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Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
The mountain traditionally identified as Mount Nebo is located about 12 miles east of where the Jordan River enters the Dead Sea, and it rises more than 2,600 feet above sea level. The Dead Sea is the lowest spot in the world, 1,300 feet below sea level. What a dramatic view of this land that Moses longed to see!
By inviting Moses to a bird’s eye view of the Promised Land, the Lord showed one last act of kindness to this special leader of God’s people. But maybe it was more than that. Biblical precepts let a man view land he was about to possess. Perhaps this was the Lord’s way of giving Moses a legal guarantee that Israel would really inherit the land, even though Moses would die before it happened.
The Lord had an even better promised land in mind for Moses. The writer to the Hebrews includes Moses on his list of believers who “all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and aliens on earth… They desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:13, 16).
Nine out of ten people would probably tell you they’d rather go through life as a master than as a servant. Sin has made our nature, to use Luther’s revealing phrase, “deeply curved in upon itself,”[i] and so we want other people to serve us, not we them. But our Lord Jesus redefined greatness: “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:26-28). St. Paul adds, that though Jesus was “in the form of God, [He] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, by taking the form of a servant… becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8).
We are told, “Moses was 120 years old when he died. His eye was undimmed, and his vigor unabated. And the people of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab for thirty days.” A great tribute. But the final measure of Moses’ long life was that he was said to be “the servant of the Lord” (Hebrews 3:5).
Deuteronomy concludes: “And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, none like him for all the signs and the wonders that the Lord sent him to do in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land, and for all the mighty power and all the great deeds of terror that Moses did in the sight of all Israel” (34:10–12). This closing epitaph gives two reasons why Moses’ service was unparalleled in Israel’s history.
First, Moses’ service was unique because he enjoyed a more intimate relationship with the Lord than any Old Testament prophet. When Aaron and Miriam challenged Moses’ authority, the Lord set them straight: “Hear My words: If there is a prophet among you, I the Lord make Myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream. Not so with My servant Moses. He is faithful in all My house. With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the Lord. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” (Numbers 12:6–8).
Although Elijah heard the “gentle whisper” of the Lord (1 Kings 19:12-18) and Ezekiel saw the indescribable majesty of the Lord (Ezekiel 1:4-28), no other prophet could claim with Moses: “The Lord used to speak to [him] face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.” (Exodus 33:11).
Moses’ service was also extraordinary because he performed more miraculous signs by the Lord’s power than any Old Testament prophet. Elijah and Elisha each raised a young man from the dead (1 Kings 17:17-24; 2 Kings 4:18-35) and parted the water of the Jordan River (2 Kings 2:8, 14). And Elijah had defeated the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:20-46), but Moses’ miraculous signs stand above those of Elijah and Elisha. His mighty deeds such as the ten plagues (Exodus 7-11), parting the Red Sea (Exodus 14), providing bread from heaven and water from the rock (Exodus 16, 17), were pivotal in in the exodus from Egypt and bringing Israel through the wilderness to the edge of the land.
Moses’ unique service to the Lord is summed up in Deuteronomy 34:10: “No prophet has arisen since in Israel like Moses.” However, in Deuteronomy 18:18, the Lord promises Moses, “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put My words in His mouth and He shall speak to them all that I command Him.”
Moses died on Mount Nebo, but it wasn’t the last time he appeared in God’s unfolding plan of salvation. Fourteen hundred years later, Jesus leads Peter, James, and John up a mountain to pray. Eight days earlier, Peter had correctly identified Jesus as the Christ of God. It was a good start in understanding who He is, but it fell short of expressing Jesus’ true nature. Now, an event occurs that provides the heavenly Father’s own answer to this question, “Who is this?”
As Jesus prays, His face and clothing suddenly change. He is transfigured and appears in heavenly glory. Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets, appear with Him. According to Jewish thought, these two men were expected to return at the end of the world.
Moses had spoken the Lord’s words to the people: “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). By the time of the Transfiguration, many had already recognized that Jesus is a prophet. They were also ways in which Jesus had fulfilled the role of a returning Elijah. But neither of these identifications matches what was given here at the transfiguration by God Himself.
The conversation among these three glorified saints on the mountain concerns the very subject Jesus had presented so recently to His disciples: His departure. The Greek word here is exodus. Moses had been the leader of the exodus that brought Israel out of the slavery of Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land. Jesus is the leader of the new exodus from the slavery of sin into the promised land of heaven. His own departure would take place in Jerusalem, an exodus through death, resurrection, and ascension.
