Sunday, 7 November 2010

The Ten Commandments – An Introduction

As we begin our study of the ten commandments, perhaps we wonder why we should study them. Many connect the ten commandments to a spirit of legalism which they endured at some stage in their lives. What are the benefits of understanding this ancient collections of rules? Can we keep them in the modern world, a world in which there are so many pressures on time and so many priorities to meet that seem a long distance away from the simplicity of the ten commandments. I suppose the first question we should then ask is, ‘For whom are the ten commandments given as a rule of life?’

Before we do, let me mention the common threefold division of God’s law into civil, ceremonial and moral. The three categories come from Israel’s experience of God’s law. The civil referred to matters such as laws about taxes, the ceremonial was concerned about religious rituals (individual and corporate), and the moral is summarised in the ten commandments. Civil requirements can be utilised by modern governments, ceremonial activities have passed away and should not be adopted by the church, and the moral law is permanent. Of course, this raises the question, ‘For whom is the moral law permanent?’ We can approach this question by looking at four different groups with whom the Bible links the ten commandments.

1. The law and all humans
In Romans 2:14-16, Paul writes as follows: ‘For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.’ Five deductions can be made from these verses:

(1) Paul says that the requirements of God’s law are written on the heart of each person, therefore they know the difference between right and wrong.

(2) This is a feature given to them as God’s intelligent creatures at creation, and it was given to Adam (which means that its first appearance was not at Mount Sinai). So everyone who lived between the Fall and Mount Sinai knew how to behave.

(3) It is also a reason for our ongoing responsibility to honour him by obeying his law perfectly. One consequence of this is that society can exist. A lawless group is not a community.

(4) It is clear that one benefit of the law is that the church can use it evangelistically, even with those who have never read the ten commandments, because it can point out the failures of the best of people to keep God’s law.

(5) The law will be the standard by which people will be judged on the Day of Judgement.

2. The law and Israel
It is obvious that the law was given to Israel in a special way at Mount Sinai. After their remarkable deliverance from Egypt, the Israelites convened in the presence of God in order to hear what their Deliverer required of them. The ten commandments are given in covenant language: first, the Overlord states what he has done for his subjects and, second, he lists his requirements of them. It was obviously an august occasion, full of the grandeur of God’s presence. Yet later on in the Bible, including the Old Testament, comments are made which suggest that the occasion of Mount Sinai had some negative consequences.

The Lord through Jeremiah stated that a new covenant was needed: ‘Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbour and each his brother, saying, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more’ (Jer. 31:31-34). This covenant is the one under which the church lives today (Heb. 8:1-13).

The old covenant was an expression of love on God’s part (he was the husband of Israel), but it was not reciprocated by the nation as a whole. Although like all other humans, the Israelites had God’s law written on their hearts and therefore knew that they should obey God, the power of sin was so strong that they freely choose to disobey their God. The problem was that the nation as a whole was not regenerated by God. In addition to natural knowledge of God’s law, they needed a spiritual knowledge that would result in transformed lives. The change would come from inward renewal. Note, the same laws that God gave at Mount Sinai would be rewritten on their hearts. It would not be a new law, instead they would be new people (forgiven by God, friends with God and with one another).

Some will ask, Were there converted people in Israel? The answer is yes. We must remember that before and above the Mosaic covenant was the one made with Abraham which promised salvation on a worldwide basis. Paul argues in Galatians that the Mosaic covenant functioned like a guardian, protecting those in Israel who were God’s true people from spiritual danger. Those in Israel who were God’s true people had his law written on their hearts (many of the psalms make this clear), but they were in the minority. Spiritual blessings came to them because of their connection with the covenant made by God with Abraham.

So why were the ten commandments given to Israel in the way they were at Mount Sinai? I think the best answer to that question is that this manner was designed to remind them of the holiness of God and their inability to walk in his ways. Sadly, most in Israel used God’s law in a self-righteous way, imagining that they were keeping it, with the outcome that they neither knew God nor knew themselves. Instead of using the law as God’s light to highlight their sinfulness, they became proud of their level of conformity to it, and in the process became increasingly blind in a spiritual sense. Nevertheless, if they had used the law correctly, they would have discovered themselves and who their God was and wanted for them and from them.

