The Word is near you (Deut 30)

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

Deut 30:11-14

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

Love your neighbour perfectly (Deut 22)

[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 IsraelAnd 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