Truly Blessed

And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Matthew 5:2-12 ESV

Jesus wastes no time. Once the crowd has taken their seats in front of Him, He jumps right into His lecture, and begins with what has come to be known as the “beatitudes.”  This portion of His message derives its name from the repetitive use of the word “blessed” that appears at the beginning of each line. The Greek word for blessed in the original text of Matthew’s gospel is makarios. In the Latin Vulgate, the word is beati, which is derived from the Latin beatitudo/beatus. Therefore, the name of this section of Jesus’ message became known as “The Beatitudes.”

In order to fully understand what Jesus was saying, we must know what He meant by using the word “blessed.”  There is no doubt that it has a positive connotation. To be blessed was a good thing. But what kind of blessing did Jesus have in mind? We tend to use the word quite loosely and indiscriminately. Perhaps you’ve heard someone say something like, “He’s been blessed with good genes” or “Grandchildren are such a blessing.” From our perspective, we can be blessed by good health, a new job, a strong constitution, a loving spouse, and good friends.

Even in Jesus’ day, the word carried the connotation of being “supremely blest; by extension, fortunate, well off” (“G3107 – makarios – Strong’s Greek Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible. Web. 21 Apr, 2017). The problem we face in reading The Beatitudes is applying our definition or understanding of what it means to be blessed and missing out on what Jesus was actually saying. Our natural tendency, just like the 1st-Century Jews sitting in Jesus’ audience that day, is to think that the blessings to which He refers are purely physical in nature and apply to our personal prosperity and happiness. But Jesus had something far more significant in mind.

Our natural tendency is to think that the blessings to which He refers are purely physical in nature and apply to our personal prosperity and happiness. But Jesus had something far more significant in mind.

Warren Wiersbe states that the blessing to which Jesus referred is “an inner satisfaction and sufficiency that does not depend on outward circumstances for happiness.” So, while we might connote blessing with personal prosperity and a lack of problems, Jesus was speaking of something entirely different. The root idea behind blessing is approval. God does not bless that which He does not approve. If you take the full context of Jesus’ message, it becomes clear that He is teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven and the character of those who belong to it. In essence, He is teaching about justification; how to be made right or approved by God. In the very next section, Jesus will bring up the Mosaic law. Why? Because for the Jews in His audience, the Law had always been the sole requirement for attaining a right standing with God. It was through the keeping of the Law that man attempted to gain God’s approval or blessing.

All the way back in the book of Deuteronomy, we have recorded the words spoken by Moses to the people of Israel on behalf of God.

“Now listen! Today I am giving you a choice between life and death, between prosperity and disaster. For I command you this day to love the Lord your God and to keep his commands, decrees, and regulations by walking in his ways. If you do this, you will live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you and the land you are about to enter and occupy.” – Deuteronomy 30:15-16 NLT

They were to live in obedience to the commands of God. If they did so, they would be blessed by God. If they refused to do so, they would be cursed. In the previous chapter, Moses made clear just what the blessing He promised would entail.

“You are standing here today to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God. The Lord is making this covenant, including the curses. By entering into the covenant today, he will establish you as his people and confirm that he is your God, just as he promised you and as he swore to your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” – Deuteronomy 29:12-13 NLT

By obeying God, they would enjoy the approval and presence of God. They would know what it was like to have His protection and to experience His provision. The curses would be the result of having lost that relationship. But the Jews had ended up placing a higher value on the material blessings they enjoyed than on God’s approval. The idea that the God of the universe approved of them was less important to them than the personal prosperity they enjoyed as God’s people. And this misunderstanding of the blessing of God had resulted in them turning the Law into a means to an end. They tried to keep the Law in an effort to keep God happy so that He would keep blessing them with the things that kept them happy. He had become nothing more to them than a conduit to more important things: health, happiness, material goods, crops, children, peace, long life, or whatever else they desired.

They tried to keep the Law in an effort to keep God happy, so that He would keep blessing them with the things that kept them happy.

So, here comes Jesus, preaching a radically different message of what it means to be truly blessed by God. And what He said must have rocked the world of His listeners. Much to their shock and dismay, He tied the blessing of God to such things as poverty, mourning, meekness, deprivation, and persecution. He talked about heavenly rewards versus earthly ones. He commanded His listeners to rejoice when they were persecuted, to turn the other cheek when they were slapped, to willingly go the second mile, to love their enemies, and to give to those who ask to borrow, expecting no payment in return.

None of this would have made sense to His listeners. None of it would have sounded the least bit appealing. In the mind of the average Jew, it was the wealthy who were blessed by God, while the sick and the lame were cursed by God. They believed material prosperity was a sign of God’s blessing, so poverty must be a curse.

But what Jesus says in this passage turns the tables on that kind of thinking. A great deal of His message is in direct contradiction to their skewed understanding of the Law and what they believed was necessary to be right with God. They tied proof of righteousness (a right relationship with God) to outward signs of His blessing. But Jesus was going to blow up that presupposition. He was going to go to the heart of the issue – literally. Because Jesus was out to change the hearts of men. With His coming, the days were finished when men would be able to judge their righteousness based on outward evidence.

God looks at the heart. And Jesus came to die so that men’s hearts might be redeemed, and their behavior radically changed. What Jesus describes in this passage is a new way of living, based not on human effort, but on divine empowerment.

What Jesus describes in this passage is a new way of living, based not on human effort, but on divine empowerment.

He is speaking to a pre-cross crowd, explaining to them a post-cross reality. He knows something to which they are oblivious. He recognizes that all He is saying to them is not only impossible for them to understand, but impossible to pull off until He has died, been resurrected, and the Holy Spirit comes. His words are preparatory in nature. He is expanding on His previous message of “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2 ESV).

Things were about to change. The Messiah had come. The Savior of the world was in their midst. And the means by which men might be made right with God, permanently and perfectly, had finally arrived. But before anyone could accept what Jesus had come to provide, they would have to recognize their need. And Matthew later records Jesus’ offer of the Great Invitation:

Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.” – Matthew 11:28-30 NLT

The Sermon on the Mount is not intended to be a new list of laws, rules, and requirements for people to follow in order to gain God’s approval. It is a glimpse into the lifestyle of those who will find their approval by God through faith in the finished work of Christ on the cross. It is a pre-cross explanation of how right behavior will flow from having a right relationship with God made possible by the sacrificial death of Jesus for the sins of mankind. The key message behind the Sermon on the Mount is the approval of God. And Jesus is in the process of helping His audience understand that right behavior stems from having a right relationship with God, not the other way around.

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson
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The Need For Strong Leadership

1 So Moses continued to speak these words to all Israel. And he said to them, “I am 120 years old today. I am no longer able to go out and come in. The Lord has said to me, ‘You shall not go over this Jordan.’ The Lord your God himself will go over before you. He will destroy these nations before you, so that you shall dispossess them, and Joshua will go over at your head, as the Lord has spoken. And the Lord will do to them as he did to Sihon and Og, the kings of the Amorites, and to their land, when he destroyed them. And the Lord will give them over to you, and you shall do to them according to the whole commandment that I have commanded you. Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.”

Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel, “Be strong and courageous, for you shall go with this people into the land that the Lord has sworn to their fathers to give them, and you shall put them in possession of it. It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.”  Deuteronomy 31:1-8 ESV

Moses’s days were numbered, and he knew it. His long and somewhat drawn out homily to the people was meant to prepare them for the inevitable and, possibly, to delay the unavoidable. He would not be going with them into the land of Canaan. God had denied Moses the privilege of leading the people of Israel when they crossed the border of Canaan and began their conquest of the land.

Moses had been God’s hand-picked deliverer. He had been chosen by God for the unique assignment of rescuing the people of Israel from their captivity in Egypt, and he had performed that role faithfully and effectively. Then he had successfully led the people to the edge of the land of promise, only to see them refuse to keep God’s command and cross the border – all because of an excess of fear and a lack of trust in God. So, Moses was forced to spend the next 40 years leading this rebellious generation around the wilderness until they had died off. Then, with a new generation in tow, he once again brought them to the edge of the land of promise so they might enter and possess it. But he would not be going with them. Why?

