Lectionary Guide: Epiphany 2024

January 28 | Fourth Sunday after Epiphany | Year B

Deuteronomy 18:15-20

Psalm 111 | 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 | Mark 1:21-28

Summary of the Text

Jeff Volkmer

Context: A Copy of the Law or a Second Law?

Like the other books in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible), the title of the book of Deuteronomy comes from its translation into Greek. The name “Deuteronomy” derives from Deut. 17:18 where Moses says that when it is time for the people of Israel to appoint a king over themselves that the king should “write for himself a second copy of the Torah.” While the Hebrew text clearly indicates that a “copy” of the Torah is intended, the Greek Old Testament tradition renders “copy of the Torah,” as “a second law” – deutero, “second,” and nomos, “law,” hence deuteronomion or “Deuteronomy.”

Context: Moses Explains the Law

Since much of the book of Deuteronomy seems to repeat material that occurred earlier in the Pentateuch, this title seemed apt and stuck, but this has caused many to regard the book of Deuteronomy as a superfluous repeat of Leviticus. However, this is to ignore the fact that the book of Deuteronomy is in reality Moses’ explanation of the Torah and any repetition it might contain is due to Moses’ referring to previous portions of the Torah so as to provide commentary on it. Thus, a key to interpreting the book of Deuteronomy is verse 1:5: “Beyond the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to explain this law, saying,…” (ESV)

As the explanation of the Torah, Moses highlights and comments on various aspects of Torah, revealing their significance and relating their intended meaning. This nuance is critical for understanding any portion of Scripture from Deuteronomy and is also a key to understanding today’s passage.

Leadership for Israel

The passage for today’s lectionary reading, Deut. 18:15-20, occurs as a part of a broader section where Moses’ focus is on governance, recalling that God instructed him to appoint elders to help rule and judge the people, a task too large for Moses alone (Ex 18:13-27). In Deut. 16:18-18:22, Moses details the appointment and role first of judges (16:18-20), then priests along with judges (17:8-13), the future king (17:14-20), and then finally prophets (18:15-22), the section of scripture before us today.

A Mediator between God and the People

This is an important passage because it is the first in the Scriptures that discusses the office of a prophet, a role that will figure heavily in the rest of the Old Testament, with seventeen of its books being written by men holding the office. To do this, Moses first gives the basis for the office in verse 16, “just as you desired of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the LORD my God or see this great fire any more, lest I die’” (ESV).

Here the reference is to the people’s request at Sinai to have a mediator between them and God act as their intercessory out of fear of the Lord’s display of holiness: “All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain surrounded by smoke. When the people saw it they trembled and stood at a distance. ‘You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die’” (Ex 20:18-19, ESV). 

Thus, modeled after the people’s request for Moses to intercede between them and God back at Sinai, the job of the prophet is to act as the primary mouthpiece of God to His people: “And the LORD said to me, ‘They are right in what they have spoken. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him’” (Deut. 18:17-18, ESV).

Given the unprecedented importance of speaking for God, the office of the prophet is listed last in this section on who should govern God’s people, signaling the prophet’s role as the final and ultimate authority in revealing God’s will to His people, even more than that of the judge, priest, and king previously listed in this section. It is for this reason that the accuracy and legitimacy of prophetic utterance is taken so seriously in this passage, with a failure to speak faithfully the words of God punishable by death (Deut. 18:20).

A Prophet like Me

In Moses’ general explanation of the role and importance of the prophetic office in Deut. 18:15-20, it is important not to miss the nuance of particularization that is also present in the passage. It is not just that God will raise up prophets to be His final authority amongst the people, but Moses also reveals that God will also raise up “a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers” (ESV).

The qualifier “like me” is explicated in the final chapter of Deuteronomy, where in 34:10, the author states, “there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face” (ESV). Here, the allusion is to Ex 33:11, where “the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (ESV).  Thus, while Moses describes the establishment of the office of the prophet, he also makes clear that one should expect not just “prophets,” but the prophet – a special prophet whose relationship with God is exceptional and unprecedented, characterized by an intimacy that is unique to this prophet alone.

Are You the Prophet?

It is this prophet who is in the mind of the Jews’ when interrogating John the Baptist about his identity in John 1 when he is asked, “Are you the prophet?” (Jn 1:21) and later in John 6, after witnessing miracle of the feeding of the five-thousand, the crowds say of Jesus, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!” (Jn 6:14 ESV) This is perhaps most explicit in Peter’s exposition of the Gospel after his healing of the lame man at the Beautiful Gate in Acts 3, where he identifies Jesus as “the prophet” but quotes today’s passage in Acts 3:22-23.

Thus while today’s passage from Deuteronomy has tremendous import for the rest of the Old Testament for how it foreshadows the prophets that figure so heavily in Israel’s history, it also significantly shapes the type of messianic hope one out to have for the eschatological future. While Moses and the prophets to follow him “knew God face to face” and acted a mediator between God and His people, there is nevertheless a prophet coming for whom this will be true in a more significant and profound sense.

For as 1 Timothy says, “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Ti 2:5 ESV). Jesus is thus a prophet par excellence, one “knowing God face to face” to the point of being, in the words of the Nicean Creed, “consubstantial with the Father,” able to speak the very words of God in light of His divinity and having the final authority as the King of the Universe.

