“Keep the Commandments of the Lord”
November 7, 2021
Faith Presbyterian Church – Morning Service
We continue this morning in the book of Deuteronomy, with Moses preaching to the second exodus generation of Israel, on the edge of the promised land, as we come to Deuteronomy 4:1-8.
Please do listen carefully, for this is God’s word for us this morning.
4:1 “And now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the rules that I am teaching you, and do them, that you may live, and go in and take possession of the land that Yahweh, the God of your fathers, is giving you. 2 You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of Yahweh your God that I command you. 3 Your eyes have seen what Yahweh did at Baal-peor, for Yahweh your God destroyed from among you all the men who followed the Baal of Peor. 4 But you who held fast to Yahweh your God are all alive today. 5 See, I have taught you statutes and rules, as Yahweh my God commanded me, that you should do them in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. 6 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.’ 7 For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as Yahweh our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? 8 And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today
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 …
Lord, we gather this morning because we love your Word.
We want it to be our meditation day and night.
We know that your revelation to us
offers more wisdom than the wise of the world,
it gives us more understanding than the great thinkers of the world,
it gives us deeper understanding than the old and experienced of the world.
It holds us back from evil,
and keeps us from straying from you.
And it is sweet to us,
sweeter than honey in our mouths.
Through it we gain understanding,
and we learn to reject every false way.
Teach us now from your word, we ask.
In Jesus’s name. Amen
[Based on Psalm 119:97-104]
In the previous passage of Deuteronomy – which we looked at last Sunday, we were reminded again that we cannot earn God’s favor, but that our salvation – our status of being right with God – is a free gift in the gospel of Jesus Christ. That was the theme we considered from our previous text.
That theme then leads naturally to the question that is addressed in our text today: If we are saved by grace, then why should we continue to follow God’s commandments? Why should we obey his law? Why should we live as he tells us to live?
Now, that is a big question, and there are a lot of answers that the Bible gives to it. We’re not going to attempt a full systematic answer to it this morning. Instead, we are going to focus on the text before us, which gives us three aspects of the call to keep God’s law, and then three reasons why we are called to keep God’s law.
First, we see the call itself. And we see that especially in verses one and two. Moses says: “And now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the rules that I am teaching you, and do them, that you may live, and go in and take possession of the land that Yahweh, 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 Yahweh your God that I command you.”
Moses calls them to keep the commandments of Yahweh. And there are three ways that are stated or implied in the passage in which we might fail to do that: we might add to God’s commands, we might subtract from them, or we might ignore or compartmentalize them.
First, we might add to God’s commands. We see that in verse two. That is where we take some rules that God has not given – things he has not commanded, or things he has not forbidden – and we claim that God actually has commanded or forbidden those things. We put words in God’s mouth. That is adding to God’s word. And it is one way we can fail to keep his commands.
Second, we might subtract from God’s law. That also is mentioned in verse two. This is when we find something commanded in God’s law that we don’t want to do, or something forbidden in God’s law that we do want to do, and we, in one way or another, try to eliminate it from God’s word. Whether we overtly make an argument that it should be removed, or we are more subtle, in either case we try to subtract from God’s law. And that is another way we can fail to keep God’s commands.
A third way we can fail to keep God’s commands, implied in the example given in verse 3 is that we can ignore, or compartmentalize God’s law. We see that in the example Moses gives of the incident at Baal-peor.
In that incident, the people worshiped a rival god – a false god. And to grasp what was going on there we need to realize that gods in the ancient world did not usually demand exclusive worship. In the polytheistic paganism surrounding Israel, multiple gods were worshipped, and each had their own domain. And generally, outside their prescribed domain, they could be ignored.
And in the incident of Baal-peor, Israel adopted that attitude towards Yahweh, the God of Israel. It is unlikely that in worshipping the god Baal they were intending to completely reject Yahweh. They were just adding Baal to the mix, and compartmentalizing Yahweh. Yahweh might be helpful for some things, but Baal, they suspected, might be helpful for other things.
But what makes Yahweh, the God of the Bible, unique, is that he does demand exclusive faithfulness. He does insist that he reigns over every area of life. There is no part of life where he can be ignored.
And so, a third way Israel was tempted to fail to keep God’s commands was to ignore God’s law in some area of life, by compartmentalizing it.
And before we go on, it would be helpful for you to stop now, and ask yourself how you are tempted to do one or more of these things.
Where are you tempted to add to God’s law? What are things that you think are good, and maybe they are good, but God doesn’t really command them … but you try to argue or act sometimes like he does? Or what are things you think are bad, but that God hasn’t clearly forbidden, but you tend to talk about them to others as if he has forbidden them? Where have you taken your preferences – and maybe even very sanctified preferences – but still, preferences, and tried to elevate them as if they are commands from God?
There are many ways we can do this. We can do it with our behavioral preferences, with our cultural preferences, with our political preferences, with our liturgical preferences, with our artistic preferences, and we could go on. But where are you tempted to do that?
Or, on the other hand, where are you tempted to try to subtract from God’s word? What things have Christians generally agreed the Bible commands, and you see it in the Scriptures too, but you tend to try to downplay? Or maybe you acknowledge those commands are there, but you try to render them meaningless. One way we often do this is by trying to use one set of commands in the Bible to eliminate another. God wants us to hold on to both, but we instead pit them against each other, and try, in the process, to subtract the set of commands that make us uncomfortable. Is there a set of commands where you are tempted to do that?
Or where do you tend to ignore God’s word? What area of your life to you try to box off from the word of God – to act as if God’s law applies to other areas of life, but not that one?
Take a moment, and identify some concrete examples in your own heart and life – ways you are tempted away from keeping God’s commands. And then keep those in mind as we continue to think about this this morning.
The call here that Moses gives to God’s people is to keep God’s law – to keep it by refusing to add to it, subtract from it, or ignore it.
That’s the substance of the call.
But what is the reason for the call? Why does Moses tell them not to add to, subtract from, or ignore God’s commands?
Moses gives three reasons in this passage, which we will consider this morning. Moses points here to the realities of apostasy, mission, and presence.
Reason #1: Apostasy
First, God points the people to the reality of apostasy – to the possibility of abandoning our faith in the God of the Bible.
The Bible both assures us that it is ultimately God that keeps us close to himself, and it calls us to persevere in the faith and cling to him. It proclaims both God’s sovereignty and our human responsibility in perseverance. But our text this morning focuses on our responsibility. And so that will be our focus here.
We read this in verses three through five. There Moses says:
“Your eyes have seen what Yahweh did at Baal-peor, for Yahweh your God destroyed from among you all the men who followed the Baal of Peor. But you who held fast to Yahweh your God are all alive today. 5 See, I have taught you statutes and rules, as Yahweh my God commanded me, that you should do them in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.”
Moses is reminding them of the apostasy of many of God’s people in the incident at Baal-peor. Now – what happened there?
In Numbers 22 the king of Moab and the elders of Midian gather to plot against God’s people.
Their first act against them is a direct spiritual attack. They hire a “widely acclaimed soothsayer” named Balaam the son of Beor to call down a curse on Israel. [Brown, 204] The story that follows in Numbers 22-24 is a strange one, but the result is that every time Balaam tries to curse Israel directly, God causes Balaam instead to call down a blessing on Israel.
The direct spiritual attack doesn’t work.
But then, in the very next chapter, we come to the incident of Baal-peor that is referenced in verse three. In Numbers 25 we read there that certain women from Moab and Midian led the men of Israel astray, into sexual sin, and then into idolatry – leading them to begin to worship the false god named Baal.
In Numbers 31:16 we learn that this was planned and premeditated. Balaam – the soothsayer whose direct spiritual attacks on Israel had failed – had advised the leaders of Midian and Moab to send these women into Israel with the goal of tempting them in these ways. And they did. And it worked.
A direct spiritual assault failed. But then the leaders of Moab and Midian focused instead on chipping around the edges of Israel’s relationship to Yahweh. They tempted the Israelite men into sexual sin. And once they got a foothold there, they tempted them to idolatrous sin.
In their own minds, the Israelite men probably rationalized that this wasn’t really apostasy – it wasn’t an abandonment of Yahweh. Yahweh had his place in their lives, and then Baal had his place – similar to how their Israelite wives had their place in their lives, and their new Midianite mistresses had their place. They ignored and compartmentalized.
But God would have none of it. He brings judgment. And as he makes clear, these sins did not just stay on the periphery of the Israelite’s hearts and lives, but they were pathways to the core of their hearts and lives. Those who followed the Baal of Peor, he says in verse three, were those who in the end, he points out in verse four, did not hold fast to Yahweh, the God of Israel.
All God’s people have sin in their hearts and lives. And the point of this incident is not that anyone who has sin will eventually turn from the Lord – if that were the case then no one would persevere. Instead, the threat highlighted in the incident of Baal-peor is to those who make peace with sin.
Because that not only gives the sin a place in our lives, but it leads us to add to, or subtract from, or ignore God’s commands in a way that starts us down a path of changing who we think God is. And left unchecked, we can end up following a different god altogether from the God of the Bible whom we started with. And the result of that is spiritual death – both in this life, and then finally, eternally, in the life to come.
That is why, in verse one, Moses stresses that you should keep the commandments of Yahweh, so “that you may live.” [Wright, 45] It’s not that we earn life by keeping the commands, but that by seeking to keep God’s commands as he has given them, we keep from straying from the true God to a false one.
And we can be tempted to stray to a false god through subtraction, addition, or compartmentalization.
When we subtract from God’s law, we begin to remake God in our mind into someone different – into a hedonistic god. We begin to make him into a god who is there to serve us – who gives us whatever we want, and who would never ask us to deny ourselves for something greater than our immediate desires. And if we follow down that road, we end up with a god very different from the God of the Bible. That is what many of the Israelites did who followed the ways of the pagan nations around them. But the end of that road is the place of spiritual death.
On the other end, when we add to God’s law, we begin to remake God in our mind into someone different as well – into a moralistic god. We begin to make him into a god who likes what we like and hates what we hate – and especially into a god who likes the kind of people we like, and hates the kind of people that we hate. A god who would never call us to rely on grace, but who will tell us that we deserve the good things we get from him. A god who would never call us to extend grace towards people who violate our scruples, but who will instead join us in sneering at and condemning them. And so, if we follow down that road, we end up with a god very different from the God of the Bible. That is what many of the Pharisees did in the day of Jesus. But the end of that road is the place of spiritual death.
Finally, when we ignore and compartmentalize God’s law, we begin to remake God in our mind as well – we make him into an indifferent god. We begin to make him into a god who only cares about what we do in the religious realm of our lives, but who makes no claim on the rest of our lives. We make him into a god relegated to a corner of our hearts, rather than being the Maker and King of all of creation. And so, if we follow down that road, we end up with a god very different from the God of the Bible. That is what many of the Israelites did at Baal-peor. But the end of that road is the place of spiritual death.
Where are you tempted to add to, or subtract from, or compartmentalize and ignore parts of God’s commands? And how would doing so cause you to remake God more and more … until the god you worshiped was no longer the true God, but a god of your own making?
The first reason Moses gives why we must keep God’s commandments is that we may live – that we might continue to cling to the God of the Bible, and not go astray to follow a false god, and end in spiritual death.
That’s the first reason Moses gives.
Reason #2: Mission
The second reason Moses gives as to why we must keep God’s law is mission.
And we see that in verses five and six.
There Moses says:
5 See, I have taught you statutes and rules, as Yahweh my God commanded me, that you should do them in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. 6 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.’
Moses says that Israel is to keep God’s commands so that when the pagan people around them see them living that way, they would be struck by their way of life. The life of God’s people was supposed to point to a different way of being human. And that was supposed to cause those pagans to stop, and to marvel, and to want to know more. And that desire to know more was supposed to lead them not, ultimately, to Israel, but to Israel’s God – to Yahweh, the God of the Bible. [Wright, 47; Barker, 337]
This is the missional aspect of why God’s people are called to keep God’s law, and it is a theme present throughout the Bible. We see it when God calls Abraham and tells him that part of Abraham’s calling is that as he and his descendants follow God, through them God will bring his blessing to all the families and nations of the earth [Genesis 12:1-3, 22:17-17]. And we see it when Jesus says to his disciples “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 5:16]
But when we fail to keep God’s law, we fail to carry out this part of our mission to the world.
When we subtract from God’s law, we take away what makes the God of the Bible distinct from our culture. We soften or eliminate those aspects of his law that should get people’s attention – that should be sign-posts of his unique wisdom, distinct from our culture around us.
When we add to God’s law, we remake God in our image. And when we do, we not only hold up an inaccurate image of God, but a much less interesting image. Because even our best wisdom is not that attention-grabbing. And so we fail to get people’s attention as we display our wisdom, rather than God’s.
And when we ignore God’s law, we treat God as indifferent towards the unbelieving world. We act as if he is indifferent to getting their attention. We act as if he is indifferent to making them, or making us, holy. And an indifferent god is hardly noteworthy to a world awash in indifference.
God calls his people to keep his commands, so that they will display his unique wisdom for human life, and so get the attention of unbelievers who are seeking to understand this God who has so shaped his people’s lives.
That means a few things. For non-believers, or for new believers, that means that if something about God’s people has brought you here, then this is the dynamic that is at work. It’s not by chance that you are here. God has brought you here. You are here as the result of God’s mission, reaching out to you, through his people.
But it also means that God’s people – whether they have gotten your attention for the good qualities of their lives, or whether they have been a stumbling block because of the bad qualities in their lives – whether you have experienced the holiness of God’s people, or their remaining sinfulness, you need to know that God’s people are not the final resource for you to know God.
They are something God uses to draw people in – that is true. But they are not a full, and certainly not a perfect, revelation of who God is. We always fall short. We always disappoint. And while the uniqueness of God’s people should draw you in, our failures should not drive you away. Because, as Moses goes on to say in verses seven and eight, you are not supposed to stop your searching with God’s people, but you supposed to continue on to find the thing which makes God’s people unique and holy – you are supposed to continue on until you come to the Word of God. It is in the Word of God – the statutes and the stories – that God reveals himself as he is. It is in the Bible that we get the fuller picture. And it is the Bible that rightly shapes God’s people. When they are good, it is because of what God’s Word has done in their lives.
And so, if you are here, lay hold of God’s Word. Look to the Bible. Keep coming to church to hear it preached. Read it at home. Ask someone here to help you – to point out to you the best place to start, and to help you understand what you are reading. God’s people are given as a guide to God and his word, and you should take advantage of that – you should seek their help. But remember – it is the word itself where you will hear from God as he is.
And for those of us who have been believers longer, this is an important reminder of our calling. Our mission is not to promote ourselves. Our mission is not to promote the church. Our mission is to point to and promote the God of the Bible: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We are to do that with our words. And we are to do that with our lives. We are to do that by keeping God’s commands for us in a way that will strike other people as odd and unusual. And we are to do that by being prepared to explain to anyone who asks us about the reason for the hope that is in us. [1 Peter 3:15]
That is the second reason Moses gives for us to keep God’s law – our calling to mission.
Reason #3: Presence
Third, and finally, Moses calls us to keep God’s commands by pointing to the presence of God among his people.
In verses seven and eight he says: “For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as Yahweh our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?”
In these verses, God’s nearness is emphasized. [Barker, 337]
In the inaugural issue of Mere Orthodoxy, Jake Meador writes that “the late John Webster once remarked that we do not have the luxury of speaking about God as if he is not listening.” [Mere Orthodoxy, 4]
That is an obvious but profound statement for anyone who is interested in talking about God – whether in a theological lecture or in a causal conversation. We do not have the luxury of speaking about God as if he is not listening. So we must be careful what we say. We are not able to talk behind God’s back, but we always talk before his face. And that should affect how we speak of him.
