The Standard For Forgiveness

23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” –  Matthew 18:23-35 ESV

In an effort to drive home His message regarding forgiveness, Jesus told His disciples a parable. It’s important to remember that this whole section of Matthew’s gospel had begun with an argument among the disciples about who among them was the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. They were obviously thinking that Jesus was going to set up a kingdom on earth where they would rule and reign alongside Him. That’s why the two brothers, James and John, had asked Jesus to do them a favor.

“When you sit on your glorious throne, we want to sit in places of honor next to you, one on your right and the other on your left.” – Mark 10:37 NLT

Their perception of the kingdom was all about power, position, and prominence. But Jesus was attempting to show them that it was about character and conduct. The day was coming when Jesus would establish His kingdom on earth, but that would not take place until after the Great Tribulation – an event reserved for the end of the age. In the meantime, those who would become members of His spiritual kingdom were to lives marked by humility, compassion, forgiveness, and love.

Jesus had come to change the hearts of men and, as a result, their outward behavior. Rather than arguing about who was the greatest, the disciples should have been introducing others to the Messiah. They should have been following the example of Jesus by serving the needs of those who were burdened by the cares of this world.

One of the marks of a follower of Jesus Christ should be a capacity to forgive others as they have been forgiven by God. Peter wanted to put a limit on how many times he should have to forgive a brother who sinned against him. He chose the number seven. But Jesus raised the ante by stating, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:22 ESV). In essence, there was to be no limit. Just as God puts no limit on the number of times we can come to Him for forgiveness.

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. – 1 John 1:9 ESV

At the dedication of the temple in Jerusalem, Solomon had prayed, “May you hear the humble and earnest requests from me and your people Israel when we pray toward this place. Yes, hear us from heaven where you live, and when you hear, forgive” (1 Kings 8:30 ESV).  Solomon went on to give a list of what-if scenarios, describing situations in which the people of God might sin against God and then call on Him for forgiveness. Because he knew it was inevitable that they would sin.

“The time will come when your people will sin against you (for there is no one who is sinless!) and you will be angry with them and deliver them over to their enemies, who will take them as prisoners to their own land, whether far away or close by. When your people come to their senses in the land where they are held prisoner, they will repent and beg for your mercy in the land of their imprisonment, admitting, ‘We have sinned and gone astray; we have done evil.’ When they return to you with all their heart and being in the land where they are held prisoner, and direct their prayers to you toward the land you gave to their ancestors, your chosen city, and the temple I built for your honor, then listen from your heavenly dwelling place to their prayers for help and vindicate them. Forgive all the rebellious acts of your sinful people and cause their captors to have mercy on them.” – 1 Kings 8:46-50 NLT

Solomon greatly desired that God would extend forgiveness, regardless of the circumstances involved or the number of times a request was invoked. Unlike Peter, Solomon wanted God to place no numerical limits on God’s forgiveness.

Like Solomon, we expect God to forgive us, regardless of the nature of our sin or the number of times we ask. Which brings us to Jesus’ parable. He used a story to drive home His message about forgiveness and life within His kingdom. A certain king called together his bondservants, requiring them to settle their debts with him. In this parable, the debts symbolize sin. The inference in the story is that all of the king’s bondservants owed him something. Remember the words of Solomon: “for there is no one who is sinless!”

One particular bondservant owed the king 10,000 talents. To understand the magnitude of this man’s debt, you have to realize that, at that time, a single talent was equivalent to 20-years wages for a servant. This man’s debt was astronomical and beyond his capacity to repay. So, the king ordered that the man, his family, and all his possessions be sold in order to recoup some of the loss. But the man begged the king for leniency. He knew he was at the king’s mercy and, in spite of the magnitude of his debt, he asked the king to give him time to come up with the money.

This was an absurd request. The servant and the king both knew that repayment was impossible. We are not told how the servant amassed such a debt, but his ability to make restitution was well beyond his means. The king, in an attempt to cut his losses, determined to sell the man and his family as slaves. But the servant begged the king for time, vowing to pay his debt in full. Amazingly, in a display of pity for the man’s predicament, the king “released him and forgave him the debt” (Matthew 18:27 ESV).

Don’t miss that last part. It is essential to understanding this parable. The king didn’t give the man extra time. He didn’t lower the interest rate on the note or decrease the amount owed. He forgave the man’s entire debt. He wiped the slate clean.

But rather than rejoicing at this incredible news, the forgiven man immediately accosted a fellow servant who owed him money. This man’s debt was a hundred denarii. A denarius was worth a single day’s wages for the average servant. From the debtor’s perspective, it was a lot of money, but nothing when compared to the amount the first man had owed. And yet, the forgiven servant demanded immediate payment. He wanted the debt settled at once. And his fellow servant responded just as he had, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” But rather than pass on the grace and mercy he had been shown, the man had his fellow servant thrown into jail.

When the king was informed that one of his servants had been jailed, he was surprised and angered. Calling in the ungrateful servant, the king told him, “Evil slave! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me! Should you not have shown mercy to your fellow slave, just as I showed it to you?” (Matthew 18:32-33 NLT).

This man had been forgiven a great debt – one he could have never repaid. The king had given him what he did not deserve and what he had not asked for: Complete forgiveness of his debt. But then the man had turned around and had refused to extend forgiveness to someone else. It was the apostle Paul who stressed the need for believers to forgive as they have been forgiven.

Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. – Colossians 3:13 NLT

Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you. – Ephesians 4:32 NLT

It’s important to notice the punishment meted out by the king. He has the man thrown in jail “until he should pay all his debt.” The inference, based on the size of the debt, is that the man will spend an eternity in jail. Even if he was still able to earn a normal day’s wage, it would take him 200,000 years to repay the debt.

And Jesus dropped a bombshell on His disciples by announcing, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:35 ESV). Was Jesus announcing that eternal punishment awaits those who refuse to forgive? Was He teaching the possibility of the loss of our salvation? It would seem, based on the context in which Jesus told this parable, that He is simply trying to stress the extreme importance of forgiveness. It is to be a cardinal characteristic of the true follower of Christ. And it is those who recognize the degree of their sin debt and the remarkable grace of God’s forgiveness, who will be willing to express their gratitude by extending forgiveness to others. A man who has been forgiven much, but who refuses to forgive others, has never fully recognized the magnitude of his own sin debt. He is driven by pride, not humility. He is marked by arrogance, not gratitude.

At one point in His ministry, Jesus had his feet washed by a woman whom Luke referred to as immoral. The shocked Pharisees called her a sinner. But Jesus stated, “I tell you, her sins—and they are many—have been forgiven, so she has shown me much love. But a person who is forgiven little shows only little love” (Luke 7:47 NLT).

Our sin debt is great. It is beyond our capacity to repay. And yet, Jesus died on the cross in order to ransom us from that debt. He paid the price we could not pay. And our gratitude for what He has done for us should show up in our willingness to forgive those who sin against us. 

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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Restoration, Not Revenge

15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.” –  Matthew 18:15-22 ESV

Jesus has just finished talking about the danger of causing another believer to stumble in his walk by demeaning or devaluing them. Pride has no place in the family of God. There is no reason for any follower of Christ to consider themselves to be better than anyone else. And the disciples would soon learn that all are equal at the foot of the cross. We are sinners saved by grace, “not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:9 ESV). And the humility that accompanies our faith in Christ should prevent us from looking down on other believers and setting ourselves up as somehow superior and of greater value in the kingdom.

