Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Word Is Near You

Christians feel the tension between a proper relationship of trust and obedience, of faith and works.  On the one hand, we have clear instruction that the righteous live by faith (Hab 2:4; Ro 1:17); while on the other, there are clear eternal penalties for not obeying the Lord (Joh 3:36; 2Th 1:8; He 5:9).  The tendency is to uphold one side of the faith–works coin to the detriment of the other; and while a two-headed coin may be suitable to win a wager, it has no effect in spiritual matters.

“Moses Speaking to the Children of Israel” - Henry F. E. Philippoteaux
Many, if not most, Christians have the misplaced notion that anything before the Cross was salvation and redemption by works of obedience.  Nothing could be further from the truth: Moses made this clear.  After delivering blessings of faithfulness, curses for faithlessness, and blessings for repentance, he comes to the end of his teaching with a summary statement, See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil (De 30:15), followed by the only alternatives they can take.  He explains that obedience and good works flow from trust in the Holy One of Israel, whereas disbelief and disobedience lead to destruction.  We can better see the relationship of alternatives by breaking the summary paragraph apart:
Life and good:
If you obey the commandments of the Lᴏʀᴅ your God that I command you today, by loving the Lᴏʀᴅ your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lᴏʀᴅ your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.  (De 30:16)
Death and evil:
But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish.  You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess.  (De 30:17–18)
The path of life might cause one to think that God will bless simply by following His rules: in other words, I can work my way into God’s good graces—health and wealth is mine—lending itself to the perception of works righteousness.  The way of death, however, offers the corrective: if your heart turns away, and you will not hear…. The Septuagint helps clarify by translating the beginning of verse 16: If you hear the commandments of the Lord your God…. This is not to say that one can simply listen to Scripture being read or a sermon be proclaimed and instantly be righteous as a result.  That would be like fusing together the tail sides of the previously mentioned coins—again, suitable for deception but otherwise worthless.  The problem in our understanding of Moses’ instruction comes from the English translation.  The intent is to convey the two-fold meaning of hearing and heeding, so that the comparison given by Moses is not action versus inaction, but faithfulness versus faithlessness.  When Moses entreats the people to obey, he has the idea of actively clinging to the entirety of God’s revelation to His people and allowing it to be worked out in their lives: they hear with the intent to do.

Moses did not lay this on the people in a surprise fashion at the end.  He had begun his discourses with the same message, though stated differently.
Hear, O Israel, the statutes and the rules that I speak in your hearing today, and you shall learn them and be careful to do them.  (De 5:1)
Literally speaking, Moses instructed the people to take heed so that they might keep the commandments to do them.  And it was not out of a sense of burden that the people would do this.  Moses reminded them of the unique covenant that God made at Horeb: they were the recipients of this treasure—not Abraham, not Isaac, not Jacob, but this great people.  They experienced what great things the Lord had done, and though the people feared the Lord’s presence while the Ten Commandments were proclaimed, He was pleased by their initial desire to hold fast.
And the Lᴏʀᴅ heard your words, when you spoke to me.  And the Lᴏʀᴅ said to me, “I have heard the words of this people, which they have spoken to you.  They are right in all that they have spoken.  Oh that they had such a heart as this always, to fear me and to keep all my commandments, that it might go well with them and with their descendants forever!”  (De 5:28–29)
Moses brought the nation to a moment of decision.  He implored them to choose God because He was their life that would be manifest in a three-part manner: loving the Lord…, obeying His voice, and holding fast to Him (De 30:19; see also De 5:32).  Devotion did not serve to win the Lord’s favor or gain the Promised Land: these they already had.  Instead, the people were to live out their calling and relish the blessing in believing His abundant promises, in order that they and future generations might enjoy the blessings of the covenant relationship (De 5:33; 30:20).

The combination of hearing and doing is brought out wonderfully in Psalm 119, which demonstrates the heart and intent of the grateful follower in relation to the Scriptures:
Blessed are the blameless in the way,
    who walk in the law of the Lord.
Blessed are those who search out His testimonies;
    they shall search for Him with their whole heart.
For those who work lawlessness
    do not walk in His ways.
You have commanded us regarding Your commandments,
    That we should be very diligent to keep them.
Would that my ways were led,
    that I may keep Your ordinances.
Then I would not be ashamed,
    when I regard all Your commandments.
I will give thanks to You, O Lord, with an upright heart,
    when I learn the judgments of Your righteousness.
I shall keep Your ordinances;
    Do not utterly forsake me.  (Psalm 119:1-8)
The psalmist begins with an attention to blessing on those who cling to the law of the Lord.  His desire is to always receive the commandments and meditate on them so that they would lead his steps.  The verbs might cause the reader to think this is a difficult task, but the life of faith is not arduous.  Moses had told the people that no courageous or audacious effort was necessary: only believe and follow the Word of God you have been given (De 30:11-14).  Paul picks up the same theme and words in relation to Christ: all that is necessary has been accomplished (Ro 10:6-10).  Take hold of what Christ has accomplished for you: trust and walk in it.

And what does the phrase mean, “The Word is near you?”  It means, “It is easy.”  For in your mind and in your tongue is your salvation.  There is no long journey to go, no seas to sail over, no mountains to pass, to get saved.  But even if you do not intend to cross so much as the threshold, you may  be saved while you sit at home.  For “in your mouth and in your heart” is the source of salvation.  And then on another score, he also makes the word of faith easy, and says, that “God raised Him from the dead.”  For just reflect upon the worthiness of the Worker, and you will no longer see any difficulty in the thing.

John Chrysostom, Homilies on Romans XVII

No comments: