Why to Preach Deuteronomy

On Sunday, we as a church at Calvary are going to begin a brand-new series of messages in the biblical book of Deuteronomy. *record player screeches to a halt, and the room goes quiet* Deuteronomy?!? Really?!? When I first announced this plan to our congregation a couple months ago, you could hear both chuckles and groans throughout the room. I don’t know if I’ve ever surprised people more by a simple sermon series (Not even with 25 weeks in Job!). We’re going to spend the vast majority of time as a church in this ancient Old Testament book for the next 10 months. So before I get going, I thought it would be good to explain just WHY we’re doing this.

1. It’s all part of a balanced diet

When I first became a pastor, I received the charge to “preach the Word” (2 Timothy 4:2) and to do as the apostle Paul did in Acts 20:27 and “not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.” The whole counsel of the Word of God includes the whole Word of God. Just as we need to eat a physical diet from a balance of different food groups, Christians need a spiritual diet from all kinds of biblical genres and locations—including the parts that tend to be under-consumed by us.

Right before giving that charge to Timothy to “preach the Word,” Paul gave us one of our most familiar teachings about God’s Word: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). This means that all Scripture has some benefit for us New Covenant believers: even 2 Chronicles, Numbers, Zechariah, Song of Solomon, and, yes, Deuteronomy. All Scripture. A gift from God to us. To teach us. To reprove us. To correct us. And to train us in righteousness. We can’t shrink away from this, or else we miss out on the fullest riches of what God has for us.

2. It’s a hugely significant part of Scripture

For its strategic place at the conclusion of the Torah, its summary preaching of God’s moral law, and its pervasive use throughout Scripture, Deuteronomy is extremely important. There is perhaps no book that is more heavily relied on throughout the rest of the Old Testament, especially in the prophets. Deuteronomy contains the law that was commanded to be read every year by the people of Israel (see Deuteronomy 31:9-13). And along with Genesis, Psalms, and Isaiah, it is one of the most quoted books in the New Testament as well! 21 out of 27 New Testament books reference it. In his temptation in the wilderness, Jesus quoted from Deuteronomy all three times he responded to the devil. There are many well-known concepts, sayings, and verses that you may have no idea originated in Deuteronomy.

If this was something that God wanted his people to consistently dwell on, it would behoove us to do the same. Just think of how many times the psalmist talks about loving God’s law in Psalm 119! The scholar Daniel Block summarizes this thought: “For many Christians the Old Testament in general and Deuteronomy in particular is a dead book. Consequently, the favourite book of Jesus is ignored, the source of much Johannine and Pauline theology is discarded, and the life-giving power of the Word of God is cut off. Unless we rediscover this book, we will not treasure the Old Testament as a whole.”

3. It will help us know God better

Despite what some people may think or believe, the God of the Old Testament is the same as the God of the New Testament. (That’s a topic for another day!) But this means that the Old Testament has much to teach us about the character and person of God. God speaks in Deuteronomy. God moves his people. God shows his emotions (anthropomorphically speaking, of course… Big word? Look it up). God exhibits his power. God expresses his love. In other words, God reveals himself to us in Deuteronomy. For us who want to know God more, why would we ever want to ignore this?

4. It will teach us about how to please God

The majority of the book of Deuteronomy consists of Moses giving a retelling of God’s law for the Israelites. Why would we want to study the law though? Well, ultimately, the law teaches us what God desires from his saved people. Yes, Jesus fulfilled the Mosaic law. Yes, our context is different now. So no, not every law will apply to us in the same way. But the principles that underlie each command can be applied to God’s people for all time. So Deuteronomy will teach us how to please God—perhaps not precisely, but principally.

And we must learn to please God. After all, the greatest, most supreme commandment ever given is: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” By the way, that’s from Deuteronomy.

5. It will remind us of what God has done, and help us trust him in the future

This was one of the main goals Moses set out to achieve through his speeches in Deuteronomy. The people of Israel were about to enter the Promised Land. But they had been there before, and had failed… Leading to 40 years of God’s disciplinary action in the wilderness. Now that generation was gone, and a new one was rising up. They needed to be told of how God had rescued them in the past. They needed to hear of how his voice thundered at Sinai. They needed to listen to the stories of God’s victories on their behalf. And they needed to know just how badly their fathers and mothers had failed. They needed to know these things so they would trust God in the adventures that laid just around the corner.

And so do we. We don’t know what will happen tomorrow, and we need to trust God with our future—and in the future. So we want to recall what God has done, in order to praise him, love him, and trust him more. (Plus, we might just happen to learn a bit from others’ failures! 1 Corinthians 10:11 tells us that the things that happened to the people of Israel “happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.” So the accounts we’ll read were meant for our benefit, believe it or not.)

