The Ten Commandments can help us not to lose sight of the standards of holy living required by God of His heavenly people.
The Importance Of The Ten Commandments
In the Old Testament, the Ten Commandments were a series of specific laws given by God to Moses to guide His earthly people, the Israelites. Five things should be noted about them:
1. They were authoritative. The Ten Commandments were spoken and written by Jehovah Himself, not Moses. There was no human intermediary, as there was in most of the remainder of Scripture (2 Pet. 1:21).
2. They were consistent. The first set, written on two tablets of stone, was shattered by Moses in a symbolic gesture of anger and frustration when he came down from Mount Sinai and saw the idolatry of the people, as they worshiped the golden calf which his brother Aaron had made. After Moses pleaded for mercy (Ex. 34:12), Jehovah wrote exactly the same commandments a second time. They were not “watered down” because the people had not been able to keep them, in spite of their promises.
3. They were permanent. The fact that they were inscribed by the “finger of God” (not by Moses’ chisel) on stone tablets, suggests that they were intended to be an enduring record of the moral demands of a holy God. God’s laws are not like situation ethics, adjustable to changing times and thinking, making it easier for people to “get by.” They are unchanging.
4. They were individual. The singular form of address (“Thou”) throughout Exodus 20:3-17 indicates that God required personal obedience to these directives. Compliance from the nation collectively would follow if individuals kept them faithfully.
5. They were prohibitive. All the commandments, except the fourth and fifth, are couched in negative terms (“Thou shalt not”). And the two which are not have negative overtones. The fourth, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy,” in subsequent writing clearly indicates divine sanctions if it is broken. The fifth, “Honor your father and mother, so that you may live long in the land God is giving you,” implies that if children don’t obey their parents, their stay in the promised land will be shortened. The Assyrian and Babylonian captivities proved this to be so.
THE NEED FOR BALANCE
Some argue that the Ten Commandments were given to regulate the Israelites’ conduct, and as such are not applicable to believers today. They are part of the Old Covenant and not binding in this day of Grace. Is not Christ the “end of the Law” (Rom. 10:4)? Others maintain that they are an objective standard of God’s unchanging requirements, and as such Christians are obligated to keep them as fundamental moral precepts.
In balancing such extreme positions, we maintain that salvation does not come from keeping the Ten Commandments: “A man is not justified by observing the Law, but by faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal. 2:16 NIV). Salvation is by God’s grace, apart from anything we can do. But our sanctification depends on understanding God’s righteousness, and on being subject to His will. We should uphold the Law as a measuring stick of God’s holy requirements. It shows us how far short we fall! Once we see this, we should then practice the law of love, which combines all the commandments under one heading: “He who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the Law” (Rom. 13:8). We are called to holy living in loving grace.
THREE CLUSTERS OF THREE
One way of discussing the relevance of the Ten Commandments is to group them in three clusters of three, the fourth commandment being dealt with on its own.
Three Commandments About Relationship To God
“You shall have no other gods before Me … You shall not make for yourself an idol … You shall not misuse the name of the Lord” (Ex. 20:3-7).
In a fascinating story in Acts 14:15-17, Paul healed a man lame from birth, and the people from Lystra deduced that he and Barnabas must be gods. Paul, who did most of the talking, was called Hermes (Mercury) the messenger of the gods; Barnabas, a tall and imposing man, was called Zeus (Jupiter), the father of the gods. But they were quick to correct this false impression. They were just men who brought a message to turn from lifeless idols to a living, life-giving, God. Even today, men can be worshiped as idols – whether dictators, rock musicians or athletes.
There is within the human heart a desire to raise something between us and God to worship. Isaiah 44 pours scorn on the very idea that a man could cut down a cedar tree, carve an idol to worship, and then use the leftover bits to make a fire to warm himself and cook his meals. In verse 18 Isaiah says, “Their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see, and their minds closed so they cannot understand.”
