The following sermons on the Ten Commandments were preached at First Evanger Lutheran Church in Fertile, Minnesota, Grace Lutheran Church in Crookston, Minnesota, and First American Lutheran Church in Mayville, North Dakota in the late summer and early fall of 2010.
Pastor Rolf Preus
The First Commandment
August 1, 2010
And God spoke all these words, saying: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself any carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the LORD you God, and a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.” Exodus 20:1-6
Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
What does this mean?
We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.
“And God spoke all these words.” God did. This means that they are important. God’s words are more important than our words. If you want to know what to do to please God, listen to what God says. Surely, God knows what he wants you to do. Why listen to anyone else? In the Large Catechism, Luther comments on what he calls the “devilish presumption” of people who think that they can find a better and higher way of life than what God teaches us in the Ten Commandments.
There is good reason to memorize the Ten Commandments. We commit them to memory because they are God’s will for our behavior. They govern every single aspect of human conduct. Nothing pertaining to the lives we live in this world is left out. If we want to know our duty to God and to our neighbor, we simply must know the Ten Commandments. If we want to know what it means to fear God, to love God, to trust in God, we must know the Ten Commandments. If we want to know what it means to follow the Golden Rule, loving our neighbor as ourselves, we must know the Ten Commandments. These words are from God. These words from God teach us everything we need to know about our duty to love God above all things and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
They are words. The word “commandment” is not used here in the Bible to describe these words. They are not written as “you must” but as “you shall.” They describe the life of the one who belongs to God. “I am the LORD your God.” So if the LORD, Jahweh, is your God, then these words describe you. “You shall have no other gods” than the LORD God who has set you free.
Do these words describe you? If not, they stand opposed to you. If you are not described by the description of God’s child given in the Ten Words from God, why then you have a problem. Because these words most certainly do describe the life of God’s child. You shall. You shall not. This is the way it shall be if you belong to God.
God spoke these words to Moses and they were intended for the children of Israel whom God had just rescued from a cruel slavery in Egypt. God saved many people from famine through his servant, Joseph, who became a great leader in Egypt. Later, a king who did not remember or appreciate Joseph took power. He enslaved the Israelites and made life miserable for them. They were slaves for over four hundred years. They thought that God had forgotten them and most of them forgot God. But God did not forget. He sent his prophet – a man named Moses – to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Through Moses, God freed his people from slavery. They were led through water out of slavery into freedom.
The Ten Commandments were given to that nation of that time and that region. While the Ten Commandments correspond to the same law that God has put into the conscience of everyone, the Ten Commandments were written specifically for that particular nation. They were forbidden to made statues for use in worship because God knew that they would worship the statues because that’s what their neighbors did. They were forbidden to work on Saturday because the LORD God was their Creator who rested on Saturday from creating the world, and this was how they would confess to the heathen nations their faith in the one true God. Today, for us Christians, God no longer forbids making statues for use in worship (he obviously still forbids worshipping them!) or working on Saturdays. God tailor made the Ten Commandments for the Israelites of the fifteenth century before Christ. God did not give the Ten Commandments to the Germans or the Swedes or the Tasmanians. He gave them to the ancient nation of Israel whom he formed in the Sinai wilderness to be his people.
First he set them free. Then he gave them his law. First he saved them. Then he called on them to serve him. First God saves us. Only then can we serve him. Paul Speratus says it correctly in the words of the hymn,
It was a false, misleading dream
That God his law had given
That sinners could themselves redeem
And by their works gain heaven.
The law is but a mirror bright
That brings the inbred sin to light
That lurks within our nature.
The law is not the means of salvation. God saves us without our help or cooperation. The law is not the means of obtaining spiritual freedom. God sets us free by his grace alone. It was not ancient Israel that won God’s favor by their obedience. No, they earned God’s anger for their disobedience. When Israel’s father Isaac was laid on the altar by Abraham to be offered up to God as the sacrifice, he wasn’t sacrificed because God intervened and provided a ram in the place of Isaac. That ram was a symbol of Abraham’s divine seed, Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ alone has won God’s favor for Israel and for us all. Those who teach the law of God as the way to heaven teach a lie. The fact is that the doctrine of works-righteousness – that we become righteous before God by our obedience to God’s law – is a flat rejection of the First Commandment. “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”
When the Masonic Lodge teaches that one may be a faithful Mason and a faithful Christian at the same time, it teaches falsely. It is not possible to have the LORD God as your God if you believe that you are going to heaven by obeying God’s law. Indeed, only those who admit that they are lost forever unless delivered by Jesus Christ and by him alone are those who know the God who revealed himself to Moses and who gave the Ten Commandments to ancient Israel. Every religion of human works is idolatry. Indeed, it is the oldest form of idolatry. Cain was a disciple of works-righteousness, while Abel was a Christian. This is why God rejected Cain and his offerings, while he accepted both Abel and his offerings.
During times of increasing godlessness, we who still believe in the permanent standards of God’s law must be very careful not to make ungodly alliances with those who teach a false religion while still adhering outwardly to the Ten Commandments. In the Large Catechism, Luther writes: “There has never been a people so wicked that it did not establish and maintain some sort of worship.” He’s right. Even those who deify and worship sensual pleasure do have a sort of religion. So called conservative “people of faith” who reject the merits of Jesus and who promote some kind of save yourself by your deeds religion are idolaters. They may make better citizens than the openly godless hedonists who reign supreme in the popular culture, but they are no closer to God, despite their outward adherence to God’s standards of right and wrong.
Idolatry is not primarily a matter of outward worship. It is a matter of the heart. What do you fear? What do you love? What do you trust? Whatever it is, it is your god.
The Psalmist says, “The LORD takes pleasure in those who fear Him, in those who hope in His mercy.” (Psalm 147:11) Now to fear or to hope or to love are not things anyone can actually see though they may be expressed by outward acts. It is perfectly possible for people to go through motions that are simply expected by social pressure and not to fear, love, or trust in God at all.
What do you fear? Do you feel secure when your bills are paid and you get the raise or the price you think you need? Do you know that your life is in good hands after the sick child is feeling better, but not before? Do you know that God loves you only when you experience the love of people whom you admire? Do you want approval from the crowd so much that you are willing to offend the majesty of almighty God to get it? What do you fear? Him who can destroy the body but not the soul, or him who can destroy both body and soul in hell? What do you love? The stuff that God gives or the God who gives it? What do you trust? What you can understand? What you can control? What you can see? What you can feel?
Idolatry is in the heart, and it must be uprooted from the heart, and that hurts. The longer it stays in there without being challenged, the more it hurts. We are far better at creating idols than we are at tearing them down. We make idols out of our money, our health, our children, our spouse, our farm, our job, and our home on the lake. We make idols out of our habits, our prejudices, and our opinions. We make idols because the God whom we cannot see seems not to care for what we really need. What he wants seems to be so unpleasant. What seems to us to be right seems so right.
But what seems to us is not what is. We are but a mist over the lake to be dispelled by the rising sun. We are the grass of the field that is scorched and dried out in no time at all. The God who calls on us to serve him only, to worship him only, to trust in him only, this God in whose name we have been baptized, is the God who also defines reality for us. “You shall have no other gods,” he says. And we shall not. He will keep on coming to us and make sure of that. He will keep on tearing out of our hearts the idols we enthrone in ourselves. He will smash them to pieces and that will hurt. Then he will show himself to be our God as he points us to the cross where he – our true brother and our eternal God – suffered for us and washed away all our sins by his blood. From that blessed death, our God shows himself to us as he really and truly is. And from that wonderful revelation of his grace, we learn how to worship him as our only God, we learn to fear him, love him, and trust in him above all things. Amen
The Second Commandment
August 15, 2010
“You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.” Exodus 20:7
What does this mean?
We should fear and love God that we may not curse, swear, use witchcraft, lie, or deceive by His name, but call upon it in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks.
God gave the Ten Commandments to a specific nation at a specific time of history. He gave them through Moses to ancient Israel about 1,400 years before the birth of Christ. Sometimes we use the term “moral law” to describe the Ten Commandments. By “moral” we mean that they are a standard for all human conduct. The Ten Commandments aren’t time bound. They teach permanent truths about what is right and what is wrong. Right and wrong don’t change.
