I mentioned last week that some of the Bible commentators have suggested that from chapter 6 of Deuteronomy through to chapter 26, Moses is expounding or explaining the Ten Commandments one by one. So, in chapter 5, Moses laid down the Ten Commandments for the Israelites; and in the following chapters, he’s explaining them in more detail. And so, chapters 6 to 11 were an explanation of the first commandment to have no other gods before the Lord; and in those chapters, Moses emphasises how the people were not to forget the Lord, but were to love him with all their heart and soul and strength and to put him first in their lives. Then, chapter 12 was an explanation of the second commandment not to make an idol; and in that chapter, which we studied last week, Moses gave instructions to the people about how they were to worship the Lord their God. Instead of doing what the other nations did, and instead of everyone doing as he saw fit, they were to do what the Lord commanded and they were to worship him in the right place and in the right way. That means the chapters we’re looking at this evening are an explanation of the third commandment which forbids us from misusing the name of the Lord.
As you can see, the passage before us this evening contains commands forbidding the people from worshipping the Lord in the same way as the other nations worship their gods; and it contains commands about what to do if anyone ever tries to lead them astray; and it contains commands about what they can and cannot eat; and it contains commands about giving their tithes to the Lord. You’ll have to decide yourself whether you agree with those commentators who say that these commands are an explanation of the third commandment, but the theory is that the third commandment is about honouring the Lord. Those who honour the Lord and his name will be careful not to turn from him, but to remain faithful to him; and they will show by what they eat and by what they do with their produce that they love the Lord and want to honour his holy name. By what they eat and by what they do with their produce, the people of Israel were to display to the world that they were devoted to the Lord.
And believers in every generation must display their commitment to the Lord by refusing to turn from him and by remaining faithful to him always. And though these special laws about food and tithing have expired, they remind believers in every generation that the Lord calls us to be holy; and by faith, we’re cleansed from all that makes us unholy; and by faith, we receive the Spirit who helps us to live holy lives.
Let’s turn to study today’s passage. We could have taken the first section — verses 29 to 32 of chapter 12 — with what we studied last week. After all, last week the passage was about worshipping the Lord in the right place and in the right way; and instead of doing what the pagan nations did, the Israelites were to worship the Lord according to his word. That was last week’s passage; and verses 29 to 32 say similar things. However, verses 29 to 32 also match what we’ll read in chapter 13 where the Israelites are warned about turning from the Lord to worship false gods.
So, in verse 29 Moses anticipates how the Lord will cut off the nations who were living in the land of Canaan at that time. As I’ve explained before, the Lord was going to destroy those people because of the wicked things they had done. And he was going to give the land to the Israelites to live in. Moses then warned the people of Israel not to enquire afterwards about the way the pagan nations worshipped their false gods. Don’t ask about it and don’t think about worshipping the Lord in the same way. You must not worship the Lord your God in their way, Moses tells them in verse 31. And the reason they aren’t to copy the pagan nations is because the pagan nations did all kinds of detestable things as part of their worship. They did things which the Lord hates. Moses then gives one example of the kind of thing they did. He tells the Israelites that the pagan nations used to burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods. Apparently they regarded sacrificing their children as a way of showing their devotion to their gods.
We love you so much that we’re prepared to kill our children for you.
The Lord hates that practice; indeed he commands parents to love their children. And so, don’t do what they have done, because what they have done is detestable to the Lord. Instead of doing what the pagan nations did, the Lord’s people are to do what the Lord commands. Look at verse 32: see to it that you don’t add to what the Lord has commanded; and see to it that you don’t take away from what the Lord has commanded.
And, of course, we often err in one of those two ways. Down through the generations, people have been tempted to add to God’s law. Isn’t that the mistake of the Pharisees, who kept adding to God’s law so that they burdened the people with all kinds of rules and regulations which were only man-made? And so, we have to be careful that we don’t add to what God has said and make God’s people do things or avoid things which he has not commanded. On the other hand, there are those people who say that some of God’s moral laws are out of date and no long apply today. The church has to move with the times, they say, and modernise what it teaches about morality and about what’s right and what’s wrong. Isn’t that what we hear when it comes to things like marriage and homosexuality? We’re told that the Bible says is out-of-date and we must disregard those things today.
