We are in the book of Deuteronomy in the Old Testament, this is our third of four evenings, and Moses is preaching in the book of Deuteronomy. It’s one long book of sermons, and he’s preaching for 34 chapters to the Israelites on the edge of the promised land.
We saw two weeks ago that Moses says to the people, “God led you from slavery in Egypt to the edge of the promised land, but it’s been 40 years in the wilderness because you’ve not been listening.” I can’t imagine having to go on a detour for 40 years. Imagine God saying to us, “I was going to take you into great blessing, but you’re not listening, so it’s not happening until 2057.” It’s a huge detour.
Last week, we saw that God has put in place a relationship between him and his people. It’s a relationship of great privilege and great danger, just as a parent will take a small child across a highway of four lanes, and the parent takes a grip on the child’s fist and makes sure that the child arrives safely. So God puts his grip onto us to take us safely through and we, of course, are called to cooperate and to be faithful.
Today we come to a very long section in Deuteronomy 12 to 26, and this section unpacks the Ten Commandments. Imagine you want to think about:
- what does it mean to have God as my God?
- what does it mean to take God’s name seriously?
- what does it mean killing and war, especially as I’m going into the Promised Land?
- Chapter 12 talks about worshiping God (Commandment 1)
- Chapter 13 is about idols, getting rid of them (Commandment 2)
- Chapter 14 is about the name of God (Commandment 3)
- Chapters 15 and 16 is about rest and feasts (Commandment 4)
- Chapters 17 and 18 is about authorities (Commandment 5 in regards to parents)
- Chapters 19 to 21 is about killing and war (Commandment 6)
- Chapters 22 to 23 is about marriage and relationships (Commandment 7)
- Chapters 24 to 26 is very much about speech and values and honesty (Commandment 8,9, and 10)
Israel needs lots of help from God as it moves into the promised land. You have to remember Israel is a nation and therefore it needs laws about taxes and soldiers. And Israel is also a church; it’s the people of God. It needs law about sacrifices and staying safe.
Every now and again you will know that a non-Christian comes along, who doesn’t know anything about Christianity and they will find a strange law in the Old Testament, and they’ll hold it up to you and laugh at you. Sometimes you see this in the newspaper.
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Somebody has been reading the Old Testament and has discovered a law about shellfish, or sorcerers, and they’ll say, “Why doesn’t the great church that’s so big on certain moral issues, why doesn’t it keep its rules?” And I hope you know to say that although all the Old Testament is useful for teaching and very instructive, I hope you will learn to say, “We’re not in Canaan anymore.”
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we no longer live in a little-landlocked territory called Canaan, surrounded by the nations. We’re not being asked to build an ark anymore; we’re not being asked to climb Mt Sinai anymore. These rules in the Old Testament have been as it were fulfilled because Jesus has come and has brought change and he has sent us out into the world, no longer in a little-landlocked place Canaan. And he’s turned the outward laws into an inward life, and the inward life is even more inclined to be godly than the outward rules.
If you go up to the Woolworth’s at Crows Nest, and they have a sign every five meters that says, “Don’t steal. Don’t abuse the checkout system.” You know that that’s not going to have any effect on many of the people who go through Woolworth’s. But if a believer, a Christian goes into Woolworth’s, he doesn’t need a sign every five paces to tell him or her, “Don’t abuse the system.” Because he or she has the very Spirit of God prompting him or her to be godly and not to steal.
So what will we do with these chapters Deuteronomy 12 to 26? I’ve picked three bits this evening, and you might like to turn back to chapter 12. We’re going to look very quickly at chapter 12 that God decides everything, then chapter 14 that God rules everything, and then chapter 20 that God judges everything.
God decides everything
Look at Deuteronomy 12, The Lord says, “When you got into the land, God is your God. And I want you,” says God, “to destroy the idols.” He says, “I want you to destroy them, break them, smash them, burn them, cut them down, and wipe them out.” Do you think that makes sense? I think it does, doesn’t it?