6. It will point us to Jesus

We know that one of the main purposes of the law given in Scripture was to expose our need of a Saviour. We cannot keep the law perfectly, no matter how hard we try. As Galatians 3:24 says, “the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.” This doesn’t make the law meaningless. Quite the contrary! It makes it even more important, as it means it points us to the salvation that Christ accomplished on our behalf!

In Deuteronomy, we will read of the law Jesus fulfilled, but never abolished (Matthew 5:17-20). There are good reasons why he hasn’t abolished it. And, again and again, I believe we will see Deuteronomy reveal who we are, who God is, and take us by the shoulders and point us ahead to how this God saves us in Christ.

Conclusion

So that’s the plan. We’re going to set out on this journey carefully, and we may have to do a lot of digging and contextualizing at times. We’ll have to explain and summarize a lot. We’ll be forced to deal with some fairly controversial topics (holy war, anyone?).  But at the end of the day, I’m praying that we’ll be able to clearly see how this portion of God’s Word fits into God’s grand story of redemption, and how it speaks into our lives even now.

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What We’re Singing: A Mighty Fortress Is Our God

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” (Colossians 3:16)

“[Address] one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart.” (Ephesians 5:19)

So, as a church, we’re supposed to sing the truth of God’s Word. And we’re supposed to sing from our hearts. My question for today is: How can we do this if we don’t understand what we’re singing? There are certain songs that we sing that, though they may be rich in theology and meaning, use deep, dated, or even antiquated language. Sometimes, a song needs to be retired. Other times, we don’t want to stop singing a song, but we need to make sure it is still being understood. If we don’t, we waste our words and waste our time, if not worse.

This is the case for an old song many churches have been singing more frequently in recent months, as Protestants celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. A Mighty Fortress Is Our God is likely the only song in any of our repertoires written by Martin Luther, if not by any reformer. Luther wrote the song based on Psalm 46, while focusing on how Jesus fulfills this psalm. To hear the story behind A Mighty Fortress, I’d direct you to this excellent post by Tim Challies. Today, I want to tackle explaining the actual lyrics of the song, and what they mean. So when you next sing this in church, you can sing at full gusto, with your whole heart, and actually know what you’re singing.

(Pastors/theologians/linguists/whoever: If you want to suggest corrections or other interpretations, please do so!)

At our church, we choose to use a version of the lyrics that is slightly modernized by Brian Doerksen. I will go through the original lyrics below (at least, as they are translated to English), and then include Doerksen’s version below that.

VERSE 1

A mighty fortress is our God,

A bulwark never failing;

Remember that Psalm 46 was written in days when fortresses were the usual military defense strategy. And A Mighty Fortress was written in the days of castles. These were the metaphors used to describe God as our defense. He is mighty to guard, protect, and keep his people safe. (Sidenote: this is interesting, as later in the song it’s freely admitted that we may die… What is true safety, according to God?) As for a “bulwark,” that refers to a defensive wall or fortification that is part of the fortress. So a bulwark that never fails is a wall of a fortress that can never be breached or broken into.

Our Helper He amid the flood

Of mortal ills prevailing:

This says there is a flood of “mortal ills” that befall us as God’s people. This is more than just sicknesses; these mortal ills could be any hard times or circumstances humans face on earth. God is our Helper in the midst of all these challenges we face. And the “prevailing” at the end of the line I believe refers to God prevailing against them. Though it could also be referring to these things seeming to prevail against us.

For still our ancient foe

Doth seek to work us woe;

Our “ancient foe” is Satan, the devil–the ancient serpent who has sought to destroy mankind from the garden of Eden. And he is trying hard to “work us woe.” He is working to bring woe–danger, distress, or worse–upon us.

His craft and power are great,

And, armed with cruel hate,

On earth is not his equal.

Satan’s craft–his diabolical skill and cleverness–and his power are both significant, in comparison to our power. There is no equal to him on earth. No human could stand against him. To top it off, he hates believers. His main aim on earth is to steal, kill, and destroy God’s work and God’s people. Let’s just say this verse ends on a very negative note.

VERSE 2

Did we in our own strength confide,

Our striving would be losing;

If we tried to stand against the devil on our own strength–to rely on (confide in) ourselves, we would lose terribly. All “our striving”–any efforts we make against him–would be futile.

Were not the right Man on our side,

The Man of God’s own choosing:

We would be losing UNLESS God has a Man on our side. If God appointed a Man (“of his own choosing”) to fight on our behalf against Satan, sin, and death, all of a sudden things aren’t as hopeless.

Dost ask who that may be?

You might be wondering: Who might that be?

Christ Jesus, it is He;

It’s Jesus! God has chosen Jesus to be a Man–the perfect Man, the second Adam–who is on our side. Praise the Lord. And then it gets even better as we consider who Jesus is:

Lord Sabaoth His Name,

“Lord Sabaoth” simply means “Lord of Hosts.” “Hosts” is not talking about hospitality, by the way. That’s talking about armies. Armies of angels. Jesus is the Lord of the armies of angelic warriors of heaven.

From age to age the same,

Jesus Christ–the same yesterday, today, and forever. The same Man who died and conquered death through his resurrection is the same today, and will be the same forever.

And He must win the battle.

Not just “He must” win, as if it’s our only hope if he wins. (Though that is absolutely true) This implies a certainty that Jesus will win the battle. He must win, because there’s no other possible outcome in this war. It’s a foregone conclusion. Again, praise the Lord.

VERSE 3

And though this world, with devils filled,

Should threaten to undo us,

Read this line as: Even though this world is still filled with devils (demons) that seek to “undo” (or destroy) us…

We will not fear, for God hath willed

His truth to triumph through us:

We refuse to fear, because God has already decided that his truth will win the war. And the amazing part is that his truth will triumph through his people! We get to play a part in his victory.

The Prince of Darkness grim,

We tremble not for him;

The Prince of Darkness is another title for Satan. And he is grim, or worrisome or harsh. But we are not afraid of him–we don’t tremble for him. And why not? Let’s see:

His rage we can endure,

For lo! his doom is sure,

We can endure Satan’s short-term rage against us, because his eventual doom (and destiny in the lake of fire) is certain.

One little word shall fell him.

And this is how our ancient, strong, hateful, enemy will meet his end: he will fall by just one little word. It’s debatable what single word this is referring to. I always assumed this was talking about Satan’s final end as described in Revelation 20:7-10. In this passage, Satan leads a final rebellion against God after the Millennium, but this massive rebellion is snuffed out in a moment by fire falling from heaven and wiping them out. The devil is then cast into hell. Presumably God gave “the word” to end him. But there are other possibilities. The single word could refer to the name of Jesus, as evil trembles at his name. Others suppose it refers to the Word of God as a whole (Scripture). Brian Doerksen updates the lyrics to refer to this. And I think the way the fourth verse begins lends credence to this view. Alternatively to all of the above, Bryce Young offers an interesting hypothesis here. Whatever word Luther referred to, the point remains the same: Satan is a woefully powerful enemy that will be crushed by a single word from our far more powerful God.

VERSE 4

That word above all earthly powers,

No thanks to them, abideth;

The word of God which shall fell Satan is “above all earthly powers.” This is talking now about human powers that stand opposed to God, his Word, and his people. “No thanks to them,” the word is still alive and active. Plenty of people have sought to halt God’s powerful Word. But despite their opposition, the word of God is still supreme and powerful.

The Spirit and the gifts are ours

Through Him who with us sideth:

Because Jesus sided with us in the war, believers have now been blessed abundantly with the Holy Spirit and the spiritual gifts that he gives us. In other words, God has imbued some of his power in his people.

Let goods and kindred go,

This mortal life also;

Here is a call for us to have an eternal perspective on life. We need to “let go” of the worldly ties that we have to either wealth/possessions (goods) or people close to us (kindred). Don’t even worry about this present, mortal life! This life is not all there is! We get so caught up in the immediate, temporal world, and we forget the eternal battle that is raging for our souls.

The body they may kill:

God’s truth abideth still,

You may even lose your life, and that’s ultimately OK. This is a direct reference to Jesus’ words in Matthew 10:28: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” The powers that be may kill your body. But God’s truth goes on. God’s Word will never fail. And God’s Word promises eternal life to those that believe in Christ.

His Kingdom is forever.

No explanation needed. God’s reign will go on forever. Remember this. Let this truth frame your life. And praise God for his eternal kingdom.

 

For reference, here are Doerksen’s updated lyrics, which might not be perfect, but I think they are helpful to beginning to build the bridge from the 16th century to the 21st century. I’ll bold the words or lines he has modified:

A mighty fortress is our God,
A stronghold never failing;
Our helper He amid the flood
Of mortal ills prevaling.
For still our ancient foe
Conspires to work us woe;
His craft and power are great,
And armed with bitter hate,
On earth is not his equal.

If we in our own strength confide,
Our striving would be losing,
Unless God’s man is on our side,
The man of God’s own choosing.
You ask who that may be?
Christ Jesus, it is He;
The Lord of Hosts, His name,
From age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.

And though this world, with devils filled,
Should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God has willed
His truth to triumph through us.
The Prince of Darkness grim,
We tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure,
For lo, his doom is sure;
God’s Word shall overthrow him.

That Word above all earthly powers,
Is evermore abiding;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours,
Through Jesus with us siding.
Let goods and kindred go,
This mortal life also;
The body they may kill;
God’s truth is with us still;
His kingdom is forever.

 

Soli Deo Gloria!