Priests and Prophets – Deuteronomy 18

Read the Passage: Deuteronomy 18

Rights of Levites (18:1–8)

In the larger section of the book in which this passage appears—that is, Deut. 16:18–18:22—Moses is applying the fifth commandment (cf. Exod. 20:12; Deut. 5:16) to Israel’s civil context, as he discusses the sanctity of human authority. Within these three chapters, Moses discusses laws regarding the administration of civil justice (cf. Deut. 16:18–17:13), laws regarding the behavior of civil rulers (cf. Deut. 17:14–20), laws regarding the behavior of priests (cf. Deut. 18:1–8), and a gives a great prophecy about a new Prophet who is the coming Messiah (cf. Deut. 18:9–22). Note that priests fulfilled an important role within the Jewish sacrificial system, as they served as mediators between God and man. As such, the Levitical priests depicted Christ. With the coming of Jesus, all believers now have become priests (cf. 1 Pet. 2:9–10) and are expected to depict Christ.

After discussing the roles of judges and kings in the previous chapter, in Deut. 18:1–8 Moses gives instructions about priests. Earlier, God had chosen the tribe of Levi to be priests in Israel (cf. Num. 1–3). At the Lord’s instruction, the Levites were not given a land inheritance in the Promised Land, but were to dwell in designated cites through the country, and were to receive financial support from the people to whom they ministered (cf. Num. 35:1–8; Josh. 21). Note that not all Levites were priests, but all priests were Levites. Indeed, Levites served in various ministerial capacities, including porters of the tabernacle, singers, treasurers, bakers, assistants, judges, scribes, and teachers, among many other roles. In Deut. 18:3–5 Moses reminds the people of their duty to care for the Levites. In Deut. 18:6–8 Moses teaches all Levites had a right to serve in Tabernacle.

Customs of Nations (18:9–14)

In Deut. 18:9–14 Moses warns God’s people not to copy the wicked customs of the Canaanites. In this passage Moses lists nine specific evil practices that Israel was to avoid, including: human sacrifice, witchcraft, soothsaying, interpreting omens, sorcery, conjuring spells, serving as a medium, necromancy, and conducting séances. In Deut. 18:12 Moses gives two reasons why the people were to avoid these wicked customs—namely, they are an abomination to God and these customs are the main reason why God dispossessed the Canaanites. We must remember that we are predisposed to become like those whom we are around, whether they are godly or not (cf. Prov. 13:20; 23:20–21; 1 Cor. 15:33). Indeed, this is the justification for the Canaanite genocide God gave earlier (cf. Exod. 34:10–16; Deut. 7:4), which Moses would repeat again at Deut. 20:16–18.

Prophecy of Messiah (18:15–22)

In Deut. 18:15–19 Moses gives a prophecy about a coming Prophet, who was to be the Messiah. Note that God promised to send this Prophet in response to the peoples’ want of a mediator—a need which they recognized when God gave the moral law on Mount Sinai (cf. Deut. 5:23–27; Heb. 12:18–24). In Acts 3:22–26, Luke records that Peter appealed to portions of Deut. 18:15–19 during his sermon from Solomon’s porch. In this message at the Temple Peter declared Jesus is the new and better Moses, as he taught the people, “To you first, God, having raised up His Servant Jesus, sent Him to bless you, in turning away every one of you from your iniquities” (Acts 3:26). Observe Peter’s teaching that Moses was not the only one to prophesy of Jesus’ coming, as “all the prophets, from Samuel and those who follow, as many as have spoken, has also foretold these days” (Acts 3:24).

In Deut. 18:20–22 Moses gives some guidance regarding true and false prophets. In response to his teaching about a coming Prophet in Deut. 18:15–19, it would have been logical for the people to inquire about how to discern the authenticity of prophets. In this passage Moses discloses three characteristics of false prophets. First, false prophets give prophecies that are not in accord with previously revealed Scripture. Moses refers to “the prophet who presumes to speak a word in My name, which I have not commanded him to speak” (Deut. 18:20a). Second, false prophets blatantly speak “in the name of other gods” (Deut. 18:20b), thus identifying themselves as inauthentic. Third, false prophets can be identified for they utter prophecies that do “not happen or come to pass” (Deut. 18:22; cf. Deut. 13:1–5). Such false prophets, writes Moses, shall not be a cause for people to fear.

Application Questions:

  1. While priests and prophets played a major role in the life of Israel, are priests and prophets valid offices in the life of the church today?
  2. In the church is it proper to make a distinction between pastors and laypeople, or between clergy and laity? If so, what is the difference?
  3. Why would a Levite leave his hometown and “desire” (Deut. 18:6) to serve at the Tabernacle? How does this teaching relate to a call to ministry (cf. 1 Tim. 3:1)?
  4. Why did God warn the people about avoiding the sins of the Canaanites? How do those around us influence us (cf. Prov. 13:20; 1 Cor. 15:33)?
  5. How could the people of Israel distinguish between true and false prophets? How can we differentiate between true and false teachers?