READ : Exodus 20:2-3
The Ten Commandments have been much in the news lately. What’s the controversy about and who is this one who expects so much?
Welcome to this series on what we call “The Ten Commandments,” or what our Jewish friends sometimes refer to as “The Ten Words.” It’s a joy and a privilege for me to be back again ministering on Words of Hope. And this subject of The Ten Commandments is of abiding significance and of remarkable contemporary interest. Since they were first given, these have been learned and recited by millions of people. Many books have been written about them and about the great leader Moses through whom they were given. You can probably remember, some of you, the epic movie about them – DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” and more recently, the film about Moses and the Exodus.
What I hope to do in our times together for these next few weeks is to open up what the commandments meant as first given and then see them in the fuller light of later Old Testament writings, New Testament teaching and especially how we understand them in the light of Jesus and his saving work. Our big questions are: What do they mean today for people in the world generally, and what place should they have for persons who are seeking to be followers of Jesus Christ? Let’s listen now to the beginning of The Ten Commandments.
Then God spoke all these words. I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.
The Present Controversy
Now what’s the central controversy in the U.S. about The Ten Commandments? About a year ago, Roy Moore, then chief justice of the State of Alabama, lost his job after defying a federal order. The order was that he remove a 5300-pound Ten Commandments monument which he had installed in the state courthouse. And just a few months ago the U.S. Supreme Court was asked to rule on cases in Kentucky and Texas. In Texas, a six-foot granite monument with the Ten Commandments inscribed on the grounds of the state capital. In Kentucky, framed copies of The Ten Commandments in two state courthouses. Back in 1980 the Supreme Court justices had ruled that The Ten Commandments could not be displayed in public schools. These cases in the last year or so are the first on the commandments issue since then. An ironic feature of the Supreme Court deliberations is that on the courtroom wall in their chambers is a large frieze carving of Moses holding the two tablets of the Law! The very commandments at issue!
Now what’s at stake here? Do such displays on government property cross the line of separation between church and state? Opponents who have objected and brought suits say they do. The justices struggled with this issue. They clearly didn’t want a general ban. What role, they wondered, should religious symbols have in public life? And in their own courtroom? While they acknowledged, and everyone does, the religious background of The Ten Commandments, they point out that they are also a foundational text for Western legal codes and culture. They are one of the basic documents for our history as Americans. To reject them would be patently anti-religious – which the first amendment never intended. You might be interested to know that an AP Poll recently shows that over 70% of Americans favor such displays.
The Background of Grace
Now think about the way these commandments begin. What’s the significance of the opening words? God said, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the place of slavery.” I can hardly express sufficiently the significance of this introduction. It affects profoundly the way in which we understand each command. God shows that his will for us and his love for us are inseparable. All through the Bible, God’s gift comes before the command. He first acts on behalf of his people in saving love and then calls them to respond. It’s a background of grace. Thus the motivation called for is gratitude for gifts received, not merely the slavish obedience of fear. God shows his love and calls for a loving response. God gives and then asks.
What God Wants Most
Now what’s God’s purpose in these commands? To teach his people how to live in covenant with him. These commands show the people their part in a covenant relationship. God has been beforehand with them – loving them, calling them, making great promises to them, delivering them miraculously, guiding them through the wilderness, providing for their every need. Now in the light of all that, here is how they are to respond as faithful covenant partners, keeping their part of the agreement.
And these commands, friends – we can’t emphasize this too much – are for their good always. Not the commands of a tyrant, “You do my will or else!” They are not arbitrary, the whims of a despot. All the commands are in the best interests of the people. They may not always recognize that. Every positive command is an invitation to the good life. Every negative one is a warning against danger, a kind of loving “stop sign” to protect the community from what could destroy it.
When we think today of the commandments and their bearing upon people all over the world, we see how they have shown themselves to be so universal in their appeal as to become a world document even beyond Judaism, Christianity and Islam. People sense the truth and wisdom in them. They point toward order in the world, restraining destructive forces. Who would deny that obedience to them is better than the opposite? A day of rest rather than endless labor? Father and mother honored, rather than despised. Life preserved instead of destroyed. Is it better to break covenants or keep them, to respect rights or violate them? To lie or speak truth? To covet or be content? And if there is one God of goodness and love, to worship him in the way that he desires is a worthy thing, with gratitude and reverence.
So, as believers, we don’t try to pressure anyone legally to keep these commands except as the government enforces in cases of murder, stealing or slander. We can show how they make sense, how they point to a good life for communities and individuals. But our first aim ought to be how to help people know the loving God who gave these commands and to trust him through Christ.
Now what does this first commandment call for from us? As we move through these individual commands we’ll think in each case about the positive ways to obey them and the negative behaviors to avoid. What is called for here is adoration. If this holy, gracious God is our God, the one who has redeemed us and given us wonderful promises, we owe him first of all our worship – our “worth-ship,” acknowledging that he is the one who supremely deserves to be praised and adored. We offer to him our whole selves, singing his praise.
He calls also for trust. We owe God our trust, expressed in relying upon him for every need, believing that he will keep his promises, resting all our hopes for salvation in him alone. He will be our God, and we will be faithful to him.
God calls also for our prayers. If he is our God, he is the one on whom we will call in every need. We will invoke his name in every emergency and distress. We will call on him as his beloved children, saying “Abba, Father.”
And we owe God, as the first commandment makes clear to us, thanksgiving. We will be grateful, of course, to any who may help and provide for us, but we will recognize God as the ultimate Giver of every good and perfect gift. We will give thanks to him in all circumstances.
Now what does the commandment forbid? Well, really, directing what we’ve just talked about to any other. We’re not to give the worship of our hearts nor the total offering of our selves to any other. We’re to have no other final trust nor to call on any other imagined “god” to meet our need. We’ll never see another as the ultimate source of our blessings.
We’re called then to avoid everything that kindles what is called God’s “jealousy.” What does it mean when God calls himself a “jealous” God? Our use of that word often suggests an unlovely trait, doesn’t it, implying suspicion and pettiness? Oh, don’t ever think of God’s attitude in that way. He’s the God of the most amazing love who desires an answering love from his people. His jealousy is nothing but the anger and pain of injured and insulted love, like that of a loving spouse who is betrayed. It is heartbreak over great love trampled on and despised.
Think of it. As someone has said, “The energy of his love for us makes him long for all the poor treasure of our hearts!” Amazing!
What This Meant to Jesus
Now, how did Jesus see The Ten Commandments? That’s a key point. He cited numbers of them on several occasions. He said to his disciples that he had not come to destroy the law and the prophets but to fulfill them. He said, “Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle of the law shall not be done away until all is fulfilled” (Matt. 5:18). And he summed up the commandments in the two-fold love of God and of people (Matt. 22:40). Especially interesting to me is his use of this first commandment. Remember the time of temptation in the wilderness when he was tempted after all his fasting and privation to turn stones into bread. He said, “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). Then there was the temptation to leap from the temple and cause an adoring multitude to admire him.
Last came the temptation in which he was somehow shown all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. The tempter promised that all those things would be his if Jesus would fall down and worship him. Then Jesus, quoting not this commandment but another phrasing of it in Deuteronomy (6:13) said, “Get away from me, Satan. It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve'” (10). To do this, to be completely God’s person, was worth more to Jesus than all the world.