Truly Blessed

And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then Moses wrote this law and gave it to the priests, the sons of Levi, who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and to all the elders of Israel. 10 And Moses commanded them, “At the end of every seven years, at the set time in the year of release, at the Feast of Booths, 11 when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God at the place that he will choose, you shall read this law before all Israel in their hearing. 12 Assemble the people, men, women, and little ones, and the sojourner within your towns, that they may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God, and be careful to do all the words of this law, 13 and that their children, who have not known it, may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God, as long as you live in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess.” Deuteronomy 31:9-13 ESV

Moses is about to commission Joshua as his official replacement. But before he conducts that auspicious ceremony where he will turn over the leadership of the people of Israel to his successor, Moses called together two other groups of God-appointed leaders. One was the priests, who were all members of the tribe of Levi. God’s appointment them as priests is recorded in the book of Numbers.

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Bring the tribe of Levi near, and set them before Aaron the priest, that they may minister to him. They shall keep guard over him and over the whole congregation before the tent of meeting, as they minister at the tabernacle. They shall guard all the furnishings of the tent of meeting, and keep guard over the people of Israel as they minister at the tabernacle. And you shall give the Levites to Aaron and his sons; they are wholly given to him from among the people of Israel. And you shall appoint Aaron and his sons, and they shall guard their priesthood. But if any outsider comes near, he shall be put to death.” – Numbers 3:5-10 ESV

The tribe of Levi had been set apart by God as substitutes for the firstborn sons of Israel. As a result of His sparing of all the firstborn male Israelites during the final plague in Egypt, God had claimed them as His own. They were to be dedicated to Him. But He later appointed the Levites to serve in this role. They would be the tribe from which the priestly order would come – the men who would serve in the tabernacle and offer sacrifices to God on behalf of the people. So, these men played an important role in the lives of the Israelites.

The second group of leaders Moses called upon was comprised of the elders of Israel. Back during the days when Israel was making their way from Egypt to the land of Canaan, Moses had become overwhelmed by the weight of his leadership responsibilities. So, God had provided him with a solution.

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Gather for me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them, and bring them to the tent of meeting, and let them take their stand there with you. And I will come down and talk with you there. And I will take some of the Spirit that is on you and put it on them, and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, so that you may not bear it yourself alone. – Numbers 11:16-17 ESV

The nation of Israel had grown too large for one man to lead them effectively. So, God provided Moses with a system for delegating authority among a group of well-qualified men. Their job was to come alongside Moses and to help him bear the burden of the people. And as Moses, prepared to turn over leadership to Joshua, he wanted the sons of Levi who served as priests and the elders of Israel to understand that they would play an important role in the future of the nation.

Moses provided them with a copy of the law and with instructions to guard and protect it. This document was going to be vital to the nation’s spiritual well-being. It would be the key to Israel experiencing the blessings of God. And Moses instructed these men to set aside a day every seventh (sabbatical) year on which they would call for a national assembly and read the law in the hearing of the people.

“At the end of every seventh year, the Year of Release, during the Festival of Shelters, you must read this Book of Instruction to all the people of Israel when they assemble before the Lord your God at the place he chooses. – Deuteronomy 31:10-11 ESV

It was essential that the people remain well-educated concerning the content of God’s law. Not long after Moses had received the law from God, he had told the people of Israel:

“…you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today. Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up. Tie them to your hands and wear them on your forehead as reminders. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” – Deuteronomy 6:6-9 NLT

And God had given a command concerning the kings who would eventually reign over the nation.

“…when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests. And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them, that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel.” – Deuteronomy 17:18-20 ESV

By commanding the audible recitation of the law every seventh year by the priests and elders of Israel, Moses was ensuring that the people would have a regular reminder of their commitment to the law. Not only that, he tied it to the annual Feast of Booths, which was a commemoration of Israel’s release from captivity. As part of the feast, they constructed temporary “booths” or “tabernacles” meant to remind them of the years their ancestor spent wandering in the wilderness of their way to the land of promise.

The feast was timed to occur immediately after the fall harvest, and it was accompanied by sacrifices, offered in thanksgiving to God for His gracious provision. It was at this joyous occasion that the law was to be read aloud to the entire population of Israel “at the set time in the year of release, at the Feast of Booths” (Deuteronomy 31:10 ESV).

And Moses commanded that this solemn convocation was to include “the people, men, women, and little ones, and the sojourner within your towns, that they may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God, and be careful to do all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 31:12 ESV). No one was to be left out. And an important byproduct of this event was the instruction of their children regarding the law of God. 

“Do this so that your children who have not known these instructions will hear them and will learn to fear the Lord your God.” – Deuteronomy 31:13 NLT

And this reading of the law was to take place every seventh year for as long as the people of Israel lived in the land of Canaan. And since God had promised the land to them as a permanent possession, that means Moses expected the priests and elders to see their commitment to holding this solemn assembly as perpetual and never-ending in nature.

It’s interesting to note that, by spacing this reading of the law at seven-year intervals, there would have been thousands of 7-year-old children attending the festival who had born into the Jewish community during the gap years. These children would have been mature enough to hear the law and understand it. So, if they had not had parents who taught it to them, they would at least hear it for themselves on their 7th birthday and every seventh year after that.

To say that the law was important to God would be a vast understatement. He cared greatly about His law and was adamant that His people know it and obey it. He wanted them to live their lives by it. He demanded that they be committed to it. He wanted the leaders of His people to be the protectors and disseminators of it – for generations to come. And this law was not just a list of rules to keep. It was written documentation of the commitment the people of Israel had made. They had promised to keep all the commandments of God, and He was not going to allow them to forget the nature of that commitment.

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 Secret Things of God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Bad to Worse

25 “The Lord will cause you to be defeated before your enemies. You shall go out one way against them and flee seven ways before them. And you shall be a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth. 26 And your dead body shall be food for all birds of the air and for the beasts of the earth, and there shall be no one to frighten them away. 27 The Lord will strike you with the boils of Egypt, and with tumors and scabs and itch, of which you cannot be healed. 28 The Lord will strike you with madness and blindness and confusion of mind, 29 and you shall grope at noonday, as the blind grope in darkness, and you shall not prosper in your ways. And you shall be only oppressed and robbed continually, and there shall be no one to help you. 30 You shall betroth a wife, but another man shall ravish her. You shall build a house, but you shall not dwell in it. You shall plant a vineyard, but you shall not enjoy its fruit. 31 Your ox shall be slaughtered before your eyes, but you shall not eat any of it. Your donkey shall be seized before your face, but shall not be restored to you. Your sheep shall be given to your enemies, but there shall be no one to help you. 32 Your sons and your daughters shall be given to another people, while your eyes look on and fail with longing for them all day long, but you shall be helpless. 33 A nation that you have not known shall eat up the fruit of your ground and of all your labors, and you shall be only oppressed and crushed continually, 34 so that you are driven mad by the sights that your eyes see. 35 The Lord will strike you on the knees and on the legs with grievous boils of which you cannot be healed, from the sole of your foot to the crown of your head.” Deuteronomy 28:25-35 ESV

Let’s face it, bad things happen. Calamity comes to everyone because it is no respecter of persons. And while God had promised that obedience to His law would bring blessings, He had never said that their lives would be trouble-free, disease-resistant, peace-filled, or painless. There would still be plenty of difficulties because they lived in a fallen world. They would still be required to offer sacrifices because they would continue to sin and need atonement.

So, when Moses discusses the curses that will come upon the people of Israel for what appears to be their stubborn and ongoing disobedience to God’s law, he makes sure they understand that this will be difficulties and trials on steroids. These will not be your everyday, run-of-the-mill troubles that are a normal part of everyday life on this planet. No, they will be extreme, and like nothing they have ever experienced before. There will be no relief or escape. They will feature the worst kind of suffering one can image and then take that suffering one step further.

