First Things First, Deuteronomy 4:44-5:6

“First Things First” 

Deuteronomy 4:44-5:6

September 4, 2022

Faith Presbyterian Church – Morning Service

Pastor Nicoletti

The Reading of the Word

Last Lord’s Day we came to the end of our summer series in the book of Colossians, and now we return to our fall series in Deuteronomy. Last fall we considered most of the first four chapters of Deuteronomy, and now, this fall as we return to it, we approach the Ten Commandments, found in chapter five.

But today, we come to the introduction to the Ten Commandments. Here, Moses is setting the framework for how we understand the Ten Commandments and their place in the life of the people of God. As such, our passage this morning will lead right up to and stop right before the first commandment. 

As we return to a text from the Hebrew Scriptures, I’ll remind you that, as has been my practice in the past, when our English translation has followed the tradition of replacing the covenant name of God, “Yahweh,” with the title “the Lord” (in all caps) – in those places, as I read aloud, I will restore the covenant name back to the text. This is not because it’s wrong to use the title “the Lord” or because there is something mystical in the sounds of the name “Yahweh,” but because in those places, the Hebrew text is using a personal name, but our English translation traditions replaces it with what sounds to us more like a general title. And that can have a significant impact on the meaning – or even just the feel – of a passage, including our passage this morning.

With that said, we come to our text: Deuteronomy 4:44-5:6. 

Please do listen carefully, for this is God’s word for us this morning.

4:44 This is the law that Moses set before the people of Israel. 45 These are the testimonies, the statutes, and the rules, which Moses spoke to the people of Israel when they came out of Egypt, 46 beyond the Jordan in the valley opposite Beth-peor, in the land of Sihon the king of the Amorites, who lived at Heshbon, whom Moses and the people of Israel defeated when they came out of Egypt. 47 And they took possession of his land and the land of Og, the king of Bashan, the two kings of the Amorites, who lived to the east beyond the Jordan; 48 from Aroer, which is on the edge of the Valley of the Arnon, as far as Mount Sirion (that is, Hermon), 49 together with all the Arabah on the east side of the Jordan as far as the Sea of the Arabah, under the slopes of Pisgah.

5:1 And Moses summoned all Israel and said to them, “Hear, O Israel, the statutes and the rules that I speak in your hearing today, and you shall learn them and be careful to do them. Yahweh our God made a covenant with us in Horeb. Not with our fathers did Yahweh make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today. Yahweh spoke with you face to face at the mountain, out of the midst of the fire, while I stood between Yahweh and you at that time, to declare to you the word of Yahweh. For you were afraid because of the fire, and you did not go up into the mountain. He said:

“‘I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.’”

This is the word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God.)

“All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” [1 Peter 1:24-25]

Let’s pray …

Prayer of Illumination

Lord, we plead before you this morning,

to give us understanding according to your word.

Let our prayer come before you now,

and deliver us according to your promises.

Our lips this morning have poured out your praise,

because you teach us your statutes.

Our tongues have sung of your word,

because we know that all your commandments are right.

And so, as we attend now to your word,

grant us understanding and be at work in our hearts,

for Jesus’s sake, Amen

[Based on Psalm 119:169-172]

Introduction 

So, our text this morning is the introduction to the Ten Commandments – what the Bible itself calls “the Ten Words.” [Leithart, Ten Commandments, 2; Wright, 63] The Ten Commandments (or the “Ten Words”) are a summary of God’s moral requirements for all people – it is what God rightly expects from all whom he has made, who bear his image. But in this context, as we will see, the Ten Commandments are specifically given to God’s people, whom he has saved, as instruction for their relationship with him.

And in this passage right before the Ten Commandments, we see at least three things. 

Here, we are reminded that the moral law of the Bible, summarized in the Ten Words, is:

  • First, not locked up in the past, but here in the present.
  • Second, given to us not for rescue, but for response.
  • And third, not grounded in abstract principles, but in a personal relationship.

Not Locked in the Past but Here in the Present 

So, the first thing for us to see is that the moral law of the Bible, summarized in the Ten Commandments, is not locked in the past, but is here in the present. And we see that in verses one through three of chapter five.

There we read this: And Moses summoned all Israel and said to them, ‘Hear, O Israel, the statutes and the rules that I speak in your hearing today, and you shall learn them and be careful to do them. Yahweh our God made a covenant with us in Horeb. Not with our fathers did Yahweh make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today.’”

Moses here focuses the people before him on the covenant relationship God has made with them and the moral law God has given them. And of this he says: “Not with our fathers did Yahweh make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today.” And that’s an odd thing to say … because the covenant had been made and the law had been given 40 years earlier … mostly with the parents of those Moses is now addressing … and at a time when most of those he’s speaking to now were either children or had not yet been born. Since that time, their parents’ generation had died in the wilderness, and this next generation had (in some cases) been born and in almost every case, grown into adulthood. And yet Moses here says of those events 40 years earlier: “Not with our fathers did Yahweh make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today.” What does Moses mean?

Well, as Old Testament scholar Christopher Wright explains, the Hebrew grammar of verse three is probably best interpreted as meaning “Not only with our fathers did Yahweh make this covenant, but also with us, who are all of us here alive today.” [Wright, 62]

In other words, Moses is telling the people that neither the covenant of God nor the Ten Words are locked up in the past. Christopher Wright puts it like this – he says: “Moses’ point is that this present generation […] – and therefore by implication all future generations – was just as much a partner in the covenant that concluded at Sinai as those who actually stood at the foot of the mountain itself. […] The covenant was never a thing of the past, because Yahweh, as the living God, was the contemporary of every succeeding generation.” [Wright, 62]

Because God is just as present with one generation as he is with another, whether they are separated by 40 years, as was the case with the second generation under Moses, or whether they are separated by over three thousand years, as is the case for us … because God is the same, and because he is equally present to every generation, both his covenant and his moral law – the Ten Words – is not something that is locked up in the past, but something that is given here in the present, as well.

And that has implications for us when it comes to redemptive history, to human history, and to family history.

Redemptive History

First, it has implications for us when it comes to redemptive history.

There is a tendency of some Christians to discount or downplay or even discard the Old Testament moral law, as if it applied to Israel, but not to us. And yet, that perspective does not fit with the teaching of the New Testament itself or the understanding of the historic Church.

For one thing, both Jesus and the Apostles repeatedly apply the Old Testament moral law to Christians. The instances are really too many to number. Much of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount was Jesus helping his followers rightly interpret and apply the Ten Commandments, and other moral laws of the Old Testament. The Apostle Paul repeatedly quotes from and alludes to the Old Testament moral law as an authority. The New Testament does not teach that there is a moral break between the Old and New Testaments, but a consistency. And this is because there is a consistency in God between those Testaments.

God remains the same. Jesus Christ remains the same. As the author of Hebrews puts it: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” [Hebrews 13:8] As Jude reminds us, the same Jesus Christ we read of in the Gospels, is also the One who rescued Israel from Egypt. [Jude 5]

Of course, as the administration of the covenant of grace changed with the coming of Christ, the way the Old Testament law was applied was also changed in certain ways to reflect that. 

As Augustine has explained it, we might say that the ritual life of Israel was conjugated from one tense to another. The meaning and the verbal root remained the constant, though the form was at times changed. [See Leithart, The Priesthood of the Plebs, 37-39]

But the heart of the law and its moral teaching remained the same, because God remained the same.

And the Church throughout its history has recognized this as well, with the Ten Commandments being a regular part of Christian discipleship and life over the centuries. [Leithart, Ten Commandments, 1]

Because despite all that has happened in the past three thousand years of redemptive history, God remains the same, as does the moral law for his covenant people. And so, just as Moses could say to that new generation 40 years later, so I can say to you, over 3,000 years later: “Not only with our fathers did Yahweh make this covenant, but also with us, who are all of us here alive today.”

So, when it comes to redemptive history, the moral law of the Bible summarized in the Ten Commandments, is not locked in the past, but is given here to us in the present as well.

Human History

Second, the same thing is true when it comes to human history.

Now, by saying that, I’m not contrasting redemptive history and human history, but rather looking at time and history through two different lenses.

Because while some objections to the application of the Ten Words are based on redemptive history, others are rooted in a much more human-based view of history. And it goes like this: “The world we live in is just so different from the world the Bible was given in. Culture is different, technology is different, our scientific knowledge is different. We could go on and on. Can a moral law given over three thousand years ago really have relevance, let alone authority, for us today? Isn’t it kind of dated? Haven’t we progressed beyond it?”

And the answer is that it does have relevance and authority for us … if we rightly understand how we are to apply it.

And the reason the Bible’s moral law still applies to us rests in its source, its foundation, and its subjects.

First of all, as Christians, we believe that the source of the Bible is not from human beings, but from God. Yes, it came through human beings. God used particular people in particular times and places to transmit his word to us. But it is his word. “Men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” we’re told by the Apostle Peter. [2 Peter 1:21]

And if that’s true, then the timing isn’t really that important. In modern cultures, we tend to be chronological snobs – we assume whatever is more recent is better. In traditional cultures, people tend to be chronological nostalgics – they assume that whatever is older is better. Christianity holds neither view. It says that whatever comes from God is better, regardless of when he gives it to us. At one point the Ten Commandments were new. Today they are old. In both cases they are relevant and authoritative only because they come from God.

Second, the Bible’s moral law continues to have relevance because of its foundation – which is the character of God himself. As we already said, God does not change. His character does not change. He is who he is from all eternity and into all eternity. And so, if the Bible’s moral law reflects his character, then at its heart it will not change.

And third, human nature does not change. Much about human culture and historical circumstances may change – and we will get to that in a minute – but human nature, the human heart and soul, that does not change. And so, what is healthy for the human soul and what is poison to the human soul – those things do not change. And so, neither does God’s moral prescription for the human soul.

All of that said, historical circumstances do change. And while that does not change the heart or the content of the Bible’s moral law, it may change how the law is applied to specific situations. And that is not a modern idea, but something we see in the Bible itself.

We see it in how the moral law is given. In the Bible we are not given an exhaustive set of detailed laws meant to cover every possible situation that would come up in human history. In fact, what we’re given wasn’t even meant to cover every situation that would come up in Moses’s day. Instead, the Bible gives us general laws (like the Ten Commandments), then selections of more detailed laws that apply them to certain circumstances, and then case law to demonstrate how they might be applied to more complex situations. [Frame, 386] And from that, it is clear that God expected his people – whether in the days of Moses or today – to reason through how to apply his law to the many other situations that would come up in the course of human life and human history.

And as we face such situations, the Bible points us not to discarding the law as it was given, but to using wisdom to apply it to new situations. Even within biblical history, when circumstances arose that required adjustments to how the law given to Moses was applied by God’s people, God did not give them a new law, or call on them to simply discard the old one, but he provided wisdom literature as a way of calling his people to continue to hold fast to his unchanging moral law, and to use wisdom to apply it to new and different situations. And the same calling remains for us today.

And so, whether we think of the cultural and historical changes in the last three thousand years, or the last three hundred years, or the last thirty years, the moral law of the Bible, summarized in the Ten Commandments, still applies to us – it is not locked in the past, but is here in the present.

Family History

And that is true for our family history as well. And here I have in mind those of you who grew up in a Christian home. There are so many blessings to growing up in a covenant family. But one of the challenges is the temptation to see the Christian faith and the Christian way of life as belonging more to your parents than to you. But this passage calls you to reject such a way of thinking.

It may be true that God called your parents to himself, and pointed them to his moral law – his pattern of life that he calls his people to. And it may be true that up until now, you have mainly learned that way of life from them. 

But the Christian way of life – the Bible’s moral law – is not theirs. It is God’s. 

Moses here makes the point to the rising Exodus generation that the God of Israel, and the way of life he calls his people to, is not locked up in the past with their parents. It is something immediately present to them. The same God who stood before their parents and pointed them to his truth and his law, now stands before them, and points them to his truth and his law … and he does the same with you.

