10 Commandments: what’s their role?

What are the biggest questions Christians have about the 10 Commandments today? You might think they would be ‘what do they mean’ kind of questions. Yet, in my experience people’s questions revolve around a more foundational principle: ‘How am I supposed to think of them today?’

There are several factors that bring this about. Firstly, the 10 Commandments were written approximately 3500 years ago. That’s a long time ago historically, and in our culture old is irrelevant and new is better. More significantly, they were given at a particular point in God’s plan of redemption. The 10 Commandments were given by God to his people Israel as they made their way to the land of Canaan to set up a socio-political nation where national life would be founded on God’s law and principles. That isn’t the context that we face today where God’s people are scattered throughout the world, living in countries where the law of the land and the law of God are often at odds.

Yet, even this is not the most important difference that could affect our way of approaching the 10 Commandments. The 10 Commandments were given by God before the most explosive event of all history – the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. We live in the time after the cross, the time of the New Covenant, not the Old Covenant, and so do the 10 Commandments have any bearing on our lives today and if so what?

Recently I tried to answer some of these questions in a sermon looking at three fundamental questions:

  1. What is the role of the 10 Commandments?
  2. What is the heart of the 10 Commandments?
  3. How do we apply the 10 Commandments?

Here I’m putting that material into written form in the hope of clarifying what was said and making it plainer.

What is the role of the 10 commandments?

If we want to know how the 10 Commandments should impact our lives today we need to know why God gave them in the first place.

Not a key to salvation

Exodus 20 records God giving the 10 Commandments to Moses and the people of Israel in the desert. Verse 2 is really important. God says:

I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. Exodus 20:2 (ESV)

This verse reminds us about where the 10 Commandments sit in salvation history. God had already saved the Israelites from their slavery before he gave them the 10 Commandments. He did not give them the 10 Commandments in order to better their lives so that they might in some way deserve their salvation. No, God saved them by grace and then gave the commandments to them.

What does this teach us? The 10 Commandments were never given by God as the key to unlock salvation’s door. It was never, ‘Do this and I’ll save you.’ Instead, the 10 Commandments set out the pattern of behaviour that is both right and expected of those whom God has already saved by his grace.

Immediately, it should be apparent that the 10 Commandments are relevant to us today in the New Covenant. God has saved us by his grace in Jesus Christ. Through faith in Jesus, the Bible tells us we have been set free from the slavery of sin and death (Romans 6). How now should we live? How do we walk in a way that is pleasing to God? The 10 Commandments are clearly an important part of that answer.

Seeing the 10 commandments in this way is supported by the actions of the early church. In 125 AD a Greek philosopher named Aristides wrote an apology for the Christian faith to Hadrian the emperor of Rome. In it he examines the religions of the known world and speaks about how different Christians were in their faith and lives. Here is part of his description of their lives.

Wherefore they do not commit adultery nor fornication, nor bear false witness, nor embezzle what is held in pledge, nor covet what is not theirs. They honour father and mother, and show kindness to those near to them; and whenever they are judges, they judge uprightly. They do not worship idols (made) in the image of man; and whatsoever they would not that others should do unto them, they do not to others; and of the food which is consecrated to idols they do not eat, for they are pure.

The Apology of Aristides the Philosopher (http://earlychristianwritings.com/text/aristides-kay.html)

Notice the clear inferences to the 10 Commandments in that description. Clearly, to the early church and to those observing the 10 Commandments were seen as a meaningful and important pattern for the life of God’s people.

Not primarily about us

One of the mistakes we can often make when we look at the Old Testament is to forget that it is just as much about Jesus than the New Testament. Jesus points this out as he is teaching in a sermon we often call the Sermon on the Mount. He responds to criticism that he is doing away with the Old Testament with these words:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. Matthew 5:17 (ESV)

Here Jesus says that he is the goal of the entire Old Testament and that his presence, life, person and work are what will complete its words. We often refer to Matthew 5:17 when we think of the sacrifices of the Old Testament and see them as pictures of what Jesus would do in the ultimate sacrifice as he gives himself on the cross. We might also refer to it when we think of the promises and predictions of the Messiah in the Old Testament and see how Jesus fulfils them.

Yet, Matthew 5:17 is just as true when it comes to the 10 Commandments. Before these commandments become words that guide us as God’s people, they are words that speak of the role and place of Jesus in Salvation.

In Exodus, God lays out a condition of the new covenant relationship that he is forming with his people. He says:

Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Exodus 19:5-6

In order to receive God’s blessings the people must keep his commands. As we go through the Old Testament we see that Israel fails to keep this condition. Over and over again they disobey God’s words and eventually this leads to the fall of the Northern Kingdom at the hands of the Assyrians and then the fall of Judah at the hands of the Babylonians.

This failure to obey God’s law is not only apparent in the centuries before the cross. From the New Testament onwards, history is littered with God’s people getting it wrong, and if we examine our own hearts we will find the same is true of us.

So what hope do we have today? How can we know that we too will not fall and, therefore, lose our place among the people of God, his treasured possession? The answer is Jesus. The Bible tells us that Jesus was perfect and didn’t sin. He didn’t live a perfect life for himself, he did that for us. He took our sin and the punishment we deserved, and we, through faith, receive his righteousness in return. In Romans 8, we are told this guarantees that we will never ever be separated from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Romans 8:33–34 (ESV)

This is really important. When we look at the 10 Commandments by ourselves they only condemn (we’ll look at this next), but when we look at them through the lens of Christ they are commands that Jesus has fulfilled for us and, therefore, speak of our hope and joy in Jesus. The good news of the Gospel is not that God has lessened his standards, but that Jesus has kept them for us.

Not an easy read

None of us like to feel uncomfortable, but the Bible tells us that this is actually one of the purposes of the 10 Commandments. In Romans, Paul writes:

… if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” Romans 7:7 (ESV)

The 10 Commandments don’t only inform us of the pattern of life that God calls his people to live. As we study them with the guidance of the Holy Spirit we will see our own sinfulness and be convicted in our consciences and hearts.

Let me give you one example. When I was preparing to preach this material I read through the 10 Commandments several times thinking about each one and how it applied to my life. I came to the third: ‘You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain’ (Exodus 20:7). I was reminded that we so often think of this command as an injunction against using God’s name as a swear word. Clearly, that is a misuse of God’s name or the name of Jesus, but it does not exhaust the commandment. This refers to any light or frivolous use of God’s name, or anything that brings his name into disrepute.

As I thought about that my mind went back just an hour or so ago. I had just come back to my desk with my lunch in my hand. I’d opened the lid and ‘said grace’ before eating my sandwiches. Did I really pray though? No, actually, I mouthed some words, my normal words, without thinking or even switching on that I was talking to God. I was convicted. Why? Because I had not honoured God’s name, I’d come to him in a light and unthinking way. I needed to repent and so I did.

Now you might read that and think, ‘That wasn’t so bad. There are far worse ways to break the third commandment.’ That’s not the point. The point is that when we look at the 10 Commandments in a prayerful way our sin will be exposed and we will find ourselves needing to repent over and over again, trusting in the reality of the cross: that Jesus has paid for all of our sins – past, present and future.

This exposing of sin was not just something that the Israelites needed around 1500 BC. It was something that Paul needed in his walk with Jesus, and it is something that we still need today.

As I think about these three roles the thing that strikes me is that the 10 Commandments are not just a text for a previous generation. They are not just for those who lived before the cross, they are also for us who live after it.  In the next post we’ll look at the heart of the 10 Commandments and consider how that should affect the way we approach them.