Moses: The Premiere Prophet
This past week, Dallas Seminary had another commencement exercise. I was reminded of the time when I gave the commencement address for the Seminary’s summer graduation exercises. That was nearly 20 years ago, but thanks to the age of computers, I was able to retrieve that message and look at it once again. I must confess that the introduction was a favorite story of mine, and it serves very well as the introduction to this message on the prophet Moses, so I will quote a good portion of that introduction:
“I felt as though I had undergone an initiation and become a member of an exclusive club. I really knew about horses. And I was wearing a brand new riding mac with all sorts of extra straps and buckles which slapped against my legs as I turned the corner of the hill into busy Newton Road.”
I think Moses would have laughed at this story. He would have laughed because he could identify with James Herriot. Moses, too, had a humbling experience at the beginning of his ministry, an experience that caused him to flee from Egypt and the Israelites he had hoped to deliver. It would be another 40 years before Moses would return to Egypt, and then only reluctantly. He would become one of the greatest prophets of all time, but it would be a long road back, with many hard lessons along the way.
In the Bible, we read of “Moses and the prophets,” but less often do we read of Moses being referred to as a prophet. But such he is. He is not alone as a prophet in the Pentateuch, but he is, without a doubt, the greatest. There were other “prophets” in the Pentateuch.6 Some were not actually called prophets, but they do appear to have had a prophetic ministry. Noah, for example, is called a “preacher of righteousness” in 2 Peter 2:5. His lengthy building project (the ark) was surely a visible warning of the divine judgment that was about to come upon the whole world. Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams (Genesis 41) and his own (Genesis 42:8), and the message of both was clearly prophetic. Jacob prophesied concerning the destiny of his sons (Genesis 49). While Moses did not refer to Enoch as a prophet in the Pentateuch, the New Testament Book of Jude speaks of his prophecy (Jude 1:14-15). Miriam, the sister of Moses, is identified as a prophetess by Moses (Exodus 15:20).
In this lesson, we shall seek to trace the career of Moses as a prophet and attempt to identify some of the ways in which God shaped him for greatness. We will identify some of the qualities of Moses as a prophet and seek to show how these qualities should be evident in our lives as well.
The Call of Moses as a Prophet
Moses is hardly eager to be a prophet. He drags his feet all the way. God refutes every objection Moses offers, and yet Moses persists in objecting to returning to Egypt and to facing Pharaoh. As I read this account in Exodus 4, I almost expect a bolt of lightning to come from on high, terminating Moses for his incredible refusal to obey God’s instruction. I have always viewed Moses’ response here negatively. How could one commend his lack of faith or his hesitance to obey?
There may be a positive element here, however, which should not be ignored. I am impressed with the fact that a number of those whom God chose for a leadership role were very aware of their human limitations (1 Samuel 18:18; 2 Samuel 7:18; 1 Chronicles 17:16; 29:14; 2 Chronicles 2:6; 1 Kings 3:5-9; Jeremiah 1:4-10). From painful experience, I have come to be uneasy about those who are too eager (sometimes almost driven) to become leaders, and who feel confident in their ability to lead the people of God. Moses may well have gone too far in his self-abasement, but in some ways, he was at least heading in the right general direction—he didn’t trust in his own strength.
I think I can understand how and why Moses came to distrust himself as a leader. We need to understand the sequence of events which led Moses to his self-distrust, and which then later led him to become a great leader of God. The story begins with the “deliverance” of Moses from the waters:7
Moses was the epitome of human accomplishments and skill due to the upbringing he had received as the “son” of Pharaoh’s daughter. (It is my opinion that she may well have been grooming him to be the next Pharaoh.) This is why Stephen can claim that Moses was “powerful in his words and deeds” (Acts 7:22). Moses was a powerful man. He had the right family connections, the right education, and all the right advantages. And so it was this powerful man, Moses, who sought to assist the Israelites in his own strength:
Moses was indeed a powerful man. He had been raised in the royal court of the greatest nation on the face of the earth at that time. He was well trained and skilled in his speech. I believe he was a persuasive man, and even if that was not so, he was still a very powerful man.8 And so I believe that Moses attempted to employ these “strengths” in coming to the aid of his countrymen, the Israelites. Like James Herriot, Moses’ first effort to “show his stuff” was a miserable failure. He ended up killing the Egyptian, and he did not gain the respect of the Israelite he had sought to rescue. The end result was that Moses had to give up everything he had once counted as a strength and flee into the wilderness, where he tended sheep for 40 years.
