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Did the Apostle Paul believe Jesus was the Prophet-like-Moses? And does it matter? Post 2 - A first look at the Acts passages

In this second blog post I will begin to describe the scriptural passages that point to the prophesy of the Prophet-like-Moses, or “Prophet-like-unto-Moses” (to use George Fox’s phrase). I believe this has implications for our understanding of who Jesus is as the Messiah.

There are at least two explicit references to this expectation of a prophet like Moses in the New Testament, both in the book of Acts.  They are recorded in two separate discourses, the first by Peter in chapter 3 (verses 22 and 23) and the second by Stephen in chapter 7 (verse 37).  Both are references to Deuteronomy 18:15, where Moses introduces the subject and quotes a conversation with God in verses 17 ff.  The scriptural phrase in the Revised Standard (RSV) is “Prophet like unto me”.  (The RSV here is close to the King James Version Fox would have known.)  In some modern translations, the phrase is rendered “prophet like me” (Jerusalem) or “like myself” (Tanakh). 

I will need help here from you scholars to find the Fox references to which I will allude.  The phrase, “Prophet like unto Moses” is George Fox’s own.  In preparing to write, I could not lay my hands on my copy of the Nine Sermons volume, That Thy Candles May Always be Burning.  (Perhaps I gave it away).  This volume contains a fine sampling of sermons by Fox and he uses and builds on this phrase regularly.  Fox may not have been the first in Christian history to use it but he was one of the first after the early church to expound on the phrase in a way that opened the Gospel message.

As far as I can tell these three passages are the only ones in both the Old and New Testaments where this specific phrase occurs.  And these two Acts passages are the only explicit quotations (or near quotations) of the Deuteronomy passage.  

So, to start with a look at the subject as found in Acts.  Peter’s sermon summarizes Duet. 18:15 – 19 as the basis for the hope he is proclaiming.   Peter’s sermon in chapter 3 is his second recorded sermon in Acts.  In the first sermon (Ch 2) he explicitly quotes from Joel and the Psalms to explain to the people gathered what was happening on that particular day, the Day of Pentecost.  The message is joyful.  Although it includes indictments for not recognizing the work of God in Jesus, it begins and ends with hope.

The second sermon in chapter 3 uses stronger language.  Peter berates his listeners for not recognizing that the power of God has healed the crippled man.  He indicts them for failing to recognize in Jesus the fulfillment of the message of the prophets, lifting up the passage in Deuteronomy as the basis of his case against them.  But then the indictment turns to a message of hope in verses 25-26 when he identifies his hearers as the children of the prophets and of the Covenant of God.  The work of God in Jesus makes possible the turning from unbelief and sin, even from the murder of the Servant that God raised up.

By contrast, Stephen is directly accused of blasphemy by the rulers and teachers of the people.  But, moved by the Holy Spirit, he turns his trial into their indictment.  He makes a breathtaking sweep of Israel’s history and the picture he paints condemns his hearers.  In his brief summary of the life and work of Moses, he specifically lifts up God’s promise: “A prophet shall God raise up for you from among your brethren, like unto me” Deut. 28:15(RSV).  He indicts these leaders for not believing Moses, accusing them of being disobedient to God.  A lot might be written about Stephen’s indictment but that is not my purpose today.

I want to shift the focus to another phrase in Duet. 18:15, i.e.  “God will raise up a prophet”.  Remember that the audience described for both Peter’s sermons and Stephen’s defense are Jews.  These folk knew the Old Testament scriptures far better than most of us.  As James says in Acts, “Moses is preached every Sabbath.”  A central part of the life of the Synagogue was teaching.  The teachers of the Law read and expounded the scriptures week by week and helped their Aramaic speaking listeners to read and understand the Hebrew text.  The central text was the Law of Moses, the Pentateuch.  The teachers prided themselves on knowing this off the top of their heads and the people knew a lot of it.  It was not necessary to quote a whole passage or have somebody look it up.  A single phrase was loaded with meaning and people knew where it came from and how it had been expounded to them. 

