Moses is one of the most beloved figures in Israel’s history. He was the reluctant leader who led the people out of Egypt after they suffered in slavery for centuries. He was the one who led them to the region of Sinai where he served as their mediator when the Lord ratified a covenant with them. He was the one who stood beside them when most of the nation refused to enter the Promised Land and had to traverse the Sinai wilderness for forty years as punishment. In many ways, he was the premier leader of Israel, even with all his faults. His character became so respected that even Scripture itself testifies that Moses was the humblest man of his day (Num. 12:3).
But as great as Moses was, he was simply a foretaste, a precursor, to Jesus in his role as prophet, deliverer, and lawgiver. Let’s consider how Jesus fulfills each of these roles first initiated by Moses.
THE ROLES OF MOSES IN THE EXODUS STORY
One clear title that can be ascribed to Moses is that of a prophet. Throughout the Old Testament, prophets spoke on behalf of God. Whether through words spoken or written, prophets were known for their famous line, “Thus says the Lord.” They weren't just some Joe off the street. No one could arbitrarily volunteer to speak for the Lord. They had to be directly called and selectively empowered by the Spirit to prophesy (1 Sam. 19:20; 2 Chron. 20:14; Ezek. 11:5); be subject to God’s command (Deut. 18:18-22); sometimes perform accompanying signs; and prove one’s authenticity by seeing one’s prophecies come to pass (1 Sam. 10:3-11; 1 Kgs. 13:5; 2 Kgs.19:29, 20:9; Jer. 28:15-17; Ezek. 33:33). Though Moses claimed to be a poor speaker, God called him to be his mouthpiece.
Moses played a second major role as a deliverer. In some ways, this was Moses’ most pertinent role because the need for such a person is stressed immediately in the Book of Exodus. The Hebrew people were in bondage. They were beaten, whipped, and overworked, with no hope in sight. Yet even though Israel did not expect Egypt to relent, the Lord provided a person they least expected to fight for their cause.
Moses’ arrival in Egypt and his position in the Egyptian hierarchy put him in a position to deliver the Israelites. God told him he would be sent to Pharaoh so that he could bring Israel, the Lord’s people, out of Egypt (Ex. 3:10). Though he wouldn’t do so in his own power, it is through Moses’ leadership that the Lord showed his might over Egypt and redeemed his people. Moses delivered Israel in the sense that his answer to the Lord’s call on his life was the means through which Israel was rescued from the clutches of slavery.
Finally, Scripture presents Moses as Israel’s lawgiver. This responsibility emerges after the Exodus, when Moses is adjudicating disputes among the people, serving as an elder-judge once they embarked on their journey to the Promised Land. Eventually, the responsibilities increased at such an alarming rate that his father-in-law advised him to delegate some of his duties to qualified elders among the people. That way, Moses had a buffer so he wouldn’t be overwhelmed with every complaint among the masses.
Then, as they approached Mount Sinai, Moses was the one who brought the first draft of Israel’s Bill of Rights—the Ten Commandments—before the people. These rules served as the fundamental basis for the later drafting of the entire Law, which was Israel’s official constitution as God’s newly redeemed nation (cf. Ex. 20:1-17).
Moses became the bridge between God’s heavenly court and the nation of Israel. In a sense, then, Moses’s role as a lawgiver tied his other roles of deliverer and prophet together. By revealing God’s commandments to the people, Moses proclaimed God’s words like a prophet and gave them an outline for how they could have deliverance from the slavery of sin.
JESUS AND THE ROLES OF MOSES
Because Moses was a towering figure in the history of Israel, it’s only fitting that the New Testament has much to say about how his ministry parallels and is even transcended by, Jesus Christ. The easiest way to see this is by simply observing how Jesus replicates the actions of Moses––he served as Israel’s premiere prophet, deliverer, and lawgiver. Let’s look at a few examples.
1. Jesus is the final Prophet
The prophetic office is a great place to begin considering how Moses and Jesus overlap in the biblical story. For starters, Jesus was like Moses in that he met all the criteria one would look for in a prophet. This is not to insinuate that he was merely a prophet, though. That was a mistake many in Jesus’s day made. He was the divine Son of God incarnate, the Messiah of Israel.
At the same time, this does not mean he failed to be the true and better prophet of Israel. Indeed, he was the ultimate prophet. As opposed to being one to whom the “Word of the Lord” came, as it did to Moses and all the other Old Testament prophets, Jesus, as the divine Son, was the Word itself. He embodied the final word of the Father as the Savior who was sent to bring salvation to all those who believe (Jn. 1:1-2; Heb. 1:1-2).
Jesus also acted like other prophets through his words and actions. He announced woes of judgment against unrepentant sinners, while at other times offering words of encouragement to those in need. He sometimes performed parabolic actions to illustrate a point about Israel’s condition, like cursing a fig tree that bore no fruit or kicking people out of the Temple who were consumed with commerce instead of prayer and worship. Likewise, the Gospels are full of accounts where Jesus performed miracles––so much so that his followers asked him to be like the great prophet Elijah and call down fire from heaven (Lk. 9:52-55).