While much of the Old Testament looks back to the exodus from Egypt as the great salvation event for Israel, many other passages look forward to a new and greater exodus that God promises to bring to pass. This new/greater exodus theme is especially prominent in Isaiah. Strikingly, even the pagan Gentile nations who were Israel’s mortal enemies will be reconciled to her and to God and participate in this new redemptive event (Isaiah 11:11-16).
Just as the first exodus was full of baptismal overtones, as St. Paul expounds in 1 Corinthians 10:1-5, so also is the new exodus. In the first exodus, water was the means of death; in it the Egyptian foes drowned. The new exodus also involves death—the death of Christ—and those baptized into Christ die to sin as they are united with Christ (Romans 6:1-5). In the first exodus, the Lord provided water in the wilderness from the Rock. But in the new exodus, God will pour out water to sustain His people in the arid desert of this world (Isaiah 43:16-20), and this outpouring of water is accompanied by His outpouring of His Spirit on His people.
At Jesus’ baptism, the heavenly voice addressed Him directly: “You are My Son, whom I love; with You I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). Now, as the mountain is enveloped in a cloud, this identification is repeated for the disciples’ sakes: “This is My Son, My Chosen One; listen to Him.” “Listen to Him.” The same words Moses had used in His prophecy of “a prophet like me.” Jesus is more than some prophet like Moses to whom people are bidden to listen; Jesus is God’s own Son, and the words He speaks therefore take on added significance. He Himself is the Word of God, the final and complete revelation of God’s will for the world.
Here is God’s answer to the question about Jesus: “Who is this? This is My Son, the One like Moses.” “Just like, but even more so.” If you thought Moses was something special, wait until you understand who Jesus is! Jesus is the greater Moses; His is the greater exodus.
Need proof? Moses was “an apostle,” one sent by God to lead and to rescue God’s people. Jesus is “the Apostle and High Priest of our confession.” Moses was also the intercessor extraordinaire, the one who represented God to the people and the people to God. Jesus is just like that, but even more so.
Moses has a unique and primary role in God’s house, that of a chief steward or head servant, entrusted with the entire household and honored for the faithful service he renders. Jesus also has a unique and primary role, just like Moses, but even more so. Jesus is the Son over the whole household and honored as Sent One, Intercessor, Heir, and Builder, not just the manager of God’s House.
Moses should receive honor, Jesus even more. Moses should be followed, Jesus even more. Moses should be trusted, Jesus most of all and above all else. Jesus is the greater Moses, His exodus is the greater exodus
Like the people wandering in the wilderness, we have our own day-to-day experience that wars against the promise we have received and now confess. Wandering in the desert can be hazardous to your spiritual health. Recurring grumbling and a loss of faith are common side effects.[ii] None of us are immune. Each of us is buffeted by fear and doubt.
That all-too-familiar story of rebellion and unbelief in the wilderness is exactly why Hebrews 3 points us to Jesus. If Moses was faithful, and people could have/should have trusted what Moses said and did and believed the promises Moses spoke on behalf of God and been confident in the hope Moses gave, then how much more should we, who have now received promises and hope not only from the preeminent servant, but from Jesus the preeminent Son, how much more can we trust and hope and honor and follow? Jesus is just like Moses only more so.
Our text begins by calling us holy members of the family of God. We are those who share in a calling which comes directly from heaven, those who have received and now same-say Jesus as the faithful sent one and intercessor (Hebrews 3:1). It ends by calling us the household of God, under the leadership of Christ, the Son, and encouraging us to hold fast to the confidence and hope we have in Jesus.
That status of membership in God’s family is not in doubt. Yet, when you are wandering in the wilderness, your confidence and hope can start to slip.[iii] We could have/should have listened to Moses. And now someone greater than Moses is here. In our own wandering experience, Jesus is just like Moses, only more so. His exodus, rescuing us from sin and death, was greater still than the exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt that prefigured it.
Jesus willingly gave Himself into the hands of sinful man. Though without sin Himself, He suffered the scorn of His enemies and the wrath of God in our place. He died on the cross and rose again three days later, defeating our greatest enemies of sin, death, and the devil. He ascended to the right hand of the heavenly Father, where He intercedes as High Priest on our behalf. On the Last Day, He will come to raise the living and the dead and will take you and me and all His people to be with Him forever in the Promised Land of heaven. Amen
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
[i] Luther’s Works, Vol. 25, p. 291.
[ii] Epistle: Hebrews 3:1-6 (Transfiguration: Series C) | 1517, https://www.1517.org/articles/epistle-hebrews-31-6-transfiguration-series-c-1.
[iii] Epistle: Hebrews 3:1-6 (Transfiguration: Series C) | 1517, https://www.1517.org/articles/epistle-hebrews-31-6-transfiguration-series-c-1.