But that humility will also lead us to lovingly forgive those who sin against us, especially our brothers and sisters in Christ. If we end up on the receiving end of someone else’s pride and arrogance, we are to approach them in humility, not anger, exposing their sin but with the goal of restoring the relationship.

One of the greatest sins we can commit against another believer is to cause them to stumble in their walk or stray from the path on which God has placed them. And if you should find yourself the victim of this kind of sin, Jesus encourages you to seek restoration, not revenge. The goal is not the exposure of the other person’s fault, but the healing of the relationship. And Jesus makes it clear that if you humbly and lovingly approach them and they repent, you will have “gained a brother.”

But, if they refuse to admit their culpability and confess their pride, you are to involve others in the fellowship who can speak to the matter from first-hand experience. Once again, the objective should be to lead them to conviction that results in restoration. This is not about making the other person feel bad. It’s not about exposing their faults before others, but about humbly seeking God’s best for them.

But if the one who has sinned against you remains unconvicted and refuses to repent, you are to bring the matter before the ekklēsia, a Greek word that eventually came to refer to the local body of believers or the local church. But at this point in Jesus’ relationship with His disciples, He had provided them with no insight or teaching regarding the coming church. So, more than likely, Jesus was referring to an assembly of believers who had been called together for an announcement. The disciples probably assumed He was talking about their own close-knit group.

Finally, Jesus told them that if the person remained stubbornly unrepentant, they were to “let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17 ESV). In other words, they were to exclude this individual from fellowship. If he or she remained unrepentant, they were to be unwelcome by those in the ekklēsia – the small circle of friends who had become privy to the sin. This individual would have forfeited their right to fellowship because they had refused to accept responsibility for their sin. Had they followed the advice of the apostle John, they could have been restored to fellowship and received forgiveness.

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. – 1 John 1:9 ESV

Again, the objective behind all of this is restoration, not merely punishment. Our motivation in confronting the guilty party is to be love. As the apostle Peter taught:

Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. – 1 Peter 4:8 ESV

In our loving confrontation of the brother or sister who has sinned against us, we are to understand that our treatment of them, when done in humility and out of love, carries weight. When the time comes for a decision to be made regarding the proper discipline of the guilty party, it should be made prayerfully and carefully. We are to see our decision as bearing the full weight of God’s authority. Jesus repeated the same words He used when speaking to Peter back in chapter 16.

“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  – Matthew 16:19 ESV

The decision made by the local assembly would carry the same weight as if it had been made by God Himself. The binding and loosing have to do with the outward treatment of the one who has sinned against his brother or sister in Christ.

Verses 19-20, while often used as a proof text for corporate prayer, really has much more to do with the issue of one believer who has sinned against another. When the proper steps have been taken and the sinning individual has been confronted one-on-one and then with two or three witnesses, the next step is discipline. And we are to seek God’s will in the matter. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Jesus does not provide a singular prescription for discipline. We are to seek the will of God and then pronounce judgment in the name of God – fully trusting that He is intimately involved in the matter.

Finally, Peter has to get his two-cents in, following up Jesus’ words with a question that he hopes will shed light on the whole discussion. He appears to have a hard time with the idea of forgiving someone who has sinned against him. So, he asked Jesus how many times he was expected to forgive. He was looking for a limit. Surely, this would not be some undetermined number requiring unending forgiveness. But Jesus blew holes in Peter’s theory, by saying, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:22 ESV). The number was not the issue. It was the motivation of the heart. Jesus wanted Peter to know that the kind of forgiveness He was talking about had no time limit or date of expiration. It is the very same kind of forgiveness we have received from God.

The apostle Paul would later explain it in terms that each of us can readily understand.

Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. – Ephesians 4:32 ESV

Again, the issue is restoration, not revenge. Our goal is to be reconciliation with our brother or sister in Christ and their ultimate restoration to a right relationship with God. For the disciples, all of this sounded so far-fetched and impossible. It made no sense. But Jesus was raising the bar, just as He has done all along the way in His interactions with these men. He was enlightening them to the reality of life in the kingdom. It would not be as they expected. There would be no place for pride. There would be no room for vengeance. The kingdom Jesus came to inaugurate would be comprised of humility, unity, and love.

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

A Model Prayer

“Pray then like this: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. – Matthew 6:9-15 ESV

Jesus has just told His audience how not to pray. They were not to pray hypocritically, pretending to be concerned with God, while actually trying to impress those around them with their prayerful piety. And He told them not to pray lengthy, repetitive prayers, in the hopes that God might see them as more holy, and answer their prayers more readily. Jesus knew there was a lot about the practice of prayer that was misunderstood by His listeners and causing them to misuse and abuse it. They had turned prayer into little more than an outward display of their own apparent righteousness. They prayed to impress and to gain the approval of men. So, what should proper prayer look like? That’s the question that Jesus answers in these verses.

He opens with the statement: “Pray then like this…” (Matthew 6:9 ESV).  What follows is a model for prayer. It was not intended to be a stand-in for your own prayers or to become some kind of daily recitation that we pray routinely and mechanically. In these verses, Jesus provides us with a model to be followed, not a mantra to be recited. It contains the key elements that should be found in every one of our prayers. And it provides a simple, easy-to-follow outline for proper prayer.

First of all, Jesus would have us remember that prayer is not about us. It is, first and foremost, about God and our relationship with Him as a child to Father. We are more than free to come to God with our needs, wants, and even our desires. But we must attempt to bring those needs, wants, and desires within His will. So, Jesus begins His model prayer with the words:

Our Father in heaven…

Jesus sets up an interesting juxtaposition. He refers to God as our Father but reminds us that His residence is in heaven. The term “father” communicates intimacy. We are to come before God as a child, recognizing that He loves and cares for us. Realizing that He is our provider and protector. He loves and cares for us, and He is also responsible for us. This is why Jesus would have us never forget that, in prayer, we are talking to the transcendent God of the universe. He is in heaven. We are on earth. The word “heaven” is intended to remind us of God’s divinity. He is divine, and we are human. He is eternal, and we are temporal. He is holy, while we are marred by sin. And yet, we can come before Him and talk with Him. In fact, the author of Hebrews tells us to “come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most” (Hebrews 4:16 NLT).

But we must always remember that God is both good and great. He is approachable, but we must never come into His presence flippantly or disrespectfully. One of the problems that can develop from the father/child relationship is a spirit of over-familiarity. Children can become too comfortable with their parents and begin to treat them as peers. A parent who refuses to maintain their proper position of authority may end up with a child who becomes demanding toward them, even demeaning. The old phrase, “familiarity breeds contempt,” can become true of the parent/child relationship. It can produce an attitude of flippancy and disrespect. And the same thing can happen in our relationship with God the Father. We are His children, but that relationship should not cause us to forget about His sovereignty over us. We are never to forget that it is Christ who provides us with access to God. Jesus would later say, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6 ESV). And Paul reminds us:

Because of Christ and our faith in him, we can now come boldly and confidently into God’s presence. – Ephesians 3:12 NLT

But let us do so respectfully, honoring Him as both God and Father. We must not let our newfound familiarity with God breed contempt for Him.

Next. Jesus provides us with an interesting way to address our Father God.

…hallowed be your name…

Now, why would Jesus insert this line in His model prayer? Think about what this statement is saying. The word translated “hallowed” is from the Greek word hagiazo, which means “to separate from profane things and dedicate to God.” The English word “hallow” means “to honor as holy; consider sacred; venerate.” But why would we need to tell God that His name should be treated as holy? Isn’t His name always holy? One of the things we must understand is the extreme importance a man’s name held in the Hebrew culture. It was tied to his character. So, to say to God, “hallowed be your name” was a statement of desire. We are not asking God to keep His name holy, but that we, as His children, might live in such a way that we do nothing that might profane His name. To say, “hallowed be your name” is to express to him our desire and intention to live in such a way that we bring honor and glory to Him. We are pledging to treat His name as holy through our actions. God will never do anything that will discredit or dishonor His own name. But as His children, we can do immeasurable harm to the character of God by the manner in which we conduct our lives on this planet.

