The Global Message of Deuteronomy
A New Generation and the Redemptive Story
The book of Deuteronomy takes place within the larger context of Numbers 22 to Joshua 2. The historical setting is that of Israel encamped on the plains of Moab, just outside of the Promised Land. For forty years, Israel wandered in the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land. During this time, the first generation perished except for Caleb, Joshua, and Moses. Deuteronomy is Moses’ final address to second-generation Israel. Its purpose is to challenge and exhort this generation to total devotion to the Lord within a renewed covenant relationship, promising blessings for loyalty and threatening curses for rebellion.
Devotion to the King of Israel
Most of Deuteronomy is comprised of three speeches of Moses, each of which expresses Israel’s covenant relationship with God. Deuteronomy is a covenant document, similar in many ways to the covenant agreements between kings and their subjects in the ancient Near Eastern world. Deuteronomy reveals that the Lord, Israel’s king, established a covenantal relationship with Israel.
This relationship was based on loyalty, similar to a marriage relationship; it was not an impersonal contract based on regulations, as in a formal business arrangement. Deuteronomy is fundamentally about relationship, not rules. At the heart of the covenantal relationship is the one true living God and his demand for absolute devotion from his people. Deuteronomy 6:4–5 summarizes the life of faithfulness that the Lord required of his people: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”
Such love for God is expressed through obedience to his commands. Faith always expresses itself in obedience (see John 14:15, 21; Gal. 5:6; James 2:14–26; 1 John 5:3). True faith in God is demonstrated by a life of faithfulness to God. Indeed, the Lord Jesus Christ taught that Deuteronomy 6:4–5 was the heart of the covenant and its greatest obligation; love for God must result in love for one’s neighbor (Mark 12:28–31).
A Heart of Sin and the Coming Promise
Deuteronomy must be viewed within the larger framework of redemptive history. The golden calf rebellion narrated in the book of Exodus had already revealed that Israel was a part of the problem that she had been set apart to solve. Israel was “set on evil” as a stiff-necked people (Ex. 32:9–10, 22; 33:5; 34:9). Like all people everywhere, Israel had inherited from Adam an evil heart (see the “Global Message” essays on Genesis and Exodus). Deuteronomy develops this theme, describing Israel’s “stiff-necked” condition as uncircumcision of the heart (Deut. 9:6, 13–14; 10:16). Although Moses gives the people the choice of either covenant blessing or curse, he knows that they will deserve cursing rather than blessing, since their hearts are full of rebellion (31:21, 27; 32:5, 20). In the mysterious counsel of his sovereign will, the Lord had not yet given Israel a new heart (29:4).
Moses promises, however, that in their eventual exile the Lord himself will circumcise Israel’s heart, so that they can be loyal to God and thus inherit the blessings (Deut. 30:6). The covenant Lord will provide what he demands; he will perform the miraculous “heart surgery” required to recreate his people so that, released from the slavery to sin inherited from Adam, they might be completely devoted to their God. Enabled by sovereign grace, the people of God will inherit the covenantal blessings of the paradise-kingdom begun in Eden (28:1–14; 30:1–10). Centuries of sinful history (as recorded in Joshua through the books of Kings and Chronicles) will pass before Israel finds herself in exile under the threatened Mosaic covenant curses. And five more centuries will come and go before the promised circumcision of the heart finally arrives, in the person and work of Jesus Christ (Rom. 2:28–29; Phil. 3:3; Col. 2:11). In his cross and resurrection, the Lord recreates a people who fulfill the law by the enabling power of the Spirit (Rom. 8:1–4).
Universal Themes in Deuteronomy
What God requires of everyone. While the cultures of the world are diverse, the essence of what God requires from his covenant people is the same for all people everywhere. God demands a life of total devotion. Deuteronomy regulated all of life for Israel, teaching them that everything must be subject to the Lord. All of life is worship to be offered to God.
The Mosaic covenant of Deuteronomy is not the church’s covenant; the church lives in relationship with God under the new covenant (Jer. 31:31–34; Luke 22:20; 2 Cor. 3:6; Heb. 8:6–13). Nevertheless, both covenants govern every area of life; it is only the way in which loyalty to God is expressed that has changed. In every era of redemptive history, God calls people to yield all that they are to his goodness and lordship.
The letter and the spirit of the law. Deuteronomy’s commandments were not intended to be exhaustive, covering every possible circumstance. Instead, they established a standard by offering examples. They set out in broad outline what loyalty to the Lord should look like within the Mosaic covenant and offered guidelines that enabled judges and priests to render judgments upon matters not explicitly covered by the Mosaic law.
In a similar way, the New Testament does not attempt to cover every possible situation. With Spirit-led wisdom, believers around the world must discern the Lord’s will in difficult matters not specifically addressed in Scripture (Rom. 12:2; Eph. 5:10, 17; Col. 1:9–10). As we walk in love, we know we are doing that which pleases God and expresses the spirit of the law (Rom. 13:8–10).
The Global Message of Deuteronomy for Today
Physical health and material wealth? Deuteronomy teaches that the Lord blesses his people for faithfulness and curses them for rebellion. Some segments of the global church, however, have twisted this into a “prosperity” gospel which promises physical health and material wealth to believers in this life if they will only have enough faith. This teaching, however, fails to account for the clear instruction of the New Testament. It is true that God does ultimately bless the righteous and condemn the wicked, but the material expression of this spiritual reality awaits Christ’s final and triumphant return.
Suffering and trials. Prosperity teaching fails to grasp the “already–not yet” situation of the church. While the new age has dawned in Christ’s first coming, it will not be completed until his return. Therefore, while the blessings of the age to come have begun, they will not be poured out in fullness upon the church until Christ returns and completes the work of salvation. In fact, the New Testament teaches that the normal experience of the church in this present evil age will be suffering and trials, following the pattern of her crucified Lord (Matt. 10:25; 1 Pet. 2:21; 4:12–13). There will be no crown without a cross. The global church must come to terms with the truth that glory is promised but its visible manifestation is still to come (2 Cor. 4:17–18). The church is still “in the wilderness” and has not yet arrived at the ultimate Promised Land.