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Sermon preached on Deuteronomy 27 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 10/24/2010 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
“Write On Them All The Words Of The Law”
Here in this passage for today we have a description of a future covenant renewal ceremony. This entire chapter describes essentially one event that would take place in the future, to renew the covenant God had made with Israel. Remember, God formed the Mosaic covenant with the Israelites at Mount Sinai. That was 40 years prior compared to this point in the book of Deuteronomy. Now the people were just about to enter the Promised Land. They were sitting on the plains of Moab, just east of the Jordan River, just about to cross into the Promised Land. Last week we saw how Moses had just finished retelling the law to them. We mentioned how that chapter ended describing a covenant renewal ceremony happening right then and there, with that next generation of Israelites, right as they are about to enter into the Promised Land.
But the description of the covenant renewal ceremony here, is not that ceremony. This chapter describes a future one. This ceremony will take place with that same generation of Israelites, and it will happen soon, but not until they cross over that Jordan River and take hold of the Promised Land. This chapter describes the covenant renewal ceremony that God wants Israel to perform, once they get into the land. In fact, we have a record that the people did obey, and perform this ceremony; the record of that ceremony is in Joshua 8:30-35.
And so here’s how I’d like to tackle this passage for today. It’d like to approach it in two ways. In the first half of our sermon today, I’d like to think about two principles of worship we find in this chapter. Last week we talked about the importance of God’s people having formal worship services. Well, this covenant renewal ceremony is a special kind of worship service, and there are two important principles we find here about worship. The first principle of worship is that God calls his people to worship. The second principle of worship is that worship should be dialogical; an interaction and conversation between God and his people. We’ll look at these two principles of worship in the first half of our sermon. The second half of our sermon today will be to consider how God’s people are being called here to write out the law of God. We’ll think about the significance that has here for Israel, and the application this has for us.
Let’s begin then with considering these two principles of worship found in this chapter. The first principle of worship here, I mentioned, is that God calls his people to worship. As we look at this chapter, we see that it is God calling the people to this covenant renewal ceremony, which is an act of worship. It’s very clear here, that this is all to be done at God’s command. Right in verse 1, it seems in context that the commandments he’s referring to right here are the commands to hold this covenant renewal ceremony. This act of worship, will be done, because God commanded them to do it. Then notice that in three verses God tells them when this worship will happen: on the day that they cross over the Jordan River, into the Promised Land. Verses 2, 4, and 12, all have that same reference. It’s the time of this service. The time of the service is as soon as they get into the Promised Land, after crossing the Jordan.
God not only tells them the time of this worship service, he also tells them the place. The focus of the location in verses 1-10 is specifically on Mount Ebal. In verses 11-26, we see that focus broadened a little; that part of this is to take place also on Mount Gerizim. What this seems to describe is that they’ll be at the valley between these two mountains; they’ll have the altar and stones with the law on it on Mount Ebal, and the people standing on the slopes of these two mountains. And so God gives them the specific place for where this worship is to take place.
And so God gives them a time and place for this worship, and he also gives specific instructions. This worship is to involve them writing out the law of God on stones, verses 2-4. This worship is to involve them creating an altar with very specific instructions, verses 5-6. This worship is to involve certain offerings according to verse 7. It will involve a charge to the people, per verses 9-10. Verses 11 through the end of the chapter describe very specific instructions for the people to declare the blessings and curses of the covenant in a responsive way.
So do you see what you have here? This future covenant renewal ceremony is something God is initiating. It’s his command to hold this event. God sets the time, and the place, and the agenda. God is calling them to this special act of worship. Now, of course, this is a special ceremony. This is not describing their normal worship. And yet what we see here with this ceremony, is also true with their regular ways that they are to worship God. God commands and regulates those regular modes of worship. But as we studied this passage and see so clearly how God is calling the people to this worship, I thought it would be helpful for us to note this today.
This of course has ramifications for how we worship. Now maybe an obvious ramification for us is that we start out our worship services with an official “Call to Worship.” It’s an official element in our service, right at the start. But the ramification of this principle goes far beyond that short element in our service. In fact, that element in our service is essentially just a brief reminder to us all of why we’re here on Sundays. We’re all here gathering because of the principle; the principle that God calls us to worship.
And so how this principle is worked out in our life, should practically speaking have much more expression in our lives than just having an official “Call to Worship” at the start of our service. If God is calling us to worship, it should affect our attitude toward the worship service, and that should in turn affect our actions. We should see that God is the one commanding you to be here on Sundays, not so much the church. Think of how you would respond if someone famous invited you to dinner. If the president or governor invited you to a special personal meeting, how you would respond to that invitation? You’d probably prepare ahead of time, get there early, and tell everyone about your encounter for weeks to come.
Well, let us have a similar response to God’s call to worship. Let’s be thinking all week long about this special time coming up on Sunday. Let’s pray for our pastor to be used by God during this time. Be preparing yourself mentally all week for what’s going to go on here. And then let’s get to the service on time; actually let’s get to the service early so you can have some time to quiet your heart and mind before the service. Pray for yourself that you’ll worship God rightly, and that you’d grow as you hear his Word.
Let me say this a different way. In this passage, God called the people to worship, giving them a time, place, and instructions for the service. In the New Covenant, in some sense he’s given us a time, place, and instructions for the service. The time is the Lord’s Day. The place is in the Spirit with the other people of God in a formal church assembly. The instructions are shown for us in various passages in Scripture of what our worship services are to be like. Let us respond in obedience to God’s Call to Worship because we recognize that it’s God’s call, not man’s. Let that have tangible effects on how we come here for this service.
The second principle of worship that I’d like to draw your attention to today is that worship is dialogical. Dialogical. That comes from the word “dialogue”. Our worship with God is essentially a dialogue with God; a conversation back and forth between him and his people. That’s how we structure our worship service today at Trinity. We see that principle in the old covenant worship as well. It especially comes out with what you have described in verses 11-26.
You see, whenever God’s people worship God today, you have parts where God’s people are speaking, and you have parts where God is speaking. And as was typical in the old, and in the new covenants, this is facilitated through authorized representatives. In our services, I as the pastor, am functioning like this. At times in our service, I am representing God, at other times, I’m representing the congregation, and also leading the congregation in responding to God. Well, here we see that same principle is going on.
Notice what God is instructing in verses 12-13. He’s having the people of God divide up into two camps. Half would stand on Mt Ebal, and represent the curses of the covenant. The other half would stand on Mt Gerizim, and represent the blessings of the people. The Levitical priests would stand in the middle, in the valley; that’s implied here, and brought out more clearly in Joshua 8 when it records them executing this ceremony. Notice then in verse 14 that it’s these Levites who call out all the curses in the remaining part of the chapter. Then after each of these twelve curses, all the people respond by saying “Amen.” What you have here is a clear example of dialogical worship. When the Levites are calling out the curses, they are representing God, as God’s priests. It is as if God is speaking out these curses as sanctions of the covenant. The people then are responding to God by this united “Amen.”
Certainly this is one of the more obvious examples of how worship is dialogical; it’s very visibly seen here in this back and forth between the curses and the amens. But the principle applies throughout the worship service. God speaks and acts through his authorized representatives; priests in the old covenant; ordained ministers in the new covenant. God’s people respond together to God in various acts of worship. Here God speaks through Moses and the elders and the priests at different points. The people respond with different acts of worship; building an altar, giving offerings on this altar, writing out the laws of God, saying amen, etc.
In our new covenant worship services, we do the same sorts of things. God is speaking to us through the minister during the opening and closing benedictions. There God is blessing his people. When I give the official Call to Worship, I’m again representing God. Every Sunday when I remind you of the assurance of God’s pardon, that’s my representing God as a minister of the gospel. When the minister reads and preaches the word, he’s again representing God. On the other hand, there are things the minister does along with congregation, and in leading the congregation to respond to God. When we sing songs together, or recite prayers together, it’s part of our response to God. When we give our tithes and offerings, it’s part of our corporate response to God. Even when we are actively listening together to the Word of God, that’s part of our response. When I or one of the elders do the congregational prayer each week, that’s also myself or the elders representing the people in our worship to God. Do you see how all of these things are reflecting the dialogical nature of our worship? The minister leads the service, having some aspects where he’s representing God, and other’s where he’s representing the people.
