Missing the Point

1 At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” – Matthew 12:1-8 ESV

From this point forward in his gospel, Matthew will reveal an increasing and palpable tension between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders. Their disdain for Jesus will grow as His popularity among the people spreads. This obscure rabbi from Nazareth was rocking their religious world by openly contradicting their authority and establishing Himself as some kind of savior of the people. To them, Jesus was nothing more than a charlatan and the next in a long line of would-be Messiahs, attempting to garner His 15-minutes of prominence in the national spotlight.

One of the central themes that will arise in this conflict between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders will be that of authority. In their minds, they were the sole arbiters of religious rules and decorum. They viewed themselves as the spiritual police force, with responsibility for maintaining a tight reign on the ethical and moral behavior of the people. They were the self-appointed enforcers of the law, and they took their job seriously. These pride-filled men were religious elitists, who looked down their noses at the common people, viewing them as law-breakers and the cause of all the nation’s problems.

It is important to remember what Matthew recorded at the end of chapter 11. He recounted Jesus’ offer of rest to those “who labor and are heavy laden” (Matthew 11:28). And now, Matthew reports a confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees, all centered around the supposed violation of the laws regarding the Sabbath. For the Jews, the Sabbath, or seventh day of the week, was considered sacred. The ongoing observation of this day had been decreed by God as part of the Ten Commandments.

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 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, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” – Exodus 20:8-11 ESV

The Sabbath was to be a day of rest and was intended to be a sign of the covenant between God and the people of Israel.

“Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you.” – Exodus 31:13 ESV

But over time, God’s laws concerning the Sabbath had been heavily appended by the religious leaders, as they added a litany of man-made rules and regulations that made the keeping of the Sabbath onerous and burdensome. According to the Talmud, there were 39 categories of prohibitions tied to the keeping of the Sabbath. The first 11 categories featured restrictions associated with the baking of bread. The next 13 categories detailed rules concerning the making of a garment. Another 9 categories are restricted activities associated with the making of leather. And the final 6 categories were concerned with rules concerning the construction of any building.

In this passage, the disciples of Jesus are accused by the Pharisees as having violated the Sabbath restriction concerning reaping. They were caught picking the heads of grain and eating them. And in their self-righteous fervor, they confront Jesus for having allowed this egregious act to have happened.

“Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” – Matthew 12:2 ESV

But rather than admit any guilt or apologize on behalf of His disciples, Jesus gave the Pharisees a history lesson. He reminded them of a story concerning David that was recorded by the prophet, Samuel. David, who had been anointed by Samuel to be the next king of Israel, was running for his life. The current king, Saul, was out to kill him. So, David and his men came to Ahimelech, the priest in Nob, and requested that he provide them with bread. But all that Ahimelech had available was consecrated bread or the bread of the Presence. This was bread that was set out every Sabbath as an offering to God and, according to the book of Leviticus, was only to be eaten by the priests. But on this occasion, Ahimelech made an exception and gave the bread to David and his men.

This story, which would have been very familiar to the Pharisees, must have caught them off guard. It must have also infuriated them that Jesus was comparing He and His disciples to David and his men. After all, David had been the greatest King Israel ever had. Who was Jesus to place Himself on the same level as the one whom God had deemed “a man after his own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14 ESV)?

And Jesus made it clear that David and his men were in violation of the Sabbath law when they had taken the bread and eaten it.

“…it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests?” – Matthew 12:4 ESV

David was the God-appointed and prophet-anointed king of Israel. He had been deemed by God to be Saul’s replacement, but the leadership of Israel had rejected him. David was the rightful ruler of Israel but had been relegated to living as a fugitive and an outcast. His followers were left to beg for assistance from the priest of God, who willingly broke with the accepted religious protocol in order to satisfy their hunger.

But the Pharisees were not about to bend the rules or make any concessions to Jesus and His followers. They were looking for any and every opportunity to expose Jesus as a Sabbath-breaker and serial violator of the law.

Next, Jesus used the priests themselves as examples of those who violate God’s law in order to keep it. In order to fulfill God’s commands concerning the Sabbath sacrifices, the priests must do work.

“‘On the Sabbath day, you must offer two unblemished lambs a year old, and two-tenths of an ephah of finely ground flour as a grain offering, mixed with olive oil, along with its drink offering. This is the burnt offering for every Sabbath, besides the continual burnt offering and its drink offering.’” – Numbers 28:9-10 NET

And Jesus pointed out this seeming discrepancy.

“…on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless?” – Matthew 12:5 ESV

In keeping one command of God, they appear to in violation of another. But they were doing exactly what God had instructed them to do. God had the authority to deem the priests as guiltless when it came to violating the Sabbath because they were obeying His commands.

And then, Jesus makes an intriguing observation that must have left the Pharisees shocked and appalled.

“I tell you, something greater than the temple is here.” – Matthew 12:6 ESV

With this shift from discussing law-keeping to the temple, Jesus was indicating that the temple or house of God operated under a different set of standards. In the temple, the priests were allowed to do things that, for others, would be restricted and in violation of God’s law. The temple provided the priests who worked within it with a dispensation of grace. It allowed them to operate in seeming violation of God’s law while actually fulfilling His divine commands.

