4. False Prophets, Part II (Deuteronomy 18:1-22)
I confess. I’ve always been cheap. I’ve never wanted to pay retail prices, and I’ve habitually found ways to avoid paying a “middle-man.” For example, years ago I used to go to wrecking yards to purchase used parts to fix our cars. Then I discovered it was cheaper to buy a wrecked car, dismantle it in the back yard, and then file it away in the shed and in our attic. That way I could avoid paying the kind of prices wrecking yards charge. I was also able to purchase some new car parts cheaper than the local parts house paid for them. It saved money, and it was enjoyable.
Now I know that I may work harder at being cheap than some of you, but I’m convinced that, at heart, others of you are just as cheap as I am. We are all glad to find a way to “buy direct” and thus to avoid paying a “middle-man” for his services. Even if the prices are not any cheaper, many of us enjoy going to the outlet malls, because it seems that we are buying directly from the manufacturer. We work very hard to avoid the middle-man—in almost everything but religion. For some reason, people seem to prefer to approach God indirectly, through a middle-man. I’m not talking about people praying to God the Father through Jesus. I’m talking about those who think they need to go through Mary to get to Jesus, or who need a “medium” to access supernatural powers. I’m even talking about people who think they need a preacher to tell them God’s will for their life. Our text in Deuteronomy 18 deals with this, and I believe we will find it contains some rather surprising statements.
This lesson is the fourth in a series of messages on the Old Testament prophets. In our first lesson, we talked about Abraham as the first person in Genesis to be called a prophet. Our second lesson focused on Moses as the greatest Old Testament prophet. In our third lesson, we began to consider false prophets, giving special attention to Deuteronomy 13. In this lesson, we will continue to study about false prophets, focusing our attention on the instruction of Deuteronomy 18.
The structure of this chapter is fairly apparent, so far as identifying the paragraphs and their subjects. Verses 1-8 deal with the Levitical priests. Verses 9-14 list the illicit sources of “spiritual mediation,” which the Israelites were forbidden to employ. Verses 15-19 prophesy the coming of the greatest Prophet of all time, the Lord Jesus Christ, the “Prophet like Moses” (verses 15, 18). Verses 20-22 draw our attention to the false prophets, whom we are not to fear, nor hear.
The pieces of the puzzle are clear; understanding their relationship and the message of this chapter takes a bit more effort. The more I have pondered this chapter, the more convinced I have become of the importance of this passage to the Israelites of old, and to us. Let us give careful, prayerful attention to this text. Let us eagerly hear and heed its instruction, especially as it speaks to us of the Messiah to come.
Looking Out for the Levites
1 “The priests, the Levites—all the tribe of Levi—shall have no part nor inheritance with Israel; they shall eat the offerings of the LORD made by fire, and His portion. 2 Therefore they shall have no inheritance among their brethren; the LORD is their inheritance, as He said to them. 3 And this shall be the priest’s due from the people, from those who offer a sacrifice, whether it is bull or sheep: they shall give to the priest the shoulder, the cheeks, and the stomach. 4 The firstfruits of your grain and your new wine and your oil, and the first of the fleece of your sheep, you shall give him. 5 For the LORD your God has chosen him out of all your tribes to stand to minister in the name of the LORD, him and his sons forever. 6 So if a Levite comes from any of your gates, from where he dwells among all Israel, and comes with all the desire of his mind to the place which the LORD chooses, 7 then he may serve in the name of the LORD his God as all his brethren the Levites do, who stand there before the LORD. 8 They shall have equal portions to eat, besides what comes from the sale of his inheritance” (NKJV).
It is easy to see that this paragraph instructs the Israelites about their responsibilities to the Levites. The question is, “What does this have to do with the rest of the chapter, which deals with sources of prophetic revelation, true and false?” Several things point us in the right direction. The first is that we know what the rest of the chapter is about—sources of “divine revelation.” Twice in verses 1-8, we find the expression, “in the name of the Lord” (verses 5, 7). In verses 9-14, we do not find the expression because these forbidden folks do not speak “in the name of the Lord.” Indeed, they are “an abomination to the Lord” (verse 12). In verses 15-19, we have the expression, “the voice of the Lord” (verse 16), and the reference to the Ultimate Prophet who “speaks in My name” (verse 19). The false prophet may either “speak in the name of other gods” (verse 20), or he may presumptuously “speak in the name of the Lord” (verse 22). I believe we can safely conclude that all of Deuteronomy 18 deals with those who “speak for the Lord,” both the false and the true.
How were the Israelites to know what God had spoken? How were they to know what they should do? In other words, how were they to know the will of God for their lives? We know that it was not by means of soothsayers or sorcerers or mediums. The normative way for an Israelite to know the will of God was through the Levitical priests, who read and taught the law to the people.15
8 And of Levi he said: “Let Your Thummim and Your Urim be with Your holy one, Whom You tested at Massah, And with whom You contended at the waters of Meribah, 9 Who says of his father and mother, ‘I have not seen them’; Nor did he acknowledge his brothers, Or know his own children; For they have observed Your word And kept Your covenant. 10 They shall teach Jacob Your judgments, And Israel Your law. They shall put incense before You, And a whole burnt sacrifice on Your altar” (Deuteronomy 33:8-10, NKJV, emphasis mine).