One scripture that has always been a tremendous source of wonder for me has been Luke 24:27, where Jesus, on the road to Emmaus with two of His disciples, gives what must have been the most epic Bible study that has ever been conducted: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Lk 24:27, ESV).

I often wonder what passages Jesus would have referred to as He walked His disciples through the Old Testament in order to point to His divinity and explain why the Messiah had to suffer and die to save us from our sins. I can’t help but think that He would have stopped at Deut. 18:15:

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.

Sermon resources

Key Quote

We must think of the Son always, so to speak, streaming forth from the Father, like light from a lamp, or heat from a fire, or thoughts from a mind. He is the self-expression of the Father—what the Father say to say. And there never was a time when He was not saying it.

—C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (MacMillan, 1977).

Key Illustration

Prophets: The Color-Commentators of the Old Testament

When I was in seminary, one of my professors, Dr. Stephen Bramer, gave me the best illustration that I have ever heard for understanding the place of the prophets in the Old Testament.

He said that you can think of the prophets in terms of a football game, what you might call the Ancient Near East game. Like most football games, you would also watch the Ancient Near East game on TV and you would have the normal cast of characters – the refs, the rules, the players, and the TV crew.

In the Ancient Near East game, the players are the nations and the home team is Israel. The rules governing the game are the Torah and the referee in charge is God. However, the big insight is that there is also a play-by-play announcer and also a color commentator!

In the Ancient Near East game the play-by-play announcer is the books of history in the Old Testament. These include 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Chronicles, etc., but the color commentators are the prophets. While the play-by-play is achieved by way of the historical books, the prophets come along and tell you not what happened (that’s the job of the play-by-play announcer), but rather why it happened.

The prophets then are inspired commentary on the history of Israel. Just like Moses sets out the prophets as the final word and authority in Deut. 18:15-20, so also are the prophets the privileged interpreters of history. Many Christians erroneously think of the prophets as primarily “future-tellers,” but if you read the prophets carefully, you’ll notice that much of what they do is hold the people of Israel to account for their sins and plead with them to repent. The only “future-telling” that the prophets typically engage in is when they know that either judgement or a glorious restoration is in store. The prophets then are not psychics, but rather one of the tools that God uses to lead His people along with judges, priests, and kings.

—Jeff Volkmer

Discussion Questions

  • Coming in to this passage, how would you have defined the job or role of a prophet?
  • How is this similar or different than what you read in Deut. 18:15-20?
  • In what ways could Moses be considered a prophet?
  • In what ways do Jesus and Moses act similarly or have similar functions?

Liturgical resources

Opening Prayer

Bless Christ Through Whom All Things Are Made

Inspired by Colossians 1:11-28

Bless Christ through whom all things are made.
Join seen and unseen in their praise
of One who both creates, sustains
who goes before, in justice reigns.

Who makes the lion and the lamb,
the farthest star, the smallest hand,
dominions, rulers, and their pow’rs,
the steadfast mount, the fleeting hours?

Who made the ore for blood-soaked nails?
Who made the thorns and whipping tails?
Who made the sun that would not shine
and made the tree on which Christ died?

Who makes the waters of our birth?
Who makes the dust where we return?
Who makes the way for us to die
and rise to everlasting life?

Bless Christ though whom all things are made.
Join seen and unseen in their praise
of One who both creates, sustains
who goes before, in justice reigns.

—Lisa Degrenia (may be sung to POXON)

Prayer of Confession

Marvelous and merciful God, Your Son modeled leadership and servanthood for us. But we confess we have elevated our desires and plans over Your will for our lives and for Your world. We want authority and power over others to use for our own purposes. Forgive us for our half-hearted devotion and our double-minded attention to Your way. Remind us You desire servants first and foremost. Enable us to serve in the name of Jesus, the One who came to serve and to give His life a ransom for many. In His name we pray. Amen.

—Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church

Assurance of Pardon

Isaiah 53:2-5

He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.

(NIV)

Benediction

Isaiah 60:1 & 2

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the Lord’s glory has risen on you.
For, behold, darkness will cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
But the Lord will arise on you,
and his glory shall be seen on you. 

Go in peace.

Amen.

(WEB, adapted for liturgical use)

Moses holds the tablet of the Ten Commandments above his head just before smashing them on the ground.
Moses with the Tablets of the Law by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1659. Oil on canvas. Gemäldegalerie, Berlin.
Moses holds the tablets of the Law above his head, about to hurl them to the ground.
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

More Quotes: Epiphany 4

More Illustrations: Epiphany 4

Jeff Volkmer

Lisa Degrenia

Jeff Volkmer has served in a wide variety of both academic and pastoral positions over his 25-year career in ministry, with most of these spent as a professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages.

Jeff has a passion to help others see the wonder and beauty of the Scriptures in a way that allows them to know the Lord more fully and love Him more deeply, and simply put, to help make the Bible make sense to believers and non-believers alike. He holds a ThM in Old Testament from Dallas Theological Seminary and is in the final stages of a doctorate in Semitic Linguistics from the University of Oxford.