The Secret Things of God

16 “You know how we lived in the land of Egypt, and how we came through the midst of the nations through which you passed. 17 And you have seen their detestable things, their idols of wood and stone, of silver and gold, which were among them. 18 Beware lest there be among you a man or woman or clan or tribe whose heart is turning away today from the Lord our God to go and serve the gods of those nations. Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit, 19 one who, when he hears the words of this sworn covenant, blesses himself in his heart, saying, ‘I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart.’ This will lead to the sweeping away of moist and dry alike. 20 The Lord will not be willing to forgive him, but rather the anger of the Lord and his jealousy will smoke against that man, and the curses written in this book will settle upon him, and the Lord will blot out his name from under heaven. 21 And the Lord will single him out from all the tribes of Israel for calamity, in accordance with all the curses of the covenant written in this Book of the Law. 22 And the next generation, your children who rise up after you, and the foreigner who comes from a far land, will say, when they see the afflictions of that land and the sicknesses with which the Lord has made it sick— 23 the whole land burned out with brimstone and salt, nothing sown and nothing growing, where no plant can sprout, an overthrow like that of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim, which the Lord overthrew in his anger and wrath— 24 all the nations will say, ‘Why has the Lord done thus to this land? What caused the heat of this great anger?’ 25 Then people will say, ‘It is because they abandoned the covenant of the Lord, the God of their fathers, which he made with them when he brought them out of the land of Egypt, 26 and went and served other gods and worshiped them, gods whom they had not known and whom he had not allotted to them. 27 Therefore the anger of the Lord was kindled against this land, bringing upon it all the curses written in this book, 28 and the Lord uprooted them from their land in anger and fury and great wrath, and cast them into another land, as they are this day.’

29 “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” Deuteronomy 29:16-29 ESV

This section is bookended by two phrases that provide us with the context of all that Moses has to say in-between. He begins with the words, “You know…” and then ends by talking about “the secret things…” which belong to the Lord. Moses realized that there were many things that God had left unrevealed to the people of Israel. There were a great many divine truths of which they were ignorant. As God would later say of Himself: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9 ESV).

Man in limited in his knowledge. He can’t know the future. He can predict and prognosticate, but it all ends up being little more than speculation or wishful thinking. Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, warned against such vain speculation.

Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring. – Proverbs 27:1 ESV

James provides even greater detail regarding man’s arrogant attempt to plan for the future, basing his decisions on things he cannot know or control.

Look here, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we are going to a certain town and will stay there a year. We will do business there and make a profit.” How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone. What you ought to say is, “If the Lord wants us to, we will live and do this or that.” Otherwise you are boasting about your own pretentious plans, and all such boasting is evil. – James 4:13-16 NLT

The Israelites had no idea what their future would look like. But they did know what God had done in the past and what He had commanded them to do in the present. And Moses had provided them with ample warning regarding what would happen should they choose to disobey what the did know – all that God had told them to do.

The generation to whom Moses was speaking had not grown up in Egypt. They had not experienced the pain and suffering of captivity in a foreign land. But they knew all about the details concerning Israel’s 400-plus years of slavery. They were also very well aware of the idolatry that ran rampant in Egypt because their parents had told them stories of the countless gods the Egyptians worshiped, including the Pharaoh himself.

Even during their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, the Israelites had been exposed to one nation after another where they discovered the names of even more false gods and witnessed new forms of pagan worship. So, by the time the got to Canaan, they were highly familiar with idolatry, which is why Moses warned them to avoid that temptation like a plague.

“Beware lest there be among you a man or woman or clan or tribe whose heart is turning away today from the Lord our God to go and serve the gods of those nations.” – Deuteronomy 29:18 ESV

And they were to take this warning seriously, keeping an eye out for anyone who might consider abandoning the one true God for a false god. All it would take was one man or woman to throw a wrench into God’s plans for the entire nation. The covenant God had made with them was communal in nature, and adherence to it was to be a community-wide affair. If even one individual took the attitude, “I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart” (Deuteronomy 29:19 ESV), the whole nation would suffer the consequences.

They knew better. God had warned them repeatedly that the entire nation would be held accountable. They had seen what had happened when Achan had disobeyed God and taken treasure from the city of Jericho and had buried it in his tent. His hidden sin had resulted in Israel’s unexpected defeat when they attacked the city of Ai. God had held the entire nation culpable until they had dealt with the sin in their midst.

Moses makes sure the people understand the gravity of allowing disobedience in any form or fashion to infect the camp.

“The Lord will never pardon such people. Instead his anger and jealousy will burn against them. All the curses written in this book will come down on them, and the Lord will erase their names from under heaven. The Lord will separate them from all the tribes of Israel, to pour out on them all the curses of the covenant recorded in this Book of Instruction.” – Deuteronomy 29:20-21 NLT

They knew better and couldn’t claim ignorance as an excuse. And they could know for certain that future generations would reap the consequences of their present mistakes.

“Then the generations to come, both your own descendants and the foreigners who come from distant lands, will see the devastation of the land and the diseases the Lord inflicts on it. – Deuteronomy 29:22 NLT

They might not be able to predict the future, but they could certainly influence it by choosing to disobey God in the here-and-now. Their present disobedience would bring future destruction to the land that will leave even the pagan nations scratching their heads in wonder and asking, “Why has the Lord done thus to this land? What caused the heat of this great anger?” (Deuteronomy 29:24 ESV).

And the answer to their questions will be a simple one: “It is because they abandoned the covenant of the Lord, the God of their fathers, which he made with them when he brought them out of the land of Egypt, and went and served other gods and worshiped them, gods whom they had not known and whom he had not allotted to them” (Deuteronomy 29:25-26 ESV).

There was a lot the Israelites didn’t know. As they stood on the edge of the land of Canaan preparing to enter in and conquer the nations who occupied it, their minds were filled with questions of all kinds. How would it go? Would they be successful? How long would it take? Would they die in battle? Would the nations living in the land prove to be too strong?

A million doubts, fears, and concerns had to have crossed their minds. Moses must have seen the apprehension in their eyes, which is why he told them, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God…” (Deuteronomy 29:29 ESV). Rather than wasting time worrying about the unknown and the unrevealed, Moses wanted them to focus on what they did know: “the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever” (Deuteronomy 29:29 ESV). They knew the law of God. Moses had just gone over it in detail. They knew all about the blessings that would come with obedience and they were more than familiar with the curses that would come upon them if they disobeyed.

They knew what God had done to free them from captivity in Egypt. They knew He had promised to give them the land of Canaan as their inheritance and was getting ready to do so. They knew all about idols and the constant threat these false gods would pose, tempting them to abandon God and forget His commands. They knew they had to enter the land and eliminate the nations who lived their, along with all their idols, altars, and shrines. They knew they had to remain faithful if they wanted to be fruitful. They knew that God would not tolerate sin the camp or allow even one case of disobedience to go unpunished.

God had told them all they needed to know. They had no reason to worry about the future, unless they decided to live disobediently in the present. They knew that God expected them to be faithful. And if they did what God wanted, they could know that He would do all that He had promised.

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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God Is Faithful. Are You?

1 These are the words of the covenant that the Lord commanded Moses to make with the people of Israel in the land of Moab, besides the covenant that he had made with them at Horeb.

