Luke 19:45-46 (ESV)
And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold, saying to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a den of robbers.”
Maybe you don’t know, but today is a day that in English is known as Palm Sunday.
It’s called Palm Sunday because of the palm tree branches that were waved and laid on the ground for Jesus riding a donkey to walk on.
I’ve never experienced a Palm Sunday service here in Germany or in England where we lived for four years. But in the US, Palm Sunday is usually a really big deal in churches.
Several months ago, I had big ideas about this service. In the States, Palm Sunday often feels like a party. It’s one of those Sundays that nearly everyone will attend a church service even if they don’t normally attend church. And even in very formal, traditional churches, Palm Sunday is one of the liveliest services of the year.
Many churches will do a reenactment of Jesus’s triumphal entry. Palm fronds will be passed around to all the kids in the church and they’ll line the isles of the church and wave their palm leaves shouting Hosanna.
It’s a big party!
But there’s a dark side to Palm Sunday, isn’t there. Maybe you thought of it instinctively.
The fact is that today on Palm Sunday Jesus will march into Jerusalem heralded as King, as God’s Messiah, but by Wednesday a plot will be set in place to kill him, on Thursday he will be betrayed by one of his apostles, and by sunrise on Friday he will be dragging his own cross through the city to a hill where he will die.
This tension is very real! This tension should make us uncomfortable.
This tension is important and in many churches around the world this tension is embraced. I said that many churches will hand out palm leaves. But in many other churches, people coming to church are given a cross to pin on their clothing, and the cross is made from palm leaves. The reminder is that all of Christ’s life, even the so-called triumphal entry, is leading to the cross.
Most of these churches will then take these crosses back from the people and will burn them and make them into the ash that is used at the beginning of Lent the following year.
Ash Wednesday, if you don’t know, is the beginning of a 46 day period of time with 40 days of fasting. It is a period of preparation for Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection that begins with the stark reminder that we are but ashes. God made us from ashes, and we will return to ashes. Salvation comes in humbling ourselves and looking to Christ.
But by making this ash out of the cross-shaped Palm leaves, the reminder is strong that Christ was born to die, that his entire life finds its climax in the cross.
The Point: Palm Sunday is connected to Good Friday and Easter Sunday. If we want to understand Good Friday and Easter Sunday on a deeper level, we need to understand Palm Sunday.
This whole week is a journey to the cross and an empty tomb. What we call the Passion Week begins today on the Mount of Olives with a donkey and a king on a parade of victory.
But to help us understand these events, we have to understand the events of the Passion Week as a whole. And Passion Week begins with Palm Sunday.
Let’s now turn and read our passage.
Luke 19:28–40: 28 And when he had said these things, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. 29 When he drew near to Bethphage and Bethany, at the mount that is called Olivet, he sent two of the disciples, 30 saying, “Go into the village in front of you, where on entering you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever yet sat. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ you shall say this: ‘The Lord has need of it.’ ” 32 So those who were sent went away and found it just as he had told them. 33 And as they were untying the colt, its owners said to them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34 And they said, “The Lord has need of it.” 35 And they brought it to Jesus, and throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36 And as he rode along, they spread their cloaks on the road. 37 As he was drawing near—already on the way down the Mount of Olives—the whole multitude of his disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, 38 saying, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” 39 And some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” 40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”
After reading this, maybe you’re thinking, “Why is it called Palm Sunday? There’s isn’t a single mention of Palm Leaves in that.”
Well, you’re correct.
And this point reminds us of how important it sometimes is to allow all four of the Gospels speak together to paint a fuller picture of what is going on.
At times, it is most prudent to allow a single Gospel to give its own testimony. For us to listen carefully to what Matthew, for example, has to say. This has generally been my approach when preaching through the Gospel of Matthw.
But when it comes to the central event in the life of Christ, the four Gospel can be used quite effectively together.
So let’s rewind a few months in the life of Christ and get a running start.
Several months before Jesus comes to Jerusalem for the Passover, he goes to visit his good friends Mary and Martha in Bethany. Their brother Lazarus has just died and Jesus comes while the mourners are still there.
You remember what happened, don’t you. Jesus walked to the tomb, and cried out, “Lazarus, come out!” Of course, Lazarus rises from the dead.
John describes the aftermath of this miracle this way in John 11:45–54: 45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him, 46 but some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. 47 So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. 48 If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” 49 But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. 50 Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” 51 He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, 52 and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. 53 So from that day on they made plans to put him to death. 54 Jesus therefore no longer walked openly among the Jews, but went from there to the region near the wilderness, to a town called Ephraim, and there he stayed with the disciples.
So what where the responses to this miracle?
Some planned to put him to death.
But Jesus started to travel in secret and headed into the wilderness.
Don’t think for a moment that Jesus didn’t know exactly what he was doing.
Jesus is making calculated decisions to ensure that he will be crucified by Passover.
