George Burns was a famous American actor and comedian who died some years ago at the age of 100. He was also known for his love of cigars. When he was 95 years old, he found himself at odds with one of his favorite hangouts – the card room of the Hillcrest Country Club of Beverly Hills where he went to play bridge almost every afternoon. For when he arrived one day he saw a newly posted sign that said, “No Smoking.” So Burns fired off a letter to the country club board of directors informing them that as a Hillcrest member for more than 50 years, he had no intention of giving up smoking his cigars during his almost daily bridge games.
The next day Burns walked into the card room of the country club, defiantly toting his lit cigar. And there was the sign, only this time it had been changed to read, “No Smoking, except for members 95 and over.”
Rules and laws; we’re not crazy about them. In fact, like George Burns, we all have our special reasons why we think rules and laws should not apply to us. “I’ve been a member for over 50 years.” “I know I was speeding officer, but I’m late for an important meeting.” “I know it’s wrong to cheat, but everyone else is doing it, so what choice do I have if I want to get into graduate school?” “I know I was out past my curfew, but mom, dad, do you know I have the earliest curfew of anyone in my class?” “I know adultery is wrong, but my husband and I are like strangers, and finally I met a man who really cares about me.” We all have our reasons why we think rules and laws don’t apply to us.
In fact, there is a part of us that just plain rebels against rules and laws and any source of authority. Just consider some advertising slogans that have been popular in recent years. For awhile Burger King had an advertisement that proclaimed: “Sometimes you gotta break the rules.” A Neiman Marcus ad declared: “Relax. No rules here.” Don Q rum proclaimed: “When you have a passion for living, nothing is merely accepted. Nothing is taboo. Break all the rules.” And in extolling the benefits of Rejuvex, Lauren Hutton announced: “We’re the generation of women who broke all the rules.”
Why have so many advertisers picked up on this theme of breaking the rules? Those marketers get paid top dollar to discover the themes and images that somehow connect with the consumer regardless of what product they’re trying to sell. And they know that there is a rebellious streak in all of us. It may be more pronounced in some that others, but within all of us there is this desire to break the rules, or at least break some of the rules. And so they want to make the connection in our minds between our rebellious desires and their product so that we will be more inclined to buy what they’re selling.
Then we could also add the spirit of relativism so prevalent in the world today. Many refuse to acknowledge anything related to absolute right or wrong. What was right or true or moral in a previous era is not necessarily so today. If it’s right for me, that’s all that matters. Don’t try to impose your morality on me! A recent survey in the United States revealed that 93% of Americans look to themselves and no one else in determining what is and is not moral.
So in light of our tendency to excuse ourselves from rules and laws, in light of the rebellious streak in all of us, and in light of the pervasive relativistic thinking that surrounds us, I’m going to do something that may seem totally ridiculous. For the next few months I want to lead us in an examination of some of the oldest laws in the books – the Ten Commandments.
Why would I do this? I mean, those things are more than 3,000 years old; what could they possibly have to say to us living in the 21st century? Besides, who wants to hear about commandments, rules, and laws? In addition, we’re Christians. We’re not bound to the law. This is the age of grace. So why burden us with these stifling restrictions?
Well, maybe there is more to the Ten Commandments than first meets the eye. And just because they are more than 3,000 years old, maybe they still have value for today. And even though we don’t like rules, maybe sometimes we need them. And while we are Christians living by grace, maybe they still apply to our lives. So today I want to introduce the Ten Commandments, what they meant for Israel and what they mean for us,and then we will consider them one-by-one in the coming weeks.
As we’ve seen so far in our study of Exodus, and as you well know, the Israelites were slaves in Egypt for several hundred years. But God had not forgotten them. Through a series of miracles God worked through their leader, Moses, God delivered them from their oppressors. This took place around the year 1290 B.C.
