Let me set the stage: Moses had led the children of Israel out of Egypt and through 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. Through Moses, God had led them to the brink of the Promised Land, and now Moses was taking the time to recount the work that God had done on behalf of His people and bless them as they were about to enter this land “flowing with milk and honey.” He reminded them of all God had done for them and for the gift of God’s Word—the Ten Commandments. Deuteronomy records his message to them:
Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.
The people of Israel would take these words to heart, literally tying Scripture to their hands and foreheads as perpetual reminders of God’s Word to them. Small jars with Scripture were attached to their doorframes as a permanent reminder of the importance of God’s Word. Tabernacles were established for the reading and teaching of that precious gift.
As he was about to ascend Mt. Nebo never to be seen again, Moses again reminded his people of the pre-eminence of the Word of God:
When Moses finished reciting all these words to all Israel, he said to them, “Take to heart all the words I have solemnly declared to you this day, so that you may command your children to obey carefully all the words of this law. They are not just idle words for you—they are your life.”
As we well know, the Israelites initially took these words to heart, but over time faltered in cherishing God’s Word as they had promised, and spent the next 1500 years in cycles of rejecting God, repenting, and coming back to Him.
There were times when God’s Word was forgotten by His people, only to be rediscovered and His people renewed.
Three thousand years after Moses made his impassioned speech to the Israelites, God’s people again needed to rediscover God’s Word. The priesthood had a monopoly on the Bible, preaching it in a language that people didn’t understand. The common man had no access to God’s Word for himself and the abuses of the church were piling up, leading people to put their faith in the institution of the church and good works rather than in Jesus Christ.
This year we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, begun when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg church. Most of us know the story of how Martin Luther challenged and condemned the practice of selling indulgences, in effect, a way to try and “purchase salvation” through one’s own works. Today we applaud the stand that Luther took for what was right, even at the risk of his own life.
But while the issue of indulgences is often what gets the most attention as we remember Martin Luther, it is one of many important aspects of the Reformation. We get at one of the root causes of the Reformation in the 62nd of Luther’s 95 Theses, an observation that, when applied by Luther, would cause a religious revolution and change the world:
Luther’s 62nd Thesis
The true treasure of the Church is the Most Holy Gospel of the glory and the grace of God.
For the beginning portion of Luther’s career as a Catholic priest, God’s Word was not comforting to him, but rather intimidating and troubling. In it, he saw himself as a sinner with no way to get back into a good standing with God. The church in his day was Law-oriented, scaring people into the church by presenting God in all His justice without the face of grace. The church capitalized on this fear by getting people to try and buy salvation through indulgences, thus turning salvation into a matter of works rather than faith.
As Luther struggled with his standing before God and the realization that his good deeds would never outweigh his bad ones, he continued to delve into the Scriptures, seeking answers to his questions. Finally he made his discovery in the book of Romans, and that discovery would completely change the man and the world.
Through the book of Romans, Luther found that God justified mankind through faith. But this discovery happened only after Luther spent many hours in the study of Scripture. As a priest, Martin Luther knew the importance of God’s Word, yet had found no comfort in it due to his teachers’ emphasis on the Law. It was only when he meditated on the Bible and prayed for understanding that God provided him the comfort he sought in the words of the Gospel: God’s Word had liberated him from the punishment of the Law! He then tested his findings by comparing them to the rest of Scripture and found justification by faith to be compatible with the rest of God’s Word.
Because he wanted all men to experience the forgiveness, freedom, and hope he personally had found in God’s Word, Luther was one of the first to translate the Bible into the common language of the people so that they too could experience the saving message of God’s Word for themselves. He came to realize that God’s Word is not a possession of the church alone, but was written for all mankind. This is also an important part of the legacy of the Reformation—that God’s Word was put into the language of the common man so that he could read it for himself. The Gospel would no longer be held exclusively by the priest, but would be opened up to all who desired access to it.
Our schools and congregations are the legacy of this discovery made some 500 years ago. That legacy demands that our congregations preach God’s Word in purity. That legacy demands that we have schools for our children to grow up in the Word. That legacy demands that we reach out to our fellow man through mission work so that all might know what Luther discovered: that God has saved us. To be “Lutheran” is to recognize the authority of Scripture above all else. It is to put it first and foremost in our lives. It is to have a need to share it with others.
As Moses reminded the children of Israel as they were on the verge of entering the Promised Land, the Word of God is our life; for it is the only through God’s Word that we can learn of Jesus. Despite our tendency as sinful human beings to neglect God’s Word, the Good News remains in all its glory! God sent His Son into the world to justify us before God and, through faith in His sacrifice, our sins are paid for and our relationship with God repaired. Five hundred years ago, Luther rediscovered God’s Word to be the treasure above all others. May we too continue to cherish that Word of God—to protect and defend it, to live and love it and, most of all, to spread it to those who have not yet been blessed to hear it!
The Michigan District has made it easy for you to read through the Bible in a year: you can use your phone to follow the Reformation Bible Reading Plan, which is available in the YouVersion app. Download it today! For more information, or to download a printable reading plan, click here.
Photo courtesy of Elisa Schulz Photography