The next part of Jesus’ model prayer states:

…your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…

Notice the emphasis: His kingdom. His will. Not ours. Prayer is not to be focused on us but on God. Prayer is not primarily a time to tell God things all the things we think He doesn’t know and to give Him the lengthy list of things we think we need. Jesus has just said, “your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8 ESV). Prayer is an opportunity to align our will with His. It is a chance to remind ourselves that we exist for the good of His kingdom, not the other way around. And to ask that His kingdom and will be done “on earth as it is in heaven” is to say to God that we want His rule and reign to permeate every area of our life, just as it does in heaven. It is a will submission to His authority over us.

One of the things Jesus seems to want us to know is that prayer is about sharing our hearts, not information. Prayer allows us to…

…realign our perspective

…refocus our attention

…reveal our sin

…refresh our commitment

…request His assistance

Prayer should focus on His kingdom, not ours. It should stress His will, not ours. That does not mean we are forbidden to ask of God. But Jesus provides us with a sobering reminder of just what we should focus on when we do make requests of God.

Give us this day our daily bread…

Here is the interesting thing about Jesus’ model prayer. Wanting God’s will to be done should change the nature of our requests. If we truly believe that God is all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving, and fully capable of providing for us what we need for life, we will trust Him to do so. Our priorities will change. Rather than seeking significance and satisfaction from those things the world offers, we will be content to trust God to meet our daily needs. Thomas L. Constable describes our daily bread as:

“…the necessities of life, not its luxuries. This is a prayer for our needs, not our greeds. The request is for God to supply our needs day by day.” – Thomas L. Constable, Notes on Matthew, 2008 Edition

The next request Jesus makes in His prayer is that of forgiveness.

…and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors…

But weren’t all our sins paid for on the cross? Why do we need forgiveness? Because we still have sin natures. Because we still sin. And sin creates a barrier between God and us. The forgiveness Jesus is talking about has nothing to do with salvation, but with restoring fellowship with God. Sin indebts us to God. When we confess those sins, it brings forgiveness.

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgives us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. – 1 John 1:9 ESV

Confession restores fellowship. Fellowship with God should mean more to us than anything else. But is Jesus teaching that our forgiveness from God is tied to our willingness to forgive others? To refuse to forgive others shows open disregard for the forgiveness of God. To refuse to forgive is a sin. It is against the will of God for His children.

Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. – Colossians 3:12-13 NLT

The next part of His prayer is intriguing.

…and lead us not into temptation…

Is Jesus suggesting that we ask God not to tempt us? If so, He would be contradicting what James would later write, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one” (James 1:13 ESV). Paul seems to muddy the waters even more:

No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. – 1 Corinthians 10:13 ESV

The Greek word for “temptation” is peirasmos and it can mean a trial or testing. It can refer to an inner temptation to sin, but also to a trial that tests the character. So what is Jesus suggesting? That we have an awareness of our dependence upon God. That we recognize that God’s way never leads us to sin. That doesn’t mean we WON’T sin. It is to ask God to protect us from falling into sin along the way. We need His help not to sin as He leads us. Following God’s leadership will not be easy. There will be trials along the way. Which is what Jesus is referring to when He adds:

…but deliver us from evil…

God will not only lead us, but He will also deliver us. He can keep us from committing evil. He can protect us from the evil committed against us. Remember what Jesus prayed in the garden:

I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. – John 17:15 ESV

Jesus ends this section by revisiting the issue of forgiveness. It was obviously important to Him. An unforgiving person has never fully understood or appreciated the forgiveness of God. How can we, who have been forgiven so much, be unwilling to forgive others? The key to receiving God’s forgiveness is confession – an acknowledgment of our sin. To not forgive others is to sin against them. And we can’t just confess that sin, we need to rectify it. We need to forgive, as we have been forgiven. In fact, we demonstrate whether we have been forgiven by whether or not we will forgive others.

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

Not What God Intended

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. – Matthew 5:31-32 ESV

Jesus follows up his radical statements regarding lust and adultery with a clarification about what the law actually says regarding the topic of divorce. Once again, He opens His remarks with the words, “It was also said.” What follows was not intended to be a restatement of the law, but a clarification of the Jewish peoples’ misunderstanding of what the law actually taught. Jesus was showing them that they had misconstrued the meaning and intent of what was written in the book of Deuteronomy. Here are the actual words:

When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the Lord. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance. – Deuteronomy 24:1-4 ESV

Divorce was a problem in Israel. And the reason was that the people had been taught to minimize the moral aspect regarding divorce. Their interpretation of this passage in Deuteronomy centered solely on one thing: The certificate of divorce. In other words, they read this law and saw it as a license for a man to divorce his wife.

It is essential to realize that, in Israel’s ancient culture, women had no rights. They were not free to divorce their husbands. So, this law was aimed at men. And it was not intended as some kind of get-out-of-jail-free card, providing men with an easy exit strategy from an unhappy marriage. But that is what it had become. Divorce had become commonplace. All it required was a written piece of paper, a certificate of divorce. There were no lawyers, courts, or judges involved. And the action was taken with little or no thought as to any spiritual or moral ramifications the decision might entail.

These verses are directly tied to the ones preceding them, where Jesus talked about adultery. Every Jew knew that adultery was wrong. But they had divorced the idea of adultery from divorce. And Jesus wasn’t going to allow them to do so. This is why He states, “I say that a man who divorces his wife, unless she has been unfaithful, causes her to commit adultery. And anyone who marries a divorced woman also commits adultery” (Matthew 5:32 ESV).

In just a few short sentences, Jesus drops the hammer on the Jewish concept of divorce. All the way back in the book of Genesis, at the very point in time when God had made Eve from the rib of Adam, He had said, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24 ESV). God’s intention had been that a man and woman would be joined together as one, for life. There had been no provision for divorce. And, at a later point in Jesus’ ministry, this issue would be raised by the Pharisees, when they asked Him, “Should a man be allowed to divorce his wife?” (Mark 10:2 NLT).

The context of the passage makes it clear that they were attempting to trap Jesus with this question. It was designed to be a no-win scenario. If Jesus said a man was not allowed to divorce his wife, the crowds would turn on Him. A hard-line view on marriage and divorce had gotten John the Baptist beheaded by Herod. So the Pharisees wanted to see what Jesus was going to say, and His response was simple, yet direct. He did what He was so often prone to do. He answered a question with a question: “What did Moses say in the law about divorce?” (Mark 10:3 NLT). And they responded, “Well, he permitted it. He said a man can give his wife a written notice of divorce and send her away” (Mark 10:4 NLT). Now, notice closely what Jesus said to them:

“He [Moses} wrote this commandment only as a concession to your hard hearts. But ‘God made them male and female’ from the beginning of creation. ‘This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.’ Since they are no longer two but one, let no one split apart what God has joined together.” – Mark 10:5-9 NLT

C. E. B. Cranfield, in his commentary of the Gospel of Mark, clarifies that the Deuteronomy passage to which Jesus refers…

…is a divine provision to deal with situations brought about by men’s sklerokardia [hardness of heart] and to protect from its worst effects those who would suffer as a result of it. – C. E. B. Cranfield, The Gospel According to Saint Mark

In other words, this was a concession, and not to be confused with some form of divine sanctioning of divorce. It was intended to keep men from following up one sin with another. The certificate of divorce was a legal document that was based on one thing and one thing only: Some proof of “indecency” in the life of the wife. The Hebrew word used in the Deuteronomy passage had to do with actions related to indecency, shamefulness, or dishonor. A man couldn’t just grow tired of his wife and send her packing. He wasn’t free to “fall out of love” with her and produce a piece of paper to get rid of her. There had to be moral reasons for him to divorce her. And, if he did divorce her, he had to deal with the moral ramifications of his decision.

