Judges, Kings, Priests, Prophets
St. Augustines Archive
17 September 2017
What do you do when leadership is in crisis?
In the last few months we’ve seen our fair share of tumultuous leadership issues, from the unending barrage of dual citizenship woes in Australian politics to the aggressive nuclear- powered rhetoric of a powerful dictator.
These times can make us frustrated that bureaucracy is getting in the way of dealing with the big issues of society, or they can leave us downright terrified that all peace and stability might be shattered.
The book of Deuteronomy features something of a leadership crisis, too. For over forty years, Moses has led the nation of Israel. God used him to rescue his people from slavery in Egypt and bring them through the desert to the Promised Land. Moses is the one who has represented them before God, settled their disputes, and told them what God requires of them.
But there’s a problem: Moses won ’t be around much longer. He will die before Israel enters the land.
Now that’s not just bad news for Moses; it’s bad news for the whole nation.
There have already been multiple occasions in Israel’s history when God was so angry at
their rebellion that he almost wiped them out on the spot. They’ve only survived this long
because Moses stepped into the breach and begged God for mercy. What hope do they have when Moses is gone?
Deuteronomy 16-18 is God’s answer to this leadership crisis. In these chapters, he gives the
people laws about the leaders who he will raise up to govern them when they live in the
Promised Land. As we read these chapters, we’re going to see that they’re a word for us, too; in the midst of our world of chaotic leadership, we’re going to hear what God has to say
about the kind of leader that’s worth listening to.
God institutes four different roles in these chapters; judges, kings, priests, and prophets.
Let ’s have a quick look at each of them.
Look at 16:18, Appoint judges and officials for each of your tribes in every town the LORD
your God is giving you, and they shall judge the people fairly.
The judge’s role was to judge the people, funnily enough. That means holding them
accountable to the laws God gave them. For example, if there was a dispute between two
Israelites about compensation after an accident, say, then the judge’s role was to decide whatmshould be done. A bit like when two people come before Judge Judy with a dispute about who the dog really belongs to or something like that. When it comes to the judges of Israel, the cases are real, the decisions are final.
But it’s important to see that God didn’t set these judges above the law. They are held to certain standards too. God says to the judges, verse 19, do not pervert justice or show partiality. Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words
of the innocent.
God’s not interested in corrupt judges who play favourites.
He doesn’t want judges who will do favours for rich people who can afford them.
He wants honest judges who will find the truth and decide issues fairly.
Why? Because God is deeply concerned for what is right! That’s why he’s instituting these
judges, verse 20: Follow justice and justice alone, so that you may live and possess the land the LORD your God is giving you.
God is just! He always does what is right. He exposes every evil, punishes every sin, rights
every wrong. And so, he calls his people to make their nation a place of justice too.
That’s why he institutes the judges, that’s the first leadership role.
The second is the king.
Other nations in the ancient world looked for big strong kings to lead their armies into battle.
But Israel are to be different; they must pick the king that God wants.
17:15, be sure to appoint over you a king the LORD your God chooses.
And the king isn’t given absolute power to rule however he likes. He is not to acquire great
numbers of horses for himself, and so to build a big army to show off his military might, nor
he is to take many wives or accumulate large amounts of silver and gold. He must not amass wealth and status for himself at the expense of the people.
Rather, he must be a man of God’s word. Verse 18, When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the Levitical priests. It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the LORD his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees.
There’s one feature that must define the king of Israel: he needs to be a Bible man.
He sits under God’s word to show that even he is subject to another King.
He must painstakingly copy out the law word by word and meditate on it day by day, to
become someone who fears God. Because the king’s most important role is to show the
people how to fear God; to lead them in worshipping God alone.
That’s the king.
The third role is thepriests.
I mentioned before how Moses stepped into the breach and pleaded with God on Israel ’s
behalf when they sinned against him. Well, the priests are the leaders who will carry on that
aspect of Moses’ ministry. They would serve in the temple, in the presence of the Lord, carrying out the sacrifices on the altar that God prescribed to deal with the people’s sin.
18:5, for the LORD your God has chosen them and their descendants out of all your tribes to
stand and minister in the LORD’S name always.