- Would we not say to somebody who’s just got engaged, “Break off all your other relationships. Do not try and play a split romance”?
- Wouldn’t we say to somebody who is serious about giving up their drink or their drugs, “Get rid of the stash that you’ve got in the house”?
- Would we not say to the Christian who’s serious about growing, “Get rid of the secret sin that you think you can hang on to and walk in the light”? It’s just not going to happen.
We may think the idols in Canaan were pretty stupid, but I want to remind you that these idols offered the Israelites pleasure, power, sex, security, riches, and health. They were very, very persuasive. And the Israelites were going to be tempted to think, “We’re getting to the land, we’ll keep Yahweh with the right hand, and we’ll have Baal with the left, and we’ll get the best of both worlds.” And God says destroy them, break them, smash them, burn them, cut them down, and wipe them out.
Verse 4, he says, “Don’t worship me the way you worship or the way they worship idols. Don’t worship me the way they, the pagans, worship their idols. Don’t turn me into your servants, don’t turn me into your drug. Don’t turn me,” says Jesus, “into your friendly little boyfriends. Don’t turn me,” says Jesus, “into your pill that you can swallow and then just have a nice little piece of calm.”
Verse 5, “Seek the place I tell you.”
Verse 6, “Bring the offerings that I tell you.”
Verse 7, “I want you to rejoice.”
Brothers and sisters, you’ll not find it easy to say yes to God or become a Christian, and then hope that he will say yes to you and go wherever you go. You’ll not find it easy to say, “I tick the box on Jesus and now I want him to cooperate, and I will call the shots.” I find that difficult; I’m sure you do as well. And the Lord says, “I chose you so that you’ll cooperate with me. I didn’t choose you so that I will cooperate with you.” God says, “I’m going to decide the place, and I’m going to decide the offerings and I’m doing this for your joy.”
If you were an Old Testament person and you moved into the promised land, where would be the place you would begin to do this? The first place that they did this in the promised land was Shiloh, but that quickly became Jerusalem. When the kingdom split, they found themselves with a few major sites. When corrupt kings came, they set up lots of high places and sites. And when they got back to the promised land after being removed, they ended up with a couple of sites, one of which was Jerusalem. But Jesus said to them, “You’ll meet God with me. I’m the temple; I’m the meeting place, I’m the place where you will meet the living God.”
If you are an Old Testament person, you would take very seriously the sacrifices that were to be offered for sins, but Jesus came, and he cancelled all the sacrifices, becoming the last sacrifice, the Lamb of God on the cross. Now we might apply this teaching today and say to some people who say to us, “Well, you’ve got your God, and I’ve got my God, and I’m glad you’re happy because I’m happy with my God.” I think we sometimes need to say to those people who say to us, “I worship my God my way, you worship your God your way.” I think we sometimes need to say to these people, you know, “My God is objective. He’s entered into history; he’s recorded in black and white, he’s not cooperative, he’s not a pushover. I need Jesus Christ to cope with this great God.”
Whereas we might say to some of these people, “Your God seems to be a fiction. Something you’ve made up. In fact, your God he’s so cooperative, he seems, or she seems to have no more authority than a fluffy toy.” Because God says, “You’re to worship me as I say, not as you say.”
I was talking with a couple this week; they were telling me that they had Christian values, but they didn’t go to church. I think they hoped that I would say that’s fine, you don’t go to church to get saved anyway, but it did seem to me that what they were saying was, “We run Him.” Whereas I think the Bible tells us that he runs us and that’s one of the tests, isn’t it? As to whether you’re dealing with the real God, whether he is running your life.
God rules everything
This has got to do with taking God’s name in vain; this is a fascinating chapter. I wish we had time to do the whole 12 to 26, but you don’t and Chapter 14, 1-2 begins like this, “Don’t cut yourselves or shave your heads for the dead because you are my chosen people.” In the pagan world, especially the world of Canaan which was a very, very pagan world where people would offer their children as sacrifices in order to get God’s attention or their God’s attention, in the ancient world pagans would have to do strange things like cut themselves or shave their head in order to get their God to take notice of them.
