Testing prophecy - Deuteronomy 13

This is a sermon by Graham Sayer from the evening service on 9th July 2006.

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I received an email on Tuesday this week…titled ’Breaking news’

‘It's alleged that one of the Portuguese football players failed a drugs and alcohol test after the match. If this is confirmed as positive, under World Football Federation rules, paragraph 6 sub section 2e, Portugal will forfeit the quarter final match and England will play France in the Semi Final on Wednesday...

Scroll down to see the full transcript of the report…

‘Carlsberg don’t send emails, but if they did they would probably be the best emails in the world.’

Well I was taken in by it! Why? Because it had a seed of plausibility in it… and it played on something I wanted – at least half-heartedly… but in the end it just wasn’t true. I was gullible! And thankfully the consequences were neither long… a few seconds, or dangerous – just the return of the slightly dented national pride!

Not so in Deuteronomy 13. Moses starts speaking to God’s people on the edge of the promised land… about something called ‘prophecy’. Simply put, authentic prophecy in the Bible is God speaking his message to his people through a person… which is also a good definition of what I am supposed to be doing right now… preaching.

And because it is a message from God, and because it is to his people, the consequences of messing around with it are absolutely top level serious. The consequences of preaching error in a message from God’s word…. and the consequences of gullibility in the hearing are going to be long term and dangerous.

My part in preaching is serious because you might actually do what I say! Imagine that!

And your part in listening is deadly serious…because you could be led astray if, in fact, I am preaching error.

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it certainly was DEADLY SERIOUS in Deuteronomy 13 - did you notice all the executions?

I want you to know tonight that I am treating this sermon as deadly serious… and God wants you to see tonight why you should too…

So what is it that calls for such extreme measures? Did you see it? It’s there 3 times – have a look at it… v2, v6 and v13… it is the danger that God’s people will ‘go and worship other gods… gods they have not known.’

And the reason that they will do that here is because someone tells them that it is OK to do it… or someone tells them it is necessary that they must do it! …or someone tells them it is beneficial to do it.

And that means God’s people must be on their toes… firstly…

God’s people must test everything

3 situations make up ch13 .

Each one shows us why it is possible that people might be persuaded to go after other gods. This is not an exhaustive list to show us every situation but representative examples to indicate the dangers.

Because if it was just a simple statement to be flatly rejected, ‘Follow other gods?’ That would be pretty easy to deal with, wouldn’t it? ‘Don’t be stupid. I don’t even know them!’

No, there is always something else attached that exerts some sort of persuasive power.

1st situation: So what if a prophet or dreamer of dreams appears on the scene? That’s the scenario in v1-5…have a look at it. Well…Great! Nothing untoward there. It’s an authentic biblical office. And the announcement of a sign or wonder that subsequently happens… is exactly what you’d expect from a bone fide prophet of those times as Moses even says in Deut 18 ‘if what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken.’

The OT is littered with prophets and those who dream dreams, not to mention all manner of great signs and wonders… So it’s not hard to see why such a person might be taken seriously… They seem to be incredibly credible.

But such things are not the ultimate test of a prophet’s integrity. The ultimate test is all to do with ‘the God you have known’.

That is, ‘the God you have known’ cannot command on one hand ‘Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength’ and then allow you, less still desire for you, to go along with what this prophet is saying, namely ‘Let us follow other gods and let us worship them.’  Whatever it was that accompanied his word.

What about for us today? So many amazing claims… personal experiences… miracles that seem to be just that… and do you know what we must say, how we must respond as God’s people?… The bare bones of our response has to be ‘So what?’ You might say it more sensitively than that… but that is essentially it ‘So what?’

Because Jesus and the NT writers teach me to expect all kinds of amazing things that will deceive God’s people. They teach me to expect that Satan will masquerade as an angel of light. They teach me to test everything… and the baseline of that test is scripture… the way God makes himself known… so that straight after ‘So what?’ we ask ‘Where are you taking me with that?’.