And Jesus announced that He was greater than the temple. As the Son of God, He operated under a divine mandate that granted He and His followers with authority to accomplish God’s will with immunity and impunity. That is why Jesus had no qualms about healing on the Sabbath, which He did regularly and, it seems, deliberately.

Jesus accused the Pharisees of having “condemned the guiltless” (Matthew 12:7 ESV) because they failed to understand His divine nature and God-appointed mission. The temple was where God had promised to dwell with and appear to His people. But now, in Jesus, God had come to dwell among men. The glory of God was no longer restricted to the Holy of Holies but had left the recesses of the temple and entered into the daily lives of the people. Jesus deemed Himself to be the Son of Man and “the Lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:8 ESV). And, as such, He had the authority to grant special dispensations to His followers. They could pick grain on the Sabbath. They could even heal and cast out demons on the Sabbath. Why? Because, in doing so, they would be doing the will of God.

Jesus accused the Pharisees of being ignorant of the very will of God as expressed in their own Scriptures. He paraphrased the words of God found in the writings of the prophet Hosea.

“For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
    the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” – Hosea 6:6 ESV

The Pharisees were all about law-keeping. They cared nothing for Jesus or His disciples. In their minds, adherence to the law had taken precedence and priority over people. Obeying the commands of God had become more important than knowing God Himself. And their obsession with rules had prevented them from recognizing the Son of God standing in their midst. They loved their laws more than they loved God. And they loved their status as the religious elite more than they loved God’s people. But law-keeping without love is worthless. And elevating the Sabbath over the Lord of the Sabbath makes an idol out of the Sabbath.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Love of God

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. – Matthew 5:43-48 ESV

Jesus has just finished addressing His listeners’ wrong perspective regarding the “law of retaliation” or lex talionis. The law, as they understood it, said “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” In other words, it gave permission to seek retaliation against an enemy as long as it was equal in weight. But Jesus gave them a whole new interpretation of that law, saying, “Do not resist the one who is evil” (Matthew 5:39 ESV). And He follows up His counsel to turn the other cheek and go the extra mile with something even more shocking. He tells them to love their enemies and to pray for those who persecute them. Jesus is attempting to move their emphasis off of retaliation and on to love and reconciliation. But not just toward their friends and neighbors.

Once again, Jesus clarifies what was a wrong perception on their part regarding the law of God. And it is essential that we know what the law actually said. The specific law regarding love of your neighbor is found in the book of Leviticus.

“You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” – Leviticus 19:18-19 ESV

Notice that there is no mention of hating your enemy in this passage. And also notice that the law forbade hatred for a brother and clarified that hatred emanated from the heart. Hatred wasn’t necessarily a visible action but was most certainly an inward attitude, and its source was the heart. Yet the Jews had somehow taken this law and added to it an addendum that prescribed hatred for their enemies. Where the law was silent, they gave it a voice and one that was loudly and vociferously hateful to all those who didn’t meet their definition of neighbor. Because, as far as they could tell, the law only required them to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

In their simplistic way of looking at things, they believed this law taught that love has its limits. The kind of love it demanded was reserved for neighbors, not enemies.  Enemies are unworthy of our love. But as He has done so many times already in this message, Jesus dismantles their false arguments and replaces it with the reality of what God was demanding when He gave this law. Jesus was trying to get them to understand that godly love knows no bounds. The law of God provided no place for partiality or personal preferences regarding who your neighbor might be.

This passage brings to mind a story that Jesus would later tell to an expert in the religious laws of the Jews. Luke records it for us in his gospel.

One day an expert in religious law stood up to test Jesus by asking him this question: “Teacher, what should I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus replied, “What does the law of Moses say? How do you read it?”

The man answered, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.’ And, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“Right!” Jesus told him. “Do this and you will live!”

The man wanted to justify his actions, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor? – Luke 10:25-29 NLT

The man’s question to Jesus had to do with eternal life. More specifically, he was asking Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. He was wanting Jesus to tell him what actions he must take to be approved by God. And, as Jesus was so often prone to do, He answered the man’s question with a question. He asked the expert in religious law what he thought the law of Moses actually taught. And the man answered by quoting from part of the Shema, the morning and evening prayer recited by all faithful Jews.

“‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.’ And, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”  – Luke 10:27 ESV

And while Jesus affirmed that the man’s answer was correct, He also told him that it would require living it out in real life. So the man asked Jesus the next logical question, “And who is my neighbor?” What do you think this expert in the religious laws of the Jews expected Jesus to say? He was looking for Jesus to agree with his understanding of the word, “neighbor”. But instead of answering the man’s question, Jesus tells him a story.

A Jewish man was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. On his way, he was attacked by robbers and left for dead. In the course of the day, three men will see him lying on the roadside. A Jewish priest came by but crossed to the other side of the road. Next, a temple assistant, another Jews, saw the man, stopped to look at him, but left him there. Finally, a Samaritan, a non-Jew, saw the man and stopped to offer him aid. Not only that, he paid to provide for the man’s ongoing care until he could get back on his feet.

