The LORD said to me: “What they say is good. 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. If anyone does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name, I myself will call him to account.” Deuteronomy 18.17-19.
When John the Baptist began his ministry in the wilderness of Judea in about AD30 — some 1500 years after the conversation between God and Moses that is recorded in this morning’s text — the priests and Levites came to him and one of the questions they asked him was “Are you the Prophet?” And John’s response was not to say, “What do you mean?” but was simply to answer, “No” (John 1.21). He understood the question very well because the belief was widespread in the first century that these verses from Deuteronomy 18 contained a messianic prediction. God was to send a Prophet who would be as great as Moses and that prophet might be the Messiah himself or someone who would work alongside the Messiah to bring in God’s new age.
A little later, when Jesus came on the scene, the focus shifted from John the Baptist to him, but the same question arose. After the feeding of the five thousand, the people began to say of Jesus: “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world” (John 6.14); and then, when Jesus went to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles and began to teach in the temple courts, we are told that, “On hearing his words, some of the people said, ‘Surely this man is the Prophet.’ Others said, ‘He is the Christ'” (John 7.40-41).
Philip, one of the first of Jesus’ disciples, had no doubt from the start that Jesus was “the Prophet” — “Philip found Nathanael and told him, ‘We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law …'” (John 1.45). And, after Pentecost, when Peter and John had healed the lame man at the gate of the temple, Peter specifically related these verses to Jesus as he addressed the astonished crowd (Acts 3.22). But what of Jesus himself? Did he see himself in that way?
Surely when he told the Jewish authorities: “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me” (John 5.46), it was this very passage that he was talking about. (It is hard to find another.) Furthermore, Jesus seems to echo the contents of these verses and apply them to himself when he cried out, “I did not speak of my own accord, but the Father who sent me commanded me what to say and how to say it. I know that his command leads to eternal life. So whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say” (John 12.49-50). And here we come to the heart of things.
God would send “the Prophet” because Israel feared that they would perish if they looked on God himself and heard his actual voice: “Let us not hear the voice of the LORD our God nor see this great fire anymore, or we will die” (Deuternomy 18.16). But in the event — wonder of wonders — the Prophet that God sent turned out to be God himself! … “Our God contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man”, as Charles Wesley once put it. To see Jesus was to see God — “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14.9). To hear Jesus was to hear God. As John says at the beginning of his gospel: “No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known” (John 1.18). Jesus is the Prophet. The Father’s face. The Father’s voice!
O let me hear Thee speaking in accents clear and still,
above the storms of passion, the murmurs of self-will;
O speak to reassure me, to hasten or control;
O speak, and make me listen, Thou guardian of my soul.