Perhaps the Most Shocking Verse in Scripture?

In the curses in Deuteronomy 28, towards the end of the 54 verses of curses, comes a very shocking verse. To set the stage, God shows that He knows how to bless those who follow Him and obey His word in verses 1-14. But then in verses 15-68 of Deuteronomy 28 God shows that He knows how to curse His people who turn from His words.

The amazing larger context is that God is speaking to His covenant people—that is to those under the Mosaic Covenant. And the following verse is both climactic and thematic for the whole section:

Deut 28:63, “And it shall be, that just as the Lord rejoiced over you to do you good and multiply you, so the Lord will rejoice over you to destroy you and bring you to nothing; and you shall be plucked from off the land which you go to possess.”

At first reading (or writing, if one is handwriting Deuteronomy), this verse is shocking. God will rejoice over His people to destroy them in like fashion to how He rejoiced over them to bless them. This passage does not sound like a God of love at first glance. But it does sound like a God of justice and vengeance.

Perhaps this is why Peter wrote in the context of false teachers:

2 Pet 2:21, “For it would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered to them.”

Following the same vain the Peter wrote that judgment was to “begin” with the household of God:

1 Pet 4:17, “For the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God?”

Rather than quickly overlooking Deuteronomy 28:63 and its very powerful teaching, it would be good to allow it to produce the self-examination that it surely was written to evoke in its reader.

God loves His people very much. Indeed He sent His Son to die on the cross for the salvation of the world:

John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

However, when His people stray, they will be the first to be punished for their straying from God. Indeed they must “work out their own salvation with fear and trembling” as Paul wrote in Philippians 2:12. They must remember that ultimately it is God who works in their lives, not only to save them, but also to bring their salvation to a good end:

Phil 1:6, “being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ.”

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On the Death of a Local Church

We used to feed homeless people from the kitchen of a church in an older section of Kansas City. In 1920 the pastor of this Baptist church had aspirations of being president of the U.S. By 2004 its buildings were a decrepit shell of what had once been a thriving church. Its small congregation merged with another urban congregation and its buildings were sold to a theatre group.

Perhaps this church had accomplished its task during its 100+ year lifecycle? Perhaps closing its doors was only the next inevitable phase in its years of faithful gospel ministry? However, as I walked and prayed through the church buildings, I wondered if God’s Holy Spirit at one point or another had pronounced over that church the word Ichabod, “The glory has departed” (1 Sam 4:21).

This eventuality brings attention to a very interesting warning left to us by Moses in Deuteronomy 28:

Deut 28:62, “You shall be left few in number, whereas you were as the stars of heaven in multitude, because you would not obey the voice of the Lord your God.”

God has solemnly warned His people that if they failed to obey the voice of the Lord their God, they would surely diminish in number.

The sequel to this warning and its promised result can be seen all around the U.S. in the diminishing size of local church congregations preceded and predetermined by their doctrinal downgrade. Church after church languishes in spiritual and physical disrepair. Faithful members wring their hands as they remember the “glory days” of the church. Surely they must ponder, “Has the glory departed from our church?”

The www.simplechurchathome.com website makes the following statement based on contemporary research: “Every year approximately 7000 churches close their doors for the last time.” With 52 Sundays in a year, the resulting calculation means that every Sunday across the U.S. an average of 135 churches close their doors for the last time.

God gave one sure condition for the glory departing from a local congregation: disobedience to the words of His voice.

Uncompromising faithfulness to the Word of God is absolutely necessary to avoid the word “Ichabod” from being written over the doors of any church. And surely an important command of Scripture comes to us directly from the mouth of our Lord and Savior when He was on earth—that is, the Great Commission:

Matt 28:19-20, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

This command represents the martial call of our Savior: that every one of His children should be a fisher of men, an evangelist, a verbal witness to His death and resurrection. When a church moves away from its evangelistic roots, it writes “Ichabod” over its front door.

If they do not return to their Great Commission roots, surely God has a warning for them in His word:

“You shall be left few in number … because you would not obey the voice of the Lord your God” (Deut 28:63).

“Wise as Serpents”

The issues that we face in evangelism are many. We encounter all sorts of false teaching, lies, and antagonism. We meet those from every shade of doctrine, worldview, and world religion. In dealing with these people we need unusual wisdom.

Yet, because “God is love,” and because “the greatest of these is love,” it may be easy to skip over Christ’s command to be “wise as serpents,” and to focus on “being gentle as doves.” But the beauty of the commands of Jesus is the balance they provide:

“Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves” (Matt 10:16).

Jesus’ illustration of sheep and wolves provides the causal side of the commands—the reason they are given in the first place. His use of shepherding imagery harkens back to the example of King David as a good shepherd, for “he shepherded them according to the integrity of his heart” (Psa 78:72).

Further, this exhortation of Jesus is reminiscent of the words of Jeremiah and Ezekiel against the false shepherds of God’s people who scattered the sheep and did not gather them. Jeremiah 23 and Ezekiel 34 were particularly directed against false shepherds who fed themselves and not the flock of God.

Later Paul even warned of savage wolves within the church:

“For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock” (Acts 20:29).

Jesus, however, in his teaching turned a corner by giving two very direct commands based on the reality of being sheep among wolves. The admonitions of Jesus are very pointed. “Therefore,” said Jesus, “be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” Jesus tied the two sentences together with the word “therefore.” In order to address the causal side of the equation, one has to apply the two commands in the second part of the verse.

It goes without saying that if anyone doubts the first part of the verse, then the commands of Jesus are meaningless. If one doubts, denies, or ignores that the follower of Christ is like sheep among wolves, then he will doubt, deny or ignore the latter commands also. By the way, Jesus’ view and analysis of reality has more credibility than does our limited empirical analysis.

The complexity loaded into these two commands is holding them both simultaneously. There are only two entities on earth where one can find a perfect balance of both wisdom and gentleness: Jesus and the Word of God.

Jesus was the revelation of “grace upon grace.” In Him came “grace and truth” (John 1:17). Jesus perfectly balanced grace and truth. So must the follower of Christ.

When we are commanded to be “wise as serpents and gentle as doves,” the order of grace and truth (as found in John 1:17) is reversed. That said, if the two are truly in a state of balance, their order is less important. In fact, Psalm 85:10 reverses the order of these two concepts through the use of Hebraic parallelism:

“Mercy and truth”
“Righteousness and peace”

But when Jesus sent out His disciples, He placed wisdom prior to gentleness. Not only that, but Jesus used as His example the animal through which the person of Satan was originally revealed—Satan being “that serpent of old” (Rev 20:2). That was quite something for the Person who earlier was tempted by Satan, and later would finish His earthly ministry on a cross crushing Satan’s head.

The level of wisdom we need in evangelistic ministry is unparalleled. In reality it is an unattainable level of wisdom: equal to the cunning insight of the Serpent, yet without his sin, deception, error, or uncleanness (1 Thess 2:3).

Truly, as we are engaged in initiative evangelism we encounter a wide variety of people from all shades and stripes of belief systems and worldviews. Some seek to entice us to their point of view. Some even seek to lead us into sin. In the arena of evangelism we need unusual wisdom.

Proverbs 25:26 reads:

Like a trampled spring and a polluted well
Is a righteous man who gives way before the wicked.”

We need to remain gentle, while simultaneously holding our biblical ground. For Jesus also said, “Be harmless [or gentle] as a dove.”

As we wield the “Sword of the Spirit,” we must do so with both gentleness and wisdom. While using that sword, we ought not hack down what should not be cut down. Nor should we avoid issues that must be addressed. This dual command is indeed a great challenge!

“Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves”!