A Redemptive-Historical and Christocentric Approach to Preaching Old Testament Law

A Christ-Centered Ethics Needed for “Skin-Deep” Christianity

“Filipinos, as a whole, are deeply religious,” observes Evelyn Miranda-Feliciano. Her observation thirty years ago still rings true today. For her, this trait “is not an adequate demonstration of our Christian faith…Our kind of Christianity is too often only skin-deep, it is mere religious fastidiousness that centers on the rituals and practices of the faith, not on their meanings and substance.”[1] The Covid-19 pandemic which threatens those “rituals and practices” should cause us to reflect more “on their meanings and substance.” Our weekly corporate gatherings are a crucial aspect of that Christian ritual for it has the power to re-capture and shape our heart’s imaginations. James K. A. Smith argues, “We are embodied, affective creatures who are shaped and primed by material practices or liturgies that aim our hearts to certain ends, which in turn draw us to them in a way that transforms our actions by inscribing in us habits or dispositions to act in certain ways.”[2]

But to what ends? For too often, our Christian rituals are disconnected from real-life relationships. Many Christians live their lives content on mere external expressions of their faith without the more fundamental internal reality of love for God. Even when we talk about loving God, we struggle in how to concretely express this vertical affection in horizontal ways, that is, loving other people—our families, our church, and our society. It is not only because we are detached and isolated from other people, as our experience with multiple community quarantine levels during the pandemic shows. The solution is not merely to be more practical in our religious expressions, or be more actively engaged in our social ethical relations. It is to recover a more Christ-centered lifestyle as Christians, for how can we live otherwise if our identity is so wrapped up in him, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20 ESV)?

Aldrin Peñamora seeks to recover this christocentric emphasis in ethical discussions, “The centrality of the person of Christ in the field of systematics holds true all the more in Christian ethics. Indeed, its christocentric emphasis is what makes ethics distinctively Christ-ian.”[3] And, if the Scripture—the New Testament as well as the Old Testament—is the “norming norm” for Christian ethics, so we should embrace that christocentric emphasis as well. Biblical theologian Graeme Goldsworthy asserts that “in dealing with ethical issues, indeed all matters of decision making (ethical or otherwise), the question we should ask ourselves is, ‘What course of action or behavior is consistent with the gospel’”?[4]

Christian preachers have a unique privilege and responsibility week-in and week-out to address the prevalent “skin-deep Christianity” in our churches today. But we should do away with selectivity in our preaching, like focusing only on our favorite texts or topics or confining ourselves to NT texts. If we want our people to be “all Scripture” (2 Tim. 3:16) Christians, we must preach “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). As I will argue for the rest of this paper, this includes the OT in general and the OT laws in particular. In recent years, there has been a resurgence in preaching from the OT. But we should avoid the danger of moralism and legalism, taking God’s commands as the basis of our acceptance with him. Rather, we must show how these texts point to God’s provision of grace in Christ for our justification as well as our sanctification. A truly expository sermon is gospel-centered, that is, “an exposition of the gospel and its implications. While we don’t always focus on the heart of the gospel, no text will yield its true significance unless it is understood in its organic relationship to the gospel.”[5]

For the formation of a truly Christ-centered Christian ethics, Christians should be equipped how to read the whole of Scripture with a Christ-centered lens. Pastors, unlike academicians, are situated and called by God to demonstrate that to his people as they stand behind the pulpit resolved to preach nothing “except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:1). This way we help Christians resist a legalistic addiction to the law and overcome an antinomian aversion to it by stirring their affections for Christ and his commands, exclaiming, “Oh how I love your law! Your law is my delight” (Psa. 119:97, 174).

The road we must take to reach that is not an easy one, but not impossible either. “The crucial thing for the preacher,” if we want to train God’s people to value and properly handle the law, “is to reach some consistent hermeneutic that enables the congregation to apply the significance of the law as it is fulfilled in Christ.”[6]

Preaching Deuteronomy as Christian Scripture

For that “consistent hermeneutic,” I believe that the book of Deuteronomy, the fifth and last volume of the Pentateuch, offers immense help. Chances are, you probably have already preached or listened to a sermon on this book, perhaps on the Ten Commandments in chapter 5 or the Greatest Commandment in chapter 6. Even if the main text is not in Deuteronomy, you can’t avoid some of its well-known passages for it is the third most cited book in the New Testament (over 100 citations!) next to Isaiah and the Psalms.

The majority of the book’s content is three speeches or sermons delivered by Moses on the plains of Moab to the new generation of Israelites about to enter the promised land (Deut. 1:1–3). But its significance and implications far transcend its original audience historically, geographically, and culturally. Jesus used three passages in this book to counter-attack Satan’s temptations in the wilderness (Matt. 4; Luke 4). Paul quoted or alluded from it extensively in his letter to the Romans (2:29; 7:7; 10:6–8, 19; 12:19; 13:9; 15:10). So, its audience includes the church as well and has “ongoing theological significance and authority” for “men and women of faith for all time.” The addresses by Moses “may have had its most specific and immediate relevance to those who heard him, but they could not and did not exhaust its theological and practical significance.”[7]

To mine Deuteronomy’s theological and practical riches, I would suggest that, instead of cherry-picking a few passages to preach on Deuteronomy, we must consider working our way through the book from beginning to end. Whether preaching through it in two, six, or ten months, preachers should demonstrate a consistent Christ-centered approach and help their congregation apply the teachings of this book to bear on our unique Filipino contemporary context. Sidney Greidanus calls this method the “redemptive-historical christocentric method.” Falling somewhere between Calvin’s theocentric method and Luther’s christological method,

The christocentric method complements the theocentric method of interpreting the Old Testament by seeking to do justice to the fact that God’s story of bringing his kingdom on earth is centered in Christ: Christ the center of redemptive history, Christ the center of the Scriptures. In preaching any part of Scripture, one must understand its message in the light of that center, Jesus Christ.[8]

The extent and depth of this hermeneutical approach to preaching Deuteronomy—and the whole Scripture for that matter—enables preachers to be better equipped not merely to pay lip service to both sola Scriptura and tota Scriptura, but concretely demonstrate to their congregations that, indeed, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16–17).

