Sermon preached on Deuteronomy 26 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 10/17/2010 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
“Look Down From Your Holy Habitation”
Many people today will tell you that they don’t like formal organized religion. They might tell you that they don’t go to church, but they do consider themselves spiritual. Now, some might say this to try to avoid religion altogether. They might not really have many religious or spiritual convictions at all. They might have some vague belief in a deity. They might try to live generally ethical. But at the end of the day, they decide for themselves what’s right and wrong. They don’t have much faith or practice at all. That’s a pretty common mindset here in Marin, from my experience. People don’t want formal religion, they don’t want to go to a formal worship service, but they want to hold on to some sense of belief in a higher power.
On the other hand, you might have some true believing Christians that act in practice much like this. I’ve met many Christians in my life that know the gospel, but think going to church is optional at best. They think they can just worship God from home, individually, on their own. It’s the “just Jesus and I” mentality. Now, yes, you can and should have fellowship with Christ all week long, not just when at church. You should be spending time with Jesus in word and prayer all week long, not just at church. And yet it is this same Jesus that tells us to have formal worship services. It’s this same Jesus that tells us to worship him together with other believers in this thing we call church. Formal worship together is not a suggestion by God, it’s a command by God. Yes, none of us keep God’s commandments perfectly; but that doesn’t mean we should ignore them and presumptuously break them.
In our passage for today, we see that God commands, not just suggests, his people be involved in certain cultic acts of worship. There are three different religious ceremonies described here; two are explicit commanded here, one is implicit. The two explicitly commanded are in verses 1-11, and verses 12-15. The first is a ceremony for the firstfruits offerings and the second is a ceremony for the third year tithing. The third ceremony is in verses 16-19; these verses imply that they people were in the middle of a covenant renewal ceremony right then and there. So we’ll discuss these three ceremonies today. As we do this, we’ll think a little bit about why formal acts of worship like this are important; under the old covenant, and even in the new.
So let’s begin then by looking at the two ceremonies explicitly commanded by God in this chapter: the firstfruits offering and the third year tithe. Here God commands two formal ceremonies to be performed, once the people settle into the new Promised Land. That’s the context set in verse 1. In other words, these are acts that are specifically tied to them settling into the Land. They’re not going to perform these ceremonies until then. These two ceremonies are specifically in response to God bringing them into a good land of milk and honey as promised. These two specific ceremonies themselves reflect the bountiful provisions that come from this new land. So, these two ceremonies are expressing gratitude to God for bringing them into the Land. And they express that gratitude by giving back to him some of the bountiful fruit of the Land.
Just think about these two ceremonies individually. The first one in verses 1-11 is the firstfruits offering. This would be done the first year in which they had settled into the Land. The basics of this ceremony is that you are giving back to God some of the first of what your land produces. When they first started to harvest their land on that first year, they were to gather up a basket with a sampling of the first produce coming from their land. They’d then take that basket to the central place of worship, and give it to God, through the priest. When they did this, we see that they were supposed to give a historical testimony of how God brought them to this place. And so this ceremony for the firstfruits offering was then be done the first year they enter into the Promised Land. Per Leviticus 23, every year from then on they were to annually offer up an offering of firstfruits.
The second ceremony in verses 12-15 is the third year tithe. We read and discussed tithing earlier in Deuteronomy 14. At that point we discussed how in the old covenant the tithe was normally brought to the Levite in the central place of worship. However, there we learned that every third year, a different process was to be followed. Instead, every third year the people were to store up the tithe locally; for the local Levites, and the local people in need. And so this passage describes a ceremony for how this third year tithe was to be handled when they got into the land. So, the idea here is that this ceremony wouldn’t have been followed until the third year after settling into the land. At that time, they’d set aside their tithe locally that year; in their own city; instead of bringing it to the central place of worship. But then they’d have this formal ceremony described in verses 13-15 where they make a formal statement in a ceremonial fashion; before the Lord. They’d certify that they complied with the third year tithing principles. One commentator liken this to how we might sign an affidavit, a formal sworn statement of fact. Here the worshippers do this before the Lord, solemnly testifying that they kept this law on the third year tithe. This first celebration of the third year tithe in the Promised Land was then to set the cycle into motion for setting aside the tithe every three years for the local needs of the Levites and the needy.