Are you asking me to trample over the God I know? Israel would have to forget slavery in Egypt and God’s rescue, with all its plagues of judgement and the Passover and miraculous plundering, the parting of the red sea and the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire and the Angel of the Lord; the awe of the presence of God at Sinai and the cloud descending on the tent of meeting; the manna and quail in the desert; water from the rock; clothes that didn’t wear out for 40 years… and all of that in spite of incessant grumbling and faithlessness on their part. And God’s constant forgiveness, reassurance,  warnings… testing them.

And what about us? Who have the complete story of God’s grace recorded in the whole of the Bible and embodied in our Lord Jesus Christ who stepped into our world, personally, to deal with our greatest need and defeat our greatest enemy… no-one else has, have they? Not now Pharaoh and Egypt, but sin and death and judgment… And yet to come to know God through Christ, and to know of that rescue…. then to turn away from him to follow idols of lust and greed and supposed self-fulfilment or whatever else it might be… you must trample underfoot the very cross of Jesus Christ… and that is a terrifying thought!

Are you asking me to set aside the riches of his glorious gospel – the good news - for a false god like prosperity which doesn’t care for you or know you because it can’t …and will never satisfy because if we have it at all it is only a gift, given on trust from the giver of all things who is God, and he alone can satisfy the human heart? Is that what you’re asking? Is that where you’re taking me?

Don’t be gullible. Whatever happens… we must not disengage our brains. We must not go all goggle eyed at whatever amazing thing might have happened and surrender all theological integrity. It is the same old pattern of sin isn’t it.

When our sight takes over and by-passes our brain… we get into trouble… Eve in the garden of Eden? …

You have a responsibility to test what is coming out of this pulpit… for your own good and mine too…  miracles or no miracles… and 2 good questions to ask at the end of any sermon are ‘So what?’ & ‘Where does that take me?’ – toward God or away from him. Is that prompting me toward trust and obedience in God… or something else.

The second scenario from v6 – 11 shows the same temptation in a different guise… complicated now by the closeness of the relationships involved. Family. The wife of your bosom. Your closest friend (lit. soul mate). It’s the tender appeal. The subtle emotional manipulation. The guilt crisis. This is your own flesh and blood. This is your confidant! All are loving relationships characterised by some degree of commitment. And that is precisely why they can easily cause conflicts of interest.

Notice that this happens in the private realm, away from the congregation v6… this is secret enticement… no-one would ever know, would they?… come let us go after other gods… just a few tucked away in the house somewhere?

Do you see how dangerous this is? No place for complacency here. Total allegiance to the LORD would be crucial in the near future for the Israelites. They were to be instruments of God’s judgement against the evil people of the Promised Land! They’d have to completely destroy the nations there…why? Precisely because of the problems intermarrying would bring, namely being led astray to worship other gods… which is what happened.

But it’s absolutely crucial for us too, to whom Jesus speaks that our love for and allegiance to God is to trump all other loves we may have… even family, even marriage. Indeed, what we need to recognise is that none of these relationships can operate rightly without being trumped by Jesus as Lord of our whole lives. And friends if that is not the case, then look out! In these areas its not that we necessarily disengage our brains, but rather that we allow our heartstrings to be tugged… and the only effective way to pre-empt this threat is that we ensure that it is Jesus who has our heartstrings.

In the third scenario v12-18 the temptation is a version of ‘everyone else is doing it so why can’t we?’ Do you see that? Have you ever felt that sort of thing before? It’s what peer pressure is all about and we know how powerful that can be.

Here, the false teaching has infected - and been accepted by - a whole community… an entire town is running off after other gods. Notice that ‘test everything’ applies here to the allegation in the first instance… Because this is so serious you’d better be right about what is going on…  

But once established we see instantly why the previous ‘individual’ scenarios are so dangerous… because here is where it can lead. One false prophet or one secret enticement is all it takes to infect a whole community.