It all goes back to a regrettable scene that happened at a place called Meribah. Early on in their exodus from Egypt to Canaan, the people of Israel found themselves short on water and patience. So, they complained to Moses, who took the issue up with God. And God gave Moses instructions to take his brother Aaron’s staff “and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water. So you shall bring water out of the rock for them and give drink to the congregation and their cattle” (Numbers 20:8 ESV).

But Moses was angry with the people for reading him the riot act over their lack of water. So, when he had assembled them, he took the staff and, rather than speaking to the rock as God had commanded, he took his anger out on it.

Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock. And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” – Numbers 20:10-12 ESV

God accused Moses of two sins: Disbelief and disrespect. He expressed a lack of faith in God by refusing to do exactly as God had said. God’s word was not enough. He decided to add a little drama to the moment by striking the rock. And, on top of that, he seemed to take credit for the miracle, showing a deep disrespect for God. In doing so, he did not treat God as holy in the eyes of the people. As a leader and the representative of God, he had displayed unholy behavior, and his actions had reflected poorly on God. When Moses spoke, he spoke for God. When he led, he did so on behalf of God. When he struck the rock in anger, he did so as the representative of God. And his ungodly actions made God look unholy in the eyes of the people. This was a serious issue that brought a severe punishment from God.

“…because you broke faith with me in the midst of the people of Israel at the waters of Meribah-kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin, and because you did not treat me as holy in the midst of the people of Israel. For you shall see the land before you, but you shall not go there, into the land that I am giving to the people of Israel. – Deuteronomy 32:51-52 ESV

And yet, just a few chapters later in the book of Deuteronomy, we read:

And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, none like him for all the signs and the wonders that the Lord sent him to do in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land, and for all the mighty power and all the great deeds of terror that Moses did in the sight of all Israel. – Deuteronomy 34:10-12 ESV

Moses was a great leader. He was a God-appointed and Spirit-anointed leader. But at Meribah, he had chosen to doubt and disrespect God, and he would pay dearly for that lapse in judgment. So, at the ripe old age of 120, Moses broke the news to the people of Israel that he would not be the one leading them on the next leg of their journey. That responsibility would fall to Joshua, Moses’ protegé and successor. And Moses assured the people that, ultimately, it would be God who would be going before them as their divine leader.

“The Lord your God himself will go over before you. He will destroy these nations before you, so that you shall dispossess them.” – Deuteronomy 31:3 ESV

Their true leader had always been God Almighty. Moses had been nothing more than a human representative whose authority and power had been delegated by God. Now, the responsibility to lead God’s people would fall to Joshua, whom Moses assured them would “cross before you just as the Lord has said” (Deuteronomy 31:3 ESV).

And just to make sure that the people understood that God, not Joshua, was their true leader, Moses reminds them just who it would be that gave them victory over their enemies.

 “…the Lord will do to them as he did to Sihon and Og…” – Deuteronomy 31:4 ESV

“…the Lord will give them over to you…” – Deuteronomy 31:5 ESV

“…the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.” – Deuteronomy 31:6 ESV

It would be God who gave them victory over their enemies. It would be God who went before them, never leaving them alone or on their own. Which is they could be “be strong and courageous” and not fear. Joshua would be their new human leader, but it was God who would make their path straight and their battles victorious.

Unlike Moses, God would never leave them or forsake them. Even good leaders can make bad mistakes that let their followers down. But not God. Moses would not be leading them into Canaan, but they could rest easy knowing that God would be with them every step of the way.

Next, Moses turns his attention to Joshua. He brings his much-younger successor before the people and provides him with a similarly worded charge:

Be strong and courageous, for you will accompany these people to the land that the Lord promised to give their ancestors, and you will enable them to inherit it.” – Deuteronomy 31:7 NLT

Joshua would be attempting to fill some rather large sandals. He was tasked with stepping into the formidable role that Moses had held for nearly half a century. And he was going to have to be strong. But his strength would have to be in the Lord. Without His help, Joshua would find the days ahead difficult, because as Moses knew all too well, leading God’s people was anything but a walk in the park. And he gave Joshua the same simple, yet vital reminder.

“It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.” – Deuteronomy 31:8 ESV

The people of Israel were going to need strong leadership if they were to be successful in fulfilling God’s command. The conquest of the land was not going to be easy. The enemies who lived in the land would not give up without a fight. There would be many battles to fight. They would face more powerful foes and come up against what appeared to be impenetrable defenses. But the people and their new leader would need to constantly remember that their strength and success would be God-ordained, not man-made.

Moses knew the people were going to need Joshua. But he also knew that Joshua was going to need the Lord. Effective spiritual leaders are those who allow themselves to be led by God. They find their strength and courage in the Lord, not in themselves. Moses knew from personal and painful experience just how difficult the role would be that Joshua was taking on. He was going to need all the help he could get and the only reliable source he could turn to was God Himself.

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.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Exodus Reversed

58 “If you are not careful to do all the words of this law that are written in this book, that you may fear this glorious and awesome name, the Lord your God, 59 then the Lord will bring on you and your offspring extraordinary afflictions, afflictions severe and lasting, and sicknesses grievous and lasting. 60 And he will bring upon you again all the diseases of Egypt, of which you were afraid, and they shall cling to you. 61 Every sickness also and every affliction that is not recorded in the book of this law, the Lord will bring upon you, until you are destroyed. 62 Whereas you were as numerous as the stars of heaven, you shall be left few in number, because you did not obey the voice of the Lord your God. 63 And as the Lord took delight in doing you good and multiplying you, so the Lord will take delight in bringing ruin upon you and destroying you. And you shall be plucked off the land that you are entering to take possession of it.

64 “And the Lord will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other, and there you shall serve other gods of wood and stone, which neither you nor your fathers have known. 65 And among these nations you shall find no respite, and there shall be no resting place for the sole of your foot, but the Lord will give you there a trembling heart and failing eyes and a languishing soul. 66 Your life shall hang in doubt before you. Night and day you shall be in dread and have no assurance of your life. 67 In the morning you shall say, ‘If only it were evening!’ and at evening you shall say, ‘If only it were morning!’ because of the dread that your heart shall feel, and the sights that your eyes shall see. 68 And the Lord will bring you back in ships to Egypt, a journey that I promised that you should never make again; and there you shall offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but there will be no buyer.” Deuteronomy 28:58-68 ESV

In this last portion of chapter 28, Moses makes an unmistakable link between the future state of Israel and their former condition in Egypt. In effect, he describes them experiencing a reverse exodus. More than four decades earlier, God had graciously delivered the people of Israel from their captivity in Egypt and led them to the land of Canaan – the land He had promised to give to the descendants of Abraham. Now, as Moses attempts to prepare the people to enter the land and conquer it, he warns them of the dangers associated with disobeying God’s commands. If they fail to keep God’s laws, they will experience a litany of curses that will leave them in a state of physical and moral degradation.

And Moses ends his bone-chilling description of the curses of God by letting them know that they will experience a complete reversal of fortunes, including their return to captivity in Egypt.

“And the Lord will bring you back in ships to Egypt, a journey that I promised that you should never make again; and there you shall offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but there will be no buyer.” – Deuteronomy 28:68 ESV

Think about how this news would have impacted the Israelites. They were standing on the border of Canaan, preparing to enter the land God had promised as their inheritance, and now Moses is telling them that failure to comply with God’s laws will result in their return to their former state as slaves in Egypt. But long before that happens, they will have to endure the same kind of pain and suffering the Egyptians had endured as a result of the ten plagues brought upon them by God.

