Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott
"God’s identity as Israel’s covenant God obliges His people to whole-hearted love for God."
Ephesians 2:1-10; 4:1-3
Singing: (Psalms and Hymns are from the "Book of Praise"
Anglo Genevan Psalter)
Beloved Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ!
The book of Deuteronomy consists of addresses from Moses to the people of Israel on the banks of the Jordan River. The people to whom Moses spoke lived in tents, while we live in homes of brick and tile. The people to whom Moses spoke collected their breakfast, lunch and tea each morning from the desert floor, while we help ourselves to foods in our pantry or fridge – both stocked with goods obtained from supermarkets. The children mentioned in Dt 6 played with sticks and stones amongst the tent-pegs and had memories only traveling through deserts on foot, while our children play on computer screens and have memories of school trips on a bus, rides on a train, possibly flights around the world. In a word: there is such a radically vast distance between the circumstances of the people in Deuteronomy and our own circumstances today.
That distance in turn, brothers and sisters, makes the promises and the instructions of a chapter as Dt 6 remote to us. There’s a command here to talk of God’s commands with the children when we sit in the house. We feel that that might be OK for Israel when the mothers sat with their daughters and did their basket weaving or their embroidery. But we? When we sit in our houses, we’re comfortable on our sofas, engrossed in a book. Or we’re relaxing in front of the TV or are surfing the net. Then to speak of God’s words…? We find that awkward, out of place; you can’t talk of the gospel when you’re watching footy or when you’re online! Besides, we take our children to church, we send them to a God-centered school, to catechism class and to club…, and we’ve got to be careful that we don’t give them too much Bible; we might drive them away….
We’re people of the twenty-first century, living in a culture so radically different from that of the Israelites of Dt 6. In the midst of all the change between then and now, brothers and sisters, there is one constant that has not changed in the least. That is God. And yes, there is a second constant, and that is human nature. Though our circumstances are so very different from our brethren of some three millennia ago, our nature is the same as theirs; we too are by nature dead in sin and yet raised to new life in Jesus Christ (Rom 6), we too are righteous before God in Christ and yet remain inclined to all evil (Rom 7). Yet the one true God of heaven and earth has established with us the same covenant of grace He established with Israel long ago, and so in Jesus Christ given us the same promises He gave them – and the same obligations. Times and cultures change, but the way of the Lord with and for His people does not change. So the instruction of Moses remains valid for us today.
I preach to you this morning the Word of the Lord as the Lord speaks it to us in Dt 6. I use this theme:
God’s identity as Israel’s covenant God obliges His people to whole-hearted love for God.
1. God’s glorious identity
2. Israel’s whole-hearted response
1. God’s glorious identity
Before I go into the text itself, congregation, I need to sketch for you some background information. Some 40 years before the book of Deuteronomy takes place, the Lord God had delivered a nation of slaves from bondage in Egypt, brought them to Mt Sinai, and established with them His covenant of grace. He’d commanded Israel to build a tabernacle, and then had come to live with His people-by-covenant. For nearly 40 years sacrifices had been offered daily in that tabernacle, and those sacrifices proclaimed to Israel how God’s covenant of grace with them was possible; the blood of Another –Jesus Christ- made it possible for Israel to be God’s people, for God to be Israel’s God.
But a short two years after God established His covenant with Israel at Mt Sinai, only one year after the tabernacle was opened, the people broke His covenant in their rebellion at the gates of the Promised Land. In response, God denied that generation entry into the promised inheritance and instead caused every Israelite above the age of twenty years to die in the wilderness.
