Deuteronomy Chapter Thirteen
In the church where I served for many years, we had a very loveable caretaker who was a ‘recovered’ alcoholic. He lived in a tiny flat and I remember organising a holiday for him on the central coast of New South Wales. He came home in a day – not because it wasn’t a lovely place – but because the house (including a large cellar) was full of alcohol. The idea of sitting there for a week with so much temptation was too much for him. Would that every -one of us had the strength to walk away from temptation.
These chapters in Deuteronomy (12-26) that unpack the ten commandments include this really shocking chapter (13) on idolatry – the subject of commandment number two. There is no way of softening the force of this chapter – it is as at least as confronting as the teaching of Jesus to gouge out an eye or cut off a hand if it causes you to sin (Matthew 5:27-30. Notice Jesus’ words are part of the beloved ‘Sermon on the Mount’ which people think is all sweet and light).
The breakup of Deuteronomy 13 is in three parts. There is the prophet who intrudes into the ranks of God’s people and says “let us follow other gods”. This prophet is bound to be persuasive because he even performs a “sign or wonder” (13:2). But he is to be put to death. Then there is the family member who lives among the ranks of God’s people and suggests “let us go and worship other gods”. Such a person will be very hard to resist because they are loved (13:6). But they are to be put to death. Then there is the nearby town that is now among the ranks of God’s people and they have decided to “go and worship other gods”. Their decision must be investigated and if it is true, the whole place must be destroyed (13:12-18).
Why such extreme treatment? Because these people tried to “turn” God’s people away from Him (13:10) and it is only when they destroy the perpetrators, the Lord will “turn” from His “fierce anger” (13:17). We are meant to be shocked by these verses and it is possible that they acted as a deterrent, and were never actually put into place. But if we criticise the verses it simply shows that we’ve not grasped the seriousness of the danger. Can you imagine telling a surgeon not to hurt a cancer, or telling a policeman not to shoot at a terrorist, or telling a father not to strike an intruder?
As God looks at His people, He sees eternal issues. It’s idolatry that is a shock to Him not the removal of idolatry. He is concerned for eternal souls. Inside the people of God such evil is to be removed and in the Old Testament it was done graphically. In the New Testament it is to be done pastorally (1 Cor 5:11-13). And in our own lives we must take action to remove idolatry which often presents itself so sweetly. If any good thing has become an essential thing – and now stands in the way of God’s rule and will – it must be put to death (Col 3:5). Nothing else will bring liberty to us or due glory to God.
Where would we be if the test of idolatry was applied to us? We would deserve the ‘death’ that Deuteronomy 13 speaks of. But we are spared such justice because of Jesus Christ. The One who never turned to the left or right has taken the ‘death’ we deserve. (2 Cor 5:21).
Heavenly Father, We are factories of sin and idolatry. May the finished work of Christ be our joyful hope and the continuing work of the Spirit our faithful help. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.