But God not only listens. He also sees. And we not only speak … we also act. And so, we might add that we also do not have the luxury of living our lives as if God is not watching. He observes what we do, and what we say, and what we think. And he is close. It’s not that he gets a distant report of our conduct, but he sees it first-hand – he sees it more directly than even we do. And so, we should be careful how we live. For we are not able carry out any actions behind God’s back, but we always live our lives before his face. And that should affect how we live our lives. It should be a reason for us to keep God’s law.
The presence of God is a reason why we cannot ignore God’s law or compartmentalize his role in our lives.
I heard a preacher once tell the story of a man who had an affair. And before his mistress would come over, he would first go through the house and put all the pictures of his wife face down, so he could not see her image. He needed to ignore his wife’s existence – to put her in a separate mental compartment – in order to have the affair. And so, all the reminders in the house had to be covered.
And we have to do something similar, though even more extreme, when we ignore God’s law and willfully betray him through sin. Because it’s not just images of God we need to try to ignore. It’s the presence of God himself. When we decide to ignore God’s commands to us – when we decide to ignore our commitment to be faithful to him – as we do that, he is there. He sees us. It’s as if the man had the affair with his wife right there in the room, and he just tried to ignore her.
More than that, it’s as if she was shouting at him to stop. For God, through his word, through his people, through his Spirit, through our conscience, shouts at us when we turn from him. He is there, and he is calling us – he is present, but we often willfully ignore him as we betray him.
Because God is present, we cannot ignore his commands to us.
Along with that, because God is present, we cannot add to or subtract from his word to us.
Those two temptations can look so different in practice. One can look especially religious. The other can look more lax. But both tend to speak as if God’s revelation is not sufficient, and as if God is not really present as we speak about his word.
Both forget, as John Webster pointed out, that we do not have the luxury of speaking about God as if he is not listening.
It reminds me of a scene from a movie – a comedy – in which the main character is standing in line at a movie theater. And the man behind him is going on and on to someone else about the direction the film industry is going. And the main character, the man in front of him, is getting more and more annoyed with what the man behind him is saying. And then the man behind him starts talking about the writings of Marshall McLuhan, a philosopher who did important work in the field of media studies.
And at that point the main character gets really frustrated, and he suddenly breaks the fourth wall, and turns to the camera, and talks directly to us, the audience, and he says: “What do you do when you get stuck in a movie line with a guy like this behind you? I mean, it’s just maddening!”
Now, the guy behind him hears him, and he also turns to the camera and addresses us. He says: “Wait a minute, why can’t I give my opinion? It’s a free country!”
The main character says: “I mean […] do you hafta give it so loud? I mean, aren’t you ashamed to pontificate like that? And the funny part of it is – Marshall McLuhan – you don’t know anything about Marshall McLuhan’s work!
“Oh, really?” the man replies. “Really? I happen to teach a class at Columbia called ‘TV Media and Culture’! So I think that my insights into Mr. McLuhan have a great deal of validity.”
“Oh, do yuh?” the main character asks.
“Yes,” says the man behind him.
“Well,” says the main character, “that’s funny because I happen to have Mr. McLuhan right here.”
And the main character walks to the edge of the frame, and brings philosopher Marshal McLuhan out from behind a piece of the scenery.
And McLuhan looks at the professor who was so confident in his opinion and says to him “I heard what you were saying. You know nothing of my work. […] How you ever got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing.”
And then the main character looks at the camera again and says “Boy, if life were only like this!”
And it’s a funny scene. But here’s the thing. When it comes to God, life really is like that.
Now, let me be clear what I mean. I don’t mean that we can call on God to speak audibly in our defense in the debates we get into with people in this life– that’s not how the scene is like real life with God.