The Ten Commandments served as civil law for ancient Israel. To a large extent they still serve as civil law today. For example, the Second Commandment, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord, thy God, in vain,” forbids perjury. That’s against the law in every state in the Union. Of course it forbids more than that. Any misuse of God’s name is a sin, even when it isn’t a crime. To use God’s name as an expletive, as if it is a four-letter word, is a sin. When Christians say “Christ” and “God” as expressions of surprise, disgust, annoyance, or anger, they dishonor the one whose name they bear in Holy Baptism. The Second Commandment forbids every misuse of God’s name. To curse your neighbor, calling God’s anger down on him, is a sin. To use God’s name in service to any kind of lie is a sin. To say that God said it when God didn’t say it is a sin. To use God’s name to cover up any kind of wrongdoing is a sin. And God takes this sin against the Second Commandment seriously: “The LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.”
The ancient Israelites were quite legalistic in the way they applied the Second Commandment. The name of God in the Hebrew of the Old Testament is Jahweh. Our English language Bibles simply render this as L-O-R-D in all capital letters. The Hebrew word, Jahweh, comes from the Hebrew for I AM. It is the name that God gave to Moses at the burning bush. The Israelites were so concerned about the guilt they would bring upon themselves by taking Jahweh’s name in vain that they came up with a simple solution that would prevent them from ever breaking this commandment. They never used the name Jahweh at all. Whenever they spoke of Jahweh, they called him by name title, “Lord,” instead of by his personal name, Jahweh. They figured that they could hardly misuse God’s name if they never used it at all.
But they were wrong. As with all of the commandments, it is not just a matter of what we must not do, it is also a matter of must we must do. And so Luther’s explanation is quite right when it explains that we must not “curse, swear, use witchcraft, lie, or deceive by God’s name” and then goes on to say that we must “call upon it in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks.” To use God’s name in service to a lie or a sin is a sin of commission. To ignore God’s name altogether is a sin of omission. God says, “Call upon me in the day of trouble, I will deliver you, and you will glorify me.” (Psalm 50:15)
Obviously, using or misusing the name of God goes much deeper than the mere use or non use of such words as Lord, God, Christ, Jesus, and so forth. God’s name is not a magical sound. God’s name is everything the Word of God says to describe God. His name is his reputation. His name has to do with his honor. The most serious violation of the Second Commandment is not using God’s name as a cuss word, it is rather attributing to God a teaching or message that is not from God. In this way God’s reputation suffers among those folks who believe the teaching comes from God.
Luther makes this point in the Large Catechism on the Second Commandment:
The greatest abuse, however, occurs in spiritual matters, which pertain to the conscience, when false preachers arise and peddle their lying nonsense as the Word of God. (Large Catechism, Part I, paragraph 54)
The reason people don’t care about false doctrine is because they don’t care about God. They don’t care to honor his name. The Second Commandment is simply putting into practice the First Commandment. The First Commandment deals with the heart. Who you do fear, love, and trust in the most? To whom do you look for all help in your every need? On whom do you rely? Your faith is either in the true God or an idol. The First Commandment deals with who our God is. The Second Commandment deals with what we say about him. Do we talk of him in such a way that his reputation is honored and magnified and that his name is hallowed, as we pray in the Lord’s Prayer? Certainly this requires, first and foremost, that we speak the truth about him. And surely we cannot speak the truth about God if we don’t know what the truth is.
There are some things about God that he chooses not to reveal to us. That’s his business, not ours. St. Paul puts it this way in today’s Epistle Lesson:
Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out! For who has known the mind of the LORD? Or who has become His counselor?
But people aren’t satisfied to leave the unsearchable judgments of God up to God and so they seek out information that God forbids them to have. They consult mediums, astrologers, witches, psychics, and others who make a living out of defying the Second Commandment. Sorcery of every kind and description is sin, and it is no joking matter. The devil and his angels are real enough. Since the holy angels obey God and surely wouldn’t speak to people who seek divine guidance in defiance of God, the only possible source of information through sorcery, fortune telling, séances, and the like is the devil and his evil angels.
The name of God and the word of God are tightly joined together. Listen to how St. Paul connects God’s name with God’s word in his Epistle to the Romans.
For whoever calls upon the name of the LORD shall be saved. How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? . . . So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. (Romans 10:13-17)
Calling on God’s name is nothing more than an expression of faith. Faith comes from hearing the gospel that is preached. So to use God’s name faithfully is to pray, praise, and give thanks to the one who speaks his word of the gospel to us.
The greatest worship outwardly is the preaching of the gospel. The greatest worship inwardly is the believing of the gospel. The way we use God’s name simply reflects what we believe about God.
God’s name is hallowed, blessed, praised, and adored by God’s holy people when the pure, wholesome, saving gospel of Jesus Christ is preached and believed.
The law of God shows us a goodness and justice and majesty of God that must not ever be compromised. God’s law reflects the perfection of God’s holy nature. Any compromise of God’s law is to take his name in vain. We do not have the right to amend God’s commandments to make them more popular. That is taking God’s name in vain. When the law hurts those whom we love we had better remember whose law it is. It is God’s, not ours. The law does hurt, but that’s not God’s fault. It’s the fault of sinful men, women, and children.
But we would be fools to rely on the law of God for spiritual growth. For that we need the preaching of the cross. We need to hear of Christ’s crucifixion for us. This honors God’s name. For in the suffering and death of Jesus God’s goodness is seen it its true and eternal purity. Our God is full of mercy and compassion. People just talk about feeling your pain. They don’t really feel it and they couldn’t if they wanted to. But God joined himself to our own flesh and blood and became one of us. He joined us as a man and he suffered. He felt our pain. He faced the curses of the whole world against the holy God. He, the pure, innocent, God-man, bore the curse of Almighty God against sinners. This is what the Bible says:
Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hands on a tree”). (Galatians 3:13)
He faced not only the curses of men, but also the curse of God against sinners. He faced it and he bore it and he took it away from us. The Second Commandment meets its goal when we with unclean lips and corrupt hearts lay before our gracious God all of our sins of thought, word, and deed, and we listen in humble faith to his words of forgiveness. To preach and to believe that gospel is the goal of the Second Commandment. Believing that for Christ’s sake all our sins are forgiven, we have peace with God, and we have a home in heaven forever, is the foundation and strength of all our prayers, praise and thanksgiving to God. Amen.
The Third Commandment
August 22, 2010
“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your manservant, nor your maidservant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made the heaven and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.” Exodus 20:8-11
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
What does this mean?
We should fear and love God that we may not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.
These words forbid working on Saturday. When God gave this commandment to the children of Israel, he wanted them to take a day off of work so that they would have the time and opportunity to hear God’s word and to worship God together as his people.
God explained to them why they could not work on Saturday. God himself rested on Saturday from his work in creating the world. When God’s people rested on that same day they were confessing their faith in their Creator who had called them out of slavery in Egypt into the freedom that belongs to the children of God. They were confessing their faith in the one true God and they were rejecting the gods of the Gentiles as idols. They were also receiving spiritual rest and peace. When they rested from physical labor, this served the higher purpose of finding rest for their souls in the gracious promises of God.
God chose the day of rest for Israel. It was to be Saturday, not Wednesday or Sunday, but Saturday. God said it and that settled it.
Some folks, such as the Seventh Day Adventists, insist that God intended that Christians should also obey the Sabbath Law given by God to Moses and to set aside Saturday as the day of rest and worship. They insist that the seventh day Sabbath is a part of God’s moral law. But they are wrong. The moral law is that law of God that is not time bound in any way but applies to all people of all times equally. The command not to work on Saturday and to set this day aside as the day of worship is not a part of God’s moral law. The Bible says: “Therefore let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ.” (Colossians 2:16-17)
There was good reason for those preparing for the coming of the Savior to rest on the day that God created the world. They were not only confessing that God had made them, but they were confessing as well that they had sinned and fallen from the perfection in which God made them. They gathered together to confess their sins. And they confessed their faith that Shiloh, the Prince of Peace, the Messiah and Savior of the world would come to bring them true spiritual rest and peace. They did not work on Saturday as a confession of the pure doctrine of salvation by grace alone. Just as they did no physical labor on Saturday, we cannot gain heaven by any amount of spiritual labor, striving, or struggling. We are saved by God’s grace alone. Jesus does the work. We don’t. The Bible says, “But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness.” (Romans 4:5) There can be no true spiritual rest or peace except that which Jesus Christ provides. He is our true Sabbath rest. So we sing, “In Jesus I find rest and peace.” Jesus seeks us out and finds us when we are lost – like the sheep and the coin – and when he finds us and takes us home the angels in heaven rejoice.
We need Jesus to find rest and peace. Jesus has chosen to be present with us whenever and wherever his holy gospel is purely proclaimed and his sacraments are rightly administered. Jesus stood before his disciples on the first Easter Sunday and displayed the wounds of his crucifixion on the cross. He said, “Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” Jesus gave to his disciples this ministry of the gospel. He said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Jesus has joined himself to the preaching of his gospel. Jesus still gives rest and peace wherever his gracious words of life are proclaimed.
We honor the Sabbath Day today, not by resting from all our labors on Saturday, but by holding the preaching of God’s word as a precious thing, the most precious thing we could receive from God in this life. Obeying the Third Commandment deals with much more than where you happen to be on a Sunday morning, it deals with how you regard God’s word. Do you despise it and think it is quite an ordinary or even a boring or useless thing? Do you think that you can live without hearing the voice of your Shepherd? Or do you love God’s words as the voice that gives your soul true peace? Do you know that if you don’t hear the pure gospel of Jesus Christ – and not just once in a while, but regularly and often – you will stray and get lost? The gospel is the power of God to save everyone who believes because the gospel reveals Christ’s doing and Christ’s dying for us. The gospel gives Christ to you. Jesus finds you in your sin and he covers you with the spotless robe of his own righteousness. He covers your shame, your failure, and your guilt. We need this gospel. This is why God gave us the Third Commandment. That we may receive what Jesus wants to give us.
There was a time in America when folks honored Sunday as a day of rest for the sake of those who went to church on Sundays. God never told the church to worship on Sunday, and the church certainly has no authority to require anything that God’s word doesn’t require, but God does require us to hear his holy word. Since the First Century the church has gathered together on the first day of the week for divine services.
Church was on Sunday because Jesus rose on Sunday and first appeared to his disciples on Sunday. Christ’s church gathers together to hear the gospel and to receive Christ’s body and blood in the Lord’s Supper and thereby to see Jesus. Every Sunday service is another appearance of the risen Savior to his people. Jesus told Mary Magdalene not to cling to him after he had risen from the dead. When the disciples on the road to Emmaus finally recognized the risen Jesus at the breaking of the bread he immediately disappeared from their sight. He was teaching them and us that we should not expect to see him as he was seen during his earthly ministry so many years ago. Today we see him under the humble form of simple water used by his command and joined to his saving word. Today we see him in the preaching of the minister who teaches the words of the Holy Scriptures in Jesus’ name and by Jesus’ divine authority. Today we see him under the forms of bread and wine that are indeed without any doubt the body that was nailed to Calvary and the blood that flowed from his wounds to save us. Wherever these precious means of grace are given to us, it is Jesus who is giving himself to us. We come to church to find Jesus. And here he is.
Years ago Sunday morning belonged to the Church. Times have changed. Everything under the sun competes with church, even on a Sunday morning. Buying, selling, hockey, basketball, farming, driving to the lake, or just sleeping in because it’s the only day it can be done, all come before going to church to hear God’s word and to sing praises to him. The service isn’t supposed to last too long. The sermon is supposed to make the worshipper feel good about himself. The preacher isn’t supposed to make folks feel bad about themselves, as if they have sins for which they must repent! Since the historic liturgy of the church focuses so much on things like begging for mercy, praising the Holy Trinity, and asking God for forgiveness, why that, too, must be tossed out in favor of “contemporary” services that are supposedly more “positive.” People today are looking for something to enhance their self-esteem so they can feel good about being spiritual. The market demands that the Sunday service change to meet the so-called needs of religious seekers. But what if the seekers aren’t seeking Jesus?! Woe to the church that doesn’t offer them Jesus! Better to stay at home and watch the Sunday news or go out and contribute something of benefit to the economy than to attend a church that doesn’t proclaim the crucifixion of Jesus Christ for sinners. It is only in the wounds of Jesus that we find any peace or rest for our souls.
Alan Jackson expresses the prevalent view of work and worship in his popular song, “Where I Come From”:
Where I come from, tryin’ to make a livin’
And workin’ hard to get to heaven
Where I come from
That’s what folks do. They try to make a living. And they figure that getting to heaven is much like making a living. But it’s not. No, it’s not. Heaven is for those who are weary of working and can’t do any more. Heaven is for those who have tried and failed and hunger and thirst for what they just can’t provide. Heaven is a place of rest and peace for those whose souls are tormented by their sins.
What God did in his Law demand
And none to him could render
Caused wrath and woe on every hand
For man, the vile offender.
Our flesh has not those pure desires
The spirit of the Law requires,
And lost is our condition.
Heaven on earth is where God comes to us vile offenders and forgives us our sins. He does no because he loves us. He does so for Christ’s sake. It is not because we have worked hard to get to heaven. It is because of Christ’s works, not our own. God forgives us our sins on account of the holy precious blood of his dear Son. Jesus labored for us by bearing our sins in his own body. Therefore, it is for Jesus’ sake that God promises us eternal peace and rest in heaven. That’s where our true Sabbath rest will be.
Jesus said, “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28) Jesus brings heaven to earth. We come to church to find Jesus, our Shepherd. He is our true Sabbath rest. Amen
The Fourth Commandment
August 29, 2010
“Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the LORD your God is giving you.” Exodus 20:12
Honor thy father and thy mother that it may be well
with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth.
What does this mean?
We should fear and love God that we may not despise our parents
and masters, nor provoke them to anger, but give them honor,
serve and obey them, and hold them in love and esteem.
The first three commandments teach us how we should love God. These commandments are called the first table of the law, because they show us our first duty, which is to God. The next seven commandments teach us how we should love our neighbor. They are called the second table of the law, because they show us our second duty, which is to our neighbor. We don’t decide for ourselves what it means to love God. God tells us what it means. It means that we have no other gods before him. It means that we do not misuse his name. It means that we gladly hear and learn preaching and his word. That’s what it means to love God.
And we don’t decide for ourselves what it means to love our neighbor. God tells us what it means. It means we honor our father and mother. It means we don’t murder, commit adultery, steal, tell lies about our neighbor, or try to deprive him of what is his. Love is a verb. It is an active verb. And our neighbor is not the fellow down the street and around the corner. He’s the one living in the same house with us, the one who works next to us, the one we deal with every day. To love your neighbor is the most concrete expression of your love for God.
And, as they say, charity (which means love) begins at home.
There is a reason why God gave the Fourth Commandment as the first commandment in the second table of the law. It is the foundation for what follows. It is at home that we learn who our neighbor is and how God wants us to love our neighbor. It is by learning to honor our father and our mother that we learn to love our neighbor. And this is how we learn to fear and love God.
All government is God’s servant. The most basic government that God has established in this world is the rule of fathers and mothers over their children. This relationship is more than a biological one. God himself wants us to honor him, our Creator, by honoring those whom he used to bring us into this world. He wants us to see his own majesty, glory, honor, and beauty in the parents he has given to us. He wants us to see beyond their sins, their mistakes, their frailties, their faults, and anything else in them that would distract us from our duty to honor them. He wants us to see him in our fathers and mothers. Look to your father and your mother and consider that they speak and act for God himself.
Yes, even when they make mistakes. Even when they don’t understand or know what is best for you, they nevertheless hold a sacred office that God Almighty has given to them, and if we are to honor God we must honor our father and our mother. God rules this world. But he doesn’t do so through angels. He does so through human beings. First and foremost among those whom God has chosen to govern this world are fathers and mothers.
