“This Is A Hard Teaching” Deuteronomy 2:24-37 January 24, 2010
SI: We’re studying the book of Deuteronomy.
Deuteronomy is a book about God’s grace.
It’s about the grace of God being poured out on us freely and undeserved,
and then the life of faith and obedience we give to God in response to his grace.
Deuteronomy is also a very doctrinal book.
It forces us to think about many doctrines of the Christian faith
and work them out in our lives. That’s an important part of obedience.
Last week we looked at the doctrine of common grace.
This morning, we are going to look at the doctrine of Scripture—
more specifically, what some have called the “hard sayings” of Scripture.
What do we make of those passages in Scripture that are downright troubling?
There are two of them in this passage.
Before we read, let me set the stage again.
The Israelites are standing on the brink of the Promised Land.
They are about to cross the Jordan River.
Not the generation that came out of Egypt.
They all died in the wilderness for their failure to trust God.
These are their children, the second generation.
Before they possess the land, Moses reminds them of the history
of God’s relationship with Israel up to this point.
Here he reminds them of what happened when Israel encountered a king
Verse 24 starts with the Lord is speaking. He says . . .
INTRO: You’ve heard me mention before the name of John Duncan.
His nickname was Rabbi Duncan. He was a Scottish Presbyterian minister
in the late 1700s and early 1800s. He was well known throughout
Scotland for his learning, his holy life, and his evangelism.
He had a heart for the Jews and worked as a missionary in the Jewish
community in Budapest, Hungary for many years and had remarkable success.
One of his converts was Alfred Edersheim. His name might not ring a bell,
but he was a brilliant man and wrote important books on the life of Christ.
After Hungary, Duncan moved back to Edinburgh and taught Hebrew
and Oriental languages until his death. His love for the Jewish people,
and his knowledge of Hebrew earned him the nickname Rabbi.
His tombstone refers to him as “a profound theologian, a man of tender piety
and of a lowly loving spirit.”
Tell you all that about the man just so you will appreciate the fact that never
in all his long ministry did he preach about hell.
He believed in hell. He affirmed it as one of the doctrines of the faith.
But he never once preached on it. When challenged about that, his response
was that he just couldn’t. He knew it was in the Bible, but it was so horrible
to him that he knew he would be emotionally overcome if he tried to preach
a sermon on one of those passage.
Throughout the Bible there are statements and teachings that are very difficult.
They perplex us and bother us—intellectually and emotionally.
We usually do what Rabbi Duncan did, we know they are there,
we know they are God’s Word, but we pass over them.
Many of them have to do with God’s sovereignty and God’s judgment.
In fact, there are two difficult statements in the passage we read this morning.
First we are told that God hardened Sihon’s heart so that he would not allow
Israel to pass through his territory peacefully, because God had determined
to give Sihon and his kingdom into Israel’s hand.
It’s troubling to hear that God hardens anyone’s heart.
That doesn’t seem to be God’s business. He’s in the business of softening hearts.
It’s troubling that God has anything to do with the sinful, wicked responses
of human hearts. Especially a response that leads to a person’s destruction.
And then, just a few verses later, there is another difficult statement.
We are told of the Israelites’ utter annihilation of every person in
Sihon’s kingdom. They killed every man, woman, and child.
They killed little babies. At God’s command. That’s hard.
We read earlier of the incident in Jesus’ ministry when many people who had
followed him turned away. Do you remember why? Remember what they said?
This is a hard teaching.
There are hard teachings in Deuteronomy 2 and scattered throughout Bible.
Why? What are they doing in the Bible?
That’s the question I want us to ask this morning.
God could have left them out.
Some of the most difficult things in the Bible have to do with what God was doing
behind the scenes. How he was working things out in the lives of people.
When we see him working behind the scenes for good, that’s heart-warming.
But when the Bible tells about him working behind the scenes in the lives
of people he is planning to destroy—that’s hard.
God could have left that out of the Bible. He didn’t have to tell us that.
He could have left that secret until we got to heaven and could understand.
And he didn’t have to show us such fierce divine judgment.
He didn’t have to give us this history of Israel’s wars.
There are lots of details about Israel’s history not in the Bible—
so he could have left out this part about Sihon and his people being annihilated.
The Lord could have given us a Bible without many of these hard teachings,
or at least with them significantly softened.
So why did the Lord put these things in the Bible?
There are at least three big reasons:
1. They make you think
2. They test your faith
3. They humble you before God
Together, these three things remind us that all Scripture, even the hard teachings,
are God-breathed and profitable, able to make us wise unto salvation,
and sharper than any double-edged sword—
able to penetrate our souls and judge the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.
Look at each. Before we do, Credit where credit is due.
Sermon on this passage by Dr. Robert Rayburn.
MP#1 The hard teachings of Scripture make you think.
One of the obvious reasons that the Lord gave the Bible is to make you think.
To make you think about him, and about your life, and many other things.
He commands you to worship him with heart, soul, strength and mind.
So it shouldn’t surprise you that God’s Word requires thinking.
