Reluctant Followers

18 Now when Jesus saw a crowd around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. 19 And a scribe came up and said to him, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” 20 And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 21 Another of the disciples said to him, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” 22 And Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.” – Matthew 8:18-22 ESV

Jesus delivered His sermon on the mount before a large crowd. And Matthew records that when “he came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him” (Matthew 8:1 ESV). Everywhere Jesus went, He tended to draw large crowds because of His words and miracles. They were amazed by the wisdom of His words and the obvious supernatural power behind the healings He performed. He had laid His hands on a man suffering from leprosy and left him thoroughly cleansed and whole. He had performed a long-distance healing, restoring a Centurion’s servant to perfect health. And with the touch of His hand, He had removed the fever from Peter’s mother-in-law.

Whether they fully understood who Jesus was, the crowds who followed Him were enamored by Him. And they found themselves wanting to spend more time with Him. So, Matthew provides a few cases involving those who felt the urge to hitch their wagon to Jesus’ train.

As His reputation spread, Jesus was occasionally forced to seek refuge from the constant press of the growing crowds. In this case, Jesus ordered His disciples to make preparations to sail to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. But before they could get the boat ready, “a scribe came up and said to him, Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go‘“ (Matthew 8:19 ESV).

This man, an expert in the religious laws of Israel, was expressing his intent to go with Jesus to the other side of the sea. He was enthusiastic and energetic in his response, indicating that he was ready and willing to follow Jesus anywhere. His reference to Jesus as a “teacher” was simply an acknowledgment that he viewed Jesus as a rabbi worthy of respect and honor.  He thought he could learn a lot from this very gifted man who had shared so many enlightening and insightful truths in His sermon the hillside.

But Jesus, having sensed what was in the man’s heart, responded, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20 ESV). In a sense, Jesus was warning this man that he had no idea what he was getting himself into. Following Jesus was not going to be a walk in the park. It most certainly would not be a series of sermon-on-the-mount moments where everyone sat at the feet of Jesus filling their heads with divine insights or enjoyed watching a steady diet of mind-boggling miracles.

Jesus was not saying that following Him would require a life of abject poverty, but that it would involve cost and a degree of commitment this man was unwilling to make. It would not be easy. This man had obviously missed the point that Jesus had made in His sermon.

“You can enter God’s Kingdom only through the narrow gate. The highway to hell is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way. But the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it. – Matthew 7:13-14 NLT

Matthew does not provide us with the man’s response. But it seems safe to assume that the scribe did not end up a passenger in the boat that sailed to the other side of the sea. He most likely decided to walk away. And as Jesus’ ministry continued, that would become the normative pattern among the vast majority of those who followed Jesus. They would prove to be fair-weather followers. In fact, John records the following words of Jesus to His disciples, spoken as He watched the size of the crowds diminish.

At this point many of his disciples turned away and deserted him. Then Jesus turned to the Twelve and asked, “Are you also going to leave?” – John 6:66-67 NLT

Jesus wanted His disciples to know that following Him was not going to be without cost. At another point in His ministry, He delivered a blunt message to the masses who had become His “groupies,” following Him everywhere He went.

A large crowd was following Jesus. He turned around and said to them, “If you want to be my disciple, you must, by comparison, hate everyone else—your father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even your own life. Otherwise, you cannot be my disciple.  And if you do not carry your own cross and follow me, you cannot be my disciple. But don’t begin until you count the cost.” – Luke 14:25-28 NLT

And it’s interesting to note that a second “disciple,” who had heard what Jesus had said to the scribe, responded with a request for a delay. He was ready and willing to follow Jesus but just not able. He had some unfinished family affairs to take care of and, therefore, a legitimate excuse.

“Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” – Matthew 8:21 ESV

But Jesus wasn’t buying what this man was selling. There is a lot of debate among biblical commentators whether this man’s father was already dead or if the man was simply using the future death of his father as an excuse to delay his full commitment to discipleship. Matthew provides us with no insight into the matter. But Jesus responded, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead” (Matthew 8:22 ESV).

This response by Jesus may come across as flippant or callous to us, but it seems that Jesus is trying to establish a hierarchy of priorities for this man’s life. This disciple expressed a desire to follow Jesus, but there were other things that took precedence in his life. Jesus would later describe these kinds of things as “the worries of life.”

“The seed that fell among the thorns represents those who hear God’s word, but all too quickly the message is crowded out by the worries of this life and the lure of wealth, so no fruit is produced.” – Matthew 13:22 NLT

To the first man, Jesus described true discipleship as costly and requiring a commitment. In this man’s case, it was a matter of priorities. He was letting temporal, earthly concerns get in the way of eternal pursuits.  Once again, we have a case of a disciple failing to have heard or comprehended what Jesus had taught in His recent sermon.

“That is why I tell you not to worry about everyday life—whether you have enough food and drink, or enough clothes to wear. Isn’t life more than food, and your body more than clothing?” – Matthew 6:25 NLT

“So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.” – Matthew 6:31-33 NLT

Jesus was in no way diminishing the care that one should have for their father or mother. But in the grand scheme of things, burying the dead was to take a backseat to the good news of life in Christ. The commitment to following Jesus would prove costly. And normal family relationships should pale when compared to the eternal bond between a disciple and his Savior.

Committing to being a disciple of Jesus was going to require far more than a willingness to be taught and a desire to witness the miraculous. It would demand sacrifice and a level of selflessness that would prove to be uncomfortable and inconvenient. But the list of the rewards that come to those who faithfully follow Christ will be long and long-lasting.

“And everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or property, for my sake, will receive a hundred times as much in return and will inherit eternal life.” – Matthew 19:29 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
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The Highway of Holiness

“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.– Matthew 7:12-14 ESV

Verse 12 has come to be commonly referred to as The Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It is essentially a summation of all that Jesus has said, and acts as a bookend to verse 17 of chapter five:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.

