[Sermon audio here.]
The book of Deuteronomy is about the gospel revealed through the law: the law given under the Old Covenant made at Mt Sinai. The nation of Israel was unique in that they were God’s chosen people. And yet their predicament under the moral law – summed up in the Ten Commandments – is the predicament common to the entire human race, including you and I. Israel teaches the world about our ultimate inability to secure salvation by keeping the law because of the universal problem of sin.
Remember how the story goes…
At the beginning of the book of Deuteronomy, in Chapter 4, God promises Israel the Land of Canaan as an inheritance. This is in keeping with God’s earlier unconditional promise to Abraham in Gen. 12 in the covenant of grace. However, in Deut. 4 God also clearly states that Israel must keep the conditions of the Sinai covenant if they want to stay in the Land. In other words, Israel gets into the Promised Land by grace, but must stay in by works or obedience. But also in the same chapter, in Deut. 4:26, Moses predicts Israel’s certain failure to fulfill the conditions of the Old Covenant. Moses prophesies that Israel will not be able to stay in the Land by her own efforts.
In our passage, we find a number of the conditions of the Mosaic Covenant. In fact, what we find here is an exposition of numbers 6-8 of the Ten Commandments, which can be summed up as God’s command to love our neighbour. The Israelites must practice love by: (1) caring for each other’s property, (2) by protecting human life, and (3) by honoring marriage in sexual purity. This is the kind of holy conduct expected for long life in the Land and for eternal communion with God. This is the life expected of citizens of heaven.
The vital lesson for us this morning is that neither Israel nor we can enter heaven by our own obedience. Because none of us loves our neighbour, let alone God, as we should. Instead of being our saviour, the law rather exposes our sin so that we might believe in Jesus alone for salvation. For Jesus is the only one who could keep the requirements of the law and endure God’s judgment for sin. It is by faith alone in Jesus alone that the guilt of our sin is removed and we are made fit for heaven. As the redeemed, we now obey God out of gratitude knowing that we have been freed from the curse of the law.
This is Christ’s Word of salvation to us this morning. Listen to his voice. Combine it with faith. And hide it in your heart. And be changed.
Love your neighbour
Let us begin by considering briefly some of the – at times strange – laws that are found in our passage… In vv1-4, the Israelites are commanded to look out for the property of their neighbor and not to steal. “Finders keepers” does not apply in the Land. Instead, when someone else’s property, like an ox, goes missing it must not be ignored or stolen but returned to its rightful owner. When seeing a neighbour in need, like when his ox falls in a ditch, the Israelite is to lend a hand.
It is man’s natural tendency to turn a selfish blind eye and steal. But this must not be so for Israel if they are to remain long in the Land. They must act honestly in all things. And so must you and I, if we want to keep the 8th commandment.
The next command, v5, makes you scratch your head a bit. What is the purpose behind this prohibition against cross-dressing? While it is not entirely clear, it is likely concerned with maintaining the God-designed created order. God has created males and females created differently. And therefore men and women should not try to look like and act like the opposite sex. We know from the nature of things that such behavior can lead to perverse sexual preferences and practices. Sexual immorality of all kinds was rampant among the pagan nations surrounding Israel at the time. Israel must, however, be different. She must act without a hint of sexual impropriety. This is the obedience required in the 7th commandment. Such purity characterises the kingdom of heaven.
In the third rule of our passage, vv6-7, we move from transvestite cross-dressing to bird’s nests. Now, you may think that the altitude of Sinai is getting the better of Moses here, but common sense reveals that this law is also in keeping with the command to love one’s neighbour. Here again, the nature of things (or natural law) teaches us that to consume the source of natural food production – in this case the mother bird – is to cut off the future food supply to the Land. Instead, the Israelites are to exercise dominion over the Land by cultivating it wisely for personal benefit, as well as the good of their neighbor. The Israelites are not to be selfishly indulgent, but share the blessings of the Land so that they might remain in it. A spirit of moderation and generosity is the way of the righteous.
