A couple of weeks before the Presidential election in the US, Pat Robertson gave another of his fantastic prophecies: President Trump would win the election, widespread civil discontent would follow, and five years later a huge asteroid would hit the world. Robertson has been giving spectacular prophecies for years now. He has predicted the exact date the world would end at least two times, which, obviously, didn’t happen. So, why should anyone listen to his pre-election prophecy?
I doubt that many took Robertson seriously, but he raised again the age-old question. How do we know when a prophecy is genuinely from God? Or more broadly, how do we find the will of God in confusing times? Or to put it in Epiphany terms, how does God reveal his will to us? Our Old Testament reading for this Fourth Sunday of Epiphany is one of the definitive answers to that question.
These words were spoken to Israel as they waited on the east side of the Jordan River preparing to enter the Promised Land. Moses had been their leader all the way from their Exodus from Egypt and through the wilderness wanderings, where all the old folks had died. Moses knew that he himself would soon die, leaving the younger folks who were now in middle age without a leader. More seriously, they would be left without a prophet, someone who could speak to them from God, someone who could tell them God’s will in a brave new world.
In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses reminds Israel of the revealed will of God. In chapter after chapter, Moses clearly outlines all the “statutes and ordinances” God had revealed on Mt. Sinai, so that they would know God’s will after Moses, The Prophet, was gone. But Moses knew that they would need on-going revelation as they encountered new situations. How would they find the will of God in the future?
Moses knew that in the Promised Land Israel would be surrounded by people who would seek guidance from other sources than the one true God. Canaan was filled with witches and sorcerers and necromancers and mediums and spiritualists, people who would practice black magic and consult the dead and the spirits for counsel. Moses tells Israel that those who practice such darks arts are “detestable” to God. This is not where you will learn the will of God. “The nations you will dispossess listen to those who practice sorcery or divination. But as for you, the Lord your God has not permitted you to do so (verse 14).”
That is the setting in which Moses issues this major prophecy about prophecy. How will this new generation and all subsequent generations know God’s will for their new day? Well, of course, there is this large body of revelation that Moses has summarized in Deuteronomy. But there will also be another prophet, indeed, a succession of them. “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him.” You must get your revelation not from the dead, but from the living God who will appoint a prophet like Moses.
What would a prophet like Moses be like? Well, Moses spoke to God face to face, as a man speaks to a friend. And this happened not just once, but again and again. Moses got his words directly from God, so that he could say, “Thus saith the Lord,” rather than, “I think this is what God is saying.” Moses had a deeply personal relationship with God in which God spoke to him directly. This new prophet would be just like that.
And, significantly, this prophet with a direct connection with God will come “from among your own brothers.” That is, he would not drop down out of heaven or rise up from the earth in some supernatural way (like those sorcerers and diviners), but will be one of you, a fellow Jew, a simple, ordinary human being. I will reveal my will through a man.
Why wouldn’t God reveal his will to each and every Israelite in such a direct, face to face way? Because that is not what Israel wanted. The only time God spoke directly to them on Mt. Sinai/Horeb, they were scared nearly to death (cf. Exodus 20:18-19). They responded with these words: “Let us not hear the voice of the Lord our God, nor see this great fire or we will die.” That’s something to consider today, when people often say, “If I could just see or hear God directly, it would be so much easier to believe.” Such requests underestimate the awesomeness of God. So, in his grace, God listened to Israel’s plea and said to Moses, “What they say is good.”
Indeed, looking back to Sinai, God says, “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers.” Though this sounds like a promise of one prophet, it turned out to be a succession of prophets, until The One Like Moses finally came. Until that time, I will continually raise up prophets like Moses.
“I will put my words in his mouth and he will tell them everything I command him.” What wonderful news for ancient Israel as they were about to lose their prophet! God would continue to speak to them through a prophet and they would know exactly what God wanted them to do in the Promised Land. They would not be wandering without guidance. God would tell them exactly how to live. Hallelujah!