These two verses comprise what is known as an inclusio, bracketing all that is contained between them and forming a single unit of thought. The over-arching theme has been Jesus’ treatment of the Law and the Prophets or the Old Testament revelation. Here, in verse 12, Jesus brings His thoughts to a conclusion, summarizing all that He has said in one succinct and simple statement: So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them. This is the law of love, and it supersedes and fully expresses all that was written in the law. Paul summarizes it well:

Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. – Romans 13:8-10 ESV

He simplified it, even more, when he wrote to the believers in Galatia:

For the whole law can be summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” – Galatians 5:14 NLT

And not long before Jesus was to go to the cross, He would tell His disciples:

“So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.” – John 13:34-35 NLT

But it is essential that we understand what Jesus is saying. In our sinful, self-centered state, it would be easy to draw a faulty conclusion from His words that allows us to focus on what we want from others. In other words, if we want our back scratched, we will reluctantly scratch someone else’s back, expecting them to do the same to us in return. Our outwardly, gracious actions would be selfishly motivated. But that is not the kind of love Jesus is talking about. He is referring to a selfless kind of love that expects and demands nothing in return. It is focused on giving, not getting. The apostle Paul warned against turning the law of love into some kind of self-centered mechanism to get what you want.

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. – Philippians 2:1-4 ESV

No one enjoys being hated, so why would we choose to hate others? There is no joy in being taken advantage of, so why would we treat someone else that way? If the idea of someone having an affair with your spouse offends you, it should also prevent you from ever considering doing the same thing to someone else. Jesus’ statement is not intended to be self-centered but other-focused. He is telling us that the law was essentially about loving God and loving others, and not yourself. And those who have been blessed or approved by God will love as He loves. They will do as Jesus did, which Paul sums up in his letter to the Philippians:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. – Philippians 2:5-8 ESV

Jesus knows that the life of love and self-sacrifice to which He is calling His audience would not be easy. He is fully aware that His words have been difficult to hear and that what He has been commanding them to do would be impossible to pull off. The crowds who had followed Jesus to the hillside in Galilee had been attracted by His miracles. They were enamored by His ability to heal the sick and cast out demons. There was something attractive about this man who could do the impossible. But now, they were hearing that He expected the impossible of them.

He was teaching that if they wanted to be part of God’s kingdom, they were going to have to live radically different lives. Their status as descendants of Abraham was not going to be enough. Their adherence to man-made laws and religious rules was not going to win them favor with God. In fact, Jesus breaks the news that the path to God was actually narrow and quite difficult, and the number of those who take that path would be quite small. But, in contrast, the path to hell is like a broad, sprawling avenue, filled with countless people who have chosen that way because it is easy and rather enjoyable.

Jesus is letting His listeners know that the way to God was not what they thought. It was not going to be through keeping the law. It would not be due to their ethnic identity as Jews and descendants of Abraham. Jesus is presenting another, exclusive way to God: Himself.

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” – John 14:6 ESV

He would also present Himself as the gate or door that provides the sole means by which men and women might be saved and find entrance into God’s kingdom.

“Yes, I am the gate. Those who come in through me will be saved. They will come and go freely and will find good pastures.” – John 10:9 NLT

Obviously, Jesus did not believe in universalism, the false, yet popular, doctrine that teaches that all will eventually be welcomed into heaven by God because of His love. Jesus promoted Himself as the sole means by which anyone is made right with God. He is the way, not just one of many ways. He alone has satisfied the just demands of God and paid for the sins of mankind with His own life. And He offers Himself to any and all who will receive Him as their Savior and sin substitute.

Those who accept His selfless sacrifice on their behalf receive the forgiveness of their sins and enjoy a restored relationship with God the Father. But Jesus warns that few will take Him up on His offer because the gate is small. It’s narrow and limited. It requires faith. And the path beyond that gate is difficult.

The Christian life is not an easy road. Salvation provides us with freedom from condemnation for our sins but does not provide us with a trouble-free life on this earth. We will face tribulation and difficulty. Living out our faith in the midst of a fallen world will be trying at times. Too often, Christianity is sold as a panacea for all of life’s problems. We falsely advertise faith in Christ as a solution to difficulty and the key to happiness. It explains why a book with the title, Your Best Life Now can become an international best-seller. But that is not what Jesus came to bring.

Jesus did not die in order for us to have our best life now. Yes, He did promise to give us life and life more abundantly, but not our own terms. The real benefit we receive from placing our faith in Christ is not our best life now, but eternal life to come. We have been promised a future sinless state, free from pain, suffering, sorrow, and tears. We have been guaranteed a place in God’s kingdom and no one can take it from us. So, with that in mind, we are encouraged to view our life on this earth as temporary. We are on a journey to a better place. We are on a path that will eventually lead us to our eternal home. This is why the author of Hebrews encourages us to, “strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us” (Hebrews 12:1 NLT).

The prophet, Isaiah, tells us of another path, a highway that will lead through the barren and desolate land, a highway of holiness. It will provide a path for the redeemed into God’s earthly kingdom, where His Son will reign in Jerusalem. Those who enter the narrow way now and walk the path provided by Jesus’ death and resurrection, will one day walk that Highway of Holiness, free from sorrow and sin.

And a great road will go through that once deserted land. It will be named the Highway of Holiness. Evil-minded people will never travel on it. It will be only for those who walk in God’s ways; fools will never walk there. Lions will not lurk along its course, nor any other ferocious beasts. There will be no other dangers. Only the redeemed will walk on it. Those who have been ransomed by the Lord will return. They will enter Jerusalem singing, crowned with everlasting joy. Sorrow and mourning will disappear, and they will be filled with joy and gladness. – Isaiah 35:8-10 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

Approval Brings Access

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!– Matthew 7:7-11 ESV

As Jesus begins to bring His message to a close, we must remind ourselves that He is still addressing those who desire to be blessed or approved by God. Many in the audience that day, including His disciples, will be among those who one day find approval from God through faith in Jesus. At this point in the story, they have not yet embraced Him as their Savior. But they will.