The command in v8 is a bit more obvious as to its meaning. In ancient Israel, it was common practice to eat, drink, entertain, and sometimes sleep, on the roof of one’s house. What this law requires – in the name of looking out for one’s neighbour – is that the roof be enclosed by a retaining wall: a “parapet.” This wall needed to be high enough so that people would not fall off the side of the roof and die. By doing this, Israelites were preserving the sanctity of human life out of obedience to the 6th commandment. The Israelites are not to murder their neighbours out of negligence. This is Israel’s duty if they want to remain in the Land flowing with milk and honey, which is the foretaste of heaven.
The laws in vv9-11 pose some challenges for us again. They seem to be almost arbitrary when read literally. What does mixing different seeds, and animals, and fabrics have to do with covenant faithfulness to God? Well, if we consider these verses coupled with v12 as an introduction to laws concerning sexual immorality in vv13-30; and if we appreciate Moses’ use of non-literal language here, then I think these laws reveal a predominantly sexual theme. They prohibit certain sexual mixtures or unions.
Take v9. If we consider that at times the OT uses “vineyard” as proverbial language for a wife, and “seed” as the male means to producing children – a “crop” – then here is a regulation against Israelite intermarriage with foreign, Canaanite women. The offspring of an Israelite must be a pure breed so that Israel remains untainted by evil and separate as the people of God.
V10 is also concerned with the prohibition of illicit sexual combinations. Here, the word “plow” is a metaphor for sexual intercourse. Again, Israel must not have sexual relations with the in habitants of Canaan. In Gn 9.25, Canaan is referred to as the “cursed donkey.”
The necessity of sexual purity is reiterated in a different way in v11 with the regulation against mixing “wool and linen” together. This makes sense when we understand that putting on clothing was a metaphor for sleeping with a woman. Israel must not commit adultery, but be “holy as God is holy” (Lev 19.2) in order to remain in the Land. The author to the Hebrews in the NT writes that there is a holiness without which no one shall see the Lord (Heb. 12:14).
With all this talk of obedience and holiness, it is little wonder then that v12 is a command to Israel to be ever mindful of God’s laws. This reminder was to be in the form of “tassels” on their garments. In Numbers 15.37ff we learn that these tassels were to teach God’s people “not to follow after their own heart and own eyes, which they are inclined to whore after.”
Here is a reminder that what the OT teaches in general is that obedience to the Old Covenant law was ultimately an expression of spiritual faithfulness to Yahweh. This is the reason why sexual purity within the confines of Israelite marriage gets so much attention. Sexual union between a husband and wife is the human analogy for God’s covenant relationship or marriage to his people.
So, you want to know what rebellion against God is like? Books like Deut teach that it is like the moral evil of fornication and adultery, which destroys the human covenant of marriage, and in turn, the fabric of society. To have sex with someone outside of marriage is to cheat on God.
This theme of sexual morality continues in the remainder of our passage, in v13ff. Here the laws are more straightforward, but the sins prohibited could not be more heinous. Let’s consider them briefly. Vv13-21 are concerned with the allegations concerning the virginity of a newly married wife. To appreciate the weightiness of this matter, we must understand that virginity was the universal expectation for Israelites going into marriage. For a woman to lose her virginity by consent or not, meant she was spoiled goods – like a social leper subject to the spite and shame of society.
The first instance is one in which a husband’s allegation against his wife of sexual misconduct is proved false, by the bride’s father. The punishment for the highly damaging false accusations of the husband is a whipping and paying double the bride price as restitution. In addition, he is bound for the rest his life to the very wife he tried to unlawfully dismiss. This is one of the many examples found in the book of Deut where we see the enforcement of a strict kind of justice for those who break God’s moral law. This is because the Promised Land is a lesson in the holiness of heaven. There is no place for wickedness. Sin must be judged and exterminated! An eye-for-an-eye; a tooth-for-a-tooth; life for life; death for death.
In the second instance, in vv20-21, the allegation of the husband is proven true. Here, the consequence for the promiscuous wife is stoning. The punishment of death is fitting for the crime when, again, we consider that human adultery is the earthly correlation to breaking covenant with God. The unconscionable evil of adultery must be purged from the land. Why? Because: God will not take an unclean and adulterous bride for himself. Stoning is a graphic preview of the terrible judgment of hell – for all those who rebel against God!