One can also make the same case in preaching through the Sinaitic law (found in Exodus to Numbers), but I have chosen Deuteronomy for it is particularly instructive not just because of the theological richness and practical relevance of its content but also because of the vehicle it uses to communicate that—preaching. The name we use to refer to that book came from two Latin words deutero and nomos, meaning “second law.” This is unfortunate for it lends to a misunderstanding about the book’s nature. It is not a different version of the law given at Sinai, nor a mere repetition of its contents. “Although the book reviews legislation recorded in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, it is not a mere copy. Former laws are partially restated, amended, and applied to the special circumstances and needs of the new generation reared in the wilderness.”[9]

Before it was inscripturated, it was first preached. “These speeches are proper preaching in any age—the proclamation of the redemptive grace of God as a basis for exhortation to obedience.”[10] Moses before his death, after pastoring God’s people for 40 years, most of them wandering in the wilderness, took on the role of a preacher-teacher. The theme of his sermon was not just about God’s commandments for his people. Daniel Block notes that the basic meaning of law in the Old Testament is not the way we use the word today. The Hebrew torah is much captured in Greek by didache or didaskalia (“teaching, instruction”) rather than the more popular Septuagint rendering of the term, nomos.[11] As such, “Deuteronomy is not to be received as a legal reference text for checking on particular matters. It is divine instruction—laid on the heart, encouraged, motivated, and explained.”[12] Taking that in mind, preachers can avoid getting bogged down by the difficulties we encounter in interpreting specific details of the law like, “You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk” (14:21).

Patrick Miller cites several features of the book that makes it preaching—

(1) frequent reference to “this day” or “today,” (2) the use of “we” in the credos and elsewhere, (3) frequent emphatic use of second-person pronouns (“you”), (4) repeated summons to hearing, (5) numerous vocatives, (6) appeal to memory as a way of actualizing the past in the present, (7) use of threat and promise to motivate hearers to respond, (8) appeal to heart and mind, and (9) use of illustration (cf. Deut. 19:5 and Exod. 21:12–14).[13]

This series of sermons delivered before Moses’ death makes it even more urgent. “Valedictory” is a more appropriate term, according to Merrill: “Moses’s farewell address to his people on the eve of his impending death…a great sermon delivered by the greatest of the Old Testament prophets…thus showing the possibility of communicating virtually any kind of message in any kind of mode, all within one sustained address.”[14] In its sermonic and hortatory form, we can learn from Moses how to apply God’s ancient word to our generation today.

Many commentators refer to Deuteronomy as “the theological heartbeat of the Old Testament.” As such, “its neglect in Christian pulpits and the general faith and practice of the church means that we are neglecting a vitally important work.”[15] May we then rediscover this treasure house. But first, we must deal with several theological and ideological hurdles along our way.

Relevance of Old Testament Law for Christians

A preacher will not devote a sermon or a series of sermons on the Old Testament if he is not convinced of its authority and relevance for the Christian church. An overly negative view about the Old Testament can be traced back to the second-century heretic Marcion, who tried to sever the Old Testament from the New Testament, Israel and the church, the God of the Old Testament to the God of the New Testament.[16] This sentiment is still present today but rare. What is more prevalent, though, is what one OT scholar refers to as “functional Marcionism.” We may confess the authority of the Old Testament as God’s Word but obvious neglect of preaching from the OT contradicts that confession.

The sharp distinction made by Martin Luther between the gospel and the law also somehow contributes to this negative attitude among Christians about OT law.

For Luther the law creates bondage and kills; by contrast the gospel brings freedom and new life. The law is accuser, prosecutor, judge and jailer all in one. The gospel is pardoner, defender, acquitter, and friend all in one. The law and the gospel are opposed to each other. Within this matrix, Luther, generally speaking, holds to a radical antithesis between grace and law.[17]

From a Lutheran perspective, the law is designed by God to restrain evil in society and to expose our corruption and inability to obey, driving us to seek redemption in Christ. Paul states that “the law was our guardian” to Christ (Gal. 3:24), but it doesn’t mean that we must have a negative view of the Old Testament and the law, and only associate the gospel with the New Testament as if the gospel is absent in the OT. Biblical theologian Geerhardus Vos notes that Pauline statements on the law “are sometimes apt to lead into this error. But they are not meant by the Apostle in this absolute, mutually exclusive sense.”[18] For Paul, “the law is holy, righteous and good” (Rom. 7:12). The misuse of the law for self-justification is the problem.