Jesus makes it perfectly clear that, unless the man’s wife was guilty of unfaithfulness, in the form of sexual immorality, he had no right to divorce her. If he did, he was causing her to commit adultery with the next man she married. Because, in God’s eyes, she and her first husband were still one. And if she did remarry and was given divorce papers a second time, the first husband was not free to remarry her, without being guilty of adultery as well. And any husband, after having divorced his wife, who decided to marry a woman who had also been divorced without proper cause, would be guilty of adultery.

Why is Jesus belaboring this point? What is the real issue He is addressing? It is faithfulness. It all gets back to the perception/reality problem. For the Jews, their perception regarding divorce was that divorce was possible under certain conditions. You just had to follow the rules. But with the help of the religious leaders, the rules had been redefined. Divorce had become an accepted norm. But Jesus was out to deal with reality. He blatantly countered that divorce results in adultery. Marriage was intended to be a covenant, a binding relationship between two people, and sealed before God Almighty. And Jesus clarifies the significance of that reality, when He says, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Mark 10:9 ESV).

Divorce was never God’s intention for mankind. Marriage was designed to be a permanent union, creating a divine bond between two individuals. Divorce was a breaking of the marriage covenant. It was an act of unfaithfulness. And God had stated that the only legitimate grounds for divorce would be based on unfaithfulness. And yet, He was not prescribing divorce as the solution to the problem of unfaithfulness. Jesus made it painfully clear that there was only one reason God made a provision for divorce: “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Matthew 19:8 ESV).

One of the things God has always looked for in His people is faithfulness. God expected the people of Israel, His chosen people, to remain faithful to Him. But He often accused them of spiritual adultery.

“Have you seen what she did, that faithless one, Israel, how she went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and there played the whore? And I thought, ‘After she has done all this she will return to me,’ but she did not return, and her treacherous sister Judah saw it. She saw that for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce. Yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear, but she too went and played the whore. Because she took her whoredom lightly, she polluted the land, committing adultery with stone and tree. Yet for all this her treacherous sister Judah did not return to me with her whole heart, but in pretense, declares the Lord.” – Jeremiah 3:6-10 ESV

Israel had a track record of unfaithfulness to God. They couldn’t keep from wandering after other “lovers.” And the whole point Jesus seems to be making is our unfaithfulness on a horizontal level is a reflection of our unfaithfulness on a vertical level. How are we to remain faithful to God if we can’t remain faithful to our spouse? Our lack of commitment reveals a heart problem, not a compatibility issue.

God’s greatest concern is man’s relationship with Him. Sinful man is divorced or separated from God. Unfaithfulness has created a barrier between man and God. All men and women have proven themselves unfaithful to God. We have gone after other lovers, pursued other gods, and sought other relationships to meet our needs and satisfy our desires. But God, in His grace and mercy, sent His Son as the means by which we might be restored to a right relationship with Him. He wants to end our spiritual adultery and put a stop to our unfaithfulness. And it will only take place if we allow Him to renew our hearts and redeem us from our love affair with sin, self, and Satan.

Jesus is calling the people of God back to God. I love the way the apostle Paul puts it:

And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ. – 2 Corinthians 5:18-21 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

A Serious Heart Condition

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell. – Matthew 5:27-30 ESV

Notice what Jesus says here. “Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” For the average Jew, God’s prohibition against adultery was only referring to the physical act itself. And while the Mosaic Law clearly commanded, “You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14 ESV), Jesus informs them that God had far more in mind than they perceived. The issue was the heart.

In the Old Testament, God accused the people of Israel of spiritual adultery time and time again. And not just when they were actually worshiping other gods. They could be unfaithful and adulterous, even in the midst of their worship of Him. Consider this stinging criticism He leveled against them:

“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

They had a heart problem, and so did the people listening to Jesus’ sermon on the hillside. They just didn’t know it. They were stuck on the externals, the outward meaning of the law, and their physical adherence to it. As long as they restrained themselves from actually committing the act of adultery, they were good with God, or so they thought.

Jesus uses the Greek word, “lust” (epithymeō), which meansto set the heart upon.” The word could be positive or negative in its meaning. It all depended upon the context in which it was used. But if you set your heart upon another person’s spouse, lust was most definitely wrong. In its negative usage, lust was to strongly seek that which had been forbidden by God. So, what Jesus is really telling His audience is that it’s all about their purity of heart, not the physical act of adultery itself. In other words, it’s all about the motivation that leads up to the act. What would cause someone to set their heart upon something God had forbidden or placed off-limits? And this was not a new concept. Jesus was not introducing something radical here, but simply reminding His listeners of what the Scriptures had always taught about the heart.

Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life. – Proverbs 4:23 NLT

The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is? – Jeremiah 17:9 NLT

To refrain from committing adultery was not enough. Just because someone has the fortitude to keep themselves from having sex with their best friend’s wife, doesn’t mean they don’t want to and haven’t obsessed about it regularly. That seems to be Jesus’ point here. You can brag all you want to about your commitment to God’s law, and you may impress your friends with your piety, but you won’t fool God. Because He knows your heart. He knows your every thought. God isn’t just interested in outward compliance to His law, He wants a wholehearted commitment to Him and His will regarding righteous behavior.

And Jesus gives a shockingly graphic prescription for handling the problem of lust.

“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.” – Matthew 5:29 ESV

That sounds a bit extreme, doesn’t it? Is Jesus really recommending that we pluck out our eyes to keep from lusting? But wait, He’s not done.

“And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.” – Matthew 5:30 ESV

Would cutting off of your hand keep you from sinning? Probably not. And that is not what Jesus is teaching here. He is clearly using hyperbole, the use of over-exaggeration to drive home a point. So, what is His point? To understand what Jesus is saying, it might help to use a real-life event as an illustration. Early on in King David’s reign, we are told that a time came “when kings go out to battle” (2 Samuel 11:1 ESV). It was springtime in Israel, the time of year when nations did battle. But the passage tells us that, while Joab and the forces of Israel went to war, “David remained at Jerusalem.” He stayed behind. And then we’re told:

It happened, late one afternoon, when David arose from his couch and was walking on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful. – 2 Samuel 11:2 ESV

David had time on his hands. And notice what it says: “he saw.” David “saw” Bathsheba. The Hebrew word is ra’ah, and it means “to behold, enjoy, look upon.” In other words, he lusted. But his lust was wrong because this woman was not his wife. In fact, the story will reveal that she was the wife of one of David’s soldiers. But notice that, at this point in the story, all David had done was lust. He had looked and enjoyed. But that would prove to be inadequate for David.

