MYTHBUSTERS: What Are The Ten Commandments Good For?
What are the Ten Commandments are really good for. Aside from the issue of displaying them in courthouses and schoolrooms, what meaning do they have specifically for the Christian?
As I began studying I came across this quote in the Bible Knowledge Commentary:
Though believers today are not under the Law (Rom. 6:15), they are under obligation to abide by the holy standards represented in the Ten Commandments.
I’m trying hard to understand that. Are we under the law or not? Seriously, I don’t get it. Smart people wrote that book but that statement contradicts itself. I’m not trying to be dense or a smart-aleck, but the Ten Commandments are a big deal. What we believe about them affects how we choose to behave as Christians.
This apparently contradictory statement represents a broad segment of (shall we call it?) “thought” among Christians. The three major branches to come out of the Protestant Reformation (Reformed, Lutheran, Anglican) all developed catechisms that explicitly assumed that the Ten Commandments are the basis for Christian ethics. But Graeme Goldsworthy writes,
“The problem with the Protestant catechisms is that they do something with the Ten Commandments that the New Testament doesn’t seem at all interested in doing. Nowhere in the New Testament epistles are the Ten Commandments as such expounded to teach Christian ethics.”
Goldsworthy goes on to explain that Protestant concentration on the Ten Commandments has enabled “the ethical laws to remain in force while the civil and ceremonial laws are somehow discarded.”
However, that still doesn’t answer my question:
Are we under the law or are we not under the law?
I don’t think we can have it both ways. Either we, as Christians, are under the law or we are not under the law. It is double talk of Orwellian proportions to say we are not under the law, but we are under the ethical obligations of the Ten Commandments. So which is it?
Let’s go back and look at the giving of the law and see if we can figure out what is going on here and how we, as Christians, should look at the Ten Commandments.
I’d like to refer to Goldsworthy again and his framework for understanding redemptive history. He defines the Kingdom of God as God’s People in God’s Place under God’s Rule. We see that represented in Genesis: Adam and Eve were God’s people; they were in the Garden which is God’s place and they were in direct fellowship and obedience to God under his rule; until they sinned and were separated from God, from God’s rule and kicked out of god’s place. The rest of the story is about how that is restored. Now we fast forward to Egypt. We find God’s People, but they are in an alien land and under alien rule. So God delivers them through the amazing Exodus and Passover that foreshadows his deliverance of all people from their bondage and slavery to an alien ruler through the lamb that was slain before the foundation of the world. And the first thing God does with His people is bring them to Mount Sinai and speak to them.
1. It is interesting to me that this is the first time that God is dealing with people corporately instead of as individuals.
2. And the first thing that He does with them is to renew the covenant He made with Abraham. Remember Genesis 12 where God calls Abraham and makes covenant promises to him – promises to make him a great nation, to bless all people through him, to give him the Promised Land. Look at what God is doing with the children of Israel. He’s reiterating those promises even as they are being fulfilled. And so the law is given in the form of a Covenant Treaty. This passage of Scripture follows the pattern of how a sovereign would relate to his subjects in ancient Middle Eastern tradition. He tells them who He is and establishes His right to give the law. And He gives the law and then specifies how it will work and then gives the consequences for keeping it and consequences for breaking it. And they agree. In fact, they rejoice!
3. Not only is this a renewing of God’s covenant, but it is a fulfillment of His covenant with Abraham. God promised Abraham to make him a great nation. That was when he was one man. Around two million people left Egypt and now God speaks to them and calls them His nation. And He is taking them to the very land that He promised to Abraham, so we see God’s faithfulness as there is fulfillment represented, but it’s not THE fulfillment yet.
4. Beyond the renewal of the covenant and the partial fulfillment, this event is a significant leap in the progressive revelation of who God is. In the past, as God has dealt with individuals, he has done so directly, but since man left the Garden, it has always been shrouded in mystery. Abraham has him over for dinner, but he’s not sure who he is. Abraham tithes to Melchizedek, but who the heck is Melchizedek? Jacob wrestles with him, but again, it’s not until the next morning that he realizes, “surely the lord was in this place.” And Moses is listening to shrubbery.