It was after 40 years of wandering about the wilderness shepherding flocks that God appeared to Moses, instructing him to go back to Egypt and to demand, in His name, the release of the Israelites. Do you find it so amazing that Moses would attempt to decline God’s orders, thereby avoiding a return to Egypt? Moses’ first effort at delivering his people was a disaster. Why should he attempt to do it again? And from a human point of view, whatever advantages Moses had many years before, he did not have now. Then, he was a man of position and power; now, he was a fugitive, wanted for murder. In one sense, then, Moses was right where God wanted him—aware of his weakness and of the fact that his task was indeed “mission impossible.” This time, if the Israelites were delivered, it would be by means of God’s power, and to God’s glory. This time, he would not be going because “it entered his mind” (Acts 7:23), and because “he thought that the Israelites would understand his mission” (Acts 7:25). This time, it would be because God had commanded him to go, and because God’s angel would accompany and empower him:
It was after Moses had been humbled, and after he became painfully aware of his weaknesses, that God sent him to stand before Pharaoh in Egypt and to deliver the Israelites from their Egyptian bondage. It was after God had transformed Moses that he was spoken of as a great man:
Moses’ Ministry is Multiplied
Moses was a great leader, but the task soon overwhelmed him. This was noted by Jethro, when he visited Moses, his son-in-law, and gave him some very good advice:
Jethro’s advice was heeded, but apparently not immediately. It would seem that the leaders whom Jethro recommended were not duly installed until after a crisis. This crisis and its outcome is described in the Book of Numbers:
Moses was not threatened by the thought of sharing the ministry with others. Moses was a prophet. I believe that when people came to Moses for “judgment,” they came to him for guidance, that is, to know “the will of God” for their lives regarding some particular issue. In this sense, Moses was functioning as a prophet when he judged the people who came to him. And when the 70 men were set apart to assist Moses in this ministry, they too were empowered to prophesy. This they did only once, our text informs us, but this was sufficient to demonstrate that they had been given the divine enablement necessary for them to carry out their “prophetic” ministry. All of this was to assist Moses in conducting his prophetic ministry.
We know from history (secular and biblical) that some kings were so insecure in their rule that they eliminated every possible successor to the throne, every potential competitor. This is why Herod slaughtered all the male children two and under in the vicinity of Bethlehem (Matthew 2:16-18). There is too much of this mindset in Christian ministry. Out of a misguided sense of loyalty to Moses, Joshua perceived the prophesying of the 70 as a threat to the leadership of Moses. Moses did not see it that way at all. He did not seek to hoard the gift God had given to him. He wished that all might possess it, and he welcomed it in others.
Today, as in days gone by, there are far too many leaders who endeavor to run a “one-man show;” they would not have it any other way. They say (or at least think) such things as: “If you want a job to be done right, you just have to do it yourself.” Moses welcomed the assistance of others, and in the process, the ministry was greatly enhanced. In the process, the ministry of Moses was enhanced. His leadership prospered because he encouraged the ministry of others and gladly shared his ministry.
Moses’ Ministry is Maligned
Moses was a great man, a man who shared the ministry with the 70 elders whom God had empowered to assist him. Moses also shared his ministry with his sister Miriam (a prophetess) and his brother Aaron. And yet it was these two who turned against their brother and their leader. Some things never change. How like Satan this is. Satan, who was given much authority under God, wanted more power and authority. He wanted to be number one. And so, wanting to be “like God,” he rebelled against God (Isaiah 14:12-14; Ezekiel 28:11-19), promising Adam and Eve that they, too, could be “like God” (Genesis 3:5; see 3:22).