So David sent messengers and took her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. – 2 Samuel 11:4 ESV

David “took” Bathsheba. The Hebrew word is laqach, which means “to seize, to take, carry away.” He saw and he took. He used his eyes and his hands. He gazed longingly and wrongly on something that was not his, then he seized what he saw to satisfy his own desires. James makes it quite clear what was going on in David’s heart and life at that moment:

Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death. – James 1:14-15 NLT

David saw with his eyes and took with his hands. His lustful thoughts resulted in sinful actions. But it all began in his heart. D. A. Carson provides us with some helpful insight into what Jesus meant by plucking out our eye and cutting off our hand.

We are to deal drastically with sin. We must not pamper it, flirt with it, enjoy nibbling a little bit of it around the edges. We are to hate it, crush it, dig it out. – D. A. Carson, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount

Our greatest desire should be to live in conformity to the will of God. And anything that might prevent us from doing so should be seen as expendable. A big part of our problem is our inordinate love affair with the things of this world. We lust after, covet, desire, and long for the things the world offers. We seek satisfaction and significance from the things of this world. In essence, we commit adultery with the world in order to satisfy our lustful desires. We see and we take. But James gives us a second word of warning:

You adulterers! Don’t you realize that friendship with the world makes you an enemy of God? I say it again: If you want to be a friend of the world, you make yourself an enemy of God. – James 4:$ NLT

And James wasn’t done.

Wash your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, for your loyalty is divided between God and the world. Let there be tears for what you have done. Let there be sorrow and deep grief. Let there be sadness instead of laughter, and gloom instead of joy. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up in honor. – James 4:8-10 NLT

There it is again: Purify your hearts. Adultery is a heart issue. Lust is a heart issue. And impurity of heart is the real problem. That is why Jesus said earlier, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8 ESV). Purity of heart has to do with loving God by giving Him every area of your life. It is to “love the Lord your God will all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind” (Matthew 2:37 NLT). Purity of heart is not outward conformity to a set of rules, but integrity or wholeness of life. It is a wholehearted seeking after God that impacts all of life. If you are seeking after God, it will be hard to seek satisfaction and significance elsewhere. If you are busy lusting after God, you will find it difficult to lust after someone or something else. Purity of heart flows out and influences our hands and our eyes.

Remember what Jesus had to say to the Pharisees regarding their man-made laws and regulations:

“For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander. These are what defile you. Eating with unwashed hands will never defile you.” – Matthew 15:19-20 NLT

External behavior is a byproduct of the inward condition of the heart. Adultery is a result of misplaced lust and desire. When we should be seeking all our satisfaction and significance from God, we end up committing adultery in our hearts, proving unfaithful to Him by turning our affections to something or someone other than Him. For Jesus, adherence to the letter of the law was not the point. It was the condition of the heart. He was coming to do radical heart surgery on the people of God. He was trying to get them to realize that their problem with God was not their inability to keep His laws, but their incapacity to love Him faithfully, which kept them from living for Him obediently. Until their hearts were renewed, their affections would remain misplaced. Jesus came to reveal to them just how much God loved them.

Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. – Romans 5:7-8 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

The Righteous Wrath of God

19 “The Lord saw it and spurned them,
    because of the provocation of his sons and his daughters.
20 And he said, ‘I will hide my face from them;
    I will see what their end will be,
for they are a perverse generation,
    children in whom is no faithfulness.
21 They have made me jealous with what is no god;
    they have provoked me to anger with their idols.
So I will make them jealous with those who are no people;
    I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation.
22 For a fire is kindled by my anger,
    and it burns to the depths of Sheol,
devours the earth and its increase,
    and sets on fire the foundations of the mountains.

23 “‘And I will heap disasters upon them;
    I will spend my arrows on them;
24 they shall be wasted with hunger,
    and devoured by plague
    and poisonous pestilence;
I will send the teeth of beasts against them,
    with the venom of things that crawl in the dust.
25 Outdoors the sword shall bereave,
    and indoors terror,
for young man and woman alike,
    the nursing child with the man of gray hairs.
26 I would have said, “I will cut them to pieces;
    I will wipe them from human memory,”
27 had I not feared provocation by the enemy,
    lest their adversaries should misunderstand,
lest they should say, “Our hand is triumphant,
    it was not the Lord who did all this.”’ Deuteronomy 32:19-27 ESV

We love to talk about God’s love, mercy, and grace. And while these divine characteristics are essential to understanding His nature and bring us great comfort, they can also paint a rather one-dimensional image of God. An overemphasis of these positive aspects of God’s character can cause us to downplay His righteous anger and just judgment. This is one of the reasons so many people find such a disparity between the Old and New Testaments. They see conflicting images of God portrayed and choose the kind and compassionate God of the New Testament over the harsh and seemingly heartless God of the Old Testament.

But there is only one God, and He is unchanging in His nature. Yes, we may prefer to dwell on His more loving and father-like characteristics, but that does not mean He is incapable of displaying anger or dispensing harsh justice when necessary. And while the Old Testament is the primary place where this darker side of God’s character is displayed, it does not mean He has mellowed with time. Here are just a few reminders of God’s unchanging nature.

“For I the Lord do not change…” – Malachi 3:6 ESV

Of old you laid the foundation of the earth,
    and the heavens are the work of your hands.
They will perish, but you will remain;
    they will all wear out like a garment.
You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away,
    but you are the same, and your years have no end. – Psalm 102:25-27 ESV

And there countless passages in both the Old and New Testaments that reveal the righteous indignation of God.

“I, the LORD, will punish the world for its evil and the wicked for their sin. I will crush the arrogance of the proud and humble the pride of the mighty.” – Isaiah 13:11 NLT

In the greatness of your majesty you overthrow your adversaries;
    you send out your fury; it consumes them like stubble. – Exodus 15:7 ESV

“Now I will soon pour out my wrath upon you, and spend my anger against you, and judge you according to your ways, and I will punish you for all your abominations. And my eye will not spare, nor will I have pity. I will punish you according to your ways, while your abominations are in your midst. Then you will know that I am the Lord, who strikes.” – Ezekiel 7:8-9 ESV

But when he [Jesus] saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? – Matthew 3:7 ESV

But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. – Romans 2:5 ESV

And in this portion of the song given by God to Moses, the anger of God is clearly revealed.

They have made me jealous…” – vs. 21

“…they have provoked me to anger.” – vs. 21

“…a fire is kindled by my anger…” – vs. 22

“…I will heap disasters upon them…” – vs. 23

I will spend my arrows on them…” – vs. 23

I will send the teeth of beasts against them…” – vs. 24

Not exactly the kind of sentiments you might find on a Hallmark card. These are clear expressions of God’s anger against the people of Israel and the tangible means by which He intends to manifest His indignation. He even goes so far as to say that He would have completely “cut them to pieces” and wiped them “from human memory” (Deuteronomy 32:26 ESV), but He knew their enemies would have taken credit for it.

God knew that, if He completely destroyed His people, their enemies would arrogantly assume that they were the ones responsible for Israel’s demise.

“Our hand is triumphant,
    it was not the Lord who did all this.” – Deuteronomy 32:27 ESV

And God hates the prideful and arrogant as much as He does the unfaithful and spiritually adulterous. He was not about to give the pagan nations the pleasure of taking credit for something He had done. They were simply instruments in His hands, doing His bidding and acting as His servants. Neither Babylon or Assyria, whom God would use to punish His rebellious people, could take credit for their success. God would raise them up and use them to accomplish His divine will by meting out His just and righteous judgment against His chosen people.

And God points out that His anger was brought on by the actions of those whom He had redeemed and rescued from slavery. His own adopted children had spurned His love and thrown His mercy and grace back in His face through their unfaithfulness.