Jesus is speaking prophetically. His words convey an understanding that there will be those in His audience who will come to faith in Him as their Messiah. But it is still early on in His ministry, and most are not yet aware of His true identity. They view Him as a rabbi or teacher, and a worker of miracles, but have no idea that He is actually the Son of God and their long-awaited Messiah. But the day will come when many believe and express as Peter did, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16 ESV).

It is to these individuals Jesus is speaking when He says, “Keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7 NLT). Jesus is describing an intimate relationship with God the Father that provides His children with constant access into His presence. With three simple words: ask, seek, and knock, Jesus is letting them know that all who are approved by God will enjoy a special relationship with Him that will be far greater than any earthly relationship they have known.

There are those who try to give these verses an evangelistic interpretation, turning them into an invitation to salvation. But if kept in their context, it is clear that these verses are not inviting anyone into a saving relationship with Jesus. Instead, they are encouraging those who have already been approved by God because of their faith in Christ, to take advantage of their newfound relationship with Him.

For everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” – Matthew 7:9 NLT

We can ask of God and receive from Him. We can seek Him and find Him. We can knock, and He will open the door to us. Gone are the days of trying to win access to God’s presence through vain attempts to keep the law. There is no longer any need to try to win God’s approval and get His attention through human effort or achievement.

Jesus was letting His audience know that the day was coming when the blessed or approved by God would have unparalleled intimacy with God. And His use of these three words: ask, seek, and knock; are directly tied to His words regarding fasting, prayer, and alms-giving. If you think about it, fasting was intended to give up something earthly in order to focus one’s attention on God. It was an attempt to seek intimacy and fellowship with God by denying oneself the pleasures of this life. Prayer was a means by which men could come to God and petition Him for their needs. And alms-giving was mercy-based generosity shown to those who came to you with their needs. Jesus is telling us that we can knock at God’s door and receive mercy from Him. He opens His door and invites us into His presence.

God is good and loving. He is gracious and kind. We can ask of Him, and He will answer. We can seek Him and find Him. We can knock and find access to His presence. All because of what Jesus Christ has accomplished on our behalf. And Jesus reminds His listeners that God is far more generous and loving than any earthly father. Even a human father, despite his own sinfulness, would never give something harmful in response to his child’s request. It would be ludicrous to think of any dad giving his child a stone rather than bread, or a snake instead of fish. And our heavenly Father is far more loving, gracious, and good than any earthly father. We can ask, seek, and knock, knowing that He will answer us, reveal Himself to us, and give us access into His presence.

For the average Jew, God was a distant deity. He was not viewed as easily accessible or readily approachable. The entire sacrificial system pointed to a God who demanded cleansing from impurity before access could be granted. Sin was a constant barrier to God for the Jews. And they were required to go through the priests in order to have their sins forgiven, and their relationship with God restored. But Jesus is introducing something radical and new. With His coming death on the cross, the veil in the temple will be torn in half, symbolizing the barrier between God and man having been destroyed and eliminated once for all. With the shedding of His own blood, Jesus will eliminate the need for the blood of bulls and goats. He will act as both the sacrificial lamb and the high priest, offering His own life as a sacrifice for the sins of mankind. And those who place their faith in His sacrifice will enjoy unbroken fellowship with God.

These verses tie directly back to the opening lines of Jesus’ sermon. Those who are approved by God, even the poor in spirit will be citizens of God’s kingdom. Though they will experience days of mourning in this life, they will receive comfort from God. And their willing meekness or submission to the will of God for their lives will garner them the earth as their inheritance. When they hunger and thirst for the righteousness of God, they will be completely satisfied. When they choose to show mercy to others, they will continue to receive mercy from God. And their purity of heart will allow them to see God in their lives. When they seek to be at peace with men and introduce them to the means to have peace with God, they will be recognized as the sons of God. And finally, any persecution they face in this life because of their faith will be well worth it, because they have been guaranteed a place in God’s kingdom.

Ask, seek, and knock. Three words of invitation to all those who have been approved by God. And they should produce in us a joy that is unparalleled and unsurpassed. Like the psalmist we should say:

Come, let us sing to the Lord!
    Let us shout joyfully to the Rock of our salvation.
Let us come to him with thanksgiving.
    Let us sing psalms of praise to him.
For the Lord is a great God,
    a great King above all gods.
He holds in his hands the depths of the earth
    and the mightiest mountains.
The sea belongs to him, for he made it.
    His hands formed the dry land, too.

Come, let us worship and bow down.
    Let us kneel before the Lord our maker,
    for he is our God.
We are the people he watches over,
    the flock under his care. – Psalm 95:1-7 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 Art of Self-Denial

“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. – Matthew 6:16-18 ESV

After having provided His listeners with a model for how to pray, Jesus turns His attention to the topic of fasting. In order for us to understand what Jesus is trying to say about fasting, it’s essential that we discern its role within the Hebrew cultural context. Otherwise, we will try to apply our modern perception of fasting and miss Jesus’ intended application.

For many of us, fasting is a rather foreign concept. The kind of fasting of which we are familiar seems to be tied to dieting or weight loss. And fasting has also become a popular form of cleansing or purging for health reasons. But that is not what Jesus is talking about. In Jesus’ day, fasting was a religious rite, practiced in conjunction with a particular feast day or religious festival. For instance, fasting was a regular part of the yearly celebration of the Day of Atonement.

Now on the tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. It shall be for you a time of holy convocation, and you shall afflict yourselves and present a food offering to the Lord. And you shall not do any work on that very day, for it is a Day of Atonement, to make atonement for you before the Lord your God. For whoever is not afflicted on that very day shall be cut off from his people. – Leviticus 23:26-29 ESV

The phrase “afflict yourselves” is a reference to fasting. The people were to fast or deny themselves their normal intake of food, while at the same time presenting a food offering to the Lord. Fasting, in this case, was intended to be an expression of one’s complete dependence upon God. But it was also a way of focusing your attention solely upon God. Rather than seeking your sustenance from food, you were turning to God to meet your needs. It was a spiritual exercise that was usually accompanied by prayer and confession of sins (1 Samuel 7:5-6). Fasting was not done for its potential health benefits or cleansing properties. While it may have had beneficial side effects, fasting was meant to focus one’s attention on God, not on self. In fact, fasting was, at its core, a denial of self.