Honoring father and mother does not always mean obeying them. The Fourth Commandment may not be used to compel disobedience to God. The only authority fathers and mothers have is what God has given them.
The Fourth Commandment does not say, “Honor your parents.” It says, “Honor your father and your mother.” Fathers and mothers are not interchangeable. Have you noticed how, in the last few years, the word “parent” has become a verb that applies to fathers and mothers in the same way? But there is a difference between a father and a mother. The father is the head of the home, not by human evolution, but by divine decree. The Fourth Commandment places a heavy responsibility on fathers. God expects you fathers to provide for your children. He expects you to work so that your family will be cared for. He expects you to feed your family also with his holy word, because that is the means by which the Holy Spirit creates new and eternal life in them. The father is to be the pastor of his own home and family. This is the real measure of a man. It is not how well he holds his own in the presence of his peers as the guys get together and talk about what guys do. It is how well he serves his wife and children by caring for their needs of body and soul. This means that the Christian father must take care to set a good example for his wife and his children by faithfully attending the services of God’s house and leading his family in worship at home. This is how children learn to honor their fathers.
The Bible teaches us to honor our mothers. This requires fathers to treat their wives with respect so that their children learn from them how to treat a lady. The best gift a father can give to his children is to love their mother. It is the father who teaches the children – by his own example – how to honor their mother.
This commandment also requires mothers to submit with grace and humility to the leadership of their husbands because, as the Bible says, the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is also the Savior. Christian mothers aren’t required by God to make money. The father is required to provide for his family. If he won’t, the Bible says he’s denied the faith. But the Christian mother is praised when she manages the home, provides an example for the children, and teaches the word of God to her little ones. Lois and Eunice received apostolic recognition, not for any great social or political contributions they made, but for the faith that they passed on to their grandson and son, Timothy.
If children had perfect parents, they would gladly honor them. They don’t. And they don’t gladly honor them either. This is why we need this commandment. We need it, not because we are willing to obey it, but precisely because we don’t want to. Yet today parents think their duty is to provide their children with the proper amount of self-esteem instead of to exercise loving but firm discipline. Parents throw up their hands in helpless resignation to their parental failure, as they hire other people to raise their children. Meanwhile, children are often set against their own parents, as what their parents teach them at home is deliberately undermined by institutions of education controlled by the State. But the education of children is the duty of the parents. God himself said so. After giving the law a second time in the book of Deuteronomy, God said: “And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart; you shall teach them diligently to your children.” (Deuteronomy 6:6)
Our children do not belong to the State. They belong to God. And God hasn’t given us the right to hand our children over to the tender mercies of an imposed State religion of secular humanism, socialism, moral relativism, evolutionism, or any other “ism” that contradicts the teaching of God’s word. Our children will never learn to honor us as the representatives of Almighty God unless and until we act as if we really are representatives of God. The best teacher of the Fourth Commandment is not the pastor. It is the fathers and the mothers of the children.
The Fourth Commandment requires us to obey the rules whether of State, the school, or the place of employment. We don’t obey the rules for the sake of the rules (which could be and often are foolish and unreasonable) but for the sake of the Fourth Commandment, that is, for the sake of honoring God.
The Fourth Commandment has a promise attached to it: “That it may be well with thee and thou mayest live long on the earth.” What is the average life expectancy of those who grow up fatherless without any clear parental authority? It’s shorter than the average. But God is not just making a sociological observation. He is giving us a promise. If you honor those whom God has given to you to provide you with the needs of this life, God will honor you with the blessings of this life. Anarchy, or mob rule, cheapens life. Government is a blessing from God, and he wants those in authority to be honored by his children. This is why we remember our leaders in the General Prayer of the church. We pray for them even if we didn’t vote for them.
When my family lived in Racine, we lived in an old city neighborhood that was rather poor. Most of the children did not have fathers living with them. It was heartbreaking to see so many young boys growing up without any clear direction from a father. I don’t need to listen to the experts tell me why crime, drugs, sexual promiscuity, violence, theft, and blasphemous talk are so common in neighborhoods across America. I know why. The Fourth Commandment is ignored and denied. The promise God attached to the Fourth Commandment is very earnest and sincere. If everyone, including the government, the schools, and other institutions would support the Fourth Commandment, respecting as primary and fundamental the God-ordained relationship between fathers, mothers, and their children, God’s promise would be fulfilled.
But only for this life. And a long life on this earth isn’t good enough. There comes the time when we must look at the casket. There we will see Dad. There we will see Mom. And while we may thank God for them, they will still be gone. Buried. Remembered, but not by most folks. Our children may remember them, but our grandchildren probably won’t. As the Psalmist wrote:
As for man, his days are like grass; as a flower of the field, so he flourishes, for the wind passes over it, and it is gone. And its place remembers it no more. (Psalm 103:15-16)
Only God’s word endures. Only the promises guaranteed by Jesus Christ can guide you to heaven and to eternal life. Your obedience is a rotten foundation upon which to stand if you hope to find your way to heaven on the last day. But Christ’s obedience has passed the test of God’s law. He honored his Father in heaven, obeying his holy will. He willingly submitted to the death of the cross in obedience to his Father. He did it willingly out of his pure, eternal, perfect, holy love for his Father. And Christ also obeyed his dear mother, submitting himself to her, serving her, caring for her needs, even as he was bearing the sin of the whole world on the cross. He entrusted to St. John the care of his mother. As he was suffering for our disobedience to the Fourth Commandment, he was obeying it to the spirit and to the letter. He offered to his Father his obedience to replace our disobedience and this is how he has gained for us the promise of the Fourth Commandment. Specifically “that your days may be long upon the land which the LORD your God is giving you.” But this land is not a small piece of real estate in the Middle East. It is heaven. It is a place of pure and holy joy. It is where we honor our God with our whole hearts all the time and always find perfect joy in doing so. It is where love forever blots out any memory of hatred, bitterness, guilt, or regret. It is that home purchased for us by the obedience of Jesus.
It is yours, dear Christian. It is your true home. Remember that when your home life is not what it ought to be. Remember that God himself covers the sins you commit against one another in the family. And he calls you here on Sunday to take his word for it that you are indeed forgiven. He wants you to know that he has a home prepared for you where your sins cannot enter, but you can, through faith in the One who purchased this home for you: Jesus Christ, the obedient One. He is the One who will take us there. He prepared that place as he took away our sin on Calvary. He will return to take us there some day. And for that day we, God’s family, pray, Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly! Amen!
The Fifth Commandment
September 5, 2010
“You shall not murder.” Exodus 20:13
Thou shalt not kill.
What does this mean?
We should fear and love God that we may not hurt nor harm our neighbor in his body, but help and befriend him in every bodily need.
Human life is valuable because God himself places value on it. It is not valuable because human beings place value on it. If my neighbor does not value my life, my life is no less valuable. Some think that people of a different race, social standing, language, or culture are not as valuable as they are. But the God who created us is the one who decides our value. With all the talk these days about “values” the first question we should ask when we hear that familiar word is “whose values?” God’s values? Or the values of a godless culture?
There was a time in our country when the civil law reflected God’s value of human life. And the law is a teacher. Even when the law cannot be enforced, it stands as a teacher of what is right and wrong. That is, if the law is in agreement with what is right and what is wrong. The damage done by abortion on demand laws in America has been even deeper than the slaughter of millions of unborn children. The killing of those babies has had the full sanction of the law. Indeed, the Supreme Court of the United States presumes to forbid any state from passing laws to protect the unborn. Legal abortion has killed more than babies. It has killed America’s soul. A nation that will not protect its weakest members from such criminal destruction doesn’t deserve to survive as a nation.
You shall not murder. You shall not murder because God made us in his image and to murder a human being is therefore a direct attack on our Creator. Murder is a denial of the First Commandment in which God says, “I am the LORD your God, you shall have no other gods before me.” Legal abortion reflects America’s rejection of the Christian faith. America has rejected the God of the living, the God who created us in his own image, the God of the prophets and apostles, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Legal abortion is a direct attack on the Christian faith and the Christian Church. Don’t be misled by double-talking politicians and hypocritical religious leaders who with a pious air mouth their “personal” opposition to abortion while insisting that a woman has the “right to choose”. No woman has the right to kill the fruit of her womb. The only rights we have are those rights given to us by God, and God never gave a woman the right to kill her baby. God says in Deuteronomy 32:39,
Now see that I, even I, am He, and there is no god besides Me. I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal. Nor is there any that can deliver from my hand.
