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“Now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the just decrees that I am teaching you, and do them, that you may live, and go in and take possession of the land that the Lord, the God of your fathers, is giving you. You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you. . . .
“Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon Him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and just decrees so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?
“Only take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and your children’s children” (Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
No one knows how to preach a sermon the way God does!
Moses wanted this generation to remember the sermon God had preached to their parents almost 40 years earlier. As their parents had traveled out of Egypt, they complained and disobeyed God at every step. Finally, at Sinai, the Lord interrupted the journey and called a “family meeting.” “We need to have a talk.” What a talk it was! Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, billowing up from it like from a furnace; the mountain shook violently as a trumpet blast grew louder, and above it rumbled the voice of God. He’d certainly gotten their attention! Out of that dreadful display the Lord’s voice spoke His Ten Commandments.
Yet that first generation of Israelites had quickly forgotten God’s powerful Sinai sermon. None of them made it to the Promised Land, except Joshua and Caleb. So, Moses tells their children: “Be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget.” He wants them to learn this and pass it on. “Teach them to your children and to your children’s children,” Moses says.
Moses’ words are direct. Do God’s Law, and you will live. He also tells the people, “Keep [the Lord’s statutes and just decrees] and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people’” (Deuteronomy 4:6).
Life, fame, wisdom, understanding—don’t these all sound great? Let’s get to it then. Dig deeply into God’s Word. Read, ponder, and inwardly digest it so we don’t miss anything. Learn the Commandments, the statutes, the rules, the judgments, and the testimonies. Learn them and do them, and you will live. God takes His Word seriously. Life or death seriously. Blessing or curse seriously.
Moses emphasizes this with the powerful charge that Israel neither add to nor subtract from God’s Word, a warning that is repeated throughout Scriptures. Agur son of Jakeh writes, “Every word of God proves true; He is a shield to those who take refuge in Him. Do not add to His words, lest He rebuke you and you be found a liar” (Proverbs 30:5–6). The apostle John concludes the Revelation, “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book” (22:18–19).
Jesus criticized the Pharisees for adding a burdensome body of rules and regulations to the Scriptures: “For the sake of your tradition you have made void the Word of God” (Matthew 15:6).
The Old Testament prophets condemned their own generation for ignoring God’s Word when it spoke to their sinful sexual habits, their hollow worship practices, or their corrupt business tactics. The Lord spoke through Hosea: “Hear the Word of the Lord, O children of Israel, for the Lord has a controversy with the inhabitants of the land. There is no faithfulness or steadfast love, and no knowledge of God in the land; there is swearing, lying, murder, stealing, and committing adultery; they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed… My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to Me. And since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children” (Hosea 4:1-2, 6).
“Think of all the spiritual advantages the people of Israel enjoyed! Theirs wasn’t a musty collection of myths about the misadventures and misbehavior of their gods, which happened ‘once upon a time.’ God revealed Himself in their national life with power and purpose. He rescued them from slavery, journeyed with them through the wilderness, responded with awesome power to their prayers, and shaped their lives with a one-of-a-kind covenant.”[i] St. Paul understood the spiritual privileges His people enjoyed. He asked the church at Rome, “Then what advantage has the Jew?” Then answered his own question, “Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God” (Romans 3:1–2).
He told the Corinthians: “For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:1–4).
Along with a knowledge of what the Lord wanted, the Spirit of God also gave His people willing hearts to respond to His commands. The Israelites could observe them and follow them, and the nations around would see and be drawn to the Lord God through them. Jesus taught the same thing: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden… In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14, 16).
If you were asked to list the great spiritual advantages the Savior has given us, what would your list include? For many of us, a godly mother and father who told us about Jesus, prayed for us, and set an example of a faith-filled life. For many of us, a community of believers who provided opportunities for worship, education, and encouragement in the faith. For many of us, the privilege of growing up in a country where religious beliefs were neither legislated nor forbidden, but where we could believe and live our faith as we wished. Those are great blessings!
Who would not want their children and grandchildren to receive the same?
None of us, it might seem. Time and again, God’s people did what is evil in God’s sight and turned toward other gods. Over and over, they tested the Lord’s patience. Every time they repented and returned to the Lord, it never took them long to forget God’s Word and fail to teach it to their children.