The laws here aren’t about how the priests should act, but how the rest of the nation should act towards them. The priests wouldn’t be given any land when the Israelites took control of Canaan, because they weren’t meant to be farmers or shepherds; they were meant to serve God in the temple. So, to make that possible, the rest of the Israelites are commanded to give the Levites a portion of the offerings they bring to God. Verse 3, This is the share due the priests from the people who sacrifice a bull or a sheep: the shoulder, the internal organs and the meat from the head.
The people are called to be generous and sacrificial for the sake of the priests, because they serve a vital function at the heart of Israel’s life; they represent the people before God.
That’s the priests.
The fourth role is theprophet.
And this is the big one – out of the four types of leaders, God saves this one until last. It’s the climax.
A prophet is someone like Moses, someone who passes on messages from God to the people. 18:18, I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites, and I will put my words in his mouth. He will tell them everything I command him.
The fundamental job description of a prophet is that he’s someone who God has given words to speak. God puts words in his mouth.
Later in the Bible, one of these prophets, Jeremiah, takes that image and puts it even more vividly; God tells him I am making my words a fire in your mouth, and these people the wood it consumes. (Jer 5:14).
A prophet doesn ’t give vague impressions like a horoscope. He doesn’t look at tea leaves and take his best guess at what God might think. No, a prophet speaks the very words of God.
And that’s why God urges the people so strongly to listen to the prophets. Verse 19, I myself
will call to account anyone who does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name.
When you listen to a prophet, you ’re listening to God. If you ignore the prophet, you ignore God. And God takes that seriously.
That’s the prophet.
Judges to apply God ’s law in practice, kings to lead the people in fearing God, priests to represent the people before God and prophets to call them back when they went astray.
You’d think with these leaders the people would be sorted. Leadership crisis averted! The people are completely set up to live under God’s rule in the promised land forever, happily
Except that these were some of the most poorly followed commands in the whole of the Law.
Consider just the kings; by and large they weren’t Bible men, they were corrupt. King Solomon started out as the greatest king Israel ever had. But do you remember the three things that God commanded the kings not to hoard up? Look at what Solomon did later in life:
All King Solomon ’s goblets were gold, and all the household articles in the Palace of the
Forest of Lebanon were pure gold. Nothing was made of silver, because silver was considered of little value in Solomon ’s days. Gold and silver; strike one.
Solomon accumulated chariots and horses; he had fourteen hundred chariots and twelve
thousand horses, which he kept in the chariot cities and also with him in Jerusalem. Horses, strike two.
He had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines. A heck of a lot of
wives, strike three!
And so, As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was
not fully devoted to the LORD his God.
Solomon rejected God. His sin led to the great decline of Israel and to the eventual
destruction of the nation.
And that’s just one of many examples of how Israel’s leaders failed. They had been instituted by God to establish justice in the land, but even with the perfect playbook, even with God telling them exactly what to do, they could not and would not obey. The Old Testament
shows us that human leaders will lead us into crisis after crisis. If God’s kingdom of justice
and goodness is going to become a reality, then it’s going to need a perfectjudge and king
and priest and prophetto lead it.
But then we come to the New Testament.
We discover that Jesus is the Judge; he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. (Acts 10:42).
Jesus is the King; he’s the one who will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end. (Luke 1:32-33)
Jesus is the Priest; we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God. (Heb 4:14)
The New Testament writers repeatedly and consistently apply these job descriptions to Jesus. And that helps us understand what Deuteronomy is all about. See, God’s ultimate purpose in Deuteronomy 16-18 was not to set up a system of rulers in Israel. That was one step along the way. Ultimately, those leadership roles were set up to help us understand Jesus better. They give us a framework, they give us categories to explain who he is and what he does.
For the sake of time we’re going to drill deeper into just one of these roles: the prophet.
Two questions: firstly, how do we know that Jesus is a prophet like Moses?
And secondly, what does it mean for us that Jesus is a prophet?
Firstly, we might suspect that Jesus is a prophet because lots of people recognised him as one when he was on earth. For example, after he had been teaching for a while, he asked the disciples, “Who do people say I am?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” (Mark 8:27-28)
But it wasn’t just other people; Jesus also identified himself as a prophet.
