Dear radio friends,
Have you ever tried using a map when you were lost — and gave up all hope of getting to your destination because you could not figure out the map? Have you ever read an instruction booklet — and gave up all hope of putting the project together and completing it because you couldn’t understand the booklet? Have you ever read Scripture and thought, This isn’t clear; I don’t understand it; I don’t get it?
Perhaps there are parts of Scripture that we have said that about. Very likely, in fact — because of our limited ability to understand and because of the sin that remains in our hearts. Yet, the Word of God teaches us that it is clear. The fancy word is its perspicuity. It is clear. It is so clear that if anyone of us does not obey it or believe what it teaches, we cannot say, “I didn’t understand it”; but we must say, “I didn’t want to do it.”
That such is true of the Word of God is taught in the passage we have before us today, a passage out of Deuteronomy 30:11-14. Moses says there to the people of God, “For this commandment which I command thee this day, it is not hidden from thee, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it? Neither is it beyond the sea, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it? But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it.” Such is the word of Moses to the people of Israel.
In that text we see that the Word of God is so clear that obedience and faith to that word is possible. Now, Moses was underscoring the ability to obey. He said, “For this commandment which I command thee this day, it is not hidden from thee, neither is it far off.” This word comes to Israel at a crucial juncture in her wilderness wanderings. She has almost completed those wanderings. Remember that for forty years she had to wander in the wilderness as judgment for her unbelief. Moses reminds her of that and then gives her the law of God for the second time. She had received it at the Mount Sinai. Most of the people who were at Sinai have died. So Moses repeats the law to this new generation. Now, in the last couple of chapters, Moses is underscoring the need to obey that law. Why must the law be obeyed? Not so much because that will earn salvation. Israel is about to enter Canaan not at all because she has obeyed the law. In fact, she has many times disobeyed. But she must obey the law in order to enjoy fellowship with God and the experience of His blessing.
What was that law that must be obeyed? It was the commands that Moses set before her — the Ten Commandments as well as all of the laws regarding how Israel must live as the people of God. It is necessary, Moses’ general argument is, that you, Israel, obey this law.
While our text seems to speak only of obedience to the law, it also speaks, by implication, of faith in the gospel. Just as the church must obey the law, so the church must believe in the gospel. We see that it speaks by implication of the faith in the gospel, first of all, because the law and gospel are not two essentially different things. Some say that the law was the way in which people were saved in the Old Testament, and the gospel is the way in which we are saved in the New Testament, so that law and gospel are two different things. But in fact, both law and gospel are an essential part of the revelation of God. God’s revelation is gospel. The law is gospel. For Israel the law, which spoke of Jesus Christ typified in the sacrifices and in the feasts that Israel must observe, was the gospel. The law, which taught her her sins because it commanded her to obey and love God and reminded her that she could not, pointed her to Jesus Christ and her need for Christ, who could alone obey the law and, therefore, save her. The law is the gospel.
The gospel is not that we can of ourselves keep the law and earn our place in heaven. But the gospel is that, though the law make known our imperfections and inabilities, Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law and has given us grace to obey the law again.
Reason number one, then, that we say that the text also speaks of the need for faith is that the law and the gospel are one.
Reason number two, probably even more important, is that when Paul in the New Testament quotes our text he applies it not to the command of the law, but to faith. He does that in Romans 10:6-8: “But the righteousness which is of faith speaketh on this wise, Say not in thine heart, Who shall ascend into heaven? (that is, to bring Christ down from above:) Or, Who shall descend into the deep? (that is, to bring up Christ again from the dead.) But what saith it? The word is nigh thee, even in thy mouth, and in thy heart: that is, the word of faith, which we preach.” He quotes, not just merely alludes to, but quotes part of the words of Moses with application to the gospel and faith in the gospel. So we must understand that faith in the gospel is absolutely necessary to salvation also. Not because faith in the gospel is our work; not because it is a condition that we meet; but because the gospel is the only place in which the truth of the word of God regarding our salvation is set forth, and faith is the only means God uses to cause us to love and to know that gospel and enjoy its blessedness.
So, in a word, Moses is requiring the people to obey, and Paul (both Moses and Paul speaking by inspiration) requires faith.
