The following sermon was preached this past Sunday night, where six individuals made their public profession of faith and were received into membership. It was an evening to remember! The Lord continues to grow his church by His Word and Spirit through his ordained means of preaching and sacraments.
The Word is near you
If someone were to ask you what the sixteenth-century European Reformation was all about, what would you say? Was it perhaps about cleaning up the lives of Christians that had become corrupted by money and power? Was it maybe about transforming society into a more Christian one? Or was it a struggle between church and state?
According to our confessional standards, the Three Forms of Unity, it is clear that at its most basic and fundamental level the Reformation was about the recovery of the teaching of justification by faith alone in Christ alone. In other words, it was about the return to the apostolic doctrine that righteousness before God comes by grace alone as an unconditional gift.
This truth is something that the Roman Catholic Church had almost altogether lost during the Middle Ages. And yet, it forms the very heart and centre of the message of God’s Holy Word, from Genesis to Revelation. In our passage this evening from Deuteronomy 30, and specifically from verses 11-14, we find that the Holy Spirit prophesies of the fulfilment of the way of righteousness that leads to eternal life. This way of salvation is by faith in God’s unconditional promise made to Abraham. In Romans 10:5-8, Paul picks up on these very same words from Deuteronomy in declaring that the righteousness that pleases God is one that comes from believing in Jesus Christ alone – the One who has kept the law and suffered the punishment due to our sins.
It is this confession of faith in Jesus Christ alone that forms the indispensable requirement for entrance in God’s kingdom and his visible church. We rejoice this evening in being able to welcome six new members into Christ’s church. God’s Word of assurance and comfort to all of us who confess faith in Christ this evening is that we are recipients of eternal life.
The promise of future restoration
In Deuteronomy 30:1-10 Moses prophesies of the future restoration of Israel and forgiveness by God, even beyond the prediction of certain curse and exile. Here we see that God promises that He will act to reverse Israel’s misfortunes due to their sinful disobedience. He declares that He alone will cleanse their wicked hearts so that they might have eternal life. The first ten verses are a preview for Israel of the coming days of a new and better work of God – days in which God’s unconditional promises of salvation will finally be fulfilled, ratified and renewed.
Now, I want to argue that verses 11-14 continue with Moses speaking of those things that will take place in the future. Moses continues to press Israel to orient the eyes of faith well beyond the plains of Moab, beyond the curses of the covenant, beyond even death itself, to the realisation of those free salvation promises that God made once upon a time to the Patriarchs: to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Our passage begins in verse 11 with Moses asserting, “For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off.” In effect, what Moses is saying here is that the commandment – singular – which refers to the entire Mosaic law, “is not too hard, neither is it far off.”
The law is not too hard?
Now, this was likely a moment when Israelite hearts grew faint, legs got wobbly and rebellious children started planning their escape for the hills! God’s people could be forgiven for being tempted to wonder: “Okay, we think we get the point that the law is “not far off”. Moses has been breathing laws and conditions down our necks for some time now. But how can it be that the “law is not too hard”? How is it possible to keep the entire law of God? How is possible to have a pure heart and a righteous life that pleases God?
The words of Moses here are intended to get to the Israelites to pause and think, and we should do the same. What is Moses getting at here?
This is a perfect example of the potential danger of taking a verse in isolation from its context. “Oh, I have the perfect proof-text for the Christian’s relation to the law – Moses says it’s not too hard.” Case closed.
Well, it’s not as simple as that. We must be careful to keep in mind what Moses has already said in verses 1-10 concerning the hope of future restoration, and now, what he goes on to say in verses 12-13:
“It [the commandment] is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring to us, that we may hear it and do it? Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’”
In these two verses Moses gives the Israelites a better understanding of what exactly it is that is not too difficult. In doing so, he uses vivid imagery that would have been familiar to God’s people at the time.
The collective imagination of the Ancient Near East was quite well acquainted with mental pictures of mythological heroes pursuing the quest for immortal life. These kinds of legends are similar to many of the make-believe storylines of books and movies we have today. Oftentimes, the hero of the tale is faced with some challenge that must be overcome. And if he is successful, he is rewarded with an immortal/god-like existence.
The truth is that all mankind aspires to god-like immortality and everlasting life. It was no different back in the Ancient Near East, as it is today. “To ascend into heaven” meant to take flight into the transcendent realm of the gods to attain the secret of wisdom that leads to immortal life. Job, in Job 28, declares that the wisdom that leads to life is not to be found on earth among mortal men, but rather with God in heaven. To cross over the “deep chasm of the sea” was also a common image in the ancient world to describe the superhuman feat of overcoming the forces of death and chaos by divine power.
Why does Moses use these well-known images as part of delivering God’s revelation of the Old Covenant to Israel? It is so that God’s people might make the connection between the Sinai Covenant and eternal life, the law and the quest for immortality. The point is that the reward for keeping the Old Covenant is immortal life. At the same time, however, Moses is also saying that salvation and immortality are not to be pursued like the pagan nations: with their legendary heroes who are supposedly capable of “ascending into heaven and crossing over the sea”. For this is a futile impossibility! Instead, Moses says the “commandment” that offers eternal life is “not too hard”; it is not impossible.
But how is this commandment not too difficult for Israel? Indeed, Israel has knowledge of the law set forth in the Sinai Covenant. However, the ability to keep it is a whole different story!
