[Commentary on Deuteronomy 4:1-9] If God’s people lived how we were supposed to, evangelism would be a bit easier. Moses challenged the Israelites to learn and obey God’s law, knowing that such would positively influence the people around them. Likewise today, when we follow Jesus, God is glorified and people take notice. And the command to teach our children what we have been taught applies still today.
"And what great nation has righteous statutes and ordinances like this entire law I set before you today?" Deuteronomy 4:8
[Editor's note: this Bible study supplement started as a printed newsletter for teachers, which is why it is so text-heavy. I am slowly adding older lessons to our website.]
How Do You Best Learn?
When it comes to teaching Sunday School, I like to remind us all that our learners don’t all learn the same way we do; we need to work hard to incorporate different styles of teaching in order to reach our class members. This icebreaker wouldn’t be about that. Rather, it’s related to the lesson. We are to learn the commands of God and teach them to our children and grandchildren. So, take your class back to their school days. How did they like to learn? What did they learn best and why? And then most importantly—what do they think they need to do to learn the word of God as well as possible? (Note: learning the laws of God that no longer apply to us wouldn’t be a good use of time, but learning the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount sure would be!) And then the follow up: what do they need to do in order to best teach these to their children and grandchildren? I’d love for them to really think about this one. This is probably the most important outcome for the lesson.
How Do We Evaluate a Great Nation?
Part of this lesson is the idea that the surrounding nations will realize how great Israel is by her great laws. And that brings up a great question: today, how do we make this evaluation? Well, publications do just this. US News (take with a grain of salt) does their “Best Countries Ranking” based on 65 metrics including culture, economy, quality of life, and heritage. Heritage.org does a ranking based on “Economic Freedom”, which evaluates things like property rights, government effectiveness, tax burden, business freedom, and the like. Knoema.com offers a “World Data Atlas” which ranks countries by anything you could ever wonder, from inflation to unemployment to energy consumption to adult literacy. They have an amazing “World Rankings” page with everything from “Happiness Index” to “Political Rights Index” to “Human Development Index”. It is a phenomenal resource/black hole. I would choose one or two of those that you think would be interesting to your class, print them and let your class respond. If they are impressed by a country, then that’s exactly what God was saying about the Hebrew law code for their reputation.
How Do We Evaluate a Great University?
If you think that nation talk would get too political, you can do the same thing for a university. US News has a famous ranking here, taking into account 15 “indicators” such as graduation rate, social mobility, class size, academic reputation, student performance, etc. They also sub-rank each school based on an individual indicator so people can evaluate what they think is most important to them. Of course, you won’t get everyone to agree on how to rank!
The purpose of either of those icebreakers would be to help your class think about how they might evaluate a nation or university—how might they try to argue that one is better than another? God tells the Israelites that their greatness will be known by how evident it is that they have a relationship with Him (based on how they govern themselves and operate their society).
This Week's Big Idea: The Nature and Structure of the Law
There’s a really obvious conclusion that some of your class members might jump to: if God’s law is so perfect, then why don’t we follow it today? Great question. When we read the New Testament, we read passages like “you are not under law but grace” (Rom 6:14), “all who rely on works of the law are under a curse” (Gal 3:10), and “the law is not of faith” (Gal 3:12). This might make us think that the law is a burden.
But on the other hand, we have passages such as “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Rom 7:12), “I agree with the law, that it is good” (Rom 7:16), and “I delight in the law of God” (Rom 7:22). That makes it seem like the law is a blessing. So which is it?
Let’s start with the purpose of the law. (1) The law explained to the people God’s covenant expectations for their behavior. This is really important and easy for us to miss, having grown up with the Bible. Other peoples would resort to things like divination to determine the will of their gods. God removed the need for any such action by making His expectations of them very clear. (2) The law gave the people a way to explain God to the nations. Like our passage today, the greatness and uniqueness of Old Testament law was such that any other nation who learned it would be amazed by their relationship with their God. Keeping God’s law would result “that all the peoples of the earth may know that the Lord is God” (1 Ki 8:60). (3) The law revealed the character of God. We talked about this last week with respect to the value of human life. In the law, the Israelites learned that there was only one true God, that He expected them to be faithful and trustworthy as He was, that they should care for the weak and sick and widow and orphan, and that they should abstain from the sins of the world (“be holy as I am holy”).
