Hotter than the Sun
It’s my last day at the beach this year, so why am I blogging and not out on the beach? As always, I sunburn BAD at the beach. I was fine until yesterday, when the sun decided all of a sudden to shine just bright enough to get past my SPF 45 broad-spectrum sunscreen. My back is redder than the sweet and sour chicken I ate on my date with Abi last night, so I’m inside the condo this afternoon while the sun is at its hottest.
I’ve gone from reading Isaiah to reading Deuteronomy, so the hotness of the beach sun and its blistering effect on my skin makes me wonder at something that came up repeatedly in Deuteronomy 4-11: How hot and intimidating must God’s fire have been to the Israelites when they received the law at Mt. Sinai, or Horeb as it’s referred to in Deuteronomy?
In these chapters of Deuteronomy Moses recaps the events at Mt. Sinai and reiterates the ten commandments and the command to fear, love, and serve the Lord. He addresses these commands to a second generation of Israelites who had wandered in the wilderness, those who had been under the age of twenty when the Israelites refused to enter the Promised Land because of the negative report of ten of the twelve spies (see Num. 13-14).
Although this is a new generation of Israelites, Moses insists that they were present at the giving of the law at Sinai (Deut. 4:9-11). Some of these undoubtedly were present, as children, but many had not been. Nevertheless, Moses says that they were there, in effect, because upon the giving of the law the Israelites as a people pledged, “we will hear and do” all that God commands them through Moses (Deut. 5:27). Because this new generation of Israelites are God’s people, they are just as obligated to obey God’s law as though they had been present at its giving, even if they had not been born yet.
And as Moses reiterates the law to these Israelites, he emphasizes the consuming fire of God. Indeed, “the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God,” Moses tells the people (Deut. 4:24). And because “God is a consuming fire,” Mt. Sinai “burned with fire to the heart of heaven, wrapped in darkness, cloud, and doom” when God gave the law to Moses (v. 11). Because the Lord spoke “out of the midst of the fire,” the Israelites are to
- watch themselves “very carefully” (v. 15),
- “beware” of making idols (vv. 16-19), and
- “take care” to not “forget the covenant” that God has made with them (v. 23).
If they commit idolatry, however, they consequently “provoke him [God] to anger” and “will soon utterly perish from the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess. You will not live long in it, but will be utterly destroyed” (vv. 25, 26). God will scatter them to other nations, where they will be forced to serve idols in “tribulation” (vv. 27-29). But God is merciful; when they “return to the LORD [their] God and obey his voice,” God “will not leave [them] or destroy [them] or forget the covenant” because he “is a merciful God” (vv. 30, 31). And the Israelites know God’s mercy: “Did any people ever hear the voice of a god speaking out of the midst of the fire, as you have heard, and still live?” Moses asks (v. 33). “Or has any god ever attempted to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs, by wonders, and by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and by great deeds of terror, all of which the LORD your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes?” (v. 34).
But recall that this mercifulness is to any generation who repents of its wickedness: wicked, unrepentant generations are burned by the fire of God’s judgment. As Moses reiterates his statement from Deuteronomy 4:24 in Deuteronomy 6:15: since “the LORD your God in your midst is a jealous God,” sin causes God’s anger to “be kindled” like a fire that will “destroy [sinning Israelites] from off the face of the earth.” Idolatry, particularly, causes God’s destructive, fiery anger to “be kindled” (Deut. 7:4). One specific consequence of Israelite idolatry would be that “the anger of the LORD will be kindled against [them], and he will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain, and the land will yield no fruit, and you will perish quickly off the good land that the LORD is giving you” (11:17).
So the question for each generation of Israelites is this: will they love the Lord their God, serve him, and obey him; or will they forsake the Lord their God and follow idols? Will God be “a consuming fire” to their enemies, “destroy[ing] them and subdu[ing] them” (Deut. 9:3), or will God be “a consuming fire, a jealous God” toward them (4:24)?
But what does all this have to do with us Christians? The Israel of the Old Testament and the Church of the New Testament are not exactly the same. However, there are some striking correlations between the two. God’s people in the Old Testament were not all God’s people (e.g., Rom. 2:28-29; 9:6). Similarly, everyone who is a church member is not necessarily a member of the Church (e.g., Matt. 7:21-23; 18:15-17). This is how the author of Hebrews applies these warnings from Deuteronomy throughout his book. He quotes Deuteronomy 4:24 in Hebrews 12:29 as he warns his readers: “See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. … for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:25, 29). The author of Hebrews elsewhere puts it this way:
Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. … For who were those who heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses? … And to whom did he [God] swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.
Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it. …
Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience. (Heb. 3:12, 16, 18; 4:1, 11)
This is the author of Hebrews’s Holy Spirit-inspired argument: just as the first generation of Israelites failed to enter the promised land because of their disobedient unbelief, so also Christians must persevere in the faith because true faith is persevering faith, without which one will not enter God’s eternal rest. This is the stark picture the author of Hebrews paints later in his book:
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay. And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (10:23-31)
Here the author of Hebrews quotes Deuteronomy 32:35 and 36 to determine that even people who claim Christ, if they sin deliberately (that is, habitually and as a pattern of life; cf. 1 John 3:4-10), prove that they are not saved, and consequently incur the fire of God’s judgment. Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 13:5 are applicable here: “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?–unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” Every person who claims Christ as Savior and Lord must ask themselves if he really is their Lord, or if they are really serving the devil.
Is God’s consuming fire going to consume your enemies (those unsaved people who persecute or afflict you) at the Day of Judgment, or will God’s consuming fire consume you because you are not truly trusting Jesus Christ for salvation from sin? My prayer is Paul’s: “I hope you will find out that we [both you and I!] have not failed the test” (2 Cor. 13:6).