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
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
The Shema is a confirmation of our understanding
“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
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 Spirit...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
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 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.”