And Moses summoned all Israel and said to them: “You have seen all that the Lord did before your eyes in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land, the great trials that your eyes saw, the signs, and those great wonders. But to this day the Lord has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear. I have led you forty years in the wilderness. Your clothes have not worn out on you, and your sandals have not worn off your feet. You have not eaten bread, and you have not drunk wine or strong drink, that you may know that I am the Lord your God. And when you came to this place, Sihon the king of Heshbon and Og the king of Bashan came out against us to battle, but we defeated them. We took their land and gave it for an inheritance to the Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half-tribe of the Manassites. Therefore keep the words of this covenant and do them, that you may prosper in all that you do.

10 “You are standing today, all of you, before the Lord your God: the heads of your tribes, your elders, and your officers, all the men of Israel, 11 your little ones, your wives, and the sojourner who is in your camp, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water, 12 so that you may enter into the sworn covenant of the Lord your God, which the Lord your God is making with you today, 13 that he may establish you today as his people, and that he may be your God, as he promised you, and as he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. 14 It is not with you alone that I am making this sworn covenant, 15 but with whoever is standing here with us today before the Lord our God, and with whoever is not here with us today. Deuteronomy 29:1-15 ESV

At this point in his address to the people of Israel, Moses seems to take a break from his recitation of the law, the blessings, and the curses. In a sense, the preceding passages in Deuteronomy have been a recounting of the covenant made by the people of Israel at Mount Sinai. Moses has been reminding them of God’s law and their covenant obligation to keep that law if they expect to enjoy His presence, power, and blessings upon entering the land.

Exodus 19-23 records the event at Mount Sinai in the wilderness when God made His original covenant with the people of Israel. It had been a spectacular occasion, accompanied by fire, smoke, lightning, and thunder, as God descended upon Mount Sinai. He delivered His law to Moses, who then communicated it to the people.

Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord and all the rules. And all the people answered with one voice and said, “All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.” – Exodus 24:3 ESV

With that statement, they had ratified the covenant and communicated their willingness to keep their part of the agreement. After offering blood sacrifices to God to seal the covenant, Moses “took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the hearing of the people. And they said, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient’” (Exodus 24:7 ESV). So, once again, they expressed their determination to abide by the covenant requirements as outlined by God.

And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.” – Exodus 24:8 ESV

In the Hebrew Bible, verse 1 of chapter 29 is actually the last verse of chapter 28. It concludes Moses’ recitation of the covenant and his reminder to the people of the blessings and curses that would accompany either their obedience or disobedience.

Now, Moses appears to present a break in the narrative, providing a historical overview of Israel’s relationship with God. His primary objective is to stress the covenant faithfulness of God. Yahweh had done all that He had promised to do. And they had been eyewitnesses to the mighty acts of God. The truth is, most of the people in the audience that day were too young to have experienced God’s deliverance from Egypt. Their mothers and fathers had been the ones to see all that God had done “to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land” (Deuteronomy 29:2 ESV). They had seen firsthand “the great trials…, the signs, and those great wonders” (Deuteronomy 29:3 ESV).

And, over time, they would have shared the details of their remarkable experience with their children. Moses would have made sure the next generation was fully aware of all that God had done to deliver their people from captivity, lead them through the wilderness, and deliver them to the land of promise. And Moses includes the younger generation when he delivers this stinging indictment:

“But to this day the Lord has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear.” – Deuteronomy 29:4 ESV

In spite of all they had heard about God’s past dealings with their ancestors and all they had seen God do in their own lifetimes, they still didn’t get it. They remained clueless when it came to their understanding of God’s covenant faithfulness. He had guided them through the wilderness for 40 years. And during all that time, God had miraculously provided for all their needs. Amazingly, their clothes and sandals never wore out. Evidently, after four decades of wandering through the wilderness, they were still wearing the same garments they had one when they left Egypt.

And God had fed them with manna, quail, and water from the rock. They had no access to bread, wine, or strong drink. Their very existence had been dependent upon God. He had been their sole source of sustenance for nearly half a century.

Then, when they had finally arrived at the borders of Canaan, God had given them victories over Og and Sihon, two kings whose kingdoms were located east of the Jordan and outside the land of promise. God had helped Israel defeat these two nations, providing their land as an inheritance to the Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half-tribe of the Manassites. This had all been the work of God.

“But to this day the Lord has not given you minds that understand, nor eyes that see, nor ears that hear!” – Deuteronomy 29:4 NLT

God had given them everything except the ability to comprehend the significance of His actions on their behalf. In a way, this is a somewhat sarcastic statement meant to reveal just how stubborn the people of Israel had been. It is silly to think that God would have to give them the capacity to understand just how faithful He had been. They had seen it with their own eyes. They had heard all the stories with their own ears. But they remained unimpressed and ungrateful for all that God had done on their behalf.

So, Moses has to make it a point to remind them that, because God had been faithful to keep His end of the covenant agreement, they were going to have to keep the commitment they had made at Mount Sinai: “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient” (Exodus 24:7 ESV).

And Moses reminds them that their commitment to keep the covenant would require the participation of every single member of their community, including “the heads of your tribes, your elders, and your officers, all the men of Israel, your little ones, your wives, and the sojourner who is in your camp, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water” (Deuteronomy 29:10-11 ESV). No one was exempt. No one got a free ride. God had made His covenant with the entire nation of Israel, and every single one of them had personally enjoyed the blessings that came as a result of His covenant faithfulness.

The entire nation was expected to ratify the covenant before they entered the land of promise, and Moses tells them why.

“…that he may establish you today as his people, and that he may be your God, as he promised you, and as he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” – Deuteronomy 29:13 ESV

This covenant stretched back more than 40 years, to the first generation of Israelites who had stood at the base of Mount Sinai and committed themselves to keep the commands of God. But the covenant was to be a timeless document that reached into the future, impacted generations of Israelites to come.

“But you are not the only ones with whom I am making this covenant with its curses. I am making this covenant both with you who stand here today in the presence of the Lord our God, and also with the future generations who are not standing here today.” – Deuteronomy 29:14-15 NLT

God is eternal. He exists outside time and space. And His commitment to the people of Israel was not bound by the limitations of years, decades, or centuries. What He had promised to do, He would do, regardless of how much time passed by or how many generations came and went. Abraham was long gone, but God was keeping the promises He had made to His servant. Moses would soon be gone, but God would remain faithfully committed to doing what He said He would do. Generations of Israelites would come and go, but God would never abandon His covenant commitment. He would be true to His word, but what about them?

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

It Pays to Obey

1 “And if you faithfully obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the Lord your God. Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field. Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground and the fruit of your cattle, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock. Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out.

“The Lord will cause your enemies who rise against you to be defeated before you. They shall come out against you one way and flee before you seven ways. The Lord will command the blessing on you in your barns and in all that you undertake. And he will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. The Lord will establish you as a people holy to himself, as he has sworn to you, if you keep the commandments of the Lord your God and walk in his ways. 10 And all the peoples of the earth shall see that you are called by the name of the Lord, and they shall be afraid of you. 11 And the Lord will make you abound in prosperity, in the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your livestock and in the fruit of your ground, within the land that the Lord swore to your fathers to give you. 12 The Lord will open to you his good treasury, the heavens, to give the rain to your land in its season and to bless all the work of your hands. And you shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow. 13 And the Lord will make you the head and not the tail, and you shall only go up and not down, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you today, being careful to do them, 14 and if you do not turn aside from any of the words that I command you today, to the right hand or to the left, to go after other gods to serve them. Deuteronomy 28:1-14 ESV

Obedience has its benefits. Ten times in 14 verses, the words blessed, bless, and blessing occur. And while God had the Levites begin this solemn ceremony by reciting a list of 12 curses, the next words out their mouths were all about the goodness and graciousness of God that accompanies obedience to Him.

