If I’d somehow managed to get ‘Britney Spears’ into the title of this post, I suppose I could have attracted more readers. But anyone who loves God and is passionate about understanding his purposes for his people and for his world, won’t need any artificial incentives to take an interest in what follows.
Christopher Wright, in the introduction of his fine commentary on Deuteronomy, has some very helpful things to say about the missionary theology of the 5th book of the Bible. Here’s a summary.
Deuteronomy is a book for a people on the move – first literally, and then spiritually and morally. It places Israel on a boundary, and prepares them for what lies beyond.
1. The challenge to loyalty in the midst of culture change
Deuteronomy is a book on the boundary. Although in contradistinction to the NT church, the Israel of the OT was not sent anywhere, nevertheless, she was constantly crossing boundaries: Abraham leaving Ur, Jacob going to Egypt, the exodus generation crossing the Red Sea, and so on. Each crossing involved risk, dangers, and questions from the new cultural context: think of the challenges of life in Egypt, or in the wilderness. And the land which they were now about the enter was not only full of promise, but also full of idolatry and wickedness.
Would Israel remain loyal to the one true and living God, or succumb to the pressures of syncretism? Would they live as a distinctive (‘holy’) people, or sink to the corruptions and perversions of Baalism?
It is significant that when Jesus crossed his personal Jordan from the obscurity of village craftsman to the temptations and hostilities of public ministry, he turned to Deuteronomy for the resources to confirm his own loyalty and obedience, as he wrestled with the implications of the mission he had embarked upon, Mt 4:1-11.
2. The challenge of monotheism
Deuteronomy does not posit a philosophical, but a practical monotheism. In his redemptive power and action he is unrivalled. But, more than that, the nations themselves are under his control, Deut 2:9-12,19-23.
In the face of fertility cults, Deut 7:5, astral deities, 4:19, and gods of national pride, 32:31, Israel was to know the one God, 4:35, and thus become a light to the nations (cf. Isa 43:10-13). The reason for the rejection of all forms of idoltary was not, therefore, racist hatred of foreign religions, but a total commitment to saving truth.
The tragedy of polytheism and idolatry is not the arithmetic (many gods instead of one), but that they exchange the only true source of salvation for lifeless and powerless substitutes, and in doing so, introduce injustice, bondage, and cruelty into human life (cf. Rom 1:21-32).
The category of the idolatrous in every culture (including especially one’s own, where it is most invisible) is one that needs far more careful attention and exposure…For it is still as much the responsibility of the people of God to confront human idolatries with the reality of the living and saving God as it was for those addressed by Deuteronomy. Methods may change radically, but the mission is the same in principle.
In our dialogue with those of other faiths, it will not do to relegate Jesus to the role merely of founder of Christianity. He shares in the uniqueness of Israel and in the uniqueness of Yahweh. ‘The historical particularity and redemptive character of OT monotheism coincide in the person of Jesus.’ The one God of Deut 4:32-40 and 6:4f has revealed himself in Jesus of Nazareth.
3. Israel as a model for the nations
God’s call of Abraham was ultimately for the blessing of the nations, Gen 12:1-3. Election, ethics and mission (chosen by God, living for God, witnessing to God) are bound up together (cf. Gen 18f; Ex 19:4-6).
Although the main focus of Deuteronomy is on Israel itself, this is not to the exclusion of the tradition of the blessing of the nations through Israel. The emphasis on the Abrahamic covenant itself makes this clear. In Deuteronomy itself, the nations are not only a problem and a snare, but they are also observers of Israel, Deut 4:6-8; 28:10,37; 29:22-25. And the issue of Yahweh and the nations is dealt with repeatedly in the Deuteronomic books (Josh 4:23f; 1 Sam 17:46; 2 Sam 7:22-26; 1 King 8:41-43,60f; 2 Kings 5:15; 19:15-19).
What is the contemporary relevance and applicability of the law? Rather than think of the law as an entity in itself, we should think of it in the context of the mission of Israel. This leads to several hermeneutical steps:-
(a) ascertain the function of particular laws within their original context.
(b) articulate the objective, within the context, of the particular law or institution
(c) decide how, within one’s own setting, the objective can be preserved while changing the context. We will thus be in a position to ask what policies, laws, structures we need today in order to achieve equivalent objectives.
4. Deuteronomy’s theology of history
While Deuteronomy is grounded in past events, it is primarily a future-oriented book. It looks both to the immediate and the long-term future.
Deuteronomy anticipates that Israel, although given every incentive to live in loyalty to Yahweh, will in fact fail to do so. As a result, the curses of the covenant would fall. But beyond that judgment lay restoration and new life (see, esp., Deut 27-32). The nations will
(a) witness Israel’s failure, Deut 28:37; 29:22-28;
(b) be the human agents through which God’s judgment will carried out, Deut 28:49-52; 32:21-26;
(c) amazingly, praise Yahweh and rejoice with his people as he restores and vindicates his people, Deut 32:27-43.
The NT links Jesus’ mission to the hope of the restoration of Israel. N.T. Wright suggests that Matthew not only shaped his Gospel not only around the shape of the five books of the Law, but more specifically around the sequence of thought in Deut 27-34. For Matthew, then, the story of Jesus is the climax of the story of Israel, and the clue to the story of the whole world. Although Jesus concentrated his own ministry on the restoration of Israel, he laid the groundwork for the worldwide mission in ingathering of nations that would begin after his resurrection.
Paul saw the continued suffering of Israel as a kind of prolongation of the exile and the death and resurrection of Jesus as the climax of the covenant. And that climax, of course, meant not only the restoration of Israel but the ingathering of the nations. God’s people are now redefined as drawn both from ethnic Israel and from the Gentile nations. ‘Hence the apparent paradox of his personal calling as the “apostle to the nations,” and his actual missionary strategy of “to the Jew first.”‘ The extension of the gospel to the Gentiles does not mean a rejection or replacement of the Jews. Rather, the gathering of the nations will make Israel ‘jealous’ (cf Deut 32:21) so that ‘ultimately “all Israel,” extended and inclusive of believing Jews and Gentiles, will share in salvation, Rom 10:19-11:26.’
Clearly Paul reflected deeply on Deuteronomy 32 especially (it has been called “Romans in a nutshell) and quotes its final doxology, Deut 32:43, in his exposition of the multinational nature of the gospel and its implications for the need for cross-cultural acceptance and sensitivity between Jewish and Gentile Christians, Rom 15:7-10.
In summary, although Deuteronomy is primarily concerned with God’s dealings with Israel, it looks over the horizon and prepares the way for the worldwide mission of Jesus and his people.
Wright, Deuteronomy (New International Biblical Commentary) 8-17.