Those guilty of adultery must be purged from Israel by swift execution, vv 22-30. This applies to the betrothed virgin having intercourse with another man. A betrothed woman was treated like a married woman, and therefore sexual union with her is tantamount to adultery. In the case of betrothed woman who is seized and violated against her will in the open country, the rapist must be put to death as he has committed the equivalent of murder. But the woman is to receive no punishment. In the instance of rape of a single woman, the punishment is less severe because it is not adultery. However, the man is still forced to marry his victim because the alternative would be worse for the innocent woman. The final law prohibits a man from committing sexual immorality with his stepmother.
Conviction under the law
Are you feeling the weight of the demands of God’s moral law and consequences that follow from not keeping it?
Imagine how the Israelites must have felt! They were constantly being reminded in very tangible ways that they fell short of God’s perfect standard of holiness. Despite their best efforts, they could not earn their keep in the Promised Land. They could not stop the corruption in their hearts from welling up and spewing forth all sorts of evil: thievery, greed, hatred, murder, fornication and adultery. Israel could not avoid idolatry. In fact, it came naturally to them. This is why God eventually divorced Israel and banished her from the Land of Canaan: the place of heaven on earth.
This was God’s message to the world. He is holy and righteous. He will judge sin. And he did judge Israel…
Brothers and sisters, and children, the Word of God tells us – our conscience tells us – that our natural predicament is no different from Israel. We too are sinners and therefore incapable of securing heaven by our obedience to the law. None of us loves our neighbour as we should: whether in thought, word and deed; and with all our soul, strength and mind! As spiritual adulterers, we all deserve eternal judgment. Paul says: “The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23).”
But God has always had a plan beyond and a purpose through the backbreaking demands of the law (x2). In fact, God knew Israel would be unable to keep his covenant made with Moses. Instead, he intended the impossible demands of the Law of Moses to drive the Israelites to trust God alone for salvation. The law was meant to teach Israel to find their rest in God’s unconditional promises made to Abraham in the covenant of grace: a covenant that continues into the NT and into eternity.
Through the law, Israel was forced to stop looking at their own performance. They were forced to stop looking inward, but rather to look forward and outward to the coming Messiah: who would one day keep the law, endure God’s judgment and secure heaven on behalf of sinners. The law taught the remnant of Israel to follow the circumcision, the priesthood and the sacrificial system to Jesus!
Salvation in Christ: our law-keeper and redeemer
Beloved, Jesus came to do what our father Adam failed to do and what Israel could not do: which is keep the law. Jesus needed no tassels to remind him of the Father’s will. He lived a life complete in impeccable obedience to the law – loving his neighbour at every turn and in every way! In doing so he fulfilled God’s demands for perfect righteousness, which is the requirement to enter heaven.
Jesus also lived a life of excruciating suffering, which culminated in his death, to turn away God’s white-hot judgment due to our sin. In Christ’s offering of himself at the cross, he satisfied once and for the all the justice of God.
Yes, in and of ourselves we are no different from the unclean prostitute Israel. And yet God has purified us and betrothed us to himself through his Son, Jesus Christ. Because of the blood of Jesus, God will never send us away in divorce. Because Jesus was taken to city gate and suffered the just penalty for our lawbreaking, we need not fear the stoning of God’s judgment.
Beloved, do you see it? Can you believe it?!
The law can no longer accuse and condemn us, because we have fulfilled it by faith in Jesus. The love of Jesus has become our love. The purity of Jesus has become our purity. The honesty of Jesus has become our honesty. Jesus has changed our relationship to the law forever! He has annulled our marriage to the law as a deadly taskmaster and freed us to obey the law out of gratitude.
As Christians we love our neighbour; we look out for his property; we preserve his life; and we honor marriage; because God first set his love upon us and saved us. Jesus has redeemed us and the Holy Spirit now indwells us so that we desire to keep God’s law and want to keep God’s law, although imperfectly. And when we fail to keep God’s law, there is no fear of judgment.
In light of this good news revealed through the law, let us therefore offer up to God our bodies as living sacrifices, pleasing and acceptable in his sight. Let us flee sin and practice righteous living because we are betrothed to the incarnation of holiness. May it be our desire to please the one who has bought us at such a high cost; the one who has wooed us into an eternal marriage of purity and love.
This is the Word of Christ to us this morning. Let us hide it in our heart and be changed by it, unto the praise and glory of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Simon Jooste, RCSS morning service, 14 July 2013