1. Rules in General
It seems, sometimes, that we have rules on just about everything.
We have rules for sport: how the game is played, and what a player can and cannot do. Of course the purpose of having rules in sport is quite sensible, otherwise different players would be playing different games.
We have rules about living—some good, and some bad. And whilst is can seems, sometimes, that our laws are made so that our law makers and legal profession can argue, generally they are there so we can live by a common code—so we can all live by the same standards. And so that a degree of fairness, justice, and equity can come into play.
We also have rules which are there for our own well-being. Like road rules, safety regulations, and the like. Rules which are intended to make sure that we remain healthy and safe.
Of course, sometimes, it may seem as though we’ve got too many rules. And that it would be nice, just once, to be able to do something without all the restrictions that are placed upon us. But whilst we may feel like that from time to time, the rules are there (or should be) for our benefit and for the benefit of all.
2. God’s Rules
And, of course, if we were to think that rules were a creation of man, and of man only, we would be quite wrong. Because God has rules too. In fact he was the instigator of rules. And perhaps the most important set of rules that he made, is what we have recorded for us in the book of Exodus—the Ten Commandments.
B. A STANDARD FOR PEOPLE OF FAITH (20:1-2)
So what I’d like to do, is to look briefly at those commandments, particularly in regard to their meaning for us today. But with two reminders:
The first is that as Christians we are a people of promise. We cannot get to heaven or have a proper relationship with God by simply trying to keep the Ten Commandments. And as we are about to discover, they are impossible for us to keep anyway. The only way we can have a relationship with God is through faith in Jesus Christ.
The second reminder, however, is that God only gave his people the commandments, after he had come to the rescue of his people (20:2). They were rules for the faithful and were never intended as set of rules—as a Do-It-Yourself guide—to get to heaven.
Indeed, the Ten Commandments were given not as a standard in which people could save themselves, but as a standard to be sought, from a people who already enjoyed a relationship with God. And that’s a very important distinction.
C. THE TEN COMMANDMENTS
1. A Call to Worship Only God (20:3)
And the first commandment, “You are to have no other gods except me,” is a call to worship only the God who has created us and redeemed us. The Christian faith is an exclusive faith. It doesn’t tolerate the addition of other beliefs. That’s why Jesus himself said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
In this commandment God states an intolerance to the worship of other so-called gods. It is him, and him alone, who is to be worshipped. But then, it wasn’t any other god who had rescued his people from Egypt. And it wasn’t any other god who sent Jesus to die on the cross for us either.
2. A Call to Portray Accurately the Nature of God (20:4-6)
The second commandment, “You are not to make an idol for yourself,” is a call to take seriously the nature of God. Now it is often thought that this prohibition relates to carved images of wood or stone, of other, but false, gods. And of course, there is an element of truth in that. However, the original understanding of this commandment was not in regard to the portrayal of other (false) gods, but rather of the making of images to portray God himself.
As far as God was concerned, when he chose to reveal himself to his people in Old Testament times, he didn’t appear in the form of any shape or thing. He appeared only as a voice. And that was a deliberate act on his behalf.
His objection to images of himself, therefore, was that they could not possibly portray him accurately. They would express a static picture of him, rather than illustrate the dynamic nature of who he really is. As consequence any image presented would be totally inadequate, and the image would be totally false.
Of course, this may put rather a different light on our understanding of the use of images. After all, we live in a different age, and we are used to seeing images of God. In modern times we have images of God in paintings, in statues, and the like. And regarding the human form of Jesus, that maybe OK, but in regard to the Father, the creator himself, that may not be acceptable to God at all.
Indeed, we need to ask the question, “Do these images paint a picture of a static two-dimensional God, and consequently portray a false image? Or do they portray the dynamic God, the true God, the God who he really is? And to that the answer is “No!”
3. A Call to Uphold God’s Name (20:27)
The third commandment, “You are not to use the name of the Lord your God in a worthless manner,” is a call not to misuse God’s name. The commandment doesn’t mean we aren’t allowed to swear oaths (or promise things) in the positive sense—that wasn’t the intended meaning of the command. But it does mean, that God takes a very dim view on defiling his name or swearing falsely in his name.
As far as God is concerned his name is holy. It represents who he is, in all his magnitude. And we are, consequently, to uphold the sacredness of his name and all it stands for.
As a result, any use of his name intended to inflict evil upon another person, is to be totally rejected. Which in our modern situation, must mean, that even swearing in God’s name regarding an enemy—whether a personal enemy or an international terrorist—should be strictly rejected.
4. A Call to Remember God’s Eternal Covenant Relationship (20:8-11)
The fourth commandment, “Remember to keep the Sabbath day holy,” is a call to remember the special relationship that we have with our creator. We have six days to do all we have to do, but on the seventh . . . Well it’s not just a reminder to cease work, it’s a reminder to keep the day holy.
Three times in this commandment there is a command to observe the Sabbath. And why? Because the day of rest is a reminder of the relationship that God had with his creation, grounded in creation itself. Six days did God labour, and on the seventh day he rested.
We need time out from the routine of life. And we need time as a community to be with God our creator and redeemer.