This tells you how important your part is as the congregation in responding to God in this dialogue. Worship is not just God speaking to us, and you are just passive. Nor is worship just us speaking to God in praises and prayer. It’s a two-way communication. That’s fundamental to our worship.
Of course, in this passage, we see that the use of the word “amen” in our services is biblical. The word “amen” is a solemn and earnest affirmation to the truth of something in the service; typically the truth of God’s word or something about his glorious character. But they say “amen” here together. That’s important. It’s tied up with this dialogical principle. We are worshipping corporately. It’s appropriate that we do things corporately; together. God speaks; his people respond. Thus, even our amen’s are done together as a people.
This is why in our service we don’t encourage individuality during the service. We try to do things corporately. We can all worship God individually back at home. When we gather here on Sundays, it’s to come together as God’s people in worship. Some churches, you’ll see that the worship can become a very individual thing; some people standing, some sitting; some raising their hands; others bowing down; some clapping, some not. That can foster problems of its own, of course; some people doing certain things to be seen by men. But the point is, we try to organize this worship service so we do things together. This is all related to the fact that our worship is dialogical; we respond together to God who speaks to us.
And so these are some principles of worship from this passage that influence our own worship today. Let’s turn now to the other item I would like us to briefly consider this morning. I’d like to spend some time reflecting on how Israel was called to write out the law of God here. This would have been a very fitting thing to do in a covenant renewal ceremony. When God had first made this covenant with Israel, it was bound up with the law. The law was given at Sinai, and the covenant demanded that they kept it. Thus, in a covenant renewal ceremony, it would be customary to remind the people of their covenant obligations. Thus, this ceremony involved them painting some large stones white, writing on them the law. This would have an immediate effect in that ceremony; it was these laws they were recommitting to obey. But these large stones would also have an ongoing effect. They would be standing reminders in the Promised Land of God’s law. Actually, they serve as more than just a reminder, they’d be a witness against the people if they broke the laws. They would be a witness to what they had committed to do during that covenant renewal ceremony. It would leave them without excuse.
Of course, part of why this is so serious, is because what happens at the end of this ceremony. The blessings and the curses. This chapter mentions both, but we only see recorded 12 specific curses. However, the next chapter, chapter 28, goes on in great detail to list out many different blessings and curses. We’ll talk more about these next week. Presumably when they performed this covenant renewal ceremony, they probably went on to read these detailed blessings and curses from chapter 28. But you see in this ceremony very visibly that there is blessing and cursing held out to the people, with regard to these laws. If the people kept the law, they’d be blessed. If they didn’t they’d be cursed. That was both the promise and the threat held out here.
In practice, God dealt very graciously and patiently with them in all of this. But in the picture given here with Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim, it’s a pretty stark contrast. There’s only two camps. Only the camp of blessing and the camp of cursing. There’s no middle ground. You are either in God’s covenant and a recipient of his blessings, or you violated his covenant laws and found yourself under curse. Now, again, in practice, God dealt very graciously with them. But the picture here is very stark. Obedience to the law, these laws written on stone, was the path of blessing; Disobedience to the law, was the path of cursing.
And yet as we’ll see when we read on in Deuteronomy, chapter 30 will predict that one day Israel would taste of the full extent of the covenant curses as a nation. The curses listed in chapter 27 are very much focused on the individual. Chapter 28 and 30 see that the relative disobedience of the nation as a whole would have national consequences. Nationally they would break this covenant as a whole, one day. As a nation, they wouldn’t keep these laws written on stones. When they did, they’d be cursed as a nation. Corporately, they’d go into exile under curse. And yet Deuteronomy 30 says that God would one day bring them back. Essentially, Deuteronomy reveals their need back then for the gospel.
Let me describe it like this. You notice that they are to write the laws on the stone by first whitewashing them. They do this instead of engraving them. Why? I can only speculate, but certainly engraving the entire law on stones would have been quite a task. Stone is very hard. Well, as Israel’s history would prove, their hearts were very hard; hard as stone. They’d need God’s laws written on their hearts, and lived out. And so Deuteronomy 30:6 foretells the gospel in advance by saying that God would bring the nation out of captivity, restore them, and then circumcise their hearts. When it talks about circumcising their hearts, I think it’s the equivalent of what we see in Jeremiah 31:33 where in a similar prophecy, it’s said that in the new covenant God would write the law on their hearts. Not on stones; on their hearts. It was great that Israel would write out the law on stones, but they wouldn’t keep them. They’d deserve cursing, instead of blessing. What this should have made them realize is that they needed God to write the law on their hearts. That’s something they couldn’t do on their own.
I find it interesting that in this passage God had them set up the altar on Mount Ebal. That’s the mountain that represented the cursing. God had them setup the altar and make the offerings there on Mount Ebal, instead of on Mount Gerizim which represented the blessings. But, of course, in the light of the New Testament, that makes sense. In light of Christ’s sacrifice for us, that makes sense. Christ had to become a curse for us, in order to make us righteous. Christ died the cursed death on the cross; he bore our sins on the cross; he took on our curses in our place. He did this so we’d be forgiven. He did this so we could receive the blessings.
This is what the Jews should have recognized here in this ceremony. It’s what we need to recognize too. None of us will perfectly keep God’s laws. If we try to earn our way into heaven, God’s laws will only be a witness against us, of how hard our hearts really are; we will end up only accursed by God. Instead, if we come to God and confess our sinfulness, and call upon the forgiveness that has come in Messiah Jesus, then we will be saved. We will be blessed. Blessed because Christ has earned those blessings. By faith in Christ we are blessed. And the other amazing thing is that as we turn to Christ, he does circumcise our hearts, as Deuteronomy promises. As we find new life in Christ, we also find that it is then God who writes his laws on our hearts. And yet he doesn’t write them on our hearts to condemn us. They aren’t written on our hearts in that sense, as a witness against us. They are written on our hearts in the sense that our hearts learn to know them and to truly love them. The result is that we begin to start keeping them. This is a prophecy that Christ is working throughout our life. It will be completed in heaven. But it’s an amazing promise. Christ is making us people who love his laws, because he is writing them on our hearts. Christ changes our hearts which were as hard as stones, and makes them as soft as flesh.
Saints of God, I’d like to finish our sermon today with one final application for us; one that sort of ties together the two ideas we’ve thought about today: our worship and the writing out of the law of God. In this passage, you’ll note that the writing out of the law of God was something done during this act of worship. The writing out of the law was part of this covenant renewal ceremony. The content of our faith, including God’s laws, is bound up with our worship. That was true in this covenant renewal ceremony, and it’s true today in our worship. And yet the writing out of these laws, would have an ongoing function to teach and train the people, even after they completed this worship service. The law written on the stones wasn’t just to keep during the covenant renewal ceremony; it was to continue to influence them. And so I think there’s application for us here in our new covenant worship. In our worship services, we are reminded of God’s Word and his laws. We should look for ways to continue to remind us of these things all week long. In other words, God’s Word, which we learn about in our worship settings, should continually be brought to our attention all week long. We should look to live them out all week long.
Now, yes, I know that I just got done saying that it’s God who writes out his Word into our hearts. And yet, I don’t think that truth is opposed to this, for us to take away some practical application from what Israel did here. Ultimately, the Jews back then should have realized they needed God to write the law to their hearts too; but God still had them write them out. He still saw value in having them do that.
And so my point is, then, that we should find practical ways to take those Scriptures that we learn about in our Worship service, and keep bringing them back to our attention throughout the week. The message we learn from God’s Word isn’t just for Sunday morning. We should look to live out what we learn here. That’s part of how God even is at work in our hearts. As we look to remember and put into practice what we learn here on Sundays, God often uses that as how he softens and shapes our hearts into more closely reflect His heart.
And so think about what that will mean for you individually. I think different people can live this principle out in different ways. For some, taking notes during the sermon might be a helpful way to reflect on the message from Scripture all week long. Others might prefer to download the podcast from the web site to their iPod and listen to it again in the car as they drive to work. Others might use the sermon that week to facilitate reflection around the dinner table with their family. My point is that God had Israel setup large stones to continue to remind them of what went on in that covenant renewal ceremony. God wants us to find ways to constantly remind us of what we learn in our worship services as well. It is a great blessing to train and discipline ourselves in godliness through his Word. Amen? Amen.
Copyright (c) 2010 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.