This section opens up with the qualifying statement, “if you faithfully obey…” In Hebrew, it is actually one word: shama`. And that one word carries the connotation of hearing with the intention of obeying. God’s commands were not to go in one ear and out the other. They were to be carefully heard and faithfully obeyed. To hear God’s law but disregard it would not only be disobedience but a sign of disrespect for God. To reject His holy and righteous law would be to reject Him. And such behavior would result in curses. But for the one who faithfully heard and obeyed, there would be unprecedented blessings.

But there is a second qualifying statement that accompanies this list of blessings. Not only were the Israelites to faithfully obey God’s law, but they were also to be “careful to do” all that He had commanded. In Hebrew, that little phrase is shamar `asah, and it adds another level of commitment to the Israelites’ observance of God’s law. The first word carries the idea of keeping or guarding. It paints a word picture of someone building a hedge of thorns around something in order to protect it. They were to keep and preserve God’s law like a beloved garden or a flock of lambs.

But the second word, `asah, adds an important next step. It means “to work” or “ to do.” What good would it be to build a hedge around a garden but to never work that garden so that it produced fruit? What a waste of time it would be to place your sheep in a fold you have built to protect them, but then fail to care for them. God wanted His people to guard His law as if it was their most precious possession. But He also wanted them to do what it said. He wanted them to do the work of keeping His law.

And if they did, they would reap the rewards that come with obedience. And God went out of His way to clarify just how great their reward would be.

“…the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth.” – Deuteronomy 28:1 ESV

God would make the people of Israel the most exalted nation on all the earth. And this promise of prominence is repeated in these verses for added emphasis.

“The Lord will cause your enemies who rise against you to be defeated before you.” – Deuteronomy 28:7 ESV

“The Lord will establish you as a people holy to himself…” – Deuteronomy 29:9 ESV

“And all the peoples of the earth shall see that you are called by the name of the Lord, and they shall be afraid of you.” – Deuteronomy 28:10 ESV

“And you shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow. And the Lord will make you the head and not the tail…” – Deuteronomy 28:12-13 ESV

Prominence, power, prosperity, and a preferred position as His holy possession. All of it would be theirs if they would only obey His law. And God gave them a long list of practical outcomes that would accompany their obedience. They would experience His blessings in every area of their lives. Whether they lived in the city or the country, His blessings would find them. His blessings would take the form of fruitful families, flocks, and farms. When they sat down to eat, there would always be plenty of food. When they traveled, the blessings of God would go with them.

In battle, they would always be victorious. In farming, they would always be productive. In business, they would always be prosperous. Their families and flocks would be large. Their reputation as a holy people, set apart by God, would spread and their success would be proof that their God was both great and good. Even the pagan nations would marvel at the many blessings enjoyed by the people of Israel. The kinds of outcomes described in these verses were exactly what the pagan nations looked for from their own gods. They saw their false gods as the distributors of everything from rain and sunshine to fruitfulness and prosperity. Their worship was a constant exercise in attempting to placate and please their fickle and penurious gods. So, when they witness all the blessings coming to the Israelites, they would automatically know the source was divine. And they would be jealous.

But there is a caveat that runs throughout these verses, and it must not be overlooked. The blessings of God were directly tied to the obedience of His people.

if you faithfully obey…” – vs. 1

if you obey the voice of the Lord your God…” – vs. 2

if you keep the commandments of the Lord your God and walk in his ways.” – vs. 9

if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God.” – vs. 13

if you do not turn aside from any of the words that I command you today…” – vs. 14

This was a conditional covenant. They had to do their part. If they wanted to enjoy the blessings of God, they were going to have to hear and obey His law. Obedience was the key to His blessings. And obedience was going to require that they trust Him. Because everything was going to cause them to doubt the veracity of God’s word and the reality of His blessings. They would be tempted to take shortcuts. They would find themselves wanting to compromise their convictions and to copy the behavior of their pagan neighbors. God’s law would eventually become burdensome to them. All His rules and regulations would begin to feel stifling and restrictive. And the enemy would begin to cause them to question God’s will, filling their minds with the same question he raised to Eve in the garden: “Did God actually say…?” (Genesis 3:1).

That is why Moses had them write the law on stones and build a memorial. It’s why they were to conduct this ceremony between Mount Elba and Mount Gerizim. They were to remember exactly what God said and never forget it. They were to teach God’s law to their children. They were to memorize it, memorialize it, and make every effort to live by it. Otherwise, they would find themselves disobeying it. And disobedience would result in curses, not blessings.

And this section ends with a description of the greatest form of disobedience: Idolatry. If the people turned their away from God’s law, they would end up pursuing other gods. Failure to obey God ultimately leads to unfaithfulness to God. Rejection of God’s law leads to spiritual adultery. But why would God’s people turn to a false god when the one true God was the only source of blessing? Because their disobedience would lead to curses, which would cause them to seek the help of false gods. They would turn to the gods of their enemies rather than willingly obey the God of their ancestors. And as the Bible painstakingly reveals, that would be the less-than-flattering fate of the people of God.

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

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

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

Regulations For Real Life

15 “You shall not give up to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. 16 He shall dwell with you, in your midst, in the place that he shall choose within one of your towns, wherever it suits him. You shall not wrong him.

17 “None of the daughters of Israel shall be a cult prostitute, and none of the sons of Israel shall be a cult prostitute. 18 You shall not bring the fee of a prostitute or the wages of a dog into the house of the Lord your God in payment for any vow, for both of these are an abomination to the Lord your God.

19 “You shall not charge interest on loans to your brother, interest on money, interest on food, interest on anything that is lent for interest. 20 You may charge a foreigner interest, but you may not charge your brother interest, that the Lord your God may bless you in all that you undertake in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.

21 “If you make a vow to the Lord your God, you shall not delay fulfilling it, for the Lord your God will surely require it of you, and you will be guilty of sin. 22 But if you refrain from vowing, you will not be guilty of sin. 23 You shall be careful to do what has passed your lips, for you have voluntarily vowed to the Lord your God what you have promised with your mouth.

24 “If you go into your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat your fill of grapes, as many as you wish, but you shall not put any in your bag. 25 If you go into your neighbor’s standing grain, you may pluck the ears with your hand, but you shall not put a sickle to your neighbor’s standing grain. – Deuteronomy 23:15-25 ESV

Moses now moves his point of emphasis from times of war to the everyday affairs of life. There would be periods of peace in Israel and during these times the men of war would return home to the normal circumstances of life. These occasions would call for an additional set of regulations to govern  a wide range of situations, and Moses left nothing up to chance.

The first scenario involves an escaped slave. The context seems to indicate that this fugitive slave has arrived in Israel from a distant land. This does not appear to be a reference to an indentured servant. There were slaves in Israel, but many of these individuals were fellow Israelites whose financial circumstances had obligated them to take on the role of a household servant in order to pay a debt they owed. And there were very strict rules regarding the treatment of these fellow Israelites, including the Year of Jubilee, when theses servants were to be set free and their debt wiped clean.