After telling His story, Jesus asked the expert in the law, “Now which of these three would you say was a neighbor to the man who was attacked by bandits?” (Luke 10:36 NLT). And the man responded, “The one who showed him mercy.” And, once again, Jesus affirmed that the man had answered correctly, but told him, “now go and do the same.”

What makes Jesus’ story so compelling is it presents a Samaritan as the hero. Samaritans and Jews hated one another. Samaritans were considered half-breeds by the Jews. They were the descendants of Jews who had been left behind when the Babylonians had conquered Judah and taken tens of thousands in captivity in Babylon. Many of those who were left intermarried with the pagan nations. The Samaritans were looked down on by the Jews and were often referred to as dogs. They were enemies of the Jews. But in Jesus’ story, it was the Samaritan who showed mercy and love to a Jew. He treated him as he would a neighbor or fellow Samaritan. But the two Jews in the story refused to do anything to assist their fellow Jew.

So what does this story have to do with what Jesus had to say that day on the hillside in Galilee? In essence, Jesus was telling the Jews in His audience that they don’t get to choose who they love and hate. He was presenting a new paradigm, a new way of life, in which those who are approved by God will love in the same manner and with the same intensity as they had been loved by God. And the apostle Paul reminds us of just how great God’s love really is:

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

And he tells us we are to imitate God, following the example of love He provided through His Son’s sacrificial death on the cross.

Imitate God, therefore, in everything you do, because you are his dear children. Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ. He loved us and offered himself as a sacrifice for us, a pleasing aroma to God. – Ephesians 5:1-2 NLT

And Jesus takes this kind of love one step further, encouraging his listeners to pray for those who might persecute them. The natural human response would be to curse them and ask God to bring down hurt and heartache on them. But Jesus says,  don’t curse them, don’t wish ill on them and don’t seek revenge against them. And Paul would pick up on Jesus’ strange-sounding counsel, telling the believers living in pagan Rome:

Bless those who persecute you. Don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them. – Romans 12:14 NLT

Peter would also echo the words of Jesus:

Don’t repay evil for evil. Don’t retaliate with insults when people insult you. Instead, pay them back with a blessing. That is what God has called you to do, and he will bless you for it. – 1 Peter 3:9 NLT

It would be natural to ask Jesus, “Why?” What purpose is there in loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us? What possible good could come out of living and loving like that? And Jesus gives us the answer.

…so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven… – vs 45

This takes us back to verse 9: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” 

Those who are blessed or approved by God will emulate Him. They will reflect His character. They will love like He loves. God is indiscriminate is His goodness, “For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike” (Matthew 5:45 NLT). He shows His love even to those who hate Him. He bestows His blessings on those who curse Him. He sent His Son to die for all who had rebelled against Him. Jesus Himself, while hanging on the cross, was able to pray, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34 NLT). And while He prayed that prayer, the Roman soldiers who nailed His hands and feet to the cross gambled over His clothes right beneath Him.

The love Jesus came to reveal was not a reciprocal kind of love. To love those who love you is an insufficient, earthly love. It is a selfish, what’s-in-it-for-me kind of love. But Jesus would later say, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13 NLT). And Paul would clarify that even our friends are undeserving of the kind of love to which Jesus is referring.

When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. Romans 5:6-8 NLT

Jesus is calling for a love that emulates the love of God Himself. It is a selfless kind of love. It is a non-discriminatory kind of love. It is not based on the loveliness or lovableness of the other person. We are called to love as we have been loved by God. And our love is not to be reciprocal in nature, but redemptive. Our goal is restoration and reconciliation, not so much with us, but between our enemy and 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

Not What God Intended

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Failure to Love

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.” – Matthew 5:21-26 ESV

Jesus has just finished saying, “Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:19 ESV). This was a direct reference to Pharisees and other religious leaders who were guilty of playing fast and loose with the Law. Jesus would make a habit of referring to these individuals as hypocrites, accusing them of putting their own man-made laws ahead of God’s commands. They would find ways to create loopholes regarding the Law by making their own set of counter-commands that allowed them to claim strict obedience while actually ignoring God’s commands altogether. So, Jesus puts a kibosh on their little scheme by revealing that adherence to God’s Law was not open to interpretation or alteration. Not even He, the Son of God, was free to eliminate or amend a single one of God’s commands. In fact, Jesus is about to show that obedience to the Law requires far more than external adherence. Keeping the letter of the law was not enough. It wasn’t so much about rule-keeping as it was about the condition of the heart.

One of the phrases you will see Jesus repeatedly use in this section of his sermon is, “You have heard that it was said.” Each time Jesus says it, He will juxtapose it with the words, “But I say.”  Jesus is setting up an important contrast between what His audience believed and what was actually true. He is addressing perception versus reality.