So we’ve got to get this clear – ‘testing everything’ isn’t merely about individual protection, it is that of course, but the need for individuals to protect themselves becomes obvious when whole communities fall under God’s judgement. Leaders have not been tested… subtly deceptive, shady teaching has created a culture within which it is very hard now to see out of the mist. And when so many have gone that way… it will only be a matter of time before others follow… the temptation becomes more powerful… because everyone in Hull is doing it…? Everyone in the church of England is doing it? Everyone at work is doing it? Everyone is reading the Da Vinci Code - there must be something in it?...

That is how it works…

Unchecked it would eventually run rife throughout the land, confirming people in their error, snatching people from the rest they can enjoy in God’s Promised Land back to a position of being under God’s judgment again.

So the message remains loud and clear – Please, brothers and sisters… Test everything… or suffer the consequences… there are people here who know how easy it is for a thriving church to be dead in just a short space of time… and one of the ways that can happen is when God’s people don’t test everything…

And by everything I mean the words of the preacher; Counsel from family members – whether Christian or not; Acts of parliament, teaching in the classroom, opinion in the workplace; Arguments from popularity or precedent.

We have got to understand that false gods & their prophets are all around… millions of messages are flying around in this room right now advocating foreign gods on the airwaves. And remember that false prophets are at their deadliest inside  the church… so let’s pray that they don’t get in here… and let’s pray that even if they did… you and I, God’s people, would stand up for the God whom we ‘know’ through the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.

So having tested everything… so what? Where is that taking me?

God’s people must act accordingly

There are severe sanctions here as we’ve already noted. Execution.

v5 That prophet or dreamer must be put to death

v9 You must certainly put him to death.

v15 you must certainly put to the sword all who live in that town. Destroy it completely, both its people and its livestock.

Why? Because where it leads you is not somewhere you want to go. It leads to absolute TRAGEDY!

For these Israelites it meant coming under God’s judgement. Judgement they have seen in Egypt. Judgement they themselves would be the instruments of when conquering the Promised Land.

And the seriousness of the problem left one solution only - purge the evil from among you v5.

Purge the evil so that it doesn’t spread!

But also there is a deterrent effect…v11

11 Then all Israel will hear and be afraid, and no-one among you will do such an evil thing again.

Interesting isn’t it, that what began as a secret enticement in v6 becomes the headline in a public broadcast to the whole nation!

So we are left with a problem aren’t we?

How are we to respond to those who may appear amongst our number who say to us ‘Let us follow after other gods’

Because we read these things in the Old Testament and if we’re honest we feel uncomfortable about the measures taken… summary execution of a rogue leader… summary execution of a family member, systematic annihilation of a whole town… it grates with our modern sensibilities doesn’t it… and so we feel relieved when we don’t see any of that in the New Testament.

We feel relieved that in the church community people’s lives are no longer in jeopardy for the ideas that they advocate… and that the sanctions for behaviour today of the kind found in Deut 13 are different.

The trouble is, that when we see all that, and we breathe that sigh of relief we somehow think that this is not such an issue in the NT, that it somehow doesn’t matter as much to us and that the sanctions imposed are less severe …But to think that way opens the door to the dangers that lurk. We start to water them down.

In fact the very opposite is true. Yes. The sanction is no longer execution… but see if you can pick out what it is… Here’s Paul in

Galatians 1v6-9

6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel--

7 which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ.

8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!

9 As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!

Oh that’s alright… no executions ….but what is it instead? ETERNAL CONDEMNATION! DAMNATION!

The one sentence so severe it can only be enforced by God himself on judgement day. And does the message look good…?

Even if it is an angel from heaven… DAMNATION.

Even if its Paul preaching something different!… DAMNATION!

What about if it comes with signs and wonders… if it is not the authentic gospel of the historical Jesus Christ…DAMNATION!

But why? Why damnation? Because as with that whole community of God’s people in v12… real people are being enticed to trample over the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ to embrace hell.

Let’s call it what it is - spiritual genocide, spiritual mass murder!

And it can happen right here in this church… and it can happen right here in this pulpit… and it can happen right there in your household.