But once again, the Jews had managed to turn fasting into an external show of self-righteous piety and religious one-upmanship. And this had been going on for some time. God had confronted the Israelites regarding their false view of fasting before. He had spoken harsh words to them through the prophet Isaiah.

“Shout with the voice of a trumpet blast.
    Shout aloud! Don’t be timid.
Tell my people Israel of their sins!
Yet they act so pious!
They come to the Temple every day
    and seem delighted to learn all about me.
They act like a righteous nation
    that would never abandon the laws of its God.
They ask me to take action on their behalf,
    pretending they want to be near me.
‘We have fasted before you!’ they say.
    ‘Why aren’t you impressed?
We have been very hard on ourselves,
    and you don’t even notice it!’

“I will tell you why!” I respond.
    It’s because you are fasting to please yourselves.
Even while you fast,
    you keep oppressing your workers.
What good is fasting
    when you keep on fighting and quarreling?
This kind of fasting
    will never get you anywhere with me.
You humble yourselves
    by going through the motions of penance,
bowing your heads
    like reeds bending in the wind.
You dress in burlap
    and cover yourselves with ashes.
Is this what you call fasting?

Do you really think this will please the Lord?

“No, this is the kind of fasting I want:
Free those who are wrongly imprisoned;
    lighten the burden of those who work for you.
Let the oppressed go free,
    and remove the chains that bind people.
Share your food with the hungry,
    and give shelter to the homeless.
Give clothes to those who need them,
    and do not hide from relatives who need your help.” – Isaiah 58:1-7 NLT

So, when Jesus confronts the Jews in His audience with their false concept of fasting, He is simply reiterating the concerns of His Father. Once again, He refers to “the hypocrites,” a clear reference to the Pharisees and other religious leaders. They had taken fasting, a form of self-denial and self-humiliation, and turned it into a means of self-promotion. They fasted to get noticed. They fasted to garner the praises of men, but not to confess their sins before God. This was not the kind of fasting God desired. He desired fasting that came from the heart. He wanted them to deny themselves the sins they so deeply enjoyed committing. In the case of the Isaiah passage, God expected the Jews to free the wrongly imprisoned, to lighten the burdens of their workers, to let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that held people bound. While they were busy wearing sackcloth and denying themselves food in an attempt to get God’s attention, they were also busy practicing all kinds of moral and ethical injustices. And God was not impressed.

For the Jews in Jesus’ audience, the problem was even worse. The kind of fasting they were exposed to was not even intended to get God’s attention. It was aimed at men. Jesus accuses them of trying “to look miserable and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting” (Matthew 6:16 NLT). Fasting had become all about the outward impression it left on those around you. But throughout His message, Jesus has been talking about those who are approved by God. And just as we have seen in the Isaiah passage, God does not approve of fasting that is done with wrong motives or in a hypocritical manner.

Like any spiritual discipline, fasting can be abused. It can also be misunderstood and practiced for all the wrong reasons. Reading the Bible is a good thing. It is proper for God’s children to spend time in His Word. But we can make Bible reading a badge of honor and a means by which we show others just how spiritual we really are. The same thing can be said of prayer, Scripture memory, Bible study, and giving. These spiritual disciplines can be twisted and misused, becoming nothing more than outward signs of piety that do not reflect the true condition of the heart. It was King David who wrote these powerful words after having been confronted and convicted by the prophet Samuel regarding his affair with Bathsheba.

For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. – Psalm 51:16-17 ESV

The external practice of offering sacrifices meant nothing if the heart remained unchanged and unrepentant. Fasting that was merely an outward show done to convince others of our spirituality will never impress God. He sees our hearts. He knows our motives. And Jesus says that if you fast to garner the praise of men, you will get all the reward you are seeking, but you won’t have the approval of God. You won’t know what it means to be blessed by God. Like the Jews in Isaiah’s day, you will find yourself saying, “I have fasted before you! Why aren’t you impressed?”

Seeking the praise of men is a dangerous game to play. It means we value their opinions over that of God. We care more about their perceptions of us than we do about how God sees us. And Jesus warns us that if the reward we seek through our acts of spiritual discipline is the praise of men, we will get exactly what we want, but no more.

Let’s bring it into a modern context. If I tell others I am fasting in order to impress them with my spirituality, but my real intent is to lose weight, I may impress my friends and drop a few pounds, but I will not gain favor with God.

If I truly want to deny myself something as a means of humbling myself before God, Jesus would recommend that I do it in secret. He would tell me to hide what I am doing from others because they don’t need to know. I don’t need to advertise my fast because God sees my heart. I don’t need to tell others how much I read my Bible or how many Scripture verses I have memorized. God knows, and that is all that matters. But it is important to remember that God also knows my motives. He knows why I read my Bible and memorize Scripture. If I do these things while ignoring sin in my life, I am nothing more than a hypocrite, a play-actor. I am attempting to cover up my sin by doing righteous things. But God wants a broken and contrite heart. Listen to the words of God spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

“Remove the heavy yoke of oppression.
    Stop pointing your finger and spreading vicious rumors!
Feed the hungry,
    and help those in trouble.
Then your light will shine out from the darkness,
    and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon.
The Lord will guide you continually,
    giving you water when you are dry
    and restoring your strength.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
    like an ever-flowing spring.
Some of you will rebuild the deserted ruins of your cities.
    Then you will be known as a rebuilder of walls
    and a restorer of homes.” – Isaiah 58:9-12 NLT

Fasting should be an outward expression of the inward condition of the heart. If our hearts are prideful and self-focused, our fasting will end up being done for our own glory, and not for God’s. If our hearts are broken, humble, and dependent upon God and His mercy, our fasting will be done for His glory and His approval, not for the praise of men. God knows our heart, and He will reward us according to the intention of our heart. Our Father, who sees in secret, will reward 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

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

The Bar Is Raised

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. – Matthew 5:17-20 ESV

Jesus knows that what He is saying is going to be misunderstood and misconstrued by His hearers. He is well aware that the content of His message is going to sound controversial, even heretical to some. So, He takes just a few minutes to assure them that He is not promoting something contrary to their Scriptures, which is what He means by “the Law or the prophets.” His message was radical, but not in that sense. In fact, Jesus is about to show them that His words are well within the teaching of the Law, and His own life was a fulfillment of all the prophets had written. For Jesus, everything He had to say was based on a proper interpretation of Scripture and not in conflict with it.

