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Fall Quarter: Responding to God’s Grace
Sunday school lesson for the week of October 6, 2019
By Dr. D. Craig Rikard
Lesson Scripture: Deuteronomy 4:1-14
Key Verse: Deuteronomy 4:2b
Keep the commands of the Lord your God that I give you.
Learning to anchor our faith in God’s unchangeable faithfulness and the eternal word.
This sermon is given by Moses during the latter part of his life. Thus, Israel is nearing the end of its 40-year trek through the wilderness. Moses is offering them the most important instruction they will need to prosper and live righteously in Canaan. They are to obey the Law! The success or failure of Israel in Canaan will depend upon their obedience or disobedience to God and God’s law. Thus, the children of Israel are poised to enter the Promised Land. They are not great warriors or as well equipped for battle as those in Canaan. Their power comes from their faithfulness to God and his truth as revealed in the Mosaic Law, especially the Decalogue.
Historical and theological reflection upon events introducing the narrative:
Change is a certain thread that runs through the fabric of life. And, change is occurring at a rapid rate due to technology and access to information. I remember writing reports in high school and visiting the library for books and specifically encyclopedias for information. Now, my granddaughter can gain this information by tapping a few keys on her computer. Change is inevitable, and it can be frightening. With change comes uncertainty. For Israel, change was not only frightening, it could be terrifying. As a nomadic people traveling through the wilderness they could expect encounters with hostile tribes. Furthermore, they traveled from one grazing spot to another, always hoping for good water and keeping the food supply healthy. Change could mean destruction for them. In spite of their repetitive disbelief and the threat of change, they have arrived at the moment of entry into Canaan. They have done so through God’s guidance and protection. The surrounding tribes were very polytheistic. Their gods’ actions depended upon whether they angered the gods or pleased them. The actions of these idols were far from predictable. However, Israel’s belief and trust were in the one God. In order to stabilize and establish order in their social life God gave them the Mosaic Law. The Law was to reveal God’s nature and expectations, and to guide their moral life toward loving God and each other. The principles of the Mosaic Law remain important and applicable today. They have guided humanity in establishing societies and nations of law and order. We remain dependent upon them today, but it is important for us to interpret these laws correctly. We must learn to separate the cultural laws that differentiated Israel from surrounding nations and their deities from the changeless values of God. For example, their dietary laws and laws of dress are no longer applicable to us. They no longer differentiate the community of faith from the secular world. However, the eternal commandment to come out and be different remains unchanged. We appear differently through our love of God and others, and through our just and righteous living. The Decalogue (the Ten Commandments) remains applicable and unchangeable, for it is the foundation for all loving, moral, and just living.
Theological, historical, and experiential reflection upon Deuteronomy 4:1-14:
Moses calls upon Israel to hear.
This request appears needless on the surface. However, Moses has learned that Israel “hears but doesn’t hear.” Jesus addressed this problem as he taught the disciples and crowds that followed. Jesus frequently spoke the exhortation we read in Matthew 13:9, “He who has ears, let him hear.”
My home is filled with sounds that fall upon my ears. I pay little attention to them. However, when my spouse or children speak, especially in particular tones of voice, I listen, and I listen closely. Moses is speaking authoritatively. His authority comes from God. He doesn’t want what he is about to say to fall on their ears and be quickly forgotten. Read Jesus’ parable of the sower of seed in Matthew 13. Israel is to shut out the daily noise and distractions and listen, for what they are about to hear is very important as they enter Canaan. Notice Moses’ appeal to their history of God’s redemption. It is the same God of their ancestors that will lead them into the land of promise.
How well do we listen for the important in life? How do we hear the spiritual voice of God in a world rife with noise? What are some actions we might take to become better listeners?
