True and false experience - Deuteronomy 4:1-40
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
A few weeks ago at the Northern Training Course in Sheffield at which I teach, I had a disturbing conversation with some of the students over the question of what counts as an authentic experience of God. Although the details varied, the characteristic features which these young people had come across remained the same which were these: they had gone along to large Christian gatherings. At these it was claimed that God was doing a new thing and it was something to be experienced now. It was like catching a train, it was said, you had to get on it before it left the station or you would be left behind. After a lengthy bout of singing when one speaker announced he wasn’t going to teach from the Bible, but instead elaborate on three words God had given him that evening, people began to fall down, laughing and shaking. The young students who were telling me this instinctively felt it was not quite right: little or no Bible was the order of the day- together with what felt like manipulation. But who were they to judge? Maybe it was of God? But what upset them the most was that they said they were made to feel as if they weren’t really Christians at all or if they were, they were an inferior species.
Of course, claims of God doing ‘new things’ with a focus on having an ‘experience’ are not new. And to illustrate the sort of things these young people were talking about and which I want us to address tonight, let us take a look at some recent examples (DVD). So the claim is being made these are experiences of God- gold teeth, falling down and laughter. But how do you know?
Now if I understand what God is saying in Deuteronomy 4 correctly, then a true experience of God is the most important experience any human being can have. In fact all human beings will have at least one of two such experiences. There is the experience of God’s wrath in judgement. Pharaoh and his people experienced that- with the death of their first born children. The parents and grandparent’s of these Israelites experienced that and their bodies were strewn throughout the Sinai desert as a result in their thousands. Now that is an experience of God you do not want. You need to avoid that experience at all costs. But there is another experience God wants us to have-the experience of his grace, his kindness, his forgiveness. That is an experience which not only transforms our present lives- changing us from God’s foes into God’s friends- but actually determines our final experience- enjoying God’s presence for ever in unalloyed bliss. That is an experience you sell your house to have- whatever you do, don’t miss out on that one. And both experiences are dealt with in our passage this evening, but it is the experience of blessing I want us to focus on in particular.
Now the main theme of Deuteronomy 4 is how very, very careful we must be not to exchange the true experience of God for false experience. But it is because it is so easy to do that, that God through his servant Moses goes to great lengths to warn his people not to do it, to avoid falling into the trap of swapping the real thing for that which is impressive but fake. For if it is fake but seems true then it is a dreadful, dangerous delusion.
So let us ask: according to Deuteronomy 4 what are the hallmarks of a true experience of God as opposed to a false experience? Let me mention three which have both a positive and a negative element: True religion is God- given not man- made; true religion is rooted in the past and not driven by the present; true religion involves hearing the objective words of God and not being swayed by the subjective feelings of man. Now, if we understand and apply these principles properly then we will be able to identify false religion whenever it comes our way.
First, true religion is God- given not man- made. Let me ask: What is the goal of religion? Those who study these things will say something like this: man has a deep need to understand his place in the universe; to answer the big questions such as, ‘why am I here?’, ‘where am I heading?’ And so he constructs religions to answer those sorts of questions and meet those deepest needs for significance and security.’ And I think there is much to be said for that. Some religions are precisely that. The goal of man-made religion as such is to meet man’s felt needs. But that is not what we find in Deuteronomy. Take a look at vv 1-2 ‘Hear 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. 2Do 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.’ Do you see what the goal is? To meet some inner existential longing? To have an ‘I- thou encounter with the great Divine?’ No. In this case it is to possess the land. God has revealed himself to these people to fulfil his promise of blessing for the world. It was a promise made back in Genesis 12 that through Abraham’s descendents –and one in particular who we now know as Jesus Christ- the whole of the human race should be blessed in being rightly related to him on the basis of trusting his promises-his Word. And here is that promise being fulfilled- the land is being given. Now, I wouldn’t be surprised in the least, given the general behaviour of these people, that some listening to Moses would have shrugged their shoulders at this point and said, ‘I am not sure that I want to take possession of the land. I want more from my religion than that- a bit of excitement, a bit of zap.’ And some did as we shall see in a second. But the principle being laid down is that it is God who determines what we should have from religion not us. It is divinely given not consumer driven. What is more, not only is the goal set by God, but the means by which we reach the goal is set by him. We see that here too- it is by hearing the words of the Lord, believing them and obeying them that we receive their blessing and not adding to them extra so- called words from the Lord-v2.
And at this juncture in his sermon, Moses gives the people an example from their own experience of a false experience of God, when they chose to disregard his word-those who followed the Baal of Peor, we are told, were destroyed vv3-4. This was one of the darkest and sorriest episodes in Israel’s recent history and you read all about it in Numbers 25. So let me sketch out for you what happened. The men decided to go for a religion which was more interesting than the religion of Yahweh, one more feelings based. The feeling was sex. Now there is a felt need if ever there was one! What about having a religion which meets that need? The idea was that by having have sex with a temple prostitute with lots of religious paraphernalia thrown in, this could persuade the nature god Baal to follow suit with the result that from this divine copulation your family and crops also increase in fertility and that by any one’s reckoning is a blessing. So it was a very real experience they had. It seemed to ensure results in the here and now- naming it and claiming it. But allow me to let you into a little secret-the goal of that religion was not God-given. The way to reach that goal was not God- given either. Now you and I may read of this account and shake our heads and wonder ‘How on earth did anyone fall for that? It’s obviously wrong.’ Yet, many did. Were they particularly stupid or wilful? I don’t think so. They were just human and the human mind has an amazing ability to delude itself and persuade itself that what we are doing is alright and God won’t mind. How else do you explain some of the things we saw tonight which on the face of it is a million light years from what we read in the Bible? This very law given to Moses made it crystal clear that it is an abomination to God to exploit the weak and vulnerable but that is exactly what we saw taking place with Benny Hinn. Did it not simply break your heart to see that poor people in their wheelchairs giving their money away and Hinn collecting buckets of the stuff so he can fly his private jet? That is wicked! Let me ask: how many of the people Jesus dealt with do you see howling like an animal or laughing uncontrollably or being given gold fillings? The answer: none. Sure, we do see some falling to the ground and shaking, but they were being exorcised of a demon at the time. No, the followers of the one true God are not to be like the pagans-it was the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel who spent their time dancing and chanting; it was the whirling dervish cult in the Sudan that exhibited uncontrollable behaviour. In fact the pagans are to be so impressed by how different the followers of God behave that they envy us-v5-8 ‘See, 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. 6Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, "Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people." 7What 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? 8And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today? Look, says Moses, you have received so much, why on earth would you want to go beyond it and add to it? What would Moses say to God’s people today do you think? To people who have accepted Jesus as Lord and who are heading not for the promised land of Israel but the promised reward of heaven? Might it not be something like this: ‘So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, 7rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. 8See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ. 9For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, 10and you have been given fullness in Christ, Colossians 2: 6-10. That is the apostle Paul speaking to New Testament believers who are also open to the temptation of the offer of something extra to Jesus Christ.
I want to ask those whom we have seen on the DVD and those whom the students encountered at those meetings: ‘How do you know what you have is of God?’ And it is not good enough for them to say, ‘We just know’. How can the lady who thought she had been given the miracle of gold fillings, having discovered it was not a miracle, nothing had change, say well it doesn’t matter, the main thing is that I met with God in the meeting? How does she know? It certainly isn’t because of the miracle that didn’t happen. So what was it? You see, if what they are offering is not of God, then it is false and it is causing people to cease continuing in Jesus as Lord and doubting that they have fullness in him, and that is a terrible thing- you are in millstone around your neck territory at that point. For it is causing people to look away from Jesus to something else-to the ‘experience’, to ‘the blessing’, and certainly the man in the white suit who can give the blessing- but not to Jesus and him crucified. No, if I have the Lord Jesus, I have the fullness of God in him and so have you if you have received him. And to be honest there is absolutely nothing, nothing in what I have seen tonight which makes me remotely attracted to what is being offered.
But someone will say, ‘How do you know that these experiences are not experiences which the Lord Jesus is working today- that he wants us to have gold teeth without dentistry?’ That is dealt with by our second point: true religion is rooted in the past and not driven by the present- vv 9-14. (read 9-12). ‘Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them slip from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them. 10Remember the day you stood before the LORD your God at Horeb, when he said to me, "Assemble the people before me to hear my words so that they may learn to revere me as long as they live in the land and may teach them to their children." 11You came near and stood at the foot of the mountain while it blazed with fire to the very heavens, with black clouds and deep darkness. 12Then the LORD spoke to you out of the fire. You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice.’ Now, we have just read a very strange thing. It is strange because Moses speaks to these people as if they had been present at Sinai (Horeb) when the law had been given and these things had happened-but they weren’t. This is the next generation. Those who had been there, with a few exceptions, had died and yet he speaks to these people as if they had been present. Why? Well, it is to do with the solidarity of God’s people and the abiding nature of his word. It’s as if Moses is saying, ‘God had you in mind when he made the covenant and gave the law- it was as much for you and your descendents that this happened.’ So in principle you were there in God’s eyes. And what happened has been recorded for you so you can be there again every time you read of the event.