In addition to their normal instruction in the Law, the priests were to pronounce the will of God in difficult situations:
8 “If a matter arises which is too hard for you to judge, between degrees of guilt for bloodshed, between one judgment or another, or between one punishment or another, matters of controversy within your gates, then you shall arise and go up to the place which the LORD your God chooses. 9 “And you shall come to the priests, the Levites, and to the judge there in those days, and inquire of them; they shall pronounce upon you the sentence of judgment. 10 “You shall do according to the sentence which they pronounce upon you in that place which the LORD chooses. And you shall be careful to do according to all that they order you. 11 “According to the sentence of the law in which they instruct you, according to the judgment which they tell you, you shall do; you shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left from the sentence which they pronounce upon you. 12 “Now the man who acts presumptuously and will not heed the priest who stands to minister there before the LORD your God, or the judge, that man shall die. So you shall put away the evil from Israel. 13 “And all the people shall hear and fear, and no longer act presumptuously” (Deuteronomy 17:8-13, NKJV).
In addition, a priest might employ the ephod or the Urim and Thummin to discern the will of God:16
“He shall stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall inquire before the LORD for him by the judgment of the Urim. At his word they shall go out, and at his word they shall come in, he and all the children of Israel with him—all the congregation” (Numbers 27:21; see also Leviticus 8:8; Deuteronomy 33:8).
6 Now it happened, when Abiathar the son of Ahimelech fled to David at Keilah, that he went down with an ephod in his hand. 7 And Saul was told that David had gone to Keilah. So Saul said, “God has delivered him into my hand, for he has shut himself in by entering a town that has gates and bars.” 8 Then Saul called all the people together for war, to go down to Keilah to besiege David and his men. 9 When David knew that Saul plotted evil against him, he said to Abiathar the priest, “Bring the ephod here.” 10 Then David said, “O LORD God of Israel, Your servant has certainly heard that Saul seeks to come to Keilah to destroy the city for my sake. 11 “Will the men of Keilah deliver me into his hand? Will Saul come down, as Your servant has heard? O LORD God of Israel, I pray, tell Your servant.” And the LORD said, “He will come down.” 12 Then David said, “Will the men of Keilah deliver me and my men into the hand of Saul?” And the LORD said, “They will deliver you” (1 Samuel 23:6-12, NKJV).17
The point of these first eight verses of Deuteronomy 18 is that the Israelites were to support the Levites, through whom they were taught the Word and the will of God. The Levites had no inheritance, and thus they had to be supported by the other tribes in Israel. The function of the Levites was not just to carry out tasks related to the temple, but to teach the Law of God and to instruct the Israelites concerning the will of God. The forbidden mediators of verses 9-14 were not necessary, because God had provided the means by which His Word and His will were to be conveyed to His people (cf. 2 Kings 1:1-4, 16). The Levites were the usual means by which God communicated His Word and His will to men, as they taught and applied the law. The prophets were yet another means of instruction and interpretation. Israel did not need to turn elsewhere for divine guidance. God had more than adequately provided for the instruction and the guidance of His people. Men turn to illegitimate sources of guidance because they have rejected God.18
False Sources of Revelation and Guidance
9 “When you come into the land which the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominations of those nations. 10 There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, or one who practices witchcraft, or a soothsayer, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, 11 or one who conjures spells, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead. 12 For all who do these things are an abomination to the LORD, and because of these abominations the LORD your God drives them out from before you. 13 You shall be blameless before the LORD your God. 14 For these nations which you will dispossess listened to soothsayers and diviners; but as for you, the LORD your God has not appointed such for you” (NKJV).
I have opted not to delve into the details of these illicit attempts to obtain prophetic revelations, for reasons that will soon be stated. What I would like to do here is to make some general observations concerning all of the forbidden practices mentioned in our text.
While the prohibitions of our text seem to cover virtually every illicit form of communication with “supernatural powers,” we are given very few details—here or elsewhere in the Bible—as to how these pagan practices were performed. For example, we know little about how the Canaanites caused their children to “pass through the fire.” This appears to be child sacrifice, and in our text, it seems related to efforts to obtain divine guidance. There is a good reason why the Bible tells us as little as it does about such practices:
29 “When the LORD your God cuts off from before you the nations which you go to dispossess, and you displace them and dwell in their land, 30 “take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared to follow them, after they are destroyed from before you, and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods? I also will do likewise.’ 31 “You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way; for every abomination to the LORD which He hates they have done to their gods; for they burn even their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods. 32 “Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it” (Deuteronomy 12:29-32, NKJV, emphasis mine).
It is neither necessary nor profitable to spend a great deal of time studying that which is an abomination to God:
6 Let nobody deceive you with empty words, for because of these things God’s wrath comes on the sons of disobedience. 7 Therefore, do not be partakers with them, 8 for you were at one time darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of the light— 9 for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness, and truth—10 trying to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. 11 Do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. 12 For the things they do in secret are shameful even to mention. 13 But all things being exposed by the light are made evident. 14 For everything made evident is light, and for this reason it says: “Awake, O sleeper! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you!” (Ephesians 5:6-14, emphasis mine).
From these verses and others, I would understand that our task is to focus on the light, and not to ponder the depths of darkness (see Revelation 2:24). If we “walk in the light,” we will recognize that which is of the darkness, because the light will expose it. But we profit little from spending time studying the darkness, some of which is too “shameful even to mention.” For this reason, we are given few details as to how the pagan practices of the Canaanites were performed.
