Deuteronomy's Riches: A Conversation with Ajith Fernando
Just thinking about Deuteronomy elicits a yawn from many Christians. Statutes, stipulations, sanctions---the epitome of irrelevant Old Testament law, right?
Not so fast.
Ajith Fernando's Deuteronomy: Loving Obedience to a Loving God is the latest installment in Crossway's Preaching the Word commentary series, edited by Kent Hughes. The series aims to produce commentaries "written by pastors for pastors, as well as for all who teach or study God's Word." Fernando's contribution is indeed a substantial (768 pp.) and valuable addition to any Christian's shelf.
I corresponded with Fernando, teacher and preacher in Sri Lanka and former national director of Youth for Christ, about his expositional treatment of this underrated, pivotal book. After you've finished reading, be sure to check out our new page of resources on Preaching Christ in Deuteronomy, complete with commentaries, workshops, and sermons by Alistair Begg, Christopher Wright, Ed Clowney, John Piper, and many others.
What are some common evangelical oversights or misunderstandings related to Deuteronomy?
I think sympathy was the most common response I got from friends who learned I was writing on Deuteronomy. The idea seemed to be, "What a boring book to write on!" Many Christians assume the laws of the Old Testament have little use today, when in fact they are a window into the mind of God. Though we may not always apply the laws exactly, behind the laws are incredibly relevant principles.
The description of sin and righteousness covers a comprehensive range of areas. When Deuteronomy, and indeed the whole Old Testament, talks about the details of righteousness and sin it refers to one's personal, religious, interpersonal, and social life, including what we call justice. This is a perspective so needed within the evangelical community.
What lessons does Deuteronomy hold for Christians about the necessity of obedience in response to grace?
The thing that impressed me most is the number of times Deuteronomy talks about "being careful to do." That translates a verb shamar, which appears 65 times in Deuteronomy. I have often felt that carelessness is the mother of sin. Overt disobedience isn't usually triggered by a deliberate decision to disobey but by carelessness resulting in a slow slide into sin.
Deuteronomy presents the priority of God's love in the whole life of faith. Obedience is essentially a response to God's love, an integral aspect of our relationship with the God who is for us.
Deuteronomy teaches that behavior within the covenant community has serious consequences, with blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience. There has been much reflection by Christians on blessings, but we need to seriously ask how we apply the passages about curses today. Surely, in the biblical approach to life, fear of the consequences of sin has a deterrent effect on the believer.
What major biblical themes are picked up and developed in Deuteronomy, and how?
The urgency of holiness is expressed in many ways, notably in the treatment of defeated nations who are "devoted to destruction." We see no compromise to sin, and to sources that influence us to sin.
The priority of truth in aiding the life of holiness is expressed by the many times the book looks back to the history of God's faithfulness and to the importance of the law in the life of faith.
A major portion of the book is an exposition of the Ten Commandments, first in a general way (chapters 5-11) and then with more specific applications (chapters 12-26). All of this of course is in the context of a covenant relationship with God. So there is a lot about the covenant and renewing the covenant.
Deuteronomy is loaded with laws, something like the constitution of the nation God chose. There are some strange-sounding rules on topics like women, animals, and neighbors. But a closer look reveals a considerate society where people are concerned about the welfare of others, especially the weak and vulnerable, and where they relate to each other with civility.
This commentary took you more than eight years to write. How did your study of Deuteronomy affect you personally?
The first major influence of Deuteronomy for me occurred early in my ministry. I have worked primarily with first-generation Christians---who could be described as urban poor---for most of my ministry life, both in Youth for Christ and also in our church. When I read Deuteronomy for my devotions more than 30 years ago, I realized much in this book spoke to our context. So I studied it in some depth at that time. Deuteronomy is Moses' attempt to help the people in a new nation live a righteous life. This taught me a lot about how to nurture first-generation Christians to godliness. The book's strong emphasis on "generous justice" and its special consideration for the weak also had a marked effect on my family's lifestyle and ministry.
The battle for holiness is an ongoing one in my life, and this book often spoke to me about my own life---often bringing conviction of carelessness and sin.
What are some resources (e.g., books, commentaries, articles, sermons) you'd recommend for pastors desiring to proclaim Christ from the pages of Deuteronomy?
The church is blessed with some superb commentaries on Deuteronomy. The one I found most helpful for application based on solid exegesis was by Chris Wright (New International Bible Commentary, Hendrickson). The little book by David F. Payne in the Daily Study Bible series (Westminster John Knox) is surprisingly helpful for the same reason. Even smaller but strong on application is the entry on Deuteronomy by Luciano Chianeque and Samuel Ngewa in the Africa Bible Commentary (Zondervan). I also found the commentaries by Peter Craigie (NICOT), Gordon McConville (Apollos Old Testament Commentary), and Eugene Merrill (NAC) very helpful. I discovered Warren Wiersbe's little book in his Be series (Victor) in the late stages of my study, and found it to be a lively and responsible work by a master expositor.