Now our world may be very different from that of the world of about 1500 BC, when the commandments were given. And as Christians we tend to celebrate the Sabbath on a Sunday (and not a Saturday) to recall each week the resurrection day of Jesus Christ. Regardless of that, however, the principals are still sound. We still need a day of rest, and we still need, as a community, to spend quality time with God.
5. A Call to Honour the Place of the Family (20:12)
The fifth commandment, “Honour your father and your mother,” is a call regarding the place of family life. Of course, lying at the heart of this commandment was the practice, by some, of kicking one’s parents out the family home when they could no longer earn their keep, or provide a useful contribution to the family’s existence (and that may be an issue that is very relevant even today). But it also says much about the need to prize highly the family unit, as the basis of the structure of society, and as part of the divine order.
The importance of the family unit in society is essential in terms of teaching, disciplining, nurturing, and providing care and support.
Of course in our culture, the place of the family is not held in such high esteem. But regardless, as Christians, we are called on to show respect for the place of the family in society, part of which is to show care and affection for our parents.
6. The Call to Preserve the Sanctity of Life (20:13)
The sixth commandment, “You are not to murder,” is a call to preserve the sanctity of life. No man has the right to take life, whether by accident, by vengeance, by retaliation against another killing, or because of personal feelings of hatred and malice.
As far as God is concerned, acts of violence are strictly forbidden. “You are not to take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people. You are to love your neighbour as yourself. I am the Lord” (Lev 19:18) God said. And as a consequence we are to reject out of hand the right of any person to take the law into their own hands out of a feeling of personal injury.
7. A Call to Maintain the Sanctity of Marriage (20:14)
The seventh commandment, “You are not to commit adultery,” is a call to maintain the sanctity of marriage. The need for both the husband and wife to be faithful to each other is paramount.
If the instruction for children is to honour their parents—with the emphasis on the importance of family life as the basis of society—then this command cuts through to the basic elements—the husband and wife—from which the family unit derives.
This command, however, is not just against debasing the family unit. It is about the need to nurture the whole husband-wife relationship on which the family unit is founded.
8. A Call to Preserve the Sanctity of the Community (20:15)
The eighth commandment, “You are not to steal,” is a call to preserve the sanctity of the community, and the rights of the individuals that make up that community.
At the time, it probably had more to do with stealing people—kidnapping—rather than the stealing of possessions. However at its basis is the need to keep the community intact, and to preserve the rights of its members. And at the heart of the commandment is the issue of secrecy—the act of taking by stealth, misappropriating, or manipulating events to reach the desired goal.
Now none of these are attributes should be present in the Christian community. Because the Christian community should be represented by openness and honesty and the need to jealousy guard the rights and needs of its people.
9. A Call to Guard the Reputation of Others (20:16)
The ninth commandment, “You are not to provide false testimony against your neighbour,” is a call to guard the reputation of others. In the days when a man could be put to death as the result of someone standing up in court and making a false accusation, this commandment was very important. And it was directed primarily towards guarding the basic right of people against such false accusations.
Interestingly however, this commandment does not say that you should never lie. But it does say that you should never lie when it will affect another man’s life.
As Christians, then, we are to be on constant guard to protect others against abuse of this kind, whether accidental or deliberate. And we should be on our guard against avoiding even idle rumours, which could cause someone injury.
10. A Call to Keep our Desires in Check (20:17)
And, the tenth commandment, “You are not to set your desires on anything in your neighbour’s house,” etc, is a call to keep our desires in check, particularly, when the object of our desires belongs to someone else.
Now this isn’t just a commandment about the emotional response of wanting something that someone else has got. This is the emotion, which is followed up with the deed—the putting into practice of obtaining something that belongs to someone else.
And the function of the list that follows in this commandment, is to make sure that there is no doubt about the all-inclusive nature of the things that shouldn’t be ours. There is to be no ambiguity regarding another person’s property. In short, nothing that belongs to someone else should be the object of our means of possession.
So at the end of our brief summary of the Ten Commandments, we can ask the question, “Who can keep the Ten Commandments?” And the answer is, “Absolutely no-one.” Indeed no-one is capable of keeping even one of these commandments, let alone all ten. The Ten Commandments are more than a simple set of ten rules. They incorporate ten principles which no-one is able to keep.
But then that is why they were given to a people who had already received God’s salvation. They weren’t rules for people to keep in order for them to be good enough for God. They were rules (ideals if you like) that were given to the faithful as something to strive for. And that is a very important distinction.
Indeed, God expects his people to strive to meet his standards. And perhaps nowhere better do we see God’s standards described than in the words of the Ten Commandments.
In today’s world there are rules for just about everything. Rules regarding the sport that we play, rules about how we should live—which hopefully should be fair and equitable—and rules which try to keep us safe.
However for the people of God who have already received his salvation, we have some rules from God as well. We have the Ten Commandments—ten principles which are goals to achieve and which in reality are impossible for us to keep.
In the Ten Commandments we have God’s guide on how he expects his faithful to live. They are ten principles which if kept would ensure healthy living—both of ourselves and of our community. Our challenge, then is to take seriously the principles in those ten commandments, and, with God’s help, strive to reach the goals.
Posted: 18th February 2020
© 2020, Brian A Curtis