The issue was not really about “equality” or “plurality” in leadership—not here anyway. It was not that Moses sought to usurp authority over Miriam and Aaron, or others. The root issue was racial. In Numbers 12:1, we are told that Moses took a Cushite (or Ethiopian) woman as a wife. The issue for Miriam was that Moses had chosen to include a Gentile woman, thus allowing Gentiles to participate in God’s blessings for the nation Israel. This is the same issue which got our Lord into very serious trouble early in His ministry (Luke 4, verses 23-29 especially) and also the Apostle Paul (Acts 21:27-28; 22:21-22). Moses’ right to lead was not challenged until Moses chose to lead in a way that his siblings found unacceptable. Then they howled that Moses was setting himself above them, and that their authority was as great as his. And since they were his equals (in their minds, at least), and the two of them agreed that Moses was wrong in marrying this Cushite, then Moses was outnumbered. They were convinced he should never have followed through with his plan to marry this Gentile woman!
Moses had two opportunities to capitalize on this opposition. First, he could take advantage of the situation at that moment, to make an example of his brother and sister. If Moses could shame and silence those closest to him, and those who were most highly regarded after him, then Moses could make a significant point with all the Israelites. Doing so isn’t always a bad thing. In Proverbs we read, “Strike a scoffer, and the simple will become wary” (Proverbs 19:25). When I was a schoolteacher, I found it very beneficial to identity the trouble-maker of the class and to deal with him (or her) in such a way as to instruct the rest. Moses could easily have justified doing so, but he chose not to deal with the opposition in this way.
Second, Moses had the opportunity to use this situation to his advantage historically. Not only is Moses the one “under fire” in this incident, Moses is now the one reporting it in Scripture, so that he can influence the way that every reader looks upon him and upon his siblings. Under inspiration, Moses can do nothing other than report the facts of the story. He is not free to “doctor” the account just to make his family look good. Neither is he free to paint his siblings in a way that exaggerates their sin (though I must confess, this would be hard to do). Moses does not try to use this ugly incident as political fodder or as a publicity event. He simply tells the story as simply and as truthfully as he can.
I can better appreciate the restraint of Moses if I put myself in his sandals. How tempting this would have been, as a prophet, if I had been in this situation! Have you ever had the occasion to be engaged in a conversation with someone when they say something incredibly wrong or unusually cruel and unkind? At that moment, you desperately search for just the right thing to say in response. And then, 15 minutes after that person has left, you think of the perfect comeback, the perfect “put down.” If I were Moses at this moment in time, falsely under attack by my closest associates, I think I would not have been lacking the words to speak; I would have been lacking the self-control needed to refrain from saying them! Who better than a prophet would know just what to say, and to be able to introduce his rebuttal with the words, “Thus saith the Lord. . . .”? Moses could easily have defended himself, and what a temptation that must have been. Instead, he kept silent.
Moses did not need to say anything, as we can see from the story. Notice how quickly and how forcefully God speaks up in his defense. Have you ever been to the grocery store and seen a child misbehave very badly in front of his mother and everyone else? (All too often today, nothing happens, except for the mom to hand the child a treat to silence him.) From time to time, however, you will see a parent who takes the trouble to deal effectively with the child’s disobedience. I am encouraged to see that parent snatch up the child, walk out of the store with him, and proceed to administer discipline, out of sight of the shoppers, most of whom give each other a nod of understanding and appreciation.
That’s what I think of when I read this account of the way God dealt with the rebellion of Miriam and Aaron. God speaks, ordering Moses, Miriam, and Aaron to appear immediately at the tent of meeting. Can’t you see a very white-faced Miriam and Aaron, looking at each other wide-eyed? At that moment, I think, Miriam and Aaron knew they were in serious trouble. God then rebuked them, making it very clear that Moses was the “lead prophet,” and they were his subordinates. He did have the right to “call the shots,” and they had no right to protest. God did speak to and through these two, but they received their revelation indirectly; God communicated with Moses in the most intimate fashion. It was this intimacy with God which set Moses apart from, and above all, the other prophets. None of this was spoken by Moses—even though he was the one being attacked—and even though he was the “senior prophet.” All of this was spoken by God Himself, and you know that Miriam and Aaron listened, especially when Miriam was stricken with leprosy for a week. THE MAN WHO NORMALLY SPOKE FOR GOD KEPT SILENT, AND LET GOD DO THE SPEAKING FOR HIM.