But no, we’re not to add to God’s word and we’re not to take away from God’s word. We mustn’t think we can stand over God’s word to judge its truthfulness and usefulness. Instead we’re to submit ourselves to God’s word; and we’re to accept all that he has said. And it’s the same when it comes to worship, which is the focus of these verses: we’re to worship the Lord according to his word, without adding to what he has said or taking away from it. He’s the Lord and by his word he shows us how to worship him.
But let’s move on to what we read in chapter 13 and the temptation to turn from the Lord. Moses presents the people with three scenarios. And so, in verse 1, Moses presents the first scenario: a false prophet appears among the people and attempts to lead them astray. He says to them, ‘Let us follow other gods and let us worship them.’ However, even if the false prophet manages to do miraculous signs and wonders, do not listen to him.
And Moses then explains that the Lord is using this false prophet to test the people to see whether they truly love him. And so, they must not listen to the false prophet or be taken in by his miraculous signs and wonders. They must follow the Lord only and revere him. They will keep and obey his commands and serve and hold fast to him alone. Just as husbands and wives promise to forsake all others, and to be loving, faithful and dutiful to their spouse, so the Lord’s people are to forsake all other gods and we’re to remain loving, faithful and dutiful to him always.
And since it’s such a serious thing to tempt the Lord’s people to go astray, they are to put the false prophet to death, because he has preached rebellion against the Lord, who rescued them from their slavery. Think about it: we would have no patience for the person who tried to wreck someone’s marriage and who tried to come between a husband and wife; and the Lord’s people were to have no patience for those who tried to ruin their relationship with the Lord. They must purge this evil from among them, because they are to be a holy people, wholly devoted to the Lord.
Moses then presents the second scenario in verse 6. This time, it’s not a false prophet who is trying to lead them astray, but a member of their own family. If your brother, or son, or your daughter, or your wife, or your closest friend tries to entice you away from the Lord, don’t yield to them or listen to them. In fact, though it’s a member of your family or your closest friend, show them no pity and do not spare or shield them. This person must be put to death. And the person who was enticed must not hesitate, but must act immediately. And the guilty person must be stoned to death. And those who hear about it will be afraid and no one else will be tempted to do such a wicked thing again.
And in verse 12 Moses presents a third scenario. This time, it’s not a false prophet, or a member of their family who is trying to lead them astray, but it’s a whole town. If you hear that wicked men had led the people of a town astray, then the rumour must be investigated thoroughly. And if the rumour is true, then you must destroy the people of that town. Put them to the sword, says Moses. Destroy the town completely: all the people and their livestock. Gather all their possessions and burn their possessions along with the town itself as an offering to the Lord. And the town must be left a ruin forever and must not be rebuilt. Unless the Lord’s people destroy the town and its inhabitants, the Lord’s anger will not turn from Israel. But if they destroy the town like this, the Lord will show Israel mercy and compassion and will bless them for their obedience to him.
Israel in the Old Testament was a theocracy. That is, God ruled over them as their King and his law regulated the religious and the civil aspects of their life. To sin against the Lord was a crime and in many cases it was punishable by death. And so, those Israelites in Old Testament times who sinned against the Lord by enticing the people astray could receive the death penalty.
However, no other nation since ancient Israel has been a theocracy. And so, in Romans 13 we read that the Lord has given the power of the sword to the civil authorities. Therefore only the civil authorities have the power and authority to punish wrongdoers with execution. And while the church has the right to discipline its members who go astray, nevertheless the discipline of the church is restricted to rebuking its members and excommunicating them, in the hope that they will be ashamed and will repent.
So, we do not have the power or authority to do as Israel did. Nevertheless, what we read here is a warning to all that we must not turn from the Lord or tempt others to turn from him, because the Lord regards this as a very serious sin. On the contrary, we must see to it that we remain faithful to him; and we must encourage one another to remain faithful to him. As the writer to the Hebrews puts it, we must hold unswervingly to the hope we profess; and we must not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing; and we must consider how we can stir one another up towards love and good deeds. That’s our duty and responsibility today; and by doing so, we’re able to honour the name of the Lord.
Furthermore, we must remain obedient to God’s will which he has revealed in the Scriptures. Moses foresaw a time when false prophets would appear who would be able to perform miraculous signs and wonders. And even in our day, there are those who claim to perform miracles. Whether they can or not, the most important thing is not what they do, but what they teach; and if what they teach is not in accordance with God’s word, then we must not listen to them. And as we see from this passage, even if a member of our family teaches us to do something which contradicts God’s word, we must not listen to them.
