Updated: Dec 18, 2020
[Commentary on Deuteronomy 18:15-22] You might not be a “prophet”, but you still represent God. Rather than them resort to pagan divinations, God promised to send the people prophets any time they needed to hear a word from Him. They were to listen to and hold accountable these special prophets. Today, with Jesus as our prophet, we now represent God to the rest of the world.
“The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him." Deuteronomy 18:15
[Editor's note: this Bible study supplement started as a printed newsletter for teachers, which is why it is so text-heavy. I am slowly adding older lessons to our website.]
Don’t Shoot the Messenger!
There’s a scene in “The Mandalorian” in which two troopers are debating when they need to go make an important report to the commander. Just when they work up the nerve, they hear over the radio “The commander just executed an officer who interrupted him”. “Maybe we should wait” is their response. It’s a common movie trope for the messenger to be afraid to deliver the message to the angry (and powerful) superior. Star Wars made a living off of it (think Darth Vader and Kylo Ren), as did Harry Potter, but you can also consider the background plot of The Wizard of Oz, Clue, and every movie made about a monarchy during the Renaissance.
People can become terrified about giving or receiving a message from “the big boss”. Ask your class if they were ever afraid to say something to their elementary school principal. Or, if they worked in a multi-level company, to have to make a report to the CEO or President. Or anything like that. I remember trying to be invisible around my principal; it was a point of boasting that I had never seen the inside of his office when I left for middle school. In our passage this week, the Israelites are terrified at the idea of receiving a message directly from God, so they insist on having a go-between (a prophet). This icebreaker should get your class thinking both about the Israelite perspective and also how unfortunate it is.
Who’s Your One?
First Baptist Church is joining a nationwide campaign sponsored by the North American Mission Board designed to equip and encourage our church members to share Jesus with their neighbors. In our service last Sunday, we committed to (1) invite one friend to church; (2) have one gospel conversation; (3) attempt to lead one person to Christ. The more we re-emphasize this, the better. Here’s the connection with our lesson: in our passage, the people are terrified of God because they know they’re unworthy to be near Him. Truly, every human who stands before God will be condemned. That’s why God promised an intermediary; all we need to do is tell our friends about Him.
This Week's Big Idea: Prophets Ancient and Modern
There seem to be a lot of prophets out there. Many charismatic/Pentecostal churches are based on what they call the “five-fold ministry”—based on Ephesians 4, they say that every church should have an apostle, a prophet, an evangelist, a pastor, and a teacher. “Prophet” is the office that people seem to want to be the most. And then within that group, those self-proclaimed prophets argue about which of them is the greatest. (Sadly, I’m not joking. One prophet’s website included the line, “When a prophet or prophetess is a seer, they are at the highest level of the office that man or woman may obtain. All prophets and prophetess [sic] are not equipped the same by God.” Obviously, this person was claiming to be a seer.)
I’m treading lightly here because I don’t want to make generalizations, but I can say that a number of websites of churches boasting a prophet/prophetess were independent. For example, one such independent church boasted a bishop (who founded the church), a prophetess (his wife), and three “ministers” (who happen to be their children). (Note: that church had roots in the COGIC; our local COGIC does not list “prophets” on their website.) Conversely, a church founded in 1994 in Hephzibah has an Apostle and a Prophetess on staff, along with a number of ministers. And that storefront church next to our Subway advertised a Prophet and Prophetess.
Some larger groups, like Bethel Church, offer “prophetic sessions” and “dream interpretations” to let people (who make an appointment) receive a prophetic word from God. They offer classes to anyone who wants to join their team of prophets. In their case, “prophet” is a ministry rather than an office; people on staff can offer prophecies and interpretations, but they are not labeled “a prophet”. I noticed multiple churches that were organized in that way.
So, what does this have to do with us? Well, how many churches in our association have a “prophet” on staff? How many have a “pastor”? Those following the five-fold ministry would say that we are being incomplete, insisting on a pastor but not believing in prophets. They’ve got a bit of a point, but I think they miss the biblical message.
Paul said that God has given to “the church” (in a general sense) apostles, prophets, and pastors, etc. Not every church will have a prophet; and by extension, not every church will have a pastor(!). In America, we have said that every church needs someone in the office of pastor, so we have created training programs (like the seminary MDiv) that teach the various functions of a pastor. In other words, you don’t necessarily have to be a called-by-God pastor to become a pastor. If you have a skill set of a pastor, you can convince a church to hire you. (Does that make sense?) That’s exactly what Bethel Church is arguing, but for prophets—they claim they can teach you the functions of a prophet and then you can serve a church as their prophet.
Here’s the problem with their approach: we know and understand the functions of the pastor, and those functions are critical to the day-to-day life of a church. On the other hand, we do not know well at all the functions of a prophet, and we also know that they operated intermittently in Acts, not at all central to a local church. In our passage this week, God talks about a prophet like Moses. As we go through the Old Testament, we realize that God was talking about men like Elijah and Isaiah. However, over a 1,500 year stretch of an entire country, God only sent a few dozen prophets. Clearly, prophets were rare! But they were also very important, so God gave us tests to tell a true prophet from a false:
In the Old Testament, true prophets were known by (1) directing worship to Yahweh alone (Deut 13:1-3), (2) having all predictions be true (Deut 18:22), and (3) having good character (Mic 3:11). True fulfillment could never be the final determining factor because some prophets guessed right, some prophecies wouldn’t be fulfilled for a long time, and some prophecies were very obscure to evaluate (see the back page).
That’s not very different from the New Testament. In Acts 2, the coming of the Spirit seemed to indicate that all of God’s people would be able to prophesy, although some people had a special gift for it (1 Cor 12:29). In Acts, prophets predicted the future, announced judgments, and received visions. The congregation was to evaluate if it were a true prophecy (1 Cor 14:29). The biggest judge would be if it glorified Christ (1 Cor 12:3). Paul also said that prophets were to submit to apostolic authority (1 Cor 14:26-40). Commonalities, then: in both the Old and New Testaments, prophecies were judged by accuracy and whether or not they aligned with the rest of the Word of God; prophets were judged by their character.
It seems that the primary function of a prophet was to warn the people of impending judgment for their sin. God gave some the ability to see the future for the specific purpose of giving them credibility. That same thing happened in Acts. Today, pastors in their sermons often function as a prophet in the sense of warning about judgment. But do you need someone to predict the future in order to take their message more seriously? I hope not. And with the number of hacks out there calling themselves prophets and making vague predictions, I could make the argument that prophet credibility is as low as it has ever been (think about Elijah’s day—he was the only true prophet alive).
You might be surprised to know that I believe God still has prophets today (the office of “prophet” has not ceased). But they are so rare, and their current emphasis would not be on predicting the future but rather warning about coming judgment (which has been declared in Revelation). Further, and more to the point, when pastors preach, they often fulfill various functions of prophets. (I.e. sermons are not just about “teaching”; they are also about proclaiming, admonishing, and making strong statements.) It’s not that we don’t “need” prophets today; it’s more that their job is mostly done. God has told us everything we need to know in the Bible (remember—a test of a prophet is that his messages line up with Scripture; the common argument against prophets that “the canon is closed” is unnecessary) If I were to guess, I would say that the next flurry of prophetic activity won’t be until we’re just about at the time of Revelation (God will send people to declare that those strange events are indeed taking place).
In summary, your church doesn’t need a “prophet” to be healthy. In fact, if there are any prophets on the earth today, there aren’t many. As long as your preacher declares the Word of God, you’ll be fine.
The Larger Context of Deuteronomy
We are in the middle of Moses’ largest speech, in which he details how the Israelites were to put God first in their families and society. There is a heavy focus on proper worship, followed by a description of a healthy society—rules for judges, priests, avengers, and in this week’s passage, prophets. God knew that the people would stray and rebel, so He would send them a series of prophets to keep them on track. This week’s passage would help them separate true prophets from false.
Part 1: The Need (Deuteronomy 18:15-17)
“The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him. This is what you requested from the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said, ‘Let us not continue to hear the voice of the Lord our God or see this great fire any longer, so that we will not die!’ Then the Lord said to me, ‘They have spoken well.’
You’ll want to give your class a bit of context. This section of Moses’ speech is about regulating Jewish society, particularly how their society will be different from surrounding societies. One of their temptations might be to “get answers” the way their neighbors do: divination, witchcraft, mediums, “fortunetellers”. They are not to practice any of those things! And they won’t need to, because God will always send them a prophet when they need answers. When there is no prophet, that means they already have their answers and are just failing to look hard enough.
There are two things you would want to point out about this section. (1) The need for a mediator (see the Focus above). God agreed with them that they would need a mediator because they were too sinful to commune with God directly. That was true, and that is true. This is your perfect opportunity to share the gospel because we still need a Mediator—Jesus. (2) The tricky nature of prophetic fulfillment (see the back page). This prophecy literally refers to the many prophets that the Old Testament tells us about (if you haven’t, read my Focus on the previous page), like Isaiah and Elijah. God sent them to warn the people of coming judgment. But it also makes us think about Jesus, the ultimate Prophet who is also the perfect Mediator. Indeed, Peter applies this verse to Jesus in Acts 3:22-23. This verse has multiple fulfillments—literally fulfilled in certain people, ultimately fulfilled in Jesus. This is God’s way of preparing the Jews for what He would do in Jesus.