Yes, the law of the state is a teacher and this teacher is a false teacher. Every Christian must oppose legal abortion. Not that this makes one a Christian. Orthodox Jews, Muslims, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses are not Christians, yet they all oppose abortion. Even a religion invented by men will oppose abortion as long as those men have a conscience. But no Christian may favor the right of anyone to kill an unborn baby who is no threat to anyone.
We are not animals. Jesus Christ, our God and our brother, did not become an animal when he came into this world sharing our flesh and blood. He became a man. And he redeemed men, women, and children by his holy life and innocent death. Those who favor the so-called “right” to kill those made in God’s image display to the whole world that they have fallen away from the teaching of Christ.
Jesus commanded his disciples to let the little ones come to him. Jesus invites them into his holy church by means of the washing of Holy Baptism. What a crime that these little ones should be slaughtered in the name of freedom. It is not freedom that permits the killing of the living but unborn. It is slavery to the culture of death.
But it is easy to love the unborn baby of someone we have never met and for whom we will never bear any responsibility. And it is easy to stand in judgment against the sins that we don’t commit. If only the law always pointed its figure at the other guy! But this law against murder accuses, indicts, tries, and condemns us all. It requires that we love our enemies. It requires that we earnestly seek out what is good for the one who is out to hurt us. The Fifth Commandment does not apply only to those whose violence needs to be checked by external restraints. It applies to us who keep our hatred well hidden from view and harbor evil against our neighbor within. It applies to us who don’t really care what happens to our neighbor as long as it doesn’t affect us.
Love does no harm to the neighbor. That’s what the Apostle writes in Romans 13. This sums up the law. We do no harm. We help the fellow who needs our help. We help him without asking for payment, reward, praise, or anything in return. We help because this is what we would want him to do for us. In everything, we ask what we would want our neighbor to do for us. This is what we do for him. It has been called the Golden Rule. It is really nothing else than the second table of God’s law: Love your neighbor as yourself.
Slapping, hitting, punching, shoving, threatening, bullying, and saying words designed to evoke fear in another are all sins against the Fifth Commandment. Sometimes fathers hide behind their authority under the Fourth Commandment to break the Fifth Commandment. Sometimes men think they can abuse their wives with impunity, as if their apologies can undo the harm they’ve done. Sometimes drug or alcohol abuse leads to violent behavior. Cursing, yelling, screaming, and destroying property in an angry rage will often lead to physical violence. All of this is forbidden by the Fifth Commandment.
The Fifth Commandment forbids private revenge. Listen to the words of St. Paul.
Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceable with all men. Beloved do no avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, Vengeance is Mine, I will repay, says the Lord. Therefore if your enemy hungers, feed him; if he thirsts, give him a drink, for in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:17-21)
God forbids private revenge. He has given the government the authority to punish those who do wrong as St. Paul says clearly in Romans chapter 13. The government carries the sword as God’s servant to punish those who commit crimes. So we entrust justice to the governing authorities because God forbids private revenge.
The government also has the right to inflict the death penalty. This has always been the case, from the very beginning. Many hundreds of years before God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses he gave human government the authority to put murderers to death. He spoke these words to Noah.
Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed; for in the image of God he made man. (Genesis 9:6)
The death penalty, when applied rightly by the government to those who are guilty of murder, is based on respect for the value of human life. Since we are made in God’s image, our lives cannot be taken away from us. Those who kill another must pay for the crime with their own lives.
The old King James Version of the Bible renders the Fifth Commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” Most recent translations render it, “You shall not murder.” The word for “kill” here means murder. It doesn’t mean killing animals. It doesn’t refer to the legal killing of someone in self-defense, in a just war, or as an agent of the government when the government is taking a life in a lawful manner. There are many social and political issues involved in the Fifth Commandment that we could discuss at length: What is a just war? When should we fight to defend ourselves and when should we not? When is the death penalty the wrong penalty? The Bible isn’t written to be an answer book for every legal and political and social issue.
The Word of God was written primarily that we might come to know and trust the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ. He faced death. He faced the death penalty. He faced it though he was innocent. But he faced it because he chose to. He chose to face it for two reasons. First because he loved his Father who wanted him to die. Second because he loved us who deserved to die.
The Father wanted him to die because in this way he would remove from us our death. The soul that sins, it shall die. We sinned. We faced death. There was no way around it. We had to die. The law had spoken and the law is divine, and cannot be set aside. So the Father wanted his dearly beloved Son to die in our place, as our substitute. But he did not force him to do so against his will. He did not demand anything from his Son that his Son was unwilling to give. Rather, in a mysterious and wonderful manner, the Father’s love and the Son’s love, the Father’s purpose and the Son’s purpose, the Father’s will and the Son’s will, blended perfectly from all eternity into the choice, God’s choice, God’s freedom of choice, for us, for life, forever.
What a wonder! The world cannot understand it. The various religions of the world are scandalized by it. The self-righteous heart despises it. But the soul that is burdened by sins and guilt adores it, kneels before it, and takes it all in. I am talking about the time and the place when Jesus Christ was killed. Man killed him. God killed him. But while mankind killed him in hatred and from a murderous heart, God killed him out of a love so deep that it had to plunge right into the very depths of our sin to destroy our sin at its root. God was killed. The God who cannot die died. The God who cannot suffer suffered. The God who cannot sin bore all sin and he bore it in the only way possible, as the offering for sin.
Modern theology hates this holy truth, but old-fashioned sinners who know their need for forgiveness love it. The truth is that there can be only one solution for our sins and that is the crucifixion of the Son of God. It is the solution. His death has destroyed our death.
So we go to him and bow our heads before him. We kneel at his altar, confessing that we have not loved our neighbor, that our hearts are stained with the same sin as that which has so soiled and callused the conscience of our nation. But we come in humble faith that God will not let this sin destroy our souls. He will give us to eat and to drink the body and blood of the crucified and risen Lord Jesus that has secured for us life in the face of death and forgiveness of all our sins. We come to receive life. And God gives us life. He gives us eternal life. Amen.
The Sixth Commandment
September 12, 2010
“You shall not commit adultery.” Exodus 20:14
Thou shalt not commit adultery.
What does this mean?
We should fear and love God that we may lead a chaste and decent
life in word and deed, and each love and honor his spouse.
The reason it is called adultery is because it adulterates something that is pure. Marriage is pure because God is pure and God made marriage. If we evolved from the animals, then marriage must have evolved, too. In that case, marriage would not be an institution of God. It isn’t surprising to see that when people are taught that they descended from animals they should act like animals, especially when it comes to sexual behavior. There is nothing wrong with a tomcat acting like a tomcat. He isn’t made in God’s image, after all, and is not capable of sin. We don’t insist that cats or dogs or rabbits get married or remain faithful to their mates. They are animals.
But we are not. We are made in the image of God. The Sixth Commandment applies to us. “You shall not commit adultery.”
God gave the Sixth Commandment for the purpose of defending, supporting, and encouraging marriage. Marriage is a life-long union of one man and one woman. The two shall become one flesh, God said. Jesus gave strict instructions against divorce precisely because it is God who joins the husband and the wife together to make them one flesh. The reason adultery is grounds for divorce is not because it causes pain and suffering (which it does), but because it breaks the bond that God himself established. While marriage is a legal contract that obligates each party of the contract, it isn’t like buying a car that you might want to test drive beforehand and then sell when it no longer pleases you. God marries the woman to the man and the man to the woman and God thereby makes something that did not exist before.
Marriage is not a sacrament. A sacrament is a sacred act, instituted by God, given to Christ’s church here on earth, through which God gives us his grace and eternal life. You will search in vain through the New Testament to see where Jesus gave to his church the authority to marry people.