The overall structure of Deuteronomy debunks the tendency to detach the gospel from the law. The general and specific stipulations of the law in chapters 5–26 are preceded by four chapters of historical prologue, narrating God’s past acts of rescuing grace for his people. Before the “you shall’s” and “you shall not’s” of the Decalogue, God reminds them of who he is and what he has done for them, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (5:6). Block concludes, “There is no conflict here between law and grace. The Torah is a gracious gift. It provided His people with an ever-present reminder of YHWH’s deliverance, His power, His covenant faithfulness, and the way of life and prosperity.”[19]

Block also includes some strands of dispensationalism (“We are now in church age.”) and New Covenant Theology (“The Mosaic law has no claim on Christians. We are subject only to the law of Christ”) as contributing factors to contemporary aversion to OT law. Block buttressed his argument with a higher Christology, noting that “this dichotomy is remarkable, especially in the face of the New Testament’s repeated and emphatic identification of Jesus Christ with YHWH.”[20]

Aside from these theological prejudices, the “essentially antinomian stance of contemporary western culture”[21] contributes greatly to this negative attitude about Old Testament law. Can we say the same thing about Filipino evangelical culture? I think so, especially in the way we present the gospel of grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone in such a way as to make an impression that obeying the law is no longer important. This, along with the other negative views of the use of the Old Testament for New Testament Christians, has adverse effects on preaching from the law. But, Block wonders how this can be the case:

How Christians can tolerate this antinomian stance remains a mystery to me, especially in the light of Jesus’ own statements that he came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it, and his own declarations of its permanent validity (Matt. 5:17–20); in the light of his declaration that love for him is demonstrated first and foremost by keeping his commands (John 14:15; cf. 15:10); and Paul’s assertion that “It is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (Rom. 2:13).[22]

This is also the reason why the message of Deuteronomy “has been largely lost to the church. This is a tragedy because few books in the Old or New Testament proclaim such a relevant word of grace and gospel to the church today.”[23]

In terms of the law’s relevance to the church today, John Calvin has a more positive view of the law than Luther. For him, the law has a third function, aside from its civil and theological use. In its pedagogical use, the law instructs the people of God in how to live a life of righteousness. “Obviously, however, it can only function this way if it does so in the framework of the gospel.”[24] So, Deuteronomy is surely included in the “all Scripture” that is profitable for our training in righteousness and, therefore, the Word of God that must be heralded in every congregation (2 Tim. 3:16–4:2).

The Puritans carried this Calvinistic tradition in having a positive view of the law. For them, the law “restores the notion of duty to the Christian life” and “gives shape to the Christian life.” “The function of the gospel…is not to destroy the law, but rather to establish the telos of that law which includes its rewriting in the hearts of believers, and obedience to it coming to expression in their lives.”[25] Evangelical Christians should rightly be called gospel (evangel) people, but it should not lead to a denigration of the law.

A Survey of Approaches to Applying the Law

Having established the abiding significance of the law for the Christian, we are now in a position to ask, “How should we then apply OT law to Christians today?” The Christian Theonomist position, though few advocate this today, takes the Reformed perspective on the law too far. In seeking to apply every facet of the law to modern society, they forget that the NT does not “envision the church as a theocratic entity.” “The church of Jesus Christ is not a political or nationalistic entity as Israel was. The church comprises people from every ethnic and cultural group…Therefore, the moral norms of the church would not necessarily be enforced also at the state level.”[26]

A more popular perspective today is those who categorize OT laws into three distinct categories—moral laws, ceremonial laws, and civil laws.[27] Civil laws are those laws pertaining to Israel as a political entity. As noted above, it is no longer applicable to the church today. Ceremonial laws are also abrogated in use and not in effect as it is fulfilled in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. This tends to cause readers to bypass sections dealing with sacrifices, offerings, and temple rituals because they are perceived as irrelevant. Though it is no longer necessary for us to perform those sacrifices in light of Christ, preaching from those passages enriches our understanding of the gospel, causing us to fix our eyes on the glory of the Lord, which according to Paul is how we are being transformed (2 Cor. 3:18). In this tripartite division of the law, only the moral law, summarily expressed in the Decalogue, is binding for us today. One obvious difficulty is in dealing with the law on the Sabbath. Is it a moral law? Or ceremonial? Or also civil?

This categorization offers some help in interpretation, but not without its difficulties. Several OT scholars have already noted the inadequacy of this approach.[28] OT scholars like Christopher Wright and Waldemar Janzen offer a more functional understanding of the law. They both use the term “paradigmatic” (but with several different nuances) to help Christians today discern the ethical principle or application behind every law. Wright even asserts that this paradigmatic approach enables the church to participate in the socio-economic realm. However, it blurs the distinction of the church as the people of God today.[29]

This is not meant to be a detailed critique of the approaches mentioned above. I recognize the intricacies and the complexities in our effort to navigate our understanding of the continuity and discontinuity in the old and new covenants. Others see greater discontinuity, while others see greater continuity. Without getting trapped in the web of complexities of the details of OT laws, here is where I believe a gospel-centered hermeneutic is valuable. Christ—his person and his work—defines the law and the people of God today and, therefore, our application of OT law.

