In his outstanding chapter “The Quest for Wisdom,” in Resurrection and Eschatology, Vern Poythress explains the redemptive historical fulfillment of what is one of the most interesting examples of the apostolic Christological interpretation of an Old Testament passage. Deuteronomy 30:11-14 reads:
For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.
In context, Moses is exhorting the Israelites before the time when they are to enter the promised land. He envisions both their future disobedience (Deut. 30:1) and restoration (Deut. 30:2-10). So it is debated whether the “nearness” of God’s word in Deut. 30:14 is a nearness that has already been brought about by God’s speaking through Moses, or whether it is a nearness only to be accomplished in connection with the restoration that Moses prophesies. From a theological point of view, God did come near to Israel at Mount Sinai, when he gave them the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments are a linguistically accessible expression of God’s wisdom. Yet the giving of the Ten Commandments did not succeed in penetrating into the heart of each Israelite and giving him a new heart that loved God and obeyed him. So Deuteronomy 30 does look forward beyond what was accomplished at Mount Sinai. It looks forward to Christ, as in clear in Romans 10:5-10:
For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them. But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ ” (that is, to bring Christ down) or ” ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ ” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.
The revelation of the word of God at Mount Sinai took place in connection with Moses ascending Mount Sinai, and then descending with a copy of the law in his hands. His ascending symbolized ascent to heaven and to the presence of God. His descent symbolized descent from heaven, bringing the word of God to man. In this way, Moses mediated between God and the sinfulness of the people. He foreshadowed and typified Christ’s mediation (1 Tim. 2:5-6).
Christ’s fulfillment of the quest
Christ’s ascent and descent fulfill the picture in Exodus 19-20 and in Deuteronomy 30. Ephesians 4 uses similar language with respect to Christ:
Therefore it says,
“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.”(In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lowest parts of the earth? He who descended in the one who also ascended far above all the heaven, that he might fill all things.) (Eph. 4:8-10)”
There are still some notable complexities. Christ descended from heaven in his incarnation. “The lowest parts of the earth” (Eph. 4:9) might refer either to the incarnation or to Christ’s descent into the realm of death at the time of his death. Both are aspects of Christ’s identification with humanity. He underwent death as the penalty for the sins of others, which he bore (1 Pet. 2:24). His incarnation and his death, as acts of identification with us, belong together theologically. Both of these his ascension, to which Eph. 4:8 and 10 refer. By contrast, in Prov. 30:4 the ascent comes , before descent. Ascent also precedes descent in Moses’s movements in Exodus 19 and in Deut. 30:12.
Actually, the Old Testament examples are fully compatible with Eph. 4, once we fill it out into a fuller picture. According to Ephesians 4:8-10, Christ ascended and then “gave gifts to men” (verse 8). The gifts are further explained in verse 11 and what follows. “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip the saints …” Christ did not descend bodily after his ascension, but he gave the church his representatives and those who would teach his word. He speaks to the people on earth through these representatives. So, theologically speaking, he descended. To put it another way, he has poured out the Holy Spirit, who empowers his representatives (Acts 2:33). The giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is parallel to the giving of the law at Mount Sinai. Moreover, the Spirit of Christ brings Christ’s presence to his people: spiritually speaking Christ descends in the descent of the Holy Spirit (John 14:23, 16-18).
Then what about the incarnation? It too is a descent of God from heaven. Jesus more than once speaks of having “come down from heaven” (John 6:33, 38, 51). In the incarnation, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). His “dwelling” or “tabernacling” among us is parallel to the symbolic picture of God dwelling in the midst of Israel through the tabernacle of Moses.
The incarnation, as a fulfillment of the tabernacle dwelling, is an act of God’s coming near to man to bless him, to dwell with him, and to establish communion with him. As such, it already anticipates the further work that Jesus will accomplish in his crucifixion, death, resurrection, and ascension. And in fact, as a blessing of God’s communion, it anticipates the communion with God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, who is poured out to make us into a temple of God, both corporately (the church; 1 Cor. 3:16) and individually (1 Cor. 6:19).
Let us put it another way. The “descent” of God to man in Christ’s incarnation is one historical stage in a progression of works of God that redeem man, establish communion between man and God, brings God’s wisdom down to man, make it accessible to man in Christ’s teaching, and transform the heart of man by remaking him a dwelling of God and transforming him into the image of Christ (2 Cor. 3:18). The appearance of God in the flesh is the appearance of the Redeeming God, and so already implies in a nutshell all the works to come.
The descent of the Holy Spirit is the descent of the presence of the resurrected and ascended Christ. Christ comes through the Spirit who represents him. The Spirit is “another Helper” (John 14:16). The coming of the Spirit is thus integrally related to the incarnation, even though it is a distinct event. And the same holds for the “descent” of gifts to the church. Through the apostles and prophets and evangelists and pastors and teachers (Eph. 4:11), the church hears the voice of Christ proclaiming the good news of his resurrection and ascension and their implications (Eph. 2:17). “For through him [Christ] we both [Jews and Gentiles] have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Eph. 2:18). “Access” is access to heaven. Each of us who is “in the one Spirit” may now ascend.
Guy Waters, in his ETS lectures “Romans 10:5 and the Covenant of Works,” makes equally helpful comments about Paul’s use of Deut. 30* in Romans 10 when he writes:
Similarly, at Rom 10:6-8, Paul stresses that righteousness comes by faith. The argument that follows stresses the receptivity of faith in justification. Paul’s quotations from Deut 30:6-8 illustrate this point precisely…Paul’s focus in these verses is “the word of faith that we preach” (10:8). “Righteousness by faith” does not require climbing into the heaven or plumbing the depths. That work has been done by Christ. To suggest otherwise is, quite literally, unspeakable (10:6). “Righteousness by faith” comes, rather, through the preached word (cf. 10:17). That word, Paul says in his citation of Deuteronomy, is “near” the hearer (10:8).
If we ask why this is so, we need go no further than Rom 5:12-21. “Righteousness,” “justification,” and “life” come not in the way of performance, but in the way of reception. Faith, as Paul earlier argues at Rom 4:4-5, is unlike all other human activity in this respect: in justification, faith uniquely receives the righteousness of Christ. At Rom 10:6-8, Paul again stresses the receptivity of faith in justification. It is the proper alternative to performance in justification (Rom 10:5).**
*On the text form of Deut 30:6-8, see Waters, “‘Rejoice, O Nations, With His People,’” 219-223; Stanley, Paul and the Language of Scripture, 128-133; Dieter-Alex Koch, Die Schrift als Zeuge, 129-132.
**Waters adds to this “[T]he design of this passage is to present the simplicity and suitableness of the gospel method of salvation, which requires only faith and confession, in opposition to the strict demands of the law, which it is as impossible for us to satisfy as it is to scale the heavens,” Hodge, Romans, 535. Compare William Sanday and Arthur Headlam, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (ICC; 2d ed.; New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1896), 287; Moo, Romans, 655-656; Heil, “Christ, The Termination of the Law,” 497.”