Simon Jooste’s first sermon preached as an ordained minister from Deuteronomy 31. You can listen to it here.
What exactly is it that defines the church and what defines a Christian?
Well, simply put, the answer is: the Word of God. The church is a creature of the Word. She is built upon the Word and takes her directives from the Word. Likewise, Christians, you and I, are people of faith in God’s revealed Word of promise set forth in Holy Scripture. God is the one who has brought the church and its members into existence, and He is the one who will sustain us to the very end.
But this Word that brings life is not what sinful man naturally desires or wants… In fact, it is foreign news to him. It is spiritually discerned.
Therefore, it should not be surprising that sinners – following their natural desires – go looking for worldliness in the church and they often find it. Instead of the faithful ministry of the Word and sacraments, people often go looking for and they find a magnetic personality marketing Jesus like a product. Instead of Christ-centred worship conducted with reverence and awe, people go looking and they find a church shaped by the symbols of our individualist entertainment culture. Hence, both lay Christians and church officers alike must fight a constant battle not to allow their faith and worship to be driven by the idolatrous temptations of the world, the flesh and the devil, but rather by the Word of God.
This fight against worldliness in the church is an age-old one, dating back to those days when Israel was in the wilderness under the leadership of Moses. At the time that Israel was standing on the plains of Moab receiving the law of the Sinai covenant for the second time, they already had a sad history of idolatry (think golden calf in Exodus 32). Not only this, but God, through Moses, warns against and even predicts Israel’s future spiritual adultery in the Promised Land.
In these final chapters of Deuteronomy, Moses finalises the covenant with the Israelites, which is based on the Word of God. By this time, God’s people have sworn a self-maledictory oath to God (an oath to their own hurt) to obey the conditions of the covenant. In turn, God has promised to keep his side of the covenant agreement: He will bless Israel for obedience and curse her for disobedience.
Now, as one moves deeper and deeper into the book of Deuteronomy, more and more emphasis falls on Israel’s simmering unfaithfulness – like a volcano ready to erupt. In fact, in Deuteronomy 31 Moses comes right out and prophesies of Israel’s certain future failure to keep the covenant, followed by her curse and exile by God. Yet, Moses also predicts future hope and restoration.
In our passage this evening, Joshua is divinely commissioned to take over the torch of leadership from Moses. This signals one more step closer to God fulfilling his unconditional oath of salvation promised to Abraham, and in spite of Israel’s present and future unfaithfulness as a nation. Like Moses, Joshua also embodies a preview of the coming commissioning of God’s Son, the Promised Messiah – the one who will establish the New Covenant church. And this Jesus has done according to the same pattern of faithful men, like Moses and Joshua, ministering God’s Word. The difference is that Jesus is the incarnation of the eternal Word of God and its very fulfilment in his life, death and resurrection.
God will preserve the covenant
The first six verses before us deal with the preservation of the covenant between God and his people. What is significant about the opening few verses is that the covenant will go forward, even without the mighty man Moses!
Brothers and sisters, children, this is so that Israel might not put their trust in man, but rather in God. For Moses says in verse 3:
“The Lord your God himself will go over before you, so that you shall dispossess them, and Joshua will go over at your head, as the Lord has spoken.”
The foundational truth for Israel’s future and wellbeing, and our future and wellbeing, is that God will lead his people according to his Word. It is God – not a popularity contest – who will appoint his new man, Joshua, to guide Israel, and God will see to it that Israel destroys the enemies that lie before her.
Therefore, in verse 6, Moses calls Israel to be “strong and courageous” and not to fear her enemies. Why? Because they have what it takes? Or they have an impressive leader? No! Moses says, because “it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you nor forsake you.” In verses 1-6, Moses says no less than four times, “the Lord will be with you”.
In verses 7-8, Moses continues the theme of the preservation of the covenant. But now the focus is on the public commissioning of his successor, Joshua. This time, Moses calls Joshua to “be strong and courageous” concerning his future conquest of the land. Why? Because Joshua is great orator; because he can move a crowd, and is tough under pressure? No! Rather God has sworn to give Joshua and the people the Promised Land. God certifies that Joshua will take possession of it – verse 8: “It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.”
