20 “When your son asks you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the rules that the Lord our God has commanded you?’ 21 then you shall say to your son, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt. And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. 22 And the Lord showed signs and wonders, great and grievous, against Egypt and against Pharaoh and all his household, before our eyes. 23 And he brought us out from there, that he might bring us in and give us the land that he swore to give to our fathers. 24 And the Lord commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as we are this day. 25 And it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us.’” – Deuteronomy 6:20-25 ESV
Every aspect of the story of the Hebrew nation is filled with the grace of God. From the day He called Abraham out of Haran and promised to make of him a great nation, God had been extending His unmerited favor to this man and his descendants. Every chapter of Israel’s long and storied history is filled with examples of God’s graciousness and faithfulness to them and, in almost every case, in spite of them. They had done nothing to earn God’s favor. Even before He rescued them out of their captivity in Egypt, they had acclimated to their surroundings, even worshiping the false gods of the Egyptian.
When Moses had appeared on the scene and announced God’s plan to set them free from their slavery in Egypt, the people of Israel had responded enthusiastically.
Then Moses and Aaron returned to Egypt and called all the elders of Israel together. Aaron told them everything the Lord had told Moses, and Moses performed the miraculous signs as they watched. Then the people of Israel were convinced that the Lord had sent Moses and Aaron. When they heard that the Lord was concerned about them and had seen their misery, they bowed down and worshiped. – Exodus 4:29-31 NLT
But their enthusiasm didn’t last. When Moses had approached Pharaoh and asked that he allow the Jews to leave Egypt, the Pharoah had responded by dramatically increasing the workload of the people. And they blamed it all on Moses
“May the Lord judge and punish you for making us stink before Pharaoh and his officials. You have put a sword into their hands, an excuse to kill us!” – Exodus 5:21 NLT
One of the things the people of Israel were going to have to learn was to trust God. His grace and mercy, while not always immediately visible or comprehendible, must be accompanied by faith. After four centuries of living in Egypt, the people of Israel had long forgotten about their God and, as a result, they no longer had faith in Him. He had been out of sight and out of mind for more than 400 years. Their deliverance by God, as described to them by Moses, sounded good, but it got off to a rocky start.
The rest of the book of Exodus contains the story of God’s deliverance of His people and their ongoing struggle with believing that He was who He claimed to be and was going to do what He promised to do. The author of Hebrews describes faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1 ESV).
He goes on to say that, without faith, “it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6 NLT). In other words, faith is an essential and non-negotiable part of a vibrant relationship with God. And the author of Hebrews expands on that thought when he writes. “Anyone who wants to come to him must believe that God exists and that he rewards those who sincerely seek him” (Hebrews 11:6 NLT).
Saving faith begins with a belief in God’s existence. It all starts there. If the Israelites couldn’t bring themselves to believe in the reality of the God Moses claimed was going to deliver them, they would never follow Him. That’s why God gave Moses signs and wonders to perform in front of them, and told him, “that they may believe that the Lord, the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has appeared to you” (Exodus 4:5 ESV). God graciously supplied them with proof of His presence and power so that they might believe in Him.
But the author of Hebrews describes a second essential requirement for saving faith. They must believe that God “rewards those who sincerely seek him.” That part is huge and plays a major role in the story of the Hebrew people, all the way up to the point where Moses is preparing them to enter the land of promise. Notice what Moses says to them:
“The Lord did miraculous signs and wonders before our eyes, dealing terrifying blows against Egypt and Pharaoh and all his people. He brought us out of Egypt so he could give us this land he had sworn to give our ancestors.” – Deuteronomy 6:22-23 NLT
He reminds them of all that God had done for their ancestors 40 years earlier. But he ties it in with what God intends to do for them. God had delivered them from Egypt but was preparing to deliver then into Canaan. He was going to “reward” them with all that He had promised to give them.