With the “help” of the religious leaders and interpreters of the law, the Jews had become confused concerning which were the commands of God and which were those of men. By stating, “You have heard,” Jesus was claiming that their understanding of the law was skewed and inaccurate. Somewhere along the way, they had missed the whole point. It really wasn’t about legalism and rule-keeping. It was about the condition of the heart. Refraining from doing something did not mean the desire to do so was absent. Righteousness was not a matter of moral restraint, but of an inner conviction of the heart.

For instance, concerning God’s command not to commit murder, Jesus infers that the general perception of the Jews concerning this law was inaccurate and insufficient. God’s prohibition against the taking of life was really about the problem of hatred, and hatred was a problem of the heart. In fact, Jesus is getting to the heart of the issue (excuse the pun). Murder is an expression of hatred or contempt. And just because you manage not to commit murder, doesn’t mean you don’t have the desire to do so in your heart. Later on, in this same Gospel, Matthew records the words of Jesus where He clarifies the true source of murder and why God created a law against it.

“But the words you speak come from the heart—that’s what defiles you. For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander. These are what defile you.” – Matthew 15:18-20 NLT

Jesus spoke these words in response to an accusation leveled against His disciples by the scribes and Pharisees. They had come to Jesus in a huff, wondering why the disciples failed to wash their hands before they ate. This was just one of the many man-made laws they had created and had deemed of equal importance to the rest of God’s commands. They were obsessed with outward purity and were accusing the disciples of eating with impure, defiled hands. And Jesus had some very strong words for these men:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.” – Matthew 23:25 ESV

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” – Matthew 23:27-28 ESV

God is concerned about the condition of the heart. That is why Jesus makes the argument that it is not only those who commit physical murder who are guilty and worthy of judgment but those who hate.

But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” – Matthew 5:22 ESV

Whoever insults his brother or, out of hatred, calls him a fool, is just as guilty as a murderer. Jesus knew the heart of man. He was well aware of the pride that welled up in the hearts of those who could claim to have kept God’s law because they had never committed murder. But Jesus gives them the bad news that, in God’s eyes, their hatred was just as condemning. 

Most Bible translations label the topic of this section of Jesus’ sermon as “Murder.” But what Jesus is really talking about is love or the lack of it. Most of us have kept God’s command not to murder, but every one of us is guilty of having hated another human being. You see, our perception is that murder is forbidden, and everyone who commits murder will be judged. But Jesus presents a much different reality. Hatred is forbidden, and anyone who hates his brother is just as guilty before God as if they had murdered him.

God’s ultimate desire for us is not that we simply refrain from murder, but that we replace our hatred with love.  Animosity and hatred were rife within the Jewish community, and they saw nothing wrong with it. In fact, they would come before God with their offerings and sacrifices, while harboring hatred for one another. This is why Jesus says, “if you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God” (Matthew 5:23-24 NLT). How can you expect to show love to God by offering sacrifices to Him when you can’t even show love to those around you. The apostle John reveals the absurdity of that mindset.

If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a Christian brother or sister, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love their Christian brothers and sisters. – 1 John 4:20-21 NLT

It is so easy for us to excuse our hatred of another human being. We justify it and rationalize it away while claiming that our hatred is well-deserved. We see our hatred as harmless. But Jesus claims that it devalues the life of another human being in the same way that murder does. It takes away their dignity. It diminishes their worth. We view them as undeserving of our love, all the while forgetting that God sent His Son to die for us “while we were yet sinners” (Romans 5:8). He had every right to hate us, but instead, He showed us love. The apostle Paul reminds us of the amazing reality of that love.

Once you were dead because of your disobedience and your many sins. You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil—the commander of the powers in the unseen world. He is the spirit at work in the hearts of those who refuse to obey God. All of us used to live that way, following the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature. By our very nature we were subject to God’s anger, just like everyone else.

But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!). – Ephesians 2:1-5 NLT

God loves, and so should we. This isn’t about an absence of murder, but the presence of hatred and a lack of love for others. A world devoid of murderers would not necessarily be a place marked by love. A decline in the crime rate does not reflect a change in the hearts of men. It is more likely a result of increased law enforcement. The law can enforce compliance, but cannot change the hearts of men. Consider what Paul wrote concerning his former relationship with God’s law.

I would never have known that coveting is wrong if the law had not said, “You must not covet.” But sin used this command to arouse all kinds of covetous desires within me! – Romans 7:7-8 NLT

Paul could try to refrain from coveting, but his heart would do everything in its power to disobey God’s law. Coveting could not be stopped by a law. It could only be controlled. The law can manage behavior, but it cannot change the motivation behind the behavior. A speed limit sign does not get rid of the desire to speed. It simply controls it by threatening punishment for disobedience. But fear is never the right motivation for obedience. It can force compliance, but it can never change the sinful disposition within.

Jesus came to change the hearts of men and women. He came to do what the law could never have done. Paul tells us the good news of what Jesus later accomplished by His death on the cross.

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

Not only are we capable of refraining from committing murder, but we are also able to love one another. We can even love our enemies. Not in our own human strength, but because of the power of the Holy Spirit within us. We have the capacity to love as God has loved us.

Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love. – 1 John 4:7-8 NLT

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

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

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

The Righteous Wrath of God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They have made me jealous…” – vs. 21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They stirred him to jealousy… – vs. 16

They sacrificed to demon… – vs. 16

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

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

And God makes His damning assessment of His rebellious people.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heart and Soul

13 “And if you will indeed obey my commandments that I command you today, to love the Lord your God, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul, 14 he will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, that you may gather in your grain and your wine and your oil. 15 And he will give grass in your fields for your livestock, and you shall eat and be full. 16 Take care lest your heart be deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods and worship them; 17 then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you, and he will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain, and the land will yield no fruit, and you will perish quickly off the good land that the Lord is giving you.

18 “You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. 19 You shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. 20 You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, 21 that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth. 22 For if you will be careful to do all this commandment that I command you to do, loving the Lord your God, walking in all his ways, and holding fast to him, 23 then the Lord will drive out all these nations before you, and you will dispossess nations greater and mightier than you. 24 Every place on which the sole of your foot treads shall be yours. Your territory shall be from the wilderness to the Lebanon and from the River, the river Euphrates, to the western sea. 25 No one shall be able to stand against you. The Lord your God will lay the fear of you and the dread of you on all the land that you shall tread, as he promised you. – Deuteronomy 11:13-25 ESV

Moses continues to make this a matter of the heart. While he has repeatedly addressed the need for the Israelites to obey God and he does so again in this section of his address, he will not allow them to practice a form of obedience that is mere form and function, yet devoid of faith and love.

Moses provides them with a conditional clause, designed to drive home the non-negotiable role of love in their relationship with God. In the New English Translation, verse 13 reads this way:

“…if you pay close attention to my commandments that I am giving you today and love the Lord your God and serve him with all your mind and being…”

Notice the two parts to this conditional clause. First, Moses calls them to “pay close attention” to the commandments of God. The Hebrew word Moses used is shama`, and it is most often translated as “hear,” but it carries the idea of obedience. They were to listen carefully to all the commands that Moses had shared with them but, more importantly, they were to hear and obey.

But Moses ties their hearing and obeying to a second non-negotiable expectation. Their obedience was to be accompanied by a love for God that manifested itself in service to Him. In other words, the proof of their obedience would be willing service to God that flowed from the heart. And that service would influence their entire character, including their “mind and being.”

The English Standard Version renders those two words as “heart and soul.” The first is from the Hebrew word, lebab, and it has to do with the inner man. It was believed to be the seat of the senses, affections, and emotions of the mind. The Hebrew word, nephesh, which the ESV translates as “soul,” had to do with man’s essence. According to the NET Bible study notes, “Old Testament anthropology equated the ‘soul’ with the person himself.” The soul represented man’s being or very existence. A soul-less man would be a lifeless man.

Moses is calling the people to obey the commands of God, but to do so out of love for God. That love was was to permeate their whole persona –  heart and soul, mind and being. And this is not the first time Moses had issued this call. Chapter six provides an earlier, yet no less emphatic version of this very same message.

“You must love the Lord your God with your whole mind, your whole being, and all your strength.” – Deuteronomy 6:5 NET

The ESV reads, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”

Moses was calling for complete and total commitment to God. They were to put every fiber of their being into their relationship with God. And, if they did, there would be very positive consequences. Remember, Moses used a conditional clause, an if-then statement, to drive home his call to love and obey. He told them that “if” they would obey, love, and serve God with all their heart, soul, and strength, “then” God would reward them with His unparalleled blessings.

“…then he will send the rains in their proper seasons—the early and late rains… – vs. 14 (NLT)

He will give you lush pastureland for your livestock, and you yourselves will have all you want to eat.” – vs. 15 (NLT)

There would be tangible benefits to their loving obedience to God. The covenant between God and Israel was conditional. It was going to require their unwavering allegiance and heartfelt obedience to His will for them. They were not free to live in the land of promise according to their own terms. God had set them apart as His own, and He fully expected them to live accordingly. And Moses made it painfully clear what would happen if they didn’t.

“…then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you, and he will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain, and the land will yield no fruit, and you will perish quickly off the good land that the Lord is giving you.” – Deuteronomy 11:17 ESV

Remember, the covenant was conditional. If they obeyed, they would experience God’s blessings. But if not, the outcome would be dramatically different:. No rain. No fruit. No future in the land. And this negative outcome would all begin with their unfaithfulness to God. “Take care lest your heart be deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods and worship them…” (Deuteronomy 11:16 ESV).

Again, notice the emphasis on the heart. The heart would be the primary point of failure. If they truly loved God with all their heart, soul, and strength, there would be little risk of them being deceived. But half-hearted love for God and a partial commitment to His will leaves plenty of room for unfaithfulness. The enemy always attacks at the greatest point of weakness. And anyone whose heart is not fully committed to God will find himself an easy target for temptation. Which is why James wrote:

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

If our relationship with God is based solely on rule-keeping, it won’t be long before we find ourselves resenting all the restrictive regulations He has placed upon us. That’s why an understanding of His love for us is so crucial if we are going to obey Him with all our heart, soul, and strength. Legalism is the byproduct of a loveless relationship with God. As we begin to question His love for us, our love for Him diminishes, and the result is loveless, lifeless rule-keeping. The heart is not in it. Obedience without the heart is legalism. And heartless legalism will ultimately lead to spiritual infidelity.