It’s now some 40 years later, and the first generation of those delivered from Egypt have died. By God’s leading the second generation of adults has now come to the borders of the Promised Land, and are about to receive the promised inheritance. First, though, the Lord wishes to renew His covenant with His people. That’s the book of Deuteronomy. So we find in ch 5 a repeat of the ten words of the covenant spoken with the first generation at Mt Sinai; the Lord imposes His covenant again on His people, this time on the children of the adults present forty years earlier at Mt Sinai. Yet God doesn’t simply repeat the Ten Words of the covenant and leave it at that; in the ceremony of covenant renewal the Holy Spirit moves Moses to expand on these commandments with further elaboration. Hence the three addresses of Moses in the book of Deuteronomy. It’s particularly in his second address –chaps 5-26- that Moses sets out how God’s covenant people need to live with their God. Since God has established with us the same covenant He made with Israel long ago, we do well to listen carefully to the details the Holy Spirit has moved Moses to lay before Israel. That’s why I wish in the coming weeks to open the Scriptures with you to Moses’ second address – and then particularly the first half, chaps 6 to 11.
That being said, we can turn to chap 6 itself. The hinge upon which ch 6 turns is the words of vss 4 and 5. These words –and indeed all the words of vss 4-9- became almost a creed within Israel, one that the people confessed with their mouth time and again. Rightly so, for here is summarized, particularly in the verse 4 and 5, the heart of the gospel of free grace, and the response befitting this gospel.
The verse begins with an instruction to "Hear, O Israel!" The term ‘hear’ captures more than the notion of lending your ear to a piece of information and then carrying on with what you’re doing. Rather, it carries with it the notion of letting yourself be told. That is, with this word God commands an attitude, an attitude-of-humility. We understand that this attitude-of-humility is required in the face of anything God says, simply because it is God who speaks. This attitude is required not just when we are reading from the Bible, but also when the Bible is opened for us through the labors of another. It’s a point, congregation, that needs our attention, particularly in our modern society where people no longer want to be told – and you find this attitude in the church too. Simply because it is God who speaks in the Bible must our attitude in the presence of the Bible be one of humility, of wanting to be told. That is true also when God takes has His word opened for us in the preaching. It is because Israel over the years did not keep on wanting to be told that they despised the admonitions of the prophets – and ended up exiled from the good land across the Jordan.
What, now, is Israel to let themselves be told? This: "the Lord our God, the Lord is one!" This confession, congregation, is loaded in content, and puts in a nutshell the glorious identity of the God of the covenant. The following aspects need to be noted.
First of all, you notice that the word Lord appears here in capital letters. That’s the translation of God’s covenant name, Yahweh, I am who I am. That name was first explained to Moses at the burning bush of Ex 3, while Israel was still groaning under their bondage in Egypt. The name "I am who I am" captures God’s identity as the God who will do what He says He will do. And to Moses in Ex 3 God promised that He would "bring [Israel] up out of the affliction of Egypt," and give this oppressed people "a land flowing with milk and honey" (vs 17). That is, God staked His reputation on doing a particular deed, a deed unheard of in human history – He’d release a set of slaves from the oppression of the world’s superpower!
And see: the Lord did what He said He’d do! The people gathered there on the banks of the Jordan knew from their fathers that their parents had been slaves in Egypt, cruelly oppressed, and the Lord had taken them out of Egypt with a mighty arm. In fact, the oldest in their midst could themselves recall particular aspects of that slavery from their own childhood memories, could recall too the Passover meal, the hasty escape, the march through the walls of water in the Red Sea. Point: the Lord did what He said He’d do. This God made His covenant with Israel at Mt Sinai –the Ten Commandments- and this God renewed His covenant with themselves on the banks of the Jordan. Dt 5: the Ten Commandments begin with this preamble:
"I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage" (vs 6).
So: the identity of this God is not determined by what He says He’ll do; His identity is determined by what He did! More, His identity is determined not by what He did to someone else; His identity is determined by what He did to Israel, to themselves. For this God laid claim on that nation of slaves in Egypt, and then acted in a particular way to under gird that claim, to prove that claim – He set Israel free from bondage. The people on the banks of the Jordan, then, had themselves experienced in their own history who God is, yes, they had tasted that Yahweh was their God.
