Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son. (Hebrews 1:1–2)
This Advent, as we await our promised Messiah, we wait for a prophet, for Jesus fulfills the message of the prophets and speaks for God in the greatest possible way.
Throughout Israel’s history, God sent prophets to his people to speak on his behalf, to call them away from the unfaithfulness of idolatry and back to him. They spoke on behalf of God with a message to his people and to the world. Even in the Old Testament, however, the ministry of the prophets pointed beyond themselves to a great prophet yet to come.
The popular impression of the Old Testament prophets might be something akin to fortune-tellers, but their primary role was more “forth-telling” than “foretelling” the future (How to Read the Bible, 67–90). That is to say, the prophets were focused on pointing out the reality of sin and its consequences in the world now, not so much on predicting what is going to happen at the end of the world. Even when they did speak about future events, they did so to lead to repentance and ongoing faithfulness to the Lord.
Probably the best-known introduction to the prophetic oracles is “Thus says the Lord . . .” This phrase appears over four hundred times in the Old Testament. Virtually every time, a prophet is announcing a message directly from the Lord. The prophets were the mouthpiece of God, announcing both good and bad news, and reminding Israel of God’s will and the consequences of disregarding it.
“All people will ultimately hear the name and voice of Jesus and bow the knee to him.”
God called the prophets from Israel to speak mainly to Israel. They warned of the looming exile that would decimate both northern and southern kingdoms. They lamented the ongoing sin and idolatry of God’s people (for example, Isaiah 1:2–31) and described the Lord’s departure from the temple because of the ongoing sin of his people (Ezekiel 10:1–22). But the prophets also reminded Israel of God’s ongoing commitment to his covenant. A day was coming when the Lord would remove sin and return to dwell among his people again (Isaiah 52:13–53:12; Zechariah 8:1–8).
Even though the prophets spoke mostly within Israel, the message of the prophets was not only for Israel. After all, they spoke on behalf of the God who created heaven and earth and everything in them. They spoke of coming judgment not only on Israel, but also on the nations who arrogantly acted as if they were independent of their Creator God (Obadiah 1–21). Yet their message also held out hope for the nations. When God worked to restore Israel, he would include the nations in his people as well (Zechariah 14:9–21).
Prophet Like Moses
In spite of all that the Lord did and said through his prophets, their ministry was ultimately insufficient and incomplete. It was insufficient because Israel continued to rebel against the prophets, which was actually rebellion against God himself. Although there were times of repentance and restoration, the story of Israel in the Old Testament is ultimately a tragic story that ends in judgment and exile. Because of their continued sin, the presence of God departed from the people, and they went into exile in Babylon and Assyria. The Old Testament ends with the nation’s sin still festering and with the presence of the Lord still absent. The prophets’ message was left incomplete and unfulfilled.
Yet this should not have been surprising. Near the beginning of Israel’s history, Moses spoke on behalf of God to the people, giving them the law covenant and calling them to remain faithful. He also spoke on behalf of God to the nations, as he warned Pharaoh and Egypt of the coming plagues. But Moses himself spoke of a greater prophet to come: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers — it is to him you shall listen” (Deuteronomy 18:15).
Throughout the Old Testament, this prophet did not emerge. As the Old Testament comes to an end, we are still looking for a greater prophet than Moses, the one who would speak God’s words to the people in a way that results in the lasting forgiveness of sin and the permanent presence of God among his people. They were waiting for the Prophet, and in the coming of the promised Messiah, they would find him.
Listen to Him
In Jesus, we encounter the prophet who is greater than Moses and every other prophet. At his transfiguration, when the Father announces that Jesus is his beloved Son, he adds the command, “Listen to him” (Matthew 17:5). This points us back to Deuteronomy 18:15: “It is to him you shall listen.” It is no accident that Moses and Elijah, two key prophets from the beginning and later part of Israel’s history, were present with him (Matthew 17:3). The message is clear: Jesus is the greater prophet — the greatest prophet — the living Word of God. In the Old Testament, the prophets spoke on behalf of God, calling both Israel and the world to submit to him and also warning both of God’s coming judgment and salvation. We see this mission embodied in the greatest possible way in the Messiah Jesus.
Jesus not only speaks on behalf of God; he is the very Word of God. In John 1, the Word dwells with God and is God, yet he also comes to “tabernacle” with us (John 1:1, 14). The author of Hebrews tells us that he is qualitatively different than any previous revelation from God, for he is the very Son of God (Hebrews 1:1–2). He calls the people of God to repent and believe the gospel (Mark 1:14–15). He warns of the coming judgment (Matthew 24:3–51). He calls the world to repentance (Luke 24:46–47) and sends his church into the world to speak on his behalf (Matthew 28:18–20). In short, he does all that the Old Testament prophets were called to do. Unlike the Old Testament prophets, however, his prophetic ministry is neither insufficient nor incomplete. The promised Messiah, Jesus, fulfills all that the prophets were anticipating. And this is good news for us.
“Even in the Old Testament, the ministry of the prophets pointed beyond themselves to a great prophet yet to come.”
Even as he went to the cross, Jesus continued his prophetic ministry, speaking the words of God to the people of God and to the world as he quoted from the Scriptures to the Jews and Romans who had gathered around Golgotha. At the cross, he was the servant who suffered for the people and fulfilled the words of the prophets who spoke of the coming atonement for sin (Isaiah 53:4–5). In his resurrection, he was shown to be the vindicated servant in whom the Lord was well pleased (Isaiah 53:10–12).
All the Earth Will Hear
The voice of the Old Testament prophets was often disregarded and mocked, even by God’s own people. Today, all God’s people hear Jesus’s voice, even as his words are disregarded and mocked in the world. But we can have confidence that all people will ultimately hear the name and voice of Jesus and bow the knee to him (Philippians 2:9–11). Even today, we can hear and submit to the voice of God in the words of Jesus.
During this Advent season, we can look to Jesus, our true prophet, the one who truly reveals God to the church and the world. He did what every other prophet before him could only hint at: he finally dealt with the sin of God’s people and restored his presence to his people. As he dwells with us, Jesus, the true prophet, speaks the very words of God to us. We look to him for hope, even in our darkest moments, with the confidence that in these last days God has spoken to us in his own Son.