Moses’ summarization of the law in the book of Deuteronomy was focused on a key commandment that was intended to guide the Israelites into a successful relationship with God. What Jesus referred to as the greatest commandment is recorded in Deuteronomy 6:4-5, which states, “Hear O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” In order to love the LORD and obey his commandments, Moses pointed out that the people needed to deal with the hardened condition of their hearts. Moses said, “And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD which I am commanding you today for your good?…Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart and be no longer stubborn” (Deuteronomy 10:12-16). The Israelites had quickly established a pattern of turning away from the LORD because of a rebellious heart (Deuteronomy 9:12) and were susceptible to being led astray by the people that occupied the land that God intended to give them (Numbers 25:1-5), so Moses commanded them to circumcise their hearts, which meant they needed to open themselves up to God’s spiritual influence and pay attention to the things they were doing that were not consistent with the Ten Commandments.
Moses warned the people of Israel about following the example of the nations around them. He said:
“When the Lord your God cuts off before you the nations whom you go in to dispossess, and you dispossess them and dwell in their land, take care that you be not ensnared to follow them, after they have been destroyed before you, and that you do not inquire about their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods?—that I also may do the same.’ You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way, for every abominable thing that the Lord hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods.” (Deuteronomy 12:29-31)
Moses indicated that following the religious practices of other nations was a trap that the Israelites needed to be careful to avoid. The Hebrew word that is translated ensnared, yaqosh (yaw-koshˊ) “always refers figuratively to the catching of a person in an undesirable situation” (H3369). Moses’ statement, “they even burn their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods” (Deuteronomy 12:31) was intended to point out that idolatry was a dangerous path to follow because of its association with the depravity of the human heart.
Moses went on to identify three scenarios that were associated with the people being led astray. The first scenario involved the LORD testing of the Israelites’ faith. Moses said:
“If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, ‘Let us go after other gods,’ which you have not known, ‘and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams. For the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. You shall walk after the Lord your God and fear him and keep his commandments and obey his voice, and you shall serve him and hold fast to him.” (Deuteronomy 13:1-4)
Testing does not always suggest tempting or enticing someone to sin. The Hebrew word nasah (naw-sawˊ) also means “to try, to prove” (H5254). The purpose of a spiritual test could be to strengthen one’s faith. In the situation where a prophet was able to perform a sign that indicated he had been sent by God, but told the people to serve other gods, the message was to be disregarded because the first of God’s Ten Commandments stated “You shall have no other gods before me” (Deuteronomy 5:7). The Ten Commandments were authoritative and set a precedence for everything else that was in the Mosaic Law. Moses said, “But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has taught rebellion against the LORD your god who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you out of the house of slavery, to make you leave the way in which the LORD your God commanded you to walk” (Deuteronomy 13:5-5).
Leaving the way was a habit that the Israelites established early in their relationship with the LORD. Moses reminded the people before they entered the Promised Land that they didn’t deserve God’s blessing. Moses said, “Know therefore, that the LORD your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people. Remember and do not forget how you provoked the LORD your God to wrath in the wilderness. From the day you came out of the land of Egypt until you came to this place, you have been rebellious against the LORD” (Deuteronomy 9:6-7). The Hebrew word that is translated rebellion in Deuteronomy 13:5, sarah (saw-rawˊ) means “apostasy” (H5627). In simple terms, apostasy is a false teaching that is intended to undermine one’s faith in God. The result is a lack of confidence in God’s word and a tendency to look for the answers to life’s problems in other places. The phrase leave the way comes from two Hebrew words, nadach (naw-kakhˊ) derek (dehˊ-rek) that together convey the root cause of most sin, getting off on the wrong track. Among the laws for sin offerings that were identified in Leviticus 4 were sins that were committed unintentionally (Leviticus 4:2). An unintentional sin was one that was considered to be a mistake or one that was committed through ignorance of God’s laws (H7684). The Hebrew word that is translated sins unintentionally in Leviticus 4:13, shagah (shaw-gawˊ) means “to stray” (H7686).
The Hebrew word shagah appears three times in Proverbs 5 which focuses on the sin of adultery. Proverbs 5:1-6 states:
My son, be attentive to my wisdom;
incline your ear to my understanding,
that you may keep discretion,
and your lips may guard knowledge.
For the lips of a forbidden woman drip honey,
and her speech is smoother than oil,
but in the end she is bitter as wormwood,
sharp as a two-edged sword.
Her feet go down to death;
her steps follow the path to Sheol;
she does not ponder the path of life;
her ways wander, and she does not know it.
The adulteress or forbidden woman as she is referred to in Proverbs 5:3 does not know what she is doing and is therefore a danger to those around her. Proverbs 5:5 states, “Her feet go down to death; her steps follow the path to Sheol.” The son is warned to stay far away from her (Proverbs 5:8) and to “rejoice in the wife of your youth” (Proverbs 5:18). In this particular instance, shagah is translated twice as intoxicated and at the end of the proverb as led astray. Speaking to the son about the wife of his youth, the proverb states:
Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight;
be intoxicated always in her love.
