(Please note that some of the audio is missing)
I remember sharing my faith with a high school friend. He identified as either an atheist or a strong agnostic, although he had a Roman Catholic background. His response was that he didn’t need the gospel I was sharing because he was already following the Ten Commandments. I found it hard to believe that a person who was an atheist could follow any of the first God-focused commandments. What he really meant was that he didn’t kill or steal. He was using the Ten Commandments as short hand for living a moral life and as far as he was concerned that was enough.
What is the role of the Ten Commandments for Christians? There is a wide range of opinions. Some would say that obedience of the Ten Commandments is essential for being a Christian. Some would say that is part of the old covenant and therefore not relevant to Christians. Some would say that it is impossible for us to follow the Ten Commandments and that pushes us into the grace that is only found in Jesus. There is actually elements of truth in all of those statements but none of them capture the complete truth.
The list of the Ten Commandments is found twice in the Old Testament. The first time is in Leviticus, right after the passage we looked at a couple of weeks ago. The second is here in Deuteronomy. Why the repetition?
Here is a brief timeline to give us some context. Moses led the people of Israel out of Egyptian slavery to Mount Sinai to receive the Law that included but was not limited to the Ten Commandments. Then, because of an act of disobedience, the people wandered in the wilderness for forty years. This brings us to Deuteronomy. Most of the old generation has died and the new generation stands at the borders of the Promised Land, this time ready to take it. However, it was not enough that their parents knew the Law, the current generation needed it as well. Moses is reminding them of what was given on Mount Sinai so that they can enter the Promised Land with full knowledge of the covenant that God made with them. The Ten Commands were vital for a proper future.
That was true for the Israelites but what for us. The Apostle Paul argued over and over in his letters that we cannot be saved by obedience to the Law. There were certain things that Paul was willing to let slide, but this was not one of them. Only by faith in Jesus Christ can anyone of us be saved. If we try to have a relationship with God only through following the rules, it will not happen. Faith in Jesus in the light of his death and resurrection is the only adoption process available.
But that doesn’t mean that the Ten Commandments are worthless. Jesus talks a lot about them. They are good guidelines for a faithful life. Just because we are saved by faith doesn’t mean that we are free to steal and murder. Once we are in God’s family, the Ten Commandments are helpful for guiding how we live.
But there may be a more important aspect of the Ten Commandments. Why did God give these ten commandments? Did he plug into a random commandment generator and these popped out? These commandments, no matter what side of the covenant we are on, reflect God’s character. We are not to murder because God values life. We are not to commit adultery because God values faithfulness. We are not to bear false witness because God values truth. It is possible to find value in the Ten Commandments apart from the list of rules. They give us a peak into the nature and character of God.
Looking back to the Ten Commandments as guidelines for life, what does that look like for Christians? Let’s briefly look at each of them in light of the revelation of Jesus.
- There are to be no other gods before God. We may not struggle with polytheism in the same ways as the ancients but there are many things that seek to be our god. Nothing must come before God.
- The commandment about idolatry is related to the first but there is a difference. You can make an idol of the false gods but you can of the true God as well. The creating of an idol is an attempt to gain control of one’s god, to make them physical so you can handle them and put them where you want. God is the one in charge not us.
- I always thought that taking the name of the Lord in vain was just about swearing. It can include it but it is bigger than that. I would say that televangelists that trick people out of their money are taking the name of the Lord in vain. I would say that pastors who abuse their power are taking the name of the Lord in vain. I would say Christians who make Jesus look bad are taking the name of the Lord in vain.
- The Sabbath command is the last of the four God-focused commands. What is interesting is that if you asked many Christians, including pastors, they would say that this is the only command we don’t have to follow. They might even think it is godly to work seven days a week because it shows how hard working we are. I have become more and more convinced of the importance of Sabbath. It may not be on Saturdays but we are built for Sabbath rest.
- It is interesting that the command about honouring fathers and mothers is at the top of the list for the people-focused commands. It doesn’t mean that we are always obedient because sometimes parents point in the wrong direction. But the relationship of father and mother is something to be honoured even if the individuals do not live up to the standard. Remember that God revealed himself as a Father.
- The command against murder seems straight forward but Jesus complicates it. He tells us that if we even feel hate in our hearts we have murdered. This doesn’t mean we are murderers if we have ever been upset or angry at someone. The test is about what would happen if you could get away with it? Is it fear of punishment or consequences that stops you? If you would if you could, in a way you already have.
- Jesus does the same thing with adultery. Looking at someone in lust is like committing adultery. This doesn’t mean that if you think someone is attractive, you are an adulterer. Once more, what would happen if there were no consequences? Is it only fear that is stopping you.
- Why is stealing so wrong? It is not just that it is frustrating when people take your stuff. Relationships need to be built on trust and stealing is a quick way to destroy that trust.
- Bearing false witness looked a bit different in the ancient world than today, but was equally destructive. In biblical days there were no organized police force or formal legal system of courts. People were found guilty of crimes by the witness of their neighbours. It looks different today but we still have the power to hurt people. Lying about people can destroy reputations and lives. Our words have power and we must be careful to speak truth. But that truth is to be spoken in love. This is the nature of God.
- Many people may think that coveting is the least serious of the commands. What’s wrong with wanting something? Coveting is more than appreciating something. It is based on discontentment. Much of the problems in our world are based on people not being happy with what they have and needing more and more. The problem is that what we want needs to come from someone. This leads to all sorts of problems.
If all this seems complicated, Jesus was good enough to summarize it for us. It all comes down to loving God and loving our neighbours. The first four are about loving God and the last six about loving neighbours. Even if we forget the ten, we can remember the two.
The church has long held to the importance of the Ten Commandments for Christians. We have sometimes disagreed about what that importance is but we knew there was something here. We won’t find salvation here but we will find guidelines on how to live a godly life. They won’t get us into the family but they will help us to know what family life looks like. Even more, the Ten Commandments give us a glimpse of what God is like and what he values. The Ten Commandments are not a burden but are a blessing.