These forbidden means of achieving contact with divine powers are all an abomination to God, as are all those who practice them. Just as these pagan practices are an abomination to God (verse 9), so are those who practice them (verse 12). I sometimes hear someone say, “God hates the sin, but loves the sinner.” There may be an element of truth in this, but our text clearly states that these practices are an abomination to God, as are those who engage in them.
These abominations were practiced by the Canaanites (verse 9), whom the Israelites were to completely destroy when they entered the land (Deuteronomy 7:1-6). It was because of these abominations that God judged the Canaanites and expelled them from His land. It was because of these pagan practices that God gave the land to the Israelites, enabling them to defeat the Canaanites, and to possess their land. If the Israelites imitated these practices, God would also cast them from the land (Deuteronomy 4:25-26).
These were the abominable pagan practices which the Israelites would be tempted to learn, once they entered the land (verse 9). The Levites were to teach the Israelites the law, as were the Israelite parents to teach their children about God, but there were going to be others from whom God’s chosen people might learn to do evil. We may be reluctant to teach our children about “the facts of life,” about sexuality and morality and all that goes with it, but rest assured that whether or not we “teach” our children about these matters, there are many other willing “teachers.” The important thing is that our children not “learn” from the wrong sources. So it is also in the matter of divine revelation. There will be those who will attempt to teach the Israelites the Canaanite ways of seeking contact with the supernatural. God’s people must not learn these Canaanite ways, because God hates them.
These forbidden practices constituted participation in the occult. These practices were not a valid means of seeking God’s will or His help, but an illicit attempt to enlist the help of unclean19 “supernatural” powers. This was not the way to the divine God of Israel, but the means of making contact with the demons. The occult rejects God and seeks to make contact with the supernatural powers through an encounter with the dark side—through those practices which seek to contact and make use of the demonic forces of evil.
These same forbidden practices are prevalent in our country today. One does not have to look very hard to find virtually all of these forbidden practices in existence today. The New Age movement is deep into occult practices, as are many others. Some of those engaged in such practices are in positions of power or influence in our country. These words of warning in our text do not concern distant and unrelated matters, but those very practices that are becoming popular in America today.
In effect, these forbidden pagan practices seek to “use” the supernatural forces in a way that appears to keep them at arm’s reach, and thus under man’s control. This is a very important point. These forbidden practices seek to interface with “the supernatural” in a way that uses the “higher powers” for a price. The appearance is that supernatural beings are serving those who seek to employ them; the reality is that those who suppose they are using the evil supernatural powers are really enslaved to them. They are enslaved to Satan himself, through contact with demonic forces (Leviticus 17:7; 1 Corinthians 10:14-22). There is a certain thrill to the thought that one might be able to “tap into” supernatural powers and make use of them for one’s benefit. The sense of being “in control” is an illusion. It is very much like the person who thinks they are “using” drugs. They may get a momentary thrill out of using them, but in the process, they become addicted and enslaved to these drugs.
It is interesting that the Bible speaks of serving other gods as harlotry, and no wonder. I do not speak from experience, but I believe that my observations are correct. With prostitution, there is no relationship between the prostitute and the patron. We see this, for example, in the encounter between Judah and Tamar (Genesis 38). Judah thought that he was hiring a prostitute, and in his illicit encounter, he never recognized that this supposed “cult prostitute” was really his daughter-in-law, Tamar. So it is with the “hiring” of these forbidden mediators, who make contact with supernatural powers. Those who seek to hire supernatural powers think they are holding these powers off at arms reach, by the use of a mediator, but in truth, they will pay an exceedingly high price. The one who seeks an illicit spiritual relationship with the supernatural faces the same dangers as the one who pursues the strange woman:
24 Now therefore, listen to me, my children; Pay attention to the words of my mouth: 25 Do not let your heart turn aside to her ways, Do not stray into her paths; 26 For she has cast down many wounded, And all who were slain by her were strong men. 27 Her house is the way to hell, Descending to the chambers of death (Proverbs 7:24-27).
The Promise of the “Ultimate Prophet”
15 “The LORD your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your midst, from your brethren. Him you shall hear, 16 according to all you desired of the LORD your God in Horeb in the day of the assembly, saying, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the LORD my God, nor let me see this great fire anymore, lest I die.’ 17 And the LORD said to me: ‘What they have spoken is good. 18 I will raise up for them a Prophet like you from among their brethren, and will put My words in His mouth, and He shall speak to them all that I command Him. 19 And it shall be that whoever will not hear My words, which He speaks in My name, I will require it of him’” (NKJV).
This passage is one of the great Messianic prophecies of the Pentateuch. It compliments other prophecies, such as these:
14 So the LORD God said to the serpent: “Because you have done this, You are cursed more than all cattle, And more than every beast of the field; On your belly you shall go, And you shall eat dust All the days of your life. 15 And I will put enmity Between you and the woman, And between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, And you shall bruise His heel” (Genesis 3:14-15).
“The scepter shall not depart from Judah, Nor a lawgiver from between his feet, Until Shiloh comes; And to Him shall be the obedience of the people” (Genesis 49:10).
Some have understood this promise of a “Prophet like Moses” to include a line of prophets, up to and including the Messiah. That may be, but the emphasis of this prophecy falls on the “Ultimate Prophet,” our Lord Jesus Christ. Twice this coming Prophet is referred to as a prophet “like Moses” (verses 15, 18). In what sense is our Lord “like Moses”? There may be a number of parallels between Moses and Christ, but I don’t think this prophecy was meant to call attention to them all. I believe this prophecy was meant to underscore the likeness of our Lord to Moses in a more focused way, which is spelled out in our text.