Moses knew that the people of Israel faced a real danger of falling away from God. He had seen it before, and he was anxious to prevent them from making the same mistake their forefathers had made. So, he provided them with a stern, but loving warning:

“So commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these words of mine. Tie them to your hands and wear them on your forehead as reminders. Teach them to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates…” – Deuteronomy 11:18-20 NLT

He called them to an all-out, no-holds-barred commitment to keeping the commands he had shared with them. This was to be a community-wide affair, where every man, woman, and child was educated in the ways of God. The entire nation of Israel was to commit itself to God, with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength.

“Be careful to obey all these commands I am giving you. Show love to the Lord your God by walking in his ways and holding tightly to him.” – Deuteronomy 11:22 NLT

They were to prove their love for God by faithfully keeping the commands of God. And if they did, then God would bless them.

Then the Lord will drive out all the nations ahead of you… – vs. 23 (NLT)

Wherever you set foot, that land will be yours. – vs 24 (NLT)

Your frontiers will stretch from the wilderness in the south to Lebanon in the north, and from the Euphrates River in the east to the Mediterranean Sea in the west. – vs. 24 (NLT)

No one will be able to stand against you… – vs. 25 (NLT)

God would do His part. But He required that they live in obedience to His will. Yet, God was not demanding legalistic adherence to a set of religious rules and standards. He was calling on His chosen people to respond in loving submission to His will because of His unwavering love and care for them. He wanted their obedience to be based on a trust in His faithfulness, not simply a fear of His anger. He wanted them to obey, not because they hoped He would bless them, but because He already had blessed 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

 

 

 

Obedience Brings Blessing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

The Great, Mighty, and Awesome God

12 “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to keep the commandments and statutes of the Lord, which I am commanding you today for your good? 14 Behold, to the Lord your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it. 15 Yet the Lord set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day. 16 Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn. 17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. 18 He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. 19 Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. 20 You shall fear the Lord your God. You shall serve him and hold fast to him, and by his name you shall swear. 21 He is your praise. He is your God, who has done for you these great and terrifying things that your eyes have seen. 22 Your fathers went down to Egypt seventy persons, and now the Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars of heaven. – Deuteronomy 10:12-22 ESV

Moses has more than established Israel’s unrighteousness and God’s holiness. They were undeserving of their status as His chosen people. And he has proven it by citing well-documented examples of their stubbornness toward and rebellion against God. Yet, in spite of their serial unfaithfulness, God had displayed amazing patience and unwavering faithfulness.

Now, as the people of Israel prepared to enter the land of Canaan, Moses attempts to provide them with some context. They were fortunate to be where they were. Their very existence as a nation had been up to God, not them. Like the creation itself, God had formed them out of nothing. He had chosen a man named Abram and had promised to make of him a great nation, a people to whom God would give the entire land of Canaan as their inheritance. From that one man, who wasn’t even a Jew, God created the Hebrew nation and, as Moses reminds them, “Your fathers went down to Egypt seventy persons, and now the Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars of heaven” (Deuteronomy 10:22 ESV).

This detail is confirmed in the book of Exodus, where Moses recorded the arrival in Egypt of Jacob (Israel) and his family.

These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin, Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. All the descendants of Jacob were seventy persons. – Exodus 1:1-4 ESV

More than 400 years earlier, the small and insignificant family of Jacob (Israel), had made their way to Egypt in order to escape a devastating famine in the land of Canaan. But by the time they left Egypt four centuries later, they would be a massive nation that numbered in the millions. And this was the fulfillment of the promise God had made to Abraham.

And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness. – Genesis 15:5-6 ESV

Now, the nation of Israel was about to enter the land of Canaan, and, this time, there was no famine. It was a country flowing in milk and honey, rich in produce, and filled with well-fortified cities and furnished home that would soon belong to the people of Israel. God was about to bless the people of Israel, not because of them, but in spite of them. And, with this amazing fact in mind, Moses asked them a sobering question:

“And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you…?” – Deuteronomy 10:12 ESV

In light of the fact that they were about to re-enter the land their forefathers had left four centuries earlier and reap a harvest of blessings they didn’t even deserve, what should their reaction be? What was it that God expected in return for His undeserved blessings? Moses provided a clear and non-debatable answer:

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

God expected full-blown and unwavering allegiance from His people. First of all, they were to have a healthy and well-deserved fear of Him. He was holy and all-powerful, and they were well-documented sinners who fully deserved His righteous wrath, but had been shown mercy and grace.

They were to “walk” or conduct their lives according to His ways and not their own. They were to live by His rules in every area of their lives, refusing to compromise their convictions by following the ways of the Canaanites.

And their love for God was to be evidenced by tangible and visible displays of service and obedience. God wasn’t going to be satisfied with robotic-like rule-keeping. He wanted obedience that flowed from the heart and soul and was a byproduct of their love and affection for Him. He desired that they keep His commands because they loved and trusted the giver of the commands.