They stirred him to jealousy… – vs. 16

They sacrificed to demon… – vs. 16

You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you… – vs. 19

…and you forgot the God who gave you birth. – vs. 19

And God makes His damning assessment of His rebellious people.

“…they are a perverse generation,
    children in whom is no faithfulness.” – Deuteronomy 32:20 ESV

What God describes here is serial apostasy. This is not a case of the occasional failure to remain faithful, but of the habitual and willful refusal to follow God’s will. This song is revealing what will become Israel’s because of Israel’s faithlessness.

God will spurn them and hide His face from them. Why? Because that is exactly how they will treat Him. They will turn their backs on Him, choosing instead to worship false gods and demons. They will hide from Him, attempting to disguise their spiritual infidelity and mask their apostasy by feigning faithful adherence to His laws. And so, God will give them a taste of their own medicine. But when God hides His face, the consequences are devastating. When He spurns them, they will experience a form of loss they could have never imagined or anticipated.

God warns of disasters, hunger, plagues, and pestilence. He describes suffering caused by “the teeth of beasts” and “the venom of things that crawl in the dust” (Deuteronomy 32:24 ESV). He foretells of death brought on by the sword and arrows. And no one will be spared. Young men and women will suffer. The nursing child and the old man with gray hair will each endure the same fate. There will be no mercy shown and no grace given.

And while we might not like this image of God, we cannot assume it is somehow incorrect or inconsistent with His character. He is God. And He is fully righteous. All that He does is right, just, and good. In fact, the opening stanza of this poem declared the justice of God.

“The Rock, his work is perfect,
    for all his ways are justice.
A God of faithfulness and without iniquity,
    just and upright is he. – Deuteronomy 32:4 ESV

He is not the one we should judge. He does not deserve our criticism and, most certainly, does not merit our disdain.

“They have dealt corruptly with him;
    they are no longer his children because they are blemished;
    they are a crooked and twisted generation.” – Deuteronomy 32:5 ESV

God had poured out His love, mercy, and grace upon the people of Israel. He had redeemed and rescued them from captivity in Egypt. He had led them across the wilderness and put up with their repeated displays of ingratitude and constant bickering and complaining. He had brought them to the border of the land of promise and watched as they stubbornly refused to enter in because they didn’t believe He would see them through.

And now, as the next generation stood at the very same border, preparing to enter into the land under the leadership of Joshua, God was informing them that their unfaithfulness would continue. They would conquer the land, but would never enjoy victory over their own apostasy. They would experience the power and presence of God, but would constantly turn their back on Him, seeking instead to give their affections to and place their hopes in false gods.

But God had long ago warned them about what He would do if they proved unfaithful.

“You must not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection for any other gods. I lay the sins of the parents upon their children; the entire family is affected—even children in the third and fourth generations of those who reject me. But I lavish unfailing love for a thousand generations on those who love me and obey my commands.” – Exodus 20:5-6 NLT

We might not like reading about God’s anger. We may find His judgment difficult to understand or justify. But it is the righteous judgment of God that makes the grace and mercy of God so meaningful. The fact that God would spare a remnant of the people of Israel so He could send His Son as their Messiah shows us just how loving He really is. If we do not understand how just God is in judging those who reject Him and rebel against Him, we will never fully appreciate the value of the mercy and grace He offers. God has chosen to provide justification in place of judgment. He has made a way for sinful men and women to enjoy exoneration rather than condemnation. He has made a way possible for those dead in their trespasses and sins to experience forgiveness and eternal life. And it was all made possible through the death, burial, and resurrection of His Son.

But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. – Romans 5:8 NLT

It is not until we fully understand the justice of God’s wrath that we will fully appreciate the joy of God’s love.

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

Free From the Curse

22 “And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, 23 his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance. – Deuteronomy 21:22-23 ESV

God’s rules regarding the corporate stoning of a morally and spiritually degenerate son are now followed by strict instructions regarding the public display of the dead man’s body. Once the guilty party was put to death, it was common practice to hang the dead man’s body from a tree as a visual demonstration of the consequences of sin. It was also meant to serve as a deterrent, a somewhat macabre but effective means of discouraging others to take the same deadly path.

But God provided strict regulations concerning the disposal of the body.  It had to be removed from the tree and buried the same day as the execution. Otherwise, the curse of God, which resulted in the man’s death, would extend to the land. The public display of the man’s corpse was meant as a further means of humiliating and degrading the guilty one for his death-deserving sin. Even in death, he would be subjected to ridicule and scorn. The hanging of the body did not bring about the curse. It was a result of the curse that had deemed the man deserving of death.

The immediate burial of the body was essential in order to prevent ceremonial defiling of the land. Had the body been left hanging overnight, there is a greater likelihood that animals and birds would have desecrated the body, causing blood to spill onto the ground and essentially bringing the curse of the man upon the entire land. God had warned the Israelites about practicing the ways of the Canaanites. Their pagan, godless ways had literally cursed the land of Canaan, requiring God to ceremonially purge it by having the Israelites remove every vestige of Canaanite influence from the land.

“You shall not pollute the land in which you live, for blood pollutes the land, and no atonement can be made for the land for the blood that is shed in it, except by the blood of the one who shed it. You shall not defile the land in which you live, in the midst of which I dwell, for I the Lord dwell in the midst of the people of Israel.” – Numbers 35:33-34 ESV

This requirement to bury the dead man’s body was meant to keep the Israelites from following one sin with another. Once the man was executed for his sin, his body was to be displayed, but then properly disposed of, so that the curse of death could be removed.

Sin against God has always carried with it a curse. When Adam and Eve rebelled against God in the garden, their actions brought about a series of curses from God, including the entrance of physical death into the equation.

“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife
    and have eaten of the tree
of which I commanded you,
    ‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
    in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
    and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
    you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
    for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
    and to dust you shall return.” – Genesis 3:17-19 ESV

Adam’ sin brought a death sentence upon all mankind. It placed every single one of his descendants under a curse. And the apostle Paul goes out of his way to stress this sobering reality.

When Adam sinned, sin entered the world. Adam’s sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned. – Romans 5:12 NLT

For the sin of this one man, Adam, brought death to many. – Romans 5:15 NLT

For Adam’s sin led to condemnation… – Romans 5:16 NLT

For the sin of this one man, Adam, caused death to rule over many. – Romans 5:17 NLT

Yes, Adam’s one sin brings condemnation for everyone… – Romans 5:18 NLT

Because one person disobeyed God, many became sinners. – Romans 5:19 NLT

Don’t miss what Paul is saying. All mankind is under a curse and worthy of death. For all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glorious standard of righteousness (Romans 3:23). There is none righteous, no not one (Romans 3:10).

It Israelites who stood back and threw the stones that took the guilty man’s life were no more righteous. They were no less deserving of death. Their sins, while perhaps less egregious, we no less worthy of death. Their very existence made them worthy of death because they stood under the same curse that had condemned Adam. But God didn’t require them to die. Instead, He had extended them mercy.

This brings to mind the encounter between Jesus and the religious leaders of Israel. The scribes and Pharisees, seeing Jesus visiting the Mount of Olives, dragged a woman whom they claimed to be guilty of the crime of adultery. They said to Jesus, “Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” (John 8:5 ESV).

And Jesus wisely responded to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7 ESV). And then John records, “when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him” (John 8:9 ESV).

There was no one in the crowd that day who could claim to be sin-free. The spiritual state of every single human being is that of a sinner who is deserving of death for their rebellion against a holy and righteous God. And that brings us to the vital link between this obscure regulation regarding the burial of an executed criminal and the remedy for the curse of death.