In the same way, Paul in his letter to the Galatians, told the people that even if he or an angel from heaven preached a different gospel from the true gospel, they must not listen, because the most important thing, and the thing we are to take heed of, is the word of God. And so, we honour the name of the Lord by paying attention to his word. Just as children honour their parents by taking heed to what their parents say, so the Lord’s people honour our Father in heaven by taking heed to what he has said in his word.
And the last thing to say before we move on to chapter 14 is this: Moses warned the people about being enticed away from the Lord to worship other gods. And so, they were to worship him alone. And that exclusivity — all others gods must be excluded — appears in the New Testament as well where the Lord Jesus made clear that no one comes to the Father in heaven except through him, because he alone is the way, the truth and the life. And in Acts 4, the Apostle Peter declared to the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem that salvation is found in Christ and in no one else, because there is no other name under heaven by which we must be saved. And so, the way to honour the name of the Lord is by believing in him alone and by trusting in him alone for salvation.
And so, we come to chapter 14 which contains food laws and laws about tithing.
But before we get to that, Moses reminds the people that they are the Lord’s children and they must not cut themselves or shave the front of their heads for the dead. In other words, because of their relationship with the Lord — who had set them apart as his holy people and who had chosen them and who had made them his treasured possession — they were not to follow the funeral customs of the pagans, Perhaps the connection with what follows is that to follow these pagan funeral customs was detestable to the Lord, as was eating forbidden food.
And so, in verse 3 Moses commands the people not to eat any detestable thing. What follows is a summary of what we read in Leviticus 11. In verses 4 to 8 he gives instructions on which animals they may and may not eat. After mentioning certain animals which they may eat, Moses gives them a rule to follow in verse 6: they may eat any animal that has a split hoof completely divided and chews the cud. If one of those things is missing, then that animal may not be eaten. For instance, the Lord mentions the camel in verse 7 which chews the cud, but which doesn’t have a split hoof. And the passage mentions other animals which were also to be regarded as unclean, including the pig.
Verses 9 and 10 contain the basic rule for creatures which live in water: they may eat any creature that has fins and scales. Anything living in the water that doesn’t have both of those things is detestable or unclean.
In verses 11 to 18 he lists birds which are unclean and which they must not eat. And in verses 19 and 20 he forbids them from eating flying insects that swarm.
And in verse 21 he forbids them from eating anything which they find already dead. So, if they find a dead sheep in the field, they must not eat it. They can give or sell it to non-Israelites, but they must not eat it, because they are holy to the Lord. And they’re not to cook a young goat in its mother’s milk. It’s not clear why not, but that prohibition was mentioned in Leviticus as well.
Following these instructions about clean and unclean foods, he gives them instructions on tithing. They’re to set aside a tenth of their produce each year so that they may eat it in the presence of the Lord in the place of his choosing. As you know, eventually the Lord chose Jerusalem as the place to build his temple. Moses then say that if the place of worship is too far from where they live, they may exchange their tithe for money and take the money to the temple, where they can buy what they want for the feast. And so, they were to eat before the Lord and rejoice in his goodness to them.
But they must be careful not to neglect the Levites, who did not have land of their own, but who worked in the temple. According to Leviticus 18, the Levites were to receive a tithe of all the tithes the people brought before the Lord. So, the people brought a tenth of their produce to the Lord; and ten percent of it was to be given to the Levites as their income. Additionally, according to verses 28 and 29, every three years the people were to set aside their tithes to be used for the Levites and other needy people in the community.
What are we to make of these instructions? Well, let me begin with the tithe. While we often talk about tithing today, we need to remember that the tithe was used in part to support the Levites who served in the temple. Furthermore, the remainder of the tithe was to be used by the people as part of their worship in the temple. But now that Christ has come and has offered himself as the perfect sacrifice for sins, before entering the true temple in heaven, all the old rules and regulations concerning the temple and the Levites and worship in the temple have been brought to an end. We no longer have Levites. We no longer have a temple. We no longer worship as they did. And so, the requirement to bring a tithe has also come to an end, now that Christ has come.
And so, the New Testament does not command believers to tithe. Instead the New Testament commands believers to give generously according to our means to help those in need, remembering that the Lord loves a cheerful giver. The New Testament does not command us to tithe; but it commands us to be generous.
Nevertheless, in the New Testament, the Apostle Paul refers to the way the people in the Old Testament supported the priests and Levites who ministered in the temple; and he uses that as the basis for appealing to believers to support the work of those who preach the gospel. He says in 1 Corinthians 9:
Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.
In other words, just as the priests and Levites were entitled to receive a living for their work, so those who preach the gospel are entitled to receive a living for their work. And so, though you’re no longer commanded to give a tithe or tenth of your income to the Lord, you’re commanded to give generously to those in need and to provide for those who preach the gospel to you.
And what about the food laws? Various explanations have been put forward to explain the Lord’s prohibition on eating certain animals. Some interpreters say we don’t really know why some are clean and others are unclean. Others say the forbidden animals were used by the pagans in their worship and the Lord wanted his people to have nothing to do with such pagan practices. Others say it’s to do with hygiene and health: God wanted to protect his people from certain diseases. For instance, pork is not safe to eat unless it’s been prepared properly.
Those are three of the most commons explanations, but there are reasons why none of those explanations is convincing, though I don’t have time to go into it in detail. But another explanation is that underlying the food laws is the notion of what is normal or what is the standard. Take the animals first of all. It’s normal for animals to have split hooves and to chew the cud. For example, the animals which God accepted for sacrifice — sheep, goats and oxen — are all like that. Anything that deviates from that norm was regarded as unclean. It’s normal for fish to have fins and scales. Anything that deviates from that norm was regarded as unclean. When it comes to birds, the ones that are listed as unclean are birds of prey or birds which feed on dead animals. But doves and pigeons — which are regarded as clean in Leviticus 11 — do neither of these things. So, the norm for birds is that they do not kill or eat dead animals; anything that deviates from that norm was regarded as unclean. Finally, Leviticus 11 regards flying insects that walk on all fours as unclean. So, we could say that it’s normal for insects to hop like birds and not to walk on all fours like an animal. Anything that deviates from the norm was regarded as unclean.
According to this explanation, what makes a creature clean is whether or not it is whole and complete and doesn’t deviate from what is normal. In other words, the Lord is concerned with wholeness and with what is perfect.
Whether that explanation is correct is hard to say. However, it helps us to see the significance of these food laws, because these food laws taught the people of Israel about God’s grace. You see, like the unclean animals, their obedience to the Lord was not whole or complete, and they were unclean and detestable because of their sin and guilt. They had no right to come before the Lord, because their many sins and acts of rebellion made them morally unclean and unfit to come before the Lord.
And yet the Lord was very gracious to them, because he freely and graciously chose them to belong to him as his special people, even though they did nothing to deserve it. And he provided them with sacrifices which they could offer to him in order to cleanse them from their uncleanness and to enable them to come before the Lord in worship.
So, they were like the unclean animals which they were to disregard. However, instead of disregarding them, the Lord graciously chose them and provided the means for their forgiveness. And you too are by nature unclean, because you were born into this world as a sinner and everyday you sin against the Lord in thought and word and deed. And as the Lord Jesus made clear in Mark 7, it is not the eating of food which makes you unclean, but it’s the wicked thoughts and desires of your sinful heart which make you unclean. The Lord ought to have rejected you, just as the Israelites were meant to reject the unclean food. However, the Lord is gracious and merciful, and so he graciously and freely chose you for salvation. And though you did not deserve it, he sent his Son into this world to offer himself as the perfect sacrifice for your sins. And the Lord also sent you preachers to tell you the good news and he sent his Spirit to enable you to believe. And by faith in his Son, you are cleansed from all your guilt and shame. Though you are by nature unclean, the Lord has made you clean.
But there’s one final thing to say today. Having to distinguish clean food and unclean food and having to keep themselves from whatever was unclean was also a reminder to the Israelites that they needed to separate themselves from all that is evil and wicked. As God’s holy people, they had to live holy lives and every day they needed to choose between doing what is good and right instead of doing what is wicked and wrong. So, every time they prepared a meal, and had to choose what was clean over against what was unclean, it reminded them that they had to choose what is good and they had to turn away from all that is evil.
And the Lord commands you, his pardoned people, to choose what is good and to turn away from all evil. He wants you to live a holy life and to reject all that is holy. And he gives you his Spirit to renew you inwardly and to help you so that you’ll become more and more willing and able to do what is good and to live a holy life. He gives you his Spirit to help you to avoid what is detestable and to do what is pleasing in the sight of the Lord. The Israelites had to learn to choose the right food to eat; and God calls on you to choose the right way to live. And he gives you his Spirit to help you. And by rejecting all that is evil and by loving what is good, you will honour the Lord, which is his will for you.