In the Old Testament times, God used the experiences of the Israelites to teach us the importance of keeping our eyes focused on the path in front of us.
As the Israelites marched through the wilderness, they came to Kadesh, a town on the outskirts of the territory of the Edomites.
Numbers chapter 20 tells us:
Moses sent messengers from Kadesh to the king of Edom, saying:
“This is what your brother Israel says: You know about all the hardships that have come on us. Our ancestors went down into Egypt, and we lived there many years. The Egyptians mistreated us and our ancestors, but when we cried out to the LORD, he heard our cry and sent an angel and brought us out of Egypt.
“Now we are here at Kadesh, a town on the edge of your territory. Please let us pass through your country. We will not go through any field or vineyard, or drink water from any well. We will travel along the King’s Highway and not turn to the right or to the left until we have passed through your territory.”
The Israelites made a promise to the king of Edom, that they would not turn aside or wander off the path, that they would keep their eyes focused straight ahead on their destination.
We see this expression used numerous times in the Bible, i.e., not turning aside to the right or left.
In Deuteronomy 5:32 Moses is recounting the day God handed down the Ten Commandments, and finishes with a little reminder.
So be careful to do what the LORD your God has commanded you; do not turn aside to the right or to the left
Again, we see the expression, “do not turn aside to the right or left”, and in this context, it’s a reminder to the people of Israel to keep their focus centered on God, whereas in the passage from Numbers 20, it was more literal.
As God established His law through Moses in Deuteronomy, God stressed time and again the importance of keeping our focus on Him.
Go to the Levitical priests and to the judge who is in office at that time. Inquire of them and they will give you the verdict. You must act according to the decisions they give you at the place the LORD will choose. Be careful to do everything they instruct you to do. Act according to whatever they teach you and the decisions they give you. Do not turn aside from what they tell you, to the right or to the left.
If you pay attention to the commands of the LORD your God that I give you this day and carefully follow them, you will always be at the top, never at the bottom. Do not turn aside from any of the commands I give you today, to the right or to the left, following other gods and serving them.
The reason God places such emphasis on “not turning to the right or to the left” is because there are things out there in the world that can distract us and pull our attention away from God. It may be something that literally causes us to turn our heads one way or another, or it might be something that causes us to turn aside in a spiritual sense. It could be something on TV or on the internet that we shouldn’t be viewing. It might be an improper or inappropriate thought that we entertain in our minds. It might be some sin we’re struggling with.
So God uses this verbiage to teach us that we must not turn towards the things that cause us to turn away from Him. Our attention and our focus should be on Christ, because our destination is eternal life with Him in His Kingdom.
When Jesus was crucified, there were two criminals with him, one on the left and one on the right. It was God’s plan that Jesus should be in the center. This was done to emphasize in a physical way that Jesus should be the center of our lives. That was not random.
In the New Testament, Paul preaches the same message, but he phrases it a a little differently.
1 Corinthians 9
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
Different analogies. But the same end result. What does Paul mean when he says, “Run in such a way as to get the prize.”? . It’s very simple; don’t turn to the right or to the left. If a runner does that during a race, there is no prize to be won.
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
Paul is basically delivering the same message that God sent through Moses. Be disciplined in our faith, do not be distracted. Do not turn to the right or to the left. Let’s keep our eye on the prize. Let’s keep our focus on Christ.
I’ll close with this passage from Proverbs 4:
Let your eyes look straight ahead;
fix your gaze directly before you.
Give careful thought to the paths for your feet
and be steadfast in all your ways.
Do not turn to the right or the left;
keep your foot from evil.