Why should you be intoxicated, my son, with a forbidden woman
and embrace the bosom of an adulteress?
For a man’s ways are before the eyes of the Lord,
and he ponders all his paths.
The iniquities of the wicked ensnare him,
and he is held fast in the cords of his sin.
He dies for lack of discipline,
and because of his great folly he is led astray. (Proverbs 5:19-23)
The illustration of being intoxicated with love makes it clear that being led astray is associated with having an emotional response to a pleasurable situation. It could also have something to do with being open to the influence of another person.
The second scenario that Moses presented to the Israelites about being led astray had to do with people that were close to them, members of their own households. Moses said:
“If your brother, the son of your mother, or your son or your daughter or the wife you embrace or your friend who is as your own soul entices you secretly, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods,’ which neither you nor your fathers have known, some of the gods of the peoples who are around you, whether near you or far off from you, from the one end of the earth to the other, you shall not yield to him or listen to him, nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you spare him, nor shall you conceal him. But you shall kill him. Your hand shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. You shall stone him to death with stones, because he sought to draw you away from the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Deuteronomy 13:6-10)
The extreme response of stoning to death a member of your own family shows that the influence of a person that is close to you can be a significant threat to your spiritual well-being. If a loved one tries to turn you away from the LORD, it seems likely that he or she will succeed.
The final scenario that Moses talked about had to do with the corruption of an entire city. Moses said:
“If you hear in one of your cities, which the Lord your God is giving you to dwell there, that certain worthless fellows have gone out among you and have drawn away the inhabitants of their city, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods,’ which you have not known, then you shall inquire and make search and ask diligently. And behold, if it be true and certain that such an abomination has been done among you, you shall surely put the inhabitants of that city to the sword, devoting it to destruction, all who are in it and its cattle, with the edge of the sword.” (Deuteronomy 13:12-15)
Devoting a city to destruction was an indicator of the severe judgment of God. It was important that the Israelites keep themselves separated from things that were devoted to destruction (Deuteronomy 13:17) because they were considered to be a deadly threat to the formation of God’s people. (H2764).
Moses referred to the Israelites as “the sons of the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 14:1) and said, “For you are a people holy to the LORD your God, and the LORD has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth” (Deuteronomy 14:2). The Hebrew word that is translated sons is ben (bane) which generally refers to a son as “the direct male offspring of human parents,” but ben is also a relational term that can express an adopted child (H1121). The Israelites’ special role as the chosen people of God was intended to be a testimony to rest of the world of not only God’s existence, but also his involvement in the affairs of men. The Israelites’ obedience and loyalty to the LORD their God was a critical pieces of God’s plan of salvation. By the time Jesus was born, the Israelites’ sacrificial system had been perfected, but the people seemed to be completely ignorant of what their religious practices actually meant.
Jesus continually criticized the religious leaders of his day for leading people astray. On one occasion, Jesus pronounced seven woes on the scribes and Pharisees because they were abusing their power. Jesus said, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger” (Matthew 23:2-4). The sharp contrast between the Pharisees’ teaching and their day-to-day activities showed that they were faking their devotion to God. Jesus said to them:
“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” (Matthew 23:13-15)
The phrase child of hell was likely intended to convey the distinction between a person that had a relationship with God and a person that did not have a relationship with God. The people of Israel thought that being a descendant of Abraham guaranteed them access into the kingdom of heaven, but Jesus pointed out that a relationship with God was required. Jesus told the Jews:
“I know that you are offspring of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you. I speak of what I have seen with my Father, and you do what you have heard from your father.” They answered him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did, but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. You are doing the works your father did.” They said to him, “We were not born of sexual immorality. We have one Father—even God.” Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.” (John 8:37-47)
Jesus’ warning to the Pharisees was followed by a sermon that focused on a period of time that he referred to as the end of the age. Matthew’s gospel tells us:
As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” And Jesus answered them, “See that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains. Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. (Matthew 24:3-14)
Jesus indicated that one of the signs of the end of the age was that his followers would be led astray, just as the Israelites were.
The Book of Hebrews contains warnings against apostasy and advice for believers that want to keep themselves from being led astray. It states:
About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permits. For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. (Hebrews 5:11-6:6)
According to Paul, the safest way for believers to keep themselves from being led astray is to have your “powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:14). The phrase powers of discernment refers to spiritual perception and suggests that the only way we are able to distinguish good from evil is by training our minds to do so on a regular basis. In order to do that, Paul said that we must “leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity” (Hebrews 6:1). The Greek word that is translated go on, phero (ferˊ-o) signifies being impelled by the Holy Spirit’s power, not acting according to our own wills, or simply expressing our own thoughts, “but expressing the mind of God in words provided and ministered by Him” (G5342). Jesus explained the Greek word phero in the context of bearing spiritual fruit and said in his parable of the sower, “other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding (phero) thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold” (Mark 4:8). Jesus later revealed to his disciples the secret of yielding spiritual fruit; when you hear the word of God, you must accept it as the truth (Mark 4:20).