At this point in the story, the people of Israel no longer doubted the reality of God. They knew He existed. But they were going to struggle with the idea that He rewards those who sincerely seek Him. And the second half of that phrase carries massive implications. God desired that His people sincerely seek Him. The Greek word used by the author of Hebrews is ekzēteō, and it conveys the idea of seeking for something diligently and carefully. It was used to describe an irresistible craving for something. God wanted His people to long for Him more than anything else. Believing that God exists is one thing. But craving a relationship with Him is something different altogether.
In the letter that carries his name, James attempted to describe a faith that was missing this second aspect of longing for God. He wrote, “You say you have faith, for you believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror” (James 2:19 NLT).
Demons know that God exists, but they want nothing to do with Him. There is a story recorded in Mark’s Gospel that describes an encounter between Jesus and a man possessed by demons. Upon seeing Jesus, the demons shouted, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God” (Mark 1:24 ESV).
They believed in the existence of Jesus. And they knew exactly who He was. But they also knew that He was not out to reward them, because they did not sincerely seek Him. And Jesus rebuked the demons and them out of the man.
But what does all this have to do with Moses and the people of Israel? Why is any of this significant to their particular circumstance as they stood ready to enter the land of promise? It’s because God was still looking for a people who would place their faith in Him. He wanted them to believe in His existence, but to also understand that He rewards those who sincerely seek Him.
Moses reminded the people of all that God had done for them. He had more than adequately proven His existence. And now, He was preparing to fulfill all His promises concerning the land. But there was the small matter of the law.
“And the Lord our God commanded us to obey all these decrees and to fear him so he can continue to bless us and preserve our lives, as he has done to this day.” – Deuteronomy 6:24 NLT
The law was intended to be a means by which the people displayed their commitment to sincerely seek God. It was a tangible way in which they could demonstrate their desire for Him and their willingness to trust His will for them. The rules themselves were not the point. It was the God behind the rules. They were going to have to trust that all these decrees were given by God for a good reason. And, while their human natures were going to want to rebel against all of God’s commands, it was important that they obey from the heart, not just the head.
Hundreds of years later, God would issue a stinging indictment against the people of Israel. It would come long after they had conquered the land and had enjoyed the many blessings of God. They would spend generations attempting to keep the law and follow through with their commitment to do all that God had commanded them to do. But something was missing.
“These people draw near to Me with their mouths and honor Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me. Their worship of Me is but rules taught by men.” – Isaiah 29:13 BSB
They had replaced a sincere seeking of God with an insincere keeping of rules. And God was not pleased. It had never been about the rules. It had been about faith in the God who stood behind the rules. And Moses sums up chapter six of Deuteronomy with an interesting and enlightening statement: “For we will be counted as righteous when we obey all the commands the Lord our God has given us” (Deuteronomy 6:25 NLT).
This phrase is reminiscent of another verse found in the book of Genesis. God had just rejected Abraham’s suggestion that his man-servant, Eliazer, be his heir. Abraham and Sarah were old, and she was barren. And Abraham was having a hard time believing that God was going to have a difficult time fulfilling His promise to make of him a great nation. So, he had offered God an alternative plan. But God took Abraham outside and told him, “‘Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’ And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:5-6 NLT).
What God was looking for from Abraham was belief, not obedience. It’s not that God was not going to require obedience from Abraham, but He wanted it to flow from a heart of belief. He was much more interested in having Abraham sincerely seek Him than having Abraham insincerely obey Him. And the same thing was true concerning the people of Israel. God would count them righteous, not if they obeyed all His laws, but if they faithfully believed in the Giver of the laws. He wanted their obedience to flow from their faith in Him, not just their fear of Him. Abraham was declared righteous by God because He believed. And the Israelites would be declared righteous by God for the very same reason. Obedience without belief can only produce self-righteousness. And self-righteousness cannot save anyone. As Paul pointed out to the believers in Galatia, “no one can be made right with God by trying to keep the law. For the Scriptures say, ‘It is through faith that a righteous person has life’” (Galatians 3:11 NLT).
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.