Category Archives: Scriptural Thought for the Month

The Heroes of Faith: Abraham Part 2.

‘By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son,  of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back’

(Hebrews 11:17-19).

Before we moved to Stony Stratford I redecorated our house as we were going to be letting it.  My friend, who is a builder and decorator, was helping me.  One day I had to do an online bank transaction on the computer in the room where he was working.  When I finished his words were: “and you trust that thing?”  He is, by his own admission, old-fashioned, paying and transacting everything in person.  You could say if he could see it, he believed it!

Those who received this letter wanted to see visible blessing at that present time!  But the writer of the letter is making it clear their spiritual forefathers did not see the full extent of God’s blessings in their lifetime, yet they trusted him.

This is why the writer now comes back to Abraham.  He trusted God.  But there is real twist in verses 17-19 which makes Abraham’s obedience up to this point seems simple!  God asks him to sacrifice his only son Isaac!  Becoming the father of a great nation appeared possible, even if Abraham did not see it in his own lifetime.  But, destroying the means of that promise…? That was another thing entirely!

A look at the story in Genesis 22:1-14 is useful.  Firstly, God is testing Abraham to give up the son he loved (Genesis 22:1-2).  We are party to what is going on, but Abraham is not!  Secondly, Abraham displays real faith when he mentions to the servants that he and Isaac: “will go over there and worship and come back again to you” (Genesis 22:5).  This fits with the comment that Abraham: ‘considered that God was able even to raise him (Isaac) from the dead’ (v19).  He expected Isaac and himself to return!  Lastly, there seems to be compliance on the part of Isaac.  He is a young man in his late teens or early 20s strong enough to carry wood for the sacrifice, so it is unlikely he would be overpowered by his father who was over 100 years old.  The structure of the Genesis passage in verses 9-10 deliberately slows the narrative to give the impression of each step and task being done thoroughly,   by the use of the words: ‘and’ and: ‘Then’…Admittedly, modern sensibilities may struggle with Abraham contemplating sacrificing his son, the emphasis here, however is on his remarkable faith![1]

However there is yet another aspect we should note. In John 8:56, when Jesus is conversing with the increasingly hostile Pharisees he states: “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day.  He saw it and was glad.”  How are we to understand this extraordinary statement?  I think the answer is found in the above described episode of faith.  The phrase: ‘figuratively speaking’ (v19) can be rendered in the Greek as: ‘as a parable’.[2]  So Abraham receiving Isaac back from his figurative death acts as a parable that points to Christ’s work – Abraham in being willing to sacrifice his only son, just as God gave up his only son, and the probable compliance of Isaac in the same way Jesus was compliant with his Father’s will.  We also have God’s provision of a ram (Genesis 22:11-14) – in the same way, we are spared through Christ’s substitution for our sin.  God had promised that by Abraham: “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3).  Maybe, through these events, Abraham was partial to some understanding how God might just do that!

Want to listen to a sermon on this passage?  What’s so Special about Someone who Lived in a Tent? Part 2.

[1] However, whatever our modern sensibilities, John Currid makes the point that in verse 19 of the Genesis passage the idea of he and Isaac and going together has been used twice before in the passage (vs6 and 8) and therefore reflects a: ‘harmony between father and son on the way to the mountain. Now it is used here for the same reason: as they return from the mountain there is still harmony between them.’ John D. Currid, A Study Commentary on Genesis, Volume 1, (Darlington, Evangelical Press, 2003), 396.
[2] Richard D. Philips, Hebrews, Reformed Expository Commentary, (Philipsburg, P and R Publishing 2006), 478.

 

The Heroes of Faith: Drawing some Conclusions from the Examples so Far.

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.’ (Hebrews 11:13-16).

At this point the writer is probably thinking: “I’ll return to Abraham in a minute, but let’s draw together everything we can from these examples of faith we have had so far, to see how it helps us in our earthly pilgrimage.” So now, he draws three conclusions.

Firstly, the writer focuses on the major subject matter, relevant to Jewish Christians – the recipients of his letter. He points out that the aforementioned ancestors had ‘all died in faith, not having received the things promised’.  The results of their faith were not fully seen in this life; nonetheless, the second part of verse 13 makes it clear they did not doubt that they would see the results of God’s promises.  It was as if they had had glimpsed them: ‘from afar’ which confirmed their reality!

Secondly, these believers acknowledged the world was not their home. They were in fact: ‘strangers and exiles on the earth.’ Abraham was a supreme example of this, never putting down roots anywhere, instead, living a nomadic existence in a tent, moving to wherever the Lord directed him!  Lastly, the behaviour of these examples of faith highlights they were looking for a home of God’s provision, not their own.  Abraham could have thought to himself: “well this isn’t working out!  I’m fed up of this over-extended camping trip, I’m going home!” but he never did… John Brown observes: ‘From the call of Abraham to the death of Jacob was a space of 200 years. During this period they might have easily returned to Chaldea. The distance was no obstacle.  There does not seem to have been any external obstruction.  But they gave clear evidence that they were not disposed to return.’[1]

 Verse 16 focuses on a major theme of the letter: everything God provides is better!  These people of faith did not take pleasure in material things.  No, their focus was on: ‘a better country, that is, a heavenly one.’ What is interesting is that when people take that attitude God delights in them!  The phrase: ‘Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God’ shows that God takes pleasure in being identified with such people, despite their past failings. The thought of putting down roots must have been very attractive to Abraham, but God has so much more prepared for those who love him.  Philip Arthur makes this observation concerning the nature of faith presented in the letters of Paul. ‘If Paul emphasise faith in what God in Christ has done in the past, the author to the Hebrews compliments this by reminding us of another dimension of faith that launches out into an unknown future confident that God will provide.’[2]  What a challenge for us in an age where people are consumed with the acquisition of wealth and materialism.  The writer of the letter has introduced us to people who were heavenly minded because they kept their focus on God.  It is as if he is saying “they kept going – and I’d like you to make it your motto to keep going, and see the wonderful rewards they did!”

Want to hear listen to a sermon on this passage?   No Turning Back!

[1] John Brown, An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews (London, Banner of Truth Trust, 1964), 518.

[2] J. Philip Arthur, No Turning Back, An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, (London, Grace Publications Trust, 2002), 12.

 

The Heroes of Faith: Sarah.

 ‘By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised.  Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore’ (Hebrews 11:11-12).

Sarah is the first of the only two women who are named in Hebrews 11.  She is held up as an example of faith in relation to her bearing Abraham’s son, Isaac, in her old age.  This might cause us to raise our eyebrows – after all, in Genesis 18:1-15 when the Lord revealed to Abraham that he would father a son, despite of his age Sarah, overhearing this, found it laughable, and then lied to try and save face!  That being the case, how is she seen as an example of faith?

The probable answer is far from spectacular, but that said, it is one that can provide believers with great encouragement.  Over the period of time, and encouraged by Abraham’s belief in the promises the Lord made to him, she grew in faith.  After all she too was part of the Lord’s promise to Abraham which had been reflected in her name being changed from Sarai to Sarah, meaning Princess (Genesis 17:15).

There is some debate as to whether Sarah or Abraham is the main subject of verse 11 as how it is translated in some versions put the emphasis on Abraham.  Lee Cockerill translates the text as: ‘By faith Sarah herself, although barren, receive power for the disposition of seed even though she was past the season for childbearing’.[1]  And I consider that to be the right emphasis as those receiving the letter would have known the scripture concerned and would have known that Abraham had had no problem impregnating Hagar (Genesis 16:1-4), which then does not particularly make this an act of faith on his part (although by the time Isaac was born he was considerably older).  So in my thinking the emphasis is on the: ‘power to conceive’ which strongly suggests that Sarah is the main subject of the verse.[2]  Genesis 18:11 helps reinforce the view as it states: ‘Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years. The way of women had ceased to be with Sarah’ (a biblical way of saying she had gone through the menopause).  So, in the course of time, Sarah came slowly to believe, trusting that God would make her capable of bearing a son.

But how refreshing this was for the readers of the original letter and also us as believers today!  Very often faith is not formed by bold steps but by us stumbling, falling because of our lack of trust in the Lord’s promises, then him graciously picking us up again, and so we learn the lesson to put our trust in him!

But that said, in in the end this is still amazing faith!  In verse 12 the writer makes it clear that this is a major miracle.  It could not have been easier than raising the dead yet: ‘from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sands by the seashore.’  This is a faith that trusts the Lord to bring about his purpose, even when circumstances are against it!  And this has got to be a major encouragement to Christians in any day and age!

Want to listen to a sermon on this passage?  Sarah: Faith by a Progressive Experience.

[1] Garth Lee Cockerill, The Epistle to the Hebrews, The New International Commentary on the  New Testament, (Michigan, Eerdmans publishing company, 2012), 535.
[2] As the ESV (English Standard Version of the Bible) also concludes.  Hence  the use of it here.

 

The Heroes of Faith: Abraham Part 1.

‘By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going.  By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise.  For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God’ (Hebrews 11:8-10).

One issue for the Jewish Christians the letter was sent to was their reward for following Christ. After all they had given up so much to follow him. Their Jewish neighbours now shunned them and they would have been excluded from the synagogue! What’s more the Jews as a race were exempted from Emperor Worship in the Roman Empire and now they had lost their exemption, so they now faced persecution on two fronts!  So where was their reward – when would that be?  So it is easy to see, why the writer now chooses Abraham as an example, because he was one of God’s chosen people who did not see the complete fulfilment of the promises made by the Lord!

Verses 8-9 are the gist of Abraham’s story (Genesis 11:27-25:11). In Genesis 12:1-3, Abraham receives the promise that if he goes to the land which the Lord will show him, he will be blessed by becoming the father of a great nation, and that through him: “all the families of the Earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3).  Now that is some promise, but there are two things are worth noting.  Firstly, Abraham had no idea where he is going (v8)!  Secondly, he was an unlikely candidate for God’s blessing.  Joshua makes it clear, in his last speech to the Israelites that Abraham’s father, Terah: “served other gods.” (Joshua 24:2).  He was a polytheist – one who worships many gods.  This raises the question: was Abraham originally a polytheist too?  The answer is we do not know, but it is a possibility as it is inferred Terah’s family was with the use of the word: “they”.  What we do know is that Abraham’s introduction in scripture is very abrupt.  In Joshua the use of the phase: “Then I took your father Abraham” also gives the impression of sudden dramatic change (Joshua 24:3).  Dale Ralph Davis writes: ‘Abraham rose out of the desolate pit and miry bog of paganism only because Yahweh touched him.’ He continues that it was God who: ‘for no apparent reason, took hold of our father Abraham, the sinner.’[1]  So, whichever way we look at it, Abraham was a product of God’s grace.  After this, he is off to his over-extended camping trip!  But why did he do it?  Verse 9 tells us he believed the Lord and showed complete dependence on him to fulfil his promises.  So he lived in a tent like a refugee: ‘in the land of promise’.

But we might be tempted to say: “hold on, that sounds downright weird! It’s not very settled living in a tent”.  Did Abraham ever see the complete fulfilment of God’s promises?  The answer is no; verse 10 makes it clear that Abraham realised that these promises had an element which would be fulfilled in the future.  The verse highlights everything that Abraham did not have in his earthly life living in a tent.  A: ‘city that has foundations’ denotes permanence, a much greater blessing than Abraham could ever have imagined!  At the end of his life Abraham owned a tiny piece of the land (Genesis 23 and 25:9-10).  Therefore, in his earthly life the promise was only ever partially fulfilled.[2] And so, Abraham is an example of someone who never saw the full extent of the Lord’s promise.  We even see this in his change of name from Abram, ‘father of many’, to Abraham, ‘father of a people’ (Genesis 17:5), as during his life Abraham could not live up to either of those names!  The point is real faith endures regardless of whether the Lord’s promises are visibly fulfilled in a person’s life time or later!

The writer clearly sees Abraham as a believer for other Christians to model themselves on. Andrew Reid makes these helpful comments: ‘The true believer is like him – a sojourner, a traveller, a wanderer, a pilgrim. ‘The true believer has no fixed focus for his or her security, except in God and his word and purpose.’[3]  That is an encouragement for believers in every day and age!

Want to listen to the sermon on this passage?  What’s so Special about a Guy who Permanently Lived in a Tent? Part 1.

[1] Dale Ralph Davis, Joshua, No Falling Words (Fearn, Christian Focus Publications, 2000), 189.

[2] David. J. A. Clines argues that that: ‘the theme of the Pentateuch is partial fulfilment-which implies also a partial nonfulfillment-of the promised to all blessing of the patriarchs.’ David. J. A. Clines, The Theme of the Pentateuch (Sheffield Academic Press, second edition, 1997), 30.

[3] Andrew Reid, Salvation Begins, Reading Genesis Today (Sydney, Aquila Press, 2000), 95.

 

The Heroes of Faith: Noah.

‘By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith’ (Hebrews 11:7).

At this point in the narrative the writer of the letter changes the emphasis of faith slightly.  The verses concerning Abel and Enoch illustrated what was achieved by the faith of those men: Abel’s sacrifice was more pleasing to the Lord than Cain’s; and Enoch’s faith meant that he was particularly blessed, because his lifestyle so pleased the Lord, that he bypassed death.  However, the next examples show a slight change in the writer’s agenda.  He wants us now to focus on the aspect of faith in the Lord concerning things that are yet to come.  In Hebrews 11:3 the writer illustrates that belief in the Lord’s creative power – which these Jewish Christians had not witnessed yet accepted – was not so dissimilar to the belief in the promises that the Lord had made to his people of the past.  This included promises of which complete fulfilment would only be realised in a more distant future.  There is a sense in which Noah is slightly at odds with latter examples in that he witnesses the fulfilment of what the Lord had promised – namely, his families preservation and judgement on those around him!  However, there is a very definite similarity which is why he is included as an example of what I have termed ‘change of emphasis,’ concerning the results of faith. Verse 7 highlights Noah’s faith in that he was warned by God of his coming judgement in sending a flood upon the Earth.  This was shown in the action Noah took as he: ‘in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household’.  The full story of Noah is found in Genesis 6:9-9:29.

Noah is seen as righteous by the Old Testament standard (Genesis 6:9).  By this it would mean that he would have done ‘right by all’.  If you had lent money to Noah you would have got it back on time with appropriate interest, or if you needed any help you would have got it!  But the agenda of writer here, at this point is demonstrating faith.  Noah took an immense step of faith in building an enormous box-like vessel on dry land, hence effectively preaching to that wicked and unbelieving generation that judgement was coming (2 Peter 2:5).  Just think how: “crazy old Noah” would become the butt of all the jokes of those who lived round him (there is much in extra-biblical sources which suggests this).  But faith in the Lord’s Word motivated him.  He believed judgement was coming even if there was no other visible evidence to suggest it at that point!  John Calvin sums up Noah’s attitude thus: ‘Yet Noah paid such respect of the Word of God that he turned his eyes from the contemporary view of things, and went in fear of the destruction which God had threatened as though it were present to him.  Therefore, the faith which he had in the Word of God, prepared him for obedience to God, proof of which he afterwards gave by building the ark.’[1] And look at the results of this faith: his family was saved, and he: ‘became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.’  Once again, Noah is one of those: ‘people of the old’ (v2) who are commended because of their unshakable faith in what was promised but was unseen at that time!  As such he acts as a wonderful example to believers today.

Want to listen to the sermon on this passage?  What’s so Special about a Guy who Built a Really Big Boat?

[1] John Calvin, The Epistle of Paul to the Hebrews and the First and Second Epistle’s of St Peter, Calvin’s Commentaries (Edinburgh, Oliver and Boyd, 1963), 165.

 

The Heroes of Faith: Enoch.

‘By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death, and he was not found, because God had taken him. Now before he was taken he was commended as having pleased God. And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.’ (Hebrews 11:5-6).

This example of faith can certainly be described as intriguing and almost totally unique! The details concerning Enoch’s life and his extraordinary departure from this world are found in Genesis 5:18-24.  Writing to Jewish Christians the author draws attention to Enoch’s faith, and states in verse 5 that God took him!  This in itself compels us to investigate in more detail – if we are to understand why this is seen as faith that pleases God.

A clue is found in the Genesis passage (5:21), where we are told that Enoch was 65 years old “when he became the father of Methuselah. And after he became the father…Enoch:walked with God’ 300 years and had other sons and daughters.” Notably, it is only after this event that we are told Enoch: ‘walked with God’ – a statement that is repeated again later, in verse 24.  Enoch was blessed with the knowledge that above all other joys – including family life and raising a child – the true quality of life is found in living in a way that pleases the Lord.  Philip Eveson notes the fact that Enoch was ‘walking with God’ is a descriptive way of saying he was living with God.  In other words: ‘This was life for Enoch: fellowship with God. It did not stop him engaging in family life.  He was no hermit or monk.  On the other hand, he did not make the things of this world his life, not even his family.  God was his life.’[1] 

This seems to sum up Enoch up nicely. Whatever the issues concerning his extraordinary departure from this world, Enoch was a product of faith that pleased God because he looked to his way, in all things, after the time he turned to him.  Some have seen significance in that the years of Enoch’s life totalling 365, the number of days in one year, hence concluding this represents a complete life.  It is an interesting theory, but the text seems to suggest that only 300 of them were a prelude to his existence with God being really completed when he was taken from this world!

The hearers and readers of this letter would have known the details of Enoch’s life and his extraordinary departure from the world – indeed, such a privilege was only granted to one other Old Testament saint and that was the great prophet Elijah! So, in verse 6 the writer of the letter builds on this.  How did these heroes of the primeval age (before the Flood) please the Lord?  Well, the answer was simply ‘through faith’.  Without faith there was no other way that Abel’s sacrifice would have been accepted, or Enoch would have walked with God to have been spared from death!  This illustrates that faith and belief in God are essential. Complete trust in him is to be the order of the day if we want to please him and see his blessing.

Want to listen to the Sermon on this passage?  Faith that Pleases God.

 [1] Philip Eveson, The Book of Origins, Genesis Simply Explained, (Darlington, Evangelical Press, 2001), 145.

 

The Hero’s of Faith: Abel.

This month we start a new series looking at the ‘Hero’s of Faith’ in Hebrews 11.

‘By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks’ (Hebrews 11:4).

It is often commented that there are valuable lessons to be learnt from history.  So, in Chapter 11 of the letter to the Hebrews the writer feels his readers could be helped from meeting some of the characters from their religious heritage.

This is the chapter that is often a favourite part of Hebrews for Christians.  It is by far the most accessible part of the book and is the stuff of epic sermon series!  As such it can work very well!  However, what is important to remember this is really just one example!  The author of the letter to the Hebrews highlights the value of living by faith. He focuses on Old Testament individuals who exemplify strong faith and put it into action.

Starting with the ‘Primeval Prologue’ of Genesis chapters 1-11, the writer of the letter illustrates that: ‘By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous’.  The rest of the verse summarises the story in that he was killed by his jealous brother, Cain, whose sacrifice the Lord had not looked upon favourably.  In the last part of the verse the writer suggests why Abel acts as an example of faith to Christians of later generations.

There are many theories as to why Abel’s sacrifice was seen as acceptable whereas Cain’s was not.  One suggestion is Abel’s was a blood sacrifice which anticipates the redemptive element of later sacrifices.  That is possible, but there is a danger of stretching the text of Genesis 4:2-5 too far, when it is not explicit where the sacrifice is concerned.[1]  What seems more likely is that the attitude of the givers was reflected in the gifts they gave.  Abel’s offering was: ‘the firstborn of his flock’ and he offers: ‘the fat portions’ (Genesis 4:4).  His faith was such that he took his religion seriously, so he gave the best sacrifice he possibly could.  Notably, there is no mention of this when it comes to Cain’s offering.  He did not offer ‘first-fruits’ which would imply that he was not offering the best of his harvest.  Bruce Waltke obverses: ‘Cain’s sin is tokenism.  He looks righteous, but in his heart he is not totally dependent on God, childlike, or grateful.’ [2]

Abel’s offering was costly and demonstrated real faith.  The writer of the letter notes that his faith was confirmed by God accepting his sacrifice.  In Matthew 23:34-36 Jesus refers to Abel in relation to the blood of righteous servants of God being shed, by those who are enemies of God’s people.  So Abel’s faith acts as a lesson to latter generations, like ours, to take their faith seriously!

Want to listen to the sermon on this passage?  Faith that Pleases God.

[1] The killing of livestock for food would not have occurred until after the flood (Genesis 9:1-5).  Indeed the first death occurs after the fall of man in Genesis 3:21 where God cloths Adam and Eve with skins, the need for this brought about by their sin!  So the idea of sacrifice connected with sin and redemption at this point is not totally far-fetched and is worth considering.
[2] Bruce K. Waltke, with Cathi J. Fredricks, Genesis, A Commentary, (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2001), 97.

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The Tenth Commandment.

 ‘You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife. You shall not set your desire on your neighbour’s house or land, his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour’ (Deuteronomy 5:21).

And so, we come to the last commandment. In a sense, there is nothing new here, as the essence of this commandment (coveting) seems to have been covered already in the Eighth (stealing). Yet, whereas the former dealt with outward actions, the latter deals specifically with the attitude of the heart and mind.  This is an ‘invisible’ sin!  In Genesis 3:6 before taking, eating, and passing the ‘apple’ to Adam, Eve saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and desirable for gaining wisdom’.  It started with just a thought and desire, but it ended in action.  So coveting can lead to further sin!

In a way, coveting is another form of greed, because just as with stealing, we desire more than we already have! The difference is that although we do not act on it, we brood on it.  The writer of Ecclesiastes observes: ‘the eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing’ (Ecclesiastes 1:8) and that is what makes this sin so insidious!  We can end up coveting so easily by what we see and hear each day.  The apostle Paul treats the sin of covetousness the same as idolatry.  In Colossians 3:5 the he writes: ‘put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry’.  To put it simply, we ‘covet’ something when we place that new car, holiday, relationship, or whatever else before God!

There is some debate over the precise point where the exposition of the Ninth Commandment ends and the teaching on the Tenth Commandment commences as chapter 24:17-25:4 could fit either. John Currid argues for the Tenth Commandment starting at this point.  ‘Coveting is properly defined as the heart’s desire to have something that belongs to someone else. It is a command that does not deal with the outward action, but rather the inward desire of a person’s heart which may lead to sinful, external action. It is a violation of the rights of others to possess what God has given to them.’[1]  As the verses before have dealt with the rights God had given to ‘the alien, the fatherless and the widow’, the disadvantaged in society, Currid’s definition works well.  Any infringement against them is converting what God has given them as theirs!

Verses17-18 set the tone for this section. The less fortunate in society must not be subject to fewer rights than the well off.  The Israelites had already been commanded not to keep the cloak of poor man overnight or to take something of necessity as security in verses 6 and 13.  So they were not to treat the: ‘alien’, ‘fatherless’ or ‘widow’ (v17) any differently.[2]  Having been: ‘slaves in Egypt’ (v22), they too had been the underprivileged and less fortunate.  They were only free and privileged because the Lord had: ‘redeemed’ (v18) them, so they owed Him everything.

The next instruction covers the rights of the less fortunate during the harvest (vs19-22). Whether harvesting wheat, olives or grapes the owner of the land was not to go back over the field to pick up anything that he had missed.  These were to be left with for them: ‘so that the Lord your God may bless you in a work of your hands’ (v19).  The land was God’s but He had generously given it to them.  As he was sharing it with them they were to share it with the less fortunate.  Peter Craigie makes this point about the practice of this command.  ‘Farmers, who had allowed some produce to remain were not simply being charitable to the less fortunate than themselves; they were expressing their gratitude to God, who had brought them out of slavery in Egypt and had given them a land of their own.’[3]

This has clear application for today. Sometimes hardship comes on people and families through no fault of their own.  Are we prepared to be generous if God has allotted us comfortable position in life?  After all everything is His in the first place!  Henry and Scott make this observation.  ‘It is not hard to prove that purity, piety, justice, mercy, tenderness, impartiality, kindness to the poor and destitute, consideration for them, and large generosity of spirit, are pleasing to God and becoming of his redeemed people.  The difficulty is to bring our minds to attend to them in our daily walk and conversation.’[4]

Christopher Wright sums up this concluding commandment rather neatly.  ‘Thus the commandments come full circle. To break the tenth is to break the first. For covetousness means of setting our hearts and affections on things that then take the place of God.’[5]  We can look at the other nine commandments and, at first glance, say we keep them (although we fail to keep them the way Jesus teaches them), but when it comes to this one we fail very easily!  This commandment has to be the greatest challenge for Christians today.  We live in a world where an idle look at an advert will tell us that it is not a case of us needing a product, it is a case of us needing a better and newer version of that product!  As Christians we would do well to remember Christ words: “So do not worry, saying, ‘what shall we eat?’ or ‘what shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first to His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:31-33).

[1] John D Currid, Deuteronomy, an EP study commentary (Evangelical Press, Darlington, 2006) 399.