Little children hear the Bible and have to think about it on their level.
One of the great things about being a Christian parent is when your children
ask you hard questions about the Bible and about God, even when very young.
It’s amazing how they immediately focus on some of the most difficult things
and ask you about them. Just this week someone told me that their young child
was asking—How can you tell the difference between the Holy Spirit speaking
and the Devil speaking? Wow. What a question that is.
God the Father must delight in hearing his little lambs worshipping him
with their minds by asking questions like that.
As an adult, you still have to think about the Bible.
You never get to a point where you know it all and understand it all.
You might remember what Peter says at the end of his second letter.
He says that there are some things in Paul’s letters that are hard to understand.
Think about that for a minute. That’s Peter talking.
One of the 12 Disciples, the leader of the Apostles.
And reads some of Paul’s epistles—Maybe Romans, maybe Galatians,
and he says, there are some things here that are hard to understand.
He doesn’t say impossible to understand, but hard to understand.
Even Peter had to think about Scripture.
He had to study it to come to an understanding of it.
Pope Gregory the Great said:
“Scripture is like a river, broad and deep, shallow enough here for the lamb to go wading,
but deep enough there for the elephant to swim.”
That’s certainly true and it is one of the evidences of the divinity of Scripture.
The little lambs can think about it in Sunday school,
and the giants of the faith, the Apostles themselves, the church fathers
can’t even touch bottom with their most excellent thoughts.
And to get back to our particular point—the hard teachings of Scripture
are especially useful for jolting us out of our mental fog.
They provoke us to thought. They make us try to figure them out.
And that makes us go back to the doctrines we know, wrestle through things.
I remember a few years ago a church member came to see me bothered by what
she was reading in the Psalms. She had never noticed that there are Psalms
where David asks God to curse his enemies. Like Psalm 109:
“May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow.
May his children be wandering beggars; may they be driven from their ruined homes.
May no on extend kindness to him or take pity on his fatherless children.”
She said, I don’t understand this. Jesus said we are to love our enemies,
and pray for those who persecute us. David is cursing his enemies in a
Psalm of praise to God. How do those things go together?
She told me how she had figured out a way to put these Psalms in a different
category so that they don’t apply to us anymore.
I said, You can’t do that. All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable
for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.
You have to face these Psalms as God’s word and work this out.
I was able to tell her that generations of thinking Christians have wrestled with the
cursing Psalms, and give her some of the lines of thought they’ve used to
harmonize them with the command to love our enemies.
She was able to take some of those ideas and start to work out for herself.
Remember that believers before you have wrestled with all of the hard teachings.
As English speakers we have an incredible wealth of sermons and commentaries
and study materials. More than any other language.
So there’s no excuse for you not to dig in to those and reason it out for yourself.
It takes mental effort. It’s hard work to love the Lord with your mind.
That’s one thing I deeply appreciate about this congregation. So many of you
think about Scripture and like to ponder the hard things. I can’t even count
the number of conversations I’ve had over the years about predestination,
and all the troubling questions that raises in people’s minds.
I’ve evolved in my own way of understanding it and trying to explain it.
Proverbs says: “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter,
to search out a matter is the glory of kings.”
That’s what God wants us always to be doing.
He wants us searching out matters of great importance
that he has concealed in Scripture.
MP#2 The hard teachings of Scripture test your faith.
The Lord tests your faith so that it will grow stronger for having weathered the test.
The primary way the Lord tests your faith is by sending you difficult circumstances.
He sends illness, he sends disappointment or financial setbacks,
or trouble in a relationship with somebody close.
Those circumstances test your faith because in all of them
you can do one of two things—you can choose to either fret and stew and look
to yourself, or you can look to the Lord and trust him for his promised help.
When you do look to the Lord you find that, once again, he’s proved true.
Faith is strengthened through that experience and you can face the next trial.
We all know how that works.
The Lord also tests your faith intellectually.
He does so by forcing you to face the claims of Scripture you find hard to accept.
When you are faced with hard teachings, you will ultimately do one of two things.
You will either subject the Scripture to your own thinking and pass judgment
on the Word of God, or you will bow before the Lord and acknowledge that
what he says is true, even if you can’t understand it.
Back in 1993 an elderly man began to attend our Florida church.
He had been recently widowed and he was lonely so he came to church
for social reasons only. But the Lord had other plans.
As I think back on it, it was really a remarkable conversion.
How many people get saved in their 80s? Not many, I assure you!
His biggest struggle was the miracles of the Bible.
He had been a materialist all his life and miracles were impossible.
You could see the Lord drawing him. You could hear it in the way he began
to talk about the God and Christ, but there was this struggle.
How do you explain the Virgin Birth? How do you explain water into wine?
Still remember what he said when his faith finally passed that test.
He was a retired army colonel. In fact, he still insisted on being called Colonel.
At men’s prayer meeting the Colonel said: All my life I followed the orders of
my commanding officers, not because I understood or even agreed, but because I
was a soldier and under their authority.
I’m a Christian now. The Lord is my commanding officer. This is his word.
I still have questions but I believe the miracles of Scripture.
The Bible is full of examples of faith being tested in this way. Psalm 73.
The Psalmist is looking at the prosperity of the wicked and the troubles of the
righteous. And he struggles. Will I believe what God says in his word?
Will I believe that God is on his throne and that as he promises,
the righteous will prosper and the wicked will be no more?
Or, will I believe the evidence of my own observation,
which leads me to the conclusion that God’s word does not describe
things as they really are and therefore is not a reliable guide.
John 6, which we read a portion of earlier, was a test of faith for disciples.
Some who heard what Jesus said about himself as the bread of life, and how
salvation is a sovereign gift of God couldn’t accept theological implications.
They said, this is hard teaching. Turned back and no longer followed him.
But the faith of his true disciples was made stronger by that same teaching.
When Jesus asked them if they were going to leave him too, Peter said—
“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Do you really trust the Lord and his Word,
or do you trust yourself and your own thoughts?
The best way to find out is at those points in the Bible where it is not easy
to trust him and believe what he says.
The hard teachings are the place where faith is tested and made strong.
Here in Deuteronomy 2 we have two very hard teachings.
First is that God is infinitely pure, completely good and unstained by sin—
that he is neither tempted by sin, nor does he tempt anyone.
And at the same time, by his sovereign will, he hardens the hearts of some people
so that they refuse all offers of peace like King Sihon, and go to destruction.
That’s a hard teaching. Do you accept it? A perfectly good and sovereign God.
And the second is that God is completely just.
“The judgments of the Lord are pure, and altogether righteous.”
And, at the same time, his judgments are so fierce and thorough that
they even condemn and sweep away the children of pagans.
That’s a hard teaching. Do you accept it? A God just by his standards, not yours?
We’ll study the destruction of the Canaanites more carefully later.
The best way to know if you really have faith in God’s Word is not to agree with
the points easy for you, but the hard ones. Don’t be afraid of the hard teachings.
MP#3 The hard teachings of Scripture humble you before the Lord.
When you face passages that confound you and cause you to stumble—
what they are really revealing are your limitations.
We understand so little. We only have the vaguest notion of God.
We only see the outskirts of his ways and the tiniest tip of reality.
We have only the barest understanding of how everything is woven
by the Lord into a complex tapestry that he sees perfectly and completely.
And when we have objections to this or that teaching in the Bible,
or when we find what we think are big problems, like the problem of evil,
all we’re really doing is showing our limitations.
God says: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways.
As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways,
and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
Paul echoes that: “Who are you, O man, to answer back to God?”
Think about it: When the Lord Almighty speaks in his Word,
the infinite and eternal God who knows everything from the end to the beginning,
and who brings about everything according to the counsel.
When he communicates his mind to his creatures—
we aren’t going to fully understand everything.
I remember a young widow reflecting on her little children’s response when
she told them their daddy was in heaven. In their little voices they
repeated it and told other people: “Our daddy is in heaven.”
But they only had the barest grasp of what that meant
and what it would mean for them.
We’re little. We have only the barest grasp of what the Lord tells us.
And that’s wonderful. That’s the way it ought to be.
Because when we sense our inability to comprehend the height
and depth of God’s ways, it leads us to worship a the One whose
wisdom reaches to the heavens.
2 Peter: Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
There is no book in the world that cultivates spiritual graces
and mental powers like the Bible.
And the hard teachings of Scripture are especially helpful in doing that.
So what should our attitude be when we come across hard sayings?
We could try to re-interpret them so that instead of being hard sayings,
they become soft sayings in disguise. We could say, what this really means is . . .
But that’s not right. It fails to take seriously the fact that God has put hard things
in the Bible for good reasons.
We could focus on the hard things and emphasize them in harsh and unfeeling way.
Some Christians and some churches do that. They enjoy making people
uncomfortable. And that’s not right either.
We could, like Rabbi Duncan, know and believe them, but recoil from them,
and not talk about them because they are too painful.
That’s not all bad. It shows a sensitivity of spirit. But it’s not the best.
The best is to study them to get closer to Jesus.
Jesus uttered more hard teachings than any other person in the Bible.
He was the Truth and he spoke the truth.
Often Jesus spoke clearly and simply of wonderful, happy truths.
And sometimes he spoke darkly of troubling and hard things.
When his disciples asked him why he spoke in parables,
he told them that it was to conceal the truth from unbelievers,
so that their hearts would be confirmed in their hardness,
so that they would not repent.
So that the prophecy of their judgment would be fulfilled.
“Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.”
That’s a hard teaching.
But then that same Jesus wept over Jerusalem’s hardness of heart:
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem. You who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you,
how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her
under her wings, but you were not willing.”
And there we see a side of our Lord that is much easier for us to accept.
But it’s the same Lord Jesus Christ. And if we would really know him as he is,
then we must humbly accept all he says, and think about them.
Not just the things we like
but even the things he tells us that are very hard for us to understand or accept.