If you buy a Hebrew slave, he may serve for no more than six years. Set him free in the seventh year, and he will owe you nothing for his freedom. – Exodus 21:2 NLT

The reference to an escaped slave found in verses 15-16 would appear to be dealing with a foreign slave who has shown up in Israel seeking refuge. In this case, there would be no obligation to return the slave to his master, because the master would be considered a pagan. Any rules concerning Hebrew slaves  would not apply in this case. But if an escaped slave showed up in Israel seeking asylum, they were to be treated with compassion and given the right to settle anywhere within the borders of Israel. These individuals were not be oppressed or treated like property. Instead, they were to be extended every courtesy and considered as a guest of the nation.

The very fact that the Bible deals with the topic of slavery yet never explicitly demands its abolition, leaves many modern-day Christians confused. Non-Christians have used the Bible’s seeming silence regarding the issue of slavery as a reason for rejecting the faith. But it is important to remember that the Bible is to be read and observed in its entirety. As a book, it covers a great stretch of time and deals with a wide range of social issues. The Bible neither condemns or condones slavery. Slavery, like so many other social aberrations, was the direct result of the fall. When sin entered the scene, not only was man’s relationship with God damanged, but the interpersonal dynamic between individuals changed for the worse. Not long after Adam and Eve rebelled against God, one of their own sons murdered his brother. And it goes downhill from there. The Bible is not about God telling man how to restore everything back to the way it was before the fall. It is about God revealing just how bad man’s spiritual condition had become because of the fall.

All of these laws given to the Israelites were designed to reveal man’s inherent sinfulness. The apostle Paul answers the age-old question, “Why, then, was the law given?” by stating,  “It was given alongside the promise to show people their sins” (Galatians 19 NLT). He wrote the very same thing to the believers in Rome.

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

The Mosaic Law was not intended to rectify all of man’s sinful inclinations. But it was meant to regulate behavior. Without the law, men would not even be aware that what they were doing was sin. Again, Paul provides us with a clarification on the purpose of the law.

I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” – Romans 7:7 NIV

Murder, slavery, adultery, lust, rape, incest – all of these things are the sad and inevitable outcomes of the fall. Everything has been perverted. The entire creation has been marred by sin. And the Scriptures provides an overview of mankind’s relationship with God ever since the entrance of sin into His creation. The answer to the problem of slavery is not its abolition, but the redemption of mankind from slavery to sin. Telling sinful human beings not to enslave one another would be no more effective then demanding that they not lust after one another. The underlying problem is the heart.

So, all of these scenarios deal with what were everyday issues confronting the Israelites. Slavery was an everyday part of life because mankind was plagued by sin. And the second scenario deals with an other common problem during that day: Cult prostitution. We don’t react to this quite like we could slavery, but it was just as egregious a problem. The pagan nations surrounding Israel had incorporated sexual immorality into the worship of their false gods. But God prohibited Israel from emulating these pagan practices. They were forbidden from allowing their sons and daughters to serve as cult prostitutes. This kind of immoral practice was off-limits for the Israelites. And they were not allowed to use any money earned through this activity as a form of tithe or offering. In essense, Moses was preventing the Israelites from rationalizing their immoral behavior through apparent acts of righteousness.

The final set of regulations seem disconnected and dissimilar. But they all have to do with the interpersonal relationships between members of the covenant community of Israel. God placed a high priority on these relationships, providing the Israelites with very specific regulations regarding their actions toward one another. They were not allowed to charge one another interest. They could loan one another money, but they were not to do so in order to make a profit. This was really intended as a kind of social welfare system, designed to ensure that no Israelite was ever in need. But God allowed the charging of interest to non-Jews.

If an Israelite made a vow, he was expected to keep it. Vowing to do something in God’s name was to be taken seriously. It was a promise that was guaranteed by the holiness and integrity of God. To fail to keep that commitment was a grave sin. So, it was better not to vow at all, since the making of a vow was totally voluntary. Failing to keep your commitments was to be seen as unacceptable behavior among the Israelites. Jesus provided an important clarification on this matter in His Sermon on the Mount.

“You have also heard that our ancestors were told, ‘You must not break your vows; you must carry out the vows you make to the Lord.’ But I say, do not make any vows!…

“Just say a simple, ‘Yes, I will,’ or ‘No, I won’t.’ Anything beyond this is from the evil one.” – Matthew 5:33-34, 37 NLT

The final verses in this section deal with the sharing of one’s resources. If an Israelite was passing through another man’s vineyard or field of grain, he was free to gather enough food to sustain him on his journey. In other words, he could meet his immediate need for food, but he was not allowed to harvest the crops belonging to another man. To do so would be theft. But as long as he was taking just enough grapes to satisfy his hunger, he was free to do so. The Israelites were expected to care for the needs of one another, but they were also respect one another’s rights.

All of these regulations were intended to govern the everyday lives of the people of Israel. They cover with a wide range of topics, but they all deal with the daily interactions between the people of God. The nation of Israel had been set apart by God and were expected to glorify His name through the way they lived their lives. While the nations around them were operating according to their sin natures, Israel had been provided with the Mosaic Law, a gracious gift from God designed to expose their own sinful dispositions and remind them of the holiness of their 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

Rules For Life and Death

1 “When the Lord your God cuts off the nations whose land the Lord your God is giving you, and you dispossess them and dwell in their cities and in their houses, you shall set apart three cities for yourselves in the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess. You shall measure the distances and divide into three parts the area of the land that the Lord your God gives you as a possession, so that any manslayer can flee to them.

“This is the provision for the manslayer, who by fleeing there may save his life. If anyone kills his neighbor unintentionally without having hated him in the past— as when someone goes into the forest with his neighbor to cut wood, and his hand swings the axe to cut down a tree, and the head slips from the handle and strikes his neighbor so that he dies—he may flee to one of these cities and live, lest the avenger of blood in hot anger pursue the manslayer and overtake him, because the way is long, and strike him fatally, though the man did not deserve to die, since he had not hated his neighbor in the past. Therefore I command you, You shall set apart three cities. And if the Lord your God enlarges your territory, as he has sworn to your fathers, and gives you all the land that he promised to give to your fathers— provided you are careful to keep all this commandment, which I command you today, by loving the Lord your God and by walking ever in his ways—then you shall add three other cities to these three, 10 lest innocent blood be shed in your land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance, and so the guilt of bloodshed be upon you.

11 “But if anyone hates his neighbor and lies in wait for him and attacks him and strikes him fatally so that he dies, and he flees into one of these cities, 12 then the elders of his city shall send and take him from there, and hand him over to the avenger of blood, so that he may die. 13 Your eye shall not pity him, but you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from Israel, so that it may be well with you.” – Deuteronomy 19:1-13 ESV

God cares. That’s an extremely important theological insight that we too often overlook. Deism is a theological theory which views God as distant and disengaged from the world He created. He is seen as the creator, but He takes a hands-off approach when it comes to the management of His creation, allowing mankind the autonomy to determine its own fate.

But as this passage will clearly reveal, this view of God is far from biblical. The image of God gleaned from a reading of the Scriptures is quite different. He is not the giant clockmaker in the sky who wound up His creation and then left it to slowly wind its way into oblivion. No, the God of the Bible is fully engaged with His creation, and He is intimately involved in the lives of those who worship Him.

This section of the book of Deuteronomy contains a series of admonitions from Moses to the people of Israel, as he attempts to prepare them for their conquest of the land of Canaan. Much of what he is telling them is repetitive in nature. He is simply reminding them of their God-ordained responsibilities and challenging them to take the commands of God seriously. Because God cares. Their actions and attitudes matter to God. The way they live their lives is important to God because they are His representatives on this earth, bearing His name and intended to bring Him glory.