But now the people faced a crisis. The crisis centered on the question: How would they live as free people? Up until now they never had to think about how to live, for they were just slaves. They had no choice but to follow whatever laws and customs were imposed on them by the Egyptians. If they got out of line, the taskmasters would quickly and probably forcefully let them know.
But now they were free. No one was telling them what to do or how to live. So would each person become a law unto him/herself, declaring: “No one is going to tell me what to do or how to live. I’ll decide what is right for me.” That, of course, would lead to moral chaos and the disintegration of the community.
So what morals would guide their personal lives? What laws would shape their life as a community? How would they live in relationship with God and with one another?
Fortunately, God took care of this matter for them. Three months after escaping from Egypt, the Israelites were camped in the desert of Sinai. God called Moses up the mountain where God gave him the Ten Commandments, which Moses then brought down to the people. God provided the guidelines by which they could live under His gracious rule. They would not only be a people; they would be God’s people. Shortly before giving Moses the Ten Commandments, we read in Exod. 19:3-6:
Then Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain and said, “This is what you are to say to the house of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.
God had a purpose for the people of Israel, an incredible purpose. God’s purpose for them was that they would become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. A priest is someone who represents God to the people as he communicates the truth and will of God to the people, and he represents the people to God as he presents the sacrifices, offerings and needs of the people to God.
While Israel had a limited number of people who functioned specifically as priests, God wanted the people as a whole to become a kingdom of priests, His representatives. For in choosing Israel as His special possession, God was in no way limiting Himself to just that one small group of people. God also had dreams for all the nations of the earth. As is clear from Scripture, God desires to bless all the nations, all the peoples with His gift of salvation.
When God called Abraham, the father of the Israelites, God said to him in Gen. 12:3, “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
When David was king he had the Ark of the Covenant, which represented the presence of God, brought back to Jerusalem. Then they had a festival to celebrate, during which David proclaimed in I Chron. 16:8, 28 & 30:
“Give praise to the Lord, proclaim His name, make known among the
nations what He has done…Ascribe to the Lord, all you families of nations, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength…Tremble before Him, all the earth.”
When King Solomon finished building the temple to the Lord, he offered a prayer of dedication, and prayed this in II Chron. 6:32-33:
“As for the foreigner who does not belong to your people Israel but has come from a distant land because of Your great name and Your mighty hand and Your outstretched arm – when they come and pray toward this temple, then hear from heaven, Your dwelling place. Do whatever the foreigner asks of You, so that all the peoples of the earth may know Your name and fear You, as do Your own people Israel, and may know that this house I have built bears Your name.”
And God declared in Is. 49:6, a prophecy of the coming Savior, “It is too small a thing for You to be My servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make You a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” God cares about all the peoples, all the nations of the earth. But due to the sinfulness of the human heart, our understanding of God is distorted and our desire for the true God is suppressed.
And so God’s purpose for Israel was that they would become a kingdom of priests. God chose them, delivered them from their bondage, and shaped them into a nation in order that as a kingdom of priests they might represent God to the other nations. That’s one of the things priests do, they represent God to the people. If they would live as a holy nation – which was radically different from the way the other nations surrounding them lived – then those nations would see not only God’s miraculous hand upon the Israelites but they would also see the nature of God revealed through them. For the Israelites would be living in a way that represented and honored God. And the Ten Commandments were to be their guide in holy living so they could fulfill God’s purpose for them. The Old Testament is clear that the Israelites did not always do a good job of fulfilling that purpose, but that was God’s purpose for them.
God’s purpose for them was not simply that they would keep a bunch of rules, but rather that as they lived according to God’s instructions, they would first of all experience life at its best for they would be living the way God intended life to be lived. Furthermore, they would have the privilege of representing the true God to a world that did not know God. The world would see God and God’s good ways through their behavior. What a privilege!
So if there is one thing clear about the Ten Commandments it is this: their purpose is not primarily about keeping the law but living in God’s grace. Ultimately, Israel’s relationship with God was not rooted in their keeping the commandments but on the grace of God. That’s where it all started.