But how did that work out? Not so well. Oh, God raised up a number of prophets like Moses—Elijah and Elisha, Isaiah and Amos, Jeremiah and Jonah, Ezekiel and Habakkuk, and others. But two persistent problems kept plaguing this promise of a prophet like Moses, both of them anticipated and warned against in verses 19-20.
Verse 19 says, “If anyone does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name, I myself will call him to account.” That’s exactly what happened. Instead of listening to the prophets and obeying what God said through them, Israel persecuted them and disobeyed the revealed will of God. So, as he promised, God “called them to account” and expelled them from the Land into Exile.
And as verse 20 warns, a host of false prophets sprang up in Israel. Some prophesied in the name of Yahweh, even though the Lord had not spoken to them. And others prophesied in the name of other gods (think of the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel). God had no patience with such false prophets, as exemplified by Elijah’s slaughter of those prophets, in obedience to God’s word in verse 20. Prophesy is a deadly serious thing to the living God, because ignoring it or misrepresenting it can ruin the lives of God’s people.
All of which is to say that the institution of prophecy was frustrated in Israel with false prophets aplenty and disobedience all the time. Thus, Israel was always ripe for the ultimate fulfillment of this great promise. Finally, the Prophet like Moses arrived. He spoke to God and listened to God all the time. The Word of God was in his mouth and mind all the time. Indeed, he had the closest possible relationship with God, since he was God, the Word made flesh. And as he genealogies at the beginning of Matthew and Luke show, he was “from among your own brothers,” an ordinary human, a fellow Jew, not supernaturally dropped from heaven, but born of a simple Jewish girl.
It is fascinating to see how this promise of Deuteronomy winds through the story of Jesus. Take the Gospel of John, for example. In John 1:21, the priests and Levites are interrogating John the Baptist about his identity. Among their questions, “Are you the Prophet?” “No.” Later in that chapter, one of Jesus first disciples, Philip, goes to tell his friend Nathaniel, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the law… Jesus of Nazareth (verse 45).” After watching one miracle after another the common people began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world (John 6:14, and cf. 7:40).”
In his explanation of the healing of the crippled beggar in Acts 3:22-26, Peter quotes this old promise. “For Moses said, ‘The Lord your God will raise up for a prophet like me from among your people; you must listen to everything he tells you.’”
How do we know the will of God? We listen to God as he has revealed himself in Scripture and in the Savior. The prophets who heard God speak and the Prophet who was God speaking—these are our sure guide in a confusing world. But best of all, Jesus was not simply the prophet whose word we must heed or we “will be completely cut off from among his people (Acts 3:23).” Jesus is also our Priest, who offered his body as the sacrifice for our sins, and our King, who rules and protects us in this brave and broken new world.
Only Jesus Christ completely fulfills this prophecy, and all prophecy. As Paul says in II Corinthians 1:20, “For no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ.”
The “detestable ways of the nations” referred to in Deut. 18:9-14 are not just the superstitions of primitive people in biblical times. Seeking guidance from the dead, the practice of witchcraft, consulting spiritualists, and the like are still popular not only in Third World countries, but also in sophisticated North America. Even Christian young people play with Ouija boards and Tarot cards, as though they were harmless parlor games. As people move away from orthodox Christianity in their quest for spirituality, they wander into dark places. This text gives us opportunity to call them back to the True Prophet, Priest, and King.
At an excellent seminar on Coaching, the other participants and I were encouraged to seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit as we coached pastors and churches. But we were asked, “How do you know it is the Spirit speaking? When do you recognize the Spirit voice?” We all agreed that this is a very hard question. Our text gives us one sure test. “If it doesn’t take place or come to pass, that is a message the Lord has not spoken (verse 23).” But, of course, we won’t know that until later, sometimes much later. How can we be sure in the moment? The fulfilment of our text in the person of Jesus gives us a more immediate guide. Does “the voice of the Spirit” fit in with the will of God revealed in Scripture and in the Savior? Is this new word consistent with the Word once for all delivered through the prophets and through the Word made flesh?
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 31, 2021
Deuteromony 18:15-20 Commentary