The Absolute Essentials
Updated: Sep 5, 2020
BENT, BROKEN, UNBOWED
The Ten Commandments for Today
“In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit” (Judges 17:6, NIV). When it comes to our attitude to The Ten Commandments, this statement pretty much tells the story. Influenced by society’s lack of moral and ethical values based on the unchangeable absolutes of Scriptures, even believers have developed the habit of looking at the instructions of Scripture with a “take-it-or-leave-it” attitude, or a “bend-it-as-far-as-I-can” attitude, or an “it’s-Old-Testament-so-it-doesn’t-count” attitude. Whatever “feels good” is the bottom line. There is no king. Where there is no king, there is no reason to bow to His authority. Though we may acknowledge God as our King, often the steadfastness of our obedience to His mandates clearly demonstrates that He is simply a figurehead.
It is my hope that as we work through these studies we will come away with a better understanding of the validity today of the rules that God laid down so long ago. The absolutes of Scripture are necessary to stop society’s descent into chaos.
Many people are under the impression that Jesus did away with the Law by substituting it with Grace. Nothing could be farther from the truth. This idea reflects a total misunderstanding of what the purpose of the Law was. This misunderstanding is nothing new–Paul spent most of the book of Romans trying to clear up the confusion among the believers of his day! We’re going to spend a little time later in Romans ourselves as we go through this introduction.
But first of all, let’s look at a passage in the New Testament that summarizes for us in two commandments what God gave in the Old Testament to Moses in ten.
TEN INTO TWO
Jesus has just taken the Sadducees down a peg or two. The Pharisees, made bolder by the failure of their rivals, decide to prove their superiority by testing Jesus with what they thought was a foolproof question that would trip him up.
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law” (36). Dr. W. Gordon Brown comments: “The Jews count 613 precepts (365 negative, 248 affirmative) so they had quite a bit of trouble as to what order they should be in. Shepard thinks that this was intended to embroil Jesus in a sort of casuistic problem, [based on clever but unsound reasoning] which might lower His importance in the opinion of the people.” They were trying to make Him look foolish. The Lord simply avoids the useless debate that would ensue if He said that rule #432 was the most important by going right back to the two mainstays of the Jewish belief system about which there could be no argument. He isn’t making up anything new here. He isn’t negating the Old Testament system. He is actually citing it in its purest form and they would have to agree with Him.
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (37). He quotes Deuteronomy 6:5. There could be no debate because any good Jew would know that God was Priority Number One. This rule encompassed the first four of the Ten Commandments that God had given Moses. By returning the Pharisee’s attention to what was really important–loving God with all their being–He was telling them that without love, the observance of all those 613 rules and regulations was worthless. Some people say that keeping the law makes people legalistic. The truth is that it isn’t the law that makes people legalistic but the absence of the motivating factor behind the law that makes people legalistic. Love is what keeps the Law from turning into legalism.
The Apostle John addressed this issue of motivation when he wrote: “And now, dear lady, I am not writing you a new command but one we have had from the beginning. I ask that we love one another. And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love” (2 John 5, 6, NIV). Keep the commandments, but keep them in a loving way.
How do you love God with all your being? Here’s what “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” covers.
“You shall have no other gods before me.”
“You shall not make for yourself an idol…you shall not bow down to them or worship them…”
“You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God…”
“Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God.”
(Deuteronomy 5:7-14, NIV, cp. Exodus 20:3-10)
Then the Lord, also citing the Old Testament in Leviticus 19:18, gives them the rule that encompassed the last six of the Ten Commandments: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (39).
What does loving our neighbour look like? To love our neighbour means to not do anything to injure that neighbour. The last six commandments cover the major areas out of which sins against our neighbours arise.
“Honor your father and your mother…”
“You shall not murder.”
“You shall not commit adultery.”
“You shall not steal.”
“You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.”
“You shall not covet…”
(Deuteronomy 5:16-21, NIV, cp. Exodus 20:12-17).
When asked who was a “neighbour,” Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). This story was a vivid reminder that everyone is a “neighbour” according to God’s definition.
The clincher? “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (40).
The Apostle John tied the idea of loving God and loving our neighbor together this way: “We love him because he first loved us. If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command” Whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1 John 4:19-21, NIV).
The Jewish authorities were well aware of the passage from which Jesus took these quotes. But perhaps we aren’t so aware. So we are going to look at the context around the statements that Jesus made as we set the stage for our study.