Much of the opposition Jesus would face in His ministry would be due to a misunderstanding of the Scriptures on the part of the Jewish people. And their ignorance regarding their sacred writings was due to the teaching of their own religious leadership. Later on in His ministry, Jesus would confront the Jewish religious leaders – the scribes, Pharisees and teachers of the law – telling them, “You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! Yet you refuse to come to me to receive this life” (John 5:39-40 NLT). These men were renowned for their knowledge of God’s Word but were ignorant of its true meaning and content. Years later, Jesus would expose the Pharisees for their rampant abuse of God’s law.

“You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote,‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.’ For you ignore God’s law and substitute your own tradition.” – Mark 7:6-8 NLT

For generations, these men had taken the Laws of God and interpreted them for their own benefit. They had twisted God’s words and added to them their own traditions and man-made laws designed to lessen God’s requirements. And as much as they may have known about the coming Messiah, they completely missed who Jesus was because He did not fit their interpretations and expectations. Years later, when Jesus had been resurrected and returned back to His Father’s side in heaven, Stephen would preach a powerful message to the Jews that would end up with his death by stoning.

“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.” – Acts 7:51-53 NLT

So, Jesus assures His listeners that He is not contradicting the Word of God, He is actually fulfilling it. The Jews saw the Law as an end unto itself. In other words, it was their ability to keep the Law that brought them approval by God. They understood that their capacity to live up to God’s law was what brought them God’s blessings. So, they developed workarounds and loopholes to make compliance easier. Jesus would accuse them of this very thing.

“You skillfully sidestep God’s law in order to hold on to your own tradition. For instance, Moses gave you this law from God: ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and ‘Anyone who speaks disrespectfully of father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say it is all right for people to say to their parents, ‘Sorry, I can’t help you. For I have vowed to give to God what I would have given to you.’ In this way, you let them disregard their needy parents. And so you cancel the word of God in order to hand down your own tradition. And this is only one example among many others.” – Mark 7:9-13 NLT

The law was intended to point the people to their need for a Savior. The law was holy, righteous, and impossible to keep. All it could do was expose sin, not remove it. No man, no matter how knowledgeable he was of the law, could keep it perfectly. That is, until Jesus came. The apostle Paul, a former Pharisee and an expert regarding the law, would make this point clear in his letter to the Galatians.

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

Jesus claims that He did not come to abolish or do away with the law but to fulfill it. He didn’t come to refute what the prophets had said generations ago, but to bring about all that they had written. The Old Testament Scriptures, the Law and the prophets, pointed toward Jesus. They predicted His coming. They revealed the kind of life that God required, one that no ordinary man was capable of living. They showed the level of righteousness required for man to receive God’s approval. And Jesus, the Son of God, came to live that life and demonstrate that kind of righteousness in human flesh.

Taking a direct stab at the religious leaders in His audience, Jesus says, “So if you ignore the least commandment and teach others to do the same, you will be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 5:19 NLT). In other words, if you attempt to diminish, dilute or alter God’s requirements in any way, you have no part in His Kingdom. Obedience was the key – perfect obedience.

“But anyone who obeys God’s laws and teaches them will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven.” – Matthew 5:19 NLT

Then Jesus drops the bombshell that had to have left the heads of those in His audience spinning in confusion and disappointment.

“But I warn you—unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven! – Matthew 5:20 NLT

What? Was He kidding? Had He lost His mind? How in the world could anyone be more righteous than the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees? These men were considered the spiritual elite of their day. They were the crème de la crème, the top dogs, the religious rock stars of Israel. But Jesus is speaking of a different kind of righteousness altogether. He is juxtaposing the external righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees with the internal righteousness that He came to bring.

Jesus is speaking of a different kind of righteousness altogether. He is juxtaposing the external righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees with the internal righteousness that He came to bring.

He is contrasting man-made righteousness with Spirit-produced righteousness, something that would be made possible after His death, resurrection, and the Holy Spirit’s coming. He is eliminating any prospect of self-righteousness altogether and revealing that His righteousness alone, which is superior to that of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, is what can make men right with God. Jesus is referring to an alien righteousness, a righteousness that comes from outside of oneself.

There are two kinds of Christian righteousness… The first is alien righteousness, that is the righteousness of another, instilled from without.  This is the righteousness of Christ by which he justifies though faith… – Martin Luther, Two Kinds of Righteousness

The righteousness of man won’t gain God’s approval because it is insufficient. Once again, Paul reminds us:

For if keeping the law could make us right with God, then there was no need for Christ to die. – Galatians 2:21 NLT

And he elaborates on this very same point in his letter to the Romans:

The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. He did this so that the just requirement of the law would be fully satisfied for us, who no longer follow our sinful nature but instead follow the Spirit. – Romans 8:3-4 NLT

The very next section of Jesus’ sermon is going to develop this idea of a superior righteousness. He is going to reveal that God’s requirements were more intense and demanding than His audience had ever dreamed. The kind of righteousness God required was unattainable by sinful men and women. Therefore, the list of blessings Jesus opened His sermon with was totally elusive and out of reach for the average Jew.

Or were they? This entire sermon is designed to set up what appears to be an irreconcilable problem, and then provide His audience with an unexpected solution. In fact, He will wrap up His sermon with these words:

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” – Matthew 7:13-14 ESV

And later on in His ministry, Jesus will reveal exactly what He meant by the narrow gate.

“I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.” – John 14:6 NLT

Attaining the blessings of God through human effort was impossible. Earning the approval of God through rule-keeping and self-discipline was not going to cut it. Even the religious leaders of Israel, with all their trappings of spiritual superiority, were wholly deficient in holiness – by God’s exacting standard. The apostle Paul, a former Pharisee himself, would later write: “…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 ESV).

But the good news was that God had sent His Son to be the Savior for all those who would recognize their sinfulness and relinquish any hope in their own self-righteousness.

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

Protections For Man and Beast

1 “If there is a dispute between men and they come into court and the judges decide between them, acquitting the innocent and condemning the guilty, then if the guilty man deserves to be beaten, the judge shall cause him to lie down and be beaten in his presence with a number of stripes in proportion to his offense. Forty stripes may be given him, but not more, lest, if one should go on to beat him with more stripes than these, your brother be degraded in your sight.

“You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain.

“If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead man shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her as his wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. And the first son whom she bears shall succeed to the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out of Israel. And if the man does not wish to take his brother’s wife, then his brother’s wife shall go up to the gate to the elders and say, ‘My husband’s brother refuses to perpetuate his brother’s name in Israel; he will not perform the duty of a husband’s brother to me.’ Then the elders of his city shall call him and speak to him, and if he persists, saying, ‘I do not wish to take her,’ then his brother’s wife shall go up to him in the presence of the elders and pull his sandal off his foot and spit in his face. And she shall answer and say, ‘So shall it be done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.’ 10 And the name of his house shall be called in Israel, ‘The house of him who had his sandal pulled off.’– Deuteronomy 25:1-10 ESV

It would be difficult to ignore the extreme specificity of many of these laws. Moses brings up a wide range of scenarios that deal with some of the most peculiar and particular situations imaginable. In these ten verses alone, he shifts from talking about just punishment for the guilty to the proper treatment of domesticated animals.  Then, seemingly out of nowhere, he brings up the law concerning levirate marriage.

While these three topics appear to have no common link to bind them together, they each fall under the overarching topic of justice. God demanded that His people live together in a society marked by justice and righteousness. It was essential that they treat one another well, exhibiting respect and reverence for every one of God’s chosen people, regardless of their social status or financial condition. God even placed a high regard on the ethical treatment of animals, expecting His people to care for them as exactly what they were: Blessings or gifts from His gracious hand.

In the case of a dispute between two individuals, they were instructed to go before the appointed judges and present their evidence. The judges were charged with acquiting the innocent and condemning the guilty. In prosecuting the case, if it was determined that the guilty party’s crime required a public beating as punishment, there were to be limits placed on the number of stripes delivered. The punishment must fit the crime. There was to be no abuse of the guilty through excessive discipline. In fact, Moses indicated that no more than 40 stripes or lashes were to be allowed. Obviously, this is dealing with crimes undeserving of capital punishment. But the guilty were to be justly tried, convicted, and disciplined for their crimes. But it was important that criminals not be degraded through excessive and unnecessary punishment. Even while meting out justice, the judges of Israel were expected to treat the guilty with dignity and respect.

At this point, Moses makes another one of his seemingly awkward transitions as he shifts his focus from dealing with criminals to the proper care of farm animals. Oxen played a vital role in the agrarian culture of the Israelites. In this case, they were used to tread the grain in order to separate the wheat from the husk. The basic idea was that, if the ox was forced to tread the grain, it should also be allowed to graze at it labored. Even animals should be treated fairly.

The apostle Paul would use this very law as an argument for the financial support of those who were called by God as ministers of the gospel.

For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not certainly speak for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop. If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we even more? – 1 Corinthians 9:9-12 ESV

He would bring this topic up again in his first letter to Timothy.

Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.” – 1 Timothy 5:17-18 ESV

According to Paul, the underlying principle behind this law had to do with fairness. A criminal was to be treated with dignity and respect, and so was a common farm animal. There was no place for abuse or mistreatment of man or beast.

In the third scenario, Moses brings up the case of a woman whose husband dies unexpectedly. This law deals with what has become known as the levirate marriage. This term comes from the Latin word levir, which refers to a husband’s brother. If a man died without having an heir, his widow could appeal to one of his unmarried brothers, requesting that he marry her. The purpose behind this union was to preserve the  deceased man’s legacy through the birth of a son who would bear his name.

It seems clear from the text that this regulation concerned two brothers who shared the same home. And since the Mosaic law prohibited polygamy, it would seem obvious that the brother of the deceased would have to be unmarried to fulfill his commitment to the widow. But if the man was unwilling to marry his dead brother’s wife, there was a process she was to follow. She was to take the matter before the elders of the city, who were then required to approach the reluctant brother and give him a second opportunity to do what was right and just. Should he persist with his refusal to marry her, the woman was required to  “go up to him in the presence of the elders and pull his sandal off his foot and spit in his face” (Deuteronomy 25:9 ESV). And this physical display of humiliation was to be accompanied by a verbal curse: “So shall it be done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house” (Deuteronomy 25:9 ESV).

From that point forward, the brother would be forced to carry the reputation of one who refused to do the right thing. He had shown justice to his widowed sister-in-law. And this was a serious issue in the culture of that day, because a widowed woman was considered damaged goods. She would have a difficult time finding a husband and, in most cases, would end up living in poverty. So, for this brother to shirk his responsibility to perpetuate his brother’s name was a serious issue that could have dire consequences for the widow.

As with the other scenarios covered in this section, this is all about justice. God was extremely concerned about how His people treated one another. They were not free to do as they wished. Yes, the brother could refuse to marry his widowed sister-in-law, but not without consequences. A man could refuse to allow his ox to eat from the grain it was threshing, but this would be considered inhumane and limit the effectiveness of the animal.  A guilty man could be given more punishment than he deserved, but it would be unjust and, ultimately, non-productive.

God had His ways of doing things and He expected His people to abide by His will. If they did, it would go well with them. If they refused, they would have to reap the results of their stubbornness. Ultimately, all their behavior, whether good or bad, reflected back on God because they were His chosen people. They represented Him on earth and all that they did was intended to reflect His glory. Which is why Moses spent so much time addressing these highly specific situations that dealt with every area of daily life. Nothing is unimportant to God.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

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

Laws Concerning Justice

14 “You shall not oppress a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your brothers or one of the sojourners who are in your land within your towns. 15 You shall give him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets (for he is poor and counts on it), lest he cry against you to the Lord, and you be guilty of sin.

16 “Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin.

17 “You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow’s garment in pledge, 18 but you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this.

19 “When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. 20 When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over them again. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. 21 When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not strip it afterward. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. 22 You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this. – Deuteronomy 24:14-22 ESV

Over in the book of Amos, the prophet records some powerful and passionate words of indictment against the people of Israel, and they are from the lips of God Himself.

“I hate all your show and pretense—
    the hypocrisy of your religious festivals and solemn assemblies.
I will not accept your burnt offerings and grain offerings.
    I won’t even notice all your choice peace offerings.
Away with your noisy hymns of praise!
    I will not listen to the music of your harps.
Instead, I want to see a mighty flood of justice,
an endless river of righteous living.”– Amos 5:21-24 NLT

This message from the Almighty came hundreds of years after Moses and the Israelites had stood on the border of Canaan preparing to possess the land. Generations of their descendants would come after them, but they would fail to live according to all the rules and regulations Moses had so painstakingly taught to their forefathers.

God had desired for His people to obey His laws so that their lives might be marked by justice and righteous living. And that is what this section of Moses’ speech to the people of Israel is all about. He is calling them to practice justice and to display righteousness in their daily interactions with one another. As we have seen, community was and is important to God. He desires the His people conduct themselves in a way that reflects not only a love for Him but a love for one another. In fact, as the apostle John reminds us, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20 ESV).

Even the great king, David expressed his understanding of God’s desire for unity among His people.

How wonderful and pleasant it is when brothers live together in harmony!Psalm 133:1 NLT

In this section of Deuteronomy 24, Moses is going to discuss the poor and needy, the innocent, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. In each case, he is addressing those within the community of Israel who represent the helpless or vulnerable among them. No Israelite was to take advantage of the less fortunate. And to help them refrain from doing so, Moses reminded them of their own history of suffering as slaves in Egypt.

“Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I am commanding you to do all this.” – Deuteronomy 24:18 NLT

They were to never forget that their ancestors had been forced to make bricks without straw. They had been mercilessly and harshly treated by the Egyptians for more than four centuries. So, as they prepared to enter their own land, provided for them by God, they were to conduct themselves according to God’s laws, not according to worldly standards or some sin-saturated impulse based on selfish ambition.

If they had a hired servant, they were to pay them their wages – in full and on time. And Moses emphasizes the worker who is poor and dependent upon his daily wages for survival. The disadvantaged are always easy to oppress. They have not recourse and no one to stand in their corner to support them. But Moses wanted the people of Israel to know that God was an advocate for the needy. He would see that they received justice, one way or another. Which is why Moses warned the Israelites to treat their poorer servants fairly, “Otherwise he will cry out to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty of sin” (Deuteronomy 24:15 NLT).

And while on the topic of sin and guilt, Moses turns his attention to the proper administering of justice for sin.  A father was not to be held responsible for the sins committed by one of his adult children.  And no child was to be punished for the sins of his father. This would be a form of revenge, rather than justice. The guiltless and innocent would be suffering unjustly and unnecessarily. Each individual was to be held accountable for their own sins. And you can see why this law would be necessary. If a case came up where the perpetrator of a crime could not be found and punished, it would be tempting for the victim to demand that a someone pay the criminal’s sin debt. But this would not result in a just and righteous outcome. Instead, it would cause the innocent to suffer unjustly.

And justice was to be a high priority among the people of Israel because it was important to God. Which is why Moses told them, “You must not pervert justice due a resident foreigner or an orphan…” (Deuteronomy 24:17 NLT). And to make sure they understood what he meant by justice, Moses gave the example of someone taking a widow’s garment as collateral on a loan. You don’t punish the innocent and you don’t take advantage of the helpless. These kinds of things were not to be done among God’s people. It was unacceptable behavior.

The Israelites were always going to have the poor and needy among them, and this group would be made up of fellow Israelites as well as immigrants from other nations. And in a nation with no welfare system, it was necessary that the people understand their role in the care for the less fortunate among them. And one of the ways in which God provided for the needs of the poor was through the annual harvest.  As God blessed His people with abundant crops, they were to share their bounty with the less fortunate among them. So, each harvest, when the Israelites reaped their fields, any sheaves of grain that were inadvertently left behind were to remain there as gifts to the poor. And when they went to gather olives or grapes, they were commanded to leave some of the produce behind as a gift for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. God had promised to bless them with plenty of crops as long as they remained faithful to Him. And when He blessed them, He expected them to share that blessing with the less fortunate among them. And, once again, Moses used their former status as slaves in Egypt as a source of motivation.

According to the prophet, Amos, God wanted “to see a mighty flood of justice, an endless river of righteous living.” He greatly desired that His people display His righteousness through their interactions with one another. They were His chosen possession and He had set them apart from all the other nations on earth so that they might model what true righteousness and justice looks like. The greatest sacrifice the people of Israel could make would be to give up their rights for one another. They could prove their love for God by selflessly loving the less fortunate among them. They could display their honor and reverence for God by willingly and eagerly dispensing justice to all those around them. The prophet, Micah reiterates the words recorded by Amos, reminding God’s people of their responsibility to act as agents of justice in this world.

“With what shall I come before the Lord,
    and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
    with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
    with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
    the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
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 6:6-8 ESV

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

Hard Words Concerning Hard Hearts

1 “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. It’s a controversial topic among Christians that not only destroys marriages but that can do serious damage to a wide range of relationships. The loss of long-term friendships can be an unfortunate byproduct of divorce. Children can be forced to take sides in a divorce, leaving them alienated and estranged from one of their own parents.  Churches have found themselves divided over how to properly handle the divorces taking place among their congregations.

