“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deut 6:4)
This declaration to Israel as they stood poised to enter the promised land stands as the foundation of the law. Jesus affirmed this, when a teacher of the law asked him which is the most important commandment: Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:29–30). Matthew’s version adds that on this and the command to love one’s neighbour hang all the law and the prophets (Matt 22:37–40).
The passage is known in Jewish tradition as the Shema, from the Hebrew for “hear.” The Septuagint (Greek version, which was the common translation in use in Jesus’ day) translates it as “Hear, Israel, Lord the God of us, Lord one he is.” In Greek, the role of words in a sentence is denoted by their endings, not by word order. So, this verse could be translated:
- The Lord our God, the Lord is one
- The Lord our God is one Lord
- The Lord is our God, the Lord is one
- The Lord is our God, the Lord alone
The same four translations are possible in the original Hebrew. This verse may rightly be understood as teaching monotheism, that there is a single Being or Entity who is God, and no other Being or Entity can make a similar claim. The context of the passage within Deuteronomy shows that it is this unique God-ness of YHWH, translated “LORD,” which is the basis of his claim over Israel as the only God whom they may worship. He is exclusive, he is unique and he has a unique and exclusive covenant relationship with Israel. This is why “I am YHWH your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me,” stands at the head of the Ten Commandments. God’s uniqueness is established on the basis of his being the sole Creator and the sole sovereign Ruler of the universe; this distinguishes him from all other reality. Richard Bauckham (Jesus and the God of Israel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008) ) describes this as YHWH’s “unique divine identity.” This Identity is characterised in the Old Testament by God’s unique role as Creator of all things and his unique role as sovereign Ruler of all things.
“To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him?” says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these? He who brings out their host by number, calling them all by name, by the greatness of his might, and because he is strong in power not one is missing . . . Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. (Isa 40:25–28)
Thus says God, the LORD, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people on it and spirit to those who walk in it: “I am the LORD; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. I am the LORD; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols.” (Isa 41:5–8)
For thus says the LORD, who created the heavens (he is God!), who formed the earth and made it (he established it; he did not create it empty, he formed it to be inhabited!): “I am the LORD, and there is no other.” (Isa 45:18)
The declaration that YHWH is God alone emphasizes the exclusivity of the covenant he made with Israel, the consequences of which form the subject matter of Deuteronomy. It is because of this exclusivity that the Shema is followed by “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut 6:5). One-ness expresses YHWH’s nature; uniqueness, unity, integrity but also carries the necessary conclusion, that therefore worship of YHWH is unique and exclusive; therefore Israel was to worship no other gods.
The chapter goes on to emphasise this unique relationship; YHWH alone has the power to deliver Israel, YHWH alone is entitled to their obedience and YHWH alone is able to bless them in the land he will give them. The appropriate outworking is that “It is the LORD your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by his name you shall swear” (verse 13, quoted by Jesus in his temptation). This is the essential meaning of the declaration of the One-ness, the uniqueness, of the Creator-God in these passages. Of course, this is not the only sense in which God is unique; he alone is Creator and Redeemer, he alone has existed from eternity, as the rest of the Old Testament testifies. Time and again, the Old Testament emphasises that God is one, there is no other god and he alone is to be worshipped (Deut 32:39; 1 Kgs 8:60; Isa 43:11–13, 44:6, 45:5; Zech 14:9).
Because of this exclusivity, this uniqueness of right to be worshipped, God is rightly a jealous God. He will tolerate no competition for his people’s affections. The second Commandment, forbidding the making of idols, is supported by the reason that God is a jealous God.
The Christadelphian interpretation is much narrower than this, seeing the oneness of God in a purely mathematical sense, without the theological import. Of course, God as One encompasses “one” in a mathematical sense, but there is more to it than that. There is no other being or entity who can claim to be God, but all those passages are not there in the Old Testament as a refutation of the doctrine of the Trinity, they are there as a refutation of polytheism, denying that any construct of humankind’s imagination could be put on a par with YHWH and emphasising that God is the only one to whom worship may be given.
Throughout the Old Testament, the One-ness of God is not just a number. It is inextricably tied to the uniqueness of his divinity, his exclusive claim to be Creator God and sovereign LORD and his exclusive covenant with Israel. The emphasis on God’s One-ness in the Law and the prophets is to emphasize the evil of idolatry, having anything else before YHWH, that would detract from exclusive devotion to him with the whole heart, soul, mind and strength. And that still applies today. Jesus countered the temptation to “fall down and worship” the tempter with “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only” (from Deut 6:13) and reiterated it as the greatest commandment. Yet, as we shall see, everything the Shema requires of God’s people is now focused on Jesus, not as a second God, but as one who is included in the unique divine identity.
Paul paraphrases the Shema in 1 Cor 8:5–6. Far from teaching a dichotomy between God and Christ, this passage incorporates Christ into the Shema itself as Richard Bauckham has shown. The context concerns food sacrificed to idols. Since there is only one God, idols are nothing, argues Paul, however this is not a licence to cause a brother to stumble. There are many “gods” and “lords” in the pagan pantheon, but not so for Christians:
For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth — as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. (1 Cor 8:5–6).
Paul divides the wording of the Shema and the description of God as Creator between God and Jesus (compare Rom 11:36). However, the standard Christadelphian interpretation of this verse takes it quite out of context, forcing a dichotomy or distinction between “Lord” and “God” which is clearly contrary to the intent of Deuteronomy, as if to say:
“Over here on the one hand we have one God, the Father, who is God, but is not LORD… and over here on the other hand we have Jesus Christ, who is the one LORD, but is not God.”
Whereas Paul is saying, in opposition to heathen “gods” and “lords” we have one Deity who is God and Lord. In the Old Testament, God is LORD and the LORD is God. Is Paul somehow adding “Christ the LORD” to the exclusivity of God the LORD in Deuteronomy? Or is he somehow incorporating Christ into this unique divine identity? The rest of the New Testament provides the answer.
Jesus Christ, the Lord, has the attributes and works of YHWH (Lord) attributed to him, specifically and deliberately. These a only a few of the relevant verses:
Creator: John 1:1–3, 14; Col 1:15–17; Heb 1:3, 8, 10
Names and titles of God: Rev 22:13; Isa 52:6 cf John 13:5, 6, 8, 19 and many others
Worthy to be worshipped: Dan 7:14; Matt 2:2, 14:33; Mark 5:6; John 9:38; Phil 2:10; Heb 1:6; Rev 5:12
Supremacy over creation: Matt 13:41; John 3:31–32; Col 1:15–20
Authority: Matt 5:21–22, 24:35, 25:3146; John 5:2–18, 11:25
Unique relationship with God: Matt 11:27; John 5:23, 10:30, 14:1.
Charles Sherlock (God on the Inside: Trinitarian Spirituality (Canberra: Acorn Press, 1991) makes a powerful point when he says that in most situations, a person can “function” in a role that is not intrinsically theirs. For example a person might function quite adequately as a teacher without being a teacher, or be as a parent to a child without being the child’s biological mother or father. However, this does not hold true when talking about God. The early Christians worshipped Jesus Christ and ascribed to him the honor due to God and the names, attributes and deeds of God. For them, as for Christians through the ages, Jesus functions as God. To treat someone other than God as our God is idolatry; we cannot separate Jesus’ functioning as God from his being God. Taken together, the New Testament titles, claims and ascriptions of deity to Jesus Christ are overwhelming. He is no less than Immanuel, God with us.