Finally, Jesus predicted future events like prophets often did. Predicting his death and resurrection and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (while also comparing the two) is the most striking example.
2. Jesus is the final Deliverer
The New Testament identifies Jesus as the deliverer of a new Exodus. Moses was called to lead the first exodus so God’s people could escape slavery from Pharaoh, their cruel Egyptian taskmaster. Nevertheless, there was a more powerful dictator that plagued the lives of the Israelites—their own rebellious hearts. The people of Israel were sinners whether they were in Egypt or the Promised Land. So even though Moses could lead the people out of Egypt, he couldn’t mend their spiritual brokenness.
Therefore, a deliverer who could do this would far surpass Moses, and this is why the New Testament often describes Jesus in this way. Israel’s redemption from Egypt in the Exodus became a sort of prelude to a future deliverance from Satan’s kingdom and the corruption of sin.
More parallels with the Exodus continue as Jesus’ ministry launches. Some of them begin at Jesus’s baptism where he is identified as the Father’s beloved Son, which echoes the same title ascribed to Israel when Moses was summoned at the burning bush (Ex. 4:22). Afterwards, Jesus, the true Israelite, was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. Satan tempted him with food when he had been fasting for forty days. But whereas Israel complained about food and water, Jesus chose to wait patiently for his Father’s provision to meet his needs.
This portrayal of Jesus as being faithful where Israel failed continues throughout Matthew, Mark, and Luke, especially in light of the prophet Isaiah’s contrast between Israel as a rebellious servant of the Lord as opposed to an unidentified suffering servant who serves the Lord faithfully (Isa. 52-53). Jesus is identified as the suffering servant who endures punishment for the sake of his people; brings the acceptable year of the Lord where Israel finds deliverance from physical maladies, death, and sin; and dispenses the Spirit to his people.
Jesus is greater than Moses because the exodus he pioneers is a serious upgrade from the first one.
3. Jesus is the final Lawgiver
Finally, the New Testament sometimes used Mosaic overtones to describe Jesus as a type of lawgiver. For instance, when we read of Jesus being on hills or mountains, the event of Moses delivering the Law seems to be in the background. One example comes in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7). Here Jesus is offering insights into the kingdom he represents, just as Moses gave instruction to Israel on how they were to behave as God’s redeemed nation. Jesus gives credence to the Law when he says he has come to do something no one had ever been able to do—keep all of its moral demands, as well as fulfill all of its expectations.
Never in this sermon does Jesus appeal to an explicit quotation in the Old Testament and contradict it. Everything Jesus taught was in harmony with the moral fiber of the Law that Moses delivered to Israel. Yet in this sermon, Jesus criticized things people “had heard that had been said.” When he did, his response was always “but I say unto you.”
The other mountaintop experience that carries Mosaic overtones is the Transfiguration. After revealing his divine glory to three of his disciples and having an astounding meeting with Moses and Elijah, Jesus returned to the bottom of the mountain to see that his disciples were having trouble performing an exorcism. Just as Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments only to find Israel committing idolatry and debauchery, Jesus came down from his own heavenly encounter to be faced with the weak faith and failure of his disciples. As the one with authority, Jesus then cast out the demon and provided instruction for his followers on how to be effective servants when faced with similar ordeals in the future.
In both of these events, Jesus provided instruction for his listeners that carried authority because he was the one who spoke them.
FINAL SALVATION IN JESUS
Moses no doubt holds a major spot in Israel’s hall of fame. He is beloved as the nation’s first great prophet, its great deliverer through the Exodus, and the solemn lawgiver who stood between heaven and earth at Mount Sinai. Yet as cherished as he was and as crucial a role that he played in biblical history, his accomplishments ultimately directed people to a greater prophet, deliverer, and lawgiver who would be the Savior, not of Israel from Egypt, but of believing Jews and Gentiles from sin and death.
As impressive as defeating Pharaoh and Egypt was, making a spectacle of Satan and his demonic hoards by defeating the curse of death was far greater. In Moses’s case, his greatness as a leader was only a precursor to the supremacy of the Savior. John the Gospel writer was right when he said that while Moses gave the Law, God’s final saving grace and truth came through Jesus Christ (Jn. 1:17).
This article is adapted from They Spoke of Me: How Jesus Unlocks the Old Testament, Rainer Publishing (January 26, 2018).
Brandon D. Smith works with the Christian Standard Bible, is an editor for Bibles & Reference at Holman Bible Publishers, and co-hosts the Word Matters podcast. He is currently writing his Ph.D. dissertation on a Trinitarian reading of the Book of Revelation under the supervision of Michael Bird. He also serves as Editorial Director for the Center for Baptist Renewal. You can read his blog at https://secundumscripturas.com