This past summer a very interesting email message circulated and recirculated over the Internet to long lists of recipients. Though this happens frequently, the content of this one made me sit up and take notice. Its anonymous originator stated that the head minister of one of the churches of God claims to be "the Prophet" of Deuteronomy 18. It also reported that this minister, armed with the authority of "the Prophet," had advised all the members of his congregations to make arrangements to attend the 1999 Feast of Tabernacles at a site in Jordan—because, from there, they would be taken to the Place of Safety in Petra. Appended to this email—apparently to lend credence to it—was an excerpt of documentation from a child-custody case purported to have resulted from this plan.
After re-reading, thinking, and praying about this email, I sent a copy to a friend of mine, a member of the church named in the message, and I asked him if there was any truth in it. He and his wife were both shocked and considered it an offensive attack on their church. After some investigation, they confirmed that most—if not all—of the story was false. Though they could not spare the time to research the veracity of the court case, my friends assured me that "the Prophet" claim and the Jordan Feast plans were definitely untrue. Of the latter, they said their church leader had firm plans to share the eight days of the Feast among three North American sites.
The subject of this email message and the section of scripture that it cites raise many questions, the examination of which may prove helpful to God's people.
Asking Some Questions
How did the story originate? Did some malicious person, perhaps a disgruntled former member, knowingly compose this set of lies as a hoax to fool God's people? Or did it develop as so many rumors do: by someone passing along the seed of a story, with additional fragments of opinion, truth and error added by various recipients along the way?
Although the message turned out to be false, we can still learn some lessons from it. One lesson, of course, is that we should be very careful not to take unsubstantiated rumors seriously, whether we receive them personally, by email, telephone, good old snailmail, or by any other medium. Hearing and spreading such tales is very divisive and can be damaging to our faith.
Another lesson is that we need to learn to discern truth from error. Some church members probably took last summer's email message seriously. A few may have even been frightened into taking some action on it. One day in the future, the leader of one of God's churches really could proclaim himself to be "the Prophet" of Deuteronomy 18, one of the two witnesses, or the end-time fulfillment of some other Bible personality. Such a man may announce that the time has come for God's people to flee to the Place of Safety. Would we be able to discern the truth or error of it?
An End-Time Prophet?
Who is "the Prophet" of Deuteronomy 18:15-22? Does God's Word prophesy that he or another fulfillment of him will appear in the end time? Let us take a look at these eight verses to see if any man's claim to be "the Prophet" could be true.
Moses writes in verse 15: "The LORD your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your midst, from your brethren. Him you shall hear. . . ." Who is speaking? There is no doubt that it is God Himself. To whom is He speaking? The answer to this question lies all the way back in Deuteronomy 5:1-6, the beginning of this dialogue:
And Moses called all Israel, and said to them, "Hear, O Israel, the statutes and judgments which I speak in your hearing today, that you may learn them and be careful to observe them. The LORD our God made a covenant with us in Horeb. The LORD did not make this covenant with our fathers, but with us, those who are here today, all of us who are alive. The LORD talked with you face to face on the mountain from the midst of the fire. I [Moses] stood between the LORD and you at that time, to declare to you the word of the LORD; for you were afraid because of the fire, and you did not go up into the mountain. He said: . . .
Then Moses continues—up to and beyond chapter 18—to relate all that God had told Him to tell the children of Israel. So to whom is God speaking in Deuteronomy 18:15-22? To Moses specifically, and through him, to the children of Israel.
More questions arise from verse 15. What does God promise to Moses and the Israelites? He promises to raise up a Prophet. Where will he come from? Note the words "a Prophet . . . from your midst, from your brethren." He will come from the tribes of Israel; the Prophet will be born an Israelite.
What special attribute will this Prophet have? The words "like me" indicate that he will be like God Himself! The Israelites are then commanded to hear the words of this Prophet. This means we are to listen and to act upon what we hear.
