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Deuteronomy 17 can be a dangerous part of Scripture if misunderstood and misapplied. It is actually derived from the First Commandment, “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Deuteronomy 5:7). It is clear that there is no freedom of religion in the Kingdom of God. Those who wish to be citizens in the Kingdom must serve only the one God, who is the Creator of all things, and Jesus Christ through whom all things were created (John 1:2).
This does not deny men freedom of conscience, especially in a setting where men are yet imperfect. It is only in a perfect kingdom that all men will see the same truth. The time is approaching when a perfect government of overcomers will be seated in positions of authority in the Kingdom of God, and at that time, those who disagree about the truth will be able to obtain the full truth from them.
Deuteronomy 17:1 says,
1 You shall not sacrifice to the Lord your God an ox or a sheep which has a blemish or any defect, for that is a detestable thing to the Lord your God.
This is an appropriate introduction to the chapter, because it forbids men to offer a defective Jesus as the Sacrifice for sin. This is "detestable," because Jesus does not like being misunderstood, and it is a serious matter when men claim to follow Him but then misrepresent Him in their words and deeds. Men violate this law in many ways, however innocently. But first let us say that all of the sacrifices in the Old Testament were prophetic types of the true Sacrifice for sin—Jesus Christ. All of the sacrifices prophesy of the death of Jesus Christ on the cross as the Lamb of God who was to take away the sin of the world, as John testified in John 1:29.
He was “without sin” (Hebrews 9:28), making Him the Lamb without spot or blemish. We read in 1 Peter 1:18 and 19,
18 knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, 19 but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ.
Sacrificial animals were to be without spot, as we read in Numbers 28:3, 9, 11, 17, etc. There was nothing inherently wrong with a spotted animal, of course, but the symbolism was important in that spots and blemishes represented a less than perfect sacrifice. It is therefore important to recognize the perfection of Jesus Christ who fulfilled these prophetic types.
There are some who foolishly make the statement that Jesus Christ broke the law many times. If Jesus Christ did so, then He was just another spotted lamb that was ineligible to die as the Sacrifice for sin. Hence, to make such a statement undermines the effectiveness of Christ’s work on the cross. If He broke the law, then we would yet be dead in our trespasses and sins. While it is true that Jesus broke the customs and traditions of the elders—their interpretations of the law—it is equally true that He did not violate the actual law of God. “Sin is lawlessness,” as 1 John 3:4 tells us, and Jesus was not lawless. In fact, He condemned lawlessness (anomia) in Matthew 7:23.
Hence, when Moses began speaking about false gods, he started out by establishing the principle of the spotless, unblemished sacrificial animals. In other words, Moses was telling the people in a prophetic manner that they were to worship only the true Jesus Christ, the spotless Lamb, and not man’s imperfect understanding of Him. The rest of the chapter, which prohibits worshiping false gods, must be seen in this light.
Unfortunately, even Christians often attribute characteristics to Jesus Christ that are less than perfect. They may say that Jesus broke the law of His Father, or they may say that He is unable to save the whole world on account of His holiness—when in fact it is His very holiness, I believe, that requires Him to save all mankind and turn them from their iniquities.
Any misunderstanding of His character will attribute to Him some spot or blemish. Of course, in our current state, no one has a perfect knowledge of the mind of Christ. Hence, in the larger sense, we have all been guilty of offering a spotted lamb. We think it is perfect, because, in our pride, we naturally think that our own view of Christ truly reflects His character. Yet it only stands to reason that with so many opinions in the world, not all can be correct, and it is likely that no one’s view is fully correct or complete.
For this reason, we must see this from two angles. First, we must have faith that Jesus Christ was indeed the perfect Lamb of God; second, we must recognize that our perception of Him is probably faulty in some way. The process of sanctification is designed to bring us steadily to a greater understanding, so that our perception ultimately matches the reality of who He is.
In Romans 12:1-3 Paul comments upon this time of sanctification, wherein our minds are transformed and renewed. During this time of renewal, however, we as believers are yet spotted and blemished. If it were not for the imputed righteousness of Christ, we would be unacceptable to God. For this reason, Paul admonishes the believer “not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think.”
This situation is also prophesied in the story of Jacob prior to his transformation into Israel. Jacob was a believer; Israel was an overcomer. While Jacob was a believer, he was still growing and learning the basic principles of faith. It was not until He learned the sovereignty of God that his name was changed to Israel. Israel means “God rules,” and when he learned to rest in God instead of to strive with his enemies (Esau and Laban), he was then allowed to carry the name that testified of his new-found level of faith.