Look closely at how each curse is described. God was going to personally see to it that Israel lost battles against their enemies. That was nothing new for Israel because they had already been defeated at Ai. But Moses describes a demoralizing rout that has the Israelites scattering in seven different directions in an attempt to save their lives. And the failure of the Israelite army will be so catastrophic that it will leave other nations in terror. The fall of Israel at the hands of their enemy will create a sense of fear among the other nations of the region, as they anticipate their own defeat against the same foe. History records that, eventually, Israel was roundly defeated by the Assyrians and Judah fell to the Babylonians. And both of these nations left a wake of destruction in their path, as they ransacked kingdom after kingdom, sending shockwaves of terror among the nations that remained.

And Moses lets the Israelites know that their defeat will be complete, with no one escaping. Their bodies will lie scattered on the ground and become “food for all birds of the air and for the beasts of the earth” (Deuteronomy 28:26 ESV). No burials or memorials and no one to mourn their deaths. In fact, there will be no one left to scare off the carrion or scavenging dogs. This defeat will not only be demoralizing, but it will also be devasting and irreversible.

Next, Moses reveals that the Israelites will suffer from boils and tumors, just like the ones that God brought upon the Egyptians as part of the ten plagues. God will use the very same diseases that forced the Egyptians to release His people from captivity as a form of punishment for their disobedience. And, once again, Moses takes the suffering a step further, stating that there will be no healing from the pain and itching. These diseases will be permanent and untreatable, with no hope of relief or chance of restoration. And, perhaps as a result of the unrelenting agony caused by the boils and tumors, the people of Israel will suffer from madness, loss of sight, and confusion of mind. Their diminished mental capacity and blindness will leave them incapable of living normal lives, which will result in financial ruin. And, as before, Moses takes his message of doom to another level by warning them, “you shall be only oppressed and robbed continually, and there shall be no one to help you” (Deuteronomy 28:29 ESV). Just when they think it can’t get any worse, it will.

Next, Moses uses a series of short scenarios to further illustrate the devastating consequences of disobedience to God’s law. He begins with a case of betrothal. A man who experiences the joy of finding a woman to whom he becomes engaged will end up watching another man sleep with her. He will never have the privilege of consummating his own marriage. This most likely describes the grim reality of war. This man will have to watch as his betrothed is raped by an enemy soldier. And as if that was not enough, he and his future wife will never know the joy of living in the house he built for them. They will never enjoy the fruit of the vineyard he planted. And the ox he used to till his fields will be slaughtered and eaten by his enemies. His donkeys and sheep will become plunder, and his children will be taken as slaves. But it will get worse. This man will be left longing for his family but will find no one to help him. His loss will be great, and there will be no relief in sight.

All of these things will come upon the Israelites at the hands of a single nation that will leave them “only oppressed and crushed continually” (Deuteronomy 28:33 ESV). God will use this nation to bring about His judgment upon His own people. But it will be their own fault. Their decision to disobey God’s commands will result in their own destruction. And the books of the prophets of God are filled with calls for the people of Israel to repent and return to Him. God will repeatedly issue His compassionate offer of restitution if His people will only repent of their ways. But they won’t, and all that Moses describes in these verses will take place.

These curses are not a form of hyperbole or exaggeration on Moses’ part. They are prophetic pronouncements concerning God’s judgment. So, when Moses says, “the Lord will strike you on the knees and on the legs with grievous boils of which you cannot be healed, from the sole of your foot to the crown of your head” (Deuteronomy 28:35 ESV), he is not issuing idol threats. He means it. And, as before, this warning of grievous boils will be far worse than they can imagine. They will cover the Israelites from head to foot, and they will not respond to any form of treatment or remedy. Repeated disobedience to God’s commands will bring devastating and debilitating consequences that will leave the people of Israel without hope and devoid of help. And Moses is just getting started.