Here is my contention:  when the phrase “raise up” or “raised up” was used, one of the first connections people would have made was to the Deut 18 passage.  This is certainly how Fox used it.  When we of modern Protestant and Catholic heritage encounter the phrase, we have been trained only to think of “God raising Jesus from the dead”.  That is clearly a central message of the New Testament and I believe it.  But here is my premise.  The way we have been taught in these Christian contexts has cut us off from a central theme, expectation and understanding in both the Old and New Testaments.

Take another look at Peter’s first sermon in Acts 2.  Peter boldly declares that Jesus came back to life as predicted by the Psalmist.  Look closely at the language Peter uses in verse 32, “This Jesus did God raise up whereof we are all witnesses.” (RSV)  The context is certainly Peter’s proclamation that Jesus is alive, but what connections did his hearers make when he used this phrase?  The New International Version, a translation beloved of evangelical Christians, throws in some extra words here, “God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact.”  The NIV translators may not want us to sway from the prevailing Christian understanding of the phrase.  Someone else will have to check out the Greek but I find that other translations are closer to the RSV.  I believe that those who heard Peter may have also made the connection to the promise in Deut 18; i.e. it held a double meaning.

In Peter’s second sermon I am more confident of my contention.  Peter uses the promise in Deuteronomy as a foundation of his claim that Jesus has been glorified, appointed the Messiah, has been sent and will be sent to bring blessing and refreshing.  And the key to enjoying and participating in this promise is repentance.  Hearing the prophet like Moses requires a change of heart and of action.  And it all leads up to the climax in verse 26, “When God raised up his servant, he sent him first to you to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways.” (This quotation is from the New Revised Standard, or NRSV.  I found it the clearest.)

Last, let us look back to Stephen’s discourse.  Stephen only uses the phrase “raise up” in the specific reference to Deut 18:15 (see above for the quotation of 7:37 from the RSV).  But here, I believe that the translators of the NIV may have hit on something, perhaps by accident.  Here is how they rendered verse 37.  “God will send you a prophet like me from among your people”.   Some of you may not like the change but I think it may help to connect the promise of the Prophet with Stephen’s (and the Pentateuch’s) account of God sending Moses to the people.  In my next post, I plan to look more directly at Moses and consider what a prophet like Moses might mean.

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Comment by Dan Davenport on 3rdMo. 12, 2011 at 19:09

From Ellis Hein:

Hello Dan,
I have been enjoying reading your post #2. I am not sure where you will be taking things next, so I feel a little hesitant to jump in and start talking about other places in Scripture that allude to the Prophet like Moses (such as the Isaiah passage about the foundation stone laid in Zion). What I want to do in this comment is refer readers to Sermon V  in That Thy Candles May Always Be Burning. It sticks in my mind that this one is particularly rich in talking about the Prophet like Moses and the consequences of living under that prophet. This sermon also speaks eloquently about the offices of Christ as He is present in our midst.
I am corresponding with a man who can agree with me on many issues concerning the Christian life except for the possibility that Christ has the power to set us free from sin and from disobeying the commands of Christ. I believe that the key difference between his position (and it is a widely held position) and that of the early Friends lies in the power of living under the Prophet like unto Moses. Without this Prophet, we stand in Egypt looking longingly toward Canaan . We may hear sermons preached about Canaan and perhaps sing songs about Canaan, but of what use is it to be "forgiven for being a slave" if alll the while we are making bricks for Pharaoh.

Comment by Allistair Lomax on 7thMo. 27, 2011 at 20:13

Hi Dan, re-reading this, I noticed your point, "...The way we have been taught in these Christian contexts has cut us off from a central theme, expectation and understanding in both the Old and New Testaments." I find this very helpful and revealing, and is something that had never occurred to me.

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