A Christ-Centered Approach

Having a framework for interpretation may help set boundaries in terms of what application is legitimate and what is not, but a framework may not be flexible enough in dealing with Deuteronomy. Although this book contains numerous laws, it is sermonic in form, liturgical in structure, and embedded in a narrative flow. Instead, I will propose that preachers who are intent on preaching Deuteronomy should have a consistent approach in handling it as Christian Scripture, that is, gospel-centered. With this approach, should we move from the law to the gospel, or from the gospel to the law? Goldsworthy said that we may need both approaches,  “A Christian must recognize that we never approach the Old Testament as anything other than as Christians and with Christian eyes.”[30]

The Puritan Samuel Bolton, in his book True Bounds of Christian Freedom, recognizes a law-gospel-law approach, “The law sends us to the gospel that we may be justified; and the gospel sends us to the law again to inquire what is our duty as those who are justified…The law sends us to the gospel for our justification; the gospel sends us to the law to frame our way of life.”[31]

The gospel shapes how we live our lives as Christians. The gospel is a story and we are story-formed creatures. With that firmly in mind, we should not take the “bare” law and treat it as a legal text, but rather see it as deeply embedded in narrative—not just the narrative of God’s rescue of Israel from Egypt and their eventual conquest of and life in the promised land, but also the meta-narrative of creation, fall, rescue, and consummation. Without this “narrative framework,” it is impossible for us to understand the full significance of Deuteronomy.[32]

Several elements are crucial in this Christ-centered approach.

Theological

First, preaching Deuteronomy should be theological. The words Moses preached are words of Yahweh (1:3) and the commands Israel was to obey carefully are from him (26:16). This God-centeredness sets it apart from other similar documents during that time, “The biblical laws are theocentric in essence and expression, and as such are necessarily of a different genre from most comparative material.”[33] At the center of Deuteronomy is Yahweh who claims his people as his own, “I am the LORD your God” (5:6). Removing the law from the character of the Law-Giver is the essence of legalism, according to Calvin.[34]

So, before asking how we should apply in our lives today a particular text or a specific law in Deuteronomy, we must first ask, “How is God revealing himself in Moses’ speech? How does God want his people to know him? How is his holiness revealed in this particular law? From what aspect of his character and gracious work for us does this command flow?” The preacher’s main business is not to confuse or beat his people with the law but to give them a glimpse of the majesty of God. After all, Deuteronomy is often referred to as “the theological heartbeat of the Old Testament.”

Covenantal

Second, preaching Deuteronomy should be covenantal. The literary structure of this book is comparable to many Ancient Near Eastern suzerain-vassal treaties. We can even structure this book along the lines of the six common elements of these treaties:[35] (1) The preamble (1:1–5) gives some information about the parties involved, including its geographical and historical setting; (2) the historical prologue and call to obedience (1:6–4:48) recount God’s rescue of Israel and past demonstrations of his faithfulness to them; (3) the general stipulations (5:1–11:32), starting with the Decalogue, detail the requirements for both parties—primarily God’s requirements for his people—including a pledge of loyalty or allegiance; (4) the specific stipulations (12:1–26:15) give specific instructions on “how to apply the broad requirements to everyday life and particular situations”; (5) the blessings and curses (27:1–28:68) contain the consequences for positive and negative responses to the law; and (6) the witnesses (30:19; 31:19; 32:1–43).

We often thought of laws as duties mandated to us. But thinking of Deuteronomy in terms of the covenant reminds us of its main intent, “Obedience to the law not primarily as a duty imposed by one party on another, but as an expression of covenant relationship.”[36] Scudder notes how Deuteronomy helps us overcome our legalistic view of OT law:

The ethical teaching of Deuteronomy is theologically based. The theology of the book can properly be termed “covenant theology.” Likewise, the ethical teachings of the book can be called “covenant ethics.” It is important to remember, however, that the Hebrew concept of a covenant is a ceremony establishing a binding relation. It is not a legalistic concept. A covenant need not be uniquely ethical, but God made it so by agreeing to watch over the future of the nation if the people would be obedient to his will for them (26:18-19).[37]

Far from being the basis of establishing a relationship with God, the stipulations of the law are an indication of the relationship Israel already had with God, not because of something they have done for God, but because of what God had already done for them, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (5:6). “The obedience called for in the book is not legalistic or external. We can say that the obedience is covenantal, for the Lord calls for obedience in response to his covenant mercy.”[38]

If, as Mark Strom notes, the law is not for establishment but a reminder and expression of God’s relationship with his people and his people’s relationship with him, [39] Deuteronomy lends easily to grace-motivated obedience. Spending a week or three in the first four chapters of the book, preachers will do well to remind the congregation again and again of God’s rescuing grace in Jesus. And as we deal with the specifics of the law and the repeated motive clauses referring to the exodus (5:15; 6:12, 21, 22; 7:18; 8:14; etc), we should anchor obedience to the gospel so that we may not be swayed by the constant danger of the waves of legalism, and ask constantly, “How should we then live our lives today in light of what God has done for us at the cross? How should we obey this law as God’s people in Christ?”

Canonical

Third, preaching Deuteronomy should be canonical. We must not attempt to preach it in isolation with the whole canon of Scripture. This approach takes literary interpretation to another level, the wider literary context of the whole Bible.[40] God’s revelation of his will in the Pentateuch will take a clearer view in the light of later revelation. Vanhoozer reminds us, “We must read the Bible canonically, as one book. Each part has meaning in light of the whole (and in light of its center, Jesus Christ). The canon is the primary context that enables us to discern and to describe what God is doing as author with the biblical texts.”[41] Canonical interpretation not only enables our greater understanding of the drama of redemption but also gives us clearer direction on how the church today continuously participates in that drama.[42] Some questions that might be helpful at this point are: “How do the prophets use this passage as the basis for their indictment of God’s people?”; “How does Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount elucidate this particular commandment?”; or “How does Paul’s use of Deuteronomy in Romans sharpen our understanding of God’s relationship with his people?”