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

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

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

Rules For Life and Death

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Forgetting God

10 “And when the Lord your God brings you into the land that he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you—with great and good cities that you did not build, 11 and houses full of all good things that you did not fill, and cisterns that you did not dig, and vineyards and olive trees that you did not plant—and when you eat and are full, 12 then take care lest you forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 13 It is the Lord your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by his name you shall swear. 14 You shall not go after other gods, the gods of the peoples who are around you— 15 for the Lord your God in your midst is a jealous God—lest the anger of the Lord your God be kindled against you, and he destroy you from off the face of the earth.

16 “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah. 17 You shall diligently keep the commandments of the Lord your God, and his testimonies and his statutes, which he has commanded you. 18 And you shall do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord, that it may go well with you, and that you may go in and take possession of the good land that the Lord swore to give to your fathers 19 by thrusting out all your enemies from before you, as the Lord has promised.” – Deuteronomy 6:10-19 ESV

After nearly a half-century of leading the people of Israel, Moses knew them well. He was painfully familiar with all their character flaws and their predisposition toward sin. You can sense his father-like approach in preparing them for the fast-approaching day of their entrance into the land of promise. And he tried his best to help them understand just what they were about to experience.

As with any significant life event, there was much about the conquering of the land of Canaan that was unknown to the Israelites. While God had repeatedly promised them the land and had assured them that He would go before them, fighting on their behalf against their enemies, they had no idea what any of that was going to look or feel like. And, no doubt, they had all kinds of fears and apprehensions.

So, Moses tried to set their minds at rest by focusing on the good news. He told them about the positive outcome of their crossing over the Jordan and taking possession of the land. Moses fast-forwards and describes “a land with large, prosperous cities that you did not build. The houses will be richly stocked with goods you did not produce. You will draw water from cisterns you did not dig, and you will eat from vineyards and olive trees you did not plant” (Deuteronomy 6:10-11 NLT).

Moses wanted them to know that God was about to bless them in ways they couldn’t even begin to understand. The picture he painted for them was designed to remind them that God was going to meet all their needs, and He was going to do it in spectacular fashion. They were going to find themselves enjoying the comfort and shelter of houses they had not built, located within the walls of cities they had not constructed. They would eat food they had not planted or harvested, from fields and orchards they had not cultivated. There would even slake their thirst by drinking water from cisterns they didn’t have to dig.

It was as if they were going to win the lottery. Almost instantaneously, they would find themselves transformed from a wandering nation of vagabonds and nomadic shepherds, living in tents, to a nation of prosperous land-owners. And it would all be the work of God Almighty. But Moses knew the danger they faced. This virtual overnight metamorphosis could prove to be dangerous if they failed to remember the one who had made it all possible. That’s why Moses warned them, “When you have eaten your fill in this land, be careful not to forget the Lord, who rescued you from slavery in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 6:11-12 NLT).

Moses knew that they were going to be tempted to forget God. Man’s natural tendency is to focus on the gift while neglecting to show gratitude for the one who made the gift possible. He fully realized that the people of Israel faced the very real prospect of becoming fat and happy and, at the same time, forgetful and ungrateful. Their physical prosperity would anesthetize them to the spiritual reality of God and His goodness. Their lack of need would make their dependence upon God unnecessary. When they suddenly found themselves surrounded by an abundance of material things, they would have no need for God. But Moses knew the danger they faced if they allowed God’s blessings to lull them into a sense of contentment and complacency.

So, he reminded them, “You must fear the Lord your God and serve him. When you take an oath, you must use only his name” (Deuteronomy 6:13 NLT).

Their prosperousness could easily lead to forgetfulness. They could find themselves substituting the worship of God with an unhealthy obsession with the blessings of God. The gifts could take precedence over the Giver. And, when that happens, it isn’t long before the forgetfulness of God results in an allure of false gods. Which is why Moses warned them, “You must not worship any of the gods of neighboring nations, for the Lord your God, who lives among you, is a jealous God” (Deuteronomy 6:14-15 NLT).

