Maybe I’m weird, but I often read the obituaries in the newspaper. It’s interesting to read what family members say about the departed loved one. What are they remembered for? Usually, it’s their relationships with family and friends, their careers, and their favorite activities and hobbies. But, it’s also sobering to read obituaries, because someday someone will write mine. What will I be remembered for?
Once in California, my phone rang and a woman on the other end asked, “Father Cole?” I replied, “Well, I am a father and my name is Cole, but are you looking for the Catholic priest?” I offered to get his number, but she asked, “Well, you’re a reverend, aren’t you?” I said, “I’m the pastor of a church here.” She replied, “That will do.” She then explained that her father had died and she was looking for someone to conduct the funeral.
I met with her and two of her siblings. In the course of talking about the funeral service, I shared the gospel with them. Even though I had not said anything about their father, the woman who had called me grew very agitated and blurted out, “Are you saying that our dad is in hell?” I replied that I did not know their father or where he stood with the Lord. I was only trying to let them know what the Bible says about how any person can spend eternity in heaven with the Lord.
At the funeral the three of them got up and read a eulogy about “we remember dad.” They recalled, “We remember dad going to the bar and buying a round of drinks for all his buddies. He loved going to the bar! We remember dad going to the market and flirting with all the cute young checkers.” Basically, they fondly remembered dad as a dirty-minded old drunk! Then I got up and preached the gospel! My associate sitting at the back was trying to suppress his laughter at the disparity of the situation!
But the important question is not how you want your family and friends to remember you, but rather, “What would God say if He wrote your obituary?” In our text, we have the obituary that God wrote about Moses. It was added sometime after his death (v. 10). But since all Scripture is inspired by God, we know that God wrote this obituary about this great prophet. The lesson for us is:
Since we all will stand before God, we need to live with His obituary for our lives constantly in view.
What will the Lord say? Will He say, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt. 25:21)? Will He shake His head and say, “Your work is in the bonfire, but by My grace, come on into heaven” (1 Cor. 3:15)? Or, will He utter those terrible words (Matt. 7:23), “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness”? God’s obituary on Moses teaches us four lessons:
1. Since we all will die (unless Jesus returns before then), we need to live with eternity in view.
Last week we looked at what Moses knew about God. God spoke with him face to face in a manner that He didn’t speak with anyone else, even with other prophets (Num. 12:6-8). So Moses knew God in a unique way. But when it comes to the end and we read God’s obituary, it doesn’t emphasize Moses’ knowledge of God, but rather God’s knowledge of Moses (Deut. 34:10), “whom the Lord knew face to face.” (This insight is from P. C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy [Eerdmans], p. 406.) That parallels in reverse the Lord’s terrible words to those who claimed to know Him and do miracles in His name (Matt. 7:23), “I never knew you.” The crucial question is not, “Do you claim to know God, but rather, does God know you?” (See, also, 1 Cor. 8:3; Gal. 4:9.)
You may think, “Doesn’t God know everyone? After all, He’s omniscient!” True, but God’s knowing you refers to His foreknowing you as one of His chosen ones (Matt. 22:1-14). As Paul wrote (Rom. 8:29-30), “For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.” God’s foreknowledge does not mean that He knew in advance that you would choose Him. Rather, it means that He chose to know you before you existed.
Now maybe you’re thinking, “Oh, great! What if God didn’t choose me? What if He didn’t predestine me to eternal life?” But the Bible never teaches the doctrine of predestination to discourage or prevent anyone from coming to Christ. The Bible ends by inviting all to come to Jesus (Rev. 22:17). Jesus gave a wonderful, open invitation to every weary soul (Matt. 11:28), “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.”
But have you ever thought about the verse just before? Jesus said (Matt. 11:27), “All things have been handed over to Me by My Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father; nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal Him.” And it’s clear from the context (Matt. 11:17-26) that Jesus does not will to reveal the Father to everyone. Rather, He reveals the Father to those whom the Father has granted such knowledge (Matt. 13:11-17; John 6:65; Phil. 1:29).
