The true God - Deuteronomy 4:1-14
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
What do you think is the most demanding aspect of a church leaderís job? If you were to try and pin it down, what would you say is the most challenging part of what I do as a full-time Christian leader? About two weeks ago I was asked to write a short report for the Archbishop of York about my experiences so far as an assistant minister in the Church of England. Let me give you a sample of the different types of questions he asked me. What areas of ministry have you particularly enjoyed or found to be real strengths? You can tell me the truth afterwards. How would you assess your working relationship with your vicar? ďHmmm, what should I put? Very good. As far as I know he hasnít asked the PA desk to cut the sound during one of my sermons.Ē And so the questions continued, until I reached the last one on the page. What would you assess as being the real challenges that you have faced during the past year? Well, that got me thinking. What would I rank as my biggest challenge over the last 12 months? Trying to persuade apathetic people to at least investigate the claims of Jesus? Explaining Psalm 23 at the hospital bed of a dying woman? Conducting the funerals of non-Christians at the crematorium? I thought to myself, do any of these activities rank as my greatest challenge of the year? Eventually I had to say no. Because the more I thought about it the more I realised that the greatest challenge I face as a full-time Christian leader is when I have to sit down next to another Christian who is facing a tough life situation, often one of which I have no personal experience, and have to persuade them to obey Godís commandments. Itís so much easier, isnít it, when Godís commandments are spoken of in the abstract. When the issues being discussed are not what we are currently facing. I find it much easier to affirm the goodness of Godís instructions in the safety of a bible study than when I am face to face with another Christian who is planning to disobey them.
And thatís been my greatest challenge of the year: Trying to persuade other Christians to obey Godís Word, either when they donít feel like it or when it clashes with their own wisdom. And thatís why itís an absolute delight to be in Deuteronomy chapter 4 this evening. Because in these opening 14 verses of the chapter we are presented with two reasons why Christians should obey what God tells them to do. The first half of Deuteronomy chapter 4 is all about obedience. Let me show you what I mean. Verse 1. Moses says to the people of God who are currently standing at the edge of the Promised Land, ďHear now, O Israel, the decrees and laws I am about to teach you. Follow them so that you may live and may go in and take possession of the land that the LORD, the God of your fathers, is giving you. 2 Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the LORD your God that I give you.Ē Or verse 5. ďSee, I have taught you decrees and laws as the LORD my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it.Ē Or verse 8. Moses says, ďWhat other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today?Ē And then verse 14. We hear again what we read at the beginning. ďAnd the LORD directed me at that time to teach you the decrees and laws you are to follow in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess.Ē
The theme is obvious, isnít it? Itís all about obedience. As the people of God stand on the edge of new possibilities, as they prepare to enter into the Promised Land, Moses preaches for a decision. He is an outstanding preacher. He knows a sermon is not designed simply to impart information. Of course it does provide information for the brain. But a sermon is not simply a collection of words grouped together to provide the listener with interesting facts of history. No, a sermon is preached so that lives will be changed as a result. And thatís what Moses is doing here in Deuteronomy chapter 4.
As the people of God stand at their moment of decision Moses summons together all of his rhetorical power and pleads with them to obey whatever God commands them to do. Complete obedience was his message for Godís rescued people. And yet this was no blind obedience. This is not loud shouting without substance. This is not ranting without reason. The call to obedience is given a motivation. In fact, it is given two motivations. And this is what I want to focus on for the rest of the sermon. If you are a normal Christian you will struggle to put Godís commandments into practice. At certain points we will feel the pressure to disobey what God teaches us in the Bible. There will be times when our thinking will clash with Godís thinking. Situations will arise when Godís commandments will seem out of date. And when those moments arise what Godís people need more than anything are crystal clear reasons to obey what God says. And thatís what we are given in Deuteronomy chapter 4. Two reasons why Christians should obey Godís commandments. So letís examine in more depth what they are.Reason number 1. And youíll see this on your hand out. Why should Christians obey what God says? Because of the future benefits.
Have a look at verse 1. ďHear now, O Israel, the decrees and laws I am about to teach you. Follow them so that you may live and may go in and take possession of the land that the LORD, the God of your fathers, is giving you.Ē Now when you stop and think about it, itís not exactly a hard choice is it? Moses was asking them to choose between death in the desert and life in the Promised Land. ďHmmm, what are we going to choose?Ē It was a no brainer! It was the equivalent of being offered cake or death. It was a simple choice. Do you want to die in the desert or live in paradise?
But letís not miss the logic of verse 1. If the people of God wanted to live, which was the sensible option, then they would have to obey Godís commandments. Moses says, ďFollow them so that you may live.Ē
A few weeks ago I discovered that a mysterious government committee exists to boost the feel-good factor. It is called the Whitehall Wellbeing Working Group or W3G for short and believe it or not this committee has been set the task of boosting the level of life satisfaction that British citizens enjoy.
Apparently in 2002, the Treasury published a pamphlet entitled Life Satisfaction: The State of Knowledge and Implications for Government, and the conclusion said, ďthere is a case for state intervention to boost life satisfaction.Ē One of the features of our contemporary society is a desperate attempt to find life. People are desperate to find something to do or someone to follow who will be able to provide a meaningful life that is worth pursuing. Against the backdrop of so much Western emptiness we are increasingly watching a growing number of people who are searching for more. Did you know that the most subscribed course at Harvard this year is a course in ďpositive psychologyĒ? And from this September one of Englandís top schools will offer pupils one lesson a week in how to become happy and fulfilled. But hereís my question: Will they turn their students to Deuteronomy chapter 4? Will they encourage them to read this part of the Bible? Because right here in the pages of the Old Testament we are told in no uncertain terms how to find fullness of life. ďHear now, O Israel, the decrees and laws I am about to teach you. Follow them so that you may live.Ē
Now for the people of God who were listening to Moses sermon this fullness of life was located in a particular place. In fact, they could almost see it. They were on the very boundary of a new beginning. It was almost within their grasp. But if they were to make it their home, if they were to enjoy fullness of life in the land of promise then they would have to obey everything Moses was about to teach them.
So, for example, if they wanted to get rid of the wicked Canaanites, the current occupants of the land, they would have to follow Godís war commandments, found in Deuteronomy chapter 7. And if they did not they would enjoy a sub-standard life in the Promised Land. Yes, they would still be there but the Canaanites would be a constant threat to the purity of their religion and hence the quality of their life. If they wanted to live, they would have to obey. And the same is true for us. So letís have think about how we can avoid breaking Godís commandments.
Have a look at verse 2. ďDo not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the LORD your God that I give you.Ē Or in other words, Moses is saying to us: ďNever read your bibles with a pair of scissors in your hand or a tube of Pritt Stick in your pocket.Ē
I heard of a school recently who would not let one of their pupils read from a modern translation of the bible at their Christmas carol service. He wanted to read from the NIV, the bible we have in the pews. And he wanted to do this so that people could understand what he was talking about. But the school authorities did not allow it because, in their view, the passage was much more poetic in the Kings James Version. Apparently the fact that it was completely incomprehensible to modern youngsters in the Kings James Version wasnít a big issue. The most important point was to make it sound good not communicate the truth of the words. But the end result was that they disobeyed the clear commandment in the bible to teach the truth of Godís Word to children.
We must be careful of sticking our rules on top of what God has said, otherwise we are in great danger of ending up in the same situation as the Pharisees, who if you remember had gone through countless tubes of Pritt Stick pasting their traditions on top of Godís rules. But, in the end, their preoccupation with keeping their own customs resulted in them breaking Godís good commandments.
And thatís one of the main reasons Jesus was so angry with them. We must be careful of sticking our rules on top of what God has said.
But letís also be careful to avoid the other danger. And this I think is the more common one. Itís when we read our bibles with a pair of scissors in our hand. So when we find something we already agree with or which suits our contemporary society we leave it in. ďGood old GodĒ, we say, ďAt least he gets it right sometimes.Ē But when we come across a commandment or a statement which seems too difficult or too old fashioned or too unacceptable we bring the scissors close and cut out the page.
Did you know that if we followed what is called the Church of England Lectionary, which is a weekly plan of bible readings for Anglican churches to use in their weekly services, there would be certain parts of the bible we would never encounter. And why? Because when the lectionary was composed the scissors were out. And thatís why we teach consecutively through bible books at St Johns. That way we cannot miss anything out. So if you were here for the 2 Thessalonians series we preached through before Easter you will remember that in a five week sermon series we managed to talk about the return of Christ, the final judgement, the man of lawlessness, predestination and election and church discipline. But the reason we did was not because they were our favourite topics to preach about but rather because they were in the text. And when God writes something down it is a dangerous practice to cut it out of our bible.
So let me encourage us this evening to keep Godís commandments. Because of the future benefits let us endeavour to do what God has said. Do we want fullness of life? Is that something you want? Do we want to live in the way we were designed to live? Then let us keep Godís commandments.
Or let me be more precise. If you are not a Christian here this evening then God only has one command for you: Follow Jesus. Turn away from your sin, give up any illusion that you have control of your future, and ask Jesus to become your personal King. And if you do you will experience fullness of life. When Jesus was alive 2000 years ago he said: ďI have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.Ē He was not offering sub standard existence he was offering life as it was meant to be lived: A restored relationship with God made possible by his death on the cross. But in order to receive this life we must obey Jesusí commandment to follow him. And if we do not, we will miss out on true life this side of eternity and will experience eternal death on the other side of eternity. The stakes are that high.
And if we donít think God would ever do such a thing to people who disobey his commandments letís pay careful attention to verses 3 and 4. ďYou saw with your own eyes what the LORD did at Baal Peor. The LORD your God destroyed from among you everyone who followed the Baal of Peor, 4 but all of you who held fast to the LORD your God are still alive today.Ē It was a tragedy. You can read all about it in Numbers 25. But let me give you the gist of what happened. A few years previously God had wiped out 24,000 people from this current generation of Israelites because they had disobeyed his commandments. They had indulged in worshipping other gods and as a result Godís anger had burned against them. So let us never believe that God will not punish disobedience. He has done it before and he will do it again. So if you are someone here tonight who has not yet given your life to Jesus then can I please urge you as strongly as I can to obey Godís commandment to follow Jesus. I think you have a cake or death option. And so therefore the only sensible choice is for you to become a Christian.
Now for those of us who have already become Christians then letís endeavour to remember that Godís commandments are the way to live. God is not trying to spoil our fun. He does not sit in heaven with his anti-enjoyment scanner longing to wipe out the last traces of human satisfaction. No, God is in the business of life and his commandments are designed to give life. And we must remember this when we are confronted with instructions in the bible which we would rather not put into practice.
Or let me put it like this. Every day when we wake up we are faced with a choice. Every morning we are faced with a decision. Do we want to enjoy a full Christian life or a substandard Christian life? Now I donít know about you but I want the maximum. I want that fullness of life that Jesus promises to me. I want to take hold of my inheritance in Christ. I want to know more about my beloved saviour and I want to know more of his power working through me. But if I want all of that hereís the question I must ask myself every morning: ďLee, do you want to live?Ē And if the answer is yes then I must pattern my life after Godís instructions.
Why should Christians obey Godís commandments? First of all, because of the future benefits. And did you notice from verses 5 and 6 that the benefits are not simply confined to Christians? Verse 5. Moses says to the people, ďSee, I have taught you decrees and laws as the LORD my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. 6 Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, ďSurely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.ĒĒ
It was the case then and it is also the case today. Godís rescued people are to be a model to the nations around them. They are to show the world a different way of behaving. We are to demonstrate by our difference the wisdom of God.
Did you know that every day our behaviour witnesses to the people around us? Every day people are watching us: Friends, family, work colleagues, neighbours, team mates, the list goes on and on. People are watching the show of our lives. And so the question we face as Christians is not ďWill they see anything today as I go to work or as I look after the children or as I go to school or university or whatever?Ē But rather ďWhat will they see in my life today?Ē And what about us as a church family? How can we show the world that Christian relationships are far superior than non-Christian ones? How can we demonstrate that our life together is something special? Only by keeping Godís commandments. And particularly the ones that make us different from everybody else.
As Godís people we are in a very privileged position. Just think about the many benefits we enjoy. We have been rescued from the consequences of our past sins. We have been saved from the wrath of God. We are guaranteed a place in the New Creation. And right now we enjoy the blessings of verses 7 and 8. ďWhat other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the LORD our God is near us whenever we pray to him? 8 And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws?Ē So letís show the world how special we are and put these commandments into practice.Why should Christians obey what God says? First of all, because of the future benefits. And, secondly, because of our past agreement. As Christians we need to remember what we have signed up for. When relating to God we must avoid mistaken identity at all costs.
I am told that visitors to the mountain national parks of Canada are likely to either meet a black or a brown bear. Apparently, these particular places are known as bear country. And so because of this the national parks issue safety tips for people who ever stumble across one of these animals. One of the tips says that if you are attacked by a brown bear the best idea is to play dead, it will usually leave you alone.
