In a Nutshell…
Read the passage here.
As we’ve walked through the Old Testament, we’ve taken great pains to point out both that and how the Old Testament is relevant to Christians today. In some respects, this seems obvious – especially if we believe that the entire Bible is the authoritative word of God. However, as we’ve also discussed, many Christians don’t spend nearly as much time in the Old Testament as we do in the New Testament – that is, if we bother to actually read the Bible at all.
There are a number of reasons for this, all of which tend to overlap. A couple of issues, which we’ve discussed before, are the historical and cultural distance between the writings of the Old Testament and present day. We won’t go into further detail today, but a person growing up and living in the Ancient Near East would hear and understand mythology, genealogy, or recognize suzerainty treaties in probably quite a different way than we do now. They would understand rituals and traditions, such as offerings and sacrifice, in a much different way than we do. We tend to get this, though it can often lead us to believe that, without a technical understanding of the minutiae of Old Testament literature, we are hopelessly unable to understand the O.T.
However, there are other issues which affect our understanding and appreciation of the Old Testament (or rather, neglect thereof). From very early on in Christian history, there were those who rejected outright the Old Testament as Christian scriptures. Marcion was an early Christian (eventually denounced as a heretic) who believed that the God demonstrated in the Old Testament was incompatible with the message of Jesus Christ. Marcion created a canon of scripture which contained only parts of the gospel of Luke and the letters of Paul.
Now I’m sure that most of us (hopefully, all of us) agree that Marcion was wrong, as the Church eventually acknowledged, but many of us live that way. We live as if only certain parts of scripture really matter for us.
Skipping ahead quite a bit, the Protestant reformation may also have had a significant impact on our appreciation of the Old Testament. Martin Luther, studying the book of Romans, came to reject any ritual-based approach to salvation (which he identified with the Roman Catholic Church). Luther declared emphatically that believers were no longer under the Law of Moses, but were now under the grace of Christ.
Skipping ahead again, another influence on contemporary Christianity are various formulations of dispensationalism. In brief, dispensationalism states that God worked or works in distinctly different ways throughout human history. I’m not an expert by any means on dispensationalism but the essential claim is that the age or dispensation of Israel is distinct and separate from the dispensation of the Church. Others might say that we’ve moved from the dispensation of Law to the dispensation of grace. It’s not much of a leap, then, to declare that the Old Testament, with its specific location in the history of Israel, is not truly relevant for the church today.
So that was quite a long introduction to what’s going on today. And without discounting the obvious contributions of people like Martin Luther, what I want to suggest is that the apparent tensions between some parts of the Old Testament and our understanding of the New Testament are a result of not understanding, or not paying attention to, the entire narrative arc of scripture. In other words, we need to have a better understanding of the biblical story.
Now, we are still in the book of Deuteronomy and, last week, we talked about the notion that obedience to God, which forms our identity as the people of God, is grounded in the character and nature of God. So, to our passage today, from Deuteronomy 9 and 10.
Now when we read passages like this, and consider the historic situation of Israel, standing at the entrance to Canaan, preparing to destroy all of the occupants of the land, we may be tempted to think that, at least parts of this passage, have little to do with us today.
Now we understand how parts of the passage apply:
12 And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good?Deuteronomy 10:12-13
This is a fairly straightforward passage, outlining the importance of obedience to God – specifically, obedience to the covenant law. But how do we understand this passage in the context of a theology of grace? We frequently talk about how God loves us unconditionally, and that there’s nothing we can do to make God love us more or love us less. So where exactly does obedience fit in?
Recognizing once again that paragraphing (i.e. in our NIV version) is not definitive, the first paragraph of our passage says:
Hear, Israel: You are now about to cross the Jordan to go in and dispossess nations greater and stronger than you, with large cities that have walls up to the sky. 2 The people are strong and tall—Anakites! You know about them and have heard it said: “Who can stand up against the Anakites?” 3 But be assured today that the Lord your God is the one who goes across ahead of you like a devouring fire. He will destroy them; he will subdue them before you. And you will drive them out and annihilate them quickly, as the Lord has promised you.Deuteronomy 9:1-3
Simply stated, Moses reminds the Israelites that they are about to enter the land of Canaan. And even though they will face mighty enemies, God will conquer the enemies and drive them out of the land that Israel is about to possess.
In the next paragraph, Moses reminds the Israelites will inherit this land, and indeed will inherit the promise to Abraham, not because they are worthy – not because they are in any way better than the peoples already in the land – but purely because God has chosen them.
4 After the Lord your God has driven them out before you, do not say to yourself, “The Lord has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness.” No, it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is going to drive them out before you. 5 It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations, the Lord your God will drive them out before you, to accomplish what he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. 6 Understand, then, that it is not because of your righteousness that the Lord your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people.Deuteronomy 9:4-6
This is continued in the following verses – those sections we’ve left out – where Moses recounts the numerous examples of God’s faithfulness in spite of Israel’s rebellion that they have experienced on their journey through the wilderness.
The point is simple – over and over, Israel has demonstrated the truth that they are not worthy, they are not righteous. The promise is something that is not earned by Israel, it is given by God.