God said to the people, “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.” And in the next chapter where the commandments are listed, they do not begin abruptly with the first commandment. They begin with this introductory statement by God: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” (Exod. 20:2) And then comes the list of commandments.
God did not give the Israelites the Ten Commandments so they could then earn His love or acceptance. No, the commandments are rooted in God’s grace. For God first, as an act of grace, chose Israel, delivered Israel out of slavery, and called them to be His special people. They did nothing to earn that. Then, in response to God’s grace, God instructed them as to how they were to live as His people.
Recall how God chose Abraham more than 500 years before. Abraham didn’t earn that; God simply chose Abraham. That was an act of grace. God promised to give Abraham a multitude of descendants and to make them into a great nation. That was grace. During their 400 years of slavery God did not forget the children of Abraham. At the right time God came and delivered them from their bondage. It’s all about grace.
Before Israel ever did a thing, God chose them and delivered them. So the commandments are not about earning God’s approval or acceptance but rather they’re about living as those whom God has already accepted. Yes, the commandments are sometimes referred to as “the Law,” but they are not so much about living under the law but living in light of God’s grace.
And as Israel kept the commandments in response to God’s grace, they would experience even more of God’s grace. For the commandments reveal the best way to live as a community. Just think, they could be a community in which there would be no fear, but only trust, for no one was stealing, lying, killing, and everyone would know God and experience His goodness. The commandments are all about grace. God called Israel, delivered Israel, and showed them a better way to live. And the commandments gave the Israelites the incredible privilege and high calling of representing the true God to the surrounding nations. The commandments are all about grace. That doesn’t lessen the importance or the seriousness of obeying them; it just puts them in the right perspective. God’s love and grace always precede our acts of obedience.
“But,” you might interject here, “that all sounds well and good for the ancient Israelites. They are the ones who received the commandments. The commandments were not about living under the law but under grace. God had a marvelous purpose for them that would be fulfilled as they followed God’s instructions. Great! But what does that have to do with us? We’re not the Israelites. We were not delivered from slavery. We’re living more than 3,000 years later. We are Christians. What do these Jewish commandments have to do with us?”
Well, in the first place the commandments – if we take them seriously – force us to recognize our need for God’s grace. Thus, we will trust in God’s grace for salvation instead of mistakenly trusting in ourselves. Paul wrote in Rom. 7:7: “Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, ‘Do not covet.’” The commandments tell us what God expects of us, and as we honestly examine our lives, we are forced to admit that we do not measure up. They force us to acknowledge that we can never earn God’s approval on the basis of our performance. Through the law we come to know the depth of our own sin. And so the law, or the commandments, drives us to trust only in the grace of God for we now see there is no other way. Giving us the Ten Commandments is an act of grace because by them we are delivered from the false understanding that we can earn God’s acceptance, and instead they direct us to God’s grace.
And, of course, God has showered His grace upon us in Jesus Christ. We are forgiven and restored to God because of what God in Christ did for us at the cross. Once we receive God’s grace and trust in Christ, the commandments become our instructions regarding how we are to live. We do not keep them to earn God’s acceptance, but in response to God having already accepted us through Christ we live this way. Then we can experience life at its best, a life with no regrets, and we can represent God to the world.
Just because we are Christians rather than Jews, does not mean the commandments do not apply to us. Jesus said in Mt. 5:17, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” The commandments have not been done away with just because we are living in the Christian age. In fact, as we will see in the coming weeks, Jesus intensified their meaning and broadened their application for us.
Furthermore, when Jesus was asked, “What is the greatest commandment?” He replied (Mt. 22:37-40): “‘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.”
All that we find in the Old Testament Law and Prophets, said Jesus, is summarized by these two commands: love God and love your neighbor. And as we look at the Ten Commandments we see that the first four of them deal with our love for God and the next six concern our love for others. So in response to the question: “Which is the greatest commandment?” Jesus essentially said that all ten commandments are equally important, for if you love God and neighbor, you will do these things.