If they allowed themselves to forget God, the next time they had a need, they would be susceptible to seeking help from any and every other god. Forgetfulness is one of the greatest enemies of faithfulness. Failing to remember all that God has done can easily result in a failure to worship Him for who He is: Our all-powerful provider, protector, and praise-worthy God.

Moses charged the people of Israel to be always mindful of God and faithfully obedient to God. They were not to allow His many blessings to lull themselves into a state of complacency. He was a holy God who demanded obedience to His laws and who would not tolerate unfaithfulness to His covenant. The people of Israel were His chosen possession, and they were to live with that reality in mind. And Moses left nothing to their imaginations, spelling out in black-and-white terms just what they would need to do if they wanted to enjoy the blessings of God and the ongoing benefits of the presence of God.

Do what is right and good in the Lord’s sight, so all will go well with you. Then you will enter and occupy the good land that the Lord swore to give your ancestors. You will drive out all the enemies living in the land, just as the Lord said you would. – Deuteronomy 6:18-19 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

 

 

 

Their Heart Wasn’t In It

22 “These words the Lord spoke to all your assembly at the mountain out of the midst of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness, with a loud voice; and he added no more. And he wrote them on two tablets of stone and gave them to me. 23 And as soon as you heard the voice out of the midst of the darkness, while the mountain was burning with fire, you came near to me, all the heads of your tribes, and your elders. 24 And you said, ‘Behold, the Lord our God has shown us his glory and greatness, and we have heard his voice out of the midst of the fire. This day we have seen God speak with man, and man still live. 25 Now therefore why should we die? For this great fire will consume us. If we hear the voice of the Lord our God any more, we shall die. 26 For who is there of all flesh, that has heard the voice of the living God speaking out of the midst of fire as we have, and has still lived? 27 Go near and hear all that the Lord our God will say, and speak to us all that the Lord our God will speak to you, and we will hear and do it.’

28 “And the Lord heard your words, when you spoke to me. And the Lord said to me, ‘I have heard the words of this people, which they have spoken to you. They are right in all that they have spoken. 29 Oh that they had such a heart as this always, to fear me and to keep all my commandments, that it might go well with them and with their descendants forever! 30 Go and say to them, “Return to your tents.” 31 But you, stand here by me, and I will tell you the whole commandment and the statutes and the rules that you shall teach them, that they may do them in the land that I am giving them to possess.’ 32 You shall be careful therefore to do as the Lord your God has commanded you. You shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left. 33 You shall walk in all the way that the Lord your God has commanded you, that you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land that you shall possess.” – Deuteronomy 5:22-33 ESV

What a spectacular sight that must have been. As the people stood at the base of Mount Sinai, they had seen the peak covered in what appeared to be fire and smoke, and out of the darkness of the cloud had come bolts of lightning and peals of thunder. But they had also heard the unmistakable voice of God Almighty. The book of Exodus tells us that God had told Moses to prepare the people for this amazing encounter. Their invisible God was going to make Himself known.

“Behold, I am coming to you in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with you, and may also believe you forever.” – Exodus 19:9 ESV

God was going to allow the people of Israel to overhear His conversation with Moses. And, while they would not actually see God, they would hear His voice and witness the amazing display of His glory. But the people were not to take this one-of-a-kind opportunity lightly. Moses was commanded by God to have the people prepared because they would be encountering the holiness of God. This was not to be treated like some kind of Fourth of July fireworks spectacular.

“Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments and be ready for the third day. For on the third day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. And you shall set limits for the people all around, saying, ‘Take care not to go up into the mountain or touch the edge of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death. No hand shall touch him, but he shall be stoned or shot; whether beast or man, he shall not live.’ When the trumpet sounds a long blast, they shall come up to the mountain.”  – Exodus 19:10-13 ESV

The people did as Moses instructed them. They came, they saw, and they heard.