So, the vital question is, “How can I know that God knows me?” The biblical answer is, “Have you come to Jesus for salvation? Have you trusted in His shed blood to cover all your sins?” If you’ve done that, it wasn’t because of your wise choice or superior intellect. It was because the Father chose you and Jesus willed to reveal Him to you. If God was pleased to reveal the glory of Christ to you (2 Cor. 4:4-6; Gal. 1:15-16), then you should seek to live the rest of your life with a view to giving an account to Him someday soon (Rom. 14:10-12; 2 Cor. 5:9-10).
Moses was unique in that he was God’s man to found the nation of Israel and give them His laws. But few have such important roles in God’s kingdom. For the average Israelite, it was enough to love God and obey His commandments (Deut. 10:12-13): “Now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require from you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways and love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the Lord’s commandments and His statutes which I am commanding you today for your good?”
In the church, there are a few great leaders like Paul, but for most of us, loving God, loving others (beginning at home), living and serving faithfully in God’s church, and bearing witness as He gives opportunity is what He requires. To do this, God must be central in our daily lives. Spend time each day with Him. Walk with Him. It’s a battle because other things invariably crowd in, but keep fighting for a God-ward perspective. Live in view of the fact that God will write your obituary. What do you want Him to say?
2. We can take comfort in the fact that God is sovereign over the time and manner of our deaths.
Because of Moses’ sin in striking the rock to bring forth water, rather than speaking to the rock, God determined that he would not bring Israel into the Promised Land (Num. 20:12). He reminded Moses of this more than once. Even though Moses pleaded with the Lord to let him cross over into the land, He refused, although He did allow him to go on the mountain and view the land from a distance (Num. 27:12-20; Deut. 3:23-28). So now the time had come. God told Moses to go up on the mountain where he could view the land. Then he would die there (Deut. 32:48-52).
God is sovereign over when and how we die. He has arranged the very day (Ps. 139:16). Even if we die alone, we’re not alone, because the Lord is with us, just as he was with Moses on that mountain. Some may get an advanced warning, when the doctor says, “You’ve probably got six months to live.” But for others, the time is completely unexpected. None of us is guaranteed even to be alive tomorrow. Years ago in California I mentioned this in a sermon. An older couple were there who had moved away but were back visiting. That afternoon as they returned home, a man swerved across the line and hit them head-on. The wife was killed instantly and the husband was permanently disabled. I conducted her funeral service. Our daughter and son-in-law know a young missionary couple where recently the husband was out playing soccer and unexpectedly died.
With Moses, even though he was 120, his death was not due to physical infirmity, but rather to God’s word to him (Deut. 34:5, 7). He went up the mountain knowing that he was to die, but he went calmly by faith in God’s grace. John Calvin observed (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], 3:404), “Such willing submission proceeded from no other source than faith in God’s grace, whereby alone all terror is mitigated, and set at rest, and the bitterness of death is sweetened.” If your faith is in God’s grace to you in Christ, then you can face the day of your death with calm assurance.
3. Even the greatest of leaders may die with disappointments and unanswered prayers.
In spite of his failure in striking the rock at Meribah, Moses was still “the servant of the Lord” (Deut. 34:5). God’s hand was still on His servant, but His holiness demanded that Moses’ sin result in this severe consequence of not leading Israel into the land. It taught all Israel that God is holy and is to be treated as holy. Even the greatest leaders do not get a free pass.
In fact, the sins of leaders often are met with more severe consequences than those of others. Those who teach God’s Word will incur a stricter judgment (James 3:1). When David sinned with Bathsheba, God forgave his sin, but He did not relent regarding the death of the baby that was conceived, even though David humbled himself and fasted for a week. And God brought other severe consequences on David’s family because of his sin (2 Sam. 12:10-18).
At first, Moses entreated the Lord to let him cross over into the land (Deut. 3:23-25). But when the Lord told Moses (Deut. 3:26), “Enough! Speak to Me no more of this matter,” Moses submitted to God’s discipline. At that point, his concern was for the people. He asked the Lord to appoint a successor and the Lord directed him to appoint Joshua (Num. 27:12-23). But the Lord graciously allowed Moses to go up on the mountain and get this view of the Promised Land. Even though Moses was 120, God graciously gave him the strength to climb this high mountain (without a walker!) and the eyesight to see the distant horizons of the land (without eyeglasses!) (Deut. 34:4, 7).