“…the Lord will bring on you and your offspring extraordinary afflictions, afflictions severe and lasting, and sicknesses grievous and lasting. And he will bring upon you again all the diseases of Egypt, of which you were afraid, and they shall cling to you.” – Deuteronomy 28:59-60 ESV

God had punished the Egyptians for their refusal to let His people go. Repeatedly, Moses had appeared before Pharaoh, asking that he release the Israelites from their captivity. But each time, Pharaoh had refused. And his stubborn resistance to the will of God had been met with a series of plagues that grew in their intensity. Eventually, God brought upon the entire nation of Egypt the death of the firstborn, a devastating tragedy that struck every household, including Pharaoh’s.

And Moses warns that all this and more will happen to the Israelites – should they choose to live in rebellion to God.

One of the things we tend to overlook or downplay in these warnings from Moses is the extreme dichotomy they represent. Things would not be as they were meant to be. The promised land had been meant to be a place of rest. It was intended to be the polar opposite of their time spend in Egypt. In fact, when God had chosen Moses to be the one to deliver the people of Israel from captivity, He had told him:

“I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey…” – Exodus 3:7-8 ESV

Canaan was to be a place of fruitfulness, abundance, blessing, rest, and peace. And the first time thei Israelites had arrived at the border, they had chosen to reject God’s command to enter the land, out of fear of its inhabitant. And the author of Hebrews used that ocassion as a lesson for New Testament Christians.

“Today when you hear his voice,
    don’t harden your hearts
    as Israel did when they rebelled.”

And who was it who rebelled against God, even though they heard his voice? Wasn’t it the people Moses led out of Egypt? And who made God angry for forty years? Wasn’t it the people who sinned, whose corpses lay in the wilderness? And to whom was God speaking when he took an oath that they would never enter his rest? Wasn’t it the people who disobeyed him? So we see that because of their unbelief they were not able to enter his rest. – Hebrews 3:15-19 NLT

They were not allowed to “enter his rest.” Their rebellion resulted in their deaths in the wilderness. That generation would spend 40 years wandering in the wilderness, until each of them had died off, before the next generation would be given another opportunity to obey God and conquer the land.

And Moses has warned that second generation not to repeat the mistakes of their forefathers, or they too would find themselves being cast out of the land. They would go from enjoying God’s rest to experiencing slavery in Egypt again.

It was God’s will that the people of Israel “fear this glorious and awesome name, the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 28:58 ESV). And Moses reminds the Israelites, “the Lord took delight in doing you good and multiplying you” (Deuteronomy 28:63 ESV). But their disobedience would result in the polar opposite reaction from God.

“The Lord will take delight in bringing ruin upon you and destroying you.” – Deuteronomy 28:63 ESV

God would leave the Israelites scattered, demoralized, oppressed, weary, and suffering from “a trembling heart and failing eyes and a languishing soul” (Deuteronomy 28:65 ESV). Their hearts will be filled with dread. Their lives will be marked by regret, loss, and a longing for each day to come to an end. But the nighttime will be no better. The hours will drag by as they long for the new day to dawn. Then the miserable cycle of frustration and despair will repeat itself.

And Moses ends this dismal list of curses with a bleak prediction of Israel restored to captivity in Egypt – right back to where they started. They will be forced to watch as the promised land fades into the distance as they make their way back to Egypt as slaves. They will endure the shame and humiliation of a reverse exodus. And their lives will once again be marked by bondage, not freedom. There will be no more rest. They will enjoy no more rewards or blessings from God. All because they decided to disobey the law of God.

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.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The People of God

1 Now Moses and the elders of Israel commanded the people, saying, “Keep the whole commandment that I command you today. And on the day you cross over the Jordan to the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall set up large stones and plaster them with plaster. And you shall write on them all the words of this law, when you cross over to enter the land that the Lord your God is giving you, a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your fathers, has promised you. And when you have crossed over the Jordan, you shall set up these stones, concerning which I command you today, on Mount Ebal, and you shall plaster them with plaster. And there you shall build an altar to the Lord your God, an altar of stones. You shall wield no iron tool on them; you shall build an altar to the Lord your God of uncut stones. And you shall offer burnt offerings on it to the Lord your God, and you shall sacrifice peace offerings and shall eat there, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God. And you shall write on the stones all the words of this law very plainly.”

Then Moses and the Levitical priests said to all Israel, “Keep silence and hear, O Israel: this day you have become the people of the Lord your God. 10 You shall therefore obey the voice of the Lord your God, keeping his commandments and his statutes, which I command you today.” Deuteronomy 27:1-10 ESV

Moses finally concludes his recitation of the law to the people of Israel. And having completed this important task, he provides them with a final set of instructions. First, he adds one last command to the long list he has given them: That they obey every one of the laws. And to help them keep that commitment, Moses instructs them to build a memorial and an altar to God. The memorial would be made of stones covered in plaster, on which they were to inscribe every single one of the laws God had given them. We’re not told if this was simply a synopsis consisting of only the Ten Commandments or if it included the entire code found in the book of Deuteronomy. But the important point is that the law given to them by God was to be permanently recorded in stone and placed on Mount Ebal, where all could see it.

This site would become a symbol of Israel’s sacred covenant relationship with God. He had set them apart as His own and given them His law as their official code of conduct. Even the Canaanites living in the land would see this memorial and know that the Israelites were a different kind of people who lived according to a distinctively different set of rules. And they worshiped one God. That is why Moses also instructed the Israelites to build an altar to God right next to the memorial. And we know from the book of Joshua, that they followed Moses’ instructions to the letter.

At that time Joshua built an altar to the Lord, the God of Israel, on Mount Ebal, just as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded the people of Israel, as it is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, “an altar of uncut stones, upon which no man has wielded an iron tool.” And they offered on it burnt offerings to the Lord and sacrificed peace offerings. And there, in the presence of the people of Israel, he wrote on the stones a copy of the law of Moses, which he had written. – Joshua 8:30-32 ESV

As the book of Deuteronomy comes to a close, it mirrors the life and legacy of Moses. He has been denied the privilege of entering into the land of promise. And knowing that his days are numbered, Moses is beginning the handoff of his ministry and leadership to Joshua, God’s chosen successor for Moses. It was important to Moses that with their entrance into the land of promise, the people of Israel got off on the right foot. He knew that the key to their success would be their adherence to the law which would be dependent upon their reverence for God. The memorial, made from plaster-covered stones inscribed with the law, would remind them of God’s expectations of them. The altar of uncut stones would remind them that their God was holy and righteous.

One of the very first things they were to do after crossing over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, was to offer sacrifices to God. And the altar upon which those sacrifices were to be made was to be distinctively different from the altars of the pagan nations that filled the land. It was to be constructed with whole stones, untouched by iron tools. The focus of the altar was to be God, not the beauty of the well-crafted stones or the handiwork of the stone-carver. Moses didn’t want the people to be impressed with the structure. He wanted them to be attracted to the holiness of God.

God requires the obedience of His people. But obedience is only possible when God’s people love and worship Him for who He is. Without the motivation that reverence for God produces, obedience will become nothing more than a self-manufactured adherence to a set of religious rules and regulations. It turns heartfelt submission to God’s will into little more than legalistic, fear-based adherence to a list of dos and don’ts. And that kind of behavior has a short shelf-life.

It is important that we recognize Moses’ instructions for building a memorial and a place of worship. They were to keep God’s law in mind at all times, but they were also to maintain a healthy reverence and respect for God. Otherwise, they would find themselves forgetting who God was and why His law was worthy of being kept.  God had told the people of Israel, “You must be holy because I, the LORD, am holy. I have set you apart from all other people to be my very own” (Leviticus 20:26 NLT). Their holiness would be based on their obedience to God’s laws. But the motivation behind their keeping of the law was to be the holiness of God. Because He was holy, they were to be holy, and the law was a black-and-white description of what holy behavior was to look like.

A law to remember and a God to reverence. The two were to go hand in hand. They were inseparable and interdependent. And God provided a description of what obedience divorced from true worship looked like.

