It seems to me that one of the sources of the most misunderstanding of christian thought and teaching is the Old Testament. This is especially true of the first four books of the Bible. The lack of careful reading in these sections has lead to broad and inaccurate generalizations. One such generalization is that the God of the Old Testament is completely different from the God of the New Testament.
It is stated that the God of the Old Testament is the God of law and judgement while the God of the New Testament is a God of grace and mercy. One section that completely debunks this idea is the book of Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy is an address of the people of Israel before they enter the promised land. This is a section where God takes an important moment to stop, reflect on all that has happened, and point forward to that which he desires to do for these people. Deuteronomy is a reflection of all that has come before. It is a moment when God reminds Israel of their history and identity, and his role in it all.
One of the pervasive realities that comes right to the surface as I am reading through these chapters is the centrality of the mercy and grace of God in his work with a people who have repeatedly rebelled against him. Over and over, Moses reminds the people that it is not because of their goodness and righteousness that they receive the blessings and promises of God, but because of his mercy and faithfulness. The dominant New Testament theme that God’s grace precedes our faithfulness is central here as well¹. God has protected and chosen Israel, he has made them his own people. God has led and fed them through 40 years of life in the desert, despite their faithlessness and failure. God is bringing them into the land of promise.
It is not, as I have often thought, that God is telling them, “If you obey, I will bless you. If you disobey, I will curse you.” The reality is that they were already surrounded by God immense grace and blessing. The central call of Deuteronomy is not that they need to merely obey God in order to receive material blessing, but that they need to love him. Over and over this is the address that rings through the chapters, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might”(Duet. 6:5). The call here is not to mere mechanical religion. It is a call to the affection of the heart, the very center and core of our being.
This is God’s call throughout all of the Bible. But not only is it a call, it is his demand. What is more worthy of our deepest love and affection aside from the Creator who gives us breath and life? To whom do we give our hearts if not to the one who has so meticulously and beautifully crafted the world in which we live, not only for survival, but for the deepest of pleasures? The self attesting reality of his grace and goodness overwhelming.
To love any other thing more than him is to commit ourselves to the deepest of spiritual confusions. Nothing else can deliver on the promise to lasting satisfaction besides him because all the goodness that we see and experience is meant to point to him. He is the heart and center of all pleasure and beauty that the universe exhibits. It is his mighty masterpiece. To love and seek him above all things is to see the world as it truly is. That is why it was the dominant ringing theme to Israel. They would dive headlong into a self destructive pattern of life if they enjoyed the gifts without seeing the centrality of the Giver. That is also the resounding truth of the New Testament. God’s love and mercy to us, not his law, is the instrument by which he redeems and rebuilds our lives.
In the next post I will discuss how Israel’s response to all this is a powerful parable of our own selves, and how God’s grace is once again the central answer.
- I am indebted to Thomas Schreiner for this observation in his biblical theology The King in His Beauty.