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Deuteronomy 34: What is not needed for success!

This week’s post is an edited form of a sermon I preached last month at St. Andrews, on Deuteronomy 34. Its application is very pertinent for Baptists (and other Christians) today. (I’ll be back to Revelation in a couple weeks.)

In 1998 the President of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was Slobodan Milosevic, a tyrant who violated numerous provisions of the Geneva Convention during the Bosnian war, and who was almost certainly involved with political assassinations, suppression of press freedom and fostering police brutality.  Not a nice guy.

That year, a group of young adults established the political movement Otpor! to push Yugoslavia toward justice and true democracy. From the start, Otpor! was organized to carry out its mission without recognized leaders.  Otpor! members signed a document known as “Declaration of the Future of Serbia,” then worked to organize non-violent protests calling for government reforms and for Milosevic’s removal.

Two years later, Milosevic was soundly defeated in elections, and removed from power, largely because of Otpor!.

Otpor! is an example of something that exists more than we might think, and certainly more than most preachers want to admit. It was very successful despite its lack of recognized leaders. Instead of charismatic figureheads, it had members who united around a cause and dedicated themselves to certain principles of operation. They showed what has been shown many times throughout history, that strong leadership is not a requirement for success.

Of course, when we read Deuteronomy 34, “success without leadership” is not the first thing that comes to mind!  This passage seems to stress the opposite, especially the last three verses,

10 Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face, 11 who did all those signs and wonders the LORD sent him to do in Egypt– to Pharaoh and to all his officials and to his whole land.  12 For no one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all Israel (Deut. 34:10-12).

Moses did great things, and, even more, Moses is traditionally credited with writing the most important books of the Old Testament, the Torah, the first five books (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy).  For more than 2,500 years Jewish people have accepted Moses as the main authority within Judaism. This is why the New Testament tries so hard to convince us that Jesus exceeds Moses: if Jesus is greater than Moses, then by definition Jesus is greater than everyone else, too.  (See Matt 17:1–5, John 9:28–34, and Heb 3:1–6 for examples).

So how does Deuteronomy 34 teach us that success is possible without strong leadership?

Here is the reason: it’s not so much about what Deuteronomy says, but rather where Deuteronomy 34 is located, both in the story of Israel, and in the Old Testament.

Most of the book of Deuteronomy is the last words of Moses, his great speech before he dies, his magnum opus. Yet, paradoxically, Deuteronomy stresses that Moses did not accomplish his most important task.  He was supposed to bring Israel into the promised land, but he failed to do so. As we read in 34:1-4, when Moses died he left the Israelites in the wilderness.

In my view, the most positive book in the Old Testament is the book that follows Deuteronomy, the book of Joshua. Joshua is optimistic not because of Joshua himself (Joshua is nowhere near Moses’s level of greatness), but because the book of Joshua is about a unique generation. The Joshua generation begins in the wilderness, then accomplishes great things because its people accept a very difficult mission, and make a serious commitment to follow God’s commands. These people were not perfect; there were glitches along the way. But they were that rare group of people that accomplished what they were called to accomplish. Kind of like Otpor!

The New Testament has a parallel to the book of Joshua: the book of Acts. Acts is very positive in the same way that Joshua is positive: Acts focuses not on an individual (its most prominent character Paul does show up until the end of chapter 7, and doesn’t do anything until Acts 9), but on a group of people who generally do what they are supposed to. They aren’t perfect, but they take their calling and commitment seriously and end up wildly successful. Like the book of Joshua, Acts begins right at the point where the greatest of leaders, Jesus Christ, exits the scene. The Acts generation demonstrates the same principle revealed by the Joshua generation, that success does not require superhuman leadership! Merely good leadership is fine, as long as the people are committed.

Today, in late 2020, the Christian community in Hampton Roads is in the wilderness. We began 2020 wrestling with how to use our resources to serve God and our neighbors in a time and place of declining church interest. Then, suddenly, the coronavirus was upon us. We are now trying to figure out the best ways to regather, while looking for God’s will during a time of difficult politics, race relations, and economics. If you’ve ever wondered what a 21st century wilderness looks like, you’ve found it.

It would be nice to have Moses around, but he’s not here, and he’s not coming.

Yet there is good news. We don’t need Moses. The Bible tells us that Israel was successful without Moses because God wants us to know that we too do not need a Moses-like leader to succeed. What we need instead is to take our mission seriously, and to make and renew our commitment to live our lives in accordance with God’s laws.

Let’s encourage each other to think about God’s calling for our Christian community. A strong commitment to godly life principles and to our mission to serve Hampton Roads will surely lead to success.


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