The scene is like real life with God in that every time we talk about God, and about what God wants from people, God is right there – just like Marshal McLuhan was. We may not see him, but he is there, just outside the visual frame. And he hears everything we say about him.
And the danger is not that we are like the main character in that scene – though that may be what we tend to assume about ourselves.
No – the danger our text warns us about this morning is that we are much more prone to be like the mistaken professor from Columbia. We are in danger of being the man in line who adds to or subtracts from God’s word. And as we do so, we risk being the ones to whom God looks and has to say “I heard what you were saying. You know nothing of my work!”
Now, the point of all this is not that our theology must be perfect, or we should never speak. Our theology will never be perfect in this life, and still God does call us to speak of him.
Instead, the point of this passage is to warn us against the arrogance we can be prone to, in which we take our own preferences and our own thoughts, and we project them onto God, adding to or subtracting from his words in the process.
Because God is right there when we do that – he is close to us, just outside the frame. And there will be a day when we will stand before him and have to answer for such words spoken in arrogance.
And as we consider that, it’s helpful for us to note two other things here.
The first, is the fulness of God’s commands. God’s commands include a number of moral precepts for how God’s people are to live their lives – and that is much of what we have considered so far this morning. That is probably what comes to mind for many of us when we speak of the commands of God’s law.
But that’s not all the commands that God’s law contains. God’s law, at the time of Moses, also included, and commanded, the entire sacrificial system. And that is really important.
Because it means that God’s law, as given through Moses, assumed that we would not keep his moral commandments perfectly. God knew, as we considered last week, that we would fall short. And so God already had a provision build into the law for that. When God’s people sinned – and they would sin, they would fall short – through the ceremonial law they would draw close to God again and ask for his forgiveness. And God, in his mercy, by the blood of another, would cleanse them of their sin and set them free. And that was not a one-time event, but it was something God’s people would do over and over again.
And it is something we do as well. We should desire to keep God’s moral commands perfectly. We should seek to keep them perfectly. But we should not expect to keep them perfectly. Which is why, both on our own, privately, and every Lord’s Day, publicly, we are to go to God and confess our sins to him, and seek forgiveness and cleansing by the blood of Jesus.
The Apostle John said to believing Christians: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” [1 John 1:8-10]
That too is part of God’s Word. And we must not add to it, or subtract from it, or ignore it. Rather, when we sin, we are to go to God, and seek his grace through Christ once again. That is the first thing we need to recognize.
Second, there is the position of keeping God’s commands in the salvation of his people. And I mean specifically the chronological position.
Note in verses seven and eight, Moses does not say “Keep God’s commands so that God will be near you.” That’s not the order Moses gives. Instead, Moses tells them that God is near them, and that as a result, they should keep God’s law.
Moses says in verse seven that God is near whenever they call on him. God is near because they call on him in faith. God’s presence is a gift. It is not earned. And because he has given them the gracious gift of his presence, they should live lives that seek to obey God’s commands. That is the proper response to the God who has saved them. To do otherwise is to disregard the gift … to deny the gift … and maybe even one day to discard the gift.
Let us not treat the gift of God so cheaply. But clinging to Christ in faith, let us seek to keep his commands to us: that we might fulfill the mission he has given us, that we might live in light of his presence with us, and that we might continue his forever.
This sermon draws on material from:
Barker, Paul. Introduction and notes to Deuteronomy in The ESV Study Bible. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008.
Brown, Raymond. The Message of Numbers. The Bible Speaks Today. Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 2002.
Wright, Christopher. Deuteronomy. NIBC. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996.
I believe that I heard the illustration of a man having an affair and covering the pictures of his wife from a sermon by Tim Keller years ago (though I have not tracked it down to confirm that that is the source).
The movie scene with Marshal McLuhan comes from Woody Allen’s movie Annie Hall. It has been years since I have seen this movie, and so I do not remember everything the film contains. My use of it here is not meant to be an endorsement for all Christians to see it. Caution and wisdom must be exercised by Christians in knowing what would be profitable for them to watch and what they should personally avoid.
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