Fourth Sunday after Epiphany (Year B)

Here’s the weird way God saves the world

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Photo by Jakayla Toney on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

January 28, 2024

First Reading
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Commentary on Deuteronomy 18:15-20

Epiphany is my favorite season in the church. It means “light dawns,” as we slowly recognize who God is in Jesus Christ. Each text suggests a farther pushing-out of the good news from God’s own beloved Israel all the way to us gentiles, those inherently farthest from God. God always has a set-aside and preferred people—Israel, and then us religious types. But God can’t stand being stuck just with us. God always longs for those outside our number, those whom we may have disregarded.

All that is going on in Epiphany, and most people, including most Christians, are completely unaware. It’s like we’re in on a secret: here’s the weird way God saves the world.

This outward push of divine longing is present here in Deuteronomy. There is no prophet like Moses (Deuteronomy 34:10–12). Our Jewish neighbors agree and go all in on the claim, with their form of life based on the commands of Torah. And yet, our existence as a church suggests God has reached even beyond his first choice of a people to include even us, the non-chosen. The church should always have a sense of ourselves as interlopers, plan B, just lucky and happy to be here. When we forget our secondary status as God’s people, we start to take our standing with God for granted and to wonder why God chose the Jews in the first place—or whether God indeed did.

So much religious faith is so habitually backward-looking, it can sound like the best days are past and only gloom is to come. Deuteronomy resists this conservatism. As great as Moses is, another great one will come, God promises (18:15). Our Jewish neighbors see a collective in this prophet. Sure, the language in Deuteronomy 18 is of a single prophet to come. But we Christians agree that all God’s people can be made into prophets—look what happens at Pentecost. And God does indeed continue to raise up prophets (multiple), from Samuel to Huldah to Elijah and more. There can be a detriment to interpreting this prophet singularly—our Muslim cousins say this is a reference to Mohammad.

So why do we Christians apply these words to Jesus? Because the New Testament does.

John speaks of Jesus as the prophet about whom Moses wrote (John 5:46–47). And Peter in Acts cites this passage specifically as a reference to Jesus Christ (Acts 3:22–26). Already we can see some polemic in these passages, as Jesus argues with his fellow Jews that they should believe in him if they heed Moses, and many do not. But we should always interpret the New Testament in light of the Old (not just the reverse). Deuteronomy points forward. God will be faithful. You will not be without prophets. God just keeps raising them up. One Christian theologian, asked if he were pessimistic about the future, answered with another question: “How can I be? The future includes the eschaton.”

Deuteronomy is keen to lay out guidelines by which we will know that a so-called prophet is actually from God. First, it is the Lord’s own activity that raises up any true prophet: “I will raise up for them a prophet,” God insists (18:18). There are always those who claim to speak for God on their own initiative. But God’s prophet rises at God’s initiative, not anyone else’s. And this prophet will be known especially for speaking God’s word (18:18–20).1

Speak anything else at deadly risk. The passage just before this speaks of the divination practiced by Israel’s neighbors (18:9–14). Trying to summon godly power for one’s own will is an invitation to disaster. Many practitioners of religion do this, including us Christians—treating God like a butler who must run errands for us. No—biblical faith rests on God’s initiative in raising the prophet, and on that prophet speaking nothing other than God’s own word. Anything else is counterfeit—and dangerous.

There is a charming note of grace in this passage. Pay attention when the Bible talks to the Bible: in 18:16 God quotes the people refusing to look at Moses, to hear God’s voice, to see the great fire, “or else we will die.” God hears this request, and the recourse is modest: Moses can go for us, mediate for us, and then even cover his face once he’s down the mountain.

But God also hears this prayer request in a much more generous way than we intended. We just wanted the terror to stop. But God hears a request for another prophet: one who won’t terrify. This one shall be from our own people, shall speak God’s words, giving us everything God commands (18:18). To speak in a more explicitly Christian vein, we ask God to make the terror stop, and God responds by giving us Jesus, a prophet like us, who speaks God’s own words without terror.

We pray broken, self-serving, near-sighted prayers (“Lord, we just ask you to …”), and God responds by taking flesh from a virgin and dying our death to create the world all over again. I am sometimes ashamed at the self-interestedness of my own prayers (for this or that amelioration in my life circumstance, or in those of someone I love). But God hears my pitiful prayers and jujitsus them into blessing, not just for me but for the whole world, my enemies included.

There is often a binary logic applied to the mathematics of this passage: Is this singular prophet actually plural, or more singular? Are we right or are you? Or is someone else? But here’s the math God uses: We offer something paltry, selfish, singular. And God offers back something plural, gracious, universal. God never runs out of prophets. Out of words. Out of gracious commands by which to live. Out of goodness in response to our triviality. And the result is life for us and for the world.


  1. I take these two criteria from Patrick Miller, Deuteronomy, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox, 1990), 152–153.