In the context of this attack against Moses by his own siblings, we read these words: “Now the man Moses was very humble, more than all men who were on the face of the earth” (12:3). If anyone ever had the opportunity and the ability to defend himself, it was Moses, but he chose not to do so. This is meekness—it is not weakness. It wasn’t that Moses was incapable of defending himself. It was that he was more than capable, and yet he opted not to do so. This is the same kind of meekness we see in our Lord when He refused to defend Himself before the Jews and Pilate, even though He was facing crucifixion.
The Final Word on Moses
As we consider these words, obviously written by someone other than Moses (but still divinely inspired), I would like to focus your attention on several important truths.
First, Moses was a great prophet, but he was not perfect. The Bible speaks of the greatness of a number of men, men like Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, and Elijah. But one thing is very clear in the Bible: No matter how great some men were, they were all far from perfect. Noah got drunk, and Abraham lied about his wife (more than once). David sinned regarding Uriah and his wife, Bathsheba. Solomon, wise as he was, was very foolish in taking foreign wives and in facilitating the worship of their gods. Elijah wanted to resign as a prophet, angry that God had not made him more successful. The greatest prophet (if we are safe in assuming that this was Moses) was not even able to enter the promised land. The greatest priest (whoever that might be) could enter into the Most Holy place only once a year. His sacrifice did not remove sin, but merely put it off for another year. The greatest king (whether David or Solomon) was far from perfect in a number of ways. These offices anticipated the Great Prophet, Priest, and King—our Lord Jesus Christ. The imperfections and flaws of His prototypes only serve to underscore the need for One far greater than they, and this One could be no mere man, but must be the Son of God Himself. The imperfections of Moses cause us to look forward to Him who is the perfect Lawgiver and Prophet.
Having said this, we should also recognize that Moses was perhaps the premiere prophet of Israel. God said so Himself:
Flawed though he was, and far from perfect, Moses was a great man indeed. One cannot read the Pentateuch without reaching this conclusion, and later inspired writers regard him in the same way. Moses was a great prophet, the likes of which we have never seen since in any mere man.
Moses was a premiere prophet as a prototype of Christ. It was in his rejection, and in his strengths, that Moses was a prototype of the Messiah to come. Moses himself spoke of this. I will not attempt to play out all the ways in which Moses is a prototype of Jesus. But I will outline some of the parallels between our Lord and Moses:
- Went up on a mountain and gave the Law (Exodus 19ff.; Matthew 5:1ff.)
- Inaugurated a covenant (Exodus 24:8; 34:27; 1 Kings 8:9; Luke 22:20)
- Spoke for God, truths that were communicated to them face to face (Exodus 33:11; John 8:38;
- Brought about an exodus (Exodus 13ff.; Luke 9:31; see also Revelation 15:1-5)
- Came out of Egypt (Exodus 13:3; Hosea 11:1; Matthew 2:15)
- Gave bread in the wilderness (Exodus 16; John 6:32)
- Means of salvation elevated on a pole (Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14)
- Performed signs and wonders which didn’t produce repentance (Exodus 7:3; 10:1ff.; John 20:31)
- Tested in the wilderness (Deuteronomy 8:2; Matthew 4:1-2)
- Opposed and resisted by the Jews (Exodus 15:24; 16:2; 17:3; Numbers 20:24; 21:5; John 1:12)
Rejected his leadership, chose a pagan instead (Numbers 14:1-4; John 19:15)
Tried to stone him (Exodus 17:4; John 10:31)
- Rejected by the Jewish council (Psalm 106:43; John 11:47-53)
- Jews would not believe in spite of all the signs performed (Numbers 14:10; John 12:37)
- Mediated a covenant between God and men (Deuteronomy 5:5, 22-27; Exodus 32; Galatians 3:19-26; 1 Timothy 2:5; Hebrews 8:6; 9:15; 12:24)
- Spared from death by a cruel king as a child (Exodus 1-2; Matthew 2)
- Included Gentiles, much to the distress of the Jews (Numbers 12:1ff.; Luke 4)
- Meekness (Numbers 12:3; Matthew 11:29)
Lessons to be Learned from Moses
Moses was a great man of God, and many lessons can be learned from his ministry as a prophet. I do not mean that we all need to be prophets, as Moses was. But we are to proclaim the Word of the Lord to men. In this sense, there is much for every Christian to learn from the prophetic ministry of Moses.