Speaking about himself, Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honour except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.” (Mark 6:4)
And more than that, Jesus shows us that he’s a prophet because he does what a prophet does.
He fulfils the job description.
Remember, a prophet like Moses is someone who God puts his words in his mouth. Jesus
made it clear to people that he wasn’t just making things up on the spot; he was speaking words that God the Father had given him. He said things like My teaching is not my own. It comes from the one who sent me (John 7:16), and … I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me. (John 8:28)
In the end, Jesus is the ultimate prophet, because God does not just speak through him; Jesus is himself God speaking. Jesus is the Word who became flesh. John tells us in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. (John 1:1, 14).
See, it’s not just that God put his words in Jesus’ mouth; it’s that in Jesus, the Word of God became a mouth. So, Jesus tells us who God is and what God says, because he is God come down to earth to speak directly to us.
Now, what does it mean for us that Jesus is our prophet? Well, remember what Moses said in Deuteronomy: 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. (18:15)
Jesus is the prophet like Moses, raised up by the Lord. You must listen to him.
So how do you do that? For us today who don’t see Jesus face-to-face, if you want to listen to him, you need to hear his voice in the words of the Bible. Now, that ’s not to suggest that you should go and buy one of those Bibles which print the words of Christ in red, as if the literal spoken words of Jesus are more important than the rest of the Bible. No, all Scripture is the Word of Christ. We need to listen to all of it.
And this is more than just a call to ‘read your Bible more ’ – although it’s also not less than that; in fact, if you ’re not reading the Bible regularly now, let me encourage you to get back into it, or to start for the first time. If you find it hard, try downloading a Bible reading plan, or listening to it as an audiobook, or arranging to text a Christian friend about what you read each day to keep you accountable.
But also remember that it’s about more than just reading more, because it’s possible to read through forty chapters of the Bible every day without ever really listening to what Jesus has to say, without ever really obeying him. When you read the Bible, or discuss it at Connect Group, or listen to it in church, remember, these are not just words on a page. This is not a textbook. These are words spoken by God through his prophets, and supremely by his Son.
If Jesus is truly a prophet, then you need to listen to everything he says. You can ’t just cherry pick the bits you like. There are plenty of people who treat Jesus’ words like that; “I’m a huge fan of what Jesus said about love and peace and doing good to others; but all that stuff about hell and judgment, I don ’t want anything to do with that, I think Jesus was a bit off the mark there.”
Deuteronomy tells us that that attitude makes no sense. There’s no such thing as a semi- prophet who gets it right 50% of the time. There’s only two categories: either someone is a true prophet with God ’s words in his mouth, or he’s a false prophet, a liar who deserves to be put to death. But as we ’ve seen, the New Testament shows us that Jesus is a true prophet of the Lord. He didn’t have “bad days”! Everything he said comes straight from the very mouth of God.
So, when Jesus says that ‘in the beginning God made us male and female ’, and that marriage is ‘a man leaving his father and mother to be united to his wife ’, are you listening?
When Jesus says, ‘how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven ’, are you listening?
When Jesus says, ‘whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me’, are you listening?
God himself will call us to account if we do not listen to his prophet. If you don’t want to
listen to Jesus’ words, then God says, ‘fine, have it your way’. Jesus is the perfect gentleman – he gives people what they ask for. You want arm’s length? He’ll give you arm’s length. Forever. But you’ll be putting in the ear plugs when you could be listening to the one person who can tell you what you truly need to know.
Thank God that Jesus didn’t just come to give us tough words that we cannot live up to.
He also came to show us who God is, to show us his grace and patience and compassion.
When Jesus says, ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you
rest’, are you listening?
When Jesus says, ‘Trust me; I am going away to my Father ’s house in heaven to prepare a
place for you’, are you listening?
When Jesus says, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me shall live again and never die’, are you listening?
The Lord has raised up for us a prophet like Moses; the Lord Jesus Christ. He is our perfect judge and king and priest, full of justice and goodness and truth. He has spoken the truth that we need to hear. Will you listen to him? Let’s pray that he’ll help us.