And that is especially true if you see failures and shortcomings in the lives of your Christian parents. Our text urges you not to project your parents’ shortcomings onto God’s Word or onto God himself. Afterall, Moses was speaking to a generation whose parents had seriously failed to live the kind of life that God had called them to. But Moses still calls their children – the next generation – to realize that the Lord is now calling them. And whatever their parents’ successes or failures may have been, those of the next generation are now called to have their own relationship with the Lord.

“Not only with our fathers did Yahweh make this covenant, but also with us, who are all of us here alive today.”

That’s the first thing we see in our text: The moral law of the Bible, summarized in the Ten Commandments, is not locked in the past, but is given here to us in the present.

Not Given for Rescue but for a Response 

The second thing for us to see in this passage is that the moral law of the Bible, summarized in the Ten Words, is given to us not for rescue, but for response.

We are reminded here that Israel was a rescued people. First, God recounts how he conquered their Amorite enemies, in verses 46 through 49. But then, even more fundamentally, he recounts in verse 45 and again in chapter five verse six, how he rescued them from slavery in Egypt: “I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

And this is a reminder of what the law is and what the law is not. The law is not given to rescue those who are captive. God did not first deliver the Ten Commandments to Israel, while they were slaves in Egypt, and then, once they had obeyed it, free them from their bondage. The rescue came first. And God makes it clear here that their obedience to this moral law was to come next, as a response. [Frame, 402-403]

And throughout the Bible the exodus from Egypt is, for God’s people, a picture of our spiritual salvation. 

The Bible tells us that since the fall of our first parents, we are all, by nature, slaves to sin, and death, and Satan. But in Christ, God has come to rescue us from our captors, just as he rescued Israel from Pharaoh. And just as was the case for Israel, so for our own spiritual lives, the rescue of salvation comes before the response of obedience – not the other way around.

But we often get this wrong. 

I recently heard Matt Kuiken, a pastor friend of mine, make this point really well with the story of Jessica Buchanan. 

Buchanan was an American aid worker who was serving in Somalia with a Danish charity, teaching children how to avoid landmines. On October 25, 2011, Buchanan’s car was hijacked, and she was kidnapped by Somali pirates, who held her captive in a camp in the desert, where she was kept outside day and night, while her captors tried to demand a ransom of 45 million dollars from her aid organization.

Her captivity that began in a day soon went on for weeks, and then for months.

After three months of exposure in the desert, she developed a serious infection. In a final call where her captors put her on the phone with the hostage negotiator, she told the negotiator that she was so sick that she could not stand up, she could not walk, she thought she might have a kidney infection, and she was afraid she was going to die. At that point, Jessica had lost hope of release.

On the night of January 25, 2012, Buchanan was lying on a mat outside, trying to sleep, when she heard a faint scratching noise. She looked over to one of the nearby Somali pirates, who had heard it too. And on his face, she saw a look of shear terror. Then all of a sudden there was an eruption of gunfire.

And at that point, Jessica was convinced that a rival gang – maybe an Islamic terrorist group – had come to take her for themselves. In despair, as bullets flew, she pulled her blanket over her head, in a final and futile act of self-protection.

Suddenly she felt hands all over her. She tried to pull the blanket tighter. And then she heard her name in an American accent. She heard: “Jessica, we’re with the American military. We’re here to take you home. You are safe.”

The men surrounding her were members of SEAL Team Six, who had parachuted in two miles away, and traveled by foot to the pirate encampment in order to rescue her.

After hearing those words, Jessica Buchanan lowered the blankets, and one of the SEALs picked her up and ran, carrying her to the place where a helicopter would meet them. Once there, they offered her medicine and food and water. After a short wait, the helicopter arrived, and she was brought to safety.

Now here’s the thing: How utterly useless would it have been if, rather than doing what they did, the Navy SEALs had instead written up good, detailed instructions about how Jessica Buchanan could overpower her captors (what techniques to use and so on), along with a map and directions on how to get the U.S. Embassy in Mogadishu? And then, instead of parachuting in from the helicopter themselves, what if they had just dropped that book of instructions into the camp for her, and gone to wait for her to show up at the embassy?

How utterly useless would that have been?