This coming Prophet will be a Jew, like Moses, One raised up from His brethren. This One who is like Moses is, like Moses, to be heard and obeyed. It is at this point that we come to the main similarity between Moses and the Messiah, I believe. Moses indicates that this coming Prophet will play a role similar to his own. The Jews should therefore respond to the “Ultimate Prophet” as they were supposed to respond to Moses. They are to fear Him and to hear Him. The reason for this is now explained.
Moses goes back to the time when God first appeared to the nation Israel on Mount Horeb (or Mount Sinai). When God appeared on that mountain, it was an awesome sight. More than this, it was a terrifying sight:
18 Now all the people witnessed the thunderings, the lightning flashes, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled and stood afar off. 19 Then they said to Moses, “You speak with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die.” 20 And Moses said to the people, “Do not fear; for God has come to test you, and that His fear may be before you, so that you may not sin.” 21 So the people stood afar off, but Moses drew near the thick darkness where God was (Exodus 5:18-21, NKJV).
When God appeared at Sinai, the people begged Moses that they not be required to come near God, in order to hear His commands. They asked Moses to serve as their mediator and to stand before God, and then to convey His words to them. When Moses refers to the fear of the people and their petition, he does so from the account found in Deuteronomy 5:23-33:
23 “So it was, when you heard the voice from the midst of the darkness, while the mountain was burning with fire, that you came near to me, all the heads of your tribes and your elders. 24 And you said: ‘Surely the LORD our God has shown us His glory and His greatness, and we have heard His voice from the midst of the fire. We have seen this day that God speaks with man; yet he still lives. 25 ‘Now therefore, why should we die? For this great fire will consume us; if we hear the voice of the LORD our God anymore, then we shall die. 26 ‘For who is there of all flesh who has heard the voice of the living God speaking from the midst of the fire, as we have, and lived? 27 ‘You go near and hear all that the LORD our God may say, and tell us all that the LORD our God says to you, and we will hear and do it.’ 28 Then the LORD heard the voice of your words when you spoke to me, and the LORD said to me: ‘I have heard the voice of the words of this people which they have spoken to you. They are right in all that they have spoken. 29 ‘Oh, that they had such a heart in them that they would fear Me and always keep all My commandments, that it might be well with them and with their children forever! 30 ‘Go and say to them, “Return to your tents.” 31 ‘But as for you, stand here by Me, and I will speak to you all the commandments, the statutes, and the judgments which you shall teach them, that they may observe them in the land which I am giving them to possess.’ 32 Therefore you shall be careful to do as the LORD your God has commanded you; you shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left. 33 You shall walk in all the ways which the LORD your God has commanded you, that you may live and that it may be well with you, and that you may prolong your days in the land which you shall possess” (Deuteronomy 5:23-33, NKJV).
Recently, a terrible storm passed through the city of Dallas, Texas, causing considerable wind damage. But this was nothing compared to the devastation caused by the tornadoes that were spawned later on as the storm passed into Oklahoma and Kansas. Those who witnessed that massive tornado (a level 5, with winds up to 260 miles per hour!) said they had never seen anything like it before. They also said they hoped they would never see anything like it again. It was terrifying. Think of what it must have been like to witness the awe-inspiring evidences of God’s presence on Mount Sinai. Those who looked on had never seen anything like that before, and they did not want to see or hear it again. They feared for their lives. And so they begged that Moses become a mediator on their behalf.
We might have expected God to rebuke the Israelites for wanting to keep their distance from Him, but this is not the case at all. God commends the Israelites for their fear, and for their request: “And the LORD said to me: ‘What they have spoken is good. I will raise up for them a Prophet like you from among their brethren, and will put My words in His mouth, and He shall speak to them all that I command Him. And it shall be that whoever will not hear My words, which He speaks in My name, I will require it of him’” (Deuteronomy 18:17-19, NKJV). In the Old Testament, men had to keep their distance from God. Boundaries were established around the base of Mount Sinai, and the people were commanded to stay back, lest they die (Exodus 19:12-13). When Moses reached the top of the mountain, God sent him back down, to warn the people again not to get too close (Exodus 19:20-25). It was right for a sinful people to keep their distance from a holy God. In the Old Testament, the operative principle was not “Draw near,” but “Stay back” (see Exodus 3:5).
It was also right for the Israelites to ask that Moses serve as their mediator. It was he who went up and drew near to God on that mountain. It was he who was the mediator of the covenant God made with Israel at Mount Sinai. And this is where the Lord Jesus Christ comes in, as the “Prophet like Moses.” Since sinful men cannot enter into the presence of a holy God, they need a mediator between themselves and God. Our Lord became the Mediator of a new covenant. Our Lord came from the presence of God, and He spoke the Father’s words to men:
No one has ever seen God. The only One, himself God, who is in the presence of the Father, has made God known (John 1:18).
41 Then the Jews who were hostile to Jesus began complaining about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven, . . .” (John 6:41).
So they said to him, “Who are you?” Jesus replied, “What I have told you from the beginning. 26 I have many things to say and to judge about you, but the Father who sent me is truthful, and the things I have heard from him I speak to the world” (John 8:25-26).
“I am telling you the things I have seen while with my Father, . . .” (John 8:38a).
49 “For I have not spoken from my own authority, but the Father himself who sent me has commanded me what I should say and what I should speak. 50 And I know that his commandment is eternal life. Thus the things I say, I say just as the Father has told me” (John 12:49-50).
