This article is part of the Why Study the Book? series.
For a priest to be ordained in the early Coptic church, he needed to memorize big sections from Paul, the gospels, the Psalms, Isaiah, and Deuteronomy.1 The first four of these make intuitive sense to most Christians: they are obviously high points of Scripture. But Deuteronomy? Why make the priest memorize that book? Or again, when the apostles turned to the OT to explain Jesus and why he came, the top three books they turned to were the Psalms, Isaiah, and Deuteronomy. Their pattern came from the Master: Jesus himself quoted these three books more than any other. But why those three?
Ask yourself candidly: is Deuteronomy for you an exciting, inviting, go-to book for spiritual insight and growth? If we have yet to grasp what’s so great about Deuteronomy, it may be that we have misconceived it. The following three misconceptions will kill just about anybody’s desire to read the book, let alone treasure it.
Misconception #1: Deuteronomy is a book of old, dusty laws.
Actually, Deuteronomy is a book about grace. It’s written in light of God’s gracious promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and states that God is about to act on these promises and give them the promised land! What Israel does (the laws) is their response to the main theme, what God does for them. And even though Israel will utterly fail (Deut. 31:29), Deuteronomy promises God’s grace will still triumph in the end (Deut. 4:29–31; 30:1–10). (P.S. Whoever said laws had to be dusty? Ever read about the mandatory party in Deut. 14:22–29?)
Misconception #2: Deuteronomy does not apply to us any more.
Quick, someone tell Paul; he apparently hasn’t gotten the message yet, since he’s always applying Deuteronomy to us (Rom. 12:19; 1 Cor. 5:13; 9:9). It’s true that Christians are no longer under the Old Covenant (Eph. 2:15; Heb 8:13), and we need to account for the differences between the Old and the New Covenants. But Deuteronomy is still authoritative revelation about the same God whom Christians love and worship. In addition to wanting to know him better, do you wish you were better at loving others? The largest section of Deuteronomy (Deut. 12–26) gives unparalleled wisdom about how to love God and neighbor with all that we are. The greatest commandment comes from Deuteronomy 6:5 and is still binding on Christians (Matt. 22:37)!
Misconception #3: It’s hard to understand.
Actually, Moses spoke these words as his farewell sermon to all Israel. As a good preacher, he meant it to be understood by everyone! Deuteronomy uses plain language, even if some passages are confusing as to how we should apply them.
Knowing Deuteronomy Is a Matter of Life and Death
If I told you to study Deuteronomy because it would give a helpful boost in your walk with Christ, I would utterly undersell the book’s vital importance. Knowing Deuteronomy is a matter of life and death.
1. Without it, entire books of the OT will remain obscure to you.
Why does God send drought, foreign raiders, and eventually exile to his people in 1–2 Kings? The answer is in Deuteronomy 28. Why does God put his words in Jeremiah’s mouth, rebuke his people with white-hot anger, and then announce a new covenant which has the law written on the heart? The answers are in Deuteronomy 18, 29, and 30. Entire books have been termed “deuteronomic” (especially Joshua–2 Kings, Jeremiah, Hosea, Amos, and Zephaniah) because they quote Deuteronomy repeatedly. As my advisor, Daniel Block, used to say, “The authors of these books all read the same textbook in school—Deuteronomy!”
We too need guidance for how to live in light of our new redeemed identity.
2. Israel in Deuteronomy is facing the same core temptations that you are.
Do you sometimes doubt whether God is for real, or does a close friend make you doubt? Deuteronomy identifies the battle for your heart in Deuteronomy 13. Do you struggle with pride when you think about your successes? So did Israel: see Deuteronomy 9. How often have your possessions taken precedence over prayer? Moses anticipated this in Deuteronomy 8 and Deuteronomy 31. Do you wish God were more manageable, and not so complex and hard to understand? See Deuteronomy 4 and its profound reflections on the unseen God. Do you struggle against cutting corners in your work or with money? See Deuteronomy 16. Or perhaps you have very exacting standards for others and struggle to have patience with them? See Deuteronomy 24. Are you timid around people when God calls you to be brave? See Deuteronomy 1. At rock bottom, the promises of illegitimate money, sex, and power seem so tangible and irresistible, but God seems like he’ll never deliver what he promised. The entire book inoculates us against this idolatry and instills loyalty for the true God. Do you think there might be a reason why Jesus quoted Deuteronomy three times when Satan tried to tempt him (Luke 4:1–13)?
3. The Christian’s place in history mirrors that of Israel.
We too have been delivered decisively from bondage (they from Egypt; we from Satan). We too need guidance for how to live in light of our new redeemed identity. And we too need to impart this identity to our children (Deut. 6:20–25). The oft-repeated phrase “that it may go well with you” reminds us that God gave us Deuteronomy so we would thrive.
4. Deuteronomy is Christian Scripture.
It exalts Jesus Christ, crucified and raised as our only hope against sin. Seeing Jesus in Deuteronomy takes practice, but he is everywhere. He’s the true king, who did not capitulate to the compromises of sin (contrast, for example, Solomon in 1 Kings 11 in light of Deut. 17:14–20). Israel is the failed son, who forsook every fatherly warning in Deuteronomy, but Jesus is the true Son who obeyed where Israel failed. Notwithstanding his innocence, he became a curse in our place us by enduring exile from God’s presence and dying on the tree (Deut. 21:23; 28:15–68). And by his cursed death, he became the mediator better than Moses, who opened the way for the new covenant, with its promised circumcision of the heart (Deut. 30:6; Jer. 31:33).
At the climax of Moses’ sermon, he says, “So choose life!” (Deut. 30:19) Deuteronomy is still a life-and-death book for Christians, urging us today to choose genuine life: the life that saturation in God’s word imparts; the life that sin can never give; the abundant life that is found in Jesus Christ alone.
Deuteronomy is the mountain at the center of the Old Testament. Everything in the Pentateuch leads up to it, with its climactic renewal of God’s covenant relationship with his people. And everything in the rest of the OT flows out from it: the blessings of the land (Joshua–1 Kings), the curses of the covenant (2 Kings–Malachi), and the subsequent need for a savior. And at the top of the mountain is none other than the God of Deuteronomy, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. When such breathtaking heights beckon, won’t you climb this mountain with me?
1. Bruce M. Metzger and Bart D. Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament (4th ed; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 127.
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