The Holy Spirit helps us with this dilemma in the words of Moses in verse 14. He writes: “But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.” Notice how Moses changes from using the word commandment in verse 11 to referring to the word here in verse 14. God wants Israel and us to know that the law – the covenant, the call to everlasting life – is not too hard because of this word.
The twist in this chapter of the true story found in Scripture is that this word is nothing other than the unconditional promise made by God to Abraham and the patriarchs. This is clear from other places like earlier on in Deuteronomy 9:5 where Moses declares:
“Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the Lord your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.”
Just as God swore by His oath-bound Word to give Israel the earthly land of Canaan as a gift, which pointed beyond itself to heaven, so too does God promise to give Israel everlasting life as a free gift. And this is in keeping with what we find in verses 1-10: the prophetic future hope for Israel, to be secured by a new and better work of God alone.
These insights from verse 14 are critical for our understanding of the two alternatives that Israel has concerning their future. In verse 15, Moses says to the people:
“See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil.”
Thus far in Deuteronomy, Moses has distinguished for Israel between two kinds of life under the Sinai covenant. On the one hand there are the blessings of temporary life in the earthly land of Canaan. We see this mentioned again in the remainder of our passage, in verses 16 and 20. On the other hand, there is the promise of eternal life that transcends the best the earthly Canaan can offer. Both kinds of life are rooted in God’s gracious promise to Abraham (see verse 20). The blessings of Canaan were to teach Israel about the greater blessings of heaven to come. However, it is vital to understand that while God’s promise of eternal life made to Abraham was completely unconditional, the promises attached to long life in Canaan were not.
In other words, while the Abrahamic covenant is unbreakable, the covenant made at Sinai could be broken. Moses is clear that if the Israelites break the conditions of the Old Covenant – if they do not obey the law – God will curse them and drive them into exile (verses 17-18).
This, again, raises the question: How can Israel get life and immortality? Well, if Israel had been listening carefully to Moses, they would have understood that earning their keep in the Promised Land of Canaan is impossible under the terms of Sinai covenant. In fact, God predicts their failure before they even enter the land!
“When you father children and children’s children, and have grown old in the land, if you act corruptly by making a carved image in the form of anything, and by doing what is evil in the sight of the Lord your God, so as to provoke him to anger, I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that you will soon utterly perish from the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess. You will not live long in it, but will be utterly destroyed.” (Deut 4:25-26)
And this is exactly how things turned out for the nation of Israel. In time, the nation of Israel disobeyed God’s law and they lost possession of the Promised Land.
This painful lesson that lay ahead for Israel was to teach them that they could not earn righteousness before God under the law or according to the commands of the Sinai covenant. This is why Israel must look to God’s Word of promise instead. Israel must trust that God alone will act to give Israel a future; God alone will save them even beyond the certain reality of curse and exile. This is the word that has come near to Israel: the Word that rests in their hearts, so that “they can do it”. This Word produces faith that trusts God alone for salvation.
Verse 20 of our passage sums up Israel’s obligations to the Sinai covenant set forth in the book of Deuteronomy. In order to keep their end of the covenant, they were to love God, obey his voice and hold fast to him. However, this they could not and did not do. But this was all part of God’s plan. The law set forth in the Old Covenant was meant to teach Israel not to trust in her own righteousness for eternal life, but rather in the righteousness that comes through faith. And the same is true for us today as we are faced with the impossibility of earning righteousness before God through the moral law summed up in the Ten Commandments.
The righteousness of faith in Christ
This I believe is what Paul states unequivocally by expositing Deuteronomy 30 in Romans 10:5-8. In verse 5, Paul says:
“For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them.”
But this righteousness is out of the reach of every sinner since the fall of Adam in the garden. Which is why Paul goes on in verses 6-7 – by picking up on Deuteronomy 30:12-13 – to speak of the righteousness based on faith. The righteousness based on faith does not try to be superman. It does not say, “How can I earn everlasting life?” It does not say I will “ascend into heaven and cross over the sea”; it does not live by the law. Rather, the righteousness of faith knows that the righteousness based on the law is a dead end. So what does it say? Verse 8:
“The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith we proclaim)”.
Beloved, faith trusts in God to freely bring righteousness and eternal life to us, without us working for it. We don’t have to try to climb up to heaven like the ancient mythic heroes in a futile quest for immortality. Why? Because God, in Jesus Christ, has come down from heaven to earn perfect righteousness and immortality for us. Jesus kept the law and Jesus fulfilled the Old Covenant in our place. We don’t have to cross over the sea to try and conquer death due to our sin. Why? Because Jesus walked on water, putting death under his feet, by shedding his blood at the cross and cleansing us of our sin.
Brothers and sisters, children, Paul tells us in Romans 10:3 that Israel, “[B]eing ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.” Let this never be the case for us. May the Spirit of God enable us to understand Deuteronomy and the words of Moses in the right way. Let us heed the call of Moses to choose life, but find it in the right place – not in the law but in the gospel. For Paul says in verse 9:
“if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your hear that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.”
If you believe this evening, it is because God has done it. He has circumcised your heart. He has put the Word of faith in you. He has justified you and made you righteous. Let us praise and magnify God for his grace and mercy toward us. Let us now rejoice together in the good confession of faith from our new members. May their testimony encourage us as we encourage them to persevere by God’s grace to the end.
Simon Jooste, Bellville Reformed Church, Evening Service, 20 October 2013