Divorce is divisive and destructive. And it was never intended as an option by God. The book of Genesis clearly reveals the will of God concerning marriage.

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

There was to be a unity and permanency to marriage. The very fact that God created Eve from the rib of Adam conveys the intimacy and indissolubility of their union. In God’s eyes, the man and the woman were one, inseparable whole.

But sin eventually entered the scene and damaged everything God had made, including the marriage union. It would not be long before the sanctity of marriage would be destroyed by the selfishness and self-centeredness of sin-prone human hearts. Marriages would continue to take place but, far too often, they would be driven by lust, not love; and marked by an egocentric, what’s-in-it-for-me attitude that puts self-interest ahead of God’s will.

In this section of Deuteronomy, Moses finds himself having to deal with the topic of divorce yet again. Sadly, divorce had become a real-life issue among the Israelites. Their marriages were just as susceptible to brokenness and division as those of the pagan nations around them. The Jews were just as prone to falling in and out of love as anyone else. But Moses wanted them to remember that God had very strong feelings about marriage and divorce. The prophet Malachi would later articulate God’s view concerning divorce:

“For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.” – Malachi 2:16 ESV

And this is the very issue Moses deals with in this passage. Moses describes a case where a husband has “found some indecency” in his wife that has caused her to lose favor in his eyes. In essence, he has fallen out of love with her. Moses does not elaborate on the nature of the indecency committed by the wife, but the Hebrew word is `ervah, which can literally be translated as “nakedness.” The context seems to indicate that the wife has been found guilty of sexual sin, as in adultery. And, as a result, the husband has chosen to issue her a certificate of divorce.

This brings up an important question. Does this passage condone or sanction divorce in the case of unfaithfulness or adultery? Jesus addressed this very question in His Sermon on the Mount.

“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 seems to support the idea that divorce is acceptable when sexual immorality is involved. But he also makes it clear that anyone who divorces his wife for any other reason will ultimately be held guilty of adultery – his own and that of his ex-wife. If they divorce for any reason other that sexual immorality and end up marrying other individuals, they will be committing adultery in God’s eyes.

Later on in His earthly ministry, Jesus would have to address this issue again. A group of Pharisees approached Him with a question regarding divorce. “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” (Matthew 19:3 ESV). This was a hot topic among the Jews and they were attempting to get Jesus to share His opinion on the matter. If He came down on the side of those advocating divorce, He would alienate the conservative hardliners. If He stood opposed to divorce under any circumstances, He would find Himself losing favor among the common people. So, Jesus answered them:

“Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” – Matthew 19:3-6 ESV

Jesus went back to the book of Genesis and the creation account. He reminded them what God had done to set apart a man and woman as one. And He clarified that no one had the right to separate what God had joined together.

This answer prompted the Pharisees to ask a second question. They sensed that they had Jesus in a predicament, because it appeared that He was contradicting the Mosaic Law. So, the crafted a question based on the words of Moses found in Deuteronomy 24:1: “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” (Matthew 19:7 ESV).

They had Him, or so they thought. According to their interpretation of the Mosaic Law, Moses had clearly given a get-out-of-jail-free card when it came to sexual immorality on the part of a spouse. But Jesus took the opportunity to explain the underlying motivation for Moses’ words.

He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”– Matthew 19:7-9 ESV

Yes, Moses had provided sexual immorality as the single circumstance under which divorce could be sought. But it had never been God’s will. Sin had left mankind with permanent heart-damage and this had produced the need for this exemption clause concerning marriage. But none of this was what God had wanted.

Sin never produces anything of value. It is always damaging and destructive. And while Moses had provided a means by which a man could divorce his unfaithful wife, it was going to result in the potential for further sin. Take a look at the scenario that Moses paints. A man divorces his wife for marital unfaithfulness, then she goes and marries another man. That man ends up divorcing her as well. And Moses has to go out of his way to explain that the first husband is not free to remarry his wife. Why would he have to bring that up? Because of the wickedness of the human heart.

This whole convoluted scene illustrates just how twisted things can get when man does things his own way. Moses is having to paint every conceivable scenario that can come about as a result of divorce. He even describes that woman remarrying and her second husband dying. Even in that case, the first husband is not free to remarry his ex-wife.

You almost need a program to keep up with all the various permutations Moses paints. But why did he go into such great detail? Because he knew the hearts of his own people. He knew what Jesus knew: that their hearts were hard and they would find themselves following one sin with another one. So, he had to cover every conceivable scenario, providing the people of Israel with precise instructions designed to prevent further sin in the camp.

When all was said and done, this had less to do with divorce than it had to do with holiness. Moses had an ulterior motive behind these regulations regarding divorce and remarriage.

“…you shall not bring sin upon the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance.” – Deuteronomy 24:4 ESV

It is a non-debatable fact that one sin tends to lead to another. While Moses had provided the Israelites with the certificate of divorce as a means of dealing with sexual immorality within the marriage union, it was going to produce further problems. The very fact that Moses describes the husband as willing to remarry his ex-wife reveals that he had not really fallen out of love with her. Her unfaithfulness had angered and hurt him, and caused him to seek a divorce from her. But as the old saying goes, time heals all wounds. Eventually, he would find himself missing his wife and tempted to remarry her when the opportunity presented itself. But Moses had to restrict his behavior. One sin could not be followed by another. Two wrongs do not make a right.

It would seem that God would prefer that the husband and wife not divorce, even in the case of unfaithfulness. Forgiveness and restoration would take precedence over divorce and the destruction of the marriage. But as Jesus said, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives.”

Hardened, sin-filled hearts rarely produce wise decisions. The heat of the moment can produce unhealthy outcomes that bring little more than regret and further heartache. God designed marriage to be permanent, not perfect. Two sin-prone people make a perfect marriage impossible. But when Christ is part of that marriage, and the Spirit of God indwells the two people who make up that marriage, unity and permanency is achievable – even in the face of unfaithfulness.

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