Mount Horeb and Mount Sinai are the same (see Ex 3), different names from different traditions. Have your class look at the various warnings God gave in Exodus 19; would that not terrify you? Ask your class to think about the various measures God put in place to protect the people from the punishment they deserved for being too close to Him (sin cannot be in God’s presence) (I’m thinking of things like the tabernacle and temple, the sacrificial system). Was it not wise for them to get too comfortable around God? And then ask the most important question: what makes us think that we can hear the voice of God or be in God’s presence safely? (See the above focus for some ideas.)
Aside: The Need for a Mediator
If you’re like me, you thought it disappointing that God approved the people’s request for a prophet saying that they were too sinful to hear from Him directly. And then you got really excited knowing that we can go directly to God and hear directly from God by His Holy Spirit whenever we want! How much better to be a Christian than a Jew!
And that’s true, but if you hear anything in your class like that, make sure they pump the brakes. Why do Christians have direct access to God? It’s certainly not because we’re more worthy or less sinful! It’s because we have a Mediator—Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Jesus is the only person who filled all three leadership roles of prophet, priest, and king. We did need a prophet. We could not hear directly from God or stand before God on our own two feet. We needed someone to go between (a mediator), and that’s what Jesus did for us. Paul said that we do not have access to God except and only through Jesus Christ (1 Tim 2:5). The author of Hebrews had Deuteronomy in mind when he said the Jesus was greater than Moses because Jesus mediated a greater covenant for Christians—one in which Christians can boldly approach the throne of God because they have confidence knowing that Jesus has arranged for that access through this new covenant (Heb 3:1-6, 4:14, 7:22-27, 10:19-23). Because Jesus lives forever, we can be assured that Jesus will always intercede for us before God, continually giving us access.
In other words, Christians needed a prophet just like the Jews did. The difference for us is that our Prophet has made it such that we no longer need a human prophet/mediary—we all can go directly to our Prophet who is actually God incarnate.
Part 2: The Provision (Deuteronomy 18:18-19)
“I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him. I will hold accountable whoever does not listen to my words that he speaks in my name.
First of all, make sure your class catches just how important Moses was. God compared every prophet He would ever send to Moses! And yet, when we think about “prophets”, we tend to think of Elijah before Moses, right? That’s because we associate Moses with delivering the law. Well, this is a great way to explain that being a prophet is mostly about declaring the word of the Lord, not predicting the future! Moses made plenty of predictions, but they were conditional (i.e., if you disobey God, He will punish you; and that’s what happened). We, for some reason, like to think that a future-prophecy includes the details of “how”, but that’s not really the point. Moses prophesied that if the people rebelled, they would lose their status and home. And they did. That’s a prophet.
Second, point out the “among your brothers”. Prophets were just normal people (again, see that list on the previous page). I see this as setting the stage for the apostles—also just normal people, and pastors—normal people. [Here’s how I explain the evident shift in priority: when God’s people were a nation, God only needed a few prophets to get the message to everyone; when God was ready to send the message to every nation, He called multiple apostles to spearhead the movement; but where there are churches present, God uses pastors to keep each one healthy. That’s why I believe God prioritizes pastors today.]
Third, point out that the only reason we listen to prophets is that they pass along a message from God. Prophets speaking out of their own soapboxes and interpretations and opinions helps us in zero way; we have plenty of people to do that. But prophets speak for God (which is why we are to be so careful with true vs. false). And God will never contradict Himself, which is why we can use the rest of Scripture as a test. Rather, God uses prophets to warn of impending judgment or to offer clarification. Consequently, God holds us accountable for listening to the prophets. Failing to listen to a prophet is like rejecting God—a bad idea. I think particularly of what Jesus said in Matthew 23&24: the people rejected the prophets, and not their destruction comes. If only they had listened . . .
Aside: Who Were the Prophets?
If you look up “Prophets of Christianity” in Wikipedia, you get an extremely helpful list of everyone in the Bible who was called a “prophet” as well as the appropriate verse reference. Then there’s a list of people who had a prophetic experience, a list of false prophets, and a list of unnamed prophets. Who knew that Wikipedia could be so helpful in for biblical subject!!
Anyway, here’s how that list might be helpful to you. Some people get hung up on God’s use of the singular (“a” prophet) and conclude that God is only pointing forward to Jesus (the ultimate prophet). That’s unnecessary, and it wouldn’t make any sense for God to give these rules about prophets if none of those people would ever encounter a prophet! Instead, we realize that God was talking about a series of prophets. We know this because He Himself endorses the people on that list I mentioned. So, if anyone in your class asks a question like “what prophets are we talking about?” you have an easy answer.