But idols need not be made of wood or stone. If I choose to worship my own idea of what God is like, apart from His revelation in Scripture, then I am worshiping an idol of my own making, created not with tools, but with my own imagination. A popular view today is that there are many different concepts of God, all having validity. This is not what Jesus said. He makes the exclusive claim that He alone is the way to God (Jn. 14:6). There are no other ways to the one true God. By extension there are no other Gods either. He is unique, and His claims on our lives are paramount.
The third commandment of this cluster – taking the Lord’s name in vain or misusing it – refers to the Jewish practice of making oaths, not to using God’s name as a swear word. Sadly, the latter is all too frequent a characteristic of non-Christians today. It is painful for Christians to listen to God’s name, and especially that of Jesus Christ, used in this way. Situations where this happens should be avoided when possible.
James 5:12 makes clear what is meant here, and updates this command-ment for today. As believers our word should be good. If we say we will do something, we should do it. To do less is to dishonor the name “by which we are called,” Christian. We do not need oaths to bolster our promises – swearing by heaven, the temple, or anything else held in high honor.
Today, the laws in some countries allow people to make a “solemn declaration” rather than “swearing on the Bible” in legal procedures. Some Christians prefer this, in light of James 5:12. In any case, Christians must be known for honesty and integrity in word and deed.
We could sum up this cluster of three commandments by saying that God tremendously values our relationship with Him. He wants our exclusive trust, our undivided worship, and our public integrity. He wanted this with the Jewish nation, and He still does with us today.
Three Commandments About The Value Of Life
“Honor your father and your mother … You shall not murder … You shall not commit adultery” (Ex. 20:12-14).
God places the highest value upon human life and personal relationships, particularly within families. After all, He made us “in His own image” so that He could communicate with intelligent, worshiping beings, a relationship he could not enjoy with fish, birds and animals. God viewed the animal creation, and saw that it was “good”; but when he had made mankind, he passed judgment on all that He had made as “very good” (Gen. 1:31). God was delighted at His crowning achievement. It is not surprising then that the Bible emphasizes the importance God sets on stable, loving family relationships: “God sets the lonely in families” (Ps. 68:6).
But sin soon came into the idyllic family scene in the Garden. One of the first results was a breakdown in relationships, with envy developing between Cain and Abel, ending in murder. Of course this was long before the Ten Commandments, but God’s principles do not change, and murder is still not upheld as a just, moral act in any human society.
In the New Testament, Ephesians 6:1-2 quotes the fifth commandment, giving it a timeless quality: “Children obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.” In every age, children need to honor their parents, to ensure the continuation of a healthy society. Communities where children are at odds with their parents – disrespectful and sometimes even violent towards them – are communities heading towards disintegration. If parental values are not being effectively communicated by one generation, the next generation will be on shaky ground indeed. Conversely, societies where family life is strong and vibrant are likely to prosper.
Sadly, many murders result from a breakdown in the family. Some are simply the result of uncontrolled, violent tendencies in human beings under the influence of alcohol or drugs. But most murderers know their victims well. An estranged husband murders his wife’s lover; a jealous wife murders her wayward husband; a third party in a romantic triangle murders the one standing in the way of sensual desires. And so adultery, the third commandment in this cluster, is often involved.
The words of our Lord in Matthew 5:28-29 “raise the bar” even higher than it was in the Old Testament. A lustful look, lingered on and enjoyed, is regarded as equivalent to the act itself. Adultery committed in the heart is still regarded as adultery by the Lord, and needs very severe treatment. These are high standards indeed!
It is impossible to escape the conclusion that these three intertwined Old Testament commandments – now picked up, restated and amplified in the New Testament – are still valid reference points for Christian living today. God places tremendous value on human relationships, and can tolerate nothing which breaks those ties.
Three Commandments About Community Living
“You shall not steal … You shall not give false testimony … You shall not envy” (Ex. 20:15-17).
Paul says that “godliness with contentment is great gain” (1 Tim. 6:6), but he also admits that it is something he had to learn: “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances” (Phil. 4:11). Contentment does not come naturally, even for Paul – it has to be learned. It is natural for us to envy others, to covet something they have that we don’t.