That’s the first item I need to draw out in relation to what Israel must hear. There’s a second. Israel must want to be told that "the Lord is one". These words can be translated to say that the Lord alone is God, there is no god beside Him. Then the point is that the gods of Egypt or of Canaan are not really gods, Israel’s God is in a league all by Himself. That, of course, is the reality, and it gives comfort to know that the only true God –Creator of heaven and earth- is your God by covenant.
But the phrase can also be translated as our translation presents it, "the Lord is one." Then the point is that the Lord is not divided. This is the notion that’s confessed in Article 1 of the Belgic Confession, where we say that God is "simple", and we mean with that that God is not compound, is not made up of multiple parts. Here we need to bear in mind that the gods of the nations around Israel –including both Egypt where they came from and Canaan were they were going- all had a wide range of gods, with one or two gods at the top of the pile and various lesser gods seeking to influence the top god or even to mess up the plans of the top god. Invariably the god on the top had his mood swings, and so today would not give in to the badgering of a lesser god but tomorrow he would. In other words, from the perspective of the people the gods were whimsical, unpredictable, kept changing their minds. How comforting, then, to know that Yahweh is not like that, is not whimsical, is not divided in Himself (though is triune), is one – one in being, one in purpose, one in action. He doesn’t flip-flop, He’s not moody, you can count on Him being the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow (Hebr 13:8).
We understand: this identity of "our God" as "one Lord" gives a wonderful comfort. How secure one’s future is with such a God as your covenant partner! He’d said long ago that He’d deliver from Egypt, and He’s done so; the promise wasn’t a flash in the pan. He said He’d be Israel’s God, and just look at all the glorious riches of the covenant: He’s come to dwell in the midst of His people in the tabernacle, He forgives His people’s sins on account of the sacrifices in the tabernacle, He’s even promised to give them the land of Canaan – a land flowing with milk and honey, Paradise restored! And given His identity, surely, this God will do it; what a God He is, and how blessed is Israel to belong to such a God!
What glorious riches, then, brothers and sisters, are caught up in the phrase Israel must humbly hear! Here’s the same wealth as the apostle Paul drew out in Eph 2: we were "dead in trespasses and sins", slaves to sin and Satan, and we showed that by the way we lived. "But God," says Paul,
"But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus…" (2:4ff).
No-account slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, yet delivered by grace to inherit the Promised Land; no-account slaves to sin and Satan, yet redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ – how gloriously is the whole saving work of Jesus Christ foreshadowed in God’s work of establishing His covenant with undeserving Israel, redeeming them from their bondage, caring for them through the wilderness, giving them the Promised Land! What a God Israel had, what a God we have – one God unchanging, your God and mine!
Why, now, does the Lord tell Israel about Himself? Why must Israel "hear" this word, why, in the face of this gospel, adopt an attitude of wanting to be told? That brings us to our second point:
2. Israel’s whole-hearted response
There is, brothers and sisters, a reason why God moves Moses, in the hearing of God’s covenant people on the plains of the Jordan, to summarize who God is. The glorious gospel of God’s identity in relation to this sinful people should be laid before this people not for the sake of information, nor so that the people might feel good. This gospel is laid before the people so that their hearts might be filled with gratitude to God for His mercy to them, and they in turn live lives befitting their status as children of such a God. In other words: we have to hear the word ‘therefore’ between vss 4 and 5. That is: "Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one" and therefore "you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart…." It’s the same as with the Ten Commandments. Why must Israel have no other gods before the Lord? Why must Israel not steal or murder? Simple: because "I am the Lord your God who brought you ought of the land of Egypt." Therefore "you shall have no other gods before me," and therefore "you shall not steal," etc. This is the drive, the motivation for all commands in Scripture, whether stated expressly or not; God’s commands are to be obeyed out of thankfulness for who He is in relation to you, ie, out of thankfulness for what He in mercy has done for you. The commands of our text, the commands of our chapter, the commands of the book of Deuteronomy, yes, every command of God found anywhere in the Bible is rooted ultimately not in cold obligation –as in: do this because I say so- but is rooted ultimately in God’s identity as the-God-who-deals-in-mercy with people. He grants freedom to an undeserving and unworthy nation of slaves, and even establishes with them His covenant of grace, yes, comes to dwell in their midst for Christ’s sake; in grateful response to such undeserving compassion the people of Israel are to "love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength."