So God commanded them to do these two ceremonies once they entered the Land. Notice that both of these ceremonies involve formal confessions being made by the worshippers. These are not just informal statements or actions. God’s requiring a solemn ceremony where they testify something specifically. Think about what they are supposed to be confessing in each of these things. Their formal confessions are to be an expression of gratitude and an expression of obedience. Look at verses 5-10. With the firstfruits offering, they confess this great historical recounting of what God’s done for them up to this point. It describes the history of how God saved them; how he brought them from nothing. God had saved them when their father Jacob was about to starve to death. God had saved them from the Egyptians when they were mistreated by them. And God had taken them from being wanderers with no real home to now settling them in the home of the Promised Land. This confession made during the firstfruits offering was expressing gratitude. And it expressed obedience by what you see in verse 10. They acknowledge obedience to this commanded ceremony. The giving up the firstfruits is an act of obedience spakred out of gratitude. They give the firstfruits it says because God had given them the land from which they came.
This is similar with the confession made in verses 13-15 with the third year tithe. It also expresses both gratitude and obedience. There the obedience aspect especially comes true. The worshipper describes the way he properly executed this offering of the tithe. But it again comes back to gratitude as well. Verses 15 ends the confession with a call for blessing in light of the land God had given them.
And then don’t miss the connecting verse 11. “So you shall rejoice in every good thing which the Lord your God has given you.” This verse could easily apply to either of these two ceremonies. It brings out the call to rejoice. These two ceremonies are acts of rejoicing. The confessions bring out the gratitude that leads them to obey God in keeping these two formal ceremonies.
So let drive home this point I’m making here. The ceremonies were to be formal acts of worship for them in the old covenant. Notice all the subtle worship notes here. For the firstfruits ceremony: Verse 3 records them going down to the priest at the central place of worship; that’s where the bulk of their worship took place. Verse 10 specifically refers to this as worship. For both ceremonies, the confessions that are made are to be said “before the Lord;” verses 5 and 13. That’s worship language. For the third year tithe, it ends with a call for blessing from God on high. Formal blessings are typical of worship settings as well. So my point then in all of this is simple. Here God has instituted two formal ceremonies by the people, and they are acts of formal worship. These special worship ceremonies express gratitude, and they are done in obedience to God’s command.
Let look at the third ceremony in this passage. As I mentioned, it’s actually just implied here. Verses 16-19 are a historical record here. They represent a transition in the book of Dueteronomy. Remember the context for Deuteronomy. The people were right on the edge of the Promised Land. They had conquered the nations east of the Land. They were just about to cross over the Jordan and take over the Land. Before they did that, Moses was retelling the law to them. The law had been initially given about 40 years back at Mount Sinai. The people made a covenant with God back then to keep the law. Now Moses was retelling the law to the next generation. At this point in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses has basically completed that retelling. He’s gone through the Ten Commandments, and went through numerous miscellaneous laws. That ended with these last two commands about the offerings of the firstfruits and tithes. Now we step back into historical narrative at the time of Moses finishing recounting the laws to the people.
Notice verse 16. It mentions “this day.” It says that this day God is commanding the people to obey all these laws. Then in verse 17, another reference to “today.” “Today, you have proclaimed the Lord to be your God, and that you will walk in his ways and keep his statutes, etc.” Verse 18, again uses that word “today.” “Today, the LORD has proclaimed you to be his special people, just as he has promised you, that you should keep all his commandments.”
What’s going on here, on that day? This appears to be a covenant renewal ceremony. The language of verse 16-19 imply very clearly that Moses had just been going through a covenant renewal ceremony with this next generation of Israelites. A typical covenant renewal ceremony back then would start with a historical summary of the relationship of the two parties in the covenant, in this case between God and Israel. Moses did that at the beginning of this book. Then the ceremony would involve a retelling of the stipulations of the covenant. That’s what all the law telling was. Those were the stipulations of the covenant given at Sinai; i.e. the law. Then at that point the people would be called to swear allegiance to the covenant and the suzerain of the covenant, namely God. In turn, the suzerain would typically acknowledge his fidelity to bring blessing upon them. Well, this is what verses 16-19 summarize for us, without directly telling us. When we read verses 16-19, we realize that this must have just happened. Moses reports that that very day the people had sworn allegiance and obedience, and God in turn declares his fidelity and blessings to them in response.