Jesus is orchestrating everything!
And now, he’s keeping a low profile.
But what about the Passover celebrations in Jerusalem?
Is Jesus going to go?
That would be dangerous.
Well, let’s pick up in John 12 and verse 1.
Remember, this is Friday before the Triumphal Entry.
John writes starting in John 12:1: 1 Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table. 3 Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” 6 He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it. 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. 8 For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.”
Matthew and Mark and Luke together help us develop a fuller picture of the events of this week. They inform us that it is this anointing by Mary on Friday that is the occasion for Satan entering Judas to betray the Lord Jesus.
But remember that Judas’s desire to betray Jesus was only able to be carried out because of the anger that the Pharisees already had in their hearts against Jesus after raising Lazarus from the dead months ago and because of the anger that the Sadducees will have when Jesus cleanses and controls the Temple precinct on Monday and Tuesday after the Triumphal Entry.
So Jesus returns from his solitude in the wilderness to Jerusalem one week before the Passover. He stays will his close friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus at their house in Bethany, and he will return there day after day until the Passover feast with his closest disciples.
Bethany becomes his home base for the next week. After his triumphal entry, he’ll briefly visit the Temple and then immediately return to Bethany for the night (Mark 11:11).
Then early on Monday morning he’ll quietly return to Jerusalem with his disciples and go cleanse the Temple and teach and then return to Bethany to sleep.
Then on Tuesday he’ll return to the Temple once and again and teach, answer objections, and pronounced woes against the religious leaders.
On Wednesday he will prepare himself for the Passover and his death while Judas goes to the Sanhedrin to betray him.
On Thursday, Jesus and his disciples will go to Jerusalem for their Passover sacrifice and their private meal in the upper room.
In the late hours of Thursday night, Jesus and his disciples will go back to the Mt. of Olives to a small private garden, a grove of Olive trees. He will be arrested, tried, sentenced, and crucified before the heat of the day on Friday.
So what are we learning?
We’re learning how connected these events are.
We’re learning how important it is to have a fuller picture of the Passion week and how Jesus has been orchestrating all of these events, conducting things according to His Father’s will.
And that’s important!
We must understand that part of the reason Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead was because of the division that it would create between those who believed in and followed him and those that were willing to kill him.
I read to you above about the reaction of the religious leaders. But listen to what John has to say about those who believed in him.
John describes the crowd that is surrounding Jesus on the Mount of Olives when he enters Jerusalem on the back of a donkey.
John 12:17–18: 17 The crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to bear witness. 18 The reason why the crowd went to meet him was that they heard he had done this sign.
John’s point is that news about Jesus was spreading far and wide.
Millions of Jews had come to Jerusalem from all over the Roman Empire.
They’re hearing stories about Jesus.
They’re hearing about him raising Lazarus from the dead.
They want to see him.
They are wondering if he’ll come.
They’re hoping he comes.
They’re hoping they’ll get to catch a glimpse of him in the massive crowds of people.
“Have you heard about Jesus?”
“Have you heard how he raised a man from the dead after he’d been dead for four days?”
“Yeah, apparently that wasn’t the first time he’d raised someone from the dead. But I also heard that he healed a man born blind!”
“Yeah! I heard about that too! From what I hear, that really got the Pharisees worked up! They’ve even given orders that anyone who knows where he is has to report it.”
“Man, I wonder if he’ll show up for the feast.”
News was spreading about Jesus. That much is clear.
And the religious leaders were simultaneously enraged at Jesus and afraid of the crowds because of how much the crowds love Him.
So emotions and tensions are high when Jesus comes over the crest of the Mount of Olives and begins his descent into the city of Jerusalem.
Here He comes.
He’s coming down the hill on a donkey surrounded by a massive crowd.
It’s like the racer on a mountain stage in the Tour de France: totally packed in on the narrow, winding street.
You see people start taking off their outer garments and laying them on the ground for this king to walk on.
You think, “If only half of the stories I’ve heard about this guy are true, then this must be the Messiah.” So, you take off your coat and lay it down with everyone else.
Then you start to hear someone next to you start to quote from the prophets, and you realize that this MUST be the Messiah.
You hear him quote from Zech 9:9–13 and say: 9 Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. 10 I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall speak peace to the nations; his rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. 11 As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit. 12 Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double. 13 For I have bent Judah as my bow; I have made Ephraim its arrow. I will stir up your sons, O Zion, against your sons, O Greece, and wield you like a warrior’s sword.
And you think, “My God, it’s him. He’s here. This is the Messiah”
Then perhaps this bystander’s quotation of the prophet Zechariah reminds his friend of another one of Zechariah’s prophecies about the Messiah.
And he quotes from Zech 14:3–4 and says: 3 Then the LORD will go out and fight against those nations as when he fights on a day of battle. 4 On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives that lies before Jerusalem on the east, and the Mount of Olives shall be split in two from east to west by a very wide valley, so that one half of the Mount shall move northward, and the other half southward.