Now here, an interesting question might be raised. In verse 5, we read, “5 It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations, the Lord your God will drive them out before you, to accomplish what he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”
While we can say that taking possession of the land is not because Israel was more righteous, isn’t saying that it is “on account of the wickedness of these nations,” essentially the same thing? Aren’t we sort of saying, “it’s not because Israel was more righteous, it’s because the Canaanites were less righteous”? And isn’t that simply two ways of saying the same thing?
So here, I want to place this speech, and therefore this passage, into the context of the Old Testament (and greater biblical) narrative that we have been looking at over the past many months. And essentially, what I want to say is that Israel’s promise is not because of anyone’s righteousness (or rebelliousness) one way or the other. Let me explain.
In the story so far, what we’ve seen is that God created the heavens and the earth and all that He created was good. Human beings were created in the image of God to be the stewards of God in creation. However, human beings chose to worship other things, namely ourselves, rather than He alone who deserves to be worshipped – we wanted (and still want) to be gods for ourselves. And so, human beings sinned and brought sin into the world. We saw the results of this sin in Cain and Able, in the tower of Babel, and in the people of Noah’s time. And we saw that the consequences of that sin, the consequences of rejecting God, were precisely that we would not have God. And in rejecting God, the author and sustainer of life, we essentially reject life itself. However, God did not completely turn creation over to death. He did not destroy everything completely. Rather, he kept for himself a remnant. In time, out of the survivors of the great flood, God chose one human, Abraham, and the descendants of Abraham to be God’s means of the salvation and restoration of creation. In spite of the fact that human beings continued to sin, and continued to forget God, God would make a way for creation to be saved. This is where we are in the story. What we have yet to see, although we today hopefully know, is that this story will continue through Abraham’s descendants to the birth, life, death and resurrection of God’s only son, Jesus Christ. And through Jesus Christ, that true life, the final restoration, is made possible.
So what I want to suggest to you is that what we’re seeing in this vignette – only part of the larger story – is God’s redemptive purposes at work. What we’re seeing in the comparing and contrasting of Israel and the people of Canaan is not a comparison between righteous and not righteous. It’s not a calculation of good enough and not good enough. Rather, it’s a picture in sharp historical relief of what none of us deserve (God’s grace) and what all of us deserve (God’s judgement). In the Canaanites, those who don’t know YHWH, we see that all of us – like all the sons and daughters of Cain, Babel, and the people who perished in the flood – are destined for destruction. Inasmuch as we choose life without God, that is precisely what we get.
In the Israelites, those whom scripture emphatically tells us are not worthy, we see God’s grace at work, making a way for salvation to come and for creation to be restored.
Therefore, the instruction to fear the Lord and walk in obedience to Him should not be seen as fulfilling a requirement necessary to receive God’s promise – to be God’s people – because, as we’ve seen, this simply is not the basis for God’s choosing Israel.
What we do see, however, is that the keeping of the covenant law is the appropriate response to having been chosen. And if we re-frame that in terms that we’ve already discussed, the appropriate response to God’s work of restoration is to live a restored life.
The “Now” in these verses points to Israel’s location in their history. At this point and at this time, in light of everything that God has done to bring you to this place – having been delivered out of slavery in Egypt, having been brought safely through the wilderness, having been forgiven in spite of repeated rebellion – fear the Lord your God, walk in obedience to Him, love Him, serve Him with all your hear and with all your soul, and live the way of life in which you are being instructed.
Now the final verses in our selection today, for me, underline the point that we have been making, that this is all because of God’s goodness, God’s grace, and God’s determination to redeem and restore creation. The first verses say:
14 To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it. 15 Yet the Lord set his affection on your ancestors and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations—as it is today. 16 Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer. 17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes.Deuteronomy 10:14-17
When we read these verses, perhaps we can focus on the words, “he chose you.” And then we continue on and read:
18 He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. 19 And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. 20 Fear the Lord your God and serve him. Hold fast to him and take your oaths in his name. 21 He is the one you praise; he is your God, who performed for you those great and awesome wonders you saw with your own eyes. 22 Your ancestors who went down into Egypt were seventy in all, and now the Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars in the sky.Deuteronomy 10:18-22
And this seems to me to warn us against the notion that God’s promise, salvation, chosen-ness should be hoarded and kept for themselves, that is kept only for those who are “worthy.” Because just as God showed grace to Israel, Israel is to show grace to others. To me, this says something about God’s desire, plan, and purpose to restore all of creation.
So What Now…?
Now I recognize that I haven’t said anything today that we haven’t talked about many times before. One of the main things that we’re doing today is trying to understand how Law and grace fit together in the context of the biblical story. I hope that we understand, as we’ve been working through and will continue to work through the Old Testament, that the covenant Law is also an outworking of God’s grace. Now having said all that, there’s a couple of thoughts that I have that flow out of this passage.
Firstly, again as we’ve said before, keeping the Law – or perhaps “holiness” in more contemporary language – is not about earning God’s favour. We do not earn God’s grace – we live because of, or in response to, God’s grace.
Secondly, because we live – or have live – only by God’s grace, holiness is not a weapon to be used against others. It’s not a tool by which we judge others. Because God Himself, “defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And [we] are to love those who are foreigners, for [we ourselves] were foreigners in Egypt.”
Because we have received grace, we also should show grace to others. We are called to be instruments of redemption because God’s desire and God’s purpose is to redeem this creation, through Jesus Christ, for His name’s sake.