Phylacteries (and other strange things) for the Third Sunday after Pentecost

by Stan Lemon

The book of Deuteronomy is a sort of sermon on the Law, delivered by Moses to explain the theology behind the Law. It’s often misunderstood as a simple reiteration or repetition, but that misses the fact that Moses is dealing with the Commandments in much greater detail in Deuteronomy. This Sunday, some churches heard Deuteronomy 11 read in the Divine Service. The reading picks up with second half of the chapter after Moses introduces the 1st Commandment, “You shall therefore love the Lord your God and keep his charge…”

This morning’s reading concludes Moses’ exhortation on the 1st Commandment with some funny business about binding these words to your head and hands (v.18). The business of tying yourself up in God’s Law pops up all over the Old Testament and some Jews take this quite seriously! Very observant Jews often wear these things called “Phylacteries”, which are special leather headbands and arm bracelets that hold little pieces of paper with scripture passages written on them. They’re sort of like Jewish rosaries, as come with a bunch of rules and regulations for their use spelled out in a whole bunch of special Jewish books.

It’s fairly easy to come away from today’s Old Testament reading we should have a similar practice to this binding business. We’re quick to make a law for ourselves about our daily immersion in Scripture and being in the Word – or lack thereof. While being in God’s Word is always a good thing, we need never burden our conscience with our versions of Phylacteries. The fact is, we’ve been freed from the burden of the Law and have been washed by the Blood of the Lamb.

When we examine our own faithfulness, we inevitably find that we’ve missed the mark. When Moses preaches that we should “keep [God’s] charge, His Statutes, His rules, and His Commandments always,” (v.1) we realize that most of the time we do the very things our Lord tells us not to do. We ignore His statutes, break His rules – sometimes even on purpose. When we look to the commandments to see how we’re doing at keeping them, we only see our sin.

We are not empowered or encouraged to dedicate our lives to the Scriptures by this text. In fact all we can learn from the Law is to know our sins correctly and the condemnation that awaits us for them. The veil of Moses’ preaching hangs over our heads and we are left totally helpless to remove it (FC V). In fact, after hearing the Law of today’s text I find that I am a bigger sinner then I was when I woke up this morning (SA II). I have increased in sin and only distanced myself further from Him who is the Word.

There are no leather headbands which I can wrap around my forehead to keep me obedient to God’s Law. And even if there were, I would end up lying like the Pharisees do when they pray in the temple thanking God that they are not like those other sinners. Instead, I am left with a drop of water and the mark of the Cross, given for me so that I might have a new life in Christ. Where I despise preaching and the Word, Jesus Christ, my Lord and Savior, the very True Word of God answers Moses’ Law on my behalf. When the devil, that horrid beast who also marks his people (Rev. 13:16) points at us and tells us we are destined only to death and hell, Jesus stands in our way and quiets Satan’s accusations.

Today’s Old Testament reading can be a bit troubling. There are strange fashion accessories that just wouldn’t be trendy at school, and really weird door decorations (v.19) that could never own up to your favorite movie poster. All this leaves us wondering what must we do to fulfill the Law so that we might not be the ones cursed at the end of this chapter.

The answer is simple and found in the wounds of our crucified and risen Lord. What we have not done and could never do, He already has done for us. And He did it so perfectly that He then offered Himself up as a sacrifice for many. God the Father sacrificed His own Son, murdering Himself so that we might never endure the punishment for our sins.

No Phylacteries for us, only the Cross of Christ, sealed upon our forehead with water, washed and cleansed Holy. The Word of the Lord has been given to us and can never be taken away. No leather binding necessary – only blood and water.

Come soon, Lord Jesus!

Stan Lemon lives in Pittsburgh with his wife Sara and his dog Ivan. He serves as the Higher Things webmaster and is a huge Pirates fan.

Created: June 2nd, 2008