24 “The person who does not love me does not obey my words. And the word you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me” (John 14:24).
14 “You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I no longer call you slaves, because the slave does not understand what his master is doing. But I have called you friends, because I have revealed to you everything I heard from my Father” (John 15:14-15).
Jesus became the Mediator of a new and better covenant than the covenant mediated by Moses:
19 Then he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 20 In the same way he took the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:19-20).
5 For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time (1 Timothy 2:5-6, NKJV).
6 But now Jesus has obtained a superior ministry, since the covenant that he mediates is also better and is enacted on better promises. 7 For if that first covenant had been faultless, no one would have looked for a second one (Hebrews 8:6-7).
13 For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a young cow sprinkled on those who are defiled consecrated them and provided ritual purity, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify your conscience from dead works to worship the living God. 15 And so he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the eternal inheritance he has promised, since he died to set them free from the violations committed under the first covenant (Hebrews 9:13-15; see also Hebrews 12:24).
Jesus Christ is the One of whom Moses spoke, when he said that a Prophet, like him, would come. It is not surprising then, that Jesus would later say that it will be Moses who will condemn those who reject Him:
36 “But I have a testimony greater than that from John. For the deeds that the Father has assigned me to complete—the deeds I am now doing—testify about me that the Father has sent me. 37 And the Father who sent me has himself testified about me. You people have never heard his voice nor seen his form at any time, 38 nor do you have his word residing in you, because you do not believe the one whom he sent. 39 You study the scriptures thoroughly because you think in them you possess eternal life, and it is these same scriptures that testify about me; 40 but you are not willing to come to me so that you may have life. 41 “I do not accept praise from people, 42 but I know you, that you do not have the love of God within you. 43 I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not accept me. If someone else comes in his own name, you will accept him. 44 How can you believe, if you accept praise from one another and don’t seek the praise that comes from the only God? 45 “Do not suppose that I will accuse you before the Father. The one who accuses you is Moses, in whom you have placed your hope. 46 If you believed Moses, you would believe me, because he wrote about me. 47 But if you do not believe what Moses wrote, how will you believe my words?” (John 5:36-47).
Like Moses, who spoke with God “face to face,” our Lord came from the very presence of God. How interesting that when our Lord came to the earth, claiming to be one with the Father, the Jews compared Him to Moses, and they found Him unacceptable. To the Jews of our Lord’s day, Moses was the ultimate prophet. They were also looking for “the Prophet like Moses.” They first asked John the Baptist if he was “the Prophet,” and John indicated that he was not:
19 Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders sent to him priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed—he did not deny but confessed—”I am not the Christ.” 21 So they asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No” (John 1:19-21).
Those whom Jesus called as His disciples recognized Him as the One of whom Moses had spoken:
43 On the next day Jesus wanted to set out for Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44 (Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the town of Andrew and Peter.) 45 Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the law, and the prophets also wrote about—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (John 1:43-45).
After Jesus commenced His public ministry, it did not take some people long to conclude that He was “the Prophet.” When He fed the 5,000, the crowd concluded that Jesus was “the Prophet,” and they purposed to make Him their king:
14 So when the people saw the miraculous sign that Jesus performed, they began to say to one another, “This is certainly the Prophet who is to come into the world.” 15 Then Jesus, because he knew they were going to come and seize him by force to make him king, withdrew again up the mountainside alone (John 6:14-15).
Later on, when Jesus appeared in Jerusalem at the Feast of Tabernacles, some of the people there concluded that Jesus was, indeed, “the Prophet”: “When they heard these words, some of the crowd began to say, ‘This is really the Prophet!’” (John 7:40).
Others were not so sure (John 7:41-44). By and large, the Jewish religious leaders were convinced that Jesus was an imposter. They compared Jesus with Moses and found Him wanting. In part, the reason was because they failed to understand in what way “the Prophet” was to be “like Moses.” They expected “the Prophet” to agree with their interpretation of the Law, and He did not. Jesus had not come to reject the law as the Jews accused, but to fulfill it. The problem with the Pharisees was that they neither taught the law correctly, nor did they keep it. The law did not prove the Pharisees to be righteous and deserving of heaven; it exposed them as sinners, in need of salvation, the salvation our Lord Himself accomplished at Calvary:
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have not come to abolish but to fulfill. 18 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth pass away not the smallest letter or stroke of a letter will pass from the law until everything takes place. 19 So anyone who breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do this, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches others to do so will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness goes beyond that of the experts in the law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-20).
19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For no one is declared righteous before him by the works of the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin. 21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God, which is attested by the law and the prophets, has been disclosed— 22 namely, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. 24 But they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Romans 3:19-24).
The Pharisees were convinced that the law (as they interpreted it) condemned Jesus, and proved them right. After all, hadn’t Jesus broken the Sabbath on numerous occasions (see Matthew 12:1-2; Luke 6:6-11; 13:10-14; John 5:2-18; 9:16)? Jesus insisted that Moses testified of Him, and that it was Moses who would accuse them in the judgment:
Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44).
45 “Do not suppose that I will accuse you before the Father. The one who accuses you is Moses, in whom you have placed your hope. 46 If you believed Moses, you would believe me, because he wrote about me. 47 But if you do not believe what Moses wrote, how will you believe my words?” (John 5:45-47).