Here we are given the very important command to not add or subtract from the Law of the Lord. We immediately face the question, “How did the law grow from the Ten Commandments to approximately 612 laws? Remember, these laws often needed interpretation as Israel lived together. For example, in the Decalogue it reads that we should keep the Sabbath Day holy. But, how was Israel to keep the Sabbath holy? What was work on the Sabbath? If my donkey falls in a ditch, can I pull him out? Moses did not descend Sinai with a load of tablets, only those with the Ten Commandments. Israel was expected to interpret and enact the laws of the Ten Commandments in a spirit of love for God and one another. Thus, judges became important in the life of Israel, and by the New Testament era we have lawyers, the Pharisees, and Sadducees. Israel was not to add or subtract from the intent of God
in giving the laws. Therefore, interpretation of the Law was done with a focus on their holy God and God’s divine nature. It was not to be done using human desire and want. God reminded Israel that he is the lawgiver. Thus, interpretation should be done by one who could discern God’s will for his people. The interpretations should never violate the original intent of God.
What are some current struggles you might have with a different interpretation of God’s law than years ago? In times of great change, how do we, in community, determine the correct path toward proper interpretation that we might remain faithful to God’s will?
In verses 3 and 4 we are given a contrast of life and death. This contrast will eventually lead to what is called The Retribution Principle.
This principle meant that if one lived according to the law they lived and prospered; if they disobeyed, they suffered destructive consequences. Jesus was once asked by his disciples about a man’s blindness. They asked, “Is he blind because of his sin or the sin of his parents?” (John 9) They believed someone’s disobedience, either the man’s sin or his parents, led to his blindness. However, when the rich young ruler walked away from Jesus sadly, the disciples asked, “Who can be saved?” (Mark 10:17-21) They believed his wealth was a result of his righteousness and the righteousness of his family. Both of these narratives reveal the manner in which the Jewish people judged people as righteous or sinful. In stating this contrast of life and death as it related to following God’s commandments, Moses reminds them of Baal Peor. At Shittim many Israelites had sexual relations with women from Moab. Eventually these relationships led to the acceptance and worship of the idols of Moab. One deity to whom some Israelites bowed was Baal Peor. These idolatrous Israelites were sentenced to death. Moses contrast these disobedient Israelites to those standing before him, alive and poised to enter Canaan. This contrast pointedly gave them the message, “Keep God’s commandments and live in blessing or violate them and die cursed.” This lesson sounds harsh to us today. However, remember the Israelites still respond to fear and consequence more often than God’s repeated expressions of love and redemption.
How do we understand blessings and suffering today? Do we see these as related to sin or righteousness? How does God’s revelation of himself in Jesus help us in understanding sin and righteousness and the consequences that follow? How do we see the benefits of obedience in our lives? Can we name some moments when our disobedience caused us pain?
It was an age of polytheism, and the surrounding nations feared the gods of conquering armies and went after the gods of people who prospered and engaged in sensual pleasure. Therefore, the testimony of Israel about their God and his loving works proved vital. Listen to the attributes Moses extols to the people concerning their witness to God. It is not the attributes of might and power, though God is omnipotent. It is rather the attributes of wisdom and understanding. The nations needed to witness God’s divine wisdom and understanding through the actions of the Israelites. The Mosaic Law was fundamental to their developing such wisdom and understanding. Later in Proverbs, Solomon will repetitively extol the virtues and benefits of God’s wisdom. Solomon will tell us that they are to be desired above all other gifts. Read Proverbs 3:13-18. Others will know the greatness of our God based upon the witness of how we treat one other.
In John 15:9-17 Jesus proclaims the power of love and grants it the status of his highest command. In I John 4:7-21 the author records the importance of our relationships with each other. From the early writing of the Old Testament to the gospels and epistles of the New Testament we read that our greatest witness to the world is found in our love for one another. True wisdom and understanding are always grounded in love. Israel was to learn such love through obedience to the Law.
When we think of “our witness” in the world, do we take seriously our treatment of another and our relationships with others? How do you think God’s wisdom and understanding can be revealed through your life and the life of your church?