The events described in Deuteronomy cover the time from Israel’s arrival at the Jordan after their forty years of wandering through the wilderness until just before they cross over the river under Joshua’s leadership, to take possession of the Promised Land. This is Moses’ “last hurrah” as the saying goes. He will not be going over with them and he wants to spend this last bit of time with these people who he has led for so long, reminding them of where they have been and what they need to do if they are going to be successful in their new home. The people he was addressing had been children, or had not been around at all, when God had handed the Rule Book down to Moses on Mount Sinai shortly after God brought the Israelites out of Egypt. So Moses takes them back through their history. Deuteronomy is his book of memories.
In Deuteronomy 5, Moses reads the Ten Commandments. (5:6-21). He describes the atmosphere at the time, the mountain of fire, the clouds, the darkness. Take note of this statement: “…and he added nothing more” (22 cp. Exodus 19:16-19, 24:15-18).
Now we know that Moses received all kinds of other instructions from God that were passed on to the Israelites. What I believe this statement means is that, just as Jesus noted when he said that all the law and prophets hung on the two commandments that he quoted, in these ten we have the core of all we need to obey. Everything else, the specifics, all blossom from this tree.
ONLY GOD SPEAKS
Then notice this spectacular statement: “When you heard the voice out of the darkness…” (23). Moses was not the only one to hear God speak. He had heard God’s voice before–from the burning bush. So what was so significant about that?
The truth is, God doesn’t talk a lot. He acts all the time, but conversations with individuals and groups are reserved for very special events. So special was this particular occasion at the foot of Mount Sinai that the Israelites figured it was precursor to trouble for them. Moses reminds this generation what their fathers had said: “The Lord our God has shown us his glory and his majesty and we have heard his voice from the fire. Today we have seen that a man can live even if God speaks with him. But now, why should we die? The great fire will consume us, and we will die if we hear the voice of the Lord our God any longer. For what mortal man has ever heard the voice of the living God speaking out of the fire, as we have, and survived” (24-26). And they sent Moses off to do the listening because they were afraid to do it themselves!
That God should speak to mortal man was astounding enough. But there is also another point to this. The first two commandments are “You shall have no other gods before me” and “You shall not make for yourself an idol…” (7-8). Would the Israelites remember that only the true God speaks? Would they remember that the idols that they would pursue and worship never spoke to them, not even once? Those same idols never once acted on their behalf either, much less spoke to them.
Referring to the experience of Israel at the foot of Sinai, Hebrews 12:25-29 (NIV) warns us: “See to it that you do not refuse the one who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven…our God is a consuming fire.”
When we get into Deuteronomy 6, Moses reminds his audience that these commandments are to be obeyed if they expect to be prosperous in this new land that God is going to take them into. Then he comes to the part that Jesus quoted to the Pharisees, a part that they knew by heart and repeated in their prayers: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts” (6:4-6).
This phrase, “The Lord our God, the Lord is one” is the first line of the Shema, which is basically the pledge of allegiance repeated by practicing Jews twice a day, once in the morning and then again at night. It is also repeated on holy days and as part of a deathbed confessional. This first phrase is considered to be more important than the rest, so important that people close their eyes, or cover their eyes when they say it to eliminate distractions (which may be the reason behind our tradition of praying with our heads bowed and our eyes closed). This phrase, along with what follows in Deuteronomy 6:4-9, is coupled with Deuteronomy 11:13-21 and Numbers 15:37-41, to complete the prayer. The word for “one” in Hebrew, used here has several meanings. But its primary meaning is first. Because God is Numero Uno, as it were, then He has a right to ask for total commitment.
Not only were the adults to love God with every part of their being, a love that was to show itself in their obedience, but they were to instill in their children that same love and obedience.
“Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” (6:6, 7, NIV).
Religious education was to be the heart of the Jewish family dynamic. Over time, the synagogues, originally designed to be houses of prayer that had come into being during the time of the exile and after the destruction of the Temple, began to be houses of education and training. Jewish children began school at ages five or six and until they were ten the Jewish Bible was their only textbook (Leviticus, the rest of the Pentateuch, the prophets and the writings). From ten to fifteen they studied the Law and from fifteen on, they were instructed in theology as taught in the Talmud (writings of the rabbis and considered the basis of religious authority. During Jesus’ childhood, He would have attended a synagogue school and become well versed in the heritage of the Jewish people. So when He went to the Temple at age 12, He had quite a bit of knowledge under His belt quite apart from the fact that He was the Author of the knowledge.
During His ministry, Jesus would often go to the synagogue and expound the Scriptures to those present. The reading was done standing, and the teaching was done sitting down–a symbolic gesture attesting to the importance of the reading. The Word was straight from God’s mouth to man’s ear so deserved the respect.
