Thinking about the Ten Commandments

Worship Study Prayer

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Exodus 20:1-21

 The Ten Commandments

     1And God spoke all these words:
     2 “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
     3 “You shall have no other gods before me.
     4 “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
     7 “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.
     8 “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work,10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. 11 For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
     12 “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.
     13 “You shall not murder.
     14 “You shall not commit adultery.
     15 “You shall not steal.
     16 “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
     17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or his maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
     18 When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance 19 and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.”
     20 Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.”
     21 The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was.

This passage from Exodus, which sets out the Ten Commandments, was the listed Old Testament reading for yesterday. It definitely seems too important to skip over – in fact, it’s the foundation of morality in the Judeo-Christian tradition. So I thought we should devote today’s Reflection to a few thoughts about the Ten Commandments.

Obviously, there have been tons of very scholarly books written about the Ten Commandments, and a short Reflection like this doesn’t allow the time to do much more than make a few very general observations about them. But there are four thoughts I’d like to pass along.

First of all, it seems to me that the Ten Commandments need to be understood as an expansion on the two “most important commandments” that Jesus named when a Hebrew theologian asked him about it. (Matthew 22:36-40) Jesus told the man, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” The Ten Commandments take those two commandments and give concrete principles for living them out in our life with God, and in our common life as believers.

You’ll sometimes hear people say that the first four commandments are about our relationship with God, and the last six are about our relationships with other people. I wouldn’t say that’s wrongs, exactly, but it does seem to me to sort of give the wrong idea. Because it seems to me that in God’s mind, the two can’t really be separated. How we deal with other people is an expression of our relationship with God. We can’t claim to really love God with ‘heart, soul and mind’ unless we also love our neighbor – because God surely does.

The second thought I’d like to pass along is that our Reformed tradition has always said that really obeying the Ten Commandments requires us to take an expanded view of what they mean. We don’t get to claim we’re technically obeying the Ten Commandments if we disobey their spirit. Jesus said having murderous anger toward someone breaks the commandment against murder, and actively lusting after someone other than your spouse breaks the commandment against adultery.

The Westminster Catechisms take this principle and applies it to all of the Ten Commandments. For instance, when it comes to the commandment against stealing, the Catechisms say it forbids false advertising and all kinds of other deceptive practices that go on every day. It’s pretty interesting reading – I definitely recommend reading the parts of the Catechisms that apply to the Ten Commandments. It makes you think.

The third thing I’d like to say about the Ten Commandments is that they were handed down by God after he made the covenant with the people of Israel. They were not conditions that God set if the people wanted his care and provision. The covenant God made with his people was not a contractual arrangement – it was a gift out of God’s grace.

Followers of Jesus tend to think that the God portrayed in the Old Testament is an angry and vengeful God of judgment and punishment. But that’s largely because the historical parts of the Old Testament are the result of theological reflection centuries after the events they describe. When you look closely, the grace of God is just as visible in the Old Testament as it is in the New Testament.

Finally, I think contemporary followers of Jesus need to remind ourselves regularly that the Ten Commandments were intended by God to be a blessing to his people, not a bunch of troublesome rule to spoil our fun. The plain fact is that the Ten Commandments offer the single best program ever devised to humankind to live happy, healthy and prosperous lives. The Commandments have sometimes become a political football in the struggle between liberals and conservatives over the separation of church and state. But that’s a shame, because all of us – liberals and conservatives alike – would live better lives if we would take the commandments more seriously – not just as a club to bludgeon other people over their lives, but as a guide to living moral lives ourselves.

Let’s pray. Lord, we thank you for the Ten Commandments, and for the program of living by love you and our neighbor they set forth. By your Holy Spirit, incline our hearts to live more and more in obedience to those commandments, to promote your glory and the flourishing of other people. Amen. 

Have a great weekend, and worship God joyfully on Sunday!

(The listed readings for today are Psalms 96 and 138; Exodus 24:1-18; Colossians 2:8-23; and Matthew 4:12-17.)


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