And, just in case they had missed the point in all that he had said to them, Moses reminded them one more time of the unique privilege they enjoyed as God’s chosen people.

“Look, the highest heavens and the earth and everything in it all belong to the Lord your God. Yet the Lord chose your ancestors as the objects of his love. And he chose you, their descendants, above all other nations, as is evident today. Therefore, change your hearts and stop being stubborn.” – Deuteronomy 10:14-16 NLT

Again, notice the emphasis on the heart. Their problem was not an ignorance of God’s laws. They knew them well. They were suffering from a heart problem. And it would prove to be a long-term, hereditary ailment that plagued the nation of Israel for generations. Hundreds of years later, God would indict them for their heart-less worship of Him.

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

And centuries after that, Jesus would use this very same passage to call out the Jewish people of His own day.

“You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote, ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.’” – Matthew 15:7-9 NLT

God demanded heartfelt obedience, not ritualistic, and legalistic adherence to a set of rules. And Moses reminded the Israelites that their God wasn’t going to allow them to simply go through the motions.

“For the Lord your God is the God of gods and Lord of lords. He is the great God, the mighty and awesome God, who shows no partiality and cannot be bribed.” – Deuteronomy 10:17 NLT

They weren’t going to be able to fool God with their outer displays of conformity to His laws. He could see into their hearts, and He would know whether they were acting out of love or legalism. Their actions, if from the heart, would display the character of God, including His love of justice and mercy.

He ensures that orphans and widows receive justice. He shows love to the foreigners living among you and gives them food and clothing. – Deuteronomy 10:18 NLT

One of the ways they could prove their love for God was through acts of love and mercy to the needy and neglected in their midst. When they had been without food and water in the wilderness, God had provided for them. God had prevented their clothes and sandals from wearing out. He had protected and provided for them for more than four decades. And now, they were to extend that same level of love, justice, and mercy to others.

Hundreds of years later, the prophet Micah would document this divine expectation on the people of God.

He has shown you, O mankind, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you but to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God? – Micah 6:8 BSB

God expects His people to love as they have been loved. He demands that they extend to others the same level of grace, mercy, justice, and love that they have received from Him. And, as Moses made clear, God also expected that His people remain committed to Him and Him alone.

“You must fear the Lord your God and worship him and cling to him…He alone is your God, the only one who is worthy of your praise.” – Deuteronomy 10:20, 21 NLT

He is great, mighty, and awesome. He is loving, gracious, and kind. He is just, holy, and righteous. And He longs for His chosen people to reflect His character in all that they do.

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

 

 

 

Love, Bless, and Multiply

It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, 10 and repays to their face those who hate him, by destroying them. He will not be slack with one who hates him. He will repay him to his face. 11 You shall therefore be careful to do the commandment and the statutes and the rules that I command you today.

12 “And because you listen to these rules and keep and do them, the Lord your God will keep with you the covenant and the steadfast love that he swore to your fathers. 13 He will love you, bless you, and multiply you. He will also bless the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, your grain and your wine and your oil, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock, in the land that he swore to your fathers to give you. 14 You shall be blessed above all peoples. There shall not be male or female barren among you or among your livestock. 15 And the Lord will take away from you all sickness, and none of the evil diseases of Egypt, which you knew, will he inflict on you, but he will lay them on all who hate you. 16 And you shall consume all the peoples that the Lord your God will give over to you. Your eye shall not pity them, neither shall you serve their gods, for that would be a snare to you.– Deuteronomy 7:7-16 ESV

Moses desperately desired that the people of Israel come to understand just how much God loved them. And this radical, unfathomable love was totally undeserved. They had done nothing to earn the favor of God and, yet, He had chosen them as His own. It had not been their spiritual superiority or strength and size as a nation that had caused  God to single them out and shower them with His love and attention. No, according to Moses, they had been “the smallest of all nations!” (Deuteronomy 7:7 NLT). In fact, when God called Abram, they had not even existed as a nation. They had come into being because of the love, mercy, and will of God. They existed because God had promised Abraham, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation…” (Genesis 12:1-2 ESV).

And God had kept that promise to Abraham.  The book of Genesis records the fateful day when the family of Jacob (Israel) sought to escape a famine in Canaan by seeking refuge in Egypt where Jacob’s son, Joseph, had become the second-highest-ranking official in the land.

The total number of Jacob’s direct descendants who went with him to Egypt, not counting his sons’ wives, was sixty-six. In addition, Joseph had two sons who were born in Egypt. So altogether, there were seventy members of Jacob’s family in the land of Egypt. – Genesis 46:26-27 NLT

But by the time the people of Israel were delivered from Egypt some 400 years later, God had transformed that family of less than 100 into a massive nation that numbered in the millions. We know from Exodus 12:37, that when the people began their journey from Egypt to the land of promise, that “There were about 600,000 men, plus all the women and children.” This would have been able-bodied men of adult age and qualified to fight in the army. So, if you factor in young men, women, and children, the number of Israelites who left Egypt could have been as high as 2.4 million people. God had clearly kept His promise to Abraham. And Moses drove home that point.