So, Moses reminds the Israelites that, upon entering the land of Canaan that God had given them as an inheritance, they were to set apart six cities within the territory as places of refuge. Even before they had stepped over the border into the land and fought their first battle, God provided a system designed to prevent the shedding of innocent blood.

God knew His people well, and He was fully aware that their sinful dispositions would cause them to engage in a wide range of unacceptable behaviors. That is why He had provided them with His law as a black-and-white compendium of rules to live by. He had also given them the sacrificial system as a means of receiving atonement for the sins they would inevitably commit. Again, because He cared for them.

And, when it came to the topic of murder, God had been quite specific.

“Whoever strikes someone so that he dies must surely be put to death. But if he does not do it with premeditation, but it happens by accident, then I will appoint for you a place where he may flee. But if a man willfully attacks his neighbor to kill him cunningly, you will take him even from my altar that he may die.” – Exodus 21:12-14 NLT

God was and is opposed to murder, the taking of innocent life. But He provided His people with much-needed legal clarification establishing the difference between premeditated murder and involuntary manslaughter. An important factor behind all of this was the law of retribution or what has come to be known as lex talionis. The familiar phrase, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is wrapped up in this law, and it was part of the Israelite justice system as outlined in the Mosaic Law.

But if there is serious injury, then you will give a life for a life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. – Exodus 21:23-25 NLT

The principle behind this system of justice was that the punishment must match the crime. It involved the concept of just retribution and was to be administered under a strict judicial system designed to see to it that proper steps were taken to ensure justice was meted out. Lex talionis was never intended to be some kind of vigilante justice system where people took the law into their own hands.

So, in the case of murder, God provided the Israelites with a way to keep them from following one form of injustice with another. As the saying says, accidents happen. God knew that there were going to be those occasions where life was taken unintentionally. He even gave an example.

Suppose he goes with someone else to the forest to cut wood and when he raises the ax to cut the tree, the ax head flies loose from the handle and strikes his fellow worker so hard that he dies. The person responsible may then flee to one of these cities to save himself.” – Deuteronomy 19:15 NLT

No premeditation. No malice. But according to lex talionis, the relatives of the one murdered could demand a life for a life. They could seek retribution. They were even responsible by law to see that the life of their relative was avenged. But God was determined to keep His people from allowing their passion for justice to result in an even greater sin.

“You must not shed innocent blood in your land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, for that would make you guilty. – Deuteronomy 19:10 NLT

The cities of refuge were set apart by God for the expressed purpose of providing a safe-haven for anyone who happened to commit involuntary manslaughter. It was going to happen, and God made provision for it. He knew His people well enough, and He loved them enough to provide them with a well-designed system for ensuring that justice was done.

God was not and still is not some distant deity, unconcerned, and uninvolved in the daily affairs of life. He is a God who cares and who intimately interacts with His creation. The level of detail involved in His law reveals just how well God knew the people of Israel. He left nothing up to chance. Even the cities of refuge are an illustration of just how deeply God cares about His people. He knew that His laws, while just, righteous, and holy, could be twisted and abused by His people. So, He provided clarification and installed safeguards to ensure that one sin did not lead to another. Life is important to God, which is why He provided a law against murder. But God also puts a high priority on justice. Those committing premeditated murder were to be dealt with quickly and severely.

But God’s justice is always balanced by His desire for mercy. So, He made provision for those who found themselves guilty of shedding innocent blood accidentally. Ultimately, this was all about the integrity of God’s name. The people of Israel were His chosen people, responsible for acting as His representatives on earth. And their actions would either glorify or bring shame to His reputation. Which is why He left nothing up to chance. He cared enough to create a plan for any and all scenarios the Israelites might encounter along the way. And Moses told them the motivation behind God’s actions: “so that it may go well with you” (Deuteronomy 19:13 NLT)

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

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

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

 

 

 

Laws For Living

16 “‘Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God commanded you, that your days may be long, and that it may go well with you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

17 “‘You shall not murder.

18 “‘And you shall not commit adultery.

19 “‘And you shall not steal.

20 “‘And you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

21 “‘And you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. And you shall not desire your neighbor’s house, his field, or his male servant, or his female servant, his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.’”  – Deuteronomy 5:16-21 ESV

The first four of the Ten Commandments are focused on man’s relationship with God. Yet, while they are vertical in their orientation, they have a horizontal aspect to them. In other words, they are intended to impact man’s earthly life.

The Israelites were prohibited from worshiping other gods. The fact that these false gods were non-existent should have made this command a no-brainer, but mankind has been in the habit of replacing God substitutes and stand-ins ever since the fall. And the Israelites had even been so bold as to have made a golden calf while Moses had been up on the mountain receiving the Ten Commandments from God.

The prohibition on worshiping false gods was accompanied by a command against creating idols of those gods. This was a particular temptation for the people of Israel, because their God was invisible. But while their God was unseen, His character was not. God had revealed Himself in a variety of ways and had proven His power, holiness, love, and trustworthiness. That is why the third commandment prohibits using His name in vain. This is not a ban on using profanity, but a demand that the people of God protect the integrity of God’s reputation. We can profane God’s name by speaking falsely about Him by questioning His love, reliability, power, or presence. To say, “God does not care” is to treat His character with contempt. To imply that God is unfair or unjust is to drag His holy name through the mud.

The fourth command centers around the keeping of the Sabbath. While the emphasis appears to be on rest from labor, the Sabbath is tied directly to the creation account found in the book of Genesis and the creation of Israel as a nation, as described in the book of Exodus. By setting aside this one day out of seven as a day of rest and contemplation, God was requiring that the Israelites reflect on His role as the Creator-God, the maker of all things. In all the activity and busyness of life, they were not to forget that their very existence was totally dependent upon God.

The second set of commands are more horizontal in nature, focusing on mankind’s interpersonal relationships. The first of these commands covers the family unit, a God-ordained institution that was to be treated with reverence and respect. He commands children to honor their parents, treating them with dignity and seeing them as the God-appointed overseers of the household. Headship and authority are essential for life to function properly. Without it, there is anarchy. And because God is  invisible and unseen, He has provided tangible expressions of His divine authority through human agents, such as mothers and fathers, pastors and elders, and governmental leaders. Our ability to show honor to those we can see is ultimately a form of showing honor to the One we cannot see.

The next command takes a dramatically negative turn, with God explicitly banning the taking of another person’s life. But the context is murder and it harkens all the way back to the days following the fall, when Cain killed his brother, Abel. In a fit of anger, fueled by jealousy, Cain took his brother’s life. In doing so, he set himself up as God, becoming the arbiter of his brother’s fate. If we turn back and look at the details surrounding that fateful event, we see that Cain and Abel had brought offerings to God, but that God did not accept the offering made by Cain.

In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. – Genesis 4:3-4 ESV

And it was God’s rejection that that angered Cain and caused him to lash out against his brother. He offered an unacceptable offering to God, which is most likely a statement about the condition of his heart, not the quality of his offering. And the true nature of his heart was revealed in how he reacted to God’s rejection. He played God and removed the one whom God had approved. Murder is man playing God. It is an attempt to diminish the value of that which God has made – human life – by determining another person’s right to exist. It is the most egregious expression of idolatry that a human being can commit.

The next command covers another God-ordained institution: Marriage. The Israelites were to respect marriage by refraining from adultery. Tied into this is the idea of covenant faithfulness and commitment. Just as a child’s honoring of their parents is ultimately an expression of honor to God, so the husband and wife who honor their marriage covenant are expressing their reverence for God. In a world where unfaithfulness was ubiquitous, God was demanding faithfulness and fidelity.

In a sense, adultery is a form of theft. It is taking what does not rightfully belong to you. And God takes this ban on stealing to another level by banning it outright. The prohibition on stealing was intended to teach the Israelites to honor the rights of their neighbor, but it was also meant to teach reliance upon God. The motivation behind stealing is usually discontment. James put it this way: “You want what you don’t have, so you scheme and kill to get it. You are jealous of what others have, but you can’t get it, so you fight and wage war to take it away from them” (James 4:2 NLT). Stealing is nothing more than rewarding yourself with that which you think you deserve, but which God has chosen to deny you. It is the taking of what rightfully belongs to someone else, and along with material things, we can steal someone’s reputation.

And this sets up the next command. Lying is a form of hatred toward others that supplies disinformation in order to place self-preservation over anything and everything.  It is meant to deceive and distort the truth for personal gain. We lie to protect ourselves or to inflate our perceived worth. We fabricate facts that make us look good. We make up false narratives intended to make others look bad. Lying can murder another person’s reputation. It is a purposeful attempt to misrepresent the facts in order to alter outcomes or improve outlooks. But God is a God of truth. And as Numbers 23:19 reminds us, “God is not a man, so he does not lie. He is not human, so he does not change his mind. Has he ever spoken and failed to act? Has he ever promised and not carried it through?”

The final command involves an insidious and invisible cancer that infects each and every human being: Covetousness. This is less an action than an attitude. It is an expression of the heart. It can remain hidden from those around us, but all the while it is spreading in our hearts like a deadly infection. Covetousness is ultimately selfish and self-centered, placing our own desires ahead of God’s will and the needs of others. It drives so many of the other behaviors banned by the other commands. Adultery takes place when we covet that which is not ours. Murder occurs when one person places more value on their desire for revenge than another person’s life. Stealing is the ultimate expression of covetousness. It is coveting consummated. But at its core, covetousness is a dissatisfaction with God. It is an expression of disfavor with God and His ability to provide for our needs. His gifts are not enough. His goodness is not good enough. We have to have more.

The law is good and holy. But as we saw yesterday, the law could only prescribe and prohibit. It could command and demand, but it could not force compliance. God made it perfectly clear what He expected of His people. But they were going to have to choose to obey. They could not claim ignorance, but in time, they would display their obstinance. Their knowledge of God’s law would be of little value if they failed to live in compliance with it.

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

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

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

 

 

 

Learning to Love the Law

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

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

“‘You shall have no other gods before me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Blind Guides.

1 Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:

“‘This people honors me with their lips,
    but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
    teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”

10 And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: 11 it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” 12 Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” 13 He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. 14 Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” 15 But Peter said to him, “Explain the parable to us.” 16 And he said, “Are you also still without understanding? 17 Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? 18 But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. 20 These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.” – Matthew 15:1-20 ESV

Matthew now moves the scene from Jesus walking on water to Him walking the streets of Jerusalem, where He was confronted by a contingent of Pharisees and scribes. These self-righteous religious leaders had a bone to pick with Jesus, and were anxious to expose what they believed to be His blatant disregard for the tradition of the elders. This was a reference to the man-made rules and regulations established by men and found in the Mishnah. In this case, the Pharisees and scribes were wanting to know why the disciples of Jesus did not follow the regulations concerning ceremonial cleansing. This had nothing to do with personal hygiene, but was about cleansing from defilement, including that which resulted from contact with Gentiles.

These men were not accusing the disciples of violating the Mosaic law, but of failing to keep the rabbinical interpretations of the law. So, Jesus responds to them with a question of His own, asking them, “why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” (Matthew 15:3 ESV). This was a bold move on the part of Jesus, because it exposed the real issue at hand and blatantly accused these religious leaders of breaking the Mosaic law.

But before they could respond, Jesus provided proof for His accusation, explaining their tradition of korban. This was a form of offering that entailed the dedication of a gift to God that was to be offered at a later date. Think of it as a kind of tax-free savings plan. According to the tradition of the elders, someone could dedicate money or an item of value to God, but not be required to offer it immediately. The actual offering was postponed indefinitely, allowing the individual to continue to benefit from the item in the meantime. And Jesus gave an example of this interesting loophole that allowed someone to openly disregard God’s command to honor your father and mother.

This man-made rule allowed someone to circumvent their God-given responsibility to care for their aging parents by simply claiming that their resources had been dedicated to God. But all the while, they would retain full access to those resources. And Jesus exposes this clever plan for what it was: Hypocrisy and an open disregard for the law of God.

“So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God.” – Matthew 15:6 ESV

And Jesus used the words of God, found in the writings of Isaiah the prophet, to condemn them.

8 “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.” – Matthew 15:8-9 NLT

These men were revered for their apparent righteousness. They were respected for their knowledge of and adherence to the Mosaic law. But Jesus exposed them as hypocrites. They were all about appearances. Their concern for what men thought about them took precedence over how God perceived them. And Jesus revealed that the real issue here had nothing to do with ceremonial cleansing, but defiled hearts.

“…it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” – Matthew 15:11 ESV

While the Pharisees and scribes were concerned about defiling themselves by failing to properly following the prescribed forms of ritual purification, Jesus revealed that their problem was an internal one. And the religious leaders were fully aware of what Jesus was implying and offended by it. His disciples, somewhat naively asked Jesus, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” (Matthew 15:12 ESV). Yes, He knew and that had been His intention all along.

According to Jesus, these men may have been religious leaders, but they had not been commissioned by God. They were self-appointed and little more than blind guides. In other words, they were worthless leaders. They had no idea where they were going and anyone who followed them would end up in a ditch. This would not be the last time Jesus attacked the hypocrisy of these men. Later on in his gospel, Matthew records even more scathing words from Jesus aimed at the Pharisees and scribes.

23 “What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore the more important aspects of the law—justice, mercy, and faith. You should tithe, yes, but do not neglect the more important things. 24 Blind guides! You strain your water so you won’t accidentally swallow a gnat, but you swallow a camel!

25 “What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and self-indulgence! 26 You blind Pharisee! First wash the inside of the cup and the dish, and then the outside will become clean, too.

27 “What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity. 28 Outwardly you look like righteous people, but inwardly your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness.– Matthew 23: 23-28 NLT

Peter, most likely speaking on behalf of all the disciples, asked Jesus to explain Himself. Peter felt like Jesus was using yet another parable and was anxious to understand what He meant. But Jesus, expressing surprise at their lack of understanding, explained, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matthew 15:19 ESV). This was all about the condition of the heart, not the keeping of man-made rules. Ritual purification could do nothing to change the inner state of a man. Keeping rules regarding outward purity will not produce a clean heart. But a defiled heart will produce all kinds of unclean behavior. The religious leaders were focusing all their attention on the outside, but Jesus had come to renew the inside. He was offering true cleansing from sin that began with a new heart.

As will be the case from this point on, Jesus is attempting to teach His disciples some very important truths regarding righteousness. It begins in the heart. Our outward behavior cannot make us righteous before God, because He sees the true condition of our hearts. And His assessment is that the human heart is in bad shape.