Redemptive-Historical

Fourth, preaching Deuteronomy should be redemptive-historical. Similar to canonical interpretation, this approach takes historical interpretation along a wider sweep of God’s redemptive history. This asks the question not just of the meaning of a passage to its original hearers but also, “How does the redemptive-historical context from creation to new creation inform the contemporary significance of this text?”—thus revealing both continuity and discontinuity.[43] Instead of looking at one-to-one correspondence in applying OT injunctions to our situation today, a mistake too many Christians are prone to make, we must ask, “How does the coming of Jesus change the way God’s people apply this practice?” For example, circumcision as a sign of God’s covenant with Abraham and Israel was changed to baptism in the New Testament. We can still apply that command as a covenant sign but not in the same way as that of Israel.

Christological

That leads us to the essence of christocentric approach to preaching OT law. So fifth, preaching Deuteronomy should be Christological. This gives theocentric interpretation a sharper focus. We are not just asking how a particular passage reveals God, his character and his will, but also, climactically as the fullness of God’s revelation (John 1:17–18; Heb. 1:1–2), “How does this passage or law point to Jesus’ person and works as the righteous one and fulfiller of the law?” Why is this focus on Jesus important? According to Goldsworthy, “Jesus is the goal and fulfillment of the whole Old Testament, and, as the embodiment of the truth of God, he is the interpretative key to the Bible.”[44] Schreiner’s is similar, “The telos (completion or perfection) of the law, as well as the scopus (scope) of the whole of the Bible, is Jesus Christ. He is the end of the law (Rom. 10:4).”[45] John Calvin made a similar remark in his comment on Romans 10:4, “The law in all its parts has reference to Christ, and therefore no one will be able to understand it correctly who does not constantly strive to attain this mark.”[46]

As we preach Deuteronomy, we should look to Moses beyond his role as mediator for Israel, but as “truly a preacher of Jesus Christ. While he was not fully aware of this service, he was ultimately pointing to Christ when he shared the law with Israel.”[47] Block adds the following instructions to help in a christocentric approach to this book.

Having established the meaning of a specific Deuteronomic passage in its original context, we must reflect on the significance of the passage in the light of the later revelation, the incarnation, the cross, and the resurrection of Christ. Christ has indeed fulfilled the law (and the prophets, Matt. 5:17), which means not only that he is the perfect embodiment of all that the law demands and the perfect interpreter of its meaning, but also that he represents the climax of the narrative that includes Yahweh’s gracious self-disclosure at Sinai and his mediated self-disclosure through Moses on the plains of Moab. We need to abandon the low Christology that sees Moses as a type of Christ, or Christ as a second Moses in the Gospels, particularly in Matthew 5–7. The message of the New Testament is that Yahweh, the One who spoke directly at Sinai and indirectly through Moses, is none other than Jesus Christ, Yahweh incarnate in human form, and that Moses was his prophet.[48]

Greidanus listed seven ways to legitimately preach Christ from the Old Testament: the way of redemptive-historical progression, the way of promise fulfillment, the way of typology, the way of analogy, the way of longitudinal themes, the way of NT references, the way of contrast.[49] He also demonstrates how some of these can be utilized for preaching the law especially the way of analogy, NT references, and contrast. Using his suggestions, and utilizing both canonical and redemptive-historical approaches, we can avoid merely leap-frogging to Christ and truly demonstrate to our people how every text in Scripture leads us to Christ.

Ecclesial

However, in saying that Christ is the end of the law, it doesn’t mean that we end all our sermons with Christ and stop short of applying the text to our people. So sixth, preaching Deuteronomy should be ecclesial, that is, intended primarily for God’s people then and today. “Its proper theological place stands as a preaching of the Law of God to the redeemed and joyous people of God.”[50] On the Decalogue, Vos notes that although the primary application is to Israel, it also has “world-wide application in all ethical relationships.” Though Deuteronomy repeats the Decalogue “for a hortatory purpose” applying it to “the momentary situation of Israel,” their history was “shaped by God to mirror all important situations befalling the people of God in all subsequent ages…The historical adjustment does not detract from the universal application, but subserves it.”[51]

Stassen and Gushee agree that Christ functions as the norm for biblical interpretation within this kind of “whole canon” hermeneutic, but cautions against taking this “far too narrowly and abstractly.” Within that Christological-theological approach, we must include a sustained reflection on the ethical implications of the person, work, and teachings of Christ. “Any other approach functionally denies that Jesus is fully Lord, fully Savior, and fully Christ.”[52] As I already noted above, the theological dimension of the text means that we cannot detach ethics from the law-giver. The implication of this for Christ-centered ethics is far-reaching.

The Christological dimension is unavoidable once we recognize the personal relationship dimension. A Christian is defined by union with Christ and can never relate personally to God or anyone else apart from this fact. The idea that Old Testament laws relating to ethical behavior can somehow apply to Christians apart from Christ is, to say the least, a denial of who we are in Christ.[53]

A christocentric focus on ethics enables us to see all of life as a gift of God’s grace. Within the “law-grace-law-grace” perspective of looking at the Christian life, we are reminded that the law itself is God’s gracious gift to us. And because we failed to carefully and faithfully obey the law, we experienced God’s grace of salvation in the gospel. We now see the law as our rightful response to God’s saving grace. “The call to obedience is predicated upon the grace of God. Grace precedes demand, and in this sense, the book anticipates the pattern of salvation found in the NT.”[54] Then comes God’s enabling grace as we obey the law by the power of the indwelling Spirit. Like Israel, we cannot keep the law (29:4), but God’s remedy is the inward circumcision of the heart (30:6).[55] He then gives more grace as we obey. “That it may go well with you” is a frequently repeated motive clause in Deuteronomy (4:40; 5:16, 33; 6:3, 18; 12:25, 28; 22:7).[56] “The sequence is this: God blesses, Israel obeys, God continues to bless.”[57]

The law in Deuteronomy has implications for the non-Christian society, but only externally. The true intent of the law, all-of-life obedience flowing from reverent fear and whole-hearted love of God, is only possible for the regenerate. By all means, preachers should preach the Word to unbelievers to drive them to Christ and find life in him. But we must keep in mind the gathered assembly of believers every Sunday morning as our primary audience and ask, “How should this passage from Deuteronomy transform the community of the saints so that they may represent Christ every day to a watching world?”

Block notes the connection of the church today with Deuteronomy:

For modern readers plagued by a negative view of the OT in general and OT law in particular, the book of Deuteronomy offers a healthy antidote. Through the work of Christ not only is Israel’s relationship made possible, but the church, the new Israel of God, is grafted into God’s covenant promises. As was the case with Israel, access to these promises remains by grace alone, through faith alone. However, having been chosen, redeemed, and granted covenant relationship with God, his people will gladly demonstrate whole-hearted allegiance to him with whole-bodied obedience (cf. Rom. 12:1–2).[58]

Theology and Ethics in Deuteronomy

Preaching Deuteronomy using a theological, covenantal, canonical, redemptive-historical, Christological, and ecclesial approach, preachers can help their congregation debunk what Block termed as “mythconceptions” of Christians about OT law.[59] The “ritualistic myth” sees rituals in God’s law as boring and already obsolete with Christ’s final sacrifice on the cross. But, seeing the cross of Christ as bearing the curse of God due to us is far from boring (see Deut. 21:33 in Gal. 3:13). The “historical myth” assumes the irrelevance of OT law because it is far removed from us. Deuteronomy is both a reapplication of the law for a new generation and a recounting of their history as God’s people. Under the New Covenant and in Christ, that is our history too! The “ethical myth” wrongly evaluates the standard of ethics of OT law as grossly inferior compared to Christ’s ethics of love, which, by the way, is based on the great commandment to love God (Deut. 6:5 in Matt. 22:37). Look how many times “love” (28!) is mentioned in Deuteronomy, with stress on God’s love for us as the motivation of our love for him and others (e.g., Deut. 5:10; 6:5; 10:18–19). The “literary myth” assumes that its literary form is so ancient, making it hard for modern readers to understand. There are indeed challenging portions of the book, “but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (29:29).

Then there is also the “theological myth,” objecting to the view of God presented in the law. Even thru a cursory reading of the book, one will find a depiction of God as holy, loving, caring for justice to the poor and the oppressed, valuing life, and protecting and rewarding his people. The stubborn, corrupt, and uncircumcised human heart is the objectionable one, not the God who fashions our hearts in his image.

Seeing God as the Lead Actor, the Script-Writer, and the Director of this divine drama, we should ask this question, “What role in the ‘divine drama’ do we play, and what impact might that have upon our hearing and acting upon this text?”[60] As the local church wrestles with this question every Sunday morning, we will see how crucial for us Filipino Christians to hear the message of Deuteronomy. We will see how our relationship with God should be expressed not merely in religious rituals but also in our social interactions. We will see the importance of obedience not only as a duty to be fulfilled but as a grateful response to God’s redemptive grace, and not burdensome, but liberating and delightful (1 John 5:3; Deut. 30:11–14). Our selective tendency in ethical matters will be confronted by the all-of-life obedience emphasis of Deuteronomy—including how we handle money, how we steward our possessions, how we conduct ourselves in sexual chastity, how we work, and how we build houses.

On the diversity of expressions for obeying the Lord (listen, hear, obey, hold fast) and the repetitions of various terms used for the law (statutes, rules, commands, ways, testimonies—similar to Psalm 119!), Schreiner observes, “They communicate the comprehensiveness and richness of what it means to obey the Lord…Obedience to the Lord must be concrete and practically worked out in everyday life.”[61] This goes against the common individualistic piety among some Christians who are, especially in light of the pandemic, becoming more comfortable with their “it’s-between-me-and-the-Lord” Christianity. Peñamora reminds us that one cannot live this truncated version of the Christian life, “The Christian moral life, in its intertwined personal and ecclesial aspects, is above all a participation in Christ, with that participation primarily defined by responsibility for others.”[62] We have a responsibility for others—our family, our church, and the society we belong to.