All of Mount Sinai was covered with smoke because the Lord had descended on it in the form of fire. The smoke billowed into the sky like smoke from a brick kiln, and the whole mountain shook violently. – Exodus 19:18 NLT

And this remarkable display of God’s glory had its intended effect. The people were blown away by all that they had seen and heard and expressed their amazement to Moses.

“Look, the Lord our God has shown us his glory and greatness, and we have heard his voice from the heart of the fire. Today we have seen that God can speak to us humans, and yet we live!” – Deuteronomy 5:24 NLT

They were amazed and petrified at the same time. Their exposure to the might and majesty of God created within them a fear that bordered on paranoia. They wanted nothing more to do with Him and preferred that Moses do the dirty and obviously dangerous work of receiving any further instructions from God. But they committed themselves to obey whatever it was that God told them to do.

“But now, why should we risk death again? If the Lord our God speaks to us again, we will certainly die and be consumed by this awesome fire. Can any living thing hear the voice of the living God from the heart of the fire as we did and yet survive?  Go yourself and listen to what the Lord our God says. Then come and tell us everything he tells you, and we will listen and obey.” – Deuteronomy 5:25-27 NLT

Once again, the book of Exodus provides us with additional details regarding this historical event. After Moses had returned from the mountaintop, having received all of God’s commands, he had shared them with the people. And this time, the law had expanded beyond the initial Ten Commandments and included a wider range of rules and regulations, covering everything from the proper construction of altars to the treatment of slaves. There were laws concerning restitution and the practice of social justice. God even included commands regarding the feasts and festivals they were to celebrate and rules concerning their keeping of the Sabbath. And when the people heard all that God had commanded, they responded affirmatively.

Then Moses went down to the people and repeated all the instructions and regulations the Lord had given him. All the people answered with one voice, “We will do everything the Lord has commanded.” – Exodus 24:3 NLT

But their enthusiastic commitment to keep God’s commands was driven more by fear than by a heartfelt desire to live in obedience to Him. They had committed to keeping His law because they feared His judgment. But fear alone would prove to be an insufficient motivation to foster long-term obedience. And God saw through their exuberant verbal affirmation.

“I have heard what the people said to you, and they are right. Oh, that they would always have hearts like this, that they might fear me and obey all my commands! If they did, they and their descendants would prosper forever.” – Deuteronomy 5:28-29 NLT

He knew what was going to happen. Eventually, the fire on the mountain would go out, and the smoke would dissipate. The thunder and lightning would fade away like a distant memory, and the fear the people felt would evaporate along with them. God knew that their commitment to obey His commands would be short-lived. And yet, He longed to bless and prosper them.

God had tied His blessing of them directly to their obedience to Him. Later on, in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses would articulate the vital link between blessing and obedience.

If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully keep all his commands that I am giving you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the world. You will experience all these blessings if you obey the Lord your God. – Deuteronomy 28:1-2 NLT

But failure to obey had its consequences. Disobedience would result in curses.

But if you refuse to listen to the Lord your God and do not obey all the commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come and overwhelm you – Deuteronomy 28:15 NLT

God longed to bless His people. But His covenant with them was conditional. He had given them His law and required that it be obeyed. If they wanted to live long and prosper, they had to live in obedience to His commands. This wasn’t just a case of blind obedience to an arbitrary set of rules. Every single command given by God had inherent benefits associated with it because it came from a holy and just God. The laws provided by God were meant to protect and prosper the people of Israel. If obeyed, they would set the people of Israel apart and bestow on them blessings beyond belief. Walking submissively and obediently within the will of God always brings the blessings of God. Living according to His standards and submitting to His will always results in a guarantee of His blessings. Which is why Moses pleaded with the people of Israel to do all that God had commanded them to do.

