Let My People Think
by Bill Muehlenberg
This title is not original to me. It is the title of the US radio program of Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias. It is also one of the biggest tasks in the Christian church today. Contemporary Christians are not exactly known for being great intellects or for carefully reflecting on the issues of the day.
Some years ago R.C. Sproul went so far as to say that we live in the most anti-intellectual era of church history. That could well be the case. Of course the use of the intellect is not highly championed in most of society, but that should be no excuse for the mushy minds of so many believers.
We are clearly instructed to love God with our minds. Indeed, things are quite clear in this regard. If believers are struggling to discover the will of God, well, some things have been nicely laid out for us in black and white. Indeed, Jesus was once asked what is the greatest commandment. That should have every believer’s attention. Here is a question we should all be asking, and should all be seeking an answer for.
The good news is, the answer is plainly given. In fact, this episode is repeated in all the Synoptic Gospels, so it is hard to miss (Matt. 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-8). It is worth spending a bit of time on these passages.
When Jesus is asked what is the greatest commandment, (or how to inherit eternal life, as in the Lukan version), Jesus gives a two-part answer: to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself. Here Jesus appeals to two well known Old Testament passages: Dt. 6:4-9 and Lev. 19:18, respectively. Jesus nicely sums up the whole of the law in our Godward duties and our humanward duties.
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The former passage, Dt. 6:4-9, is known as the Shema (along with Deut. 11:13-21 and Numbers 15:37-41). It is this passage that I want to spend some time on. The Hebrew word shema means to hear or to listen. That is the opening word of Deut. 6: 4: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one”. This is the fundamental call to monotheism in Jewish thinking. The passage continues with the words quoted by Jesus, and then instructs Hebrew parents to teach these words to their children. It is a very key passage, even for Jews today, and recited twice daily by the devout.
The interesting thing to note here is if you compare the three Synoptic versions with each other, and with the Hebrew of Deut. 6:5, as well as the Greek translation of 6:5 in the Septuagint, the passages vary somewhat. The four words are not always there – sometimes just three are mentioned: heart, soul strength. And the order of the words varies as well. Why is this? Is it an indication of errors in Scripture, or bad copying?
No. The exact phrasing does not matter here. Deut. 6:5 is what is known as a Hebraism. That means it is a rhetorical device, an idiom, used to indicate the whole person – the totality of one’s being. Just as God is one (Deut. 6:4), so our response to this one God must be one (Deut. 6:5). God is undivided, and so should be our loyalty to him. Just as unity, singularity and integrity characterise God’s being, they should also characterise our love for him…
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