And then your heart starts thumping as you hear yourself start to join in the chanting, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!”
You know where these words come from.
Ps 118:26: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD! We bless you from the house of the LORD.
And you notice that the chanting has changed the Psalm’s words from “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” to “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord.”
And you believe. You believe that this is the Messiah. Your heart cries out! You hear yourself joining in with all the throngs of people shouting praises to the Lord’s anointed one. He’s here to rescue Israel.
But not everyone responds in this way do they?
No, Luke tells us in v. 39 that “some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, rebuke your disciples.’”
And Jesus’s response is amazing. He says, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”
So listen, and listen carefully: Creation was made to give glory to God.
As the pinnacle of God’s creation, we were created to lead this worship. We were created to be the chorus. But if we remain silent, the rest of creation will literally cry out in worship.
Let me ask you for a moment to consider how quickly the week of Christ’s passion goes by. He’s anointed in Bethany on Friday and by the following Friday morning he’s hanging on a cross. After his triumphal entry on Sunday, the week would have flown by.
Christ’s followers would have been high on the emotion and excitement of the week. Jesus is meeting all of their expectations of who the Messiah is supposed to be.
But by the dawn of Friday morning Christ’s disciples have abandoned him.
They have literally fled and hid.
Judas has betrayed him.
Peter has denied him.
The cries of Christ’s followers shouting out “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord” are replaced by the cries of Christ’s enemies shouting “Crucify Him!!”
Instead of Christ coming into Jerusalem as a triumphant King on the back of a donkey among crowds of people shouting his praises, King Jesus departs Jerusalem with his cross on his back among crowds of people shouting curses.
Those who praised him on Sunday are now silent.
Some stand at the cross, but of those only one is from among the apostles.
And what happens?
The rocks cry out!
At the point of Christ’s death, when humanity is silent, the rest of creation cries out and gives testimony to the identity and glory of Christ!
The earth quakes!
The rocks split!
Even the sky responds by going black!
And at this testimony of creation, the centurion standing by the cross comes to know Jesus as the son of God.
My question for us is if we will lead the chorus of creation this week and sing his praises.
I have offered us a summary of Passion Week and pointed to the interconnectedness of these events. That all of these events – even the triumphal entry – lead to the cross and ultimately the grave.
But allow me to challenge you to evaluate your heart.
Are you among those who recognize and cry out praises to Christ, or are you among those whose heart is dull and unwilling to praise your maker?
Let me challenge you: no matter what is going on in your life these days, respond to what God in Christ has done for you. Respond to his invitation to take your place in the chorus that sings his praises.
The story of Palm Sunday is connected with the story Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Don’t for one minute think that you can only sing praises when life looks merry and cheerful. Don’t grow silent and let your heart flee from the trials of Good Friday.
The women that had been following Jesus remained faithful. They stood there at the cross. They were joined by one single apostle.
Follow the example of these women and that single apostle.
Remain true to Christ in these trying times.
Jesus is not only the King of Palm Sunday, he is also the suffering servant of Good Friday, and the triumphant Lord of Easter.
Let me pray.
Gracious and merciful God, we thank you for who you are. We thank you for your steadfast faithfulness to your Father’s will. We confess that we are weak and fickle. We easily turn aside and wander from your presence. We pray that you would stir our hearts to love you more that we might walk the road of suffering to your glory and with your praises on our lips. Amen
Oh Lord God, who reveals Himself to his people, speak to us tonight though your word-preached as it is by an unworthy servant. Quiet our hearts, Lord God, that we might hear your Spirit speak. And would we act in faith and in obedience according to the example of your son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
Now let’s read God’s word to us .
By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden for three months by his parents, because they saw that the child was beautiful, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict. By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward. By faith he left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king, for he endured as seeing him who is invisible. By faith he kept the Passover and sprinkled the blood, so that the Destroyer of the firstborn might not touch them. (Hebrews 11:23-28 ESV)
Our focus tonight is on that last verse. Let’s read it again.
“By faith he kept the Passover and sprinkled the blood, so that the Destroyer of the firstborn might not touch them.”
Now before we discuss how this demonstrates exemplary faith, let’s remind ourselves of what the author of Hebrews is talking about.
But let me ask you, what is the Passover about? What do you know about it?
The nine plagues are all very Egyptian in nature.
It has been noted by commentators for quite some time that the ten plagues is something of a competition between YHWH, the god of Israel,and the main gods of Egypt.
Even before the plagues started, when Moses met with Pharaoh and his staff turned into a serpent and ate the serpents that the priests of Egypt conjured up. Well the serpent was an important image in Egypt. It represented protective spirits. The Pharaohs wore jewelry with and were depicted in sculptures as having serpents on their crowns, and their belts.
