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The Place of the Shema in the Life of the Christian
By J.R. Ensey
The Book of Deuteronomy contains the last three “sermons” of Moses. He is preparing the Israelites for their entrance into Canaan, the land promised to Abraham centuries ago. They have come through the long wilderness trek from bondage in Egypt. Excitement is building now for the conquest of this “land of milk and honey.” Moses will turn over the reins of leadership to the younger Joshua. But before he walks away into the sunset, he stood to preach again.

Verse four of chapter six begins with "Hear....” The brief section that immediately follows is known as the Shema, taking its name from the Hebrew verb for “hear.” It is the heart and core of the Hebrew law, a summation of the ten commandments reiterated in the preceding chapter (5:6-21). Listen to its authoritative ring:

Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shall love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.

What could be more profound, yet so simply stated? An economy of words, but unparalleled comprehensiveness. A thousand books could not hold all that should be written about these few lines.

But what does the Shema have to do with us as Gentile Christians?

Jesus picked it up and made it a part of His own preaching. It represented the affectation of the heart, and that was His aim in ministry—the heart. They had enough of them who had appealed only to the head. Socrates had postulated his theories. Plato and Aristotle had spoken. The Stoics and Epicureans had held forth, and the philosophers of Greece and Rome had intoned their loquacious logic throughout the Empire. Now comes Jesus with the ability to reduce the whole law and prophets to a single sentence. A scribe asked Him, “Which is the first commandment of all?” Jesus’ ready answer: “The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment” (Mark 12:28-30). To those who agreed with this saying, Jesus said, “Thou art not far from the kingdom of God.” He thus lifted the Shema from the Jewish law and made it an article of faith of the kingdom.

Its relevance to contemporary Christian believers is not difficult to see.

The Shema is a confirmation of our understanding of God

“The Lord our God is one Lord.” The Israelites were about to settle in a country where idolatry was rampant. They would be tempted to serve and worship other gods. Moses reminded them of their monotheistic heritage. The passage not only underscored monotheism, but expressed the exclusiveness which Jehovah demanded: “Him only shalt thou serve” (v. 13; Matthew 4:10). There was not another Jehovah; the only Elohim they were to worship was Him.

To the possible chagrin of trinitarians, the Hebrew word translated “one” does relate to number. And this term would never have been used by the Lord if He was a plurality of “persons.” The language of Isaiah chapters 43 and 44—“I am he; before me there was no God formed, neither shall there be after me...I am the Lord; and beside me there is no saviour...Thus saith the Lord the King of Israel, and his redeemer the Lord of hosts; I am the first, and I am the last; and beside me there is no God...Is there a God beside me? yea, there is no God; I know not any”—would never have been used if God was about to reveal that all along there was a co-equal, co-eternal plurality of “persons” in the Godhead. How confusing it would have been—both to the Hebrews of Moses’ day and those in New Testament times. Jesus never claimed to be a “second person”—“I and my father are one” (John 10:30). He did not come to reveal a second or third divine entity. He was “God with us” (Matthew 1:23), manifested in flesh (I Timothy 3:16).

The heart of the Jewish law was “one Lord.” The core of New Testament theology is “one Lord”: “There is one body, and one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all...” (Ephesians 4:4-6). The Shema protected Israel from the delusion of idolatry and the deceptiveness of polytheistic religions in Canaan. It is no small comfort to know that the message we proclaim is in harmony with the Scriptures. It will likewise protect us from the deceptions of modern theology so prevalent in our own day. Worshiping one God revealed in Jesus Christ will spare us the displeasure of the Lord: “Ye shall not go after other gods...(For the Lord thy God is a jealous God among you) lest the anger of the Lord thy God be kindled against thee, and destroy thee” (Deuteronomy 6:14,15).

The Shema is a revelation of how to keep our children in the faith

Moses follows the terse commandments with these words: “And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up” (Deuteronomy 6:7). Their religion wasn’t confined to the Tabernacle. Inculcation of the commandments was to be a project of the home. Parents, not just priests, had the ultimate responsibility of passing along the faith. Teach them here; teach them there; teach them today; teach them tomorrow. The Word must be constantly and consistently implanted in their hearts. Then when they grow up they “will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6).

A Jewish rabbi was listening to a Christian minister bewail the exodus of youth and young adults from the church. “How do you Jews manage to keep such a high percentage of your kids in the fold?” he asked the rabbi. “The difference in Judaism and Christianity,” replied the old Hebrew, “is that yours is a religion of the sanctuary; ours is a religion of the home.” Think about it! Selah!

The Shema provides us with a pattern of devotion and lifestyle

“And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart...soul...might.” This does not mean that one should love God in different ways, for these terms overlap in meaning. They were to love God in one way: with the unswerving, complete, steadfast loyalty that is the very foundation of the covenant community. Such devotion leaves no place for another god, an idol, or anything that would take one’s attention from Him. God had fastened His love upon them and that love was designed to evoke Israel’s response: love for God, and subsequently, love for their neighbors (Mark 12:31).

Belief is designed to affect lifestyle. The experiential knowledge of God should motivate one to live in a way pleasing to Him. Sincerity, faithfulness, integrity, kindness—these should not be meaningless terms found only on the pages of a dictionary. Holiness is not hardship to him who has seen the holiness of God. Right living is prompted by right thinking. Theology affects lifestyle. Believers in one righteous, omniscient, loving God do not find it difficult to pray or separate themselves from the world. When one has spent years behind a prison wall, and then is released, he does not buy a lot next to the prison to build his home. He wants to get as far from it as possible. Believers who have been released from the bondage of the world want to get as far away from it as possible!

The Shema still speaks to us today—about God, about our families, and about our loyalty. He who is wise will “hear.”

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