When Moses declared some fourteen hundred years before Jesus walked the earth that God would “raise up a prophet like unto me,” it’s doubtful anyone thought he was talking about a specific person to come.
Moses, the deliverer of Israel and the one through whom God gave the law and instated the Sinai Covenant, was contrasting the way the nations sought their gods to the way God would speak to his people. Rather than practicing divination and sorcery, the children of Israel would have prophets, like Moses, through whom God spoke.
That was partially fulfilled throughout their history, through all of the prophets whose words are recorded in the Scriptures and many others whose messages have not lived on. But at the same time, there never was a prophet quite like Moses — one who saw God face-to-face and heard him speak directly.
Never, that is, until Jesus.
So the book of Acts clearly proclaims that Moses’s words were about Jesus (Acts 3:22, Acts 7:37). The early church, ethnically Jewish and steeped in Jewish history, understood from Moses’s life and prophecy who Jesus truly was.
At the same time, Jesus pushed Moses’s prophecy to a whole new level.
It wasn’t just that this prophet-to-come would hear directly from God. This prophet — Jesus — would also be a deliverer. He would also instate a covenant. And like Moses, he would reveal God to the people in a whole new measure.
It wasn’t just Moses’s WORDS that pointed to Jesus. It was his entire LIFE.
SHADOWS OF MESSIAH
Matthew seems acutely aware of the Moses-Jesus parallels, and he more than any other gospel writer draws them out. Because of course, when an omnipotent, storytelling God is directing events, they will be fraught with significance.
Jesus’s life as laid out in Matthew mirrors the life of Moses in a way that’s almost eerie considering that no human being was consciously trying to create the parallel:
- Jesus leaves the “king’s palace” of heaven to identity with God’s oppressed people on earth
- He is born in a time of oppression
- He narrowly escapes genocide by a pagan king
- He flees to Egypt
- In his baptism, he is drawn up out of the water into a new life of favor
- He is driven from that favor into the wilderness for forty days
At this point Moses led the people of Israel to a mountain, Sinai, where he delivered the Ten Commandments. Jesus gathered disciples and then went into a mountain in Galilee, where he delivered the Eight Blessings (the Beatitudes).
Throughout his account, Matthew is consciously paralleling Jesus with Moses: showing him as the fulfillment not only of Moses’s law and Moses’s prophecy but of Moses’s whole life, which was a type and shadow of the Messiah to come.
A LIFE OF SECONDS
I think Moses lived his whole life knowing that he wasn’t God’s final prophet, and by extension, that the Law he delivered wasn’t God’s final word and plan for his people. That is foreshadowed over and over again.
Moses’s life was a life of “seconds,” where the second always has some kind of superiority to the first. For Moses, this often meant a kind of demotion–maybe this is partly why God honors Moses’s humility so deeply. He lived out a picture that always pointed to someone else.
So Moses is called as God’s prophet, but it’s Aaron who speaks. Moses establishes the priesthood, but Aaron is high priest. Moses is given the law, but the first tablets are broken when the people apostasize and have to be replaced by a second set. Moses spends forty years in the wilderness as a refugee and a shepherd and then a second forty years in the wilderness as a deliverer, prophet, and shepherd of God’s people. Moses is called to lead the people into the land, but it’s Joshua (the Hebrew form of the name “Jesus”) who actually does so.
MOSES THE MESSIAH
In a very real sense, Moses was a Messiah. He was called and anointed by God to deliver his people. But he wasn’t THE Messiah, and all his life, he looked ahead–ahead to the end of the Law, ahead to the faithfulness of God that would reach further than the people’s failures to believe, ahead to the second Messiah, the real Messiah, the one Moses’s entire life was a picture of.
LIVING OUT THE STORY
Types fascinate me, because these are not just literary conventions being added to a story by a human author. The Old Testament is FULL of types of Jesus, but these were real people–human beings living out real lives that seemed to them to be just as random and prone to the vagaries of “time and chance” as any other life. Everything mattered, though they couldn’t have known it then. Even the “wrong turns” of Moses’s life came together to foreshadow the coming of Jesus.
According to Paul, we’re no longer living in the Law’s types and shadows but of the reality to which they pointed. Speaking of the Law’s rituals and sacrifices, he wrote:
These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. (Colossians 2:17, NIV)
At the same time, we are still living in something of a shadowland:
Now our knowledge is partial and incomplete, and even the gift of prophecy reveals only part of the whole picture! But when the time of perfection comes, these partial things will become useless . . .
When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things. Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely. (1 Corinthians 13:9-10, 12, NLT)
We are still living out a story we don’t fully understand. We have one foot in the glorious reality of the kingdom of heaven and one foot in the murk of the world. Yet, if the Bible demonstrates anything, I think it demonstrates this: everything matters. God may not directly cause everything that happens in our lives, but there are no accidents.
Life is a story, a story with layers and themes, a story with a plot and characters, a story with a predetermined ending. And we are living it, not because we just happen to be here, but because our lives are an integral part of the whole. We mean something. It ALL means something.
TRUSTING THE STORYTELLER
Like Moses, we can be aware that our lives are fraught with significance and still not see it. We can be convinced that even our wrong turns mean something, yet never really come to understand what they mean.
For Moses, that awareness created humility and a deep trust in God, rather than arrogance or resentment. May our response be the same!
What we have now is partial and incomplete, yet it’s enough to tell us that what is still to come is truly wonderful. When we “know everything completely,” when we know God as fully as he knows us, the shadows will take form and the puzzling reflections will make sense.
Perhaps some future chronicler will remember our lives the way Matthew remembered Moses: as the contours and parallels of a reality so incredible it could hardly be conceived until it happened.
We can’t know what every twist of the plot means as we’re living it. All we can do is trust the Storyteller, who knows where all this is going and has proven that he knows how to direct the story well.
(This is Part 20 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.)