“…it was simply that the Lord loves you, and he was keeping the oath he had sworn to your ancestors. That is why the Lord rescued you with such a strong hand from your slavery and from the oppressive hand of Pharaoh, king of Egypt.” – Deuteronomy 7:8 NLT

God hadn’t just rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt, He had transformed them into one of the largest people groups in that corner of the world. It was because of their sheer numbers that Pharaoh had begun to persecute and enslave them.

Eventually, a new king came to power in Egypt who knew nothing about Joseph or what he had done. He said to his people, “Look, the people of Israel now outnumber us and are stronger than we are. We must make a plan to keep them from growing even more. If we don’t, and if war breaks out, they will join our enemies and fight against us. Then they will escape from the country.”

So the Egyptians made the Israelites their slaves. – Exodus 1:8-11 NLT

But God had thwarted the plans of Pharaoh, by miraculously delivering the people of Israel from their bondage and leading them all the way to the land of promise. And Moses wanted the people to fully comprehend the amazing nature of their very existence and the unbelievable reality of God’s love for them.

“Understand, therefore, that the Lord your God is indeed God. He is the faithful God who keeps his covenant for a thousand generations and lavishes his unfailing love on those who love him and obey his commands.” – Deuteronomy 7:9 NLT

They were not to take God’s love lightly. It was essential that they not assume they had somehow earned His love and merited His favorable treatment of them. God’s love for them was an expression of His faithfulness. He had kept the promise He had made to Abraham, and all that He had done for the people of Israel up until that point was God being God. God is love and, by keeping His covenant, He was displaying His loving nature to not only the Israelites, but the rest of the world.

But while God is love, He is also righteous, holy, and just. And, because He is faithful, He takes covenant-making seriously. He keeps His covenants, and He fully expects those who covenant with Him to do the same. That included Israel.

So, back at Mount Sinai, when God had given His commandments to the people of Israel, He had told them:

“Now if you will obey me and keep my covenant, you will be my own special treasure from among all the peoples on earth; for all the earth belongs to me. And you will be my kingdom of priests, my holy nation.’ This is the message you must give to the people of Israel.” – Exodus 19:5-6 NLT

And when Moses had delivered God’s message to the people, they had responded:

“We will do everything the LORD has commanded.” – Exodus 19:8 NLT

They had agreed to keep the covenant God had made with them. And now, more than 40 years later, Moses was reminding them that God still expected them to keep that commitment. And he warned them that failure to do so would be catastrophic.

“…he does not hesitate to punish and destroy those who reject him. Therefore, you must obey all these commands, decrees, and regulations I am giving you today.” – Deuteronomy 7:10-11 NLT

The covenant God had made with Israel was conditional in nature. In other words, if they wanted to enjoy God’s continued blessings, they were going to have to keep their end of the agreement. They had promised to do everything God had commanded and He was going to hold them to their word. And if they did, He would bless them. In fact, Moses told them, “You will be blessed above all the nations of the earth” (Deuteronomy 7:14 NLT).

And the blessings of God would manifest themselves in tangible and practical ways. They would be prolific, continuing to grow in number as they enjoyed God’s blessing of fertility. Even their flocks and herds would multiply under God’s loving hand. Barrenness would be non-existent and sickness would be virtually eliminated. None of the plagues they witnessed in Egypt would ever afflct them. God would protect and preserve them. But when it came to the occupants of the land of Canaan, God expected the Israelites to destroy them all, removing every single one of their false gods as they did so. God had set apart Israel as His own. He had deemed them to be holy. And He had set apart the land of Canaan as well. It was His land now and His people were to treat it with honor and reverence. Just as God would not tolerate unholiness among His people, they were not to tolerate the presence of unholiness in His land.

Just a few chapters later, Moses will clarify for the people of Israel why God expected them to remove all the nations from the land of Canaan.

“…it is because of the wickedness of the other nations that he is pushing them out of your way. It is not because you are so good or have such integrity that you are about to occupy their land. The LORD your God will drive these nations out ahead of you only because of their wickedness.” – Deuteronomy 9:4-5 NLT

And Moses will go on to drop a bombshell on the people of Israel, brutally informing them, “God is not giving you this good land because you are good, for you are not—you are a stubborn people” (Deuteronomy 9:6 NLT).

The whole reason God wanted the land cleared of all the wicked who occupied it was because He knew that the presence of wickedness in the land would cause His chosen people to become unfaithful. Which is why Moses told them, “You must destroy all the nations the Lord your God hands over to you. Show them no mercy, and do not worship their gods, or they will trap you” (Deuteronomy 7:16 NLT).

God wanted to love, bless, and multiply His chosen people. But they were going to have to remain faithful to Him. He would not tolerate their disobedience of His law or their failure to keep the covenant they had made with Him. He was loving, but He was also holy, just, and righteous. He had proven His love for them. Now, He was demanding that they respond in loving obedience to Him.

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