And so here you have three different formal ceremonies in this passage. Formal ceremonies and formal acts of worship are a good thing, the Bible says. Contrary to those today who want to minimize these, or turn away from them completely, the old covenant here records three ceremonies which God found pleasing. If we are to worship God, we must worship him as he commands. And the Bible shows that he commands different formal times of worship. This is true in the old covenant. It is also true in the New Covenant. We now have different formal ceremonies, but we still have formal times of worship. In the New Covenant the people are called to not forsake formal assembly together; we see them setting a pattern of doing this on Sundays. Also, in the new covenant we are given the formal ceremonies of the two sacraments: Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. This is all a part of how God’s people are called to worship. In both the old and new covenants, there are formal acts of corporate worship of God; acts commanded by God to keep.
And of course in both old and new covenants, these acts of worship are founded upon what God has done for his people. We see that here in this passage. Each ceremony was an expression of gratitude for what God had already done for them in the past. We, in the new covenant, worship in the clearest light of gratitude, being thankful for the salvation that’s been so clearly revealed in Jesus. A large part of their gratitude in the old covenant of course was over how God brought them into the Promised Land. But part of their gratitude was also for the special status they enjoyed as a people. Look at God’s own words in verses 18-19. Verse 18, says that they were God’s special people; literally, a people for God’s own possession; in other words, they belonged to God! Verse 19 says that God intends to set them above all the other nations, making them receive praise, honor, and renown; that they would be a holy people. Of course, part of this special status assumes that they will be people who look to obey God. That’s how verse 18 ends. That they’d be a special people that should keep all his commandments. Of course, this obedience was to be in gratitude, just as we already have been saying.
These labels apply to us in the new covenant, as well. We have an intimate connection with the worshippers under the old covenant. Our connection is through the saving work of Jesus, for it is only through the Messiah Jesus that any of us are saved, under either old or new covenants. So, I’d like to draw out this connection we have with them a little bit further from this passage. I’d like to do that by thinking a little more now about the request made in verse 15.
Verse 15, “Look down from your holy habitation, from heaven, and bless your people Israel.” There’s a bit of a tension in this verse. This is the climatic ending to the confession given in the third year tithe. After two verses where the worshipper points out his obedience, he calls God to look down upon them and bless them. You can’t help but note a connection here with the obedience. Obedience is being presumed throughout this. In each of the three ceremonies here, there is some reference to the importance of obedience. And here in verse 15, there seems to be some connection with the blessing and the obedience. The petition is that God would look down upon them from his holy habitation of heaven and bless them. In context, you get the sense that this is said in light of the person’s obedience to keep the tithe. Two verses of confessing obedience, ends with this call to God to look down from heaven and bless.
But what will God see when he looks down from heaven? Verses 18 said that Israel was set apart as a special people that they might keep God’s commandments. That’s what distinguishes them from the nations. That’s why verse 19 talks about God elevating them above the other nations. But when God looks down from heaven and see Israel, what will he see? This is part of the tension I sense here. God will not always look down from heaven and see obedience. Israel’s history is one where God looks down from heaven and repeatedly sees disobedience. Certainly history shows God looking down from heaven and seeing disobedience among the nations. But Israel was supposed to be different! They were supposed to be God’s own people, set above all the other nations. And yet when God looks down from heaven, ought he to bless Israel? Israel, who disobeys God, just like all the other nations? Israel, who had experienced such privilege already from God, yet still wanders away from God so much?
God has looks down from heaven at Israel, and he has seen sin. What hope would there be for Israel? What hope of blessing would there be for them? And if Israel didn’t have hope, what hope would there be for the Gentile nations? Well the good news is that there was hope for Israel, despite this. And there was hope for the Gentiles, despite this. Yes, God repeatedly looked down from his holy habitation and saw sin. Such sinners didn’t deserve for God to look down upon them and bless them.