“The human heart is the most deceitful of all things,
    and desperately wicked.
    Who really knows how bad it is?
10 But I, the Lord, search all hearts
    and examine secret motives.
I give all people their due rewards,
    according to what their actions deserve.” – Jeremiah 17:9-10 NLT

No man can make himself righteous before God through outward adherence to rules and regulations. Our good behavior, even on our best day, is viewed by God as tainted by sin.

We are all infected and impure with sin. When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags. – Isaiah 64:6 NLT

The problem with the Pharisees and scribes was that they were blind to their need for a Savior. They viewed themselves as right before God because they were religious about rule-keeping. They were ritually pure, but sadly, inwardly defiled because of their sin-filled hearts. And they refused to accept the remedy for their heart problem: Jesus Christ.

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 Favor of God.

1 Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.

And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Matthew 5:1-11 ESV

The Gospel of Luke provides us with additional insight into the timeline going on in this scene. He records that Jesus took time to hand-pick the remainder of His 12 followers, who He would later designate as His apostles.

12 In these days he went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God. 13 And when day came, he called his disciples and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles: 14 Simon, whom he named Peter, and Andrew his brother, and James and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, 15 and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon who was called the Zealot, 16 and Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor. – Luke 6:12-16 ESV

The mention of the term, “apostle” is important, because it helps differentiate the 12 men Jesus chose from the rest of those who are called “disciples” in the story. Often, when reading the Gospel accounts, we can see the term “disciple” and automatically assume it only refers to the 12 men whom Jesus had called. But as we will see, a disciple was simply a designation for anyone who followed Jesus for any length of time. A disciple was a learner, someone who followed a particular teacher or rabbi in order to glean from them their wisdom or beliefs. Throughout His earthly ministry, Jesus had many followers, but this did not mean that they viewed Him as their Messiah or Savior. In fact, when Jesus began to teach truths that were more difficult to comprehend, the crowds began to disperse. His disciples or followers turned their backs on Him. In John’s Gospel, he records an exchange between Jesus and His followers where He told them, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:54 ESV). This statement confused His audience, leaving some a bit repulsed by the imagery He used. But rather than back down, Jesus took the metaphor a step further.

53 “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. 56 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” – John 6:53-58 ESV

John records that the people found the words of Jesus difficult to hear and even harder to understand. And Jesus knew there were many in His audience who did not believe what He had to say. Sadly, John records, “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (John 6:66 ESV).

Why is this important? Because as we begin this portion of Matthew’s Gospel, we see Jesus addressing a crowd of His disciples or followers, and it is essential that we not mistakenly assume that the term “disciple” refers to someone who is a Christian or believer in Jesus. At this early stage in His ministry, there are relatively few who could be truly termed Christ-followers. Even the 12 are operating with a very limited understanding of just exactly who Jesus is. So, when Matthew records what has come to be known as Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the makeup of the crowd was a mixed bag of individuals who were there for a variety of reasons and who made up a cross section of Jewish culture of Jesus’ day. There were plenty of peasants or common people in the crowd that day. But there were also representatives of the Jewish religious leadership. And, of course, there were the 12 apostles whom Jesus had just recently called. Luke lets us know that many were there out of curiosity and for purely self-centered reasons, having come “to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. And those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all the crowd sought to touch him, for power came out from him and healed them all” (Luke 6:18-19 ESV).

And Jesus, taking advantage of their presence and their undivided attention, addressed them about a topic that was near and dear to all of them: The kingdom of heaven. But He was about to bring a radical new perspective to this familiar subject. As Jews, they would have considered themselves honorary citizens of the kingdom of heaven. They were the “chosen ones,” the descendants of Abraham and the hand-picked children of God. But Jesus is about to rock their world, presenting the kingdom of heaven and those who live in it, in a much different light than that to which they have grown accustomed. If you recall, Jesus had begun His ministry preaching the very same message that John the Baptist had preached: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17 ESV) The repentance He called for had to do with a change of mind, a rethinking of their current views on everything from God, righteousness, sin, salvation, and citizenship in the kingdom of heaven. As Jews, they thought they had it all figured out. They were the chosen people of God who had been given the law of God and access to the temple and the sacrificial system that allowed them to maintain a right standing with God. They were the apple of God’s eye, His prized possession and the designated recipients of His grace and love.

But in this paradigm-shifting message, Jesus will present a radical new perspective on what it means to live in the kingdom of heaven. And most of what He is going to tell them will leave them confused and conflicted. This will not be business as usual. His message will not confirm and conform to their present understanding of life in the kingdom of God. His words are meant to shock and surprise, to upset the status quo and reveal that something revolutionary was about to happen.

Nine different times in the opening lines of His message, Jesus uses the word, “blessed,” and He uses it to refer to those who are part of the kingdom of heaven because they have found favor with God. Their blessedness or right standing with God and designation as citizens of His kingdom has little do with what the Jews in Jesus’ audience would have deemed necessary for finding favor with God. Notice that Jesus doesn’t mention having a Jewish heritage as a prerequisite for blessedness. He doesn’t even bring up Abraham, the father of the Hebrew people. Instead, He mentions the poor in spirit, the mournful, the meek, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and the persecuted. Those are the characteristics He uses to describe the blessed, those who have found favor with God and a place in His kingdom. But take a look at those attributes. Why would any of those seemingly negative characteristics qualify anyone for receiving God’s favor? For the average Jew, those descriptions would have represented everything to be despised and hated about life on this planet. Poverty of spirit was to be avoided at all costs. Mourning, while inevitable, was never seen as preferable. The Jews were a people who had suffered hundreds of years of oppression under the heavy-handed rule of outside forces like the Romans. Poverty, persecution, suffering, and mourning had become par for the course. And the idea of making peace with the Romans was about as far from the mind of the average Jew as showing mercy to a Gentile.

But Jesus is painting a radically different picture of life in the kingdom of heaven. It is not what they think. It is not what they have come to expect. And the description of it’s citizens is quite different than they would have imagined or desired. As Jesus begins to unpack this message, He is going to bring a new outlook on an old, familiar topic. He is going to rock their world and reform their view on what it means to receive God’s favor. What Jesus is about to reveal to them is the message of the grace of God. He is going to destroy the myth of self-righteousness that permeated the mindset of the Jewish people. Their confident belief in their status as God’s chosen people was going to crumble as Jesus revealed the impossibility of living up to the standards of kingdom life. What Jesus is going to show them is the radical nature of God’s righteous requirements, their own inadequacy, and the need of God’s grace. Those who find comfort, receive mercy, find God, and enjoy life in the kingdom of heaven will be those who accept the free gift of God’s grace made available through His Son.

Life in the kingdom of heaven cannot be earned. The favor of God cannot be merited through good deeds or right behavior. Righteousness is not a state one achieves through self-effort, but is a gift provided by a gracious God through the sacrifice of His own Son. A new day had dawned. The Son had come. The light was shining in the darkness.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

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 Returned Redeemer.

30 “Now when forty years had passed, an angel appeared to him in the wilderness of Mount Sinai, in a flame of fire in a bush. 31 When Moses saw it, he was amazed at the sight, and as he drew near to look, there came the voice of the Lord: 32 ‘I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob.’ And Moses trembled and did not dare to look. 33 Then the Lord said to him, ‘Take off the sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. 34 I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their groaning, and I have come down to deliver them. And now come, I will send you to Egypt.’