Yes, you say, but what about the Holy Spirit speaking to us today? The same principle applies. Thinking of this episode, the writer to the Hebrews 3:7 quotes Psalm 95 and says, ‘So as the Holy Spirit says (present tense)- and then comes the quotation ‘Today, if you hear his voice (the voice of God in Scripture), do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion, during the time of testing in the desert where your fathers tested and tried me and for forty years saw what I did.’ So it’s as if we were there too ‘as you did in the rebellion’ when your fathers tested me.’ But I am not a Jew, no, but I am a member of God’s people and so am linked to all of God’s people in the past. And so what God said to his people then- which we have recorded for us in Scripture- he says to us now- by the Holy Spirit speaking through Scripture. Do you see?
So the most important experience in our lives actually took place before we were born. For the Jews it took place on Mount Sinai. For Christians it took place on Mount Calvary. And as we remember that event, our experience of God is then mediated through an act of remembering- it is a remembering experience we have, a looking back to what God has done for us in the past, and so enjoying the benefits which are experienced in the present. But in a profound sense -we were there. There is an old Negro spiritual hymn, in which they sung of their experience of God in the midst of terrible suffering and it goes like this: ‘Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Oh sometimes it causes me to tremble.’ A Christian would want to say, ‘Yes I was there. If you want me to tell you of my experience of God, I will tell you that I have been crucified with Christ. I died with Christ. And more than that I want to tell you I have been raised with Christ to a new life. The most profound experience I can have of God is to remember-remember Jesus Christ and his death for me.’ This is what the apostle Paul says in Romans 5:5, and here he is describing the Christian experience- ‘God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us’ and then he goes on, ‘But God demonstrates his love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’ The Holy Spirit does not lower our consciousness of what Jesus has done for us on the cross by causing us to roll around the floor in fits of laughter, he heightens it. And sometimes it causes me to tremble. We are talking about the authentic experience of faith in God, the experience of seeing what God has done for you; how good he has been to you, seeing that it was for you Jesus Christ died and rose again. You may tremble. You may shout for joy. You might silently weep. You might not even say all that much because it moves you so deeply- but it is not the effect as such that matters, but that you were there. That it is through that event –what is called the Gospel -God meets with you and with me.
Now, some people are telling us that God wants to offer something better than that. And when you see what that something is then you have to wonder whether they have experienced the real thing. False experience forgets the past or plays down that past and it is the present experience that matters- as it was with the Israelites and the Baal of Peor. You know, all the experiences we have seen on the DVD- the laughing, the falling down, can be produced by those of other faiths and none. Stage hypnotists will tell you they can produce the same effects as Benny Hinn. But, by virtue of its uniqueness, no one can produce the experience of sins forgiven through the cross of Christ. Of course not, for it is rooted in a once and for all event in history and that is what we are to remember.
So how can we be careful and ensure we have a true experience of God? The third principle- true religion involves hearing the objective words of God and not being swayed by the subjective feelings of men. The principle is there in v12 ‘Then the LORD spoke to you out of the fire. You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice.’ You see, there is no such thing as ‘pure experience’, it is always interpreted experience, experience shaped by something. And the Christian experience of God is shaped by his words- it is to do with truth. That this is what God is really like, this is what God has done, that this is what God requires of me. It is not just an experience of anything which we can label –‘spiritual’ and claim to be of God. To seek God anywhere else other than through his revelation of himself- now fully and finally given in the Lord Jesus and recorded in the Bible- is actually corrupt. Look at v15- 18 ‘You saw no form of any kind the day the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, 16so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, 17or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, 18 or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the waters below. So if God has spoken to you and you decide to turn your back on that and say ‘I am wanting God to speak to me as I meditate upon this object I have made’ –that is corrupt. Or there may be a turning towards mysticism- v19 And when you look up to the sky and see the sun, the moon and the stars--all the heavenly array--do not be enticed into bowing down to them and worshiping things the LORD your God has apportioned to all the nations under heaven’. Mysticism makes the mistake of thinking that you are experiencing God when all you are doing is experiencing the things of God’s creation. So you stand out beneath a star studied sky or are moved to tears by a beautiful sunset- that is not God you are experiencing- it is a sense of awe or wonder of the things God has made and the two are not the same. And if you think they are the same, then you will be going off to create your own experiences which are false experiences in that they are not true religious experiences. And God cares about that-v24 ‘For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God. Friends, it is the easiest thing in the world to create experiences- especially today through technology and music and dazzling stage performances and to pass them off as ‘spiritual’ when they are just natural. That is why we have to be very, very careful. But the true experience of the true God comes through listening to him- meeting him in his Word. It is here we see him act- and it is here we have all the signs and wonders we need for faith. It is here we hear him speak and so experience his comfort, his challenge, his promise, his rebuke, his inspiration, his hope and a thousand and one other wonderful things he lovingly gives to us. It is here I come face to face with his glorious character, his infinite majesty, his stunning holiness, his all encompassing sovereignty and never ending mercy, and of course you want to bow down before a God like that and worship.
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