If God’s Love is Unconditional, why are there so many conditional statements in the Old Testament?

In chapter 3 of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus revealed that before beginning His preaching ministry, it was fitting to fulfill all righteousness. This was done in His baptism by John and it would be done in the Temptations. Tonight, we arrive at the first temptation. We will spend the whole night on this one temptation and take the next two weeks to cover the others.

Matthew 4:1-4

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after He had fasted forty days and forty nights, He then became hungry.

And the tempter came and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.”

But He answered and said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.’”

Fulfilling all righteousness

Jesus quoted from Deuteronomy 8:3 when he replied to Satan in this first temptation after the Holy Spirit led Him into the wilderness for the purpose of being tempted- because it too was fitting for Christ to fulfill all righteousness. Let’s look at Deuteronomy 8 together so that we can get a sense of the context of Jesus’ quote and what it means regarding God’s providence and how this temptation was fitting and purposeful in order for Christ to fulfill all righteousness.

Deuteronomy 8:1-20

“All the commandments that I am commanding you today you shall be careful to do, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land which the Lord swore to give to your forefathers. You shall remember all the way which the Lord your God has led you in the wilderness these forty years, that He might humble you, testing you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not. He humbled you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord. Your clothing did not wear out on you, nor did your foot swell these forty years. Thus you are to know in your heart that the Lord your God was disciplining you just as a man disciplines his son.

Therefore, you shall keep the commandments of the Lord your God, to walk in His ways and to fear Him. For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing forth in valleys and hills; a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey; a land where you will eat food without scarcity, in which you will not lack anything; a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper. When you have eaten and are satisfied, you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land which He has given you.

Beware that you do not forget the Lord your God by not keeping His commandments and His ordinances and His statutes which I am commanding you today; otherwise, when you have eaten and are satisfied, and have built good houses and lived in them, and when your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and gold multiply, and all that you have multiplies, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. He led you through the great and terrible wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water; He brought water for you out of the rock of flint. In the wilderness He fed you manna which your fathers did not know, that He might humble you and that He might test you, to do good for you in the end. Otherwise, you may say in your heart, ‘My power and the strength of my hand made me this wealth.’ But you shall remember the Lord your God, for it is He who is giving you power to make wealth, that He may confirm His covenant which He swore to your fathers, as it is this day. It shall come about if you ever forget the Lord your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I testify against you today that you will surely perish. Like the nations that the Lord makes to perish before you, so you shall perish; because you would not listen to the voice of the Lord your God.”

“If, then,” as a testimony (v. 19-20).

One of the most popular claims that is made contrary to Scripture that employs Scripture as its support is the argument that the “If you keep my commandments, then I will…” statements throughout the Old Testament somehow support the theological viewpoint of open-theism (the idea that God has in some way subjected Himself to the will or choices of people).

It is often stated that God has made promises that are conditional upon the obedience of His people. If these conditional, “if, then,” statements are read by us outside of their context, it might seem as if these conditional promises give credence to some sort of works-based righteousness or works-based definition of faith. Out of context, we can make the Scriptures out to appear to say anything that we want. So, we always observe the context given. In this case, our context is the Torah as a whole and God’s reason for giving the Law.

The premise of the Torah (Genesis-Deuteronomy) is the first three chapters of Genesis. This is the story Moses told before giving the Law. In these two chapters, we see Adam and Eve, even though they exist in a perfect state, choose to disobey the command of God. People, even in creation’s initial perfect state, were unable to choose for themselves what was good. God, in clothing the people and covering their shame (something the people could not do rightly for themselves), showed that for anyone to please Him and satisfy His glory in His own creation, that person must be clothed in His righteousness alone. This not only the premise of the Torah but also that of the whole Bible. These conditional promises in the Torah (or Pentateuch) reflect God’s conditional promise to Adam and Eve. God affords these conditional promises in such a way that if it were possible, people would be able to choose the good and reject the bad. This is not possible and we are meant by our not being able to meet these conditions that we all fall short of God’s glory. We will always choose what is in line with our nature and we are not God. This is why, in verse 19, God states that He was testifying against Israel on that day, and again in verse 20 that the people shall perish because they would not listen to the voice of the Lord their God. These conditional statements were meant to serve as a testimony against the people in order to reveal their unrighteous nature and their essential depravity.

In the conclusion to the Law (Deuteronomy 29-34), God says this through Moses explicitly to the nation of Israel,

“Take this book of the law and place it beside the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, that it may remain there as a witness against you. For I know your rebellion and your stubbornness; behold, while I am still alive with you today, you have been rebellious against the Lord; how much more, then, after my death? Assemble to me all the elders of your tribes and your officers, that I may speak these words in their hearing and call the heavens and the earth to witness against them. For I know that after my death you will act corruptly and turn from the way which I have commanded you; and evil will befall you in the latter days, for you will do that which is evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking Him to anger with the work of your hands” (Deuteronomy 31:26-29).

The bookends of the Law make the same declaration. If it were possible for people to be righteous, they would keep this law. If people would keep this Law, they would in some way achieve the glory of God. By the Law’s own declaration, the people will not meet God’s conditions. So, these conditional statements are not an indication of anyone’s ability to possibly live up to God’s glory, but they are explicitly an indictment against human unrighteousness and depravity. The Scriptures are not self-contradictory. This is why the apostle Paul, a Jew and of the theological conviction of the Pharisees, recognized and taught this Old Testament truth concerning human unrighteousness and depravity:

“The Law came in so that the transgression would increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 5:20-21).

“Why the Law then? It was added because of transgressions, having been ordained through angels by the agency of a mediator, until the seed would come to whom the promise had been made. Now a mediator is not for one party only; whereas God is only one. Is the Law then contrary to the promises of God? May it never be! For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law. But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.” (Galatians 3:19-22).

If any person, ever, were able to keep these conditions (besides God Himself in Christ), the Law would be self-contradictory because it states that the conditions were placed as a testimony to prove humanity’s unrighteousness and depravity. There are a couple of other pointers in this Deuteronomy 8 that indicate the same truth:

    • v. 2- God tests us so that we might know our own hearts and whether we would keep His commandments or not. If He has all knowledge, He has no reason to discover whether or not we would be obedient. The conditional statements are so that we might be humbled and come to a knowledge of our own condition.
    • v. 3- God let His people go hungry and fed them in a supernatural way so that they might know that people do not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.
      • This is the verse that Jesus quotes in His reply to Satan in the context of Deuteronomy 8 and in the context of the Torah. Where Israel was unable to meet God’s conditions and where Israel proved the unrighteousness and depravity of people, Jesus fulfilled God’s righteousness and proved to be the only righteous and able one.
    • v. 18- In the midst of these conditional statements, God claims direct responsibility as the only one who is able and the only one who will confirm His own covenant (We saw this truth presented earlier in Matthew’s Gospel). It would not be by the work of people because they would prove unable to confirm God’s covenant.

The sustaining power of God’s word

Notice the way in which Christ uses the word of God. He wasn’t trying to convince Satan to be a certain way. Instead, Jesus quoted the Scriptures in order to proclaim how He was being led in His own actions. In this text, Scripture was not being quoted for the purpose of condemning another. It was being quoted for the purpose of Christ’s own obedience to the Law as He was tempted and as He, the only righteous one, fulfilled all righteousness. This will remain true in the next two temptations. Satan, however, was self-condemning.

Questions:

    • What does it mean that someone is self-condemning?
    • How are we sustained by the word of God alone?
    • What of ministries that sacrifice the true ministry of God’s word for the mere meeting of physical needs?
    • Should we ever use Scripture to think about the actions of others? How?

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