In his letter to the churches in Galatia, Paul provides us with a connecting point that makes this Old Testament passage relevant. He reminds his readers that the Jews, who were required to live according to the Mosaic law, were under a God-ordained curse if they didn’t keep the entire law perfectly.

For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” – Galatians 3:10-14 ESV

The painful reality was that no Jew had ever kept all of God’s law without fail. As a result, every single Jew stood condemned, cursed, and worthy of death.  And Paul points out that keeping the law was never going to make anyone right with God. It was an impossible standard for sinful men to keep.

Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.”But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” Galatians 3:11-12 ESV

The law was the righteous standard provided by God, but no one was able to live up to that standard. And them, Paul provides the missing link.

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith. – Galatians 3:10-14 ESV

Jesus became the curse. He took on the sins of mankind and personally bore the full brunt of God’s righteous wrath against rebellious humanity. And His death was not by stoning. By time Jesus began His earthly ministry, the Romans had outlawed the Jewish practice of stoning because they wanted to control all forms of capital punishment. So, when Jesus was tried before the Sanhedrin, they needed to accuse Jesus of a crime that would warrant the Romans putting Him to death. They chose to accuse Jesus of claiming to be the rightful king of the Jews and of mounting an insurrection against the Romans. This resulted in Jesus being  “hanged on a tree” or crucified.

The prophet, Isaiah prophesied about Jesus and the death He would suffer on behalf of sinful mankind.

Surely he has borne our griefs
    and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
    smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
    and with his wounds we are healed. – Isaiah 53:4-5 ESV

With His death, Jesus provided a means by which sinful men and women could escape the curse of the law. By placing their faith in His personal sacrifice on their behalf, they could be freed from living under the looming curse of death associated with failure to keep God’s law.

In his first letter to the believers in Corinth, Paul provided another encouraging connection between Adam and Jesus.

So you see, just as death came into the world through a man, now the resurrection from the dead has begun through another man. Just as everyone dies because we all belong to Adam, everyone who belongs to Christ will be given new life. – 1 Corinthians 15:21-22 NLT

No one need die for their own sins anymore. God sent His Son to pay the penalty for every single violation of His law. But the gift of salvation made possible by Christ’s death and resurrection is only available to those who will accept it as what it is: A free gift made possible by God’s grace and received by faith alone in Christ alone.

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 Hands and Feet of God

1 “At the end of every seven years you shall grant a release. And this is the manner of the release: every creditor shall release what he has lent to his neighbor. He shall not exact it of his neighbor, his brother, because the Lord’s release has been proclaimed. Of a foreigner you may exact it, but whatever of yours is with your brother your hand shall release. But there will be no poor among you; for the Lord will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess— if only you will strictly obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all this commandment that I command you today. For the Lord your God will bless you, as he promised you, and you shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow, and you shall rule over many nations, but they shall not rule over you.

“If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be. Take care lest there be an unworthy thought in your heart and you say, ‘The seventh year, the year of release is near,’ and your eye look grudgingly on your poor brother, and you give him nothing, and he cry to the Lord against you, and you be guilty of sin. 10 You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him, because for this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. 11 For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’ – Deuteronomy 15:1-11 ESV

Once the people of God had obeyed the will of God and crossed over into the land of promise, they would enjoy His blessings. But they were not to be content with being the recipients of His He undeserved blessings. They were to pass on the goodness of God to those around them. Moses had already commanded them to care for the Levites, aliens, orphans, and widows among them. Now, he addresses the poor and indebted in their midst.

Once again, the point behind all this was that the Israelites, the chosen people of God, live up to their unique status by conducting themselves in a distinctively different manner than all the nations around them. They were not free to treat one another with disdain or indifference. And the needy among them were not to be overlooked, especially when God was busy blessing the nation as a whole.

The first command issued by Moses in this chapter has to do with the sabbatical year. This was closely related to another law given by God concerning the sabbath. It’s found in Exodus 23: 10-11.

“For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield, but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the beasts of the field may eat. You shall do likewise with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard.

Every seven years, the Israelites were required by God to allow their fields, orchards, vineyards to “rest” by allowing them to remain fallow. to use the bounty provided by God to bless the poor and needy among them. The Hebrew word natash means “to forsake” or “leave” them. For six consecutive years, they were to till, plant, and harvest the land, but during the seventh year they were to allow it to remain just as it was. And anything that grew during those 12 months was to be left for the poor and needy to harvest, whether grain, grapes, or olives.

Another God-ordained law, intended to be practiced on a yearly basis, provided another means by which the Israelites could provide for the needy among them.

“And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God.” – Leviticus 23:22 ESV

When God chose the people of Israel as His possession, He included everyone from every conceivable economic strata. He had been non-discriminatory when He set them apart, and He expected them to treat one another with the same gracious and inclusive kindness. They were never to forget that His choice of them and His loving kindness to them had been totally undeserved. And, earlier in this very same book, Moses made that point quite clear.

“The LORD did not set his heart on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other nations, for you were the smallest of all nations!” – Deuteronomy 7:7 NLT

They had no reason to be prideful or arrogant. Their enjoyment of God’s blessings was, in a real sense, in spite of them, not because of them. So, God would not tolerate any display of superiority among them. The rich were not to look down on the poor. The strong were not to take advantage of the weak. The powerful were not to abuse the defenseless. Kindness and compassion were the order of the day. And by living in this way, the Israelites would reflect the very character of God.

Debt was considered a form of enslavement because the one who owed the debt was obligated to pay back the one who made the loan. And failure to settle a debt left the guilty party open to indentured servitude until the debt was paid. The book of Proverbs has some strong words to say about the relationship between the rich and the poor and the lender and the borrower.

Just as the rich rule the poor, so the borrower is servant to the lender.
 – Proverbs 22:7 NLT

A sad fact was that the poor often found themselves at the mercy of the rich. Their financial state left them little recourse but to cry out for mercy. But as the Proverbs so sadly states: “The poor plead for mercy; the rich answer with insults” (Proverbs 18:13 NLT).

So, God provided clear guidelines for avoiding such ungodly situations. The last thing He wanted was His chosen people being known for their injustice and inequality. They belonged to Him and, as a result, they were to reflect His character. Which is why the prophet Micah wrote:

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? – Micah 6:8 ESV

So, every seventh year, God commanded that “every creditor shall release what he has lent to his neighbor” (Deuteronomy 15:2 ESV). There is some debate as to whether this debt forgiveness extended for perpetuity or only during the seventh year, but their is no debate as to God’s intent behind this command: “But there will be no poor among you; for the Lord will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess” (Deuteronomy 15:4 ESV).

God was going to bless them, and the blessings they received were to be shared with all those in their midst, from the richest to the poorest. There was no room or need for greed. There was no place for injustice or the practice of usury. Taking advantage of one another was to be considered illegal, immoral, and unacceptable.

By obeying God’s commands concerning these matters, they would experience even greater blessings from God. He would prevent the nation of Israel from every finding itself on the debtor end of a transaction. Moses assured them, “The Lord your God will bless you as he has promised. You will lend money to many nations but will never need to borrow. You will rule many nations, but they will not rule over you” (Deuteronomy 15:6 NLT).

But God knew the true condition of the human heart, so He provided further instructions that, hopefully, would prevent the Israelites from abusing the practice of the sabbatical year and the release of debt. As the seventh year approached, God knew there would be those who refused to lend much-needed help to those who were down on their luck. The thought behind their actions was that if they made the loan, there would not be adequate time to collect enough debt payments to justify the expense the incurred. The seventh year would wipe the debt clean, leaving them in the hole financially. The motivation behind their stinginess is painfully apparent and Moses addresses it.