In other words, the law taught both the people of Israel and their neighbors about God. And then let’s look at what’s in the law. The first five books of the Bible are called the Torah, which is almost always translated “law” (other words are translated “commandment”, “ordinance”, “statute”, “regulation”, “obligation”, “stipulation”), interesting because 2/3s of it is narrative. That’s because “law” should be better understood as “covenant” (rather than something like a legal code). The covenant that God made with the children of Abraham was that He would be their God, and they would be His people. Part of being His people included following certain rules, but part of it meant following and trusting Him (like passing through the Red Sea or looking to the bronze serpent). Following the law was never about earning God’s favor but knowing how to live as one who was already in God’s favor. Importantly, we’ve already seen that part of the intent for obeying the law was to fulfill the God-given mission of spreading the knowledge of the one true God around them world!
God’s law was supposed to be “tough” because the people had the highest privilege of being the people of God. That’s a big responsibility! Obedience to the law was an expression of gratitude for His covenant love and faithfulness to them. Consequently, the law covered all of life—it was comprehensive (which is why there were laws about fields and garments and animals). It was also interconnected; although today it is common for us to divide the laws into civil, ceremonial, and moral laws, the Torah itself doesn’t give any such distinction (or rank laws by importance). Everything mattered to God. The people were to keep all of it because it painted a complete picture of life in covenant relation with God. So, let’s talk about what Jesus fulfilled. All of it. Jesus fulfilled the entire law. We are no longer bound to the law as Christians because we are now under grace. And that’s where our understanding of the law requires discernment. There are some laws, like the sacrificial system, that are easy to see exactly how Jesus fulfilled them and why we don’t need to do them today. There are some laws, like the laws of government and criminal punishment, that are easy to see how they don’t apply to us who are not Jews in the nation of Israel. But there are some laws, like about sewing two kinds of thread together, that we can see a principle behind (remaining separate from the world) and can apply to our lives today.
This is why Jesus said we could sum the law and the prophets into two simple commands: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength” and “love your neighbor as yourself”. Those two commands are really all we’re worried about. Everything else, including the commands Jesus gave about not looking at someone lustfully or being angry or boasting, is a basic expression of those two commands. And we don’t have to do them in order to be saved. But—if we are saved, we will naturally want our lives to express those commands. So, when we read that we aren’t to add or take away from anything in the law, we should realize that God was talking about the complete covenant God made with the Jews. Now, in Jesus, we are in a new covenant made with Jesus’ blood; those old stipulations have gone away. But they still give us a window into the kind of behaviors that reflect God’s character, and we should absolutely be interested in doing those. This is why Jesus said “If you love Me, you will do what I command”. It means the same for Christians today as it did for Jews in Moses’ day: when we obey the law of God, we reveal to the world who God is and what God wants of humans. That’s important.
The Larger Context of Deuteronomy
If you didn’t last week, give the overview of the entire book. In addition to the Torah video I mentioned last week, Bible Project also has an overview video:
We can think of this chapter as the end of Moses’ introduction. He has given the new generation an overview of Israel’s history, and in this chapter he hits the high points: obey God, don’t have idols, and fear the Lord.
Part 1: Listen (Deuteronomy 4:1-5)
“Now, Israel, listen to the statutes and ordinances I am teaching you to follow, so that you may live, enter, and take possession of the land the Lord, the God of your fathers, is giving you. You must not add anything to what I command you or take anything away from it, so that you may keep the commands of the Lord your God I am giving you. Your eyes have seen what the Lord did at Baal-peor, for the Lord your God destroyed every one of you who followed Baal of Peor. But you who have remained faithful to the Lord your God are all alive today. Look, I have taught you statutes and ordinances as the Lord my God has commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to possess.”
“Now, Israel” is the transition into the “executive summary” of Deuteronomy. Here are some simple comments about the text. “Listen” as you probably know means a lot more than “perceive with your ears”; it means to pay attention and learn and obey. “Statutes” and “ordinances” and “commands” are virtual synonyms with each other and always refer to a formal, written law/regulation. It’s a different word than “torah”, which refers to God’s covenant with Israel as a whole. Think of it as teaching younger people—when you start with a big topic, you start with the yes-or-no rules, not with the big picture. This is the foundation for a new generation of Israelites. Like with your own kids, you start with the “do this/don’t do that” rules and then eventually build from there. That’s what I think is going on here. Remember how Paul called the law a “nanny” in Galatians 3? That’s because the people weren’t ready for the difficult rules like “love God with all your heart”. So, Moses (speaking for God) started with the rules that the people could easily know if they were obeying or not.
If you want to get your class thinking, ask them what they would hope a young person would know before moving out on his own. I’m thinking money management, how to take care of an apartment, how to own a car, how to take care of yourself, etc. How is that child going to learn that? Hopefully not entirely after the fact! We should teach our kids basic “life skills” in a do/don’t way until they have enough maturity and experience to begin to modify them for their unique place in the world.
Moses’, unlike us, adds a “don’t add anything or take away anything” clause. He can do that because he’s speaking for God. Why do you think God would want us not to modify His law? I hope that’s not hard for you to answer! (On a side note, how did the Pharisees get away with their extra laws? Shouldn’t they have known better? My understanding is that they thought they were simply adding explanations to existing laws, not new laws.)
Ask your class about rules or laws they failed to follow in their past. Some of them might get serious (like breaking a US law resulting in a court appearance, or breaking a company rule that resulted in termination), but hopefully someone has a more lighthearted example. My dad told me to always check the breaker before working on an electrical outlet. There was one time I forgot to do that. That was the only time would ever forget to do that. Dad gave me that rule for my good. So it is with God’s laws for the Israelites—when they rebel, terrible things happen (see the next Focus). And so it is for us in Jesus! If anyone fails to follows God’s “laws” to repent and believe in Jesus, he suffers the ultimate consequence of eternal separation from God in hell. Make sure your class sees how the same idea applies to us today, even though we are no longer talking about Old Testament law.
Aside: Education in Israel
We’re talking about this topic on Wednesday nights, noting how there are many more education opportunities for people in the world today than in Moses’ day. While there was formal education in Moses’ day, it was mainly restricted to a few elites (rulers, including priests, and other important people). Most education was informal and in the home or workplace (which overlapped). Parents were expected to teach their children the lessons they had learned—about obeying God, understanding Jewish culture and society, and knowing the past. Parents would also teach their children a trade, and those were precious times for life lessons as well. There was a certain amount of literacy necessary—think of the censuses that were taken in Numbers—which was by default given to learned groups like the Levites, who would have included reading the law in their informal family times. Tasks like being a census taker would have required additional training at the highest level.
Over time, a more formal system of education developed, out of which we get the scribes and synagogue leaders. In other nations (like Assyria and Persia and Greece) we have extensive records of very widespread, systematic formal education for the elites of society. Teaching was either done by noted experts (like Aristotle for teaching Alexander the Great) or by slaves.
For the purposes of this lesson, what we need to know is that during the time of Moses, instruction was expected to be done in the home by the parents. It was supposed to cover everything from job skills to Jewish history to personal holiness. Parents should be careful not to offload that today!
Part 2: Honor (Deuteronomy 4:6-8)
Carefully follow them, for this will show your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the peoples. When they hear about all these statutes, they will say, ‘This great nation is indeed a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god near to it as the Lord our God is to us whenever we call to him? And what great nation has righteous statutes and ordinances like this entire law I set before you today?
Now we get into the hints of God’s original worldwide mission. And this is where the skeptics who complain about the “vindictive God” of the Old Testament really don’t understand what was going on. Yes, there was severe punishment for crimes in the Old Testament law. And yes, last week I wanted you to point out how such punishments were pro-life both as a vindication for the victim and as a deterrent for crime. But here’s the real point: imagine an Israel in which everyone followed the law of God. There wouldn’t be any capital punishment because no one would commit such a crime! What would a totally-focused-on-God Israel look like? Everyone respects everyone. Everyone receives care when needed. No one would be unjustly punished. People’s lives would center on God’s worship through the weekly Sabbaths and the seasonal festivals. And because everyone would be following God, God would bless their crops and herds, God would defend their borders, and God would give them health and life. Don’t you think that’s a testimony that would get the attention of pagan, idol-worshiping neighbors? I think so!
Moses’ boast is not about the law code itself; it’s about the people obeying it. If the Israelites had just done what God had said, they would have changed the world. And the same is true for us today. Can you imagine our community if every Christian in it fully followed Jesus every day? If we actually lived our lives as Jesus would want us to? Ask your class to imagine that. It would change our community—”that they might see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven”—and lead us to boldly share the message of salvation with people who need to hear it. That’s what Moses is talking about here.
Aside: Laws for Christians
Earlier in this handout, I mentioned that Jesus gave us two “laws”: love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. He said that those two “laws” sum up the entire law of the Old Testament. Part of the reason I repeated this is in case you just skim through my handout and missed that. The other part is because I think this is really important for Christians to know and understand. Paul essentially wrote the book of Romans to explain it. Jesus said, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15). What did Jesus command? While the bulk of that is summarized in the Sermon on the Mount (and every Christian should know it), Jesus also commanded us things like “repent” and “take My yoke upon you” and “take up your cross” and “forgive” and “serve”. It’s not the same as the Old Testament “law code”. Why? Because Jesus wants us to think and act like Him, and there’s no way to write a rule for every possible situation. That’s why the Great Commandments are so broad and comprehensive. They allow us to interpret for ourselves how He wants us to live, and He offers us the help we need via the Holy Spirit to discern those choices. I look at the Sermon on the Mount as a starting point for understanding what Christ has commanded—it’s not just about our actions, it’s about our hearts and minds and motives. But it’s also not a burden like the Pharisee’s laws were; Christ’s “laws” free us to be who God created us to be because our salvation is no longer tied to our performance. The Jews didn’t understand that, but Jesus came to clarify it. Basically, as Christians we should see the Great Commandments as those “laws” we’re supposed to follow, addressing every moment of our life. Not out of duty, but in joy.
Part 3: Teach (Deuteronomy 4:9)
Only be on your guard and diligently watch yourselves, so that you don’t forget the things your eyes have seen and so that they don’t slip from your mind as long as you live. Teach them to your children and your grandchildren.
All of these ideas tie together in this final verse which should have a pretty easy and obvious application to us today. How are our children and grandchildren going to know how to live? If we teach them. Left to their own devices, we all know that kids are not going to make a bunch of solid life choices (Matt Chandler once said that if he left his kids unsupervised they would burn down the western hemisphere; not because they’re bad kids, but because they’re kids). On Wednesday night, we talked about the fact that young people tend to push back against rules—some of that is peer pressure and what they see on tv, some of that is youthful rebellion, and some of that is their brains simply haven’t developed to the point necessary to understand restraint and moderation. And so we create rules to keep everyone safe. But whereas humans might create rules that are unnecessary or oppressive, God only gives us rules for our good.
Moses gave the Israelites two commands here: (1) obey these laws yourselves, and (2) teach your children to obey them. Do you see why he would have to make both commands independently? We’ve talked about this before, and we need to keep talking about it. Kids can sniff out hypocrisy from a mile away. What does hypocrisy say to kids? Among other things, it tells them that we really don’t find whatever rule it was we broke to be all that important. Moses was saying from Old Testament law what we should be saying from New Testament “law”—do we really think there’s something in there that’s not important for us to follow? Are we in a place to tell God that we think He made a mistake making a command? I hope not. Thus the Israelites were to carefully follow the entire law (remember how we said that it all hangs together), just as Jesus tells us to follow Him fully, not half-baked. The best lessons we can give our children (or the kids we teach in Sunday School and other church programs) is to live out the Christian life in a way that they can see.
From my page 3 Focus, you know that Moses was focusing on parents and children in the home, and that remains the most foundational place to teach children these things. If your class has children still in the home, make sure they realize how important their job is as teacher. But it’s just as true of the rest of us! We’ll talk about this again next week in Deuteronomy 6 (if you’re at FBC, we will be doing that in a large group in the Fellowship Hall!)—it is the responsibility of the entire community to work together to teach the next generation. Our influence may be more indirect on someone else’s kids, but it exists nonetheless. Have your class end with ways they can be a good influence on the young people in our church.
[Aside on Baal-Peor. You might remember how the tribe of Simeon utterly collapsed from the first census to the second, and the only reason I gave for it was a sexual sin with Moabite women mentioned in Numbers 25. Some of your class members may have thought the punishment was harsh. Well, this is an explicit mention of that exact sin, singled out by Moses as a paradigmatic rebellion. In other words, what they did was really bad. (You might remember that I called it an insidious plot by Moab to take the Israelites away from God, and they went along with it. This verse supports that theory.) “Peor” was the name of the mountain on which Balak asked Balaam to curse the Israelites. “Baal-peor” was the name given to the god of that mountain, which the Moabites uniquely worshiped (in Num 25:18, that god is mentioned by his abbreviated name “Peor”)]
Aside: Do We Apply This to America?
I would not be surprised if someone in your class brings up a parallel with America, like “if America would just follow God’s law, we would be blessed”. That’s unfortunately missing the whole point of our passage. Moses gave this law to the nation of Israel. In Jesus, that unique covenant that Israel had with God was fulfilled. It was not transferred to any other nation. God did not make any subsequent covenant with any other nation in New Testament times. What He did was make a covenant with individuals—with followers of Jesus Christ.
America has never been a “Christian” nation, whatever that’s supposed to mean. Individual Christians have lived here are tried (successfully) to influence the development of our government and laws. What that means is, at best, America is a nation whose development has been influenced by Christian principles. But we are not a Christian nation because there is no such thing as a Christian nation. Rather, God has sent Christians into every nation on earth so we can be salt and light.
So if someone in your class brings up some comment about the trajectory of America, the better question to focus on is “what has happened to the American people?” An institution cannot be Christian. Only people can be. That’s the fundamental difference between what we read in the Old Testament and what Jesus instituted in the New. What has happened to the people? And the way to focus this is “what has happened to you?” We just established in the last section that none of us follows Jesus fully. Should our priority not be on our relationship with Christ, our role in our family and church and community? “America” will not be “fixed” until her Christians get about the business of being salt and light. If you can find a nice way to say that, do so!