“These people say they are mine. They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. And their worship of me is nothing but man-made rules learned by rote.” – Isaiah 29:13 NLT

Heartless obedience is ultimately nothing more than self-effort masquerading as worship of God. It is insincere and wrongly motivated. It is not based on an accurate view of God and so, it ends up creating a false form of worship that is based more on self-merit than the worthiness of God.

The law was to be a constant reminder of God’s expectations for mankind. But the altar was where men came to express their love for and dependence upon God. They were to bring their burnt offerings and peace offerings to God. A peace offering was also known as a fellowship offering, and was intended as a means for the people of Israel to offer praise to God for His goodness, mercy, and grace. It was not associated with sin but was tied to the generosity and compassion of God. It was a voluntary sacrifice and the book of Leviticus provides a description of what it entailed.

This is the law of the peace offering sacrifice which he is to present to the LordIf he presents it on account of thanksgiving, along with the thank offering sacrifice he must present unleavened loaves mixed with olive oil, unleavened wafers smeared with olive oil, and well soaked ring-shaped loaves made of choice wheat flour mixed with olive oil.  – Leviticus 7:11-12 ESV

The sacrifice was to be eaten by the one who gave it. So, it was offered as a form of thanksgiving to God, but the giver was allowed to enjoy in the blessing God had bestowed.

The burnt offering was typically tied to sin and man’s need for forgiveness. It involved the complete destruction of the animal, which served as a stand-in or substitute for the one making the offering. The smoke that ascended from the offering was to be “a soothing aroma to the LORD” (Leviticus 1:9), propitiating or satisfying the righteous anger of a holy God for the sins committed by the one making the offering. It was intended to renew the relationship between Holy God and sinful man.

The altar was to be a place marked by confession, forgiveness, and rejoicing. And Moses reminds the people that, when they come to the altar, they were to rejoice before the Lord their God. They were to find joy in His provision for all their needs and His forgiveness of all their sins. He would provide them with food to assuage their hunger and a sin-substitute to satisfy His righteous judgment. God was going to give them plenty of reasons to rejoice, but it would begin with their adherence to His law, which would be based on their reverence for His holiness.

Which is why Moses cautions the people: “Keep silence and hear, O Israel: this day you have become the people of the Lord your God. You shall therefore obey the voice of the Lord your God, keeping his commandments and his statutes, which I command you today” (Deuteronomy 27:9-10 ESV). This statement is associated with the completion of the reciting of the law. God’s expectations have been clearly communicated. Their first responsibilities upon entering the land have been articulated. The covenant has been ratified and renewed, once again setting apart the people of Israel as God’s chosen possession. They belonged to Him and they were to live like it – from that day forward.

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.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

My Ways Are Higher

10 “When you draw near to a city to fight against it, offer terms of peace to it. 11 And if it responds to you peaceably and it opens to you, then all the people who are found in it shall do forced labor for you and shall serve you. 12 But if it makes no peace with you, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it. 13 And when the Lord your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword, 14 but the women and the little ones, the livestock, and everything else in the city, all its spoil, you shall take as plunder for yourselves. And you shall enjoy the spoil of your enemies, which the Lord your God has given you. 15 Thus you shall do to all the cities that are very far from you, which are not cities of the nations here. 16 But in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, 17 but you shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the Lord your God has commanded, 18 that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the Lord your God.

19 “When you besiege a city for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them. You may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down. Are the trees in the field human, that they should be besieged by you? 20 Only the trees that you know are not trees for food you may destroy and cut down, that you may build siegeworks against the city that makes war with you, until it falls.– Deuteronomy 20:10-20 ESV

Let’s face it, these are difficult verses to understand, let alone to justify. They deal with sensitive topics, and their content appears counter-intuitive and contradictory to our sense of fairness and ethics. This is one of those passages that cause many to reject the God of the Old Testament as antithetical to the loving, grace-giving, and merciful God of the New Testament.

But despite any reservations we may have with the more sinister portrait of God found in these verses, the Scriptures do not portray God as bipolar in nature. We may not like what we see. His actions may offend our more refined 21st-Century sensibilities, but the biblical portrait of God is designed to be taken in full, not in part.

The nature of God is complex and complicated. And mankind is at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to comprehending His wisdom or His ways. God, by the very nature of His being, is incomprehensible and beyond man’s capacity to understand. His own assessment of His transcendent nature is quite plain.

“My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord.
    “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.
For just as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so my ways are higher than your ways
    and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” – Isaiah 55:8-9 NLT

Even the psalmist understood that mere humans were at a distinct disadvantage when it came to understanding the ways of God.

When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers—the moon and the stars you set in place—what are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them? – Psalm 8:3-4 NLT

He was blown away that the God who created the universe and all it contains would even give a second thought to “mere mortals” like himself. But how quickly we more sophisticated and well-educated modern mortals attempt to judge God and hold Him accountable for His actions. And yet, the ancient prophet, Isaiah, would have us consider the danger of putting the God of the universe on trial, passing judgment on His behavior as if He somehow answers to us.

“What sorrow awaits those who argue with their Creator. Does a clay pot argue with its maker? Does the clay dispute with the one who shapes it, saying, ‘Stop, you’re doing it wrong!’ Does the pot exclaim, ‘How clumsy can you be?’” – Isaiah 45:9 NLT

These verses in Deuteronomy 20 must be read with the whole context of the biblical narrative in mind. The Bible is a single book written by a solitary author and tells a singular story. It is the revelation of God. On its pages are found a diverse and somewhat disparate compellation of images that, when taken together, provide a comprehensive portrait of God. As God, He is far from simple or simplistic in nature. His character is complex and multifaceted, yet never contradictory or conflicting. He is, at the same time loving, wrathful, holy, vengeful, kind, angry, just, condemning, forgiving, uncompromising, and compassionate.

So, when we read of God advocating the complete annihilation of a people group, we are tempted to react with shock and disdain. The image it portrays stands diametrically opposed to the one we have formed in our minds. But far too often, our image of God is a flawed and overly simplistic one, based on human reasoning and not divine revelation. We tend to paint God using a limited palette of colors, designed to cast Him in a way that mirrors our own nature and pleases our human sensibilities. We prefer a God who looks like us, acts like us, and can be fully understood by us. We are not comfortable with the apparent contradictions and contrasts that accompany a transcendent, incomprehensible God.

In these verses, God provides the Israelites with His rules regarding warfare. He has brought them to the land of Canaan and now it is time for them to inhabit the land He had promised to them as their inheritance. But to do so, they would have to remove the nations that currently occupied the land. And while we may find this as nothing more than a display of God-ordained ethnic cleansing, we have to be careful that we do not step into the very dangerous role of acting as God’s judge.

Our inability to grasp God’s ways does not give us carte blanch to judge His actions. As God said to His disgruntled and disenchanted servant, Job: “Do you still want to argue with the Almighty? You are God’s critic, but do you have the answers?” (Job 40:2 NLT).

In response to Job’s relentless questioning of His motives and methods, God went on to ask Job, “Will you discredit my justice and condemn me just to prove you are right?” (Job 40:8 NLT).

God was unsparing in His response to Job’s arrogant assault on His character, asking him, “Who is this that questions my wisdom with such ignorance?” (Job 42:3 NLT).

And, while we may find if offensive and incomprehensible that God would issue a command for Israel to put all the males of a city to the sword and to take all the women and children as captives, we must refrain from acting as God’s judge. When we hear Moses tell the Israelites: “in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction” (Deuteronomy 20:16 ESV), we naturally react with shock and dismay. But who are we to question the ways of God? What right do we have to judge the Almighty according to our limited wisdom and understanding? His ways are far beyond anything we could ever imagine or comprehend.

God was not asking the Israelites to approve of His methods. He was demanding that they trust His character and willingly rely on His track record of faithfulness. He had never let them down. He had never given them a reason to doubt His word or to question His integrity. And while we may not particularly like God’s methods or understand His ways, we have no right to act as His judge. This chapter of the story may not make sense to us. We may not see the method behind God’s seeming madness, but the Bible contains a story that has a beginning and an end. Every chapter and every verse in every book of the Bible paints a comprehensive picture of God’s redemptive plan for mankind. And this story, while sometimes a difficult read, ends very well.

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.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Rules Regarding Warfare

1 When you go out to war against your enemies, and see horses and chariots and an army larger than your own, you shall not be afraid of them, for the Lord your God is with you, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. And when you draw near to the battle, the priest shall come forward and speak to the people and shall say to them, ‘Hear, O Israel, today you are drawing near for battle against your enemies: let not your heart faint. Do not fear or panic or be in dread of them, for the Lord your God is he who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies, to give you the victory.’ Then the officers shall speak to the people, saying, ‘Is there any man who has built a new house and has not dedicated it? Let him go back to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man dedicate it. And is there any man who has planted a vineyard and has not enjoyed its fruit? Let him go back to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man enjoy its fruit. And is there any man who has betrothed a wife and has not taken her? Let him go back to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man take her.’ And the officers shall speak further to the people, and say, ‘Is there any man who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go back to his house, lest he make the heart of his fellows melt like his own.’ And when the officers have finished speaking to the people, then commanders shall be appointed at the head of the people.– Deuteronomy 20:1-9 ESV

As has already been stated, God cared deeply for the people of Israel and left no area of their corporate life unregulated by His holy standards. From the foods they ate to the manner in which they worshiped Him, God provided clear and unequivocal guidelines for conducting their lives. Every moment of their day was to be focused on and governed by His law. And Moses had reminded them repeatedly to incorporate God’s commandments into every facet of their daily life.

“…you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today. Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up.” – Deuteronomy 6:6-7 NLT

In this chapter, Moses addresses what was about to become a major part of their existence as they entered the promised land. Canaan was filled with other people groups who were not going to welcome Israel with open arms. There was going to be warfare, and God had clearly communicated His expectations regarding Israel’s interactions with the pagan nations occupying the land He had awarded as an inheritance to Abraham.

“Speak to the Israelites and tell them, ‘When you have crossed the Jordan into the land of Canaan, you must drive out all the inhabitants of the land before you. Destroy all their carved images, all their molten images, and demolish their high places. You must dispossess the inhabitants of the land and live in it, for I have given you the land to possess it. …But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land before you, then those whom you allow to remain will be irritants in your eyes and thorns in your side, and will cause you trouble in the land where you will be living.  And what I intended to do to them I will do to you.” – Numbers 33:51-53, 55-56 NLT

Battle was going to become an unavoidable aspect of their everyday life. And what made this particularly challenging was that Israel had no standing army. There were no trained soldiers in their midst. All of the men who were old enough to fight had spent their entire lives wandering through the wilderness. Yes, they had fought and won a few battles on the east side of the Jordan, but for the most part, they were little more than shepherds and wandering nomads. And yet, God expected them to conquer the entire land of Canaan and dispossess long-entrenched kingdoms with standing armies and well-fortified cities.

But this passage reveals a great deal about the character of God. Moses will assuage the people’s fears by reminding them of God’s omnipotence.

“…let not your heart faint. Do not fear or panic or be in dread of them, for the Lord your God is he who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies, to give you the victory.” – Deuteronomy 20:3-4 ESV

They had no reason to fear because they had God on their side and He was going to fight on their behalf. They had a secret weapon that none of the nations living in the land of Canaan could hope to withstand. Their powerful armies and walled cities would prove no match for God Almighty. And Moses wanted the people to remember that the same God who had conquered the Egyptians some 40 years earlier was going to be fighting for them in the land of Canaan.

“…the Lord your God is with you, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” – Deuteronomy 20:1 ESV

But Israel’s God was not only powerful, He was also compassionate. He cared about His people and took into account their individual situations and circumstances. This passage paints a remarkable picture that blends God’s sovereignty and lovingkindness. He was their compassionate, caring King. And while He fully expected them to obey His commands and carry out His orders, He was not oblivious to their personal circumstances. He did not view them as cogs in a machine or mindless instruments in His all-powerful hands.

Warfare was going to be inevitable and unavoidable, but so was life. Between battles, men would be marrying, starting families, building homes, and establishing their lives in the new land. The final objective was for the Israelites to possess the land, not simply conquer it. Battle would be necessary, but only so the people of Israel could inherit and inhabit the land that God had given them.

So, God provided four mandatory exemptions from military service. When the time for battle arrived, if any man of fighting age met the requirements, he was to be released from his commitment to fight. God was well aware of the fact that death was a potential outcome for every man who went into battle, so He provided these gracious exemptions that seem to be aimed at younger men who were starting new lives in the land. The first exemption involved the dedication of a new home. If a man had recently built a home, but had not had time to properly dedicate it, he was dismissed from mandatory military service so that he could do so. There seems to be a religious connotation behind this directive because the Hebrew word for “dedicate” is khanakh and it is the same one used when referring to Solomon’s dedication of the temple. The home was an important aspect of Jewish life. It was a symbol of prosperity and the epicenter of life. For a man to die in battle without having dedicated his own home would have left his family without shelter. Since women were not allowed to own property, it is likely the house would have been sold to someone else, leaving the deceased man’s family destitute. So, God provides a gracious exemption.

The second case involves a man who has planted a vineyard, but has not yet had time to reap a harvest from it. He too is provided with an exemption from military service so he can remain home and harvest the fruit of his labors. Otherwise, he might die in battle, and someone else reap the benefits of all his efforts. Once again, it is likely that, with the man’s death in battle, his land would have become the property of someone else and his wife and children would have received no benefit from all his labor.

The third scenario deals with a man who has become engaged to be married. If there was a call for battle, this man was to be relieved of his commitment so that he might marry his bride and consummate his marriage. Otherwise, he could die in battle, and his betrothed become the wife of another man. Marriage and the family were important to God and vital to the well-being of the nation, so He ensured that these young men were protected and the sanctity of the family unit was preserved.

The final exemption is a somewhat surprising one. In this case, Moses instructed the military commanders to approach their troops and offer an exemption to anyone afraid of going into battle.

In addition, the officers are to say to the troops, “Who among you is afraid and fainthearted? He may go home so that he will not make his fellow soldier’s heart as fearful as his own.” – Deuteronomy 20:8 NLT

This seems like an odd and potentially risky proposition. After all, what man in his right mind would not be afraid of the prospect of going into battle? It seems that this question could have resulted in the mass exodus of every able-bodied man.

But the real point behind all of these exemptions is that the victory God has assured will be by His hands and not that of men. God did not need a large standing army. He did not require every able-bodied man in order to defeat the enemies of Israel. And if men were too fearful to fight alongside God, He would rather they return home than run the risk of them infecting the rest of the army with their fear and faithlessness.

This reminds me of another occasion when God exempted some of His troops from going into battle and used a handful of faithful men to accomplish a great victory. This story is found in the book and involves Gideon defeating an army of Midianites that “had settled in the valley like a swarm of locusts. Their camels were like grains of sand on the seashore—too many to count!” (Judges 7:12 NLT).

And to make matter worse, God had ordered Gideon to send home the vast majority of his troops, leaving him with a paltry force of only 300 men. But God had assured Gideon, “With these 300 men I will rescue you and give you victory over the Midianites. Send all the others home” (Judges 7:7 NLT). And God did as He had promised. He brought about a great victory. It was not the size of Gideon’s army that mattered. It was Gideon’s God.

God was not dependent upon Gideon and his troops. And God was not limited by the number of Israelites who showed up when they were called up for battle. The victory would be His regardless of the size of the army at His disposal. Israel’s God was great and gracious. He was caring and compassionate. And Moses wanted the Israelites to never forget that “the Lord your God is with you.”

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.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

You Shall Be Blameless

“When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations. 10 There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer 11 or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, 12 for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord. And because of these abominations the Lord your God is driving them out before you. 13 You shall be blameless before the Lord your God, 14 for these nations, which you are about to dispossess, listen to fortune-tellers and to diviners. But as for you, the Lord your God has not allowed you to do this. – Deuteronomy 18:9-14 ESV

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Which is to say that if someone mimics your actions or behavior, they are expressing admiration for you. And while there may be some truth to this idiom, in far too many cases, imitation can be a dangerous game to play. Failure to consider the character of the one you seek to emulate can result in far-from-flattering or beneficial outcomes. Seeking to pattern your life after someone else can be driven by all kinds of unhealthy motives. It is far too easy to focus on the external fruit of their behavior; such as success, wealth, and popularity, while failing to closely examine what they had to do to achieve those results. Did their path to success require that they cut corners, bend the rules, compromise their convictions, or sacrifice their integrity? Better yet, will imitating their lives require those things of you?

As the time approached for the people of Israel to enter the land of promise, Moses spent a great deal of time and energy attempting to prepare them for the formidable task that lay ahead of them. They were entering a new stage in their relationship with God that would be like nothing they had ever experienced before. Their faith in God would be tested in ways they could not even begin to imagine. Their willingness to remain faithful to God would come under constant attack.

Compromise would become a daily temptation. Complacency would be a constant threat to their commitment to God. Remaining set apart to God would be far more difficult than they could know. Maintaining their distinction as God’s holy people was going to require diligence and a determination to remain uncompromisingly committed to Him. Moses had repeatedly communicated their unique status as God’s chosen people.

“But the LORD has taken you and brought you out of the iron furnace, out of Egypt, to be a people of his own inheritance, as you are this day.” – Deuteronomy 4:20 ESV

“For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.” – Deuteronomy 7:6 ESV

“For you are a people holy to the LORD your God, and the LORD has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. – Deuteronomy 14:2 ESV

“For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. – Deuteronomy 14:21 ESV

The Hebrew word for “holy” is qadowsh, and it means “sacred” or “set apart.” The Israelites had been separated out by God and consecrated as His possession. They belonged to Him. Like Adam and Eve, the Israelites had been created by God and set apart for His glory. But their status as His chosen possession was going to require that they live according to His holy standards. They were not free to live as they wished. They could not follow the ways of the world. And God expected them to make the land of Canaan a veritable island of holiness in the sea of wickedness that covered the world.

Three times in five verses, Moses uses the Hebrew word, tow`ebah, to describe the ways of the people occupying the land of Canaan. They were an abomination to God because their ways were morally repugnant to Him. Their behavior was unacceptable to a holy God. So, Moses warns the Israelites from following their “abominable practices.” And he makes it clear that anyone among the Israelites who imitates their ways will be “an abomination to the Lord.”

Rather than mimic the ways of the Canaanites, the people of God were to do everything in their power to remain set apart and distinct. Moses put it in very stark terms.

“You shall be blameless before the Lord your God.” – Deuteronomy 18:13 ESV

The Hebrew word for “blameless” is tamiym and it carries the idea of wholeness or completeness. It is the very same word God had used when addressing Abraham nearly half a millennium earlier.

When Abram was ninety-nine years old the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless.” – Genesis 17:1 ESV

While tamiym can be translated as “perfect” or “unblemished,” God was not demanding sinlessness from Abraham. But was expecting Abraham to live his entire life in keeping with His ways. Abraham was to live an integral or whole life, dedicated to God and set apart for His glory. And Moses was trying to convey the same thought to the people of Israel. He was not expecting them to remain totally free from contamination by the world. That would have been impossible, given their sinful natures and the ubiquitous nature of evil in the world. But Moses wanted them to fully understand just how dangerous compromise with the world would be.

And while most of the abominable practices that Moses pointed out had to do with witchcraft, sorcery, divination, and the occult, all of these things were associated with Canaanite religious practices. Moses knew that the Israelites would be tempted to weave these morally disgusting practices into their own worship of Yahweh. Compromise would be a constant threat for the Israelites, resulting in their failure to remain tamiym – unblemished and unstained by the world.

God expected His people to live as who they are: His chosen possession. Their lives were to reflect their unique status as His set-apart ones. Enjoying their status as God’s children came with a non-negotiable requirement that they honor the distinctiveness of their position by living holy lives.

There was no room for compromise or complacency. They were to share God’s disgust and disdain for the ways of the Canaanites. They were to resist exposure to and contamination by the abominable practices of the Canaanites. And they were to never forget that God’s will was the complete eradication of the Canaanites and their unholy ways from the land.

When it comes to holiness, imitation of the world is not flattery, it’s idolatry. Compromising our convictions by copying the ways of the world is unacceptable for God’s people. We have been set apart. We belong to Him. As His children, we are to reflect His character and bring glory to His name by the way we live our lives – wholly unto Him.

The religion of the Israelites was totally unique and prescribed by God. It was not the result of man’s imagination and was not to reflect the practices of the pagan nations of the world. God had set Israel apart positionally and practically. Their status as His people was to show up in everyday life, especially when it came to their worship of Him.

There are all kinds of religions in the world, but only one brand of religious activity is acceptable to God. And James describes this kind of religion in very plain terms.

Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you. – James 1:27 NLT

And, as Paul told his disciple, Titus, the people of God are still expected to live distinctively different lives, not emulating the ways of this world but reflecting our status as God’s chosen people.

For the grace of God has been revealed, bringing salvation to all people. And we are instructed to turn from godless living and sinful pleasures. We should live in this evil world with wisdom, righteousness, and devotion to God, while we look forward with hope to that wonderful day when the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, will be revealed. – Titus 2:11-13 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.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

 

 

Reason to Rejoice

22 “You shall tithe all the yield of your seed that comes from the field year by year. 23 And before the Lord your God, in the place that he will choose, to make his name dwell there, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and flock, that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always. 24 And if the way is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, when the Lord your God blesses you, because the place is too far from you, which the Lord your God chooses, to set his name there, 25 then you shall turn it into money and bind up the money in your hand and go to the place that the Lord your God chooses 26 and spend the money for whatever you desire—oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the Lord your God and rejoice, you and your household. 27 And you shall not neglect the Levite who is within your towns, for he has no portion or inheritance with you.

28 “At the end of every three years you shall bring out all the tithe of your produce in the same year and lay it up within your towns. 29 And the Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance with you, and the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, who are within your towns, shall come and eat and be filled, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands that you do. – Deuteronomy 14:22-29 ESV

The people of Israel were prohibited from eating certain foods, as determined by God. Their adherence to this command would help to enhance their status as God’s chosen and set-apart people. It would further differentiate and distinquish them from the pagan nations living within the land. But it would also enable them to bear or carry their designation as God’s people without fear of compromise or the risk of bringing shame to His name.

While they were to set themselves apart by refraining from the consumption of certain foods, they were also expected to display their holiness or set-apartness by observing the Sabbath and all the ritual observances associated with it. This included the annual tithe as well as the once-every-three year tithe. Moses reminded them to:

“Bring this tithe to the designated place of worship—the place the Lord your God chooses for his name to be honored—and eat it there in his presence. This applies to your tithes of grain, new wine, olive oil, and the firstborn males of your flocks and herds.” – Deuteronomy 14:23 NLT

Food was a vital part of their existence and they were to recognize God as the source of all their needs. By refraining from eating certain foods, they displayed their faith in God’s ability to provide more than enough non-prohibited food in order to sustain them. And when God blessed them with grain, wine, olive oil, flocks, and herds, their willingness to offer a portion of their bounty back to Him was an additional sign of their reliance upon Him.

Moses had already specified that God was going to choose a specific place within the land where the Tabernacle was to be set up. It would be there, and there alone, that the Israelites would bring their tithes and offerings.