Furthermore, while marriage certainly requires God’s grace, it doesn’t give it. Marriage is one of those blessings for which we pray when we pray for our daily bread. Included under this petition, the Catechism lists “a pious spouse.” I have officiated at dozens of weddings over the years, but the Church did not give me the authority to do so. The state did.
The government has the duty to regulate marriage. Now obviously, no government can change a divine institution. Just as the church has no authority to change the elements of the Lord’s Supper and still retain the Lord’s Supper, likewise the state had no right to say, for example, that a man can marry a man or a woman can marry a woman. If the state said so, it wouldn’t make it so. It’s like when churches presume to put women in the pulpit to preach. That doesn’t make them pastors, because God instituted the office of the ministry and he excludes women from this office.
The institution of God determines what it is. Whether we are talking about an institution within the church, like the sacraments or the ministry, or an institution within the state, like marriage, if it is a divine institution it is God who determines what it is, how it is to be used, and what benefits it gives. God determines this. We don’t. If we could learn that simple lesson, life would be so much easier and happier.
God has determined when and where sexual relations are to be enjoyed: only within the marriage bond. Whether or not the couple is “in love” is beside the point. The Bible doesn’t tell a man to marry the woman he loves. It tells him to love the woman he has married.
God doesn’t command romantic love. He doesn’t demand that husbands and wives feel tingly inside when they look at each other. The love that God commands is set forth clearly in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians where he tells husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the Church and gave himself for her. It is an unconditional, self-sacrificing love. This is a love that does. It doesn’t just feel. It is a love that puts the needs of the beloved above any other consideration.
The love celebrated in countless love songs is different. We call it romantic love. It is unreasonable. It is blind. It brings euphoric joy with no rhyme or reason to it. It is the most irrational of all human emotions, though it parades itself as “true” and “faithful”. In fact it is as transient as the grass of the field. It is here one day and it is gone the next.
And it’s not something that you can command anyone to have or do. You either have it or you don’t. Mom says to her daughter, “Why don’t you go out with so and so, he’s from a very nice family.” But her daughter simply has no interest in so and so. There’s no spark at all. That spark or romance is often called “love” and this is what confuses so many people, including Christians. They think that this kind of love is what will make their marriage a success. But this kind of love is not and cannot be the foundation for a happy marriage. This kind of love asks what the lover can give me. That is the wrong question. Christian love, the love commanded in God’s Word, asks what I can give for the one I love. That is the right question.
Willful and stubborn people presume to change God’s definition of love. They want love to serve them. God defines love to serve the neighbor, not the self. The popular view of love defines love precisely in the opposite way. We want what we want when we want it and so we will rebel against anyone who says no to us. That, of course, is idolatry, because God alone is the One to whom we must never say no. The new morality or the old immorality rejects the authority of God. The disciples of this religion see something and they want it so they take it. They deny the obvious fact that they are simply using someone else to pleasure themselves. They cover up their selfishness by redefining it as a meaningful relationship.
But it is meaningless. When the pleasure is gone there is nothing to show for it but a vague sense of bitterness that it is gone. Those addicted to the sins of the flesh are constantly looking for what they cannot have.
God knew what he was doing when he joined the intimacy of marriage to the conceiving and bearing of children. Marriage is the foundation for the family and the family is the foundation for all civil authority, peace, and wellbeing. God knew what he was doing when he invented marriage for us. He gave us something uniquely beautiful. In fact, only a Christian who has been ushered into the holy mysteries of the faith by the Holy Ghost can really understand the full beauty of marriage.
Christ Jesus gave his life for his church. She was homely – ugly, in fact – and a faithless woman without any virtue at all. But his love covered all of her sin. Not just emotionally, not just somewhere in the hidden recesses of his heart, but openly, there in public, before the whole world. There as he was extended up for public shame and ridicule as a criminal nailed to the cross, there it was that he bore his bride’s shame, guilt, and sin, taking it away. There it was that he gave his life for his church.
In Holy Baptism he sprinkled his holy, precious blood upon her to wash away her sin. He who gave himself for her now gives himself to her. There in that washing, the Church, the bride of Christ, is born. She is born anew, and she is so very beautiful. She has no sin. Her unfaithfulness is forgotten. Her ugliness is no more, replaced by a beauty that far transcends the beauty of the most beautiful women in the world.
He cherishes her and serves her in love. She submits to him by trusting him implicitly and completely. She trusts in the One who gave her her identity. She receives the One who gave her his name. She is the Holy Christian Church! She is the bride of Christ! She lives to serve him who gave his life for her and to her.
This beautiful mystery is the pattern that God has established for the Christian marriage. Can you imagine Jesus divorcing his wife that he purchased with his own blood? Impossible! Can you imagine the Church leaving Jesus for another man? Impossible! No, this union of Christ with the Church he loves is the union that now sanctifies every single Christian in the world. And it most surely sanctifies our marriages.
Christian wives: Your husband will not love you as Jesus does, but you submit to him because you have Jesus and it is for Jesus’ sake that you receive your husband as your head. He may not deserve it, but Christ surely does. Christian husbands: Your wife will not be in your eyes nearly so precious as she is in God’s eyes, so you must see her as God sees her. She is holy and blameless.
Only one thing will make us what we must be. That is the gospel of the forgiveness of sins. This is why we treasure it so. It tells us that our sins are forgiven because Jesus bore them. It empowers us to forgive one another. And that is power, dear friends in Christ. That is real power. To forgive your spouse is to claim him or her for yourself, just as Jesus has done for us. It is a power that you have only when you have first received it from God. God gives us forgiveness in his gospel and sacraments. We receive this forgiveness through faith and through faith alone. We can give this forgiveness to one another in our homes where we so sorely need it. Amen.
The Seventh Commandment
September 19, 2010
“You shall not steal.” Exodus 20:15
Thou shalt not steal.
What does this mean?
We should fear and love God that we may not take our neighbor’s money or goods, nor get them by false ware or dealing, but help him to improve and protect his property and business.
God owns everything. He says through the psalmist, “For every beast of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the mountains, and the wild beasts of the field are mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell you; for the world is mine, and all its fullness.” (Psalm 50:10-12) We will not understand what the Seventh Commandment means until we know that everything we have and everything our neighbor has belongs to God.
God teaches the sanctity of private property by giving us this commandment. If there were no such thing as private property there would be no such thing as stealing. You can hardly steal from your neighbor what doesn’t belong to him. But private property is not absolute. Everything we have is God’s. In the beginning, God blessed Adam and Eve and gave them dominion over the creation. It is under our care. We are stewards of what actually belongs to God.
The Seventh Commandment teaches us certain virtues, such as contentment, industry, generosity, and hospitality. It teaches contentment. “But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain that we can carry nothing out. And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content.” (1 Timothy 6:6-8) It teaches industry, or the willingness to work to get what we want. “If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat.” (2 Thessalonians 3:10) It teaches generosity. We are not merely to pay what we owe and meet our legal obligations, but we are to give more than legally required. Jesus says, “Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be put into your bosom.” (Luke 6:38) It teaches hospitality. In Hebrews 13:2 we read, “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some have unwittingly entertained angels.”
Above all, the Seventh Commandment requires us to love our neighbor. To gain materially at the expense of our neighbor is to steal from him. But why would we want to take advantage of our neighbor, to gain at his loss, to benefit at his expense? Because we don’t love our neighbor as ourselves. Because we love what our neighbor has more than we love the One who gave it to him, that is, we love the creation more than the Creator. That is idolatry. St. Paul says that a greedy person is an idolater.
The Seventh Commandment is the foundation for any number of laws that the State enforces. God has established the civil authorities to protect life and property. The details of what these laws should be aren’t set down in the Bible, but when the government arrests, prosecutes, convicts, and punishes thieves it does God’s work. Property represents time and labor. To steal someone’s property is to rob him of part of his life.
The Bible teaches that the rich should help the poor. The Seventh Commandment requires charity, almsgiving, and hospitality toward those who are less fortunate. When St. James argues that faith without works is dead, he points specifically to providing food and clothing for the poor as the kind of works that true Christian faith produces. The government can help or hurt the poor, depending on the laws it passes and enforces. When Jesus told Pontius Pilate that his kingdom was not of this world, it serves also as a warning to us not to identify Jesus and his Church with any government or political party or philosophy. The Bible doesn’t set down for us a blue print on what kind of government programs we ought to have or not have.