As stated in prior lessons, there was a distinct division between the eternal and the temporal. We could not see God, touch God, or encounter God without permission to do so. Thus, God often speaks through the intermediaries, the angels. This division was not unique to the Israelites. Most cultures in Moses’ day dared not get too close to their gods. Though this reverence and respect for the divine realm was very important in Israel’s growing understanding of God, Moses statement here is still profound. “Our God is near to us when we pray.” Prayer is the one discipline that allowed them to speak to God directly, and helped them understand that God heard their prayers. They may have stood at a distance from God, but God was close to them. Prayer was the avenue to speak to and encounter the righteous God of love and mercy. In Hebrews 10:19-25 the author reveals that in Christ the great chasm between the divine and human has been erased. God has joined humanity in Jesus! We now, through Jesus Christ, can approach God, who has always been near to us. What a great witness Israel had in the near eastern world! No other nation could draw close to their gods in prayer like the Israelites. The God of Israel offered a closeness the world could observe in Israel’s prayers and in the wise behavior that followed. The world of the Israelites would stand in awe and wonder at such nearness. It was not a distant god who gave Israel the Law. It was the one true God, and he was always near! This nearness revealed a tenderness and compassion in God’s nature. Yes, there are serious consequences for disobedience, and there is meaningful fulfillment in obedience. Yet, the God of love who has drawn near uses both for Israel’s good and the redemption of the world.
In your prayers do you understand and experience a “drawing near to God?” If not, why not? Is our prayer life and the life that emerges from our prayers a witness of God’s righteous love for us, the church, and the world?
Our lesson closes with Moses’ strong statement concerning the importance of God’s law as the foundation for Israel’s relationship with God, with each other, and the world. Israel could not subjectively choose behaviors they liked and ignore those they considered too strict. Israel could not adopt the rules and decrees of neighboring tribes and meld them into their understanding of right and wrong. No, Israel received their law from God
. It should be noted what a marvelous gift the law of God has been to all of humanity. Entire civilizations have structured their understanding and enactment of law based upon the law given to Moses. The Judeo/Christian ethic that courses through the life of our nation is founded upon the Mosaic Law. Its contribution to humanity is remarkable and we should stand in awe before it. No other nation in Israel’s world had such a gift! Now Israel was to enact that gift in their individual lives and their community of faith; and, they were to do so in a manner the world would notice, and eventually desire. Moses reminds us that the entire law rested upon the Ten Commandments. No interpretation by their judges could violate these 10 fundamental laws. They give meaning to all other law. Thus, the Decalogue should always be handled with holy hands and hearts filled with reverence and respect. Jesus will later embody the eternal and spiritual message of the law in and through his life. He said in Matthew 5:17, “Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them, but to fulfill them.” Therefore, the church of Jesus must still reverence and most importantly obey the law and embrace the values the law creates.
Do you think the Ten Commandments still maintain their important role in our society? In our church? In us? If we could identify the foundation for our moral and ethical behavior, what would it be? Is our moral behavior based on obedience to God or have we adopted other cultural laws that conflict with the Ten Commandments?
Law is a term we most often use or understand in a negative context. We speak of “breaking the law,” or ask, “Is a person law-abiding?” We live trying not to violate law for we know there are consequences. This lesson reminds us of the Law’s beauty, holiness and importance. Society would be absolutely chaotic with the Law. There remain consequences for violating the law of God, however; these consequences also lovingly provide order and keep us safe. The Law provides the principles for us to create a just society. For the church, the Law of God is a witness to the wisdom and understanding of God and proclaims to the world that this wisdom and understanding have been embodied in Jesus Christ. Our commitment to Christ is a commitment to all that is just and righteous. The Law is eternal in nature and substance. In Matthew 5:17 Jesus taught, “. . . until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, nor the least stroke of the pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” Thus, our obedience is to the eternal God who gave us the divine gift of the Ten Commandments.
Almighty God, giver of every good and perfect gift, we thank you for the gift of your Law. We thank you for the wisdom revealed in your holy commandments, and pray to be filled with that wisdom. Empower us to handle your eternal word with holy hands and hearts, to read it with open eyes and minds, and obey it with faith and courage. In Jesus name, Amen.
Dr. D. Craig Rikard is a South Georgia pastor. Email him at email@example.com.