“There you will bring your burnt offerings, your sacrifices, your tithes, your sacred offerings, your offerings to fulfill a vow, your voluntary offerings, and your offerings of the firstborn animals of your herds and flocks. There you and your families will feast in the presence of the Lord your God, and you will rejoice in all you have accomplished because the Lord your God has blessed you.” – Deuteronomy 12:6-7 NLT

Moses was assuring the people that God was going to bless them and, when He did, they were to return a portion of all He gave them as a sign of their gratefulness and as further proof of their reliance upon Him. These annual events were additional ways in which God chose to set the people of Israel apart. These feasts and festivals would be unique to them as a nation, and their observance of them would further enhance their status as God’s chosen people.

God had already dictated His will concerning these annual events, making them a part of the commandments He had passed on to them through Moses.

“Each year you must celebrate three festivals in my honor. First, celebrate the Festival of Unleavened Bread. For seven days the bread you eat must be made without yeast, just as I commanded you. Celebrate this festival annually at the appointed time in early spring, in the month of Abib, for that is the anniversary of your departure from Egypt. No one may appear before me without an offering.

“Second, celebrate the Festival of Harvest, when you bring me the first crops of your harvest.

“Finally, celebrate the Festival of the Final Harvest at the end of the harvest season, when you have harvested all the crops from your fields. At these three times each year, every man in Israel must appear before the Sovereign, the Lord.” – Exodus 23:14-17 NLT

In a sense, these feasts and festivals were to act as tests to determine the obedience of the Israelites, but also to measure the degree of their trust. In an agrarian culture, giving back a portion of your produce was a literal sacrifice. They were giving up their source of livelihood and displaying their faith that God would continue to meet all their needs. In doing so, they were showing that they were not trusting the gifts more than the Giver.

But one of the things that gets overlooked in all of this is God’s gracious allowance for celebration in the midst of all the sacrifice. While they were expected to give back to God, He wanted them to rejoice in the blessings He had provide. So, these annual events were to be celebrations where the people enjoyed the blessings of God. Moses told them to “feast there in the presence of the Lord your God and celebrate with your household” (Deuteronomy 14:26 NLT).

There was a communal aspect to these celebrations. While the nation of Israel had been divided into 12 tribes and those tribes would end up living in 12 separate regions within the land, they were to gather as a nation on these feast days and celebrate the goodness of God together. And no one was to be left out. God demanded that the Levites, the only tribe not given a portion of the land as an inheritance, would be provided for by the 11 other tribes. And every single foreigner, orphan, and widow was to be included in these annual celebrations. No one was to be left out or allowed to go without. God’s goodness was to be shared with all.

Once again, these God-ordained events were meant to set the people of Israel apart as belonging to God. These feasts and festivals were unique to the nation of Israel, further differentiating them from the rest of the nations around them. and enhancing their reputation as God’s chosen people.

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.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

 

 

The Siren Call of Apostasy

1 If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, ‘Let us go after other gods,’ which you have not known, ‘and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams. For the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. You shall walk after the Lord your God and fear him and keep his commandments and obey his voice, and you shall serve him and hold fast to him. But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has taught rebellion against the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you out of the house of slavery, to make you leave the way in which the Lord your God commanded you to walk. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.

“If your brother, the son of your mother, or your son or your daughter or the wife you embrace or your friend who is as your own soul entices you secretly, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods,’ which neither you nor your fathers have known, some of the gods of the peoples who are around you, whether near you or far off from you, from the one end of the earth to the other, you shall not yield to him or listen to him, nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you spare him, nor shall you conceal him. But you shall kill him. Your hand shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. 10 You shall stone him to death with stones, because he sought to draw you away from the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 11 And all Israel shall hear and fear and never again do any such wickedness as this among you.

12 “If you hear in one of your cities, which the Lord your God is giving you to dwell there, 13 that certain worthless fellows have gone out among you and have drawn away the inhabitants of their city, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods,’ which you have not known, 14 then you shall inquire and make search and ask diligently. And behold, if it be true and certain that such an abomination has been done among you, 15 you shall surely put the inhabitants of that city to the sword, devoting it to destruction, all who are in it and its cattle, with the edge of the sword. 16 You shall gather all its spoil into the midst of its open square and burn the city and all its spoil with fire, as a whole burnt offering to the Lord your God. It shall be a heap forever. It shall not be built again. 17 None of the devoted things shall stick to your hand, that the Lord may turn from the fierceness of his anger and show you mercy and have compassion on you and multiply you, as he swore to your fathers, 18 if you obey the voice of the Lord your God, keeping all his commandments that I am commanding you today, and doing what is right in the sight of the Lord your God. – Deuteronomy 13:1-18 ESV

Chapter 12 ended with the following call from Moses:

“Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it. – Deuteronomy 12:32 ESV

And what follows in chapter 13 was intended to provide the Israelites with concrete, real-life examples of what adding or taking away from the law might look like. Moses wanted them to know that keeping God’s commands was about far more than what they did or did not do. The temptation to play fast and loose with God’s laws was going to be great, and it would come in a variety of forms. So, Moses provided them with three concrete illustrations of just how subtle and subversive the threat to their faithfulness to God could show up.

It is important to note that this is a communal problem, not just an individual one. The call to faithfulness and obedience was national in scope and aimed at the entire Israelite community. No family, tribe, or city was exempt. There were to be no exceptions, and anyone who failed to treat God’s commands with reverence and respect were to be dealt with quickly and harshly.

In each of the three case-studies Moses provides, the common theme and threat is apostasy, a turning away from God to serve a false god. In other words, they each involve idolatry, which is a direct violation of the first of the Ten Commandments. Moses presents the same basic scenario in three different forms but featuring one common element: The call to abandon God.

“Let us go after other gods…” – vs. 2

“Let us go and serve other gods…” – vs. 6

Let us go and serve other gods…” – vs. 13

One message, but each delivered by three radically different messengers. The first two are individuals, and their inclusion was meant to surprise and shock the Israelites. The first is a prophet, a respected religious leader. The second is a trusted family member. No Israelite in their right mind would have expected a prophet of God or a member of their own family to issue a call to practice idolatry. Such a thing would have been unthinkable.

But the point Moses seems to be making is that call to apostasy can come from the most unexpected places and from the least likely sources. Yet, regardless of the source, the people of Israel were to take it seriously and deal with it immediately.

A prophet was considered a spokesman for God. He was to have been a messenger of God who faithfully proclaimed the word and will of God. A prophet was a truth-teller. Yet, Moses described a scenario in which a prophet issued a call to the people of Israel to abandon God in order to serve gods “which you have not known.”

So, get the picture. Here you have a recognized leader, who by virtue of his role, represents and speaks for God Almighty. But he is encouraging the people to disobey the very first commandment. Because he is a prophet, the people would be prone to take his words as having come from God. But Moses makes it clear that if this man’s message is not in keeping with the commands of God, he is not speaking on behalf of God. He is a liar and he “shall be put to death, because he has taught rebellion against the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 13:5 ESV).

Notice how Moses describes this seemingly unlikely scenario: “For the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.”

The Israelites were going to face constant tests to their faithfulness. And Moses wanted them to know that the call to idolatry could and would come from the most unexpected places, including the lips of men who claimed to be speaking for God. That’s why Moses has put so much stress on hearing and knowing the commands of God. It is why he told the people to make them a permanent part of their lives.

“…commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these words of mine. Tie them to your hands and wear them on your forehead as reminders. Teach them to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, so that as long as the sky remains above the earth, you and your children may flourish in the land the LORD swore to give your ancestors.” – Deuteronomy 11:18-21 NLT

The best way to recognize falsehood is to know the truth. And as long as the people of Israel made the commands of God their highest priority, they would be able to discern a lie, even if it came from a so-called prophet of God.

But the next scenario Moses described brought the danger even closer to home, literally. It involves an intimate friend or family member issuing a secret call to join them in apostasy. Unlike the prophet calling the entire nation to disobey the command of God, this close friend or relative is using their familial relationship to encourage unfaithfulness. And because it involves a close friend or family member, the temptation will be that much greater. But the point Moses seems to be making is that it is the content of the message that matters, not the source. It doesn’t matter whether the call to unfaithfulness comes from a prophet or a parent, the response is to be the same.