“Do not be mean-spirited and refuse someone a loan because the year for canceling debts is close at hand. If you refuse to make the loan and the needy person cries out to the Lord, you will be considered guilty of sin.” – Deuteronomy 15:9 NLT

As has been the case with every other law or command issued by God, these focus on the heart. God wasn’t just looking for compliance to a set of rules, but a willing commitment to a way of life, which is why Moses warned them: “Give generously to the poor, not grudgingly, for the Lord your God will bless you in everything you do” (Deuteronomy 15:10 NLT).

Moses assures them that poor people will be a permanent part of their community. It is the nature of humanity. People make poor decisions. Others, by no fault of their own, are simply born into poverty. It is their lot in life. But the presence of the poor is not an excuse to treat them as second-class citizens. Their presence among the people of Israel was intended to provide a tangible means for expressing the goodness and graciousness of God – man to man. The Israelites were to be the hands and feet of God, providing for the downtrodden, the destitute, the underprivileged, and indebted among them. No one was to be overlooked. No one was to be treated as unworthy or unlovable. The Israelites were expected to love as they had been loved: Unconditionally and undeservedly.

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

 

 

 

Learning to Love the Law

1 And Moses summoned all Israel and said to them, “Hear, O Israel, the statutes and the rules that I speak in your hearing today, and you shall learn them and be careful to do them. The Lord our God made a covenant with us in Horeb. Not with our fathers did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today. The Lord spoke with you face to face at the mountain, out of the midst of the fire, while I stood between the Lord and you at that time, to declare to you the word of the Lord. For you were afraid because of the fire, and you did not go up into the mountain. He said:

“‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

“‘You shall have no other gods before me.

“‘You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 10 but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

11 “‘You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.

12 “‘Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. 13 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 14 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant, or your ox or your donkey or any of your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. 15 You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.” – Deuteronomy 5:1-15 ESV

The Ten Commandments. We’re all vaguely familiar with them, even if we can’t recite them from memory. And we all have an image that comes to mind when we think of Moses holding the two tablets of stone containing the hand-carved code of conduct given by God to the people of Israel. But those commands seem distant and somewhat antiquated to most of us. And for many Christians, we operate as if the Ten Commandments no longer apply to us because we live under grace, not law. After all, the apostle Paul tells us, “Christ has rescued us from the curse pronounced by the law. When he was hung on the cross, he took upon himself the curse for our wrongdoing” (Galatians 3:13 NLT).

It’s easy to read a passage like that one and assume that the Ten Commandments are out-of-date and no longer apply. And Paul seems to support that conclusion with his words to the Christians in Rome.

For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. – Romans 10:4 ESV

But before we jump to conclusions, we have to recall the words of Jesus.

“Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose.” – Matthew 5:17 NLT

Jesus claimed to have come to earth in order to accomplish the purpose behind the law of Moses and the writings of the prophets. We would tend to say that Jesus came to earth to save the lost, and we would be right. Because that is exactly what the law foreshadowed and the prophecies of the Old Testament foretold. The apostle Paul tells us exactly why the law was given.

Why, then, was the law given? It was given alongside the promise to show people their sins. But the law was designed to last only until the coming of the child who was promised. – Galatians 3:19 NLT

God gave the law to the people of Israel in order that they might know just how holy He was and just how sinful they truly were. With God’s detailed list of all the dos and don’ts, shalls, and shall-nots provided for them, the people of Israel could not claim ignorance when it came to God’s expectations of them. But while His rules established clear guidelines for living, they also revealed man’s inability to live up to those guidelines. The Ten Commandments are holy, righteous, and just, providing man with a detailed list of God’s non-negotiable requirements for maintaining a right relationship with Him. But, once again, Paul reminds us that the law could never make anyone right with God because no one was capable of living up to God’s holy standard.

For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are. – Romans 3:20 NLT

The author of Hebrews adds that “the law never made anything perfect” (Hebrews 7:19 NLT). In other words, God’s giving of His holy law was intended to provide the Israelites with a clear standard or set of guidelines for living. But the presence of the law did not empower the people to obey. It told them what God expected of them, but did not provide them with the capacity to live up to those expectations. In a sense, the law could only condemn, not save.

Think of it this way: A speed limit sign is a government-sanctioned law declaring the legally established maximum rate of travel for a motor vehicle. It lets drivers know just how fast they are allowed to go on a particular section of highway. It cannot force them to travel at that speed. It does not limit their capacity to drive slower or faster. It simply sets the rules of conduct for that driving on that patch of road. But if the posted speed limit is 65 and you are traveling 75, every time you pass one of those signs declaring the speed limit, you will be condemned as guilty. All the sign can do is confirm if we are living up to the established standard or condemn us if we are not.

The apostle Paul describes the law as our guardian, tutor, or instructor.

Before the way of faith in Christ was available to us, we were placed under guard by the law. We were kept in protective custody, so to speak, until the way of faith was revealed.

Let me put it another way. The law was our guardian until Christ came; it protected us until we could be made right with God through faith. And now that the way of faith has come, we no longer need the law as our guardian. – Galatians 3:23-25 NLT

The law was given so that man might learn just how holy God is and just how sinful they could be. So, as Moses delivered the Ten Commandments to the next generation of Israelites, he was reminding them of the holiness of their God. They were to take God’s commands seriously and to treat them with the reverence they deserved. He warned them to “learn them and be careful to do them” (Deuteronomy 5:1 ESV). Because breaking God’s laws would break their fellowship with Him. Failing to keep His commands would place them under a curse.

The Jews would live under the guardianship or tutelage of the law for generations. From the time they entered the land of Canaan to the day that Jesus Christ took on human flesh, the Jews would be required by God to live according to His law. And, as Paul put it, the law would protect them as long as they obeyed it. It functioned as the speed limit sign on the highway of life. But when Jesus came, the law became unnecessary, because He provided a way for sinful men to be made right with a holy God. Rather than trying to keep God’s holy and righteous standards through human effort, they could place their faith in Christ. The Son of God became a man so that He might live a sinless life, keeping God’s law perfectly. He obeyed every single command given by God, accomplishing what no other man had ever been able to do before.

And it was because Jesus was perfectly obedient, that He was able to be the spotless sacrifice whose life was given as payment for mankind’s sin debt. He was the one who John described as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 ESV).  And He was the one who made forgiveness of sin possible. In other words, He provided a way for man to receive permanent forgiveness for every single violation of God’s holy law. The law revealed man’s sinfulness, but only Jesus could remove it. The law could condemn man as guilty, but only Jesus could pronounce man as innocent and righteous. And one day Paul explained this wonderful reality to a group of Jews who had gathered to hear him speak.

“Brothers, listen! We are here to proclaim that through this man Jesus there is forgiveness for your sins. Everyone who believes in him is made right in God’s sight—something the law of Moses could never do.” – Acts 13:38-39 NLT

So, as Moses unpacks God’s law to the people of Israel, it’s essential that we understand just how blessed we are. We live on this side of the cross, where the curse of the law has been replaced by the blessing of salvation through faith alone in Christ alone. We no longer live under the burden of trying to earn God’s favor through law-keeping. That does not mean the law is null-and-void and no longer applicable. It simply means we have been given a righteousness from Christ that makes it possible for us to live in obedience to God’s commands, not based on human effort but through the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. And rather than viewing the law as our task-master, we can see it the way Paul did: “the law itself is holy, and its commands are holy and right and good” (Romans 7:12 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