We often associate the prophetic stream with Elijah, Samuel, or a great prophet such as Isaiah. However, the Old Testament portrays Moses as the pattern, or model, for all subsequent prophets. That is why, at the death of Moses, Deuteronomy 34:10 says, “No prophet has ever risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.” A prophet is differentiated from a priest in his basic orientation and role. A priest stands facing God, interceding for the people; a prophet stands facing the people, announcing God’s word to them. Prayer is often viewed as a priestly function because we come before God and intercede on behalf of others. Preaching, on the other hand, is part of the prophetic office because a preacher faces the people and declares God’s Word.
Moses is a powerful prophetic figure because he goes up the mountain and speaks with God face to face, then comes down and proclaims the word to the people. To fully understand the necessity of this role, recall the scene at Mount Sinai after the Israelites first came out of Egypt. For days ahead of time, the people had consecrated and purified themselves before God. Finally, the Lord’s presence descended on Mount Sinai to deliver the Law. Exodus 19:16 says that thunder clapped and lightning flashed, smoke billowed from the mountain, and the earth began to tremble. The Israelites heard a loud trumpet blast, which they identified with angels, and a thick cloud settled around the whole mountain. According to Exodus 20:18–19, “When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, ‘Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.’ ” That was the birth of the prophet. The full manifestation of God’s glory and presence was so great that the Israelites knew they could not receive it and live. They pleaded with Moses that it was too much for them and asked him to mediate God’s word so that they wouldn’t be destroyed by coming into the unmediated presence of God. So Moses established the office of the prophet to mediate God’s word and His presence.
God Reveals and Conceals
Exodus 33:11 says that “the Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.” And yet, just a few verses later, in verse 20, God says to Moses, “You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” Martin Luther said that God simultaneously reveals Himself and conceals Himself. Revelation means that God has made Himself known in an act of self-disclosure, but God’s fullness is so great, His attributes so infinite, His glory so profound, that men and women can never fully grasp, comprehend, or experience God’s full presence. Moses comes as close as anyone in the Old Testament to beholding God face to face, as much as that is humanly possible. It was like seeing God’s face through a veil, and even that caused Moses’ face to glow and radiate the glory of God when he descended from the mountain (see Exodus 34:29).
In Deuteronomy 18:15–16, Moses says, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him. For this is what you asked of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said, ‘Let us not hear the voice of the Lord our God nor see this great fire anymore, or we will die.’ ” And so there grew in the Israelite community a great messianic expectation that Moses’ prophetic office would one day be reconstituted. Once again, there would be a prophet like Moses who would speak to God face to face and bring the word of God to the people the way Moses did. He would be known as the Prophet and recognized by a reenactment of the miracle of the manna. This was the Jewish tradition, supported by Isaiah 25:6, as they continued to look for a new Moses who would lead the people.
This expectation is what lies behind the significance of the feeding of the five thousand, the miraculous multiplication of the bread. This is why the feeding of the five thousand is the only miracle of Jesus’ public ministry which is recorded in all four Gospels: because, as a reenactment of the manna, it was considered essential to the telling of the gospel and the verification of the Messiah. When Jesus multiplies the loaves and feeds the people, their response is: “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world” (John 6:14). Just as Moses prophesied, God sent a prophet like unto him. Jesus was born into Judaism, and was a prophet in the sense that He represented the veiled presence of God. As the second person of the Trinity, He shares in the full glory, dignity, majesty, and power of the Godhead, but He emptied Himself, took on human flesh, and stepped into human history. This is the role of the prophet: to mediate God’s word, so we won’t be destroyed as we would if we were brought into the unmediated presence of God. Moses had, more than anyone before or since him, seen the face of God—even if veiled. Jesus came from the very presence of the Father. In fact, Jesus is the incarnation (the very Word) of God Himself. To look into the face of Jesus is to see the face of God, veiled in human flesh, but revealing God’s word and enabling us to know His commands.
And so we witness the true fulfillment of Moses’ prophetic role in the person of Jesus Christ, the ultimate intermediary between a sinful humanity and a holy God. We are members of the human race. Not one of us can approach the consuming fire of God’s holiness without being clothed in the robes of the great Prophet. Jesus is both the embodiment and the fulfillment of God’s holiness. Just as Jesus is the tangible extension of God’s holiness in the world, so we are to represent and embody His holiness in the world through our lives and our active witness in the world.
Moses spoke the Word of God through which we saw our need of grace; Jesus, greatest Prophet, in You we behold God face to face.
Did you find this entry helpful? Then you’ll enjoy Timothy Tennent’s book, The Fulfillment: Jesus and the Old Testament, where he explores how Jesus Christ fulfills many Old Testament characters, stories, themes, and practices. Get your copy from our store here. “The Old Testament is both common and strange to many Christians. On one hand, it contains some of the most familiar stories known to us, while on the other hand, it can be intimidating and difficult to understand. However, to lack a basic knowledge of the Old Testament is a great hindrance to fully grasping how Jesus Christ fulfills ideals and expectations that were set in motion hundreds and thousands of years before.”