Because of changing economic situations and cultural expectations, parents are used to sending their children to school or church for their education. Although this pandemic somehow forces us to take responsibility for our children’s schooling, that is God’s intent all along. “Parental responsibility for training children is strongly emphasized in Deuteronomy (cf. 4:9; 6:4-9, 20-25; 11:18-19; 32:46)…The method by which this was to be accomplished could hardly be matched in effectiveness: Every father must respond to his son’s search…Religious education in the home has continued to be a distinctive of Judaism.”[63]

Although the “you shall’s” of the Decalogue is singular, stressing individual responsibility, the detailed stipulations of the law show how that responsibility is worked out in taking responsibility for others. Drawing on Bonhoeffer’s works, Peñamora confronts today’s privatized or highly individualized Christianity:

Christian ethics focuses on the formation of Christ among God’s people both individually, as Christians, and collectively, as the church. These two person-al categories, the personal and the communal, cannot be separated, for the individual “I” only emerges in sociality; Christian personal life is possible only within the communal life of the church.[64]

We are responsible not only for people in our churches, but also to the larger society. In terms of the Christian’s social responsibility, in Deuterenomy

the principle is articulated that the covenant between Yahweh and Israel also has horizontal dimensions. To love God is to love God’s people, no matter their rank or station. Moreover, love of this kind is not an abstract emotion. Its reality must be seen in its application, its sense of social concern, and the alleviation of human need. A key theme of the book, then, is not just the enunciation of a broad principle of social welfare within the theocratic community but specific instruction as to how this can be fleshed out on behalf of the orphan, the widow, the poor, the stranger, and all others in Israel who would suffer deprivation (14:28–29; 15:7–18; 23:15–16; 24:14–15, 17–18, 19–22; 26:12–15).[65]

A Word to Filipino Pastors

We pastors have a vision for our people, and this vision must be rooted in God’s vision for his people. The message of the book of Deuteronomy and preaching it in a consistently redemptive-historical christocentric manner will help us shape that vision and eventually see it into fruition. The kind of Christianity Miranda-Feliciano envisions, in stark contrast with a “skin-deep” Christianity, resonates with God’s vision for his people in Deuteronomy:

Christianity means Christ and me in a growing relationship. This must be experienced not in some esoteric and mystical manner, but as that relationship affects the people around me. Our newness of life in Christ must be demonstrated before the world of men. It is a faith that must be conspicuous because it is visible in its involvement with people—our own family, our neighbors, our friends, and the rest of humanity. Not only in words but in terms of life and deeds, but by our steady grip on the arms of those who are weak and falling. Not by mere mouthing of Christian lingo but by living it.[66]

Unlike academics writing for the academy or trying to effect social transformation by bringing the ethical implications of Old Testament Law to secular society, pastors have a unique opportunity, and in a better place, to effect genuine transformation in the heart of God’s people through preaching week in and week out. To unleash Deuteronomy’s power for heart transformation, we should be careful not to treat it merely as a jumping board or a foil to the gospel. We do not just present the law’s demand as too high that none can attain it. “But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it” (Deut. 30:14). Paul cites this passage and applies it to faith in Christ and his word. “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). As Christians hear the word of Christ and see his glory in Deuteronomy, faith is awakened in our hearts and the Spirit helps us obey the law from the heart.

Preaching the law can be challenging—theologically, ethically, and culturally. No matter how tempting it is for preachers to dismiss a difficult portion of Scripture, our ministry decisions should be made not out of ease or convenience. That is why I agree with Moon, “Whatever the complexities that arise, the importance of Deuteronomy as preserved and given ‘for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come’ (1 Cor. 10:11) ought to be recovered in Christian pulpits.”[67] In line with the apostolic mandate to “preach the Word” (2 Tim. 4:2), let us preach Christ in Deuteronomy for the people of God entrusted to our care.


[1] Evelyn Miranda-Feliciano, Filipino Values and Our Christian Faith (Manila: OMF Literature, 1990), 95–96.

[2] James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, vol. 1, Cultural Liturgies (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 23.

[3] Aldrin M. Peñamora, “Ethics of Responsibility: Christ-Centered Personal and Social Ethics for Church and Society,” Journal of Asian Evangelical Theology 19, no. 1 (March 2015): 92.

[4] Graeme Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture: The Application of Biblical Theology to Expository Preaching (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 96.

[5] Goldsworthy, 96.

[6] Goldsworthy, 166.

[7] Eugene Merrill, “Deuteronomy,” in Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Philip Comfort, ed., vol. 2, Cornerstone Biblical Commentary (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2005), 451.

[8] Sidney Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament: A Contemporary Hermeneutical Method (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 227.

[9] C. W. Scudder, “Ethics in Deuteronomy,” Southwestern Journal of Theology 7, no. 1 (October 1964): 34.

[10] Patrick Miller, Deuteronomy, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching & Preaching (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1990), “Introduction.”

[11] Daniel Block, “Preaching Old Testament Law to New Testament Christians,” Southeastern Theological Review 3, no. 2 (2012): 200.

[12] Miller, Deuteronomy.

[13] Miller.

[14] Eugene Merrill, “Deuteronomy,” in Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Philip Comfort, ed., vol. 2, Cornerstone Biblical Commentary (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2005), 452.

[15] Joshua Moon, “Preaching Deuteronomy as Christian Scripture,” Southeastern Theological Review 2, no. 1 (2011): 40.

[16] Block, “Preaching Old Testament Law to New Testament Christians,” 195–96.

[17] Sinclair B. Ferguson, Some Pastors and Teachers: Reflecting a Biblical Vision of What Every Minister Is Called to Be (Carlisle, PN: Banner of Truth Trust, 2017), 327.

[18] Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments, Reprinted (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2000), 128.

[19] Block, “Preaching Old Testament Law to New Testament Christians,” 216–17.

[20] Block, 196.

[21] Block, 195.

[22] Block, 197.

[23] Daniel I. Block, Deuteronomy, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), “Introduction.”

[24] Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture, 166.

[25] Ferguson, Some Pastors and Teachers, 341.

[26] Thomas R. Schreiner, Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ: A Pauline Theology. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012), 379.

[27] See John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, II.7.

[28] See, among others, Christopher J. H. Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011) and Waldemar Janzen, Old Testament Ethics: A Paradigmatic Approach (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994).

[29] John Wind, “Not Always Right: Critiquing Christopher Wright’s Paradigmatic Application of the Old Testament to the Socio-Economic Realm,” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 19, no. 2 (2015): 81–104.

[30] Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture, 153.

[31] Cited in Ferguson, Some Pastors and Teachers, 343.

[32] Thomas R. Schreiner, The King in His Beauty: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 80.

[33] Gary Millar, Now Choose Life: Theology and Ethics in Deuteronomy, vol. 6, New Studies in Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2000), 105; cited in Schreiner, The King in His Beauty, 92.

[34] Ferguson, Some Pastors and Teachers, 331.

[35] Merrill, “Deuteronomy,” 453–54.

[36] Block, “Preaching Old Testament Law to New Testament Christians,” 211.

[37] Scudder, “Ethics in Deuteronomy,” 34.

[38] Schreiner, The King in His Beauty, 85.

[39] Cited in Anthony T. Selvaggio, From Bondage to Liberty: The Gospel According to Moses (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2014), 121.

[40] Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament, 231.

[41] Kevin Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical Linguistic Approach to Christian Doctrine (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 178.

[42] Kevin Vanhoozer, 179.

[43] Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament, 232.

[44] Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture, 33.

[45] Ferguson, Some Pastors and Teachers, 331.

[46] Cited in Ferguson, 331.

[47] Selvaggio, From Bondage to Liberty, 135.

[48] Block, Deuteronomy, “Introduction.”

[49] See Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament, 232–76.

[50] Moon, “Preaching Deuteronomy as Christian Scripture,” 48.

[51] Vos, Biblical Theology, 131.

[52] David P. Gushee and Glen H. Stassen, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context, 2nd edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017), chap. 3.

[53] Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture, 154.

[54] Schreiner, The King in His Beauty, 80.

[55] Schreiner, 97.

[56] Schreiner, 91.

[57] Schreiner, 85.

[58] Daniel I. Block, The Gospel According to Moses: Theological and Ethical Reflections on the Book of Deuteronomy (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012), 19.

[59] Block, “Preaching Old Testament Law to New Testament Christians,” 195.

[60] Moon, “Preaching Deuteronomy as Christian Scripture,” 39.

[61] Schreiner, The King in His Beauty, 88.

[62] Peñamora, “Ethics of Responsibility,” 92.

[63] Scudder, “Ethics in Deuteronomy,” 38.

[64] Peñamora, “Ethics of Responsibility,” 94.

[65] Merrill, “Deuteronomy,” 459.

[66] Miranda-Feliciano, Filipino Values and Our Christian Faith, 101.

[67] Moon, 50.


     Bibliography[1] 

Block, Daniel. “Preaching Old Testament Law to New Testament Christians.” Southeastern Theological Review 3, no. 2 (2012): 195–221.

———. Deuteronomy. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012.

———. The Gospel According to Moses: Theological and Ethical Reflections on the Book of Deuteronomy. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012.

Comfort, Philip, ed. Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Vol. 2. Cornerstone Biblical Commentary. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2005.

Ferguson, Sinclair B. Some Pastors and Teachers: Reflecting a Biblical Vision of What Every Minister Is Called to Be. Carlisle, PN: Banner of Truth Trust, 2017.

Goldsworthy, Graeme. Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture: The Application of Biblical Theology to Expository Preaching. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000.

Greidanus, Sidney. Preaching Christ from the Old Testament: A Contemporary Hermeneutical Method. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999.

Gushee, David P., and Glen H. Stassen. Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context. 2nd edition. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017.

Janzen, Waldemar. Old Testament Ethics: A Paradigmatic Approach. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994.

John Wind. “Not Always Right: Critiquing Christopher Wright’s Paradigmatic Application of the Old Testament to the Socio-Economic Realm.” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 19, no. 2 (2015): 81–104.

Kevin Vanhoozer. The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical Linguistic Approach to Christian Doctrine. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005.

Millar, Gary. Now Choose Life: Theology and Ethics in Deuteronomy. Vol. 6. New Studies in Biblical Theology. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2000.

Miller, Patrick. Deuteronomy. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching & Preaching. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1990.

Miranda-Feliciano, Evelyn. Filipino Values and Our Christian Faith. Manila: OMF Literature, 1990.

Moon, Joshua. “Preaching Deuteronomy as Christian Scripture.” Southeastern Theological Review 2, no. 1 (2011): 39–51.

Peñamora, Aldrin M. “Ethics of Responsibility: Christ-Centered Personal and Social Ethics for Church and Society.” Journal of Asian Evangelical Theology 19, no. 1 (March 2015): 91–107.

Schreiner, Thomas R. Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ: A Pauline Theology. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012.

———. The King in His Beauty: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013.

Scudder, C. W. “Ethics in Deuteronomy.” Southwestern Journal of Theology 7, no. 1 (October 1964): 33–40.

Selvaggio, Anthony T. From Bondage to Liberty: The Gospel According to Moses. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2014.

Smith, James K. A. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. Vol. 1. 3 vols. Cultural Liturgies. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009.

Vos, Geerhardus. Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments. Reprinted. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2000.

Wright, Christopher J. H. Old Testament Ethics for the People of God. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011.

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