I bet someone here who could name all 10 commandments. I bet most could name over half. Did you know if you were Catholic, your list would be slightly different? And if you were Jewish, it would also be just a bit different? Evangelicals basically proceed out of the Protestant tradition and the Protestant listing of the 10 is what dominates in the United States. I am not sure how the different varieties of Orthodox Christianity list the commandments. All of the lists come from Exodus 20. All the lists contain the same material. Nothing is left out or changed. The various points of emphasis are based on theology.
My preference is the Jewish listing. What we call the “Old Testament” is the Hebrew Bible. This is Jewish scripture which we have inherited. In Christ we are adopted into the family of God, the elect, the Chosen People. By being born again through faith in Jesus, we become the people of God.
With gratitude and humility, we receive the Hebrew Scriptures and submit ourselves to those scriptures because they are the word of God. Jews read Exodus 20 and they see 10 commandments. But for them the second commandment is “You shall have no other Gods before me,” and “You shall not make for yourself an idol.” That’s all one commandment. For us one is “You shall have no other gods,” and two is “You shall not make for yourself an idol.” What’s the first commandment for the Jews, when they read Exodus?
“I am the Lord your God.” That’s where it starts. But that’s not a commandment. It’s just a statement. No, it’s not just a statement. It is the most important statement in the Bible. Though it is not written in the imperative, it has determining power. It says who the people are. They, we, are God’s, God’s personal possession. That one statement, “I am the Lord your God,” declares what we are about, how we live, and who we are.
We are who we are because of who God is. “I am the Lord your God.” Everything in the 10 commandments and in deed in the Bible proceeds from this. Have you ever thought of the way the 10 Commandments center on God’s identity? Through the commandments and the circumstances in which they were given, God shapes his people. UCC Pastor Kathryn Matthew Huey says,
Every once in a while, the Ten Commandments provoke a measure of controversy in our public life: not about whether we actually obey them and keep them at the heart of our life together, or how they might change the way we live if we observed them. That would be an excellent controversy. No, our national argument tends to be about their display, engraved (ironically) in stone and practically worshipped not for their content but for the message they are assumed to convey, that we are a nation under God, specifically, in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The prominent display of these commandments serves to remind people in other faiths, and atheists as well, about who "we" are, whenever "they" walk into public buildings, regardless of the separation of church and state that protects all of us, however futilely, from religious wars of one kind or another. And yet, we are apparently the ones who need to be reminded of who we are and what it means to live faithfully, for "in recent polls of the American public," Gene Tucker observes, "although the majority affirmed that the Bible is in some way the word of God, only a small percentage could name as many as four of the Ten Commandments" (Preaching through the Christian Year A). If we don't even know what they are, how can we obey them?[i]
As I said, I think we would do a lot better than naming 4, but the commandments are not something to be listed. The commands are to be obeyed. They are not warnings – a list of behaviors to avoid, but guidelines for life to be lived proactively. Opposite each prohibition, what’s a positive action I can take?
The commandments are not artwork to be displayed on courthouses. Art can be a medium to communicate the word, but the commandments are more than an art subject. The 10 commandments are not an object we own, not something for our use. They don’t belong to us and are not about us.
The 10 commandments are about God. God had to come down to get to the mountain top, and the mountain was encased in smoke. God descended and summoned Moses, and Moses would go up –only Moses. God’s presence was holy; humanity’s sin, from Adam and Eve forward dirtied the very good creation, the ones made in God’s image. God’s holiness would obliterate any sin-soiled human, so God had to control the conditions in which humans would approach.
The holiness and otherness of God is so daunting, at the end of the reciting of the 10 commandments, the people were traumatized by fear. They told Moses, “You speak to us and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” They would not sing the words from the hymn, “And he walks with me and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own.” There’s a danger that our emphasis on personal relationship with God in evangelical Christianity has gone so far, we lose a sense of the holiness of God.
One of the most ancient forms of Christianity is Ethiopian Orthodoxy – it predates the Catholic Church and its development is independent both of Catholicism and of Eastern Orthodoxy. In the Ethiopian Orthodox church, the sense of the holy is so great that they don’t want average worshipers to read the scripture. Only the priest handle something as sacred as God’s holy word.
I think that’s an error in the other direction. New Testament Christianity believes, if at all possible, laypersons should be literate and should be in the practice of reading scripture. Every one of us should read the Bible. Today, more and more Ethiopians are becoming literate and the evangelical church is on the rise there.
One young Ethiopian woman who has switched from Orthodoxy to an evangelical practice of Christianity has felt a certain reduction of God. She tells Christianity Today magazine that many of her evangelical friends treat God as a buddy. She feels they would do well to have that sense of reverence and holy fear of God that is so prominent in Orthodox practice.[ii]
Are we supposed to be in an intimate spiritual relationship of love with God? Yes, the New Testament shows this and it is also seen in the Old. Are we supposed to reverently fear God? Again, yes, and both testaments show this as well. To properly appreciate the 10 commandments, in our thought they must go from object used by us to gift of God given to us; a gift that fills us with awe and wonder. The commandments are about God.
OK, we know what they are about, but what do the Commandments do? Well, they don’t do anything. They’re a list of rules written on a stone tablet and we read them so we know what not to do. Wrong!! The 10 commandments are God’s gift of grace that form us as a community, as the people of God. Just as in our understanding the commandments must shift from cultural object to reminder of God’s awesome presence, the commandments must also shift from rules list to defining dynamic. We have to think about the commandments differently. We have to see them with fresh eyes. The Commandments are a statement, but not just a legal statement. Through the commandments God shapes our character.
Sometimes popular Bible teachers talk about how to apply the Bible to your life or my life or anyone’s life. The intent in this thinking is always good and I have many times said similar type things. The person speaking wants Christians to read scripture and have scripture be an active, powerful voice in our lives. But just as there is a danger in getting too cozy in our relationship with God through Jesus Christ, there is a danger in too easily forcing scripture into my story.
Oh … I need some grace. Let me get a concordance and look up ‘grace.’ Ah, here’s something in the Gospel of Matthew about grace. Oh, wow! Paul’s letters are filled with grace. Let me check out book titles. Oooh! This says there’s grace in Genesis and in Proverbs. By the time someone finishes this little exercise, he has a notebook page full of Bible references. He reads through them all and is filled with grace and feels good. It’s not an altogether terrible practice. God loves us and feels good when we feel good. But, most of the passages on grace (or trust or love or any other topic) are set in the midst of a story that if full of sin, loss, judgment, and pain. When we hopscotch through the Bible and only land on the verses we like and skip over the messy parts, we don’t get the full force of the living word of God. The Bible becomes a tool for our use.
But, the Bible is not a tool – it is a double-edged sword. When we stop using it and instead submit ourselves to it, we get cut. As Jesus said, we are pruned (John 15). The parts of ourselves that draw us away from God’s holiness are painfully cut off. Jesus says we lose ourselves for his sake and only when we lose our lives are we saved (Matthew 10:39; 16:25; Luke 9:24).
The 10 commandments are not tools at our disposal that we can use when needed. The 10 commandments are there – a centerpiece in God’s word, and we are to submit our lives to this word, to these commands, to the God who gave them and constantly speaks His eternal truth through them. We must not consider what we are to do with the commandments. We consider, as we read and reread and reread and pray over the commandments, what is God doing in us? What is God creating in us? What new creations are we becoming as God continuously works in us?
Immediately, in the first two commandments, we acknowledge God is master of our values. He’s the only God. He cannot be represented by an idol. An icon might help understand aspects of the true God. Remember icons are windows we look through so we see God. Icons are not worshipped but rather are items to help us see the one we worship. What matters most to a disciple of Jesus Christ? That might be answered in different ways depending on the circumstance, but God is always the one who determines our values. Family, children, job, bank account – these things don’t determine our values. If they do, our faith is flawed and change is needed. The first two commandments reveal God as master over our values. As he says, He is the Lord. We belong to Him.
The last seven commandments about parents and about ethical behavior (including stealing, lying, murdering, coveting) – the last seven show that God is master over our relationships. How do I approach my marriage? How do live in community with my neighbor? How do I view possessions, mine and others’? God determines the answers.
