the New Testament)?

These interpretations warn us of some basic hermeneutical flaws:

  1. Don’t cherry-pick phrases to support what you want, ignoring the bits that don’t fit.
  2. Don’t bypass the crucial step of understanding the message in its setting, how Zechariah and his audience would have understood it.

If we haven’t considered what Leviticus says about cleansing from sin and impurity through ritual washing, we cannot understand the fountain of verse 1. If we haven’t understood the role of the prophets who confronted the kings for abusing their power and misrepresenting God, we won’t understand why that role is not needed when the house of David has been cleansed. If we haven’t understood Jesus as the divinely appointed king who draws humanity back under divine sovereignty (the gospel of Christ our Lord), we won’t understand the kingdom promises as fulfilled in him.

Taking these basic steps leads us to a more nuanced understanding of Zechariah’s message:

  • The reason God needed to open a fountain to cleanse the Davidic king and his people from sin and impurity was that his Torah called them to obedience and ritual purity as a way of living in recognition of his presence (Leviticus 19:2, 26). But it’s a mistake to equate the requirements of that covenant with God’s expectations for the global kingdom established in Christ. (Galatians addresses that mistake.)
  • It’s a mistake to argue that prophecy has ceased now that we have a perfect king who needs no prophet to correct him. The first act of our anointed king after his enthronement was to share his anointing with his servants (Acts 2).  The Holy Spirit does not lead us to correct our king; he empowers us to speak and act in concert with him, as his kingdom (corporate entity, body) fulfilling the purposes of the king (head). (That’s 1 Corinthians 12.)
  • The mistake of failing to see how Jesus has fulfilled the kingdom promises of the OT prophets is something we’ll discuss in a future post (on Zechariah 14).

Conclusion

In Christ, God has restored the fallen Davidic kingship (the house of David) and extended citizenship beyond Judea (the inhabitants of Jerusalem). Christ is cleansing the world from rebellion against God’s sovereignty, restoring the earth as God’s holy place.

Christ overturns the division of the world under conflicting powers (with their idols) through the gospel: the good news that God appointed Christ as king, reunifying the earth in his leadership (Ephesians 2:14-22).

Our king needs no prophetic correction, but when he ascended he gave gifts to his people, empowering us prophetically (and in other ways) to equip the people of his kingdom for works of service until the whole of humanity is corporately under his leadership, developing into the whole measure of the fullness of our anointed king (Ephesians 4:8-13).

This gospel is so much more than the message of individual guilt we often hear today. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened to see the richness of God’s gospel proclamation, the elevation of his Son from death to the throne, the authority we represent as his kingdom (Ephesians 1:18-23).

This is what Zechariah anticipated on that day. The prophets glimpsed what God would do. The kingdom of God restored in Christ is so much more than they envisioned.

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Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview College Dean

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