[2] It is very clear from this passage and also 10:18 and 27:19 that God had a special concern for the  ‘alien’, ‘fatherless’ and ‘widow’ and wanted justice and equality for them.

[3] Peter. C Craige, The Book of Deuteronomy, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Eerdmans publishing co, Michigan, 1976) 311.

[4] Henry and Scott. A Commentary upon the Holy Bible, Genesis to Deuteronomy (London, The Religious Tract Society, 1833). 425-6.

[5] Christopher Wright, Deuteronomy, New International Biblical Commentary (Massachusetts, Hendrickson Publishers, Inc, 1996), 86.

 

The Ninth Commandment.

‘You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour’ (Deuteronomy 5:10).

This commandment deals with giving: ‘false testimony’ or as we would more commonly call it today, “lying”.  It actually goes beyond that meaning, as the Hebrew word translated ‘give’ (in the NIV), or ‘bear’ (in the KJV) means to: “consider, pay heed to, listen to”’.[1] This broadens the scope of this commandment considerably!

The command relates to one’s: ‘neighbour’.  In Leviticus 19:18, in the middle of a series of various laws, the Israelites were told: ‘not to seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbour as yourself. I am the Lord’.  Misrepresentation of another person is obviously detrimental to that person. And if all people are made in God’s image then this is a serious offence against God, as well as the unfortunate person.  We would do well to remember that: ‘slanderous words cannot be recalled.’[2]   We can easily be guilty of slander by passing on a story we have heard about someone without checking out the facts for ourselves, and unfortunately church circles are not immune from this.

The emphasis of this commandment is fair dealing in every area of life in relation to other people, hence an emphasis on justice, impartiality and false witness.  Deuteronomy 24:8-16 is generally reckoned by scholars to be Moses’s teaching on the demeaning nature of breaking this commandment.   The section (vs8-16) starts with at what first seems to be the rather strange subject of skin diseases, which is what the Hebrew word used here and translated: ‘leprous’ (v8) means.  The instruction is that anyone suffering from such a disease is to go to the priests and do exactly what they instruct, the priest acting as public health officers in this and other matters.  There is a big emphasis on obeying this instruction with the phrase: ‘you must follow what I have commanded them.’  There was an obvious danger that if this law is not obeyed then disease could spread throughout the community.  Therefore, compliance with its instruction was very important.  But why is it found here in the instructions on the Ninth Commandment?

The answer is in verse 9 where the example of Miriam, Moses’ sister is used.  In Numbers 12:1-15 she was guilty, along with Aaron, of speaking against Moses because of his wife was not an Israelite, but more importantly questioning his role as God’s spokesman.  As a result of this serious libellous attack God judged her by inflicting her with leprosy as she had spoken falsely against Moses, hence the connection with the Ninth Commandment.  Raymond Brown reminds us that: ‘she was stricken with leprosy because she would not accept the unique authority of God’s Word.  She thought she knew better than her brother Moses, God’s servant, and blatantly question his authority.’[3]

The issue for us today is the danger of demeaning people by both gossip and by not questioning accusations that we hear against them.  We can sometimes be too ready to judge fellow Christians as to where they stand or their role before God.  The apostle James reminds Christians of the devastating power of unconsidered and angry words: ‘with the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who had been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be’ (James 3:9-10).  There may be times when we need to openly challenge people, but this is to be done in a careful and measured consideration which takes everything into account rather than gossiping / or listening to gossip behind their back!

Thomas Watson puts it this way. ‘The tongue which at first was made to be an organ of God’s praise, is now become an instrument of unrighteousness. This commandment binds the tongue to its good behaviour.’[4]  When Jesus was questioned, by an expert in the Law as to what was necessary to inherit eternal life, He turned the question round by asking: “what is written in the Law?”. The man’s answer was as follows: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbour as yourself.” (Luke 10:27). When Jesus pointed out that he had answered correctly, the expert in the Law attempted to justify himself by asking: “And who is my neighbour?” (Luke 10:29).  So Jesus then tells the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37). The main point for us here, however, is that Jesus reinforces the idea of putting God first, and the correctness of our total devotion to Him, and then, the care and concern for those around us.

If we truly love God and are devoted to His Word, we will start to have this concern more and more. Then we will have a concern for others, not just in the general day-to-day sense, and by refraining from slander, but also, a concern for their souls and how they stand before God!

[1] Peter Masters. God’s Rules for Holiness, Unlocking the Ten Commandments (London, The Wakeman Trust, 2003), 111.
[2] Frank McClelland. The Ancient Law for the New Age, A Concise Examination of the Ten Commandments (Toronto, Wittenburg Publications, 1990), 108.
[3] Raymond Brown, The Message of Deuteronomy, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, Inter-Varsity-Press, 1993), 232.
[4] Thomas Watson. The Ten Commandments  (London, The Banner of Truth Trust, 1965). 169.

The Eighth Commandment.

You shall not steal(Deuteronomy 5:19).

The Eighth Commandment has been subject to various interpretations.  Rather interestingly, the Jewish rabbis have often interpreted it in a narrow sense, believing that it only refers to the kidnapping of people.  The argument for this was that, if it included the stealing of money or property, then it would render the Tenth Commandment: ‘You shall not covet…” redundant.  However, this would be to misunderstand the inward sinful desire that is dealt with in that Commandment as opposed the outward action that is prohibited here!

Although this Commandment can be taken as referring to ‘man stealing’, it also covers all forms of theft.[1]  However, there are two things that we would do well to remember in relation to this commandment.  Firstly, the system of judgement among God’s people was to be fair.  In chapter 1 verses 15-18 of Deuteronomy we read about the kind of men that Moses was to appoint as Judges.  We read that the men appointed were to be godly individuals. They were to be men who were respected, and they were to judge fairly, they were not to show favouritism when judging and they were not to be influenced by how wealthy, or poor a person was – neither by their status within the community. They  were also to remember that all wisdom comes from God.  This instruction was given so that people would not be disadvantaged by an unfair judgement against them.

Secondly, there was to be a real sense of social care among God’s people so that anyone in need should be cared for (see 15:7-11).  There was to be provision for those who were dependent on others for their well-being, whether this be because they were in the Lord’s service, as was the case with the Levites, or just because they were badly off, this being the plight of: ‘the alien, the fatherless and the widow’ (Deuteronomy 14:29 and 26:12).  Christopher Wright sums this up rather well.  ‘Only when Israel responds to the needy by enabling everyone in the community to eat and be satisfied can they affirm “I have done everything that you (God) commanded me.”’[2]  This obedience also took another form in its rejection of recognising any other provider rather than the Lord.

Therefore, any form of theft stemmed from a sinful lack of contentment.  It was effectively saying “I’m not happy with the lot God has given me in my life, so I’ll improve it so by my own actions”.  It fails to: ‘believe that condition best which God has carved out to you.’[3]  Once again, we can see the logic in the order of placing those commandments which relate to how we treat others and their property – after the ones which refer to God.  If we are putting God first, understanding exactly who He is, then we will be far more content, knowing we have the privilege of having a relationship with Him in the first place, rather than taking what does not rightly belong to us and thus demeaning other people’s lives.

My wife and I enjoy watching old movies, especially the ‘Film Noir’ type.  In the movie ‘Key Largo’, starring Humphrey Bogart and Edward G Robinson, Bogart plays an ex-soldier held hostage with others by Robinson’s gangster and his henchmen, in a hotel on the Florida Keys. When one of the hostages challenges Robinson’s motives, arguing he is nothing but a ‘mindless thug’, Bogart tells them they have misunderstood him; what he wants is ‘more’!  Robinson agrees with this, and when Bogart asks him: “will you ever have enough?” Robinson replies: “well, I guess I never will have”.  And that line sums up what had inspired all his criminal activities, the constant drive to get more, by whatever the means whether they be fair or, in his case, foul!  What he has become is a little god at the centre of his universe who must be gratified – whatever the cost to others…

The above conclusion reveals the nature of sin: this lack of gratitude for God’s goodness to us, and the denial of His Kingship over our lives. It also shows our natural craving to become the centre of our corrupt little world.  Until we accept God as the Lord of our lives, and the place given to us in this world as best for us, we will never be content, and always wanting more!

[1] John D Currid, Deuteronomy, an EP study commentary (Darlington, Evangelical Press, 2006), 148.
[2] Christopher Wright, Deuteronomy, New International Biblical Commentary (Massachusetts, Hendrickson Publishers, Inc, 1996), 272-273.
[3] Thomas Watson, The Ten Commandments  (London, The Banner of Truth Trust, 1965), 168.