If Jesus had been born in Old Testament times, before the exile, His religious education would have fallen completely to His parents, as instructed in Deuteronomy. The repeating of this instruction in the Shema was a reminder the parents still had that responsibility.
There was also a very public demonstration of love and obedience that was to be an integral part of the Israelites’ life. Their faith was not to be a private one. Moses goes one to say: “Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your house and on your gates” (6:8, 9, NIV).
There was to be no such animal as a secret Jew. Their persons and their homes were in-your-face testimonies to their beliefs. The mission of Israel was to reveal God to the nations. To do that they had to be identified with their God in every way possible so that by word, action, and lifestyle, everything pointed to God.
So Jesus repeats two instructions that are absolutely familiar to His audience. But like The Lord’s Prayer, sometimes the constant repetition of something becomes exactly that–constant, and meaningless, repetition. Perhaps that was why Jesus made a point of telling those who were listening to him to “when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans” (Matthew 6:7, NIV).
LAW AND GRACE
When Jesus says, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:40, NIV), He is telling His audience, and us, that nothing about the Law has changed. What HAS changed are the consequences of not being able to keep the Law for those who are under the protection of God’s grace. Much of the book of Romans is Paul’s explanation of the nature of the Gospel and the relationship between Grace and Law. Perhaps the crux of the matter can be found in Romans 2:17-29. Here Paul picks up on the Lord’s running battle against the religiosity of the Pharisees.
Paul’s argument was that the Jews were hypocrites. They talked a good line, but didn’t walk that line, i.e. didn’t obey the Law that God had given them. Because of that God was denigrated among all the people who saw the evidence of that hypocrisy. The Jews practiced circumcision of the body, but not circumcision of the heart. Paul expressed his dismay that they didn’t keep the Law, not because they didn’t have to, but because they COULDN’T without the circumcision of the heart. This was the LOVE factor.
Though the written code could not save them, and was never meant to, the keeping of that written code was evidence of the change of heart that the grace of God had brought to their lives. When the heart is changed, so are the actions and attitudes of that heart.
The law holds everyone accountable to the Lawmaker, God (Romans 3:19). “…no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin” (Romans 3:20). The law was never intended to save, it was intended to condemn and in showing us the consequences of our sin, drive us to the Sin-bearer.
Paul continues “…we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law….Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law” (3:28, 31).
Paul’s premise becomes that, now empowered to do so because of God’s grace at work in our lives, we will sin less than we did before we came to faith in Christ. That means we will obey the law even more closely than we did before (Romans 6:1-14), this time out of gratitude that the condemnation that the law brought down on our heads has now been removed.
The Lord referred to this when He rebuked the Pharisees in Matthew 23:25, 26. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.”
Vern Sheridan Poythress writes in The Greatest Commandment: The Very Heart of the Matter “Loving God means receiving cleansing inside first. Only in this way is our obedience genuine. Otherwise, even though we may appear to others to be righteous, our obedience is corrupted by bad motives.”
Grace is not birthed by Law, but the spirit as well as the letter of the Law is expressed because of Grace.
That there is a push and pull between Grace and Law exists in the minds of men and Law versus Grace has been an ongoing debate for centuries. R. Albert Mohler writes: “Those who would most ardently stress continuity [or the idea that the Old Testament law is still in force in the church age] have to recognize a difference between Israel under the law and the church under the covenant of grace. Those who would most ardently argue for discontinuity have to acknowledge that the law of Christ recapitulates and fulfills and extends the law of Moses, in a different way, in a different context, with a different sense of binding address. Yet in the New Testament, nine of the Ten Commandments are repeated…It is very important that we understand the distinction between law and grace. But in understanding this distinction, we do not celebrate a lawless grace any more than looking to the Old Testament we should see a graceless law.” (Words From the Fire, page 31).
THE PROPER MOTIVE BEHIND KEEPING THE LAW
In the 60s, a movement came to the fore of religious thinking that promoted the idea that anything done out of love was okay with God even if it meant violating The Ten Commandments. Poythress goes on to note that: “Love does not replace the Commandments. Love gives us the right motive so that we can obey the Commandments.”
Jesus told His disciples, “If you love me, you will obey what I command…Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me…If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching…He who does not love me will not obey my teaching” (John 14:15, 21, 23, 24, NIV). The Sermon on the Mount tells us that Jesus’ commands were actually even more demanding than the original Ten Commandments were. Rather than emphasize love at the expense of law, Jesus makes the law even tougher. As we go through each of the ten, we will compare and contrast the teachings of the two testaments.