However, if you play dead with a black bear it will eat you. So itís important to know the difference. Mistaken identity is very costly. So what about dashing off to a nearby tree? Perhaps to avoid a lethal mix-up between the brown bear and the black bear we can climb a nearby tree to find some protection. Well, yes we can Ė as long as itís a brown bear, because brown bears cannot climb trees. However, black bears are wonderful climbers so itís best not to climb trees if a black bear is pursuing you. Which of course begs the vital question: How can we tell the difference? Well, itís not the obvious one; black bears are often brown in colour. But donít despair, there is a way of telling them apart. Apparently, the paws are different. Now try to remember that when a bear is charging toward you at 35mph!
In certain circumstances it is vital to avoid mistaken identity. Who we think someone is determines how we interact with them. And so therefore it should be our desire to avoid mistaken identity at all costs. So letís have a think about how we interact with God. What sort of relationship are we to enjoy with our creator? When we became Christians what sort of contract did we sign? Whenever it was in the past, how did we agree to relate to God in the future? Well, let me remind us of what we should have been told. Verse 13. ďHe [God] declared to you his covenant, the Ten Commandments, which he commanded you to follow and then wrote them on two stone tablets.Ē And the key word to notice is covenant. A covenant is an agreement between two parties about the way their relationship is to be conducted. And here in Deuteronomy chapter 4 Moses reminds the people of the basis of their ongoing dealings with the God who had rescued them from slavery in Egypt. And did you see what the agreement was? Verse 13. The Ten Commandments.
Now at this point we have to be very careful. The Ten Commandments were not given to the Israelites for them to merit a relationship with God. This was not ď10 rules to make you worthy of salvation.Ē Nothing could be further from the truth. These people did not deserve salvation from Egypt. It was only because of Godís generosity that they were rescued from a situation they could do nothing about. But now as Godís rescued people they had certain responsibilities. God had made a covenant with them. He had given them the Ten Commandments. He had made a treaty with them and they had agreed to do exactly what he said. They had signed their name on the dotted line.
Now one of the fascinating discoveries Iím made in the last few weeks as Iíve been preparing to preach on Deuteronomy is the relationship between the Ten Commandments and the rest of Godís instructions contained in the book. At first sight there seems to be little connection between the Ten Commandments and the numerous other laws. But as Iíve discovered recently all the laws we read about in the book of Deuteronomy from chapter 6 onwards are simply a more detailed explanation of the Ten Commandments. In fact, the structure of the book is amazing. Because from chapter 6 onwards it seems as if Moses goes through each commandment in sequence and explains how it will apply to the people of God in a new situation. Obedience was at the core of the peoplesí ongoing relationship with God.
So what about us? As New Testament Christians what role does obedience have in our relationship with God? Do we not live in the time of grace? Have we not left all this law behind? Well, let me read you some words from the Lord Jesus. Matthew 7:21: ďNot everyone who says to me, ĎLord, Lord,í will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ĎLord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?í 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ĎI never knew you. Away from me, you lawless individuals!í
Or in other words, obedience is still at the very core of our ongoing relationship with God. Like the people in the Old Testament we are saved entirely by Godís generosity but like them God has entered into a covenant with us where he is the boss. Yes he is a generous boss and yes he is a good boss. He is a boss who loves us and cares for us. He is a boss who has our best interests at heart. But nevertheless he is still to be regarded as the boss. And when we became Christians this is what we agreed to do.
So here is a scenario I would like you to imagine. In the next two weeks we are confronted with a commandment in the Bible that we completely disagree with or which perhaps seems out of date or highly controversial to practice in the 21st century. Let me give you a few examples.
o No sex before marriage
o Only marry a fellow Christian
o Do not lie at work Ė especially to customers on the phone
o Do not steal your employers time Ė especially by being lazy
o Take a day off to rest and recover
o Do not worry about the future
How do we overcome our desire to disobey what God commands? By asking ourselves the following three questions.
1) Do I want to live? And if the answer is yes then letís put into practice what God says. Letís remember the future benefits for us. Godís commandments are the way to life.
2) Do I want other people to live? And, again, if the answer is yes then letís do what God says. Letís remember that itís when we are distinct from the world rather than identical to the world when people begin to ask questions of our behaviour and so therefore when we have more opportunities to share something of the gospel with them.
3) Do I claim to be a Christian? Because if we do then we have no choice but to put into practice what God says. Every time we read a commandment in the Bible God doesnít say to us ďDeal or no deal? Do you like this one? Or would you rather put it on one side?Ē That isnít what being a Christian is all about. Being a Christian is all about obeying whatever Jesus tells us to do. And so when we are faced with a commandment from Jesus we need to remember the terms of our initial contract.
Do I want to live? Do I want other people to live? Do I claim to be a Christian? Then letís pray that God would give us the strength to practice what he preaches. Letís pray.
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