Ten Commandments – Why They Matter
A few weeks ago I was asked to speak at an event in Huntsville. My topic was; the lifestyles of the broken and shameful people of the Old Testament. The main idea was that we have often glamorized the people in the Old Testament to the point that it is impossible to live up to their examples. We read about Abraham who was the Father of Faith, Moses who left the comforts of the Pharaoh’s palace to lead the Israelites through the wilderness, Esther who confronted the king with wisdom and cunning and saved the nation of Israel, and David who was a man after God’s own heart. We have proper these men and women up as the hero’s of the faith.
We like telling their stories, because we can wrap them up in nice little packages and talk about them in Vacation Bible Schools or in our Sunday School Classes. But the problem we run into, is the more we study these men and women the more we realized that they are not paragon’s of perfection. Noah plants a vineyard and gets drunk, Abraham lied about Sarah twice, Moses had an anger problem, David raped Bathsheba and then had her husband killed, Rahab was a lying prostitute, Gideon set up a gold idol and the people worshiped it. When you dig deeper into the lives of these men and women that are held up as faithful, you begin to see that maybe they aren’t the best role models.
For far too long, I wanted to base my righteousness on how well I keep the rules. I was told if I did my best, then God’s grace would make up where I fell short. God will be pleased with me if I can just be faithful like Noah or Moses. I believed my standing with God was based on how well I kept the law. So, I found my value in the fact that I never murdered anyone, or committed adultery so God must happy with me. Since I got baptism right, and my worship followed the proper pattern then I was safe. But deep down there was this constant gnawing because I knew that something is missing.
James writes: Remember His call, and live by the royal law found in Scripture: love others as you love yourself. You’ll be doing very well if you can get this down. But if you show favoritism, paying attention to those who can help you in some way, while ignoring those who seem to need all the help, you’ll be sinning and condemned by the law. For if a person could keep all of the laws and yet break just one; it would be like breaking them all. The same God who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also says, “Do not murder.” If you break either of these commands, you’re a lawbreaker, no matter how you look at it. (James 2:8-11)
I would often struggle because deep down I knew I wasn’t doing my best. There are times when I just want to make sure that I keep the rules, that I do the minimum. Times when I give up the chance to form a relationship with Him. David, Moses, Esther, Ruth, Abraham, and the rest of the hero’s of faith were not considered faithful because they did their best; they were faithful because they had formed a relationship with God. What I am realizing more and more as I try to read out of the Bible is that God doesn’t set up arbitrary laws to micromanage my life. God uses His laws to draw me closer to Him so that we can have the relationship He desires.
In the introduction to her book, The Ten Commandments, Dr. Laura Schlessinger writes; Each day we make many, seemingly minute decisions about things that don't really seem earth shattering. So what if we broke a promise? So what if we find passion in another bed while we or they are still married? So what if we are too focused on work, TV, or clubs to spend time with our family? So what if religion is not a big deal in our lives? When one adds up all the so-what’s, one ends up with a life without direction, meaning, purpose, value, integrity, or long-range joy.
I think she’s right. I doubt that you can find another passage in the Bible that so concisely, clearly and compassionately outlines the grace of God and our response to that grace than the Ten Commandments. If you have a Bible with you this morning, or a tablet or phone, I want you to turn with me to Exodus 20 and let’s read verses 1-17 to see the relationship God is inviting us to. (Read Text).
We tend to overlook the power found in the the Ten Commandments because we get fixated on the Thou Shall’s and the Thou Shalt Not’s. But there is something special here, especially for New Testament Christians who are trying to find a deep and thriving relationship with God.
Because the 10 Commandments are rooted in a relationship.
These are not arbitrary laws that require blind obedience to an invisible authoritarian. Exodus 19:5 says, If you keep my covenant. God offers us a covenant and we want a contract. A covenant is a sacred promise between two parties. You can have a contract without having a relationship. But you can't have a covenant without one.
We need to think about the Ten Commandments less like a set of laws and more like wedding vows. God pledges His power, love, and presence to Israel. In turn, God expects Israel's loyalty to Himself and compassion toward others. God didn't jot down the Ten Commandments then answer Israel's question, Why should we do this? by saying, because I told you so. I understand that there are times God tells His people to obey because, I am the Lord. But even then His commands are predicated on this relationship. You see, God is as bound to the Ten Commandments as we are.
That's why the Ten Commandments won’t work with people who don't have a relationship with God. Why should a person avoid stealing if they don't acknowledge the God who said, Thou shalt not steal? Why should a person honor their marriage commitments if they never made a commitment to the God who said, Thou shalt not commit adultery?
The power of the Ten Commandments is not found in the fact that they are laws, but in that they are descriptions of how people live in relationship with God. It’s easy to focus on the You should, and the You shouldn’t and just see them as the 10 laws. But I hope as we dig deeper we will realize they are more than that, they are words that describe a relationship.
Next, The Ten Commandments outline the human response to the grace of God.
Exodus 19:1-2 uses the word after twice, which should lead you to ask, after what? That’s verse 4, After I carried you on eagle's wings and brought you to myself. God continues this idea in Exodus 20:2. I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
Before God ever commands them to do anything or to refrain from doing anything, He saves them. Moses doesn’t show up in Egypt with two stone tablets and say, If you guys will agree to obey all these commands, God will deliver you from Egyptian slavery. He showed up and said, God sent me to deliver you after He heard your cry. Then, and only then, did God outline the response Israel was to make.