The Bible defends private property and the Bible warns against the rich oppressing and mistreating the poor. Nowhere does the Bible give any government the authority to take from the rich by force and redistribute their money to the poor. The notion that we can create a society that takes from each according to his ability and gives to each according to his need is an anti-Christian delusion. It denies the doctrine of sin. It claims that evil is in the social arrangements when we know that the evil is in the human heart. Marxism was the creed of the greatest thieves of the twentieth century – the Communists – who, in the name of helping the poor, stole everything they wanted in the nations they destroyed, impoverishing everyone in the process. The countries of the former Soviet Union have not yet recovered from the economic ruin handed to them by a government that fought tooth and nail against the Seventh Commandment for most of the Twentieth Century. Perhaps one can imagine, as the singer sang, “All the people sharing all the world,” but this will not happen, and so we must continue to support and defend the Seventh Commandment. This is the best way to protect the poor.
Do we respect the property of our neighbor? Do we want to help him improve his financial wellbeing? There is no commandment in the Bible to forbid gambling, but one wonders how someone can gamble while sincerely wanting the financial welfare of his neighbor. People defend gambling by saying that operating a business or farming is also a gamble. After all, you don’t know how you will do. But the problem with gambling is not ignorance of the future. It is that one person gains materially only when another person loses materially. That is the essence of gambling, but that’s not the way an honest business or farm operates. An honest business offers a fair exchange in which both the buyer and the seller can benefit. Gambling requires a loser. It appeals to greed, laziness, covetousness, and every other vice that is condemned by the Seventh Commandment. Just because no one is forced to participate doesn’t make it less of a vice.
The root sin of all sins is idolatry. All sins are false worship. All sins flow from a failure to fear, love, and trust in God above all things. In fact, all sins are merely reflections of this failure. The Seventh Commandment in particular forbids idolatry. God’s law protects private property. Why? Because God is the giver of all material goods. The One who made this world and all that is in it is the One who says that you must not take from your neighbor what belongs to him and your neighbor must not take from you what belongs to you. Since God is really the One who owns everything, every theft is stealing from God. To offer shoddy merchandise in exchange for good money is to rob God. To work hard only when the employer is watching is to cheat God. To hoard money and not give an offering to support the preaching of the gospel is to rob God’s temple and to defraud God and misuse his name. To pay folks a poor wage just because they have no choice but to accept it is to exploit God. To take and not give is to deny the very nature of God who gives every good and perfect gift.
God gives. As God gives we learn to know him. At the heart of the Christian faith is the doctrine of the vicarious atonement. This is the teaching that Jesus Christ has purchased us with his blood and set us free from our sins. This is how Luther expressed this truth in his Small Catechism:
I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with his holy precious blood and his innocent suffering and death, that I may be his own . . .
We come to know God as God purchases us. He pays the price for our lives and takes possession of what he has purchased. Jesus bought us. The price of the purchase was life. Yet none of us could pay the price because we didn’t have it. Indeed, we were dead and had no life or truth or hope or future. Jesus bought us. His life was paid. To whom? To God himself. Jesus offered his life to God as the all-sufficient payment to set free from sin and death every single sinner who has ever lived.
This is an exchange. Jesus’ life is offered for ours. God accepts the offering. The exchange takes place. God now looks at us through the offering of Jesus. He sees us as forgiven of all our sins and covered with the righteousness of Christ. There is only one way to know God. That is through Christ. But not just through the person of Christ, but through his work. That is, through the redemption, the payment, the purchase. You cannot know God except through Jesus and you cannot know Jesus except in his suffering for you because there it is that he is redeeming you to be his very own.
When you know God through the payment of Christ’s holy life, then you discover something. You gain knowledge more precious than anything money can buy. You discover what is valuable and why. The stuff we have has no more value than the daily newspaper. It will be lost or stolen or it will break or just wear out. But Christ’s payment of his life on the Altar of the cross to the penal justice of God is a payment more precious than all the money in the world. And this payment now has been offered up to God and it has been received. So we now have the value that Christ’s life has placed upon us.
In a free market economy, any piece of property or merchandize has the value that folks are willing to pay for it. Your house is worth a hundred thousand dollars when somebody is willing to pay a hundred thousand dollars for it. So what are our lives worth? And what about the lives of our neighbors? Look at what Jesus paid for them.
Listen to the words of Jesus.
Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? (Mark 8:34-37)
There is nothing a man owns that will pay for his own soul. His life is too dear. He cannot purchase his own life. If he tries he can only fail. If he tries to save himself he will be lost. No one can purchase his own life. But God can. God has. This is a very real transaction. God required payment. Only God could make payment, but man owed it. So God the Son became a man in order to offer his own life for all of mankind. He offered it to God. And that offering did in fact purchase us.
So we are bought and paid for. We belong to the one who bought us. This defines our life. This also determines for us our value. Now that we have the value placed on us by nothing less than the holy life and innocent death of Jesus, we can understand the relative value of everything we own. We are valuable, not because of the things we own or the works we do. We are valuable because of the price that Jesus has paid for us. Jesus asked the question, “Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?” (Matthew 6:25) In Jesus we find our true worth. No one can take it away from us even if we lose everything we own in the world.
We won’t bow down and worship the dying creation, rather we will look to our Creator and we will see him pouring out his life-blood on the cross as our dear brother. Not only does he own us – we own him. Owning him, we own the world and have all the treasures of heaven. Amen.
The Eighth Commandment
September 26, 2010
“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”
Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
What does this mean?
We should fear and love God that we may not belie, betray, slander, nor defame our neighbor, but defend him, speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.
As with every one of the Ten Commandments, the Eighth Commandment was given to the ancient people of Israel as civil law. It forbids such civil offenses as slander, liable, defamation of character, and so forth. To bear false witness is wrong because we should tell only the truth. It is wrong because it does harm to our neighbor.
St. Paul summed up for us the requirements of the Second Table of God’s law in these words recorded in Romans 13:8-10.
Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not bear false witness, you shall not covet, and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
The Eighth Commandment does not simply forbid us to lie. It forbids us to hurt our neighbor by what we say. It teaches us that we may not speak about our neighbor in such a way as to damage his reputation. The law of love requires this of us. The commandments show us how to love one another. Since we are so centered in our own wants and needs and cares that we forget what is helpful to our neighbor, we don’t know how to love one another as we should. This is why God gave us these commandments. They tell us what love requires. Love protects our neighbor from harm. Love protects our neighbor’s family, so God gave us the Fourth Commandment:
“Honor thy father and thy mother.” Love protects our neighbor’s physical wellbeing, so God gave us the Fifth Commandment: “Thou shalt not kill.” Love protects our neighbor’s marriage, so God gave us the Sixth Commandment: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” Love protects our neighbor’s property, so God gave us the Seventh Commandment: “Thou shalt not steal.” Love protects our neighbor’s reputation, so God gave us the Eighth Commandment: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” The commandments require us to love our neighbor, not as we choose to love him, but as God chooses for us to love him. We must regard our neighbor’s honor as just as valuable as our own. We must seek to protect it with the same fervor and commitment to the task that we would devote to our own good name. This is what the law of love requires of us.
To do what is good is to do what benefits the neighbor. Those who believe that they can justify themselves do good works for their own benefit. Those who believe that God justifies unworthy sinners entirely by his grace for Christ’s sake do their good works for the benefit of their neighbor. They do not do good works to help themselves. As we sing: “Good works cannot avert our doom, they help and save us never.”
The Pharisee in the Temple believed that he was righteous on account of his own virtue. He did what he did for himself. He did not extort money, he did not cheat, and he did not commit adultery. But this was not because he loved his neighbor, rather this was because he loved himself and thought that by avoiding these sins he would gain some kind of benefit or merit. He was working for his own merit. That’s why he did good works. But he despised his neighbor. He did not love him. So he had not yet begun to obey any commandment of God. God’s commandments require us to love our neighbor. As St. Paul reminds us, “love is the fulfillment of the law.”