Here are some neat things you can learn from that list. First, timing. At key points in His people’s history, He sent them prophets to keep them on track. For example, you’ll notice that a lot of activity took place during the fall of Israel and Judah. Second, profile. God did not have a “profile” of a prophet. You’ll notice from the list that there are men and women, state leaders and nobodies (literally), people from every class of society and education and profession. Finally, content. Not every prophet wrote a giant book like Isaiah. Many of those prophets said things that were never recorded, or God only sent them with a single message. But they were all equally considered prophets.
Part 3: The Test (Deuteronomy 18:20-22)
‘But the prophet who presumes to speak a message in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods—that prophet must die.’ You may say to yourself, ‘How can we recognize a message the Lord has not spoken?’ When a prophet speaks in the Lord’s name, and the message does not come true or is not fulfilled, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him.
In my “Big Idea”, I mentioned the similarities between the Old and New Testaments tests for a prophet. Here, God focuses on the prophecy coming true, but with knowledge of the Hebrew, we see that He is also talking about the prophet’s character. The word for “presumes” literally means “to boil”. This was the word used for Jacob preparing his infamous stew (Gen 25:29). Metaphorically, it refers to pride. A false prophet riles himself up into a boil, and out pops this prophecy. True prophets are not to be boastful, presumptuous, or arrogant.
This does seem to be focused on predictive prophecy. You’ve seen me say plenty of times in this handout that much of prophecy is not about predicting the future but declaring the clear word from God as it pertains to a situation. In those cases, the easy test is if what the prophet says aligns with the rest of Scripture. But with predictions, we have to wait and see if they come true. On the back page, I explain why that’s easier said than done. This is why I believe that God would give His prophets a series of prophecies—some that would be fulfilled quickly, giving them the credibility they would need for the further-reaching prophecies about judgment or exile or the like. (I.e. Elijah called down fire from heaven with instant fulfillment, so his messages against Baal took greater root.)
If you have time, and if your class is interested in this sort of thing, you might bring up famous “prophets” of more recent fare. I’m thinking specifically about Nostradamus, Gordon Hinckley (the long-time Mormon President), T. B. Joshua (a Nigerian pastor), and Edward Cayce (the quasi-founder of New Age). Their prophecies are absurdly vague, open to myriad interpretations. For example, Nostradamus said, “The blood of the just will commit a fault at London, Burnt through lightning of twenty threes the six”, which supposedly predicted the Great Fire of London? Joshua prophesied a Hillary Clinton victory, and when she lost, claimed that he meant the popular vote. Cayce was accused of stitching his prophecies together from news articles from around the world. This is not very different than horoscopes, which are designed to be so vague as to apply to just about anyone in any situation.
A true prophet never gets anything wrong because God never speaks falsely. It really does make me wonder how and why the Israelites could justify themselves directly contradicting the things said by Jeremiah, Ezekiel, or others. What a terrible job by them!
Here are two applications for you to consider. (1) Because you don’t have to be a “prophet” to “speak prophetically”, ask your class to think of someone who spoke God’s truth to them when they needed to hear it, and then pass along a word of thanksgiving to them. (2) Who is somebody in our life who needs to hear a clear word from God? Ask God to bring to our mind whatever appropriate Bible verse when we’re talking to that person. For FBC people, I suggest connecting this with our Who’s Your One? campaign. Not being “a prophet” doesn’t let us off the hook of representing God in our world!
Aside: The Tough Nature of Prophecy Fulfillment
I mentioned that it is hard to evaluate whether or not a prophet “got it right” to determine if he is a true prophet or not. Sometimes (like Jer 26:16-19), the prophecy would be many years in the future. Sometimes (like Jon 3:4-5), the prophecy would be conditional. And sometimes, fulfillment wouldn’t happen in a straightforward way at all!
Let me give you some examples. The prophecy that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (Mic 5:2) is easy to evaluate. It was fulfilled literally. But, the prophecy that Elijah would proceed the Messiah (Mal 3:1-4) was not literal—John the Baptist was not Elijah reincarnated; he filled the role of Elijah. It gets more difficult when we bring in the idea of typology. Jesus was a type of Adam, so prophecies related to Adam were fulfilled in Jesus (1 Cor 10:11). Jesus was a type of Israel, so prophecies related to Israel were fulfilled in Jesus (like the particularly obscure one about coming out of Egypt—Hos 11:1).
In order to understand a prophecy, we have to pay attention to the context and purpose. Most importantly, we must remember that the ultimate purpose of any prophecy would be to build up faith among the people. Sometimes, this would mean multiple fulfillments (like the Messiah being born of a virgin, Isa 8:3; it also had a fulfillment in Isaiah’s day). In God’s sovereignty, many prophecies took on a fuller meaning in its final fulfillment, something the prophet would not have foreseen or understood (many prophecies related to salvation in Christ, for example). But that could not be evaluated until long after the event!
I say that to say this: if someone in your class insists on finding prophecy fulfillment in every headline, just encourage them that it’s probably not so simple.