Jessica Buchanan at that point could barely walk or stand up. She didn’t need instructions. She needed rescue. She needed someone to come and overpower her captors for her. She needed someone to come and carry her to safety.

And the Bible tells us that the same is true of us. Which is why, however wonderful the law of God is – and it is wonderful – still, we cannot make the mistake of treating it as instructions for how to rescue ourselves from sin.

Because the Bible tells us, in our natural state without Christ, we are captives of sin. Sin is not just something we do, the Bible tells us, but left to ourselves, we are helpless slaves of sin. It is our captor.

If you are not a Christian, then this is why you struggle so much to be the kind of person you know you should be. You look at parts of who you are, and you see aspects of yourself that you know are not right. You see your selfishness. You see your anger. You see your lack of care for others. You see your secret destructive habits. And you try to change them. But so often you can’t. Because you are not just a doer of sin. You are a captive of sin. And like Jessica Buchanan, captive and sick in the desert, you have no power to free yourself.

But God has sent rescue. He has come in Jesus Christ to free all who would trust in him. And in his death and resurrection he has conquered sin, and Satan, and death. When Christ died and then rose, those three captors had that same look of terror as the Somali pirate who saw the Navy SEALs coming. Because in his death and resurrection, Jesus carried out an assault on our spiritual captors, and he defeated them.

And if we place our trust in him, he will not only defeat our spiritual captors, but he will carry us to safety, and he will give us living water to drink, and true food for our souls, and spiritual medicine that will heal us.

If you are not a Christian, the first thing you need is not instructions, but someone to save you. Christ, this morning, offers to do for you what you cannot do for yourself.

And if you are a Christian, then you need to remember that you have been rescued and set free. That means that as powerful as sin may feel, it is not your master. Christ has set you free from slavery to sin. The ways of sin may still be ingrained in your habits. The pleasures of sin may still be enticing to your heart, but the power of sin – it’s ability to truly capture and enslave you – that has been broken.

In a sense, when we sin, it is as if we travel back to that encampment, and act as if we are captives when we are not. [Romans 6:1-14]

The purpose of the law then – of the Ten Commandments and the Bible’s moral law as a whole – is not to give us directions for how to rescue ourselves from sin, but to tell us how we should live in response to the fact that we have been rescued from sin, by Christ.

For one thing, it reminds us that we are to respond by resisting the temptations to travel back to the spiritual land of our captivity. We should not go back into the desert to the pirate encampment and act as if that is our home. Because it’s not. And when we do go back, and when we do act like slaves to sin when we are not, then we must confess our wrongdoing and seek to turn from it and to return to our spiritual homeland of grace and obedience in the Kingdom of Christ.

But then second, the law reminds us that if we have been rescued, then we should have a radical change in our attitude towards the One who rescued us.

At one point in a later interview, Jessica Buchanan said that as she was rescued, on the way home, the SEALs who rescued her handed her a folded American flag. And she told her interviewer: “I just started to cry. At that point in time I had never in my life been so proud and so very happy to be an American.”

Now the point here isn’t patriotism. The point is how deeply it should move and affect us if we truly realize that someone else has saved us from captivity and death.

And we should have the same sort of response if we truly grasp the gospel. The Christian life is hard. The Christian life has real challenges. But at root, the Christian life is about how we feel about and how we respond to the one who has rescued us from captivity to sin and death.

And the moral law of the Bible tells us what a right response looks like. It tells us what kind of things honor God and what kind of things dishonor God. It tells us what pleases God and what grieves God. It tells us what the Lord delights in and what raises his indignation. Because as people who have been saved from sin and death and Satan, we should want to honor and please and delight our Lord, who rescued us. We should be proud and thankful to be his people.

Not Grounded in Abstract Principles but in a Personal Relationship 

Which brings us to our final point: the moral law of the Bible, summarized in the Ten Words, is not grounded in abstract principles, but in a personal relationship.