35 “This Moses, whom they rejected, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge?’—this man God sent as both ruler and redeemer by the hand of the angel who appeared to him in the bush. 36 This man led them out, performing wonders and signs in Egypt and at the Red Sea and in the wilderness for forty years. 37 This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers.’ 38 This is the one who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai, and with our fathers. He received living oracles to give to us. 39 Our fathers refused to obey him, but thrust him aside, and in their hearts they turned to Egypt, 40 saying to Aaron, ‘Make for us gods who will go before us. As for this Moses who led us out from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ 41 And they made a calf in those days, and offered a sacrifice to the idol and were rejoicing in the works of their hands. 42 But God turned away and gave them over to worship the host of heaven, as it is written in the book of the prophets:

“‘Did you bring to me slain beasts and sacrifices,
    during the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel?
43 You took up the tent of Moloch
    and the star of your god Rephan,
    the images that you made to worship;
and I will send you into exile beyond Babylon.’” – Acts 7:30-43 ESV

Forty years after having fled from Egypt to Midian, Moses received a visit from God. For four long decades he had been a recluse, living in relative isolation, tending sheep and trying to forget that initial stirring in his heart to redeem his people from their slavery in Egypt. But when his first attempt to rally to the cause of the Israelites had failed, he had fled. His own people had rejected him, shouting, “Who made you a ruler and judge over us?” (Acts 7:27 NLT). Now it was time for him to return. But he would be doing things God’s way. He would be acting on behalf of God, speaking His words, and performing signs and wonders in His power. God had a commission and a mission for Moses.

“I have certainly seen the oppression of my people in Egypt. I have heard their groans and have come down to rescue them. Now go, for I am sending you back to Egypt.” – Acts 7:34 NLT

Moses had been rejected by the people, but “this man God sent as both ruler and redeemer” (Acts 7:35 ESV). His initial efforts to rescue them had been rebuffed and his motives questioned. His own people refused to see him for who he was: God’s redeemer. But the second time, when he showed up, he would have God’s Good Housekeeping seal of approval and “by means of many wonders and miraculous signs, he led them out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and through the wilderness for forty years” (Acts 7:36 NLT). 

The crowd to whom Stephen spoke revered Moses. They saw him as their deliverer and law-giver. They held him in very high-esteem. And the whole reason Stephen was having to give this speech was because he had been falsely accused of speaking against Moses and the law, teaching that the customs the held near and dear were no longer valid.

“This man is always speaking against the holy Temple and against the law of Moses. We have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy the Temple and change the customs Moses handed down to us.” – Acts 6:13-14 NLT

But Stephen clearly states his respect for Moses. He had no intention of undermining his role as Israel’s deliverer and law-giver. But he did want to point out that Moses had done far more than just give the people the law. He had prophesied that another prophet would come. “God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers” (Acts 7:37 ESV). Moses had known that he was not the end-all. He had been used by God to deliver the people out of bondage, but there was another who would come after him. Peter had picked up on this very same topic in his address to the crowd in Solomon’s Portico.

17 “Friends, I realize that what you and your leaders did to Jesus was done in ignorance. 18 But God was fulfilling what all the prophets had foretold about the Messiah—that he must suffer these things. 19 Now repent of your sins and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped away. 20 Then times of refreshment will come from the presence of the Lord, and he will again send you Jesus, your appointed Messiah. 21 For he must remain in heaven until the time for the final restoration of all things, as God promised long ago through his holy prophets. 22 Moses said, ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from among your own people. Listen carefully to everything he tells you.’ 23 Then Moses said, ‘Anyone who will not listen to that Prophet will be completely cut off from God’s people.’” – Acts 3:17-23 NLT

Moses and the law were never intended to be the end-all. Moses was a deliverer, but not the deliver. The law was given by God, but was never intended to be the means by which people gain acceptance from God. The apostle Paul tells us quite plainly why the law was given.

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

20 God’s law was given so that all people could see how sinful they were. But as people sinned more and more, God’s wonderful grace became more abundant. 21 So just as sin ruled over all people and brought them to death, now God’s wonderful grace rules instead, giving us right standing with God and resulting in eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. – Romans 5:20-21 NLT

And despite the high value the people of Israel placed in the law, they had never managed to keep it. In fact, while Moses had been on the mountain top receiving the law from God, the people of Israel had been busy coercing Aaron to make them an idol. Moses was up on Mount Sinai receiving “living oracles” from God, and they were worshiping a false god. Stephen flatly states, “Our fathers refused to obey him, but thrust him aside, and in their hearts they turned to Egypt” (Acts 7:39 ESV). While the people of Israel revered Moses, Stephen reminded them that their ancestors had actually turned against him. In essence, they had not only rejected Moses, but God Himself. They had turned back to worshiping one of the gods they had served in Egypt.

For forty long years, the people of Israel would be led by God through the wilderness. He would cloth them, feed them, and guide them. He would protect them from their enemies and bless them with His presence. But all the while they would “serve the stars of heaven as their gods” (Acts 7:42 NLT). And God would indict them for their unfaithfulness during those years.

42 “Was it to me you were bringing sacrifices and offerings
    during those forty years in the wilderness, Israel?
43 No, you carried your pagan gods—
    the shrine of Molech,
    the star of your god Rephan,
    and the images you made to worship them.
So I will send you into exile
    as far away as Babylon.” – Acts 7:42-43 NLT

Try to imagine how the high priest and the members of the Jewish council are receiving these words from Stephen. He is recounting some of the less-than-flattering days of their history. He is reminding them of their long track record of unfaithfulness to Moses and, ultimately, to God. They had a long-standing tradition of disobedience. And Stephen would not let them forget that “our ancestors refused to listen to Moses. They rejected him and wanted to return to Egypt” (Acts 7:39 NLT).

What’s his point? What is it that Stephen is attempting to do? He is simply reminding them that God had sent them a redeemer and rescuer before, and they had rejected him. And now, God had sent them another Redeemer, the very one Moses had prophesied about, and they had rejected Him as well. Not only that, they had put Him to death. And it seems that the high priest and the members of the Sanhedrin had made idols out of the law and the Temple, worshiping them rather than the One whom God had sent to redeem them. They idolized the city of Jerusalem, the glory of the Temple and the “living oracles” given to them by Moses. But they refused to recognize and receive the Savior and Redeemer sent to them from God. Jesus addressed this very issue in a discussion He had with some Pharisees who had accused His disciples of breaking the Sabbath law.

Jesus said to them, “Haven’t you read in the Scriptures what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He went into the house of God, and he and his companions broke the law by eating the sacred loaves of bread that only the priests are allowed to eat. And haven’t you read in the law of Moses that the priests on duty in the Temple may work on the Sabbath? I tell you, there is one here who is even greater than the Temple! But you would not have condemned my innocent disciples if you knew the meaning of this Scripture: ‘I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.’ For the Son of Man is Lord, even over the Sabbath!” – Matthew 12:3-8 NLT

Jesus was greater than the Temple. He was more important that Moses or the law. In fact, He was the fulfillment of the law, having kept it to perfection and satisfied the just demands of God. And what Stephen seems to be pointing out is that, while the Jews had rejected Jesus, He had returned in the form of His Spirit-filled disciples, offering His own people yet another chance to receive salvation and freedom from slavery to sin. But they would have to recognize Him as the returned Redeemer and receive Him as their long-awaited Messiah.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 200z

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