Obviously, the Ten Commandments have not been done away with or in any way watered down for us as New Testament Christians. They, along with what we read in the New Testament, are to guide us as we daily live in response to God’s grace. They are to define how we live in relationship with God and with other people. Keeping the commandments – as best we can and by the grace of God – is an important way we express our life in Christ and our love for Christ. Jesus said in Jn. 15:15, “If you love me, you will obey what I command.” As we just saw, what Jesus commanded in essence was that we keep the Ten Commandments; that’s how we love God and neighbor. Jesus said keeping these commands is the most basic way we demonstrate our love for Him.
But we must keep the order straight. We don’t keep the commands in a legalistic fashion and then conclude we must love God because we’ve done these things. Rather as God’s love fills our hearts, we live in a way that is characterized by the commandments. So sincerely trying to keep the Ten Commandments, by God’s grace and response to His grace, is really central to Christian discipleship.
The fact is, if we truly experience and understand God’s grace, we will want to live this way. Keeping God’s commands is not a burden, nor is it a joy-killer. It is good news, for the commands show us the best way to live.
Not to trivialize this, but we can picture the Ten Commandments somewhat like a car owner’s manual. You buy a car and the owner’s manual comes with it. So you go home and start reading the manual, and you start to become disturbed, for the manual is telling you all these things you should do. It says you should get the oil changed every 3,000 miles. At certain intervals you need to flush the radiator, and then you’re supposed to change the transmission fluid.
You’re upset because you realize this is going to cost you time and money. “Besides,” you think to yourself, “this is my car now. Who are these people to tell me how to take care of my car?” So in defiance, you ignore the instructions of the owner’s manual. You can have that attitude if you want, but it will probably lead to trouble. But if you follow those instructions you will save in the long run. Your car will run better. You will spend less on repairs. The car is not as likely to break down in the middle of nowhere because things will have been fixed before they became a problem.
So it is with the Ten Commandments. Yes, some effort is required. Some self-denial is called for. But if we abide by them, life will go a lot better for us. So they really are all about grace. They begin with grace, for God has already received us in Christ before we ever keep even one commandment, and then the commands guide us in the way of living that is best for us and for the whole community.
And as also was true for the Israelites, God has a purpose for us as Christians. It’s basically the same purpose God had for the Israelites. We read in I Pet. 2:9; “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”
Notice the similarities between this New Testament passage and the one we read earlier from the Old Testament book of Exodus. To the ancient Israelites God said, “Out of all the nations you will be my treasured possession.” In I Peter we are called “a chosen people…a people belonging to God.” The Israelites were to be a “kingdom of priests.” As Christians we are to be a “royal priesthood.” The Israelites were to be a “holy nation.” As New Testament Christians we are called to be a “holy nation.”
God sees us very much the same, and His purpose for us is very much the same. The Israelites, as a kingdom of priests, were to represent the one true God to their pagan neighbors. Our task, as a royal priesthood, says Peter, is to “declare the praises of him who called (us) out of darkness into his wonderful light.” We are to declare the praises, or literally the “excellencies” of God to the world. To a world that does not know God, we have the privilege of declaring the excellencies, the greatness, the truth about God.
God’s purpose for us is that we will be a royal priesthood, that like Israel we represent God to those who do not know Him. What a high calling and great privilege we have! And we do that not only through our words, but also through our lives – which gives credibility to our words. The way we do that is by living as a holy nation, a holy people. And our guide in living that way is the Ten Commandments. The point isn’t that people would see us and think how good we are, but that we’ve experienced God’s grace and have been transformed by His grace, which is available to all.
So in the weeks ahead, let’s commit ourselves to not only learning more about the Ten Commandments, but also to learning more about and experiencing more of the grace of God which He has showered upon us in Jesus Christ. And then, in response to God’s lavish grace, to live as a royal priesthood, a holy people, as God’s representatives in the world.