Is that easy to hear? Because I can tell you it isn’t nice to preach… but it’s far nicer than the consequences - we need to test everything and we need to act accordingly. The problem is we’ve gone soft on this. The idols of our heart need smashing!

So who’s responsibility is it to deal with false prophecy? The church must act in expelling such false prophets from among our number with warnings attached as we learn elsewhere in the NT… and though our church leaders will take the lead in this… at the end of the day it will come right down to you and me as individuals. Our individual responsibility to test what we hear – to test everything, lest we find ourselves running after other gods, whatever they may be.

The one thing you cannot say is that the consequences of gullibility are less serious for us now, than they were on the plains of Moab in Deuteronomy 13. The stakes are not now life and death… but eternal life and eternal condemnation. 

But there’s one more thing to take from Deuteronomy 13. It’s something that turns this whole chapter on its head. Test everything, act accordingly… but underneath it all we must recognise that all the while

God tests us

 

Deut 13v3b-4

The LORD your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul.

4 It is the LORD your God you must follow, and him you must revere. Keep his commands and obey him; serve him and hold fast to him.

As I was thinking about this chapter and its teaching… I was trying to think of a helpful way to illustrate the crassness of what is being warned against… and I found myself looking at my wedding ring – it always comes back to love relationship.

And it struck me again that what was being warned against in Deut 13 was to God and his people as running off after other women would be to my wife and my marriage… and it’s summer now, and girls are wearing less and less, and the usual ‘sex sells’ approach is more widespread than ever on magazines and billboards, and TV is constantly downplaying the seriousness of unfaithfulness and so on… and that is the environment in which I have to live out my covenant relationship with my wife… where every single day, one way or another, I am enticed away from her – the one I know – to women I have not known… and I know it would be an absolute tragedy….  And so every day is a test of those things.

And v3 we find that through all of this, God is testing his people… to see how much they love him… and how much you and I love him!

The second half of v3 looks an awful lot like what Jesus called the greatest commandment doesn’t it? That great summary of God’s law which Moses has preached already back in Deuteronomy 6v5

‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength’’

Love him with everything you are and everything you’ve got! No room for anyone or anything else… That is the test…

And when God’s people are testing everything and acting accordingly they will be passing God’s test with distinction – not because they treat it like a random spot check or the OFSTED inspection that St John’s school has next week…. Something you have to get through… but because we are concerned to live day in, day out in loving relationship with the God we have known … and let’s remember - that doesn’t just look negative like exposing false teaching… we also act accordingly with good teaching… we do actually ‘trust and obey’, we do choose to accept what is right and reject what is wrong… for the sake of the LORD our God who we want to love with everything we’ve got.

God tests his people as we live in loving relationship with him… And it makes sense doesn’t it? It rings true to our own experience. The truly loving relationships that we know can only be worthy of that label if they contain a degree of freedom… where the beloved other ‘could’ choose to turn their back on you, but actually, in loving commitment and care, and in spite of temptation to do otherwise they ‘choose’ to continue to enjoy the relationship and live within it. Just so with God, whether it’s false prophets, false family or false society that must be rejected .. or whether its God’s ways to be accepted…you ‘choose’ the God you have known.

To go gallivanting off after other gods is just stupid as we’ve seen! Far more stupid for us then, who know more of God, to go running after supposed gods of money, ambition, sexual liberation, self-fulfilment or whatever it is… and trample over the cross of Jesus Christ to get to them… and finding nothing there except the same agony as that which caused Jesus to scream ‘My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?’… the agony of God’s judgment.

On paper that looks like a rubbish deal… you’d have to be utterly stupid to do that …..but in the bustle and stress of everyday life in a sinful world and with a miracle here or there and a bit of spin and a few heartstring tugs… it could happen, couldn’t it?

It couldn’t happen here though could it? Not if we test everything, act accordingly and remember the great God who through Christ has demonstrated his love for us and saved us. Don’t be gullible. Do be faithful. God give us ears to hear!          Let’s pray.

 

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