And the Lord says to his people, “Don’t do this because I do take notice of you. You don’t need to do something drastic to get my compassion; you’ve got my compassion. I called you; I chose you I’m for you. So don’t cut yourself or shave your head as if you need to bend my arm or my ear or my heart. You’re not to think of me,” says God, “as unwilling. Nor are you to see death as pagans do.” Remember Paul said in 1 Thessalonians 4, “We’re not like those who have no hope.”
In the Old Testament, the afterlife was quite a shadowy thing. There’s a few little clues in the Old Testament;
- Psalm 23, “Walk through the valley of the shadow of death, arrive in the house of God.”
- Psalm 16, “God has inheritance ahead for us.”
- Isaiah 25 talks about death being finished and arriving on a beautiful mountain
- Isaiah 35 talks about all God’s redeemed, streaming into the heavenly Zion, beautiful but shadowy.
It’s only when you get to the New Testament that suddenly the lights go on and Jesus rises and says all his people will rise as well, and so the afterlife becomes so clear.
We who live in this world, we’re not to run our Christian funerals like pagans with a big emphasis on pessimism, like artist and cartoonist Bill Leak this week, gone. Great guy, gone.
The Lord says, “You’re not to run a funeral like that for a believer nor are you to be optimistic like the pagans, who say, ‘Well, they had nothing to do with God and they had nothing to do with Jesus but I think they’ve gone to a better place.’” All of that is just prediction, fiction without reason. Now says the Lord, “You don’t need to force me to be compassionate, and you’re not to think of death as the pagans do.” We are to grieve; we lose people. We are to have hope; Christ rises.
In Chapter 14, 3 to 21, you get the famous food laws. All the animals, birds, fish, and insects which were off limits for God’s people and all the fish, animals, birds, and insects which were on the menu. I need to say to you, in case you’ve never studied this passage before, this was not a hygiene list. This was also not a contrast with the pagans’ list. In other words, the law didn’t say, “Pagans eat this, you are to eat this.” This list of clean and unclean animals was completely God’s decision. Had nothing to do with hygiene, had nothing to do with what the pagans ate and didn’t eat. This was a clean/unclean list. God decided who was clean, who was unclean, and God decided what animals were clean and unclean as well.
Therefore, the Israelites, every time they went shopping, they had their little list with them, and it said, “This is clean, and this is unclean.” And as they sat down to dinner that night and they ate what was clean, they said, “We’re a clean people because God has chosen us through sheer mercy and we live among the unclean.” And so every shopping trip and every meal was a reminder to the Israelites that God was a God who chose, and God was a God with people yet to be chosen. These food laws were abolished with Jesus; I hope you know this. Jesus declared all foods to be clean in Mark 7 and the whole idea of clean and unclean food is gone in the New Testament, it’s no longer a law issue.
Clean and unclean is now a hot issue because a person is either clean in God’s sight or not clean in God’s sight. And you’re clean in God’s sight as soon as your faith is in Jesus and you can eat whatever you like, and you’re unclean where you’re detached from Jesus, and food’s going to make no difference whatsoever.
In verse 21, he finishes the food list by saying, “You mustn’t cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.” Well, when I was preparing this series for the morning sermons and then to give these talks overseas, I wrestled with 14:21, “Don’t cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.” I had 12 commentaries to read, none of them had anything to say about this and then suddenly it dawned on me, it’s as if a light came in through the window and I suddenly realized what this was all about and I’m about to do a PhD on this verse and publish it for the wider world to know for the first time what this verse is all about.
It’s about this that Moses is saying, ‘Don’t confuse your categories. Don’t take something which is meant to be about life, the milk of a mother, and cook a baby to death in it.” Don’t confuse your categories. And we might say, don’t grieve like a pagan, that will confuse people. And don’t live like a pagan, that will confuse people.
George Athas from Moore Colleges brought out a commentary on Deuteronomy, and he agrees with this. He says, “The sphere of life is to be kept separate from the sphere of death.” But I think it could be because he’s been listening to my sermons online and he has come into this discovery through me. I say that humbly, but truthfully and meaningfully to you.
The last few verses in Deuteronomy 14 are about bringing your tenths to God. When God blesses you with lots of food, you are to bring a tenth to the temple, a tenth of your food, and this was a way of saying to God, “We depend on you completely, we are returning to you something of what you have given to us.” When you get to the New Testament, the tenth disappears.
I know there are some churches around who continue to preach a tenth as being compulsory, the New Testament just doesn’t do it. And therefore we don’t do it, because the New Testament says it’s no longer an outward tenth being laid on you, it’s now an inward generosity. And therefore, there are people around the Christian churches who give 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, and 80 and 90% of their stipends to Christian work because they can, and they want to. It’s not a tithe.
So do you see chapter 14 teaches that God rules everything? Life and death, shopping, meals together and He even reaches your wallet. And if He is not the Lord of your wallet, He’s not really your Lord.
I’ve been really shocked as a pastor to discover that there are people in this congregation who have no money for anything because they are buying properties. It’s just amazing, but they would have in their minds, “We’re going to buy properties, so we can’t do anything for the kingdom.” And there are people in this church that have bought up one, two, three or more properties with nothing left over. I just think that’s a denial of the Lordship of Christ.
There’s nothing wrong with buying properties, but it’s very secondary to giving back to God for the kingdom, and I can’t imagine anything more foolish than to get the end of your life and say, “Well, we gave nothing to the kingdom, but boy, we had lots of houses.” Sounds to me very like the rich fool.
God judges everything
God decides everything; God rules everything, God judges everything. Chapter 20 of Deuteronomy is a very difficult chapter to do with taking the land. This is not to be compared to invasions today in Afghanistan or Iraq because this was a once, only, never to be repeated, taking of the promised land.
I know some people think the Bible is full of violence, as if God is instructing violence all over the place but as far as I know, it’s almost reduced to here, the taking of the land, and a lot of the Old Testament violence has got to do with crazy people, unsanctioned, unauthorized violence. But here in Deuteronomy 20, God had promised the land to Abraham 400 years before. He owned the land, He owned the people, and He owned everything in the land. He had waited four centuries for the people to amend their lives but they didn’t, four centuries. Someone said once, “If you want to invade a land, wait four centuries.” That’s what God did.
He made sure that everybody knew of Him because when these spies went into the land, and they met Rahab, the prostitute, she said, “The whole land is aware of you, the God who brought his people out of Egypt and across the Red Sea.” So God had been very patient, and it was now time to take His people into His land and to bring judgment on those who had resisted Him for generation after generation, after generation. This taking of the land is a preview of the Judgment Day. Do we like the idea of the Judgment Day? Yes and no. We like the idea of justice; we don’t like the idea of destruction.
Judgment Day is not meant to be nice, just like the tragedies in Luke 13, where people were killed in accidents or natural disasters, and Jesus said, “The lesson for this is to repent. Be warned and repent.” And then as we look at chapter 20, I want you to see how compassionate the chapter is. You wouldn’t find this among the pagans; nobody would fight a war like this. But look at chapter 20, where we read verse one. God says to his people, “You’re going into fight, don’t be afraid. I brought you out of Egypt; I’m going to bring you into the land.” Verse two, “The priest is to go up to the troops, and the priest is not to pray for success, no, that it’s not an issue, nor is he to say good luck, that’s a waste of time. He’s to announce to you that you’re going to succeed because this is my battle,” says the Lord.