God continues in verse 16: "According to all you desired of the LORD your God in Horeb in the day of the assembly, saying, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the LORD my God, nor let me see this great fire anymore, lest I die.'" This verse is linked to the last phrase of the previous verse: "Him you shall hear, according to all you desired. . . ." The Israelites are to listen to the Prophet because, in their fear at Mount Sinai (Exodus 20:18-19), they had begged not to have any further direct contact with God Himself.
Verse 17: "And the LORD said to me: ‘What they have spoken is good.'" God tells Moses that the Israelites were correct in their fear. What does He mean by this? Probably, He means that they would indeed have died if they had had any further direct contact with Him. Paul gives a taste of the sheer terror and expectation of death the Israelites felt in Hebrews 12:18-21, 25-29.
"A Prophet Like . . ."
Verse 18: "I will raise up for them a Prophet like you from among their brethren, and will put My words in His mouth, and He shall speak to them all that I command him." God repeats some of what He had said in verse 15, but the difference is instructive! Verse 15 says, ". . . a Prophet like me," while verse 18 says, ". . . a Prophet like you"! In verse 15, God says the Prophet will be like Himself, but in verse 18, He says He will be like "you."
To whom does the pronoun "you" refer: to the Israelites generally, or to Moses specifically? Is this prophet to be merely human, like the Israelites, or would he be human with special attributes, more like Moses? This prophet, though human, will be somewhat like God, who promises to put His words in this Prophet's mind and mouth. The prophet will then repeat every word God commands to his brethren.
Can this scripture apply to Moses himself? Yes, but it applies to Moses only insofar as any human being—even one filled with and guided by God's Holy Spirit—can be like God. (In this way this could also apply to others like Samuel, Elijah, Jeremiah, Daniel, John the Baptist and the apostle Paul.) A primary function of this Prophet is to act as a mediator between God and His people. Comparing these verses to Deuteronomy 5:5, we can see that Moses was the first human mediator between God and His people and thus fulfilled this prophecy, at least in type: "I stood between the LORD and you at that time, to declare to you the word of the LORD."
Can this prophecy refer to Jesus Christ, the Son of God, through prophetic duality? Yes, it most definitely can! In fact, some Bible scholars maintain that Jesus, during His human sojourn, is the primary fulfillment of these verses. On the first day of the New Testament church of God, Peter quotes part of Deuteronomy 18, and applies it to Jesus:
Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, . . . and that He may send Jesus Christ, who was preached to you before. . . . For Moses truly said to the fathers, "The LORD your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your brethren. Him you shall hear in all things, whatever He says to you. And it shall come to pass that every soul who will not hear that Prophet shall be utterly destroyed from among the people." (Acts 3:19-20, 22-23)
Just weeks before, on the last night of His human life, Jesus had told His disciples that He is the Mediator, the One to whom the Father gave a message to pass on to those who would listen and obey:
Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me? The words that I speak to you I speak not on My own authority; but the Father who dwells in Me, He does the works. . . . He who does not love Me does not keep My words; and the word which you hear is not Mine but the Father's who sent Me. (John 14:10, 24)
Returning to Deuteronomy 18:19: "And it shall be that whoever will not hear My words, which He speaks in My name, I will require it of him." God warns that any who will not listen to and obey God through this prophet will have to answer to Him. This warning should put God's people on double alert: first, to heed and obey the words of Jesus Christ; and second, if a final fulfillment of the Prophet appears in the end time, we will recognize him and heed God's words though him.
Advice for Prophets . . . and Their Audiences
In the remaining verses of the chapter, verses 20-22, the subject matter changes. God seems to acknowledge that He has purposely left the true Prophet unnamed, perhaps wanting His people to put effort into recognizing the Prophet or prophets who truly represent Him. Of course, He wants us to use His criteria, which He proceeds to explain. This is just as true today as it was in ancient Israel.
"But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in My name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die" (verse 20). The "generic" prophet mentioned here does not refer specifically to the Prophet of God of the previous verses. The Bible translators seem to have picked up on this point and have highlighted it by capitalizing "Prophet" in verses 15 and 18, but leaving it in lower case in verses 20 and 22. These latter verses seem to refer to any prophet—true, professing and even false prophets. Verse 20 warns that if a man calling himself a prophet claims to speak in God's name, but speaks words that God has not given him, or speaks in the name of false gods, he puts himself under the death penalty.
Verse 21: "And if you say in your heart, ‘How shall we know the word which the LORD has not spoken?'—" (verse 21). God foresees the inevitable appearance of false prophets. He knows His people can become easily confused at the frightening words of any charismatic, clever-talking, Scripture-twisting, self-professed prophet. God also knows that His children will ask how they can know if a prophet's words are truly sent by Him.
God gives us the solution in advance: "When a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the thing does not happen or come to pass, that is the thing which the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him" (verse 22). This is a simple test. If a man claims to be a prophet speaking in God's name, God's people should prove the veracity of the man's predictions. If his prophecies do not come true, it is obvious that God is not speaking to him or through him. Such a man is a false prophet. We should neither fear his words nor feel compelled to obey them.
Even if the man's prophecies do come to pass, we must beware. God warns us, "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world" (I John 4:1). We need to be watching for the fruits of God's Spirit in those who would claim to be His representatives.
An End-time Prophet?
In the potential scenario of a minister claiming to be "the Prophet" of Deuteronomy 18 and using that position's authority to frighten or persuade church members to join him in Petra (or any other proclaimed Place of Safety), his credibility will stand or fall on the very scriptures he will use to make his claim. Such a man would declare himself to be God's end-time prophet. God says that the prophecies of His true prophets will be directly from Him and that they will certainly be fulfilled. He also says that if the prophecies of a self-professed prophet do not happen, such a man reveals himself as a fraud and incurs the death penalty.
If a man believes he is God's end-time prophet, he needs to consider soberly the implications of his claims, his words, his plans and his decisions—for both himself and for all members of God's true church. God spoke to and instructed His true prophets, both directly (i.e., face to face) and through dreams and visions. Does a modern-day claimant as God's prophet say that God has spoken to him and given him these instructions regarding the Place of Safety? Listen carefully to his answer.
If a church leader were to take thousands of God's people on a one-way trip to Jordan, the news organizations would swiftly hear of it. With the memories of similar failed pilgrimages (more of which are expected as 2000 approaches) and of mass suicides (Jonestown) and massacres (Waco) still fresh in mind, the details would soon be uncovered and splashed all over the globe.
If the man's claim is right and true, of course, no amount of negative press would matter one whit. But if false, its impact would not be limited to the financial ruin of the members of the leader's church group. A trip like this would bring ridicule and persecution upon every member of every branch of God's true church throughout the world.
The problem for church members is this: It is the hope and belief of most, if not all, of God's people that, when His time is right, before the return of Christ, God will by miraculous means take a remnant of His church to a Place of Safety, protecting them there for three-and-a-half years (Revelation 12:14-17). If a man claiming to possess the authority of "the Prophet" were to come on the scene instructing the church to flee, if his claim were true and we reject it, then we would risk being shut out of the Place of Safety.
But consider these questions: Is this the way our loving God works and communicates with His people? Does He force our obedience by scaring us or threatening us into compliance through an out-of-the-blue, one-time, do-or-die decision? Considering the example of Moses and the miraculous Exodus from Egypt, would God have us follow any man without first proving that He is truly working through him? What about all the members of God's church who may not recognize such a claimant as God's one chosen leader? Will God shut them out? What about those members of the church who have perhaps never even heard of this man? Will God shut them out? Will God reject any of the people of His true church who have not been given an ample opportunity to prove the veracity of such a man's claim to be His end-time representative?
God comforts us with these words: "Surely the Lord GOD will do nothing, unless He reveals His secret to His servants the prophets" (Amos 3:7). He is not out to trick us or to trip us up. Our beloved friend and elder brother Jesus Christ echoes this to His disciples: "No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you" (John 15:15).
We can have confidence in God's promise that He will not do anything significant concerning His people without informing us first in a clear, orderly and understandable manner. If and when He chooses to send a special end-time leader to His people—whether he be a prophet, an apostle, or one of the two witnesses (Revelation 11)—God will make sure we are able to recognize the man as His true servant.