Was this a supernatural vision of the land? It seems impossible for Moses to have seen physically everything mentioned (Deut. 34:1-3). The mountains around Jerusalem to the west would have blocked a view of the Mediterranean Sea (“the western sea”). Perhaps it was a spiritual vision, comparable to Satan showing Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and their glory from the top of a high mountain (Matt. 4:8). Or, the text may be using hyperbole.
But as Moses gazed at the land from that mountaintop, he must have had a “sense of accomplishment mixed with disappointment” (Earl Kalland, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary [Zondervan], ed. by Frank Gaebelein, 3:234). He had seen God use him to lead these descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob out of centuries of cruel slavery in Egypt. He had seen God part the Red Sea to let Israel cross, and he saw that sea come back on top of Israel’s enemy. He had seen daily manna, water from the rock, and quail to feed this vast multitude in that barren desert. The cloud protected them by day and the fiery pillar at night. God had given Moses the Ten Commandments plus many other laws to govern these people; the pattern for the tabernacle; the sacrificial system; and the leadership organizational structure for the new nation. Yet in spite of all these accomplishments, Moses probably felt disappointed that he would not be taking Israel into their promised inheritance.
In Psalm 90, after lamenting how our brief lives are like grass that sprouts in the morning, but withers by evening, and how Israel in the wilderness had been consumed by God’s anger, Moses prays (Ps. 90:17),
“Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us;
And confirm for us the work of our hands;
Yes, confirm the work of our hands.”
If a great leader like Moses had to pray that prayer, how much more do we! The longer I’ve been a pastor, the more I’m aware of my many shortcomings. I wrestle with prayers that have not been answered as I wanted. I confess that many times I have not prayed as often or as fervently as I should. There have been many disappointments along the way, as people I’ve cared about have left the church or, even worse, fallen away from the Lord. If you’re serving the Lord, you’ve had disappointments and unanswered prayers, too. But God is still gracious to give us a glimpse of the land. We know that Jesus is coming and that His kingdom will triumph and endure forever!
Moses had two unfulfilled prayers: (1) “Show me Your glory” (Exod. 33:18); and, “Let me cross over and see the fair land” (Deut. 3:25). But by God’s grace, both were eventually answered. On the Mount of Transfiguration Moses along with Elijah saw Jesus in His glory and he stood in the land (James Hamilton, Moses, the Man of God: A Course of Lectures [Kessinger Publishing], p. 379). We may die with disappointments and unanswered prayers, but the glory of Christ and the blessings of heaven will more than make up for all our disappointments.
Thus God’s obituary of Moses teaches us that since we will die, we should live with eternity in view. We can take comfort in God’s sovereignty over the time and manner of our deaths. And, even the greatest leaders die with disappointments and unanswered prayers.
4. Although even the greatest leaders will die, God’s program goes on unabated.
Al Mohler (The Conviction to Lead [Bethany House], p. 203) tells the story of an old preacher who told a group of younger preachers to remember that they would die. “They are going to put you in a box,” he said, “and put the box in the ground, and throw dirt on your face, and then go back to the church and eat potato salad.” That’s a blunt way to put it, but it’s a healthy reminder: I’m going to die, but God’s work will go on just fine without me!
Here, God reminds Moses of His covenant promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to give Israel the land of Canaan (Deut. 34:4). God will be faithful to His promise. His program will not end with Moses. Earlier, when Moses had asked God to appoint a man as his successor so that the people would not be like sheep without a shepherd, God had said (Num. 27:18), “Take Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is the Spirit, and lay your hand on him.” Deuteronomy 34:9 reminds us that Moses had laid his hands on Joshua, who “was filled with the spirit of wisdom.”