Verses 5 to 9, then you are to say to the soldiers, “Is there anyone here who’s bought a house? Would you like to go home? Is there anyone who’s planted a vineyard? Would you like to go home? Is there anyone who’s got engaged? Would you like to go home? Is there anyone here who’s nervous?” That would be me. “Would you like to go home?” Because God is not primarily about battle, God is about people, and He doesn’t need numbers. It doesn’t matter whether he’s got five or five million, doesn’t matter.
Verses 10 to 15, “Go up to the nearby cities and offer them peace.” That is, the cities is a little further away, I should say, offer them peace. “If they accept peace, they serve you. If they refuse peace, lay siege.” “And if you do fight,” says the Lord, “spare the women and the children.” And later in Deuteronomy, He talks about how the women and the children are to be looked after. And then come the really sobering verses in 16 to 18, these are very fearful verses. He says, “When it comes to the land, the people in the land, the seven ungodly nations, it’s time for the wages of sin to be death. They’ve rejected, they’ve refused, it’s time for death.” And God instructs His people to move in and bring His judgment.
This Deuteronomy 20 is not as frightening as the Judgment Day in the book of Revelation, which is much more frightening than here in the Old Testament, where we’re told that God will bring a judgment on the people who turned their back on him and in very figurative language it says, “The blood will run the height of a horse’s bridle.” Which is a very vivid way of saying it’s going to be a very, very serious day. But standing in between Deuteronomy 20, a preview of judgment and revelation, the final judgment, is the cross. Where God caused his judgment to fall on his son, so that we might be spared and survive.
So you won’t get a more wonderful and compassionate look at war than Deuteronomy 20, but in the end, those who turn their back can continue to do so, find nothing but death. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the converted Muslim, Nabeel Qureshi, he’s written a number of books. One is called Answering Jihad, and he says, and I just want to tell you this because you might like to tuck it away in your head, it’s useful to know this, he says, as a converted Muslim he says, “The Bible is descriptive on violence. It describes it; it does not prescribe it. It does not urge it; it does not command. It commands the opposite. It describes violence, but it doesn’t prescribe it.”
However, he says, “The Quran prescribes violence, it urges it.” “Illiterate Islam,” he says, “is peaceful because it doesn’t know the Quran.” But literate Islam is not, and the Internet is enabling more and more to be literate. That’s the world we’re in. But when you read the New Testament, you discover that God calls on his people to be patient, merciful, forgiving, long-suffering, trusting themselves to God, not using the sword. Now the very end of this in my last two minutes is that at the end of chapter 20 of Deuteronomy, I don’t know if you noticed this is as Rosie was reading the passage, but the Lord says, “Don’t cut down the fruit trees.” Why does He say this at the end of the chapter?
You might think, well, it’s because He wants them to have joy in the land, and of course, He does. He wants them to have a land that’s really productive and wonderful and going to sustain them. But I wonder whether the fruit trees sound familiar to you. Can you think of another place in the Bible where there are fruit trees? Maybe your mind goes back to Genesis 1 and 2, fruit trees, plenty of fruit trees. When you get to the last two chapters of the Bible, fruit trees, plenty of fruit trees and here is Deuteronomy 20 saying, “God is interested in the welfare of his people.” Just as Jesus said, “I’ve come that you may have life and have it to the full. That’s why I’m dying for you.”
And Deuteronomy 20 is a little reminder that God, even in the midst of judgment, is interested in the life and the welfare of his people. How do you move from Genesis 1 and 2, which we’ve lost to Revelation 21, 22 which is to be found? How do you move from one to the other? You move through the tree that is Calvary. You put your faith in the one who died on the tree, who took the curse so that you might have the blessing. That’s why these chapters remind us that God is a God who decides everything, rules everything, and judges everything, but he does it as a lover of the people he loves.
Let’s pray. We thank you, our great and gracious God, for teaching so wisely, wonderfully, with liberty and love. We pray that you would give, to all who are gathered this evening, grace to hear your word, trust you, obey you and be joyful. We ask it in Jesus name, Amen.