“You must be careful to obey all the commands of the Lord your God, following his instructions in every detail. Stay on the path that the Lord your God has commanded you to follow. Then you will live long and prosperous lives in the land you are about to enter and occupy. – Deuteronomy 5:32-33 NLT

But God desires obedience from the heart, not a robotic, going-through-the-motions adherence to a set of rules. The law was never intended to be a set of live-sucking regulations that require mindless obedience. God desires obedience that flows from the heart and is motivated by love, not fear.

“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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Laws For Living

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

17 “‘You shall not murder.

18 “‘And you shall not commit adultery.

19 “‘And you shall not steal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Learning to Love the Law

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

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

“‘You shall have no other gods before me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

A God Who Is Near

1 “And now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the rules that I am teaching you, and do them, that you may live, and go in and take possession of the land that the Lord, the God of your fathers, is giving you. You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you. Your eyes have seen what the Lord did at Baal-peor, for the Lord your God destroyed from among you all the men who followed the Baal of Peor. But you who held fast to the Lord your God are all alive today. See, I have taught you statutes and rules, as the Lord my God commanded me, that you should do them in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?– Deuteronomy 4:1-8 ESV

God had just reconfirmed that Moses would not be leading the people of Israel into the land of promise. With his little display of self-aggrandizement in the Wilderness of Zin, Moses had angered God by attempting to steal glory from God. In his anger with the people of Israel, Moses had disobeyed God’s commands and attempted to grandstand before the people, leaving them to believe that it was he who was supplying their need for water. Moses was out to win the respect of the people, when he should have been leading the people to honor, glorify, and revere God.

Yet, in spite of the news that he would not be entering into the promised land along with the rest of the people, Moses didn’t shirk his leadership responsibilities. He continued to perform the task assigned to him by God all those years ago in the land of Midian. While Moses had been caring for his father-in-laws flocks, God had appeared to him in the form of a burning bush, telling him:

“I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. And now, behold, the cry of the people of Israel has come to me, and I have also seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them. Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.” – Exodus 3:7-10 ESV

God was going to deliver the people of Israel from their captivity in Egypt and He was going to use Moses to make it happen. But God’s deliverance of His people would include a deliverance to and not just from something.

“I have observed you and what has been done to you in Egypt, and I promise that I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, a land flowing with milk and honey.” – Exodus 3:16-17 ESV

Now, more than four decades later, the people had arrived at their final destination: The land of promise. And while Moses would be denied the joy and pleasure of leading them into the land, he was going to make sure that were well-informed as to their obligations to God once the arrived in the land.

God had personally given His laws to Moses on the top of Mount Sinai, and Moses had delivered them to the people of Israel. Those laws remained binding upon the people and were intended to regulate their conduct once they arrived in the promised land. They were not suggestions, but were irrevocable laws that required willful obedience on the part of the people. So, Moses wanted to make sure that the new generation of Israelites, who would be the first to enter the land, would know and obey the commands of God.

“…listen carefully to these decrees and regulations that I am about to teach you. Obey them so that you may live, so you may enter and occupy the land that the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you.” – Deuteronomy 4:1 NLT

Moses was taking no chances. He was not going to assume that the parents of these people had been affective in passing on the laws and statutes of God. Moses knew that ignorance of God’s laws would be just as deadly as choosing to ignore them. And he also knew that God would not tolerate any alterations or additions to His law.

“Do not add to or subtract from these commands I am giving you. Just obey the commands of the Lord your God that I am giving you.” – Deuteronomy 4:2 NLT

God would not tolerate any deviation from His law. His commands were not up for debate or open to interpretation. And, just to make sure the people understood the gravity of their situation, Moses reminded them of one of the many times when their parents had failed to keep God’s commands. It had happened on the plains of Moab at a place called Shittim. When the people of Israel entered the Moabite territory, Balak, the king of Moab, had attempted to hire a local diviner named Balaam to place a curse on them. But when Balaam discovered that God would not allow him to place a curse on the people of Israel, he came up with an alternative plan. He instructed the king to have the women of Moab seduce the men of Israel. And the book of Numbers tells us exactly what happened.

