The notion of the messiah as a prophet is similarly criticized, but there is strong evidence in Jewish scripture that the Prophet was a role the Messiah would fill. Historically, a prophet in the Israelite tradition is literally a spokesperson—he or she is a representative of God to the people. The prophet works with the intention of bringing about change and calling society back to orthodoxy, justice, and faith in God. For Jews, prophets took on a slightly different role than for other near-eastern religions at the time (and even some prophets within Israel itself). Prophets came with a message for the people rather than with a hope of divining some information from God. That is, prophecy was God speaking to his people, rather than the people trying to decode God.
Deuteronomy 18 is the clearest description of this Prophetic role of the messiah: “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him,” the Deuteronomist tells the Israelites as Moses. God adds: “I will raise up for them a prophet like [Moses] from among their brothers; I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him.”1 There are two key features here: First, we note the strength of God’s promised calling—again bringing to mind the Calling involved in being chosen and anointed. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations,” God tells Jeremiah.2 Similarly, the second Servant Song speaks of the calling of a Messiah in very similar terms.3 “Before I was born the LORD called me; from my birth he has made mention of my name,” the text reads.4 These similarities draw a strong connection between the prophet Jeremiah and the messianic figure described in Isaiah.
Second, we note the comparison to Moses. Some scholars would suggest that the mention of “a prophet like [Moses]” in Deuteronomy 18 is not about a single Great Prophet, but rather about Israel’s broader prophetic tradition.5 The verse, these scholars say, points to all of the prophets after Moses who had yet to arise—Samuel, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, etc. But the post-Mosaic addition to the book says that “there has never been another prophet like Moses,” meaning that while there are prophets like Moses in that they serve the same basic purpose, there are none in his “preeminence.”6 7 So if the “prophet like Moses” does not refer to just any other Israelite prophet, it must refer to a special one—ostensibly, Jesus.
If it is still not clear that the scripture itself refers to a single Great Prophet rather than to the Mosaic prophetic line, the treatment of Deuteronomy 18 in the Acts of the Apostles, an early text, certifies that Jewish Christians at the time had an eschatological Prophet in mind. The passage comes up twice, once brought up by Peter (3:17-23) and later by Stephen (7:37), both with strongly implied references to Jesus as the prophet like Moses. Furthermore, Luke Timothy Johnson observes that Stephen’s telling of the Moses narrative is structured to correspond very closely to the Jesus story—a parallel that sets up Moses as a prophetic and messianic prefiguration of Jesus.8
Returning to the Servant Songs, we can see messianic Prophethood described further. Along with the analog to Jeremiah described earlier, the second Servant Song and Isaiah 61—the opening remarks of Jesus’ public ministry—include strong language about “the office of a prophet.”9 “The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor,” the future Messiah says in Isaiah.10 “[God] made my mouth like a sharpened sword,” he says elsewhere in the book. “In the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me into a polished arrow and concealed me in his quiver.”11 Oswalt uses this passage as proof that Isaiah refers to a Great Prophet and not to a king or to all of Israel.
No, for the weapon of the Servant is his mouth. He will accomplish God’s will not by military force but by a revelation of God’s word. The power of God’s word had been demonstrated again and again by the prophets. It was the power to break down and build up. As the preeminent prophet, the Messiah would hold that power in the fullest and purest manner.12
Again we see strong parallels with past prophets—notably, God putting his words into Jeremiah’s mouth and His famous retort to Moses’ issue with public speaking: “Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him deaf or mute? Who gives him sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, the LORD? Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.”13 14 The prophet we meet in this scripture is “not one of a coming king, but of a servant who comes in a manner similar to the prophets.”15 Indeed, most of Jesus’ public ministry focuses on a call to renewal, a call to return to faith, peace, and justice—an operation consistent with past prophets.
In addition to proclamation, one other hallmark of prophethood that scholars note is the office of suffering. Prophets, as individuals meant to enforce accountability upon God’s people, were often incredibly unpopular, and so in the Jewish prophetic tradition, suffering is almost as common as the proclamations that cause it for the prophet. Jeremiah is notable for his sufferings—he is taunted, imprisoned, and even thrown into a pit to die.16 The Servant Song casts the Messiah in a similar light, portraying him as a willful, mournful sufferer, wounded for those he came to save.17 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!” he says in Luke.18
The scriptures confirm that Jews at the time at least had some notion that Jesus might be a prophet—indeed, that he might even be the reincarnation of a prophet from a different age. “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets,” Peter tells Jesus when his master asks who the people say he is. Jesus then asks Peter what he himself thinks, but the key is that in doing so, Jesus neither confirms nor denies the suspicions of the people, leaving his prophethood on the table.19 Additionally, as mentioned before, the walkers on the Road to Emmaus also demonstrate that Jesus as a messianic Prophet was a concept in play.
1 Deuteronomy 18: 15, 18.
2 Jeremiah 1:5
3 Hays 63
4 Isaiah 49:1
5 Block 29
6 Deuteronomy 34:10
7 Longman 28
8 Hays 62
9 Hays 64
10 Isaiah 61
11 Isaiah 49:2
12 Oswalt, John. The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40-66 (New International Commentary on the Old Testament). Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 1998. 290
13 Jeremiah 1:9
14 Exodus 4:11-12
15 Hays 64.
16 Jeremiah 38:7-13,
17 Isaiah 53:7-12
18 Luke 13:34
19 Matthew 16:14