But now, God reveals himself to his people. And he does so very explicitly. Look at all the show he puts on for them to demonstrate his majesty and holiness, his sovereignty and power. Chapter 19 is full of thunder and lightning and dark smoke. I love this: God tells Moses to take precautions that no one break through to see God out of curiosity, and Moses says, they can’t you’ve already scared them to death. He is God and there is no other. This is where the Ten Commandments start and it is reinforced by everything in the context. In fact, God goes to such great lengths to demonstrate his literal AWE-someness that the people insist that God talk to Moses, and they’ll listen to Moses. And we once again see the bigger picture: the need for a mediator. Because man is sinful and God is SO HOLY, man can’t interact with God directly. There must be a mediator. Moses fills that role here, but he’s just foreshadowing the ultimate mediator: Jesus. The one man who is God and is sinless and can go to God and make a way for those in Him to be acceptable before God. All of that is right here in verses 18-21.
5. There’s also the reflection of God as the one who creates with his word. He spoke and nothing became something, chaos became cosmos, the absence of anything but God became the universe that reflects God. And at Sinai, God speaks and with his word creates a nation out of a band of ragtag former slave refugees.
6. However, it is in the actual giving of the law that the utterly amazing occurs. God is holy; God is good and He’s powerful and sovereign, but Abraham and the patriarchs got most of that – maybe not as physically demonstrated, but they understood. But what does it really look like for God to be Holy and to have a people that are specifically assigned to represent him to all other people. It is in the giving of the law that the character of God is revealed in a codified, defined, WRITTEN form for the first time.
We grow up memorizing the Ten Commandments and so we lose some of the absolute sheer amazement of what it meant for God to define himself – not in terms that would limit who he was but in terms that would identify his people as such. Don’t take this for granted. It is an amazing revelation of who our God is. He is a God that wants to be identified with his people, he wants reconciliation, and he’s willing to come to their level. Once again, foreshadowing how that will happen ultimately in the incarnation.
7. The giving of the law is also a revelation of God’s grace! Hear me now, we so often set up the conflict between grace and law. We try to live by the law and we fail and we fall into the arms of the grace of God and it’s hard not to look back on the task master of the law with derision. This is concept that Paul is wrestling with so beautifully in the heart of the book of Romans. But the giving of the law IS GRACE! Look how the whole thing is predicated on what God has done for them. Verse 2: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” They are delivered (saved) before they are given the law. They are saved by the grace of God, not by the law. So, it begins with grace. And it is grace. God is saying here’s who I am. That revelation is grace. And as we look at the purpose for the law, it is not as if God expects them to be able to keep the law and therefore have access to Him through their law-keeping holiness. The law will reveal the depth of mankind’s depravity and thus our need for the ultimate mediator who will represent God to man and represent man to God and bring the reconciliation that can only come from the sacrificial death of the perfect sinless man, God’s Son, Jesus Christ. And so, the law is all about grace.
8. And finally, the giving of the law is the foreshadowing of the person of Christ. Not only is he seen in the mediator role played by Moses, but the actual Ten Commandments describe Christ to us. They tell us who He is: the character of God lived out on this earth in a human body. Mount Sinai points us to Mount Calvary. Let’s stop on another mountain first though, the Mount of Olives. Moses went up on Mount Sinai and God spoke and gave him the Ten Commandments. But Jesus went up on another mountain and he, God, spoke and said, “you have heard it said, but I say to you,” in other words, not only is Jesus the total embodiment of the law, but he’s also the only one with the right and ability to correctly interpret it. He interprets it because He is it and it was all about him in the first place!
In reading any text, I try to decipher what the original hearers would have heard. It is awesome to see the foreshadowing and the fulfillment, but what did the children of Israel think about the giving of the law at the time? They rejoiced. They were overwhelmed that this God who delivered them would come to their level and tell them who he was and what he wanted. I think we often see the giving of the law as a heavy event, drudgery. “O.K., so here’s what we have to do to please God.” Rather, the people of Israel realize that they have a God powerful enough to deliver them from the tight-fisted grasp of the most powerful ruler in the known world at the time. And this God is not only powerful, but he has chosen them as the people he wants to be identified with. He will dwell with them. This is staggering, and so for him to define what it takes for them to accept this covenant treaty of being “HIS PEOPLE” is a wonderful thing. That’s the context we need to see the giving of the law in.
Finally, I would like to talk about the ultimate purpose of the law.
The meaning of history is not self-evident – especially redemptive history. Everything has to be interpreted through the lens that the whole story is about Christ. So, even though the children of Israel had no idea, we know from Paul’s writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that the law was given – not only to express the character of God, not only to foreshadow Christ, not only to be the most perfect representation in written form of the way to organize a society – but in addition, God gave Israel the law to show everyone how different we are from him. (Remember, that was the “confusion” in the Garden “you will be like God”.) He is holy; we are sinful. Even when we know how to do right, we don’t do it. Paul explains this in Romans, how everyone knows that there is right and wrong, but God explicitly gave Israel the law to highlight that man is so messed up that he cannot save himself. He needs, in fact his only hope, is a perfect mediator who brings reconciliation. So here again the law points to Jesus. So Jesus comes as the fulfillment of all the promises; he takes all of the guilt on himself; through he sacrificial death and resurrection, he reconciles those in Him to God.