On a national scale, envy results in wars, as countries squabble over disputed territory, each seeking aggrandizement at the expense of the other. Individually, we can be greedy for money, popularity and power. This is a subtle form of covetousness under the guise of “getting on” in the world. But it is still covetousness. God simply says, “Don’t do it!”
In Colossians 3:5 greed (or covetousness) is one of a list of things that believers are told to “put to death,” to have done with completely and totally. The reason is also given. It is because there is a strong link with idolatry. One particularly damaging form of covetousness is when a person becomes involved in an adulterous relationship, “coveting a neighbor’s husband or wife.” This sin is idolatrous because it concentrates attention upon sexual desires and not upon God. Something else has taken God’s place, and this is the essence of idolatry. Ultimately it has the potential to destroy community relationships and devalue marital faithfulness.
The early church was taught a salutary lesson about stealing and lying, in the account of Ananias and Sapphira recorded in Acts 5. In their fresh communal enthusiasm, some believers began the practice of selling their property and giving the proceeds to the apostles to assist those who were not as well off. Ananias and Sapphira did this too, but claimed they had given all to the apostles, when in fact they had kept part of it for themselves. There was absolutely nothing wrong in retaining something for their own needs. Their sin was in claiming they had given it all, which was not true. In so doing they were stealing from God, and lying to Him. Punishment was swift and severe: both died (Acts 5:5,10).
We are unlikely to suffer such a fate in this age of grace. But withholding from God what is rightfully His – whether through lack of generosity in our offerings for the Lord’s work, or reluctant giving of our time and energy – stems from an incomplete surrender of our whole life to Him, and can be seen as a New Testament equivalent of stealing.
Stealing is often connected with what the Old Testament calls “bearing false witness” (Ex. 20:16), and need not be only against one’s neighbor. The punishment of Ananias and Sapphira teaches that lying to the apostles was equivalent to lying to the Holy Spirit, something very serious indeed.
Today, the truth is devalued, and the important thing is not getting caught telling a lie, and being publicly exposed. That causes the pain and embarrassment, not the lie itself. But God’s demands have not changed. Christian standards for integrity in word and deed remain the same.
The unholy cluster of envy, stealing, and lying needs to be seen for what it is – a failure in the mutual obligations of community living. Christians should be marked out as those who are transparently honest in all their dealings, and distinguished for keeping a careful watch on their tongues.
THE MISSING COMMANDMENT
“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy” (Ex. 20:8-11).
The nine commandments already discussed are referred to many times in the New Testament, some quite explicitly. But one Old Testament commandment is not mentioned at all in the New Testament. Nowhere is there a requirement for New Testament believers to keep the Sabbath day. Why is there one commandment missing in the New Covenant with the Church, which was clearly present in the Old Covenant with Israel?
To find out why, we need to see the significance of Christ’s resurrection. Even while Jesus was with his disciples the Pharisees criticized his healing on the Sabbath as work! Legalism will go to any lengths to discredit acts of grace and mercy. But the Lord hinted that things were about to change, in declaring Himself Lord of the Sabbath. The new wine of His liberating teaching was too effervescent for the old wineskins of unyielding Judaism (Mk. 2:21-3:5).
After His ascension, the disciples met together on the first day of the week, Resurrection day, and not the Sabbath, the seventh day. Paul stayed seven days in Troas to break bread on the first day of the week (Acts 20:6-7). It was on the first day that the Corinthians were encouraged to take their offering for the impoverished believers in Jerusalem, presumably at the worship meeting (1 Cor. 16:2). There is ample evidence from the early Church that observing the first day had become the norm.
To sum up, the Ten Commandments, although originally given as part of the Law to God’s earthly people, today can help us not to lose sight of the standards of holy living required by God of His heavenly people, those who have been saved by His wonderful grace shown through Christ Jesus our Lord.
By Ian Livingstone
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA.