In a Nutshell…
Read the passage here.
Now if you know nothing else about the Bible, if you grew up in Canada or the United States, you’ve probably heard of the Ten Commandments. Most people might also be familiar with the story of Jesus’ birth, though maybe not the biblical narrative. But most people are not completely lost if you use the phrase, the Ten Commandments. Even if you don’t know all of them, you’ve probably at least heard of the term.
The Ten Commandments, and similar passages in scripture, are sometimes used to demonstrate that Christians and Christianity is old-fashioned, overly-conservative, or even dangerous in an increasingly pluralistic, individualistic, and relativistic culture. In a less controversial way, some might argue that the Ten Commandments are useful, but ultimately not authoritative in our changing world. Perspectives like these are probably informed by a perception that Christians are more interested in judging others than in helping people, or being a positive force in society.
So, let’s consider the Ten Commandments. Again, last time we talked about Jesus’ response to the question, “what is the greatest of the commandments?” (Matthew 22:36-40)
36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Jesus is here referring to the whole law, not merely the Ten Commandments – however, it has frequently been used as, and is useful to us as, a summation of the Ten Commandments, the first 4 commandments describing what it means to love God, and the last 6 commandments, describing what it means to love your neighbour.
The first four commandments focus on the uniqueness, superiority, and sovereignty of God. Now it would be worthwhile to spend time on each of the commandments, and (because) it’s dangerous and problematic to try to summarize into an easy-to-remember, pithy statement. There is significance in the fact that we have, in this instance, Ten Commandments, and not two. Or, with respect to “Love the Lord your God”, that we have four commandments and not one. So again, it’s worthwhile to think about the uniqueness of each of these commandments and not lump them into one overarching platitude. Nevertheless, together they seem to say, in a nutshell, that God is God.
Now this is not intended to be a meaningless tautology. Rather, we are reminded – rather, commanded – to recognize that God is God (and not us, nor anything else). It’s actually important to know this because of our very human tendency to think that God’s role is to serve us, to guide us, to make our lives better, to make us happy.
I also don’t want to discount that God does these things, but He does these things inasmuch as we allow God to be God. In other words, if what we desire is life, that is life as God has intended it, life that can only come from God, the author of life, then we can probably safely assume that God will give us those things. But if what we want is God to cater to our self-centered, ego-driven, instant-gratification desires, we will probably be disappointed. It’s something that we’ve talked about a lot so I won’t spend any more time on it, but God is not a magical, wish-granting genie, who exists only to live up to our expectations. God is God.
The last six commandments focus on our response, how we are to live, in the light of the fact that God is God and we are His people. As we can tell, they have largely to do with living in community, living as community.
So, again, the Ten Commandments (along with the whole Law, according to Jesus) can be summed up in, “Love the Lord your God” and “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Now, there’s a couple more things that I want to say about the Ten Commandments. One of those things is related to the terms that I mentioned last time: Apodictic and Casuistic Laws. Apodictic Laws are essentially absolute laws; while casuistic laws are conditional or circumstantial laws – they depend on the circumstance. The Ten Commandments are what are known as apodictic laws. They are supposed to apply to all people in all contexts. The point I want to make is that they are not exhaustive – they don’t cover every conceivable situation (or ethic) – but they are, in a sense comprehensive. Let me explain. According to Douglas Stuart, one of the features of Old Testament Law is that, in some sense, they are representative. They are broad ranging and cover a lot of details of life that we, in 21st century Canada would never think of and indeed may think are silly, but they don’t cover every possible occurrence. Says Stuart,
Ancient laws did not work this wayThey were paradigmatic, giving models of behaviors and models of prohibitions/punishments relative to those behaviors, but they made no attempt to be exhaustive. Ancient laws gave guiding principles, or samples, rather than complete descriptions of all things regulated. Ancient people were expected to be able to extrapolate from what the sampling of laws did say to the general behavior the laws in their totality pointed toward.
…In other words, when all the laws are considered together, one’s impression is that both the very narrow, precise issues and the very broad, general issues fall under the purview of God’s covenant. The wide variability of comprehensiveness is intended to help the person desiring to keep the covenant to say, “I now see that in the tiniest detail as well as in the widest, most general way, I am expected to try to keep this law—in all its implications, not just in terms of its exact wording.” Some commandments are thus less broad in scope in the way they are expressed than is necessary to cover all the intended actions; others are so broad in scope in the way they are expressed that one could never think up all the ways they might be applied.
The point here is that though the Ten Commandments are apodictic, that does not mean that anything not covered in them is by the same token permissible to God. The Ten Commandments can not be seen as minimum requirements. They are, in likely fact, the opposite – they are intended to demonstrate a whole way of Godly living.
This is connected to the second point I want to make about the Ten Commandments. Simply stated, the “Love Your Neighbour” commandments are grounded in, they flow out of, the commandments which say, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind.” Loving your neighbour, loving one another is precisely because of God. Put another way, because we are the people of the one true God, we are called to love one another. This is because the commandments are not just random or arbitrary demands by a capricious God. Rather, the commandments reflect, or demonstrate, or probably more properly flow out of the very character and nature of God.
We are called to honour our father and mother because it is not good for man to be alone. Murder is abhorrent to God because God is the God of life, not death. Not the God of not-life. We are directed to not bear false witness because God is the God of truth. Not of relative truth, not of simple platitudes or pithy slogans, but true-truth. Do not covet your neighbour because God has given us, and gives us, everything we need. Because we are to find our satisfaction, our joy, in God alone, in Christ alone. Not in what we think God can give us, or what the world owes us, but only in God. Do not worship other gods, do not create an idol, because there is only one God, and He is no god of our own making. We are created for community. We are made to be a people. Because a fundamental characteristic of God is love. We are created to be a people of God.
And so the commandments are not just about what we have to do to please an angry God. The commandments are not just about what we have to do to create a good, just society. The commandments are about who God is, and who we are called to be because we are the people of God.
This is the basic truth, in my opinion, that I would like us to understand today. The commandments are not fundamentally a religious test. They are not given so that we can weed out the “unworthy.” Once we start going down the road of what I have to do and what I cannot do in order to be accepted by God, we are going down the wrong road. Now again, that doesn’t mean that anything goes. What it means is that we are called to live a certain way, a way that is set apart, a way that is holy, because there is a God – because God is God.
So What Now…?
A fundamental point that we have been exploring is that the Laws are formative rather than soteriological. In the context of the Ten Commandments, what we are saying then is that the Commandments are not nearly as concerned with what we have to do as they are with who we are.
We are the people of God. In a fallen and broken world, of which we are a part, we are called to be set apart. Not that we are called to lord it over others, nor are we called to judge others – judgement belongs to God alone. But we are called to be salt and light. In a world that is convinced of a variety of perspectives on life and the world, we demonstrate (at least we have the opportunity to demonstrate) that there is a God of truth and life.
In other words, as persons, as a people, as a church, the question is not, “are we good enough?” The question is not, “have we done enough?” or, “have avoided enough?” The question is, “who are we?” Or better, “Whose are we?” Are we the people of God, or in fact something else? Does the character of God, the nature of God, the calling of God, inform, shape, and direct who we are or something else?
Our desire, I hope, and our goal is to be the people of God. To know Him deeply and to love Him truly. That in everything we do, and in everything we say, we would breathe forth the God who called us and the God who saves us