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No. 2: Michael’s Dispute with the Devil

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 2
February, 1989
Copyright 1989, Biblical Horizons

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" (Jude 9).

Jude 9 raises several difficulties (though not insuperable difficulties) for conservative commentators. The event that Jude recounts does not seem to be drawn from the Old Testament, and most scholars claim, based on statements of Clement of Alexandria and Origen, that Jude borrowed this story from the Assumption of Moses, an apocryphal work. If true, this raises the question of the status of apocryphal literature in general. We can, of course, defend the inerrancy of the canonical Scriptures even if this is the case. The Spirit, after all, might have led Jude to refer to this story, even though it came from a noncanonical book. But questions continue to nag at us. Is the story historical? Or, does Jude quote from a popular legend simply to support his theological point?

The difficulties with this verse do not end here, however. The event that Jude describes seems nothing short of bizarre, and Jude gives no explanation of its significance. Why would Michael dispute with the devil about Moses’ body? What is the significance of Moses’ body? Fanciful speculations have been offered, but none of them can be taken very seriously.

Perhaps some progress might be made toward a solution to this puzzle by tracing the origin of the quotation at the end of Jude 9: "The Lord rebuke you." It is a quotation from Zechariah 3:1-2:

Then he [the man with the measuring line, 2:1] showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. And the Lord said to Satan, "The Lord rebuke you, Satan! Indeed, the Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is this not a brand plucked from the fire?"

At first glance this hint does not look very promising. It seems that the only parallel between Zechariah 3:2 and Jude 9 is the quotation. But a closer look will reveal other parallels as well. First, apart from Jude 9, Michael, whose name means "who is like God?" (cf. Ex. 15:11) is mentioned only in Daniel (10:13, 21; 12:1) and Revelation (12:7). Daniel characterizes Michael as "one of the chief princes" (10:13), "your prince" (10:21), and "the great prince" (12:1). Michael is the only one who stands firmly against the princes of Persia and Greece (10:20-21). He is the one who stands as protector over the Lord’s people (12:1). Elsewhere, Daniel refers to a "Prince" that is identified with the Messiah (9:25). In Revelation 12:7, Michael leads the angels in the war against the dragon. All of these passages suggest the probability that Michael is Christ.

Moreover, as David Chilton points out in his commentary on Revelation 12:7, the word "archangel" means simply the "chief angel" (cf. 1 Thess. 4:16), a title that applies abundantly well to the "angel of the Lord" or the "Captain of the Lord’s Hosts" (cf. Joshua 5:13-15; Ex. 23:20-23). [David Chilton, Days of Vengeance (Fort Worth, TX: Dominion Press, 1987), pp. 311ff.] Most commentators agree that the Angel of the Lord often is a pre-incarnate appearance of the Son. Thus, we may conclude that the archangel Michael is the Angel of the Lord, and is Christ.

What about "Satan" in Zechariah 3:2 and "the devil" in Jude 9? The Hebrew word "Satan" sometimes have the specific sense of a legal accuser (Job 1-2; Ps. 109:6), though it can also refer to a military adversary (1 Sam. 29:4; 1 Ki. 11:14, 23, 25). In Zechariah 3:1, Satan stands on the right hand of Joshua, the place where the accuser stands in a legal confrontation. (Some commentators have argued that Joshua stands in the Temple; but since the sanctuary is the place of God’s throne, from which He renders judgement, the juridical dimension is still present.) The Septuagint translation of "Satan" here is diabolos, "devil," the same word used in Jude 9 and a word that is used with surprising infrequency in the Septuagint (1 Chron. 21:1; Esther 7:4; 8:1 [of Haman]; Job 1-2 passim; Ps. 109:6). No other passage that mentions Satan or the devil is even remotely parallel to Jude 9.

Taking all this back to Zechariah 3:2, we find the parallel with Jude 9 strengthened. In Jude 9, Michael the archangel rebukes the devil; in Zechariah 3:2, the Angel of the Lord rebukes Satan. Both passages, in short, have the same cast of characters locked in legal conflict. It is true that Zechariah 3:2 says that the Lord (not the Angel of the Lord) rebuked Satan, but there are other places in the Old Testament where "Lord" alternates with "Angel of the Lord," and where both obviously refer to the same Person (cf. Ex. 3:1-6).

If Zechariah 3:2 is a parallel passage to Jude 9, what is the "body of Moses"? In Zechariah 3:2, the Angel of the Lord and Satan are disputing about the priesthood. The accuser apparently calls attention to the soiled garments of the high priest. He is not fit to minister in the presence the Lord (cf. Dt. 23:13-14). More seriously, as James B. Jordan has recently written, Joshua finds himself in a Catch-22 situation: he needs to be cleansed to reinstitute the temple liturgy, but as long as there is no Temple, he cannot go through the rite of cleansing. The whole Mosaic system is in danger of collapsing for lack of a qualified priesthood. Thus, there is a need for a new "Moses" to institute a new priesthood and a new temple system. Zechariah becomes the new Moses, who hears the declaration of cleansing, and leads in the investiture of Joshua with his robes and turban (3:5). [James B. Jordan, "Thoughts on Jachin and Boaz," p. 15; available from Biblical Horizons .]

Thus, the "body of Moses" in Jude 9 may be the Aaronic priesthood, and by implication, the entire Mosaic liturgical and social system. Why would the priesthood be called the "body of Moses"? Perhaps the priesthood was the "body of Moses" in the same way that the New Covenant priesthood, the Church, is the Body of Christ. (Compare the language of Hebrews 3, "house of Moses" and "house of Christ.") It is significant that the Old Covenant community was baptized (i.e., made a nation of priests) into Moses, just as we are baptized into Christ (1 Corinthians 10:2). This may seem somewhat far-fetched, but it is no more far-fetched than a dispute between Michael and the devil about where to bury Moses’ physical remains.

Finally, we can extend the vision in Zechariah 3:1-2 forward and backward in redemptive history, to Eden and to Christ. Adam, the priest, dirtied his robe of glory after eating from the tree of judgment, and was cast out of the sanctuary-garden. The Lord rebuked the accuser who had tempted Adam. The Second Adam combines in His one person the three figures of the vision: the Angel of the Lord who rebukes Satan and becomes our advocate before the Father; the priest Joshua who, having suffered defilement, is reclothed in a cleansed, resurrection body in order to enter the true heavenly sanctuary; and the prophet Zechariah who provides new robes and a crown of glory for a glorious new priesthood.

Some commentators through the centuries have followed something like this interpretation; already in the 17th century, W. M. Jenkyn cited this as one interpretation of Jude 9, only to dismiss it. The modern commentators that I have examined note that Jude quotes from Zechariah at the end of v. 9, but generally ignore the possibility that Jude is talking about the event in Zechariah 3. Rather, they say, Jude is simply applying this quotation to a parallel situation. I am suggesting a stronger relationship between the two passages, namely, that in Jude 9 is a specific reflection on the vision recorded in Zechariah 3.

In any event, the practical point in Jude 8-9 needs to be heard. The context is a discussion of the heretics of the first century Church, who do not hesitate to revile angelic majesties (v. 8) and rebuke Satan. The point is that the heretics are incautious and rash in their response to demonic forces. With all the strange things being reported in the Church, including direct encounters with the devil, rising numbers of deliverances from demons, etc., we should take to heart the caution that Jude encourages. Rather than rashly pronouncing a railing judgment against Satan, we should follow the example of Michael and appeal to the Father, saying, "The Lord rebuke you!"