What concerns us is that we, who live under the new covenant and experience the fulfilment of the covenant made with Abraham, love to obey the same laws that were given to Israel at Mount Sinai. God has written them on our hearts, for the same reasons – to know him and serve him. The crucial difference is that we have the Holy Spirit to enable us to do so (Rom. 8:1-4).

3. The law and convinced sinners
One important function of the law is that it convicts sinners of their sins. Paul writes in Romans 3:19-20: ‘ Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.’ Since the law is the perfect standard, it convicts us of our failure to keep it. This conviction will vary in degree of intensity in different people.

Yet we must always remember that conviction of sin is not conversion. It may lead to conversion, but there are many people who have had a measure of conviction but were never converted. Conviction of sin is important in that it provides us with evidence of our problem, but we need the gospel to provide us with the cure. Focussing only on the law when speaking to unconverted people is a serious distortion of the Christian message.

4. The law and Christians
Since the law is written on our hearts, it must have certain effects within us. The rewriting involves our minds and our affections.

First, we will have an intelligent and affectionate appreciation of the Lawgiver. The law gives insight into the character of God. All laws reveal something about their compilers but we must interpret the information correctly. For example, when I see a sign that forbids firearms, I am not to deduce that the government dislikes the companies that make firearms. Instead I should realise that its law is designed for safety, both my own and that of the community. Each of the ten commandments tells us something about the character of God, and we will consider them in due course.

Second, we will have an intelligent and affectionate appreciation of the beauty of Jesus Christ. Jesus in his humanity is our example and he grew spiritually by obeying God’s law. God’s law was in his heart and he always did the things that pleased the Father. One way of meditating upon Jesus is to consider how, in any situation, he is engaged in obeying one or more of the ten commandments. He was always loving God and neighbour.

Third, we will have an intelligent and affectionate response to the work of the Holy Spirit in sanctification. What does the Spirit want to do at any stage in my Christian journey? He will always want me to keep God’s law, which means that he will never lead me to ignore a commandment or disobey one of them. The goal of the Holy Spirit will be to conform me to the requirements of God’s law.

Fourth, we will have an intelligent and affectionate application of the ten commandments to Christian living. Sometimes we wonder how people in the church should behave towards one another and witness to those outside the church. Perhaps we have our own ideas, but if that is all they are, we cannot impose them on others. There will be aspects of common sense that can be utilised, nevertheless the basic description of Christian living is found in the ten commandments. That is why they are explained in the Shorter Catechism.

This aspect can be developed in lots of ways. For example, it will add petitions to our prayer lives (we can pray that each will honour God’s name, that each will have spiritual rest this coming Lord’s Day, that each will love his or her neighbour). Or it will add expressions of brotherly love, or we can identify ways of showing practical Christian concern.

We have noted how the law of God relates to all humans in general, how it was designed for Israel under the Mosaic covenant, how it works in convincing sinners of their sins, and how it works out in the Christian life. We can close by noting some more basic features of the ten commandments.

First, very commandment in the Bible can be traced to at least one of the ten commandments. There are thousands of commands in the Bible, with some being given for a specific situation. The Corinthians were told to stop having their love feasts at the Lord’s Supper because their actions were dishonouring to God and unloving to their poorer brethren.

Second, the commandments have an internal as well as an external application. The obvious place where this is taught is by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount where he speaks about hatred as breaking the sixth commandment and immoral thoughts as breaking the seventh commandment.

Third, the ten commandments concern our relationship with God and with one another. This can be seen in the two different tables on which the law was originally written. One table contained the first four commandments and they describe one’s relationship with God; the other table contained the remaining six and they deal with human relationships, including family life, attitudes and actions toward property, and ways concerning proper treatment of one’s neighbour.

Fourth, the ten commandments, which are the moral law, took priority over the ceremonial law and the civil law in Israel. It was not a sin for David to eat the showbread, although his action was not in line with the ceremonial law. Yet it was a sin for David when he as king ensured that Uriah was in a position in which he would die in battle. There are many other examples.

So there are many benefits to studying the ten commandments.

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