In chapter eleven of the book of Numbers, the Israelites are in the desert of Sinai after being led up out of their captivity in Egypt. The Lord has been providing manna for them to eat, but some of the rabble begin to despise the manna. They have the Lord to thank for delivering them and providing for them, but they want to go back to the way they were before. They have a strong craving; they long for the days of captivity where they had fresh fish and all sorts of vegetables to eat. Things seem better in retrospect, so they want to go back to what they once were. And so they grumble.
And Moses, quite frankly, is getting tired of dealing with them. He’s the only one through whom the Lord is speaking to the people, because he’s the only one with the Spirit. Moses has the Spirit of the Lord and is called to speak the Lord’s Word to others. He is the only prophet among the people and has to deal with their constant grumbling. He’s so fed up and so stressed out that he finally pleads with the Lord, “If I have found favor in your sight, kill me now.”
But, the Lord doesn’t kill Moses. Instead, He has Moses bring seventy elders of the people to Him so that the Lord can bestow His Spirit upon them as well. The Lord then pours out His Spirit upon the elders to enable them to prophesy so that they too can speak His Word to the people. Remember that in the Bible, the word prophesy has the broader meaning of speaking God’s Word to others, not necessarily the ability to tell the future, although sometimes that was involved as well.
Two men – Eldad and Medad – had remained in the camp and were not among the seventy elders. Even so, the Lord poured out His Spirit upon these two men as well, so that they too were also prophets. However, Joshua urges Moses to stop them from speaking the Word of the Lord, because they weren’t among the seventy elders. But, Moses refuses and instead longs for the day when all the Lord’s people would be prophets and would have the Spirit of the Lord on themL it’s a good thing that these men also have the Spirit; and it will be a great day when all believers have the Spirit.
Because, in the Old Testament, there were only a very few people who were prophets who had the Spirit of the Lord upon them to enable them to speak the Word of the Lord to others. And it was a heavy burden; Moses and later Elijah both longed for death, and the other prophets often wept at the tasks set before them.
So, that is why Moses says, “Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD would put his Spirit on them!”
Moses longs for that day. Finally it comes, though long after Moses’ death. But, came it did.
That day came much later with the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus the Christ. Jesus promised that after he ascended into heaven he would send the Holy Spirit to guide his people into all truth, enable his people to speak his truth, and comfort and guide his people. In fact, immediately before he ascended back into heaven, Jesus told his disciples: “… you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
Jesus’ promise was fulfilled ten days later at the Feast of Pentecost. On that first Pentecost of the New Testament Church, the Lord poured out His Spirit upon the disciples and they spoke the Word of the Lord to the crowd that was gathered for the feast. The Lord enabled them to be His witnesses, prophets by the power of the Spirit, speaking God’s Word.
This event was the beginning of the realization of Moses’ longing as well as the beginning of the fulfillment of what the Lord had promised through the Old Testament prophet Joel who had said:
“And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit” (Joel 2:28-29).
“Those days” arrived on that first day of Pentecost. And “those days” continue during “these days” as this prophecy is fulfilled at each Baptism as the Lord continues to pour out His Spirit upon all flesh. The Lord bestows His Holy Spirit upon all His people through Baptism. So, you too are prophets of the Lord, having received His Spirit with Baptism and His Word through Word and Sacrament. So, you are the ones who Moses longed to see during “these days” when all the Lord’s people are prophets. For this reason, in his first epistle St. Peter calls you priests and a holy nation, God’s own people. You and the rest of the Church of which you are a part share in the fulfillment of the promises made long ago.
So, what this means is that you too are enabled to not only understand the Word of the Lord, but also to speak it to others. The eyes of faith behold Christ, even though he has ascended into heaven, because faith sees through the eyes of the Spirit.
The Lord has poured out His Spirit upon you and brought you to faith in Jesus Christ. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have worked together in one holy will to not only save you from eternal death through the forgiveness of your sins, but also to sanctify you in your new identity as children of God, enabled to hear and speak the Word of your heavenly Father.
However, God’s promises are not detached from His means of grace. That is to say that we are not in “these days” receiving new revelations from God. In the Old Testament and in the beginning of the New, God gave His Word to prophets and apostles to write down for the benefit of those coming afterwards. All that’s in our Bibles was written for our benefit. This is the Biblical canon that testifies to God’s promises and their fulfillment in Jesus Christ. So to be a prophet/priest now means to read and hear and understand this Word of God and proclaim it to others.
And God’s means of grace also includes more than the written form of His Word. For, we not only have the written Word of the Bible, we also have the spoken and proclaimed Word, and we have the Sacramental Word in Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. We are created, embodied creatures of God, and He gives us His Word through created, material means – just as Christ himself became enfleshed for our salvation. The Lord continues to feed us in the wilderness of this life. Those who neglect this fact are missing out on many of the gifts of God and grumbling against His life-giving manna.
All these gifts of God’s means of grace have one focus: they all point you to Jesus Christ and give you Christ and his atoning sacrifice and righteousness as a gift. God has promised to work through these means of grace to bring you to faith and keep you in faith in Christ and to sanctify you for the tasks ahead of you.
For being bearers of God’s Word is a heavy burden, as Moses, Elijah, the Apostles and the rest of the faithful throughout history have seen and experienced before the Lord finally gave them the rest they were longing for. The fallen world hates the Lord, His Word, and His people.
That’s why it’s so important to remain close to God’s Word and Sacraments. For if we depart from Him and these gifts of His, we will be led astray. We’d be like the Israelites in the desert, grumbling against the food that the Lord has given us and instead looking for other food. For, God has promised to speak to us and be with us through Word and Sacrament; these are His chosen means of acting, these are the means of His grace whereby He gives us Christ. The Lord has not promised to speak with us directly apart from these means. So, cling to these means and hold fast to them, because they are where our gracious, merciful, and loving Lord has promised to be and where he has promised to meet us with His Gospel.
“Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets” indeed, and thanks be to God that He has fulfilled this longing through Christ by making you His children. Amen.
(Image: Moses and Aaron Speak to the People, c. 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (French, 1836-1902), gouache on board, 8 7/16 x 10 1/8 in. (21.4 x 25.7 cm), at the Jewish Museum, New York – By James Tissot – http://www.thejewishmuseum.org/onlinecollection/object_collection.php?objectid=26341&artistlist=1&an=James Jacques Joseph Tissot, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8841496 )