But the majority of Israel misses this. And so, Israel rejects her Messiah. But this also is part of God’s plan. Romans 11:32: “For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.” Let me say it this way: God’s plan all along has been to display his glory in the plan of redemption. The way He does that is by showing mercy to those who deserve nothing but damnation. But mercy means nothing if there is no standard of justice (holiness) and God is holy and just. So, he cannot just pretend that sin is not the heinous insult to his character that it is. He gives the law to show his character and to show mankind that no matter how hard he tries he cannot be like God. This is displayed ad nausem through the history of Israel (and through your and my life if we’ve tried to live according to the law). He knows that Israel cannot keep it, but He wants them to know they cannot keep it. He also knows that when the fulfillment of all the covenants comes on the scene they will reject him thus completing their total disobedience and rejection of God and his covenant with them. They are consigned to disobedience, so that they too can be brought into God’s people through mercy. It’s is amazing. And Paul immediately follows this explanation with this doxology:
33Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
34"For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?"
35"Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?"
36For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.
So Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of the law. How then do we relate to the law? We come back to the original question: Are we as Christians under the law or not under the law?
Paul says, “We are not under the law.” But does he mean that we are under the obligation to abide by the standards of the Ten Commandments? No, to my mind that’s absurd. Are they the basis of Christian ethics? Nope, not according to the New Testament. Then, what good are they? Paul says they are good in every way. Here’s how: The Ten Commandments tell us about Jesus. And it just so happens that as Christians we are in Jesus and Jesus is in us. In that way, you could say that the Ten Commandments are descriptive of us. We don’t obey the Ten Commandments in order to please God. Because we are in Christ, the Ten Commandments describe us because they describe him. So we can look at the Ten Commandments and rejoice with Israel at what an incredible revelation of God. But we have a better, fuller, more complete revelation: the person of Jesus. And so the basis of Christian ethics is not the Ten Commandments; it is the person of Jesus. The Ten Commandments are a shadow of him, but we can look at the full-color, three-dimensional image of him. So, the New Testament does not appeal to the Ten Commandments addressing behavioral standards (ethics), but rather they appeal to who we are in Christ.
Look at how this works with me in 1 Corinthians, chapter 6. Paul is dealing with some rather challenging sin issues in the church he planted in Corinth. But he doesn’t say the sixth commandment means you shouldn’t sleep with your father’s wife. He says, Hey wake up, don’t you know who you are. You are a little Christ. Christ doesn’t act that way, so cut it out!
Six times in this one chapter, he says, “do you not know?” And each time he’s talking about an aspect of our identity in Christ. Paul’s argument is that behavior comes out of identity – not the other way around. That was the problem Israel had with God’s law in the first place. They tried to keep the law to prove they were God’s people; that doesn’t work! Knowing who you are produces behavior that is consistent with that. So, Paul’s focus is in telling the Corinthians who they are. Look at the heart of this passage:
1 Corinthians 6:9-11
9Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, 10nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
Just like the Corinthians, we were these evil sinners described in 9-10, not because we did those things, but we did those kinds of things because that’s who we were. But not anymore. Jesus came, lived a sinless life, was crucified, dead buried and then rose again. And through that act, we were washed, we were sanctified, we were justified. We were made what we weren’t – so now we aren’t what we were.
So now you need to know who you are, so you can stop acting like who you were and start acting like who you are – not to become that but because you ARE that!
And so the reason that Christians don’t take their brothers to court is because that’s not what little Christs do. Little Christs judge the world and would rather suffer injustice than risk inflicting it on another.
And the reason that Christians don’t sleep with prostitutes is because that’s not what little Christs do. Little Christs realize the purpose of sex is the joining of spirits and they don’t want to join Christ’s spirit to a prostitute.
So, back to the Ten Commandments. We are not under the law. And we are not under the obligation of the standards representing in the law. And the Ten Commandments are not the basis of our ethics. But they are part of our history and in a mysterious, shadow way, they describe who we are as people of God. So as I read through the list in the Scripture I want you to listen with fresh ears. Do not hear me say this is what you have to do. Listen to me say, this is who you are.