During Jacob’s sojourn with Laban, he received only spotted sheep (Genesis 30:32) as payment for his services. In fact, Jacob manipulated Laban’s flocks in order to make them produce more spotted sheep (Genesis 30:37-43). In effect, this gave him a pay raise and made him prosper—not on account of his faith, but on account of his manipulation, which really amounted to theft. Jacob’s faith was not yet at the level necessary to become an Israelite.
Of course, Laban worked just as hard to cheat Jacob (Genesis 31:39-41), and so Jacob felt justified in his own actions.
After Jacob left Laban to return to his father’s house, Laban pursued him. When they met, they made a covenant of peace at Mizpah. There Jacob made a sacrifice to seal the covenant in verse 54,
54 Then Jacob offered a sacrifice on the mountain, and called his kinsmen to the meal; and they ate the meal and spent the night on the mountain.
The only sacrifice that Jacob could have made was of a spotted lamb, for he had no unspotted lambs in his flock. The sacrifices of our hearts reflect the character of our own hearts. Imperfect sacrifices reflect the principle that our view of Jesus Christ is yet imperfect. Even as the lambs of Jacob had become spotted by beholding striped rods as they drank (Genesis 30:37), so also are we changed into the perfect image of Christ by beholding Him (2 Corinthians 3:18).
If our “sacrifice,” representing our heart, continually beholds an imperfect model, then we will continually offer imperfect sacrifices of praise to God. Will He accept them? Yes, but only because the divine plan has included provision for this. We are given a positional righteousness up front, and so during our time of growth we are called righteous. Romans 4:17 says that God calls what is not as though it were.
Getting back to the law of Moses, we must understand that Moses was setting forth the perfect law of liberty, and for this reason he could not condone sin of any kind. However, Moses was also realistic enough to know that the people were far from perfect. And so, the enforcement of the law against false worship must include provision for repentance, rather than being seen as a rigid, unbending, unforgiving law.
Most of Deuteronomy 17 deals harshly with those who worship false gods. But if one is caught in such false worship, were they to be stoned immediately, even if they repented? No, for we know that such law enforcement was not in accordance with the heart of God or the mind of Christ. We read in 2 Peter 3:9,
9 The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing [willing] for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.
Nonetheless, if anyone in the nation of Israel under Moses refused to repent, he would be liable to suffer the death penalty, for there could be but one King in Israel. To serve other gods is treason. If men wanted to serve other gods, they ought to leave and take citizenship in a nation worshiping the god of their choice. But if they refuse to repent and refuse to leave, then the death penalty was in order.
Of course, ever since the captivities of Israel and Judah, the Kingdom of God has lacked territory. Further, even while they remained in the land of Canaan, it was a very imperfect representation of the Kingdom of God, for only the tiny remnant of grace actually were fulfilling their role as citizens of the Kingdom (Romans 11:7). Throughout past ages the Kingdom has been elusive in its proper manifestation. But God has used the time to train overcomers from each generation for a time yet to come.
The time is approaching when the first resurrection shall occur, wherein all the overcomers from past ages will stand upon the earth as one body to rule and reign with Christ. This will coincide with the first piece of territory being dedicated to the Kingdom, ruled by Jesus Christ and His law. From there it will spread gradually until this “stone” Kingdom fills the whole earth (Daniel 2:35).
When the Kingdom receives territory and a perfect government, it will still not be the full manifestation of the Kingdom, because it will still be populated by imperfect citizens. All citizens will have to swear allegiance to Jesus Christ, because their citizenship will depend upon their faith in the King. They will not be allowed to live in that Kingdom unless they have faith as genuine believers in Christ. If for some reason they turn aside to worship false gods, they will be held liable according to the law.
However, even as believers, they will still need to be trained in the ways of God and in the mind of Christ. Nonetheless, with recognized overcomers to settle disputes and to convey the truth of Christ’s character, this will mark a great advancement in the plan of God. The Kingdom of God will come to a new level of manifestation in the world, something not seen since the beginning of time. This level will continue for a thousand years, according to Revelation 20:4-6, coinciding with the great Sabbath Millennium.
Only after that age has run its course will the Great White Throne judgment bring back the rest of the dead. They will be judged according to their works and will be sentenced in accordance with the divine law. Christ will then lay claim to the entire earth, and any nation outside the Kingdom will become subservient to the reign of Christ. Every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess Him as Lord. All will become believers in that day and will begin their time of accountability for past misdeeds so that they can be trained in the laws of God.
During the ages to come, all men will learn righteousness—the ways of God—as they serve God under the authority of the believers, each in his own peculiar “lake of fire” (i.e., judgment of the law).
In time, the Kingdom of God will emerge fully to the place where all men conform to the image of Christ, and then the divine plan will be complete. That will be the time of the Restoration of all things, wherein all of creation will fulfill its purpose that God intended from the beginning.