Finally, the command about Sabbath reveals that God is master over time – my time and all time. In 2012, we will do an entire sermons series about Sabbath; during that series, all the small groups in the church will focus on Sabbath time.
In all this value-determination that comes from the commandments, we see God is master: master over our values, our relationship, and out time. Sometimes, in theological debates, people talk about the sovereignty of God. What do you mean when you say God is sovereign? What do I mean when I say it? How mad will you get if I say something that threatens your definition of God’ sovereignty?
Rather than wasting time, fighting over definitions and defending definitions, why don’t we pause and read Exodus 20:2? God says to us, “I am the Lord your God!’ Here’s the big question: how is God’s sovereignty seen in my life? In our church’s communal life? In us as we live day-to-day in the community of Chapel Hill-Carrboro, Hillsboro-Durham? Do our lives point to God as master of everything?
In submitting our lives to the commandments, two things take place.
God does the unpredictable – we don’t know exactly how it will go. We just trust His leadership. He works in us, in our lives, in the world around us, and we follow his lead and trust Him. We see God at work – that’s the first effect of submitting.
Second, those around us who do not submit or are not really religious as all see how we live, and they see a life of individuals in a community that is submitted to God as God is revealed in Jesus Christ.
So our submission to the commandments and to God’s complete leading opens us that God may work in us, and our submissions of ourselves turns our lives into a witness that points to the one true God who is at work in the world.
The good news of all this is that God, whom the Israelites so feared (and their fear was entirely justified) is a God who gives good things. In fact, the life lived in full submission to God is far more blessed, far more fulfilled, far richer spiritually and emotionally, than the life lived for self-satisfaction. The one who lives under God’s sovereignty, in appropriate awe of who God is – that person truly lives. Moreover, that person has a deep understanding of Jesus and that understanding continually grows. That person is already seeing the eternity we enter at the resurrection and final judgment.
In the end, what does this ultimately mean for you and me in our daily lives? We have to know the commandments and submit our lives to them. We creatively conform so that do not murder becomes pray for enemies. Do not steal and do not covet becomes love the neighbor as I do myself. Do worship idols and revere the name of God and honor Sabbath becomes recognition that God is master of everything and our lives are lived under His mastery as we understand it in the leading of the Holy Spirit, in the Word and in the teaching and life of the church.
A final question: are there areas of life we want to control? Do we have places in our lives we don’t want to share with God because we don’t want to change the ways we know God will demand that we change? Do we have aspects of our lives we’re not ready to put into God’s hands?
The whole message is God is the Lord, and the 10 Commandments show that, and we are to submit our lives fully to these commands and fully to God. If we have things we’re holding on to – relationships, jobs, personal practices – things we have not submitted to God, then he isn’t Lord of our lives. He is Lord, but we aren’t acknowledging that. We’re quietly, dangerously rebelling.
So the question is would we in a time of quiet prayer, honestly admit, I’ve got things I haven’t given over to God. Submitting my life to God doesn’t mean I quit my job or dump my girlfriend or stop listening to certain music. It means I am willing to if God, the master, tells me to. Will we, in a time of quiet prayer, examine life and name those things we haven’t handed over to God? Once we’ve named them, we will ask God to take those things into His control today?
We will have quiet meditation as the musicians come. A time of silence for each of us to examine our hearts. This is a moment for honesty between you and God – complete honesty. Name the things, the habits or addictions, the pastimes, the relationships – name it all. Name what you are controlling and not giving to God. As we bow in silent prayer, name it. Then, submit that thing to God.
Maybe coming to the front and praying on the steps and looking to the cross will help. Consider the love of Jesus, and give all of life to the Lord. Consider how great life is in God’s hands. I’ll be here and Heather & Jonathan in the back. We here in case it might help to pray with someone. You can come and we’ll pray together. Whether you come or do your business with God right where you are, don’t let the moment pass. Ask God to be Lord of all of your life. In this moment, give yourself to Him completely.
[i] From the UCC lectionary website - http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/october-2-2011.html
[ii] Matthew D. LaPlante, Christianity Today, September 2011, p.17-19.