The same reality applies to us who live so many generations later, in such very different circumstances. God has not changed in His compassion for the unworthy, and your own history is proof thereof. For we were dead in trespasses and sins, as Paul said it to the Ephesians, but God claimed us as His in the covenant, worked faith in our hearts, washes our sins away in Jesus’ blood, grants us eternal life! To that marvelous work of God we need to respond! How? Says Paul in Eph 4: "I, therefore, …beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called…" (vs 1). The ‘therefore’ in that sentence gives the reason for a particular life-style, and the reason is found in the doctrine of the earlier chapters of his letter – including the gospel of God’s grace in chap 2. Why live a certain way? Because one is thankful for the redemption God has given in Jesus Christ! That is: show to God the same love that He has shown to us. In the words of our text: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength." That love for the Lord produces a lifestyle because this command gets to the heart of all other commands; all the other commands receive their dynamic, receive their reason for obeying them, in this command – obedience flows out of a heart full of love for the God who has done so much for me the sinner (cf Mt 22:37).
So we understand too, brothers and sisters, that the love God commands in our text is not first of all an emotion, a warm feeling toward God. This love is first of all an action, an action based on His actions toward us. This action involves all ones feelings, involves all ones thoughts, involves all ones decisions – one’s whole being. As God is one, is not divided within Himself, so the child of God is to be one, not divided within himself, not pulled in two directions. Heart and hands, soul and body, all need to respond together, as one, to God for the love He showed to sinners.
Don’t let anybody tell you either, then, congregation, that what’s important before God is your heart; as long as you love God with all your heart your lifestyle isn’t so important. That is patently not true, simply because the reason for obeying God’s commands lies in whole-hearted love for God. Where your lifestyle isn’t according to His commands, your love for God is not up to scratch.
How, now, is Israel to show their love for God concretely? The Lord expands upon the point in vs 6: "these words which I command you today shall be in your heart." That is, the gospel of God’s grace in vs 4, and indeed all that Moses has said so far in his second sermon, must stay very much in the forefront of Israel’s thoughts. That wonderful gospel of vs 4 –"Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one!"- must not recede into the hidden corners of the heart, to be recalled only when one goes to the tabernacle or when death has entered the family; rather, that wonderful gospel –together with all of its glorious consequences- must be so much in your heart, in your thoughts, that –vs 7- "you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up." In fact –vss 8f- "these words" must be so much in the forefront of Israel’s thoughts that the actions of your hands are determined by God’s identity and your resulting love for Him, what your eyes see is determined by God’s identity and your resulting love for Him, what happens inside your house is determined by God’s identity and your resulting love for Him, and what happens in the city square (your "gates") is determined by God’s identity and your resulting love for Him. You see, not a square millimeter of Israel’s life was to fall outside the service of the God who did so much for unworthy sinners! Every word you spoke, every thing you rested your eyes on, every action in your house and outside had to show your gratitude to the God who delivered you from bondage to Pharaoh, made His covenant of grace with you. Israel’s love for God could not be a partial love, an on-again-off-again love; the gratitude befitting the saving work of this God was total, radical, all encompassing – touching every aspect of your life.
So that difficult command of vs 7 receives color for us too. How would the parents of Israel –or grandparents, or aunts or uncles for that matter!- impress these words on the next generation? Our translation says that Israel must "teach" them to the children. But the word Moses uses here is a very particular word; it’s usual meaning is "to sharpen", as one does to an arrow or a sword. The point is that parents need to impress the gospel on their children, need to drive home to the children, with persistence, who God is and what He has done for the children – and therefore how the children need to respond. Here is no room for haphazard efforts; in fact, the parents and grandparents of Israel were to speak with their offspring about God’s identity-in-relation-to-themselves throughout the day, no matter what they were doing. After all, "out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks" (Mt 12:34). Here is no room for the notion that the children get too much exposure to God and His Word!! And the children were part of the ‘Israel’ that had to want to be told.
We, brothers and sisters, live in times and circumstances radically different than Israel’s were. But the God who gave Israel great riches has given us the same riches; more, we’ve seen the fulfillment of more promises than Israel in Moses’ day ever saw. God’s promises about sending a Savior to pay for sin have been fulfilled, and so we have greater evidence than Israel had about who God is – faithful, unchanging, not given to speaking empty promises. This is the God who claimed you as His, claimed your children too. How, then, my brothers and sisters, are you going to respond to that? One response alone is fitting, and that is that we "love" this God with all our heart and soul and strength – as He loved us; anything less is a slight to the immeasurable treasure He has prepared for us.
And how are you going to show your love for this God? How, concretely, beloved, are you going to show that His gospel is in the forefront of your mind? Within the context of Dt 6, the answer needs to be that we show this love by impressing this gospel upon our children –how?- by speaking about it with them in any and every circumstance and around the clock. Moses tells us that they "shall talk of them when you sit in your house." It’s true that our houses are different than theirs were, and what we do in our houses is somewhat different too. We no longer spend time sitting in the shade of our homes engaged in basket weaving or embroidery – an opportune time, we’d say, for mothers to speak with their daughters about the mighty deeds of the Lord. Instead, we sit in our houses watching TV or surfing the net. But the depths of God’s love for undeserving sinners hasn’t changed, and so the depth of love that undeserving sinners must thankfully return to God hasn’t changed either. This gospel is so big and wonderful that it fills hearts, and that’s why we need to make it our business to let this gospel fill our hearts, dominate our thoughts. And "out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks" (Mt 12:34). So we need to speak of this glorious gospel, yes, also when we and the children are sitting in front of the TV! And believe me: that will radically influence how much TV we watch and what we watch! The same is true with regards to surfing the web. To speak with each other and the children about God’s exciting work of deliverance in Christ as we click the mouse will distinctly affect –unless we’re hypocrites to the core- what sites we visit. Again, to speak about God and His redeeming work when the stereo is on will affect too what sort of music fills our homes or our cars.
Do you see, brothers and sisters, the effect God’s instruction in Dt 6 had to have upon Israel? To talk about God and His redeeming work "when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down and when you rise up" is going to affect your lifestyle, the things you do and the things you tolerate. To bind God’s words of redemption as a sign upon your hand is going to affect the buttons you’ll let your hand push; to have God’s words function as blinkers for your eyes is going to affect the things you’ll let your eyes look at; to write God’s words on the door of your house is going to determine the atmosphere in the home; to place God’s principles in the gates of the public squares of the city is going to restrain ungodly ideas from spreading through the city. God wants love for Him from all your heart, and all your soul, and all your strength. He wants that radical love because His love for sinners is so radical; with undivided love this only true God established His covenant with sinners and in Jesus Christ made these sinners His people. So Israel long ago, and we today, need to demonstrate our thankfulness for the grace shown to belong to such a God!
The twenty-first century is so radically different from Moses’ era, and our lives in Kelmscott so very different from Israel’s on the banks of the Jordan. But God’s love remains the same, and His covenant with us identical in content to His covenant with Israel. Therefore "hear," O congregation of Jesus Christ, be willing to the told – told both of the infinite love of God in Jesus Christ, and told too of the radical effect that our resulting love for Him must have on the way we talk and live. Amen.