…some of the men defiled themselves by having sexual relations with local Moabite women. These women invited them to attend sacrifices to their gods, so the Israelites feasted with them and worshiped the gods of Moab. In this way, Israel joined in the worship of Baal of Peor, causing the LORD’s anger to blaze against his people. – Numbers 25:1-3 NLT

This was far more than a display of immorality that angered the Victorian sensibilities of God. It was a blatant violation of His law.

“You must worship no other gods, for the LORD, whose very name is Jealous, is a God who is jealous about his relationship with you. You must not make a treaty of any kind with the people living in the land. They lust after their gods, offering sacrifices to them. They will invite you to join them in their sacrificial meals, and you will go with them. Then you will accept their daughters, who sacrifice to other gods, as wives for your sons. And they will seduce your sons to commit adultery against me by worshiping other gods.” – Exodus 34:14-16 NLT

And yet, that’s exactly what the people of Israel had done at Shittim. And Moses reminded the people what God had done in response to their disobedience to His commands.

“You saw for yourself what the Lord did to you at Baal-peor. There the Lord your God destroyed everyone who had worshiped Baal, the god of Peor. – Deuteronomy 4:3 NLT

Those same laws still applied and God was not going to allow His people to bend or break them, without suffering the consequences for their disobedience. Moses knew that the abundance and fruitfulness of the land would mean nothing if they people refused to remain faithful to God. The land flowing with milk and honey would become a killing field flowing with blood if the Israelites did not take God’s commands seriously. Partial obedience would not result in partial blessing. It would bring the full wrath of God. Which is why Moses warned them, “Obey them completely, and you will display your wisdom and intelligence among the surrounding nations” (Deuteronomy 4:6 NLT).

God had a secondary purpose behind His laws. They were to guide and direct the lives of His people, providing them with clearly understood parameters for living in submission to His will for them. His laws were meant to protect them. His laws were intended to assure that they enjoyed His blessings and avoided His curses. But they were also meant to provide the nations living within the land with a visual testimony of what it looks like when men live in a right relationship with God Almighty.

The Mosaic Law was intended to display a never-before-seen relationship between a god and man. The pagan religions of the day featured a plethora of gods who were distant and, for the most part, invisible to their worshipers. Except for carved idols, these gods were nowhere to be seen. And the relationship between the worshipers and their chosen deity was a fickle one, with the people never knowing if their god was truly pleased with their behavior.

Yet, the God of Israel, while transcendent and all-powerful, had chosen to insert Himself into the lives of His people, providing them with laws that regulated not only their behavior concerning Him, but with one another. He wanted to influence every facet of their lives, providing them with righteous rules and regulations for every imaginable form of conduct. And as the people of Israel obeyed His laws, they would be displaying their wisdom and intelligence to the nations around them – a wisdom and intelligence that originated from God, not men.

Moses knew that if the Israelites would obey God’s commands, the pagan nations would be amazed at their wisdom.

“How wise and prudent are the people of this great nation!” – Deuteronomy 4:6 NLT

But he wanted the Israelites to remember that it would not be their wisdom that set them apart. It would be their God.

“For what great nation has a god as near to them as the Lord our God is near to us whenever we call on him? And what great nation has decrees and regulations as righteous and fair as this body of instructions that I am giving you today?” – Deuteronomy 4:7-8 NLT

The very presence of God’s law was proof of God’s proximity. He was with them. He was intimately involved in their lives and cared about every detail concerning their conduct and character. Unlike the false gods of the nations living in the land of Canaan, Yahweh was real and His relationship with His people was intended to be all-pervasive and highly personal. He was not a distant, disinterested deity, but a loving, caring God who longed to display His glory in the lives of His chosen people.

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

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

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