The point is, leaders come and go, but God’s Spirit is eternal. He is the main factor in good leadership and fruitful ministry. Moses died, but the same Spirit who empowered him and gave him wisdom was in Joshua. The two men had different gifts and no one after Moses measured up to him in terms of knowing God face to face and performing the mighty miracles that God did through him (Deut. 34:10-12). But God used Joshua to lead Israel in the conquest of Canaan. Even though after Joshua, Israel floundered through the distressing days of the judges, eventually the Lord raised up a descendant of Rahab, the harlot in Jericho who was saved by her faith, namely, King David (Matt. 1:5-6).
While after David there were times when God’s kingdom through Israel hung by a thread or was even exiled in Babylon, eventually the Son of David, Jesus the Messiah, was born. He is the prophet whom Moses predicted that God would raise up after him (Deut. 18:15-18). Whereas Moses was faithful as a servant in God’s house, Christ was faithful as a Son over His house (Heb. 3:5-6). Although the history of Christ’s church has seen heretics depart from the faith and lead many astray and martyrs be slaughtered by evil men, we can be assured that one day soon we will hear the angel in heaven proclaim (Rev. 11:15), “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ; and He will reign forever and ever.”
Deuteronomy 34:6 reads, “And He buried him in the valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor; but no man knows his burial place to this day.” Some commentators say that God may have used men to bury Moses, but I think the fact that no man knows his burial place argues that God Himself buried Moses. Or, He may have sent the archangel Michael to bury him. Jude 9 mysteriously comments, “But Michael the archangel, when he disputed with the devil and argued about the body of Moses, did not dare pronounce against him a railing judgment, but said, ‘The Lord rebuke you!’” There is no other reference to this in Scripture, but it may be that God sent Michael to bury Moses, but Satan demanded Moses’ body, leading to Michael’s pronouncing the Lord’s rebuke on him.
This is similar to Zechariah 3:1-5, where Satan accused Joshua the high priest before the angel of the Lord, but the Lord rebuked Satan, removed Joshua’s filthy garments, and clothed him with a clean robe and turban. So some think that when Moses died, Satan demanded his body, accusing him of being a murderer when he killed the Egyptian taskmaster. But Michael rebuked Satan because God had forgiven Moses by His grace. Believers can be assured that (Rom. 8:1) “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Or, perhaps Satan wanted Moses’ body so he could set up a shrine where Israel would fall into idolatry, much like Roman Catholics and the Orthodox Church venerate relics. But God does not want His people to worship any human leader, except for the God-man, Jesus Christ.
Note, that even though Israel often complained against Moses and accused him of trying to kill them in the wilderness, when he died they mourned for him 30 days (v. 8). We often don’t realize our blessings until they are taken from us. Let your loved ones know that you love and appreciate them while you have the opportunity. But then the days of mourning for Moses ended. There is a time to end grieving and move on.
God’s obituary of this great prophet Moses should make us think often about what He will say someday about us. In the 1980’s, I read an interview with Jerry Falwell (in Christianity Today, I think, but I can’t locate the exact source). At the time, Falwell was the pastor of a 20,000-member church. He was the founder and president of Liberty University. He was also the founder and president of The Moral Majority, which was impacting American politics. Although I was not a fan of Falwell, anyone had to admit that he was famous and successful as few leaders are.
But my esteem for Falwell shot up when I read his reply to the interviewer’s question, “What would you like to be remembered for?” Falwell said (as I recall), “I want to be remembered as a godly husband to my wife, a godly father to my children, and a godly pastor to Christ’s church.” I thought, “He nailed it! He hasn’t let his fame go to his head!”
What do you want to be remembered for? Whatever our gifts and calling, the life of Moses the servant of the Lord should motivate us to want God to say in our obituary, “He (or she) was My faithful servant!”
- What are some practical ways to maintain a God-ward focus in the hustle and bustle of daily life?
- Does God’s sovereignty over the time of your death (and others’ deaths) bring you comfort? Why/why not?
- What disappointments and unanswered prayers do you have regarding your service for the Lord? How can you process these so that they don’t discourage you?
- Write a one-sentence summary of what you want God to write for your obituary. Set some practical goals in light of this.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2018, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation