This Sunday we begin our series in Deuteronomy, the last book Moses wrote. In some ways it’s not really a book at all but a sermon—or a series of sermons by one of the Bible’s most significant figures. One author said in Deuteronomy Moses is best seen not as a lawgiver but as a pastor. Knowing that his death is imminent “Moses gathers his congregation and delivers his final homily, pleading with the Israelites to remain faithful to Yahweh" (Daniel Block, NIVAC). The OT scholar Bruce Waltke speaks of Deuteronomy in even grander terms:
Deuteronomy has had greater consequences for human history than any other single book. Its continuing influence is one of the major forces shaping the future of humanity. The regulations of I AM’s covenants are the first to establish universal education and health for all members of a nation and fixes the only welfare system that was in existence in ancient times.
Bruce Waltke, An Old Testament Theology
Waltke can make such a statement because of Deuteronomy’s place beneath the entire Judeo-Christian worldview and the societies that worldview has influenced. This book presents a picture of an entire society ordered by no human king, but by Israel’s King of kings, Yahweh himself. Such a society is distinct in every way. How it thinks of time, money, land, agriculture, justice, the poor, kings, prophets, priests, sacrifices, eating, sexuality, marriage, parenting, work, worship, life and death, orphans and widows, nations, everything, is distinct.
As we approach Deuteronomy what do we want to see?
Deuteronomy is a Revelation of God
Deuteronomy is distinct in its revelation of God. “The LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deut 6:4). He is the living God, the jealous God who reveals himself through his voice without a form, who speaks from the fire, who stunningly chooses his people out of his own special love. He is “the LORD your God” who chooses us as “a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth” (Deut 7:6). His choice had nothing to do with our greatness or righteousness—far from it! “The LORD set his love on you and chose you…because the LORD loves you” (7:7, 8). In other words, this transcendent and faithful God loves us…because he loves us.
Deuteronomy possesses a revelation of God matched by few other books in the Bible. Yahweh in Deuteronomy is surpassingly transcendent and yet as imminent as our very breath. He comes in fire and yet is with the orphans in their place of need. He lowers kings and raises the widow and the aliens in the land. He moves nations to bless and curse, and yet he cares how we handle the leftovers in our harvesting.
Deuteronomy is a Picture of Living with God at the Center of Everything
Deuteronomy is also a vivid picture of what it means to live with God as the center of everything. Everything we are and have and do belongs to him. To call him “the LORD our God” is to live with his stamp on every second, every dollar, every decision, every action, every plan, every relationship, every conversation. This is not a life of slavery or oppression but a life of blessing and life: "I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live." (Deut 30:19).
Deuteronomy Reveals Christ
One of the recurring prophecies about Jesus in the New Testament is the crowds immediately after Jesus miraculously fed the five thousand: "This is indeed the Prophet who is to come!" (John 6:14). That's referring to Moses' prophecy in Deut 18:15–18 where Moses says, "The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you." Others in the NT will mention this (Acts 3:22; 7:37). Jesus will explicitly keep the commandments of Deuteronomy when he is tempted by the devil in the wilderness (Matt 4:1–11). Jesus will echo the Ten Commandments (Decalogue) in his teaching (Deut 5; Matt 5:21ff.). We'll also look at how his redemptive work impacts how certain laws are interpreted. He preaches love for God from Deuteronomy as "the great commandment" (Matt 22:36ff.). His cross will make certain laws abrogated and no longer binding on Christians (e.g., dietary laws in Acts 10). With the change from the Mosaic covenant to the new covenant that Jesus brought, certain other laws will be seen as containing a principle to follow but their original application has significantly changed (e.g., muzzling the ox from Deut 25:4 and its use in 1 Cor 9:9). We understand Christ and the Christ-centeredness of the Old Testament much more when we think through how Deuteronomy intersects with the New Testament.
Deuteronomy is Historical Narrative
That is, this fifth book of Moses isn’t a long list of do’s and don’ts we’re either to keep or avoid. It’s historical narrative, meaning that it continues the great story begun in Genesis 1:1 “in the beginning.” And it’s part of that great story that includes promises to Abraham and Israel's redemption out of Egypt and then will continue with entering the promised land, sweeping up the kings of Israel, descending into the Babylonian captivity, returning to the land, seeing the birth and life and death and resurrection and ascension of Jesus the Messiah, receiving the Spirit at Pentecost, and one day witnessing the return of our King of kings as the new heavens and new earth are established. Deuteronomy is part of that great storyline, falling at the end of Moses’ life and right before Israel enters Canaan, the promised land. Deuteronomy is a final exhortation by Moses to God’s people before they begin life in the land promised “to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob” (Deut 1:8).
Deuteronomy contains God’s Laws: How Should We Live, Not How to be Saved
The name “Deuteronomy” is a bit of a misnomer. Jewish tradition tended to name books after the opening words. If that was the case here, the book would be called, “These are the words…” (Deut 1:1). But the translators who brought the OT Bible into Greek in the 2nd century BC thought that Deuteronomion would make a better title, a word that meant something like “second law” or “repetition of the law.” The title is sort of correct, for the book contains a lot of laws. The large central section of the book, chapters 12–26 contain a variety of laws on a whole range of subjects. These laws answer the question, “As God’s people how should we live?” His laws are a marvel in their practicality, justice, and wisdom. Rightly Moses asks, “What great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?” (4:8). At the heart of these laws is the “the Ten Commandments…he wrote…on two tablets of stone” (4:13). In some ways these are the organizing laws for all the laws given in Deuteronomy. They are distinct in being “written with the finger of God” (9:10).
Though it’s not said explicitly, the whole book of Deuteronomy lets us know we misread God’s laws completely if we make them answer the question, “What must I do to be saved?” The answer to that question was given five centuries earlier: “And Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Gen 15:6; Gal 3:7–29). The laws of Deuteronomy are given to a people already “holy to the LORD your God” (7:6). Obedience doesn’t make them “holy.” God’s choice of them does.
Deuteronomy is a Covenant
One of the most important categories for understanding Deuteronomy is seeing that the whole book as one giant covenant. That word isn’t used a lot these days. We hear of “neighborhood covenants” and “marriage covenants.” More often we hear of “contracts” and “agreements.” God uses the word “covenant” when he wants to definitively “Define the Relationship” with his people. He made covenants with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Israel, and David. These covenants had promises he bound himself to keep and obligations that his people were required to keep. Abraham was promised the land of Canaan, a people, and to be a blessing to the nations of the earth (Gen 12:1–3). He was also required to practice circumcision (Gen 17:10–14). In the time of Moses covenants between rulers (suzerains) and those ruled (vassals) were common ways to make clear what a ruler would provide and what the vassal would do in response. Scholars have pointed out that key elements of these suzerain-vassal treaties are evident in the structure of Deuteronomy. This helps us understand the various sections of the book. Meredith Kline presents these elements helpfully ("Dynastic Covenant," Westminster Theological Journal):
- Preamble (Deut 1:1–5). “Deuteronomy begins precisely as the ancient treaties began: ‘These are the words of…’” (4).
- Historical prologue (Deut 1:6–4:43). “When covenants were renewed the history was brought up to date. Agreeably, Moses takes up the narrative of Yahweh’s previous rule over Israel at Horeb where the theocratic covenant was originally made (though Moses, as often elsewhere, roots that development in the earlier Abrahamic Covenant, 1:8) and he carries the history to the present, emphasizing the most recent events, the Transjordanian conquests and their consequences” (5).
- Stipulations (Deut 4:44–26:19). He notes the difference between 5–11 and 12–26 but says “5–11 must be recognized as expounding the covenant way of life just as do chapters 12–26. Together they declare the suzerain’s demands” (6).
- Curses and Blessings/Covenant Ratification (Deut 27–30). He notes the blessings and curses of 27–28 and the repetition in these chapters “of the major treaty elements.” In these chapters is historical review (29:2ff.); stipulations, especially to love God (29:18ff.); blessings and curses (29:18ff.); heaven and earth as witnesses (30:19ff.); and other blessings and curses throughout the chapters (8). Thus, there is every reason to reject “the usual scholarly conclusion that chapter 28 belongs with chapters 12–26 while chapters 27, 29, and 30 are unoriginal appendixes of unknown but late date” (8).
- Succession Arrangement/Covenant Continuity (Deut 31–34). “The closing chapters are concerned in one way or another with the Moses-Joshua succession” (9). The covenant is to be re-read by all of Israel "at the end of every seven years" (31:9). There is the Song of Witness by Moses in chapter 32. But most important here is the figure of Joshua in 31:1–8, 14–23; 32:44; 34:9, for he is the one who entrusted to carry on the role of covenant administrator from Moses and the one to lead Israel as they take possession of the land.
The significance of seeing Deuteronomy as a covenant is that it places every word in a relational context. This is not a distant lawgiver making pronouncements from a Washington, D.C., meeting room. This is our God who chose us and loves us reaching down and saying, "This is how you and I are going to relate together. If you keep to these words, I will bless everything in your life. If you don't, it won't go well for you." God wants blessings for us and Deuteronomy helps us see how to experience these. Even as 21st century Christians this is the case.
So, What Should You Do?
Read it. Read it again. Reading a chapter a day will get you through the book at a pace to make it easy to keep up with our sermons. We’ll hit the opening chapters this Sunday, chapter four on March 1st, tackle reading OT law on Mar 8th, and then begin a look at the Ten Commandments on Mar 15th. Here’s what the texts and schedule will look like:
Feb 23 Deut 1–3
Mar 1 Deut 4:1-40
Mar 8 Deut 6:5; 14:3–21; 25:4
Mar 15 Deut 5:1–7, 22–33; 9:10–11; 10:1–5
Mar 22 Deut 5:8–10
Mar 29 Deut 5:11
Apr 5 Easter #1 - The Cross
Apr 12 Easter #2 - The Resurrection
Apr 19 Deut 5:12–15
Apr 26 Deut 5:16 (and 21:18–21; 27:16)
May 3 Deut 5:17
May 10 Deut 5:18 (also 22:13–20; 27:20–22; etc.)
May 17 Deut 5:19
May 24 Deut 5:20
May 31 Deut 5:21
Jun 7 Deut 6:1–9
Be Like Jesus
When Jesus was tempted by the devil in the wilderness he quoted three times from only one book (Matt 4:1–11). That book was Deuteronomy. We hope your experience with this book makes it clear why our Savior would do that—and make it clear why this book should be as precious to us as it was to him.