15The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet. 16This is what you requested of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said: “If I hear the voice of the Lord my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die.” 17Then the Lord replied to me: “They are right in what they have said. 18I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command. 19Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. 20But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak—that prophet shall die.”
Who Speaks for God? Deut 18:15-20 Epiphany 4, Jan 28, 2018
When I taught the book of Revelation at CLBI, I presented my students with a list of the top 100 prophecies concerning the end of this present age, and the second coming of Christ. That list contained some big names in Christian history, including Church fathers, several popes (whose utterances are supposedly infallible), cardinals, bishops, and even some big-name reformers and scientists like Isaac Newton. Some gained huge followings such as Charles Taze Russel, founder of the Watchtower and Jehovah’s Witnesses, Herbert W. Armstrong of the Worldwide Church of God, or Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church. Even today end-time prophets like Pat Robertson, the late Tim LaHaye, Jerry Jenkins, Harold Camping, and John Hagee, just to name a few, continue to speak prophetic utterances as to the consummation of this world, and the return of our savior (and today become millionaires in the process). Although the names in this list span the two centuries since our Lord’s ascension, and are incredibly diverse and varied, they do have one thing in common…they were all wrong, and regarding that specific issue at least… they are all false prophets.
Today’s reading from Deuteronomy speaks of true and false prophets, and particularly the one true prophet that was about to come. Before I preach on this one true prophet, we would do well considering how we can identify false prophets. The single measuring stick for determining the above as false prophets is simply to see if their prophecies come true. Although it will take some measure of time to determine this, once these prophets put a date on their prophecies, if what they prophecy doesn’t come to pass, they are not true prophets of God- simple as that. False prophets are not only found within the church, but exist in secular society as well: mediums, soothsayers, psychics, etc. God is equally stern about those who prophecy falsely whether inside, or outside the church, “anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord.” Deut 18:10b-12a
The word “prophecy” has two primary expressions in the Bible, with one be foretelling what is about to come (prophecies of the coming of the Messiah would be one such example). This kind of prophecy is relatively rare in the Bible (particularly in the New Testament). What’s more common is prophecy as “forth telling”, or conveying the words and thoughts of God to the people. Moses is probably the greatest of these prophets, as much of what we see in the 5 books of the Pentateuch is exactly this. In today’s text, we see Moses acting as both foreteller, and forth-teller as he prophesies of the coming of a future prophet that would be even greater than he, and through whom the LORD would speak with complete truthfulness. Although Moses was indeed one of, if not the greatest of the prophets in the history of Israel, we can read where on at least one occasion he disobeyed the LORD by striking the rock in Num 20:8, rather than speaking to it as the LORD commanded. For this direct disobedience of the command of God, neither Moses nor his brother Aaron where allowed to enter the Promised Land. It is imperative that a prophet of God speak the truth of God, at all times, and in all places.
The need for such a perfect “truth-speaking” prophet would stem both from the failure of prophets like Moses to live up to the high and holy (and impossible) task of always and only speaking and acting out the truth of God, and the disillusionment that comes to those who look to such prophets. God acceded to the people’s desire to have a human intermediary between them and the fiery God of Mount Sinai. God chose Moses to be that intermediary, but as previously noted, he did not fulfill that role perfectly. God would send a representative that would speak for Him without error, without seeking personal gain or financial advantage, and a prophet that the people could fully trust.
If there was any doubt as to the identity of this prophet at the time of Moses and beyond, all doubt would be removed at coming of Jesus, and the disciple’s early testimony about him. Those prior to Jesus’ advent assumed this prophet would manifest at the coming of the Messiah. When John the Baptist appeared preaching, teaching, and baptizing, the priests and Levites had legitimate questions as to his identity in saying, ““What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” The prophet mentioned here is that very same mentioned in the book of Deuteronomy. 1400 (give or take 100) years had transpired from the utterance of that prophecy of Moses until now. Was John the Baptist this great prophet of which Moses spoke?
As he himself answered, NO, he was not this prophet…but he would point the one who was. It was with good reason that the LORD, God the Father would speak a word from heaven over His Incarnate Son on the Mount of Transfiguration in the presence of the two greatest prophets of the OT, Moses and Elijah, and in the company of his inner circles of disciples, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” Lk 9:35b. And this imperative is not only directed to these five, but to all people from that point on. Initially Pontius Pilate appears indignant with Jesus as he questions the lowly rabbi/carpenter’s son from Galilee as to his person and purpose. Jesus makes the seemingly audacious claim that, “In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” John 18:37b . As audacious as this claim may sound, it is anything but if the claim is in fact true.
In today’s gospel text from Mark 1 we see this claim lived out in the synagogue as Jesus and others gathered to worship. There was one in attendance however that was possessed by evil spirits, and these spirits knew good and well who Jesus was. Those synagogue-goers realized Jesus’ authority even before the exorcism, “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” Mk 1:22. Through the pages of the New Testament we come across this time, and time, and time again. Jesus is the prophet who speaks with 100% accuracy and authority as the true prophet of God. The demons had no choice but to listen and obey him. Theirs was not the saving faith that the Bible speaks of, but it was in fact knowledge of the true identity of this young rabbi from Galilee. When he said it was time to go…the demons went.
Sadly, we continue to live in a day and age filled with false prophets. When researching for this sermon I found a link illustrating this in the life and ministry of one of perhaps the richest modern-day prophets, Joel Osteen. While on the Oprah show, rather than speaking the words of Holy Scripture as a “Christian pastor”, he chose to lead those in the TV audience in a mantra of positive thinking and positive speech. Rather than speaking our Lord’s Word of cross-bearing and discipleship, he prophesied health, wealth, good looks, and all things positive, using the Bible’s revealed name for God in the process- “I am beautiful”…”I am wealthy”…”I am incredible”…I am god (although insinuating this, he didn’t actually say this directly). There is nothing necessarily wrong in having a healthy self-image (to a point at least, for as the Bible says, we are all “sinners, and fall short of the glory of God” Rom 3:23), but we must be crystal clear that prophets, nor those who listen to them, can think nor speak reality into existence through the power of the mind/imagination. God alone speaks reality into existence. We are creatures, not Creators. We must never forget this.
Thankfully for these modern-day false prophets, the penalty for misrepresenting God is not what it was back at the time of Moses (for if it was, there would be little opportunity to spend their millions…except perhaps on their funerals). As one who forth-tells for God, I am thankful that such penalties are not exacted today as well, for I have no illusions that I myself have not spoken and acted outside of God’s revealed will, and deserve a similar fate. By God’s grace I can come to Jesus in confession and repentance, and receive his forgiveness. This by no means gives me license to play “fast and loose” with the Word of God, but rather is a call to commit whole-heartedly to rightly learn, know, preach, and teach its precepts. I desperately seek your prayers as well as I reckon with the high and holy calling of rightly handling God’s Word, for as I read in that same Bible; “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” James 3:1
Jesus (in his humanity) was, and eternally will be the prophet who speaks truthfully for God. We stand for the reading of the gospel text today as a reminder that Jesus continues to speak prophetically to us (and through all of Holy Scripture for that matter, see Lk 24:44). Hear his truth today, and seek it like you would seek a pearl of great price, and seek these holy prophecies tomorrow…the next day…and every day after that. Amen.