“…you shall not yield to him or listen to him, nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you spare him, nor shall you conceal him. But you shall kill him.” – Deuteronomy 13:8-9 ESV

The lie was the same, regardless of the lips from which it came. And the danger was just as real whether it came from a religious leader or a relative. So, Moses outlines a non-negotiable strategy for eliminating the threat of apostasy.

You shall stone him to death with stones, because he sought to draw you away from the Lord your God…” – Deuteronomy 13:10 ESV

This kind of language shocks and surprises us. It all sounds so barbaric and inhumane. It rubs against our modern sensibilities and seems to contradict our view of God as loving and kind. But we must remember that God is holy, righteous, and just. He cannot and will not tolerate sin. It is nothing less than open rebellion to His sovereign will. God had great things in store for the people of Israel, but it was going to require that they obey Him by taking His commands seriously. And the greatest affront to God’s holiness is to reject His status as the one and only God. Which is why Moses had repeatedly told the Israelites:

“Listen, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. And you must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength. And you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today.” – Deuteronomy 6:4-6 NLT

That’s why the call, “let us go after other gods” was to be considered so egregious and dangerous, no matter whose lips it came from. And that brings us to the third and final scenario. This time it entails an entire city. Moses describes a group of “worthless fellows” – literally, “sons of Belial.” These are individuals lacking in morals and scruples who influence and, ultimately, infect an entire town with their apostasy. They issue the very same call, “Let us go and serve other gods” and, in time, the entire city buys into their lie and follows their lead. So, what is the rest of Israel to do? How are they to respond to this isolated case of unfaithfulness in their midst? Moses provides them with the answer.

“…you shall surely put the inhabitants of that city to the sword, devoting it to destruction, all who are in it and its cattle, with the edge of the sword.” – Deuteronomy 13:15 ESV

No punches pulled. No excuses accepted. No exceptions made. This was to be treated with a soberness and seriousness that reflected an understanding of the danger involved. Sin, like cancer left untreated, will spread unchecked and result in the spiritual death of the community. And the greatest sin is that of apostasy, rejecting God as the one true God. The constant threat God’s people face is to listen to the siren call to seek and serve other gods. It is subtle and can come from the least-expected places. But regardless of the source, we are to reject the message and do what is right in the sight of our God.

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.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

 

 

Obedience Brings Blessing

1 “You shall therefore love the Lord your God and keep his charge, his statutes, his rules, and his commandments always. And consider today (since I am not speaking to your children who have not known or seen it), consider the discipline of the Lord your God, his greatness, his mighty hand and his outstretched arm, his signs and his deeds that he did in Egypt to Pharaoh the king of Egypt and to all his land, and what he did to the army of Egypt, to their horses and to their chariots, how he made the water of the Red Sea flow over them as they pursued after you, and how the Lord has destroyed them to this day, and what he did to you in the wilderness, until you came to this place, and what he did to Dathan and Abiram the sons of Eliab, son of Reuben, how the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, with their households, their tents, and every living thing that followed them, in the midst of all Israel. For your eyes have seen all the great work of the Lord that he did.

“You shall therefore keep the whole commandment that I command you today, that you may be strong, and go in and take possession of the land that you are going over to possess, and that you may live long in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers to give to them and to their offspring, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 For the land that you are entering to take possession of it is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you sowed your seed and irrigated it, like a garden of vegetables. 11 But the land that you are going over to possess is a land of hills and valleys, which drinks water by the rain from heaven, 12 a land that the Lord your God cares for. The eyes of the Lord your God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year. – Deuteronomy 11:1-12 ESV

Moses has issued a call to the people of Israel: “change your hearts and stop being stubborn” (Deuteronomy 10:16 NLT). And this was preceded by the reminder that “the Lord chose your ancestors as the objects of his love. And he chose you, their descendants, above all other nations, as is evident today” (Deuteronomy 10:15 NLT). 

And what would their change of heart look like? Moses describes it in terms of obedience.

You must love the Lord your God and always obey his requirements, decrees, regulations, and commands. – Deuteronomy 11:1 NLT

Rather than stubbornly refusing to do what God had called them to do, they could prove their love for Him through their willful obedience. But God was not interested in watching His people simply go through the motions. He was not asking for heartless adherence to His commands. As we have seen before, God takes no delight in worship that lacks true reverence.

“These people say they are mine. They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. And their worship of me is nothing but man-made rules learned by rote.” – Isaiah 29:13 NLT

Moses wanted the people to understand that God loved them and He expected them to return that love through faithful obedience to His will for them. God was not demanding some form of stringent legalism, but a display of surrender to His will motivated by love for who He was.

“What is more pleasing to the LORD: your burnt offerings and sacrifices or your obedience to his voice? Listen! Obedience is better than sacrifice, and submission is better than offering the fat of rams.” – 1 Samuel 15:22 NLT

Of all people, the Israelites should have had a healthy fear of and respect for God. After all, He had demonstrated His power and proven His faithfulness time and time again. And the people of Israel had no reason to doubt Him or cause to disobey Him. But Moses emphasizes the fact that the children of the Israelites had not been around when many of the mighty acts of God had taken place.

They didn’t see the miraculous signs and wonders he performed in Egypt against Pharaoh and all his land.” – vs. 3

They didn’t see what the Lord did to the armies of Egypt and to their horses and chariots—how he drowned them in the Red Sea…” – vs. 4

Your children didn’t see how the Lord cared for you in the wilderness until you arrived here.” – vs. 5

They didn’t see what he did to Dathan and Abiram…” – vs. 6

They had not had the benefit of watching God display His mighty power on their behalf. Their young eyes had not had the privilege of witnessing God’s deliverance or seeing His judgment. But the same could not be said of their parents.

But you have seen the Lord perform all these mighty deeds with your own eyes!” – Deuteronomy 11:7 NLT

They had no excuse. They couldn’t plead ignorance or claim to have no memory of God’s past miracles. Which is why Moses warned them to use their knowledge of God’s past power and provision to motivate their future obedience.

“Therefore, be careful to obey every command I am giving you today…” – Deuteronomy 11:8 NLT

And Moses made it clear that their heartfelt obedience to God would bring the blessings of God. Doing exactly what God had commanded would provide them with strength. It would result in victories over their enemies. Ongoing obedience would preserve their place in the land, securing their inheritance for generations to come. The land would yield its harvest, and God would be the one who provided the rain necessary to produce the crops. Unlike their days of captivity in Egypt, their gardens would not be watered by means of irrigation, but by means of the sovereign hand of God. And this would be in keeping with the promise He had made to them.

“If you follow my decrees and are careful to obey my commands, I will send you the seasonal rains. The land will then yield its crops, and the trees of the field will produce their fruit. Your threshing season will overlap with the grape harvest, and your grape harvest will overlap with the season of planting grain. You will eat your fill and live securely in your own land.” – Leviticus 26:3-5 NLT

God was demanding allegiance but also dependence. He wanted His people to rely upon Him for all their needs. He was not interested in seeing how powerful and resourceful they could be. He wanted to display His strength on their behalf. He desired to meet their every physical and spiritual need.

Moses stressed that the land they were about to enter was “a land that the Lord your God cares for. He watches over it through each season of the year!” (Deuteronomy 11:12 NLT). It was His land, and they were His people. The cities and towns belonged to Him. Every sheep, goat, and bull were His property.

“For all the animals of the forest are mine, and I own the cattle on a thousand hills.” – Psalm 50:10 NLT

And God was offering to share His bounty with His people. He was pledging to bless them from the vast riches of His wealth. If they would only love and obey Him. Moses had already told them what God desired of them.

“…to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the Lord.” – Deuteronomy 10:12-13 ESV

Now he was assuring them that their heartfelt obedience would come with substantial benefits. Obedience that is motivated by love and accompanied by a humble trust in and reliance upon God’s will, always results in His blessings.

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.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson