No Old Testament topic is more likely to put a majority of a congregation to sleep faster than a sermon about “The Law.” Perhaps genealogies, but who really preaches about those? As soon as you mention the law people get this blank look, but inside they are either dreading that they did not have that third cup of coffee, or wondering why they didn’t stay home to watch the game. But our apathy towards the law is not a good enough reason to avoid talking about it. Instead we have to recognize that the Law is intensely important in the Bible, it makes up a good portion of the Old Testament and its implications are felt throughout, and echos of the Law can be heard through the words of Jesus and the Letters of the Early Church.
So the big question that we are only going to address a part of this morning is, how do we as a modern, western people understand the Law of the Bible? That is a huge question and we are not going to be able to answer it fully in one sermon, but instead I want us to look at two wrong answers and then start down the road toward a better understanding of the Law.
When we think about the Law we have tended toward two extremes that I think are both deeply flawed. First, we dismiss the law as outdated and archaic. We read it and we see things like, how if a woman is raped she is to be married to her rapist and the father of the women should get paid for the loss of his daughter (Deut. 22:28–29), or how you shall not wear clothes that are made of wool and linen (Deut. 22:11), or if your son is disobedient and a drunkard you and the townspeople can stone him to death (Deut. 21:18–21). Think about all of the sacrifices that the people are instructed to do. For a sin offering the priest was to take a bull and slaughter it, and sprinkle its blood on the ark of the covenant and on the altar, and then do the same with a goat (Lev. 16:11–19). Can you imagine the mess that would make? That is never going to come out of the carpet. All of these make us deeply uncomfortable. And so we think, “These were for a different time and a different place and they are no longer binding on Christians, because, in the end, didn’t Jesus come and abolish the Law?” The obvious problem is that Jesus came to do no such thing. Instead in his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 Jesus says, “17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” Jesus and the Early Church clearly took the law incredibly seriously.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” Matthew 5:17–18
So then there is the other extreme. This extreme says that you need to follow the law exactly and if you don’t then God is going to punish you. The term that often gets thrown around is legalism. The old adage is “don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t chew and don’t run with girls who do.” But if we were to look at those laws I just mentioned a few minutes ago, a legalistic attitude would have to say we need to start stoning people, and making our own clothes, and no more football (it is forbidden to touch a pig skin).
But the problems with a legalistic approach to the law continue as we look at the New Testament. In Acts 10:9–16 Peter, a good Jewish man, is told by God to eat things that are considered unclean according to the Law. God says to him, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Similarly, Jesus says in Matthew 15:11, “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”
So we can’t say that the Law doesn’t matter anymore because of Jesus, since he took it incredibly seriously. And we can’t say that we have to have a legalistic attitude toward the law because even Jesus shifts the interpretation and the implementation of the Law. So where does that leave us? Probably hopelessly lost, utterly confused, wishing this sermon was over. I think it leaves us with the recognition that we need to find some way in the middle. And the best place to start to find our way will be with the passage that is the foundation of the Law in the book of Deuteronomy.
The book of Deuteronomy is considered the book of the Law. Scholars believe that when there are references to the “book of the law” in the Old Testament, they are talking about the book of Deuteronomy. So while Deuteronomy is the formative book of the law, there is one passage that is really the foundation for the book as a whole, Deut. 6:4–9. This passage stands out as so significant that it is even given a special name, The Shema. Shema is the hebrew word for “hear” which is the first word in the passage. That is often how they named important passages.
So what is the shema and why is it important? The Shema, “is the first word of Moses’ instruction to the people after the Ten Commandments have come as direct word of God to them and they have requested that Moses stand between them and God, to receive the divine word, and then to teach.” It is in some ways the first word of the law, it is the beginning of the law that Moses is mediating from God to the people.
The Shema starts “Hear, O Israel.” That word “hear” is important. It does not just mean listen to what is going to follow. Instead the word there also implies that you are supposed to do whatever follows. It is a command to both listen and do. It is like if a parent says to a child, “Hear what I’m saying to you: Clean your room.” Imagine if the kids responded with, “I hear what you’re saying. You said “clean your room.” I’m going to go watch some T.V.” That’s not going to end well for them. Its implied in what the parent said that the kid is supposed to start cleaning their room because it is a disaster and we have company coming over. The statement to Israel is, listen to this command, because it is the first word of God to his people, but also do what it says.
The Shema starts “Hear, O Israel.” That word “hear” is important... It is a command to both listen and do.
The shema continues, “The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.” Or it might read, “the LORD is one.” While people debate which translation is more accurate the overarching point of this phrase is that Israel is to recognize the LORD alone as their god. Patrick Miller says, “The Shema is a radical confession that Israel’s loyalty is one, that it finds no other God than the LORD.” Similarly, a scholar named Tigay writes “Though other peoples worship various beings and things that they consider to be divine, Israel is to recognize [the LORD] alone.” All of the other nations around the Israelites worshipped many different gods, the god of the sun, the god of the moon, the god of the rivers, and the god of fertility. This was a common practice in the ancient world, think of how many different gods the egyptians had. Instead, as a radical and counter-cultural move, the Israelites are to have one God, the LORD alone. They are not to worship the LORD and. The LORD and the sun god, the LORD and the god of the harvest. Since the LORD was the creator of heaven and earth he did not share responsibility for creation with any other gods.
So far that claim is easy for us to check off. Don’t worship the god of the moon. Easy, done. Don’t worship the gods of the egyptians. Easy, can’t pronounce most of their names anyway. The worship of many gods is known as polytheism. Polytheism is not as common a practice today in the same sense. We would have to look to hinduism for a modern example of people who practice polytheism. Since we don’t worship many different gods in the way that hindus do, we think, “I’m not polytheistic, this command is pretty easy so far.” The dietary laws, not so easy to follow, this one, don’t have eight different gods, easy.
But I think that western culture, specifically American culture is deeply polytheistic. We worship many different gods. In fact they are the same gods that people worshipped long ago, they just go by different names now. We don’t worship the goddess Aphrodite, we worship the god of Playboy, Hustler and Tinder. We don’t worship the god of Mammon, we worship the god of the dollar, the god of the economy, the god of stuff and possessions. We don’t worship the god of Zeus, we worship the god of technology and snapchat. We don’t worship the god of Mars, we worship the god of violence, in movies, books, video games and especially real-life. Particularly violence that we think will be redemptive; if we kill these people, then we will finally be safe and able to live at peace. The radical claim of the Shema in our lives is that we are to recognize God the father, Son and Holy Spirit as the only god we are to give allegiance to. There may be parts of these other cultural gods that are not inherently wrong, technology can be good and life saving. and what would we do without all the cat pictures? And we all need money to buy food and clothing. And sex is not a bad thing, indeed God created humanity to be fruitful and multiply. But it is when our priorities become misaligned, and we misuse these things, that they become gods that we worship. When we set a sports game over going to church, when we spend our time on facebook but can’t find time to pray, we have begun to bow down to other gods.
“You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”
Perhaps the most well known portion of the Shema gives us, what I’ll call, the three modes by which we are to love God. “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” And then there are three statements that follow, which we will look at in a minute. But before we look at what each of these means we have to first understand that this call to love God with all of our heart, soul, and might is, at its foundation, a call to love God with our whole self. Miller says, “The oneness of the LORD your God is matched by the oneness and [wholeness] of your devotion.” At its most basic, the Shema is a command for us to love God with all that we are, and all that we do.
But it does specifically state these three modes of loving God. Many have speculated as to what each of these mean. What does it mean to love God with all of your soul? But I think that the Shema itself gives us the answer to that question in the form of the three statements that follow.
“You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart.” We too often think of love as a feeling. And the connection of loving God with our heart can lead us in that direction. We are tempted to think of it as loving God with those warm, fuzzy feelings that we sometimes get. But anyone who has been married, or in a relationship for any amount of time will tell you, feelings are fickle, they come and go. So to say that this is commanding us to have warm fuzzy feelings for God is not good enough, because God is worthy of more than our fleeting emotions. And while this command does, “assume a personal, intimate, trusting [relationship].” It must be more than that.
The first statement in v.6 says, “keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.” It connects with this idea of loving God with all our heart in the repetition of the word “heart.” The Israelites assumed that the heart was the seat of emotion, intellect and morality in the body, they didn’t know what it was actually for. So the command is telling us to internalize the word of God so that it informs our thoughts and our ethics. We are to love the LORD our God by allowing his word, both written and in the person of Jesus, to become an integral part of who we are. We don’t hold it at a distance and read it like a piece of literature, we are to take it in and let it shape us, so that we more closely resemble the image of God.
“You shall love the LORD your God with all your soul.” How do you love something with your soul? The word that is used here for “soul” is also used in Gen. 2:7. God forms the human, breathes into it the breath of life, and it becomes a living being. The word used there for “being” is the same that is used here for “soul”. It could also be translated as “life.” It is that breath that God gives to us that gives us the vitality, that life or soul. The breath that God breathed into us we are to then breathe back out in love of God when we “Recite [these words] to our children and when we talk about them when we are at home and when we are away, when we lie down and when we rise.”
The breath that God breathed into us we are to then breathe back out in love of God.
Our life, imagined as our breath, is not our own. It is God who gives it and we are to use it to give glory to God. We use the breath that God has given us to talk about his majesty and sacrifice when we talk to our children, when we sing his praises, and even when we lament our suffering.
The last mode is “You shall love the LORD your God with all your might.” Love God by being able to lift heavy things, right? If that’s it then I’m in trouble. What if instead we understood it as the things that we do and the places where we are. 6:8–9 says “Bind them [these words] as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and your gates.” What would it look like if we loved the LORD our God with all of our work and play? What if we loved the LORD our God with all of our places, home, work, church, etc.? This doesn’t mean that we should wall paper our walls with grandma’s needle point bible verse, but instead, our homes become characterized by places of hospitality and love. So that when people walk through the door, invited or otherwise, that felt God’s peace and rest. May the works of our hands and the places that we occupy reflect our undivided love of God.
The first step towards an understanding of the the law should begin with the claims of the Shema. The Shema is a radical claim on our lives that we should have undivided devotion to the LORD because only God is worthy of that allegiance. We are to reject the gods of our culture and our nation and instead serve the LORD alone. Then that undivided devotion should be played out through actions, words, and thoughts that are the result of such an allegiance. The laws of Israel then give the specifics of how that devotion is lived out within their cultural context, so then we must strive toward understand of the law that results in us living out our allegiance to the LORD within our own context.
Listen to this sermon: