The Gift of Commandments

There was once a visiting pastor at an 11 a.m. service who asked the elder for the day,

“How long should I preach?”

“You can preach as long as you like,” he replied, “but we leave at 12.”

With this in mind, one of the first things I do when I speak at a new church is to locate where the clock is located. When I can see it, the message is much clearer. Time is a privilege, and we as preachers must handle it with discretion.

Some churches have the clock on a side wall, so that everyone can keep a close eye on developments, but the greatest act of faith is seen in a church that has no clock whatsoever! Either an act of great trust or a sign of having given up!

When one preaches on the Ten Commandments, time is always an issue. Exodus 20, looks like a preacher’s dream: ten clear points of, say, five to ten minutes each maybe?

Although their depth of meaning and usefulness might make it necessary to do what a well-known preacher once did. He had been preaching for 30 minutes and asked, “How many people will give me another five minutes?” Twenty people put their hands us. “That’s wonderful.” he said, “Twenty times five is a hundred minutes…. yes, that should do.”

In the Old Testament there are hundreds of laws that come under three categories.

 There is the cultic law – you can’t come to church if you have touched a dead body.

There is the civil law – like in Exodus 22:21-23: ‘Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt. Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry.’

And the third kind of law is the moral law.

The first two have influenced hygiene and law in much of human history but have faded as central to a religious community like the church, but the moral law a seen in The Ten Commandments never fades away.

 The Ten Commandments unfold from the grace of God. The moral law is a gift.

In the Old Testament The Lord chose the Israelites: a tiny, powerless people for himself, led them out of captivity and taught them to depend on Him in the wilderness. (We can all relate to this in the wilderness times of our own lives.) He covenanted to be their God if they will be His people. So the Ten Commandments spell out what their part is as His people.

Grace precedes law, which protects and guides.

The Ten Commandments were given as a gift of love to the Israelites. They are all consequences of the outworking of Exodus 20:2. ‘I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.’

Grace precedes law.

That divine pattern usually works best in most areas of life. Laws for children work best where an atmosphere of love precedes them. “You are not watching South Park!” works best when there is a background of being the giving, generous, caring and sacrificial parents.

In the story of David Helfgott we see a father who was all law and no grace and so broke his son’s heart and mind. Law without grace cripples.

A lot of motorists experience this in the Adelaide CBD every day. There is anger and distress as they discover they have ‘unwarranted’ parking and speeding tickets.

The Lord preceded law with grace when he brought the Jews out of Egypt to be His only people. He covenants with the Jews and says,

 “Here is what I have done for you, now this is what I expect of you.”

The Ten Commandments have also been a great gift to the world. James Kennedy says in What If Jesus Had Never Been Born, ‘Inherent……. in these commands are civil liberties.’ For example the command that prohibits murder, also protects life. The command that forbids theft, also guarantees private property. The command that forbids adultery also protects marriage.

There is nothing like them in the ancient world. As opposed to Assyrian and Hittite Codes where property was the basis of value, in The Ten Commandments it is people. To the Assyrians, even the loss of human life couldbe compensated through property, but in the Ten Commandments human beings are of the essence. People alone are in God’s image and cannot be replaced by material things. The Phoenician gods Moloch and Baal demanded child sacrifice by fire and temple prostitutes, but the Lord demands faith, love and obedience as his grace surrounds his people, then and now.

As the late Professor Lewis Smedes of Fuller Seminary wrote in his book Mere Mortality, ‘The commandments tell us to do what we already know we should do.’

Tertulllian, an early Christian writer asserted that The Ten Commandments were embraced in the hearts of men, before being written on the tablets of stone. They fit life. They match what should happen in the home, in business or in relating to neighbours better off than us. They warn us against obsessions and addictions that could take us over and become idols. They match life as it is and ought to be. They assume the sinfulness of humanity, but also that we are made in God’s image and so can recognize his commands as good and right.

The commandments form two divisions. The first four are to do with the Lord, the second four with human relationships. The second are based on the first.

A right relationship with God, leads to better homes, relationships, marriages and in turn a better world. Jesus alone lived them out perfectly. He completes them by bringing in a deeper meaning to each of them. Jesus expands on ‘You shall not murder’ to mean that even anger can destroy lives and relationships. Avoiding adultery is one thing, but Jesus says lust, degrades the luster and the lustee by reducing relationships to the physical.

But are we saved by obeying the Ten Commandments? Is this all that is necessary? If we are, then Christ need not have come. The Cross would not have been necessary, or the New Testament.

Paul the Apostle writes that the Ten Commandments are laws and no-one is saved by observing the law however moral or true. No one can keep any of the commandments perfectly anyway; in letter or depth. So something more than law is needed because only perfect faith and love can make us acceptable to the Lord.

 Jesus Christ’s death made atonement between us and the Father possible so that through faith in him we become forgiven and acceptable. No law can do that. As John 1:17 says: ‘For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.’

Where The Ten Commandments fit in are by providing limits to where your Christian freedom my take you. If you believe that your Christian freedom enables you to steal from the government, through social welfare and tax mis-information, the commandments say, “No. You shall not steal.” Your Christian freedom will not let you go there. If you think Christian freedom means you can compromise your moral standards because you are so free and saved by grace, then commandment seven, bars that.

For the Christian the commandments are like boundary fences. If you think you can go beyond them, then you are wrong, even though there is freedom in Christ. This is how the law works in much of life.

You have tremendous freedom in your driving, up until you hit a speed limit. You can be very tax efficient in minimisation, but it gets a bit tricker when there is tax evasion. The law places limits to what is allowed, and that helps Christians even though we are not saved by just observing the Ten Commandments.

I have a handy mnemonic aid to us in remembering the commandments.

1 is like an index finger – God first.

2 is like swan – no idols.

3 turned side-ways looks like lips – name of the Lord.

4 is like a yacht – Sabbath.

5 is like a sea-horse – parents.

6 is like a footballer kicking – no murder.

7 is like a boomerang – no adultery.

8 snowman – no stealing.

9 is like a balloon – no false witness.

10 is a beautiful double number – do not covet.

So write The Ten Commandments on your heart, and on the doorframes on your house and celebrate the freedom that comes through limitation, and that you are a part of Christianity where like no other world religion, first came grace, then came the law.

By George Robert Iles