Now, Moses anticipates excuses people might give why they did not obey and then excuses they might give why they did not believe. The fundamental excuse is that the Word of God is too difficult to understand, by the common person anyway. If it is to be understood at all, it would take a special person to help us understand it. “Who shall go up for us to heaven and bring it unto us that we may hear it and do it?” There must be, according to this excuse that Moses anticipates, a special person to explain this law to us. Or, “Who shall go over the sea for us and bring it unto us that we may hear it and do it?” There must be a special person to go over and get the law for us. Fundamentally, then, the excuse is: The word of God is too difficult for us; it takes a special person to understand it.
One might say that the Scriptures are too difficult because God’s speech is apparently too wonderful to understand. That is the first excuse Moses refers to. It is not in heaven, that thou shouldest say, “Who shall go up for us to heaven and bring it unto us that we may hear it and do it?” The appeal here is to the infinite difference between God and man. God knows all things. Man, by nature, knows nothing. God is spirit; we are creatures. How then is man expected to understand the Word of God? Now this excuse that Moses anticipates is really an attempt at piety. It would be using the truth about God, for God is spirit and God does know all; man is but a creature and does know nothing true of himself — it is to take the truth about God and to use it in a way He does not approve of.
That, first of all, would be an excuse that some would use for not obeying or believing — we could not understand, we are just humans.
Another excuse is that someone says, “The word of God is too difficult because it was written in another language and to another people.” Neither is it beyond the sea that thou shouldest say, “Who shall go over the sea for us and bring it unto us that we may hear it and do it?” Someone says, “After all, the Scriptures were given to a people far off in a different country and with a different language and with different customs. How can I, living in the year 2003 in the United States, understand a word written to the Hebrews millennia ago? It takes a special person, one with a better understanding of the culture in which it was originally written, to understand.”
Moses anticipates these excuses, how striking, before he speaks to the people of God. The people of God who have wandered in the wilderness and have been taught that God is angry with those who do not obey and believe — surely they want to know the law now. Surely they will obey it. Surely they desire to believe the gospel. Surely they are not going to look for reasons to avoid obeying and believing. Yet they do. And Moses anticipates it.
Saved men and women are still prone to sin. You and I, saved by the blood of Christ with the Holy Spirit sanctifying us, still have in us the old man of sin, still sometimes want to do what the law forbids and to believe what the gospel will not permit us to believe, and then to find an excuse.
Not only is it true of every one of us because of the sin that remains in us, but also it is true because the church of Jesus Christ as manifest on earth is made up of believers and unbelievers. Those unbelievers in the church do not always show themselves to be unbelievers at first. They appear to love the things that the church loves. But in due time they show that they are really unbelievers and not at all interested in obeying the law of God.
That is how it was for Israel so many times in the wilderness, and then, even when she went into the land of Canaan, it became clear that not all who were of Israel were truly Israel.
Moses, anticipating these excuses, shows also that he was governed by the Holy Spirit, for these excuses are used today and have been throughout history by those denying the clarity, the clearness, of Scripture. Some say, “Scripture is too wonderful for the average Joe to understand. But I have figured it out. Listen to me! I can go into heaven and bring it to you. I can go across the sea and understand it for you.” Some say, “Don’t read the Word of God yourself. Just listen to the preacher or the priest. They understand better than you.” Some say, “You have to understand the numerical codes hidden in Scripture. Or you have to understand the hidden meanings of words in the original language truly to understand Scripture. Listen to me. I’ve cracked the code.” And others say, “Because Scripture was written in a different culture, I have immersed myself in that culture and I have insights necessary to understand Scripture.” This is the idea behind the “new hermeneutics,” the new way of interpreting Scripture. Scripture itself is cultural and time-bound. We have to find a way to apply Scripture to our culture. But as we do so, there will be changes. It takes a scholar to be able to do that. These are the excuses that Moses anticipates and that we hear today.
But anticipating those excuses, Moses refutes them. You may not use those excuses, he says to Israel! In Him, the abiding Word of God, which is not bound by any culture, comes to you and me today. You and I may not use any excuses for not believing or not obeying. The Word of God is not hidden. It is not far off. It is not in heaven. It is not beyond the sea. But it is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart.
It could not be closer. The Word of God is not close to us merely because it was written in human language and we are humans so we can understand. Oh, in that sense it is close. But the child of God understands that the word of God is close to him because God has worked it in him and has given him the understanding of it by His Holy Spirit.
There is, therefore, no excuse for not obeying or believing. God made His Word as simple as possible. He spoke it originally to men who wrote it in the Greek and Hebrew languages, to be read and heard by people who spoke and understood the Greek and Hebrew languages. As one reformer said, “He spoke it as baby talk.” It was so clear, it was so down-to-earth. Baby talk — not that He mumbled. We heard it.
The child of God understands that the word of God
is close to him because God has worked it in him
and has given him the understanding of it
by His Holy Spirit.
And then, do not think that God gave the Word just to one people in one time in history. He gave it to His church. It is true that in the Old Testament His church was comprised of Jews in Israel. Then, in the New Testament, it was comprised also of Gentiles in Europe. But, above all, He gave His word to sinners. That is why the Word of God transcends cultures. It is spoken to sinners in a language that sinners, who know and hate their sin, can understand. And this, dear radio listeners, is the doctrine of perspicuity or the clearness of Scripture. Scripture is able to be understood. You can read it and know what it means, what it requires of you, and that it builds you up in the faith.
When we say it is clear, we do not mean that we are able to comprehend it. To comprehend it means that we understand it fully, that we need not go back to it again because we have exhausted it. That no child of God will be able to do. Scripture is deep and profound. And every time the child of God reads it again, he says, “That’s new. Not that God gave a new revelation, but I understand it in a new way.”
That Scripture is clear and able to be understood does not mean that the child of God need not go to church and sit under the preaching of the gospel, that we can skip church because we all know what Scripture says. In fact, in Romans 10, the passage in which Paul quotes our text, he is doing so to underscore that this gospel we preach, and that through preaching God works faith.
But it is clear. You can understand it.
What is the explanation for the clarity? It is the work of Jesus Christ in the hearts of His people by the Holy Spirit. In fact, then, there are some who will say, “I do not understand,” who will put Scripture down and say, “I just don’t get it.” The reason will be, they have not the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Scripture bears that out — II Peter 3:16. Peter, by inspiration, addresses the church and speaks of the hard things in the epistles of Paul, “in which are some things hard to be understood.” Then he speaks of a certain kind of people who wrest them, as they do also the other Scriptures, unto their own destruction. “Wrest,” that is, they twist them. But he indicates that those who twist the Scriptures, because they are hard to be understood, are unlearned and unstable. And he exhorts the church that they not do that. Those who are unlearned and unstable and who wrest the Scriptures have not the gift of the Spirit. Paul also shows this in Romans 10, where he quotes Deuteronomy 30.
Excuses for not believing are fundamentally a rejection that Jesus Christ is the Savior. And if anyone say, “But I still do need one to go up into heaven and to bring the word down to me or to descend into the deep,” then, Paul says, We have that one in Jesus Christ! “The righteousness which is of faith speaketh in this wise, Say not in thine heart, Who shall ascend into heaven? (that is, to bring Christ down from above:) or, Who shall descend into the deep? (that is, to bring up Christ again from the dead.) But what saith it? The word is nigh thee, even in thy mouth and in thy heart: that is, the word of faith, which we preach.” Jesus Christ, living in our hearts, having been sent from heaven into our sinful flesh to reveal God to us, having been sent to the depth of the grave to redeem us from sin, now living in our hearts, makes clear to us what the Word of God requires.
Do you say, “But it was written in a foreign language”? “But it’s too heavenly”? “But it’s written to a different culture”? Then you must ask yourself the question: “Is Jesus Christ alive in me?” Christ has made the Scriptures clear.
Are they for you? Oh, even for me, dear radio listeners, there are parts about which I say, “I don’t understand fully what this means.” And other parts about which I say, “I’m not sure if I even really have begun to understand what this says.” That does not deny the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture. Much of Scripture we understand. And, even those passages we do not understand, this is clear to us: they do reveal the salvation God gives.
Does not even a child, after all, know what it means: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want”?
Therefore, dear radio listeners, use the Scriptures as your guide. Study them, search them, work with them, learn from them, and enjoy the freedom that comes to those who believe and obey.
Let us pray.
Heavenly Father, keep us from ever making excuses for our disobedience or unbelief. We believe, help our unbelief. Work faith in our hearts more strongly and cause us to glorify Thee in all that we do, for Jesus’ sake, Amen.