Being a prophet requires supernatural enablement, and thus it cannot be done in the power of the flesh. Being a prophet is a supernatural ministry which requires supernatural power. When Moses first attempted to deliver the people of Israel, he did so in his own strength—and he failed miserably. As a man raised in the royal courts of Egypt, Moses had become well-educated, persuasive, and influential. And yet none of this enabled him to successfully deliver even one fellow-Israelite. It was Moses’ idea to rescue his people, not God’s (Acts 7:23, 25). His efforts “in the flesh,” no matter how great or how sincere, were not adequate for the task. Moses came to see that this was a much bigger task, and thus one which required divine enablement. No wonder he was reluctant to return to Egypt when God instructed him to do so. He, like Paul, came to see that his “Jewish strengths” were useless (Philippians 3:1-12), and that in his weakness, God would reveal His strength (2 Corinthians 12:1-10). We cannot accomplish God’s work through the power of the flesh, but only through the enablement of His Spirit.
God sometimes does “later” what we want to do “sooner.” Nearly 20 times in the Psalms the question, “How long. . .?” is raised by the psalmist. The fact is that we don’t like to wait. We want God to act now and not later, because we are impatient. Almost as many times in the Psalms, we find the word “wait,” in the sense of men waiting on God. God had purposed to deliver Israel through Moses, but 40 years later than Moses had thought, and in a very different way, as the next point will state.
God’s means are seldom what we would expect..
Moses assumed God would use him because of his power and influence as one closely associated with the throne of Egypt. Moses assumed wrong, and Moses failed. God did not use a “Pharaoh-to-be” (assuming that Moses was being groomed for this task), but He used a felon—a murderer—with a warrant out for his arrest. It was not that his 40 years of education and preparation in Egypt were of no value, but his last 40 years of training were in the wilderness, leading sheep. It was not through the “hand of Moses,” or through his act of violence (murder) that God rescued His people, but through the “hand of God,” when neither Moses nor the Israelites raised a hand against an Egyptian.9
The great men of God are those who are not threatened by the ministry of others, but who gratefully embrace it as God’s plan to multiply ministry, rather than for men to monopolize it. I must confess that this point comes as a bit of a surprise to me, though it should not. I have long been convinced of the principle of plurality in the leadership and ministry of the church. But somehow I have always thought of the prophets as “Lone Ranger” types, who seem to perform their ministries “solo.” Moses forces me to re-think my position. Moses was a prophet. As such, he judged the people, communicating the will of God in more specific applications (Exodus 18). Because the job was too big for him, he appointed others, on whom the Spirit of God fell, equipping them to share this prophetic ministry with Moses. I was reminded also of the “school of the prophets” which we find in the Old Testament. All of this serves to emphasize the principle of plurality, even among prophets. (By the way, with multiple prophets, the prophecy of one prophet can be confirmed by the rest. See 1 Corinthians 14:29.)
Do not employ your spiritual gift(s) for personal gain or selfish motives. Moses was a prophet. Surely this gift would have come in handy as a tool to use against Aaron and Miriam when they opposed Moses. Moses could have used his gift (or his position) to further his own interests, but he left his own defense to God. How easy it is to prostitute the gifts God has given and to use them for self-gain, rather than for the edification of others. Some in the church at Corinth illustrate this all too well. Meekness is having the power to achieve whatever you wish and choosing not to use it in a self-serving way. Moses was meek, and in this he was like the “Prophet” who would come after him.
Our ministry is not merely to speak of God, but to imitate Christ. A prophet is one who speaks for God. In this sense, his tongue and his mouth play a vital role in his ministry (see Isaiah 6:1-7). But it would be wrong to conclude that it is only through his speech that a prophet “speaks” of God.
This is an interesting text. So far as I have found, only the King James Version renders it in a strictly literal sense (the word “hand” is found in both the Hebrew and Greek texts of the Old Testament here). I think the literal rendering is necessary and proper. The point is that God spoke through Moses, not only through his lips, but through his life, not only by means of his declarations, but also through his deeds. I think the same is true of our Lord, and that this broader sense of “speaking” is in the mind of the writer to the Hebrews when he writes,
1 After God spoke long ago in various portions and in various ways to our ancestors through the prophets, 2 in these last days he has spoken to us in a son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he created the world. 3 The Son is the radiance of his glory and the representation of his essence, and he sustains all things by his powerful word, and so when he had accomplished cleansing for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high (Hebrews 1:1-3, emphasis mine).
I believe Moses grasped that not just his lips, but his life, was to reflect Christ. I believe the same is true for Christians today. We are not only to speak of Christ and for Christ to men; we are to live Christ. Paul said, “For to me to live is Christ” (Philippians 1:21). Peter pointed to the example of our Lord and called upon the saints to imitate Him (1 Peter 2:18ff.). You and I are to manifest Christ to a lost and dying world, and that is not done by merely repeating His Word, as important as this is. It is done as Christ is lived out in our lives. Jesus told His disciples that to see Him was to see the Father (John 14:9). As men behold our lives, they should see Christ. In this sense, our lifestyle is (or should be) prophetic.10
People (including prophets) are perfected by adversity. Moses grew in his faith and in his obedience when adversity came his way. Even our Lord was perfected through adversity:
It is more than clear in the Scriptures that the prophets were the most persecuted folk around, and that persecution is also to be expected by all who live godly lives:
Adversity is not proof of impiety, as the legalistic Jews of Jesus’ day insisted (and as some continue to do in our own day). Adversity is God’s purifying and perfecting work. It is by our conduct in the midst of adversity that we have the opportunity to imitate Christ (see 1 Peter 2:18ff.).
It is a glorious ministry that we have been given. When I think about the ministry of Moses, I am reminded of these words, written by the Apostle Paul:
In many ways, the ministry of Moses had its share of misery. He was resisted and opposed, even by those he led from Egypt. Moses was even opposed by his own brother and sister. But whatever we say about the adversity Moses endured, he was also a man who was highly privileged. Moses enjoyed the most intimate relationship with God that any man (after Adam) had experienced in Old Testament times. There was “great glory” associated with his ministry, and yet this glory is vastly overshadowed by the greater glory that we all can experience in the practice and proclamation of the gospel today. In the midst of the “grind” of life, let us never lose sight of the glory. And let this be an incentive for us to boldly proclaim Christ to a lost and dying world.
7 We should recall that “Moses” was the name given by Pharaoh’s daughter: “So she called his name Moses, saying, ‘Because I drew him out of the water’” (Exodus 2:10). The word rendered “drew Him out” is very similar to the name “Moses.” Pharaoh commanded the Israelites: “Cast them out” (into the Nile – Exodus 1:22), but his own daughter defied this order, and even reversed it, by drawing Moses out of the Nile, and then naming him, in effect, “drawn out.” How like God this is to save Israel once through the baby Moses, and through Pharaoh’s own daughter!
9 The plagues which God brought upon the Egyptians intensified. They started with discomfort and built up to dread. God was slow to kill any living creature, and only as a “last resort” does God take the lives of the firstborn in Egypt, and this after warning the Egyptians and providing a “way of escape” in the Passover celebration. My point here is that even God did not quickly resort to “violence.”
10 For example, as the world looks on, they should see that we are not laying up treasure on earth, but are laying up treasure in heaven. This speaks of the hope which we have laid up for us and of the temporary nature of this world.