Moses was not the problem. Moses testified about the coming of Jesus, the Christ. In the Gospels, Moses himself testifies that Jesus is the Christ. He was there, you recall, at the transfiguration of our Lord (Matthew 17:1-4). And yet the Pharisees repeatedly sought to pit Jesus against Moses (John 8:5).
28 They heaped insults on him, saying, “You are his disciple! We are disciples of Moses! 29 We know that God has spoken to Moses! We do not know where this man comes from!” (John 9:28-29).
Here is where the Jews went wrong in regard to Jesus and Moses. They expected Jesus to be another Moses, that is, to be just like Him. And, to be just like Moses, Jesus would have to agree with them completely. This assumes, of course, that their interpretation of the law of Moses was the true interpretation of the law. Because their interpretation of the law was distorted by their traditions, they constantly were in conflict with Jesus and Moses. But even beyond this, the Jews of Jesus’ day failed to understand those very significant ways in which Jesus was not “like Moses.” Jesus was not entirely “like Moses” because He was vastly superior to Moses. Like Moses, Jesus would speak God’s Word to men. But while Moses spoke to God on the mountain, Jesus was God. Moses spoke to men for God; Jesus spoke to men for God and as God. Like Moses, Jesus mediated a covenant. But our Lord’s “new covenant” was vastly superior to the “old covenant” mediated by Moses. Our Lord’s superiority to Moses is the core of the message of the Book of Hebrews:
1 Therefore, holy brothers and sisters, partners in a heavenly calling, take note of Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess, 2 who is faithful to the one who appointed him, as Moses was too in God’s house. 3 For he has come to deserve greater glory than Moses, just as the builder of a house deserves greater honor than the house itself! 4 For every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God. 5 Now Moses was “faithful in all God’s house” as a servant, to testify to the things that would be spoken. 6 But Christ is faithful as a son over God’s house. We are of his house, if in fact we hold firmly to our confidence and the hope we take pride in. 7 Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, “Oh, that today you would listen as he speaks! 8 “Do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, in the day of testing in the wilderness. 9 “There your fathers tested me and tried me, and they saw my works for forty years. 10 “Therefore, I became provoked at that generation and said, ‘Their hearts are always wandering and they have not known my ways.’ 11 “As I swore in my anger, ‘They will never enter my rest!’” (Hebrews 3:1-11).
Notice the argument the writer to the Hebrews develops. Moses was great in God’s house; Jesus the Messiah was far greater. Moses was a servant in God’s house; Jesus was the builder of the house. And, as a result, we should surely heed His words. We should listen as He speaks. This is precisely what God meant for Israel to understand from Moses’ words in Deuteronomy 5 and Deuteronomy 18. And the writer to the Hebrews makes a point of this:
15 See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God, that no one be like a bitter root springing up and causing trouble, and through him many become defiled. 16 And see to it that no one becomes an immoral or godless person like Esau, who sold his own birthright for a single meal. 17 For you know that later when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no opportunity for repentance, although he sought the blessing with tears. 18 For you have not come to something that can be touched, to a burning fire and darkness and gloom and a whirlwind 19 and the blast of a trumpet and a voice uttering words such that those who heard begged to hear no more. 20 For they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned.” 21 In fact, the scene was so terrifying that Moses said, “I shudder with fear.” 22 But you have come to Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the assembly 23 and congregation of the firstborn, who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous, who have been made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks of something better than Abel’s does. 25 Take care not to refuse the one who is speaking! For if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less shall we, if we reject the one who warns from heaven? 26 Then his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “I will once more shake not only the earth but heaven too.” 27 Now this phrase “once more” indicates the removal of what is shaken, that is, of created things, so that what is unshaken may remain. 28 So since we are receiving an unshakable kingdom, let us give thanks, and through this let us offer worship pleasing to God in devotion and awe. 29 For “our God is indeed a devouring fire” (Hebrews 12:15-29).
When the Israelites beheld the awesome holiness of God on Mount Sinai, they were terrified, and rightly so. They begged not to see or hear God any more, lest they die, beseeching Moses to mediate with God on their behalf. God commended their fear and their recognition of their need for a mediator. Through Moses, God communicated to Israel that He would raise up another prophet, like Moses. At the moment, the Israelites did not realize that this “Prophet” would be vastly superior to Moses. If Israel was to fear God and to hear Moses, surely they should fear God and hear “the Prophet like Moses,” who was none other than the promised Messiah. They should fear Him, hear Him, and heed His words. Instead, they refused to hear Him, and they had Him crucified for breaking the Law of Moses.
Were the Hebrew Christians contemplating drawing back from Christ, rather than drawing near? Was this their solution to suffering persecution for His sake? Then they were moving in the wrong direction. The Old Testament saints were to keep their distance from God. When Jesus Christ came to this earth, He came as Immanuel, God with us (Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:23). In truth, the Hebrews would not be drawing back; they would be falling away. The Hebrew saints needed to rekindle a deep sense of fear and reverence for the Lord Jesus. If the sights and sounds of Mount Sinai terrified the Israelites of old, then a realization of who Jesus is and what He has accomplished should inspire even greater fear, fear that should prompt them to draw near, to hear Him, and to obey His Word. This, I believe, is the message of Hebrews, not to mention the rest of the New Testament.
The Prophet and False Prophets
20 “‘But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in My name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die.’ 21 “And if you say in your heart, ‘How shall we know the word which the LORD has not spoken?’—22 “when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the thing does not happen or come to pass, that is the thing which the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him.”