And I’ll be brief here because we’ll come back to this theme again next week. But we are reminded in our text this morning that at the center of the Bible’s moral law is not a principle, but a person. It is about who the Lord is, what he has done to love us, and how we can love him. Where other ethical systems are abstract and try to build themselves on detached principles or concepts, the Biblical moral law grounds itself on a person, and is rooted in a personal relationship. [Wright, 62; Frame, 403-404]

In the exodus, Yahweh had personally rescued a specific people for himself. That should have impacted their hearts in a personal way. And that should have led them to respond in a personal way. 

And the same is true for us. We were in need. And the Lord himself saw us. The Lord himself knew we needed rescue. And the Lord himself saved us. And that truth should impact our hearts and change us on a personal level, even more than on a conceptual level.

As I thought about this, I found myself thinking again of the story of Jessica Buchanan, and two other details of her rescue. 

Buchanan said, in a later interview, that when she was being held captive, she didn’t think anyone with any power back in America was paying attention to her situation. After all, she was just a lowly aid worker.

What she didn’t know was that her situation was known, not only to the U.S. government, but to the FBI, the military, and even the president himself.

In fact, the night of the rescue, just a few hours after it happened, President Barack Obama was scheduled to give the State of the Union. In an interaction that originally puzzled viewers of the speech, when President Obama first entered the chambers and was greeting people before going to the podium, he went up to the Secretary of Defense and said emphatically to him “Good job tonight … Good job tonight.” What people learned later was that he was thanking the Defense Secretary for overseeing the successful rescue of Jessica Buchanan. This was the most powerful man in the world, entering a crowd of the most powerful people in our country … and what was on his mind as he walked into that room was the rescue of Jessica Buchanan. After the State of the Union speech, President Obama called her father himself.

Her rescue was not abstract. It was personal.

But that came out even more in the rescue itself.

At one point, after they had taken Buchanan from the encampment, but before the helicopter arrived to airlift them to safety, the SEAL team became concerned that there might be a threat.

And so, the team had her lie down, and they made a circle around her, and in that formation, they lay down on top of her, to protect her … so that if someone opened fire, the bullets would hit them rather than her. And they lay like that until the helicopter came.

An interviewer, speaking to her afterward, said to Buchanan: “When all of those SEALs lay down on top of you … you were the most important thing in the world to them.”

She nodded and said, “That’s really hard to comprehend.”

That kind of sacrificial care for another person is really hard to comprehend. Yet that is the mystery of what God has done for us in the gospel.

When we were in need, our Heavenly Father, in the heights of heaven, saw our need, he heard our plea, and he cared. He cared deeply. He cared enough to send his own Son to come, and to rescue us.

And when his Son came in the person of Jesus Christ, he not only risked death in order to save us, but willingly walked into it. On the cross, he died the death that we deserved to die, so that we might be freed from sin.

That is what God has done for us. That is what Christ has sacrificed for us. That is the biblical preface to the moral law that we have in the gospel, as God’s people. “It’s really hard to comprehend.” But it’s true.

And if it is true, then the most important thing in our lives should be how we respond to it: First and foremost, that we accept it as a gift, rather than trying to save ourselves. And then second, that we dedicate the rest of our lives to honoring and pleasing and loving the great God who did all this for us.

And so, let us be people who accept the grace that the Lord has shown us in the gospel.

And let us be people who are eager to receive his moral law for us and to live it out in our lives, that we might love and honor and give thanks to our Redeemer in all we say and in all we do. 

Amen.

This sermon draws on material from:

Barker, Paul. Introduction and notes to Deuteronomy in The ESV Study Bible. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008.

Block, Daniel I. The NIV Application Commentary: Deuteronomy. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012.

Frame, John. The Doctrine of the Christian Life. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008.

Leithart Peter J. The Priesthood of the Plebs: A Theology of Baptism. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2003.

Leithart, Peter J. The Ten Commandments: A Guide to the Perfect Law of Liberty. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2020.

Wright, Christopher. Deuteronomy. NIBC. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996.

On the rescue of Jessica Buchanan, I primarily drew information from her “60 Minutes” interview posted to Youtube on May 12, 2013: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qSqMjK85tfc 

You can find the sermons of Rev. Matthew Kuiken (from whom I first learned about this story, and also first heard it applied to illustrate the work of God in our lives) here: https://www.firstarpchurch.org/archived-live-worship/ 

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