So the fact that Moses’s serpent easily ate the serpent of Pharaoh’s priests is highly significant. This demonstration of YHWH’s superiority is at work in all of the plagues. One-by-one, God is showing himself to be more powerful than all the main gods of Egypt.
Another example is the 9th plague…Darkness. This is a direct refutation of Egypt’s most important god named Ra, the sun god. Not only does YHWH block out the sun for the Egyptians, but he caused it to remain light where Israel lived.
And then the 10th plague is promised. And what was that?
The killing of every first born male offspring of “both man and beast.”
One of the major significances of this plague is that Pharaoh was considered a god, the son of Ra. The royal title of every Egyptian king of this period began with the words, “son of Ra.” This is not only very personal and terribly heartbreaking for Pharaoh, but is also a direct attack on the house of Egypt’s god incarnate. This is a supreme act of sovereignty on the part of YHWH. He is supreme. Pharaoh could do nothing to stop this from happening.
And this is issued for both Egypt and Israel, isn’t it?
But what means does God provide for protection?
Now there’s no end to what we could talk about here. We could talk about how Christ is our perfect Passover lamb, whose blood saves us from the destruction of hell. We could talk about how Christ’s blood opens the door to God’s redemption of worthless sinners just as God redeemed for Himself a race of worthless slaves from Egypt.
But the author of Hebrews does not discuss these issues here in our text, though he does elsewhere. What does he focus on? The fact that Moses kept the Passover and sprinkled the blood.
How is this an act of faith? What’s the obvious answer?
Yes, it required faith because Israel had to obey and trust that God would spare the lives of their children. They had to live by faith when God told them to do something strange.
This is really no different then the calling of the Christian. To live contrary to the world’s teaching and expectations.
The world says that you are a cosmic accident. And even worse, humankind is what’s wrong with this world. The world said that the beauty of life is in its infinitely small likelihood. But God says that you are not an accident. He says that you are of infinite worth to Him because he made you, loves you, and sent His son to die for you.
The world says, “gender is a social construct..we now know that it is fluid.” But God tells us that gender is a blessing, that it’s a part of God’s design and His good purposes.
We know that what the world tells us is contrary to the values of God’s kingdom. And the world may be full of people living worldly lives devoid of God, and some of those people may even live lives that we are tempted to envy.
What are you going to believe, though? Who’s account of reality are you going to trust?
The author of Hebrews is concerned with this very issue. Living by what is seen versus living by what is known to be true though faith.
This is not our home.
Christ will return for His church.
We will live with Him in his kingdom forever.
These are the things that matter because they are eternal. We know this. We believe this. The author of Hebrews wants us-he wants me and he wants you-to look at the example of these great men and women of faith and to imitate their faith. His point is that they lived their lives on the basis of what they knew to be true even when (and especially when) it didn’t match up with what they saw.
And this brings me to another way in which Moses’ keeping the Passover was an act of faith.
Turn with me to Exodus 12.
Let’s begin in verse 7:
“Then they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the flesh that night, roasted on the fire; with unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat it. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted, its head with its legs and its inner parts. And you shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. In this manner you shall eat it: with your belt fastened, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. And you shall eat it in haste. It is the Lord’s Passover. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt. “This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations, as a statute forever, you shall keep it as a feast.
Now skip down to verse 21:
Then Moses called all the elders of Israel and said to them, “Go and select lambs for yourselves according to your clans, and kill the Passover lamb. Take a bunch of hyssop and dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and touch the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood that is in the basin. None of you shall go out of the door of his house until the morning. . . . You shall observe this rite as a statute for you and for your sons forever. And when you come to the land that the Lord will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this service. And when your children say to you, ‘What do you mean by this service?’ you shall say, ‘It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s Passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he struck the Egyptians but spared our houses.'” And the people bowed their heads and worshiped.
Did you notice that the Passover is a memorial feast!?
What does that mean? It means that it is a feast to remember an event. Right? But for the first Passover, the event which Passover remembers hasn’t happened yet! So sure should they be of God’s redemption and deliverance that they. Celebrate a feast to remember that redemption before it’s even happened! That’s remarkable. They are even given the outline for how to teach their children about the Passover.
This is a serious step of faith, am I right?
So sure should we be of our future redemption from this broken world that we live in light of it.
But I know that this is extremely difficult.
Just look at the apostles. When they were celebrating the Passover with The Lord on the night he was betrayed, they were being obedient to the command in Exodus that we read for Israel to remember the Passover and the exodus. But Christ informs his apostles that he is giving them a new memorial feast. “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup you do so in remembrance of me.”
Just like Israel’s first Passover, that first Lord’s supper was a memorials feast remembering an event that had not yet happened.
And just as Moses and Israel’s has much to teach us, so does the apostles’ example. For they struggled to understand and believe that what Christ was telling them was true. And yet, Christ remained faithful even though they fell away, even though they doubted him, even though Peter denied him.
And Christ is faithful to us as well even though we struggle to live faithfully. Even when we fall away, even when we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself (2 Tim 2:13).
This kind of living is incredibly difficult. This is why these particular men and women are singled out and offered to us as exemplars. They are meant to encourage us. To spur us on to live faithfully. They lived faithfully in the face of incredible trials. With the help of God’s Spirit, we can too.
Oh Lord God, who loves us without measure, be with us now, we pray, as we go forth into a world, created by you, and yet hostile to you and to your will. Send your spirit with us to guide us and conform us into the likeness of your son. We pray this with confidence knowing that it is in your will. Amen
In recent decades there have been a number of studies on the framing chapters of Deuteronomy noting the close lexical, rhetorical, theological, and syntactical similarities. This paper seeks to contribute to this conversation through an investigation of a key difference between Deuteronomy 4 and 29. Specifically, I argue that there is a difference on the epistemological level, namely Israel’s ability to know YHWH as her God and respond appropriately to his acts in history. This difference, though, is not one of kind but one of degree and emphasis.
The argument proceeds in three parts. For heuristic reasons I begin by looking at the claim of 29:3 (Heb.) that personal, sensory experience does not always lead to understanding. Seeing is not always believing. I then turn Deuteronomy 4 and look at its communal rhetoric which has the effect of transmitting to later generations the personal experiences of Israel’s ancestors at Horeb. Put differently, the account of Horeb in Deuteronomy 4 presents the logical reverse of what is seen in Deuteronomy 29 (i.e., not seeing is not always not understanding). Finally, I hint at ways these two epistemological claims might constructively shape the way we read Deuteronomy in its received form, specifically as it relates to Israel’s covenant making and covenant keeping.
To begin our discussion, let us turn to the well-known claim in Deut 29:3 (on your handout) that simply because Israel has collectively experienced an event does not mean that Israel will understand that event’s significance. Crucially, Deuteronomy assumes a causal separation between Israel’s faculties of sensory perception and her ability for understanding, that is, the ability to live in accordance with what has been perceived. Readers of the biblical text are undoubtedly familiar with the concept that is expressed here and taken up elsewhere in Scripture. The aphorism “Seeing isn’t believing” comes to mind.
According to the text, the surprising claim is that despite all he has done for Israel through the exodus (vv. 1–2), God has not opened Israel’s mind to know, or eyes to see, or ears to hear עד היום הזה. There is no hint in the text either that God has closed Israel’s eyes and ears as an act of judgment or that God has kept them closed in order to reveal himself to others. Instead the claim is stated as simply as it is shockingly: God has not given Israel the ability to understand the significance of what she has experienced. What is at stake is not that God had veiled these events from Israel’s view, but that she has not perceived them truly. Far from being fatalistic, therefore, Deuteronomy communicates hope regarding Israel’s state of affairs that is predicated on understanding God’s actions in history as intended to teach Israel that YHWH is her God (v. 5). “Until this day” suggests the possibility of a new beginning. So how might understanding be achieved? How might the epistemological blockage of Deut 29:3 be overcome?
We now turn to Deuteronomy’s opening frame—Chapter 4, especially the retelling of God’s revelation and giving of the law to Israel in vv. 9–13. As we do so, we must keep in mind that readers of the received form of Deuteronomy are confronted by the repeated claim that we are dealing in this book with a new generation. The old generation that departed from Egypt and entered into Covenant with YHWH at Horeb has died and its children have replaced it. Moses addresses a new generation that does not have in a personal way the experiences that it is purported to have.
With Moses’s imagined audience in mind, let’s take a look at our text. What begins in vv. 9–10a as an address of Moses to the wilderness generation transitions into a quoted speech of YHWH relating to the exodus generation. We are dealing here with embedded speech. Moses, speaking to the children of the exodus generation, quotes a past address of YHWH regarding their parent, the exodus generation. The rhetoric of vv. 9–13, however, conflates these two generations.
I’ve visualized this on your handout (with references to the first/exodus generation having a single underline and references to the second/wilderness generation having a double underline).
In God’s quoted speech he says to Moses, “Assemble the people (i.e., the exodus generation) for me, and I will let them hear my words, so that they may learn to fear me as long as they live on the earth, and may teach their children (i.e., the second generation) to do so.” The reference to the people is clearly a reference to the exodus generation. They are to assemble to the mountain, learn to fear the Lord, and teach their children also to fear the Lord. Moses then continues in v. 11 by relating the events of that day, “you approached and stood at the foot of the mountain.” Here the “you” refers not primarily to the exodus generation but instead to Moses’s audience on the plains of Moab, that is, the children of the exodus generation. With the use of this imbedded speech, then, Moses has turned the “their children” of v. 10 into the “you” of v. 11.
Moses then continues in vv. 12–13 with the affirmation that his audience heard the voice of YHWH from the midst of the fire and that they are the ones who entered into that covenant. Instead of speaking to his audience as the second generation who is inheriting the terms of the Sinai covenant which their parents accepted, Moses effectively speaks to his audience on the plains of Moab as if they have the experiences of their parents, as if they were the ones that stood at Horeb, as if they are the ones that saw all of the sights and sounds, and as if they were the ones that entered into the covenant with YHWH.
This rhetoric, therefore, compresses a later generation (and all later generations for that matter) into the covenant making experience of an earlier generation. The wilderness generation, despite the fact that they were not present at Horeb, are nonetheless obliged to be faithful to that covenant’s stipulations. This indicates that simply because this generation did not have personal experiences of Horeb does not mean that they cannot understand it (that is, respond in faithfulness to it). This is the reverse claim of Deut 29:3. In the case of Deuteronomy 4, “Not seeing is not not understanding.” Whereas the closing frame says that seeing does not guarantee understanding, the opening frame assumes that these experiences can be relived and that Israel can gain understanding. This assumption is formulated in sensory language that is out of place apart from a communal, transgenerational identity within the context of a covenant between Israel and her suzerain.
Now the conclusion: As we have seen, Deuteronomy 29 and 4, though in different ways, indicate that Israel’s relationship with YHWH depends on understanding YHWH’s works in history on her behalf as a covenant making God. Why is this and how is this related to the core of the book? My proposal is that the issues of epistemology and memory that are explored in the frame have a direct bearing both on Israel’s cultural understanding of her past and on the practice of covenant making.
By blurring the generational boundaries in Deuteronomy 4, the past is perpetually brought into the present. The past acts of YHWH on behalf of a past Israel become the perpetual acts of YHWH for all of Israel. This is possible precisely because of the causal separation between experience and understanding we explored in Deuteronomy 29. Understanding the acts of God and responding to the covenant faithfully does not require a personal experience of God’s actions just as personal experience of God’s acts does not guarantee understanding and proper responsiveness. Instead, this understanding comes through the compression of all generations into a near singularity: all of Israel was brought out of bondage; all of Israel stood at Horeb; all of Israel entered into the covenant together. This helps us understand the language of the historical prologue such as, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Deut 5:6). Of course it was not this generation for whom this statement is accurate according to any modern historical criteria. On the other hand, the rhetoric of Deuteronomy teaches us to understand the formative events of Israel’s history differently, in a way that places the burden of grateful, responsive obedience to Deuteronomy’s legal core upon every generation. “Not with our fathers did the LORD make this covenant, but with us, we ourselves, who are all of us here alive today” (Deut 5:3). This affirmation, along with the covenant to which it refers becomes an enduring reality.
Nathan MacDonald. Deuteronomy and the Meaning of “Monotheism.” 2d ed. Forschungen zum Alten Testament 2. Reihe 1. Edited by Bernd Janowski, Mark S. Smith, and Hermann Spieckermann. Mohr Siebeck: Tübingen, 2012.
This volume is close to home for me as it is the second edition of the published version of a 2001 dissertation completed under the supervision of my own supervisor Walter Moberly.
The fact that this volume has seen a second edition so soon after the first publication in 2002 is not only an uncommon occurrence for a book of this kind but is a testimony to its overall favorable acceptance by readers. Indeed, this book is not only theologically engaging and biblically attentive, it is also eminently readable.
The book itself is comprised of two prefaces, an introduction, six chapter, and finally a conclusion. The subject of the volume is that of “monotheism,” especially as it relates to key texts in Deuteronomy. MacDonald’s conclusion is that in the book of Deuteronomy, God’s election of Israel over and against other nations finds its counterpart in Israel’s election of YHWH as their one God over and against other gods.
Working toward this conclusion MacDonald discusses several texts within Deuteronomy, but none more than Deut 6:4, which he translates, “Hear O Israel, YHWH our God, YHWH is one.” Arguably there is no verse in the Bible that is used more often to support monotheism. However, before this verse is ever addressed, MacDonald begins with a discussion in chapter 1 on the use and definition of “monotheism.” In this chapter MacDonald demonstrates clearly that the word “monotheism” has a long and colored history, one that is rooted in rationalism. The word “monotheism” was and still is most often used in the negative. In other words, “monotheism” rather than “paganism/polytheism,” or “monotheism” rather than “atheism.” In other words, the word “monotheism” often reflects a rationalistic understanding of religion that pits Christianity’s one God against paganism’s multiple gods and atheism’s rejection of a god.
None of this is to say that these are unhelpful or unimportant distinctions. What MacDonald aims to do, rather, is to test the waters of Deuteronomy to determine whether the biblical text itself reflects this self-same understanding of “monotheism.”
In the end, MacDonald’s evaluation of the relevant biblical texts concludes that Moses in the book of Deuteronomy is more concerned with exhorting Israel to choose to follow YHWH rather than the gods of the other nations. In other words, Deuteronomy is not a text which argues for “monotheism” in the rationalistic sense of the word (i.e., one god vs. many or no gods). Instead, MacDonald posits that Deuteronomy is a text which encourages Israel to love the One God who led them out of bondage and who is now calling them to live faithfully. In other words, as far as Israel is concerned they are to live life as if there are no other gods. In the same way that a husband might tell his wife that she is his “one and only,” Israel is to say to YHWH, “you are my one and only.”
This understanding of “monotheism” understands that there are many other objects (false gods) that are vying for our affection and can draw us away from our devotion to YHWH. This view of “monotheism” also creates a fascinating parallel with the doctrine of election. In the same way that Israel is God’s elect nation, YHWH is Israel’s elect God. In fact, the election of Israel over and against the other nations is a fundamental theme in the book of Deuteronomy (esp. ch. 7). It should not surprise us then that Moses would encourage Israel to elect YHWH as their one true love over and against all other gods.
In the end, this is a fascinating work that represents an important step forward in theology. This book argues convincingly that Deuteronomy is not a book for arguing for the existence of one god rather than many gods but is instead a book which encourages Israel to choose YHWH as its one true God and to live obediently toward this God. These statements must be tempered however by the recognition that this does not in any way undermine the Christian conviction in the singularity of YHWH as the one true and living God; in fact, in most cases, the rationalistic use of the term “monotheism” is still useful today. MacDonald’s work, however, reminds us that there are many false gods that seek to draw us away from our devotion to YHWH, and we must be “monotheistic” in the added sense that we are to be devoted to One God.
The year is 1812, and William Carey, the founder of modern Protestant missions has been in India for nearly 20 years. It took him seven years before he baptized his first Indian convert to Christianity. It took him as long to learn Bengali and translate the New Testament. Along the way he had written grammars and dictionaries so that others could learn Bengali as well and in order to assist in the translation of the Bible.
Life had already been tough for him and his family, though. He had been sick repeatedly. He had a son die at the age of 5. His wife suffered with mental illness and had even attempted to take William’s life.
Then in 1812, after two decades of work (ultimately after a half of his life in India had elapsed), a fire broke out in the mission’s printing press. All of Carey’s work was destroyed. His original dictionaries and grammars burned without a trace and without any duplicates. Hand-written original Bible translations went up in smoke. Perhaps worst of all, Carey’s custom made, one-of-a-kind printing type had all melted.
What would you do?
How do you respond to hard times and suffering? Continue reading
What about Jesus?
But what about the Christian? Admittedly I have spoken here mostly about Israel and Israel’s election as God’s people and Israel’s responsiveness in love to God.
But what does this have to do with the church?
Additionally, how has Christ changed things?
Well as you may already recognize, what we have learned about the nature of history and our response to it is in many ways identical in the New Covenant Era.
For example. Just like Moses’s audience who were not actually at Sinai, we were not at Calvary, nor have we ever seen Jesus.
But what does Jesus tell his apostles in John 20:29
“Blessed are those who believe and have not seen” (John 20:29)
The apostles saw the Lord and they saw the risen Lord. They believed on the basis of what their eyes saw. But we do not yet have that joy. But one day we will.
No, our response to Christ is on the basis of what He did for us. Based upon the testimony that the apostles have given and is written for us.
And yet, there is also a sense in which, through their testimony, and through worship, prayer, and meditation, we can ascend that hill called Calvary.
We can take that journey with Christ. We can take up our crosses alongside Him.
For our life is hidden with Christ.
“Blessed are those who believe and have not seen” (John 20:29)
Like the Israelite, who’s cultural identity places him with those who stood at Sinai, our identity is united with Christ Himself.
For we have been…
You see beloved, the past does far more than instruct us on what has happened in days gone by.
It tells us who we are.
You see, when our children and grand-children ask us why we do what we do, why we live the way we live, why we work hard, or confess our sins to one another, or visit friends in need, the answer does not come from within ourselves. It is not because we are nice people or because it is just the polite thing to do, or because it is our habit to live in such a way.
The answer comes from outside of us. The answer is that Christ has done amazing, remarkable (and I mean things worth talking about, things worth meditating upon) for His people. We then invite our children, grand-children, family, friends, everyone to become a part of His people. We invite them to identify with those who are recipients of and respondents to the great mercy of God.
You see, the past, not only tells us who we are, but it is the basis of our response in faith to the Lord.
What has the Lord done for us?
Not only has he come to live as an example for us, but he supremely came to reconcile us to God on the cross and secure our eternal security on Easter Sunday.
I dare say, that this is not new knowledge.
But let us not forget. Let us make it fresh in our minds. Let us go to Calvary and see Him there.
Fourth, WE TOO NEED TO LEARN TO RESPONDING APPROPRIATELY (vv. 39-40)
What is the result of all of this? What conclusion is to be drawn from these claims and from this theologically oriented interpretation of history?
Moses tells us in vv. 39-40, which in the Hebrew is the conclusion.
“9 know therefore today, and lay it to your heart, that the Lord is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other. 40 Therefore you shall keep his statutes and his commandments, which I command you today, that it may go well with you and with your children after you, and that you may prolong your days in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for all time.”
What is the proper response to the knowledge that the Lord is the Lord over all: that He has assigned the created order to the nations, but has chosen Israel out of all the nations to be his special inheritance?
What is the proper response to the knowledge that the Lord brought Israel out of Egypt?
What is the proper response to the fact that the Lord has made a covenant with each and every generation of Israel?
What is the proper response to the recognition that the way one treats the Lord’s commands is a reflection of the way one treats the Lord himself?
The proper response is 1) right thinking and 2) loving obedience.
1) First, note the strong theological statement in v. 39.
“So acknowledge today and take to heart that the LORD is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other.”
The statement is remarkable, among other reasons, because Moses makes this a conclusion of God’s revelation to Israel through history and through his sovereignty over the nations.
The similar statement in v. 35 confirms this: Why did the Lord bring Israel out of Egypt with great signs and wonders? So that He might make Himself known to Israel.
This we know, both from the Old Testament and the New Testament, that God has revealed Himself in a general way to the whole world both through His creation and through His actions. But is this enough? NO.
2) For second, we note in v. 40 that Israel is to respond to what it has seen and experience with obedience. Israel has been selected from all the nations to receive the revelation of the Lord.
And yet it is all too easy here to fall into the trap of commanding obedience for the sake of blessing or out of fear of reprisal. We should instead, here, understand obedience as the proper response to the Lord because it shows a receptivity to God’s love and grace and a responsiveness of love.
For to obey God is an act of love.
What is the reason for obedience in this chapter of Deut?
It is not blessing.
It is not out of obligation.
It is not out of fear.
All of these are present within this chapter, no doubt.
But no, the overwhelming reason for obedience according to this chapter is that obedience is the proper response to what God has already done for Israel. What has he done?
The Lord has made His commandments and Himself known to Israel.
1) He is offering to have a relationship with Israel. How remarkable it was when the Lord revealed His name to Moses. This is His essence and identity. He then at Sinai descended upon the Mountain to make himself known to the entire nation. Then on top of that, he entered into the Tabernacle so that he might even dwell among his people.
2) He also gave Israel a collection of laws and statutes by which they should live and worship him. We saw in vv. 1-8 that there is a connection between how someone treats the Lord and how someone treats his commandments are related.
The Lord is offering Israel Himself and His laws.
Take it or leave it.
If Israel takes it, there is blessing in store. If Israel leaves it, there are curses in store. The good life, the blessed life, the full life is to be found in responding to God’s actions by choosing to be in relationship with Him and choosing to obey his commands.
Third, WE MUST INTERPRET THE PAST THROUGH A THEOLOGICAL LENS (vv. 15–38)
What do I mean by this title?
Well, let’s take a look at what Moses says in vv. 15–38
His statements can be summed up in vv. 15–16
“15 Therefore watch yourselves very carefully. Since you saw no form on the day that the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, 16 beware lest you act corruptly by making a carved image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female,…”
Isn’t that amazing! Listen, when God gives the second commandment that forbids idols, he does so on the grounds that he is a jealous God. God never says, “you shall not make idols because I am a spirit and have no form which can be copied.”
We take this for granted, but this is something that Moses interprets from the historical event. That is not something that should be missed or passed over quickly. In fact this entire section of Moses’s speech is filled with theologically oriented interpretations of the events at Sinai.
In vv. 19–20 Moses does it again.
“19 And beware lest you raise your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, you be drawn away and bow down to them and serve them, things that the Lord your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven. 20 But the Lord has taken you and brought you out of the iron furnace, out of Egypt, to be a people of his own inheritance, as you are this day.”
Did you catch that?
This shows us the vital importance of interpreting the past through the lens of God’s revelation, in the light of God’s character, on the basis of his word.
In this case, Moses tells Israel, “You should not be surprised when other nations worship the created order, but that is not who you are. The Lord rescued you from the furnace of trials that was your life in Egypt. He brought you out and your identity is the people of God. You belong to him. Your devotion belongs to him.”
Moses does the same in vv. 32–38
He calls upon Israel to consider the past, “Has any other people heard the voice of God and lived?” “Has any other god brought his people out of slavery?”
The answer of course is “no.”
But why does he ask?
Because he wants to teach Israel how to interpret the past theologically. He wants Israel to learn to ask important questions about the nature of the past and their part in it.
He wants the nation to learn to think about what God has done for them and how to respond correctly. Which is our last point.
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