The Israelites were to fear God, and to obey the commands God gave to them through the great prophet, Moses. But they were also to look for a coming Prophet, a “Prophet like Moses,” who would speak for God, and who should be heard and obeyed. In addition to watching for this coming “Prophet,” the Israelites were to watch out for false prophets. These false prophets would speak presumptuously, as though God were speaking through them. They would seek to “bring God near,” but it would not be the true God with whom they were “in touch.” How was Israel to discern between “the Prophet” and these false prophets? If the “prophet” spoke “in the name of other gods” (verse 20), it was obvious that he was a false prophet. No further test was required. But what of the “prophet” who spoke presumptuously “in the name of the LORD” (verse 22)? Such a prophet is to be tested by his own words. If what he speaks in the name of the Lord comes to pass, He is a true prophet.20 If what he says does not come to pass, he is a false prophet and is to be put to death (verse 20).
The final command in our text is not that the false prophet be executed (which has already been stated in verse 20), but rather that he not be feared. This whole passage is about fear. The Israelites are to fear God, as did the previous generation, who stood terror-stricken at the base of Mount Sinai. And because they feared God, they were to hear Moses and to obey him. When the “Prophet like Moses” appears, He is to be feared and obeyed. But the false prophets are not to be feared; they are to be put to death.
Deuteronomy 18 has brought some other biblical texts into much clearer focus. Having just taught through the Book of John, I can now better understand the debate over the relationship between Moses and Jesus in this Gospel. I can see how John was portraying Jesus as the “Prophet like Moses,” who was in the very presence of God, and who spoke God’s Word to men. I can see why men should have listened to him, just as God Himself instructed:
4 So Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you want, I will make three shelters—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5 While he was still speaking, a bright cloud surrounded them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is the Son I love, in whom I have great delight. Listen to him!” (Matthew 17:4-5, emphasis mine).
How seriously do we take the Lord Jesus? How well are we listening to His words? We should listen very carefully:
1 Therefore we must pay closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. 2 For if the message spoken through angels proved to be so firm that every violation or disobedience received its just penalty, 3 how will we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was first communicated through the Lord and was confirmed to us by those who heard him, 4 while God confirmed their witness with signs and wonders and various miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will (Hebrews 2:1-4, emphasis mine).
16 For we did not follow cleverly concocted fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ; no, we were eyewitnesses of his grandeur. 17 For he received honor and glory from God the Father, when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory: “This is my dear Son, in whom I am delighted.” 18 When this voice was conveyed from heaven, we ourselves heard it, for we were with him on the holy mountain. 19 Moreover, we possess the prophetic word as an altogether reliable thing. You do well if you pay attention to this as you would to a light shining in a murky place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. 20 Above all, you do well if you recognize this: no prophecy of scripture ever comes about by the prophet’s own imagination, 21 for no prophecy was ever borne of human impulse; rather, men carried along by the Holy Spirit spoke from God (2 Peter 1:16-21, emphasis mine).
I do not think most Christians sufficiently fear our Lord or hear His words so as to diligently obey them. We are all too comfortable with the thought of the baby Jesus, laying helplessly (or so we suppose) in His manger. We think of the meek Savior who was led away to His death at Calvary. We think of Him who put up with the doubts and fears, and even the rebuke of His disciples. I fear that we like to think of Jesus in such a way. But let me remind you of the portrayal of our resurrected and ascended Lord in the Book of Revelation. Here, John falls down before Him as a dead man (Revelation 1:9-17). He is the One before whom every knee shall bow, as every tongue confesses Him to be Lord of all (Philippians 2:9-11). Are we guilty of thinking too casually of our Lord? I fear that we are.
Here is one of the great tensions of the Bible. On one hand, we are encouraged to “draw near” to Him; on the other, we are instructed to fear Him. In the Old Testament, men were to fear God and not draw near. Now, we are to fear God and draw near. We can only draw near through the shed blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. But when we do, we should do so in fear, knowing that He is infinitely holy, while we are not, except through His atoning blood.
13 Therefore, get your minds ready for action, by being fully sober, and set your hope completely on the grace that will be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed. 14 Like obedient children, do not comply with the evil urges you used to follow in your ignorance, 15 but, like the Holy One who called you, become holy yourselves in all of your conduct, 16 for it is written, “You shall be holy, because I am holy.” 17 And if you address as Father the one who impartially judges according to each one’s work, live out the time of your temporary residence here in reverence. 18 You know that you were set free from your empty way of life handed down from your ancestors not by perishable things like silver or gold, 19 but by precious blood like that of an unblemished and spotless lamb, Christ (1 Peter 1:13-19).
False prophets play down the majesty and holiness of God. They try, as it were, to ‘bring God down’ to our level. They make us feel comfortable around “God” (or the “gods”), and they even seek to convince us that we can manipulate God to our advantage. The true prophets did just the opposite. For example, remember this text in the Book of Isaiah:
1 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple. 2 Above it stood seraphim; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one cried to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; The whole earth is full of His glory!” 4 And the posts of the door were shaken by the voice of him who cried out, and the house was filled with smoke. 5 So I said: “Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, The LORD of hosts” (Isaiah 6:1-5, NKJV).
We should never lose this perspective of the God we serve. He has come down from heaven in the person of Jesus Christ. He has mediated a new covenant. He does command us to draw near. But we are always to do so with a sense of His awesome holiness, and thus draw near with fear. And this fear should prompt us to hear and to obey Him.