And yet you’ll notice that in verse 15, there is also mention of an oath. When the worshippers called for this blessing, they also reminded God of an oath he had made. That oath was God’s promise to bring blessing to his chosen people, an oath that would bring about the coming of the Messiah. You see, God would look down from heaven and see sin. And so it wouldn’t be enough for God just to look down from heaven. Just looking down from heaven wouldn’t be enough for God to bless. Sin was just too great. So God did more than just look down from heaven. God came down from heaven. God came down from heaven in the person of Jesus Christ, the Messiah. I like how Zechariah 2:13 puts it; when talking prophetically about the new covenant, it says that God is aroused from his holy habitation! That’s what happens when Christ is sent to earth. God is aroused from his holy habitation and comes down to earth, born as a baby in the womb of the Virgin Mary!
And what did Christ do on earth? He died for us. He died that we might be blessed. I like how Titus puts it. In Titus 2:14 it says that Jesus, “Gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works.” Titus 2:14 alludes back to verse 18 of our passage today. It says Christ died on the cross so that we, even Gentiles according to the flesh, could be made God’s special people, a people that should keep his commandments.
Think of what this means. When God looks down upon his people, what does he see? He indeed sees them as holy and blameless. All who have found forgiveness through faith in Christ have been justified in God’s sight. God now can look down from his holy habitation in heaven and indeed bless us! Why, because he kept his oath to the forefathers to send a savior. God came down from heaven in Jesus and has saved us from our sins. Now God looks down upon us from heaven and blesses us. He exalts us above all the nations. He takes his elect out of all the nations and exalts us above all the nations. We now, those who believe in Christ, are God’s own possession. We have been given blessing, and honor, and the greatest name in Christ. He promised he would do this, and he has accomplished it. And now he also works obedience into our hearts; he growing us internally so that we would not just sometimes keep his commandments; but that we’d be growing more in more in zeal for godliness.
Saints of God, we ought to worship God. He has saved us from our sins. He has blessed us. He has made us his own people above all others. We’ve received all these benefits simply through faith; faith which he even worked in our hearts. We should worship God out of gratitude for all that he’s done. We should look to grow in obedience to God out of gratitude for all that he’s done.
This worship and gratitude of God can be expressed in different ways. Certainly it can be expressed in our offerings. The principle of the firstfruits and the tithes in this passage is that we should give back to God from those things he has given to us. That’s true of our financial blessings, and it’s true of every sort of blessing we’ve received from God. In all the ways, God has blessed us, we should give back to him. And yet we especially do have this opportunity in terms of our finances, don’t we? We have opportunity whenever we gather to give back to God in a formal way of those material blessings. This of course, is a real test of our faith. When you are willing to give both tithes and offerings, a tenth of all your income, and even more, that’s and act of real faith and worship. You have to be pretty serious about your faith if you’re willing to cheerfully give both a tenth of your income and even more beyond that. But that’s why its act of real worship. That’s why it’s an expression of real gratitude. Christians are commanded to be give cheerful givers to both the work of the church and to helping those in need; this is part of our worship.
Of course as we’ve been saying, this worship of God should also be expressed through the formal ceremonies and ordinances of the church. The new covenant church gathers together to worship on the first day of the week, i.e. Sunday, the Lord’s Day. This is a solemn, formal, gathering before the Lord. We regularly administer the sacraments too as part of this formal worship. And it’s wonderful to know that as we gather together, that God is with us. The Spirit of God is within us as we worship. We might think that means God has come down again from his holy habitation when we gather to worship. In some sense that’s true. But as Ephesians 2:6 reminds us, that Christians are those who have been seated already in the heavenly places. Our worship is a heavenly worship, because we worship God spiritually. This means there’s some real sense in which when we gather, we worship together in the presence of God in his holy habitation. That we are transported spiritually into the heavenly places to worship God in his heavenly throne room.
Saints of God, this is our worship. God came down from his holy habitation to bring us up to himself. We live in both places now. In the flesh, we work and labor on earth. In the Spirit, we are able to come and worship before God in his holy habitation in heaven. There is coming a day when this dual life will be merged. When Christ comes again, all things will be made new. God’s habitation will then be made with his saints, Revelation 21:3. We will together worship in God’s presence, both physically and spiritually, in our resurrected bodies; for eternity. We look forward that amazing eternity, even every time we gather here together on Sundays. Come quickly Lord Jesus. Amen.
Copyright (c) 2010 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.