Public reading of God’s Word
In verses 9-13, Moses shifts his attention to the public reading of God’s Word, which affirms the covenant that God has made with his people. Now, in Ancient Near Eastern secular treaties or covenants, it was common practice for the treaty document to be lodged in the sanctuary of the servant people, and under the care of priests and under the eye of the gods. The treaty document was a witness to the obligations imposed by the Suzerain-king upon his inferior people.
In the case of God and his people – Israel – we find that God uses Moses to deliver the law to the priests and elders of Israel. God’s law was basically a reminder to the people of their covenant relationship to God and obligations to him, which will soon be mediated through Joshua. The fact that Moses hands the law to the elders and priests is symbolic of his transfer of responsibility to them. The people must know and respect the fact that leadership now rests with Joshua, along with the help of the priests and elders.
In verses 10-11, Moses instructs Israel to perform a special public reading of the law at seven-year intervals. (This would have been in addition to the law being read at worship and recited in private.) Every seven years, at the Feast of Booths, the people are to be gathered to this impressive hearing of the law so that they learn to fear God and to obey. And notice, verses 12-13, that emphasis is placed on the children who have not known the law. They too must benefit from the hearing of it, so that both parent and child alike may be reminded of God’s demands and promises, and the need for fresh consecration to their King.
Commissioning of Joshua
In the second and final half of this chapter, we find the commissioning of Joshua as well as the witness of Moses against the waywardness of Israel. In verses 14-15, the Lord speaks to Moses about his impending death and then calls Joshua into the tabernacle to commission him. Consider for a moment the gravity of this ordination ceremony unfolding here …
Moses and Joshua enter the presence of God in the tent of meeting. When an Israelite enters the tabernacle, and especially the tent of meeting, it is all about God. Everything and everyone else pales in comparison. Moses and Joshua are mere instruments in God’s hands as he descends upon the tent in a pillar of cloud, symbolising the Holy Spirit, to anoint Joshua to lead his people. Here, the Lord God takes centre stage in the preservation of his covenant through his appointed leaders. Later, in verse 23 the Lord declares to Joshua once again: “Be strong and courageous, for you will bring the people of Israel into the land that I swore to give them. I will be with you.”
Song of witness
With verse 16 and following we return to the sobering emphasis so predominant in Deuteronomy, especially the last few chapters of the book. First the Lord tells Moses that he is going to die. After this the Lord says, “Then this people will rise and whore after foreign gods among them in the land that they are entering, and they will forsake me and break the covenant that I have made with them.”
God prophesies Israel’s future unfaithfulness and in turn the curse and abandonment she will suffer as a result. And in the thick of it all they will ask, at the end of verse 18: “Have not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us?”
Far from encouraging words … To keep Israel from idolatry will be like trying to keep flies off a rotting carcass. Not even a change in the best of mortal human leadership can change the sinful heart of man.
In view of Israel’s incessant bent towards self-worship, God instructs Moses in verse 19 to write a song and teach it the people. Now, most of us can appreciate the power of music and song. Song can make our spirit soar and burn words into our memory like nothing else. Yet, the song Moses is to compose is not going to win any popular music contest. Rather, it will be about as blue as the ‘blues’ can get as it serves to witness against Israel for her apostasy. For when Israel has entered the land, has eaten her full, and grown fat, she will go after other gods and break the covenant (verse 20)!
Isn’t Israel’s behaviour here so indicative of human nature? Our nature? Life is good, we are gorged and swollen on its pleasures, and God becomes a distant afterthought, if not exchanged altogether for something or someone else.
God knows what Israel is inclined to do even before she does it, verse 21. Therefore, the Song of Moses is intended to confront Israel, in the midst of her evils and troubles, as a witness to her abandonment of God and his Word. So, verse 22: “Moses wrote this song the same day and taught it to the people of Israel.”
But God’s case against Israel does not stop with the Song of Moses, which can be read in Deuteronomy 32, but also includes the entire Book of Law. How can Israel forget the law with its stinging accusations? The law – that is, the Old Covenant of God – is by its very nature a witness against the rebellious and stubborn heart of humankind. Therefore, Moses commands the Levites, verse 25, to take the law and place it in the ark of covenant as a testimony against idolatrous Israel. Like God, Moses knows that Israel will abandon the law that he has tirelessly set before them. And he knows that the fierce anger of God will surely follow.
God of promise
However, beloved, thanks to God’s grace, Israel and the Promised Land were not the end plan of God for his people! For, while God forsook Israel as a nation for her rebellion, He never utterly abandoned those who had faith in his Word of promise that He made to Israel’s forefather, Abraham. Why?
Because the ordained ministries of Moses and Joshua set the stage for the coming Messiah, the One who would ultimately deliver his people. While God ordained Moses and Joshua, two sinful mortal earthly beings, the Father also ordained his eternally begotten Son from before all time in the counsel of Triune Godhead: to save sinners, including you and I, from the curse of the law.
Beloved, Jesus has accomplished his divinely appointed mission by silencing the accusations of the Mosaic covenant, the law, and has thereby ratified God’s Word of promise to Abraham, to Israel and to us. Do you know what this means? It means that we can be “strong and courageous” in facing the future. It means we need not fear the judgement of God or man because Jesus confirms God’s promise that He “will never leave us nor forsake us” (Heb. 13:5; cf.Joshua 1:5).
In the New Testament and with Jesus we have the same pattern of divine commissioning given to the church that we find in our passage in Deuteronomy this evening. But compared to Moses under the Old Covenant, God ordains ministers today according to a better Word. Listen to what Jesus says in his great commission to his disciples and to the church in Matthew 28:18-20:
“All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you, to the end of the age.”
Notice that this commissioning is to a ministry directed by the Word of God, and that Jesus will be with his church, always, even to the end of the age.
And later, when Jesus’ earthly ministry was over and he had risen and ascended to heaven, he sent his Spirit to anoint and commission men to continue the ministry of his Word. The Apostle Paul was one of these men. He played an extraordinary role in helping lay the foundation for the New Testament church. And during the course of his ministry as well – like with Moses and Joshua – he passed the torch of leadership to faithful ministers like Timothy and Titus. When Paul commissions Timothy in 2 Timothy 4 he calls the young Timothy to preach the Word of God and not what the world wants to hear.
Saints, let us never forget that Jesus is still with us today. How? Through the Spirit-empowered ministry of his Word that He began with his disciples and apostles, and has now entrusted to our ordained ministers today. This is how we know that God has “not forsaken us”! For he has given us, and continues to give us, his Son through the Word preached and the sacraments administered.
So let us not be like Israel and forsake God and his Word through spiritual adultery. Let us not be overly enamoured or disgruntled with the leaders that God has placed over us. Rather, let us look past the messenger to the one he proclaims, who is our Saviour, Jesus Christ. May the Word of God alone be sufficient for our life and godliness in this present evil age.
Let us fight against the temptations that assail us every day to forget Christ, to forget his Word, and his church – beckoning us to become full and fat on the fleeting pleasures of this life.
For, beloved, remember that heaven itself, the New Jerusalem, awaits us. This is where God is, and in whose presence is fullness of joy and pleasures for evermore. Until then, we are to be a pilgrim people guided by God’s covenant Word:
We are by faith to listen to this Word and know it.
We are to teach it to our children so that they may know it and not forget it.
We are to sing this Word so that it is burned into our hearts and souls, so that we may never depart from it.
Brothers and sisters, children, let us gorge ourselves not on pleasures that titillate our senses for a moment, but rather feast upon Christ, who is our eternal food and drink. And let us do so through the means of grace delivered to us through gifted and well-trained ministers. Let us be thankful to God for his church and his gospel. But, most importantly, let us be thankful for Jesus who is the “yes and amen” to all of God’s promises and the author and perfector of our faith!
Rev. Simon Jooste, PM service, 19 January 2014 (RC Bellville)