Sadly, with a few exceptions, we have not passed on this teaching to our next generation, either. We have not kept God’s Word sacred and gladly heard and learned it. We have not loved God with all our heart and strength and soul and mind. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We’ve let the priorities of the world crowd out our faith. And our next generations are suffering the most for it.
No wonder our church pews are empty. No wonder only 1 in 4 Americans is considered to be a practicing Christian—someone who identifies as a Christian, agrees strongly that faith is important in their lives, and has attended church within the past month—when only 20 years ago almost ½ of all Americans fit this category.
We’ve forgotten God’s Word. We’ve failed to listen to His teaching and do what it says. We’ve foolishly turned away from the wisdom of God’s Word. We’ve added to God’s Word and subtracted from it when it has suited our own purposes. We’ve forgotten the wondrous works of God we have seen and failed to make them know to our children and our children’s children. We’ve failed as a group, and we’ve failed as individuals.
Dear friends, what then shall we do? We have not remembered God’s statutes and rules. Our hearts are inclined to any and every evil thing. We have stumbled time and again, falling away, falling into sin. Hearing the Word of God today, we are reminded what our sinful natures have tried so hard to forget; we are sinful, we are lost, and we are dead in our sins and transgressions. We have failed to teach God’s Word in all its purity to our children.
Can there be any more desperate need? Is there any more urgent time of trouble than this? Cry out then in your distress, for our Lord God has promised to hear you. “For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon Him?” (Deuteronomy 4:7).
Confronted with God’s holy and righteous Law, we cry out to Him: “Lord, have mercy! Christ, have mercy! Lord, have mercy! You have promised to be near to us in our hour of need, and this it!”
What God promises, He will do; what He says is true. He promises to come near in our time of trouble, and so He has. Near to us, even “God with us.” Here He is. He is not hiding or concealing Himself. He is Immanuel, and in Jesus, God, the Word made flesh, is with us!
“What great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us?” When God is with us, He brings freedom and redemption. When God is near to those who call upon Him, His enemies and all who threaten His people are devastated and His people are set free.
God was with His people at the Red Sea. In pillars of cloud and fire, He protected His people and destroyed their enemies beneath the waters. In the time ahead, God would be with His people to vanquish armies with His own hand, to shut mouths of the lions, to bring His children through the fiery furnace, to guide the stone from David’s sling, to lead His people back from exile, and finally, He would be with them—with us—in the flesh and flood of Jesus, who makes all things new again.
In the face of the accusations and condemnations of our enemies—sin, death, and the devil—and of our own sinful nature, God comes near to us, steps into the flesh of all mankind, and Jesus submits to the same Law of God that was binding on us. He fulfills it perfectly, and then He dies for all of us who didn’t. And since He came near to us, actually becoming one of us, in His accomplishing all things for you, all your enemies are vanquished, and you are set free and redeemed. Because Christ came near to fulfill God’s Law, you are free. That is the Gospel, God’s Word of grace, mercy, forgiveness, and life in Jesus Christ.
God does not want His Word to be adulterated by human wisdom or skirted over in the interest of social harmony. Yet the Church in both Old and New Testament times (and even today) has suffered from groups and individuals who sought to add to, and take from, God’s Word. This happens when legalistic prescriptions bind people’s consciences where God has not, and when that which God calls sin is not condemned but embraced as good and right.
By Jesus’ day, so much had been added to and taken from God’s Law that it was hardly recognizable. Those wanting to justify themselves happily added law upon law so that they could declare themselves clean by all they have kept. Those who would rather eat, drink, and be merry gladly tamed the Law with excuse after excuse, taking from it God’s benevolent authority.
Regardless of what had been added to it or taken from it. Jesus sets it right once again. More than that, He purifies it and then transcends it. The Word made flesh takes back from the unrighteous the Word of God, His very Word and His very self. He declares that it is not what goes into a person that defiles him or her but what comes out the defiles.
Jesus has come to set you free and give you the forgiveness of sins, so He sets God’s Law free from all that man’s sin had added and taken from it.
As Jesus thus declares all foods clean on account of His blood and righteousness, He, too, declares you clean and holy. God has come near to you this day, here in His house as you eat His body and blood, and as you hear His life-giving Gospel, you are just as He declares you to be: forgiven, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
[i] Mark E. Braun, Deuteronomy: People’s Bible Commentary. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2005. p. 49.