Under the old (Mosaic) covenant, men not only had to keep their distance; they needed human mediators who would draw near to God on their behalf. They needed Moses, for example, and they also needed the priests. All of this has changed since the coming of the “Prophet like Moses.” Because of the mediatorial work of our Lord Jesus Christ, Christians are now able to have a direct and personal relationship with the Father: “At that time you will ask in my name, and I do not say that I will ask the Father on your behalf. 27 For the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God” (John 16:26-27).
Because of the new covenant our Lord has inaugurated, every Christian is encouraged to “draw near” to God, and to “hold fast” our confession. We are now all a “kingdom of priests,” who are to minister one to another:
19 Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the fresh and living way that he inaugurated for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a sincere heart in the full assurance that faith brings, because we have had our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed in pure water. 23 And let us hold unwaveringly to the hope that we confess, for the one who made the promise is trustworthy. 24 And let us take thought of how to spur one another on to love and good works, 25 not abandoning our own meetings, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and even more so because you see the day drawing near (Hebrews 10:19-25).
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may proclaim the virtues of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9).
We do not need any human mediator to stand between us and our God. Christ has performed this task, once for all. We now have direct access to God through Him. We do not need a pastor or minister to approach God for us, because we can come to Him boldly, through the blood of Jesus. This is why we worship the way the New Testament saints did. In our worship meeting, all of the men are encouraged to lead as prompted by the Holy Spirit, calling out a hymn, reading a text of Scripture, passing out the elements at communion, or praying. We do not have one person who is the designated leader, who guides us in our worship. We believe that there must be a freedom for every man to exercise his priesthood by verbal leadership, and for every woman to participate in submission to the leadership of the men as we worship our Lord each week. To the degree that we place any one person other than our Lord in exclusive leadership, I believe we fail to “draw near” as we should. We must be alert to the danger of drifting back to the old covenant, in which we seek to install men in some kind of mediatorial role, as “middle-men” between God and us.
If I understand our Lord correctly, He teaches us that since His mediatorial work is finished, there is no longer any need for a middle-man. We can come directly to the Father. Why, then, do men seem inclined to retain some kind of middle-man between God and themselves? It is, I think, because we fear God and do not wish to draw near to Him. It is because we fail to grasp and appropriate the mediatorial work our Lord has already accomplished at Calvary. This explains why men prefer to worship Mary and to pray to her, rather than to the Son of God Himself. They are more comfortable around Mary than they are around God. But our Lord has provided us with a way to come to God directly. We do not need Mary to mediate for us. We do not need a pope, or a preacher, or anyone else.
I think I’m beginning to understand why angels are so popular today. They are another kind of “middle-man” between a holy and righteous God and sinful men. We feel warm and cozy and comfortable at the thought of angels being nearby, to guide and to guard us. We don’t feel as comfortable around a holy God. But we are commanded to draw near to God, while at the same time we are to fear Him.
False prophets are false mediators, promising us access to God or “other gods.” They seek to “bring God down” to us, ignoring or denying that our Lord has done this, once for all. Their promises are false, and their paths lead to death. Forsake every other mediator but Christ.
One last word. I believe our text speaks of Him who will enable us to draw near to God. This One, this “Prophet like Moses,” is also One we should fear. Drawing near and having fear seem contradictory. It is my opinion that we will gravitate toward one and move away from the other. There are those who, in the name of drawing near to God, seem to be lacking in holy fear. They speak irreverently of Him, and act irreverently in His presence. But there is the opposite danger as well. There are those who so emphasize the fear of God that they tend to live at a distance from God. They seem to lack a deep sense of the presence and the power of God in their lives. I believe that within the faith there are groups inclined toward “nearness” who are lacking in fear, and there are other groups who are properly “fearful” but who are distant (from an intimacy with God and with others). I am sure that as you read this you are trying to figure out “who is who.” What I wish to leave with you is the biblical truth that we should “draw near” “with fear.” Let us not cling to one and shun the other. Let us seek to live in intimate relationship with Him—but in a way that reverences Him. If we do so, we shall not need any go-between, other than our Lord Himself.
15 We should remind ourselves that the ancient Israelites did not have their own copies of God’s Word. The Word of God, once written, was read to the people by the priests or others (see Deuteronomy 31:10-13; Joshua 8:33-35; 2 Kings 22:8ff.; Nehemiah 8). Even the king had to write out his own copy of the law to read (Deuteronomy 17:14-20).
16 No one really knows exactly what the urim and thummin were, or how they worked, although theories abound. I believe all would agree that they were employed under some circumstances to determine the will of God. For a brief, but cautious, look at the urim and thummin, see Dr. Bruce Waltke, Finding the Will of God (Gresham, Oregon: Vision House Publications, 1995), pp. 62-64.
17 Actually, what David is asking is whether the people of Keilah would hand him over to Saul if he remained there. David is asking a somewhat rhetorical question, and God informs him that, if he were to stay, they would turn him over to Saul. I have elsewhere pointed out that this indicates that God not only knows what will happen, but what would happen, in any given circumstance. God is omniscient. He knows all things actual; He also knows all things possible.
18 For example, Saul seeks guidance from Samuel through the witch of En-dor, because he had turned from God, and God had turned from him (1 Samuel 28, especially verse 15).
19 Is it not interesting that in the New Testament demons are often referred to as unclean spirits?
20 This assumes that he is not advocating following false gods (see Deuteronomy 13:1-5).
Related Topics: False Teachers