Bulletin Articles

Bulletin Articles

“Life, or Death?”

Categories: Iron sharpens iron

“For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.

“See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil.” (Deuteronomy 30.11-15)

Moses spoke these words to the ancient Israelites, shortly before they crossed the Jordan river to claim the inheritance God had promised them.  They took a long road to get  to this point, and their repeated disobedience along the way led to a forty-year delay, a punishment for their cowardly refusal to take the promised land when God told them to do so.  At long last, they stood at the gate, poised to enter.  Although Moses himself was denied entry due to his own act of rebellion against God, he did his best to prepare his people to go on without him, learn from their past mistakes, and make the most of this fresh start, as God fought their battles and gave them his promised inheritance. 

In the passage above, Moses stressed that God was not requiring anything unreasonable of them.  It’s not as if he expected them to keep rules, without telling them what the rules were!  This comes at the tail end of a long rehearsal of the Law, which had been delivered in pieces over the preceding few decades, in three different books.  The populace was mostly illiterate at the time, of course; but God commanded that his law be read aloud for the assembly (e.g. De 31.11).  He also tasked the Levites with teaching it to the people (e.g. 33.10); he commanded parents to teach their children (e.g. 11.19); and he told all of them to discuss his rules regularly, “when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (De 6.7).  The commandment was certainly accessible! 

How much more so, today?  There are, of course, plenty of complex situations in which figuring out God’s will on the matter is tricky.  One has only to listen to a few no-so-hypothetical questions about a convoluted circumstance involving divorce and remarriage, to realize that people can be extremely skilled at making messes, as well as looking for loopholes in God’s instructions that technically would allow whatever disordered desire they wish to indulge.  Of course, no one will outsmart God and lawyer his way into heaven, but that doesn’t stop people from trying!

Nevertheless, today even more than when Moses gave his final speech to the Israelites, the commandment is very near, and can be in our minds and hearts, if we are willing to accept it.  Rather than a list of 613 separate obligations and prohibitions, Jesus summarized it all in two commandments:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22.37-40)

Even when we struggle to figure out the right course of action, the struggle is in applying these two instructions; but they should be the unchanging bedrock of all our decisions.  When we break any of God’s rules, it comes back to breaking one or both of these. 

It often seems to us that the world is drastically different today from how it was during the time of Moses, but that’s not really the case.  It’s dressed up differently, of course, but ultimately we face the same decision as the ancient Israelites—whether to love and worship God alone, or choose from an assortment of idols; and whether to act in love for our neighbor, or treat him as if his value is less than our own.  It’s easy to convince ourselves that a few white lies, some minor financial cheating, and a little marital infidelity are no big deal—you can keep it a secret, and it’s not hurting anyone.  But in reality, you’ve just harmed everyone involved and contributed to the societal decay that always leads to a miserable collapse into chaos and anarchy.  You have chosen to love yourself—not God, and not your neighbor.  If only someone could have foreseen the consequences, and perhaps warned us, “you shall not bear false witness” (De 5.20), “you shall not steal” (De 5.19), “you shall not covet” (De 5.21), and “you shall not commit adultery” (De 5.18)! 

Far from being outdated and irrelevant, God’s instructions all those thousands of years ago cover the same moral evils we face today.  Spiritually, it’s the same warfare, against the principalities and powers, “against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ep 6.12).  The same basic choice has been presented to us, between light and darkness, between good and evil.  As Moses told ancient Israel, “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse.  Therefore choose life” (De 30.19).  God has given us more resources even than he gave the Israelites—in the same book of Deuteronomy Moses promised Israel, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen” (De 18.15).  He has since fulfilled his promise, sending his Son to shine light into the whole world, to atone for our sins through his death, to call “all people everywhere to repent” (Ac 17.30), and “be born again” (Jn 3.7) into Christ’s kingdom.  The alternative is sin, darkness, and death.  The choice is yours.

Jeremy Nettles