Exodus 19:4-5. First He says, You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagle's wings and brought you to myself. He follows that with, Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Deliverance first. Commandment second.
But, fast forward to what happens 40 days after they received the commands. Moses has gone back on the mountain and the folks get nervous. They decide to violate at least the first two commands by making a golden calf and having a party. If God was only interested in justice, He would have wiped them off the face of the earth and gone in another direction. But that’s not what He does. Instead, He forgives them and reissued the commands. That's a show of Old Testament grace.
Thirdly, The Ten Commandments move faith from the abstract to the actual by specifying behavior.
If you were to do an impromptu survey and ask people, Do you believe in God? I bet the numbers would surprise you. A huge percentage would say; yes, absolutely, I believe in God. But then if you look at their lives you’d find that what they say they believe and what they live don’t necessarily line up with one another.
Faith, like love, is too easily kept in the realm of theory. Remember faith is a verb, it demands action. The Ten Commands don't allow us to claim belief in God without demonstrating that belief in concrete actions and behaviors. They require us to affirm our faith in the daily grind of living.
So instead of, "Do you believe in God?" the Ten Commandments ask us ten questions,
Do you honor anything or anyone above the one true God?
Has God been replaced by something physical or material in your life?
Have you dishonored God's name by using it in a frivolous manner?
Is your work more important than your relationship with God?
Do you honor your father and mother?
Do you value human life?
Have you kept your marriage vows?
Do you respect other's rights of ownership?
Do you tell the truth?
Are you content with what you have or do you covet the possessions, relationships and successes of others?
By giving us the Ten Commandments we are given the chance to move from the abstract of what we claim into the concrete of how we actually live our lives. You see our answers to those specific questions about behavior and morality demonstrate the truth about our beliefs.
Next, They require personal responsibility for the well being of the community.
One of the great things about our culture, is our ability to separate ourselves from everyone and everything else. The Ten Commandments force you to take responsibility for the community where God has placed you. I hope you noticed that the you in everyone of these commands is singular.
One of the reasons, maybe one of the top three reasons, our country is in such a moral mess right now, can be summed up in the words; It's not my problem. Really, it doesn't make a big impact on my life if someone in Birmingham covets his neighbor's way of life. If someone in Atlanta lies about a real estate investment, big deal. If there is a murder in Nashville, that's too bad. What's the weather going to do tomorrow? Those sins don't affect me; it’s not my problem. The problem is, though, that most everybody feels that way. And sooner or later you are going to be lied to, or robbed, or see your marriage go up in smoke.
When God came down to the mountain, He did not address the crowd, He addressed each and every individual. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt. You shall have no other gods before me. You, standing there by that rock, and you over by that cedar tree, and you in the red turban who is thinking how glad he is all these other people are hearing all these commands. I'm talking to you! There is a connection between personal responsibility and the welfare of the community. The Ten Commandments shout at the top of God's voice, it is your problem!
Every lie you tell or tolerate, every covetous thought you allow to live longer than a flash, every secret lust, every act of dishonesty, all of them matter. And the only way you are going see your community healed is if you take personal responsibility to make it a holier, healthier community by beginning with yourself.
Finally, The Ten Commandments illustrate the connection between our vertical relationship with God and our horizontal relationships with each other.
The first four commands describe our relationship with God. The last 6 or 7 describe our relationships with each other.
In Mark 12 Jesus was asked which of these commandments was the most important; which one carried the most weight. His answer was, Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. And He not only answered the question asked, He also answered the question that was implied: The second is this; Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these. What Jesus did was summarize the Ten Commandments by saying Love God and Love your neighbor.
Jesus reduced the Ten Commandments to just two, but our culture wants to reduce it even farther. As long as people love each other we're happy. You can keep God, thanks. All you need is love. The problem is we can’t get everyone to love each other. Because God is love and when you get rid of God, you lose the ability to love.
What sounds like a thoroughly New Testament teaching had its origin in the Ten Commandments You can't have a healthy, holy relationship with humans without having a healthy, holy relationship with God. This is so important to us because we were created to live in and thrive in relationships, and God established His laws not to keep us in line, but to invite us into a relationship with Him.
I was talking to a friend of mine about what my vision was for this year, I told them we were going to look at Communion and then move to the Ten Commandments. They told me they understood talking about communion, but what do a bunch of New Testament Christians hope to learn from a law that was nailed to the cross. He was quick to remind me that we are saved by grace, not law. So why would we waste all this time talking about the ultimate example of law?
My answer to him and to anyone here this morning who might be asking the same questions, is that the table is all about relationships. It is where the body of Christ meets together to celebrate Christ. We grow closer together as we focus on the bread, the body of Christ that gathers here in this building. We experience the depth of brother and sisterhood as we realize the cup, the blood of Christ, means that There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For we are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:8)
While the law doesn’t save us, it does introduce us to our God who desperately longs to have a relationship with us. Paul told the Christians in Rome that the law describes how saved people respond to the grace that saved them.
What relationship do you have with God today? Is it a cold distant relationship where you wonder if He’s there and if He even cares? The Ten Commandments say to us this morning that not only is God there, He cares deeply for you. His greatest desire is for us, the creation, to have a relationship to Him, the creator.