The Eighth Commandment requires truthfulness, sincerity, steadfastness, discretion, gentleness, and the ability to keep quiet. The truth is what will help our neighbor. Sincerity in our speech, and not double talk, will benefit our neighbor. Steadfastness makes it possible for our neighbor to depend on us when we make a promise. Discretion, or humility in the way we talk about ourselves, will help our neighbor know what we really can and cannot do for him. Gentleness in how we say painfully true things about our neighbor will help him accept criticism as an act of kindness. The ability to be quiet and keep a secret is necessary if we are ever to come into possession of information that could hurt our neighbor if it became widely known. Every virtue is a virtue because it is for the love of our neighbor.
There is probably no place in the New Testament that so clearly teaches our duty under the Eighth Commandment than that portion of Matthew 18 that is often cited as the basis for church discipline. It was written primarily to teach us how to show mercy to our neighbor by protecting his good name. Here is what Jesus said.
Moreover, if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear you, take with you one or two more, that “by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.” And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector. Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. (Matthew 18:15-18)
If your brother sins against you, you should go to him and confront him alone, just between the two of you. Why? Why not tell someone else about it? Why not take it to somebody who can help you get justice, someone who can right the wrong for you? Because you love your neighbor, that is why. Because you care about the reputation of the one who has done you wrong, and you would rather protect his reputation than to obtain justice for yourself. Our Lord spoke this famous portion of Matthew 18 after he told the story about the lost sheep and right before he told Peter to forgive his brother seventy times seven times. The purpose of these words are not primarily to set down instructions on how to excommunicate somebody from the Christian congregation, but to show us Christians how we may protect our neighbor’s good name. His reputation is precious, even when he deserves to have it sullied. We have no business giving him what he deserves unless we want God to give us what we deserve.
We bad-mouth our neighbors because we don’t want mercy for them, at least not from us. We harbor evil thoughts about them and explain what they do in the most damaging way. We assume they meant us harm, and so we interpret their actions to make them look bad. Then we share our judgments with others to see if they won’t agree with us. And so we talk trash against those whom God tells us to bless.
Yes, we do. The Bible says, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him.” (Leviticus 19:17) But we hate our brother and refuse to rebuke him because we haven’t the courage to face him with his sin. So we hate him instead. And then we express that hatred by repeating to others the wrong he did. And so we bring our neighbor into disgrace in the eyes of others when we could have gone to him privately to seek peace and reconciliation. But that would have required us to give up our hatred of him and that we don’t want to do. We all had better listen to the warning of St. John, the Apostle, “Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” (1 John 3:15)
We say we don’t hate. We say it, but if we let God define hatred for us, our words show us to be liars. God wants us to help our neighbor retain his good name, but we choose to repeat the very stories that would hurt our neighbor’s good name. That’s hate. Hate isn’t feeling. It is doing. Just as love isn’t just a feeling. It is action. And this is where we have failed to be and to act as God’s law demands. No other commandment is so openly and cheerfully defied among Christians than this one. It is as if we who hold God’s truth to be so precious may with impunity turn around and treat the truth about our neighbor with contempt.
“God be merciful to me, a sinner!” That’s what the tax collector prayed, and that man went home justified. God himself declared that sinner to be righteous. His plea for mercy met the willing heart of a gracious God to absolve him entirely, to set him free, and to pronounce him righteous. He pleaded for forgiveness and received it. God gives us this forgiveness for the sake of Christ’s suffering. Jesus bore the wrath of God against all liars and cheats and slanderers. Jesus bore the anger of God against every offense committed by you and me and against you and me. He did this to take away our guilt and our shame. He does this by actually taking away our sins. He bears them, and so they are gone. They cannot hurt us. They cannot ever accuse us. They are forgiven, as surely as Jesus bore them, our sins are forgiven. We are saints.
And this is because of God’s mercy. It was a mercy none of us deserved. We deserved shame. We lay before the whole world helpless in the sin of our own doing. The doctrine of original sin is not that it’s all Adam’s fault and we get blamed for what he did. It is that we are all complicit in Adam’s disobedience. We were there with him approving of his sin and doing it with relish. We are guilty with Adam and Eve. Every time we show unconcern about our neighbor’s good name we say “amen” to Adam’s decision to eat the fruit that God said he should not eat. So we do not deserve God’s mercy.
But we most certainly have received God’s mercy. Not only did God place all our sin upon Jesus so that he bore it and removed it, God has also placed the forgiveness of sins in the gospel that we hear, the baptism with which we have been washed, and the Supper of Christ’s body and blood given to us to eat and to drink. God has made these precious means of grace to be for us his pure and boundless and unfailing mercy. We know we have done wrong, and here in the gospel and the sacraments of Christ God tells us that he has set that wrong aside and we need not worry about it, fret over it, or even think about it because he has taken that wrong away.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, this is precisely what the Eighth Commandment tells us to do for one another. It calls for mercy, mercy we have already received. It tells us that just as God no longer accuses us, so we must stop accusing one another. Just as God speaks words of kindness to us, so we should speak words of kindness to one another. Just as Jesus pleads for our good name before his Father in heaven by appealing to his intervention for us and his obedience offered in the place of our sin, so we lay our neighbor’s sins where Jesus invites us to lay our own: on Jesus who takes them away. He did. So they have no place in our hearts, or our words. The sins of our brothers and sisters are forgiven, even as our sins are gone, blotted out by the blood of the Lamb. And so we don’t talk about them any more. God won’t, so neither will we. Amen
The Ninth and Tenth Commandments
October 3, 2010
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s. Exodus 20:17
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house.
What does this mean?
We should fear and love God that we may not craftily seek to get our neighbor’s inheritance or house, nor obtain it by a show of right, but help and be of service to him in keeping it.
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his cattle, nor anything that is thy neighbor’s.
What does this mean?
We should fear and love God that we may not estrange, force, or entice away from our neighbor his wife, servants, or cattle, but urge them to stay and do their duty.
The reason people think that they can work their way to heaven is that they don’t know what a good work is. They define a good work according to the work. The Bible defines a good work according to the one doing it. Jesus stated it this way: “Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.” (Matthew 7:17-18) If you are good, you do what is good. If you are bad, you do what is bad. You do what you do because of what you are. Before anyone can do what is good he must first become good. Only then will what he does be good.
Now this is not at all how most people think. Most people are works-righteous, that is, they believe that they become good by their works. Since this is their faith, their faith is centered in themselves. After all, they are the ones who will be making themselves good by doing good things. On the other hand, those who believe the teaching of Jesus believe that Jesus alone makes them good and he does this without any help from them. Since this is the Christian’s faith, the Christian’s faith is centered in Jesus. After all, Jesus is the only One who can make us good, and he does this by doing good things for us.
Many people think that they are Christians when they are not. A Christian is not someone who is trusting in his good deeds. If you are trusting in what you are doing to make you good enough for God, you are not trusting in Jesus.
The Ten Commandments tell us what a good work is. The Ten Commandments don’t tell us how to make ourselves good. You would be good if you obeyed all of the Ten Commandments. There’s no question about that. No other law has ever been written that so perfectly describes the righteous person than this law engraved on stone tablets by the finger of God. No merely human law can compare. This law is summarized in two great commandments: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” A good person loves. He loves God with his whole heart, soul, and mind and he loves his neighbor as himself.
The Ten Commandments certainly do tell us what a good work is and we certainly would be good if we obeyed the Ten Commandments. But to those who think that they have done so, God insists that we listen to the demands of the last two commandments, and not merely to listen, but to hear them, that is, to take them in and consider seriously what these commandments actually require of us. You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor. You shall not covet his house, his life, his home, his friends, his family, his husband or wife, his job, his land or animals, or anything else. You shall rather desire that he keep what is rightfully his and increase in prosperity and happiness. You shall do this, or you do not love your neighbor, and you have not obeyed God.
It is not enough to obey God’s commandments outwardly. The Ninth and Tenth Commandments drive home the fact that you must want to do what is best for your neighbor. It is not enough that you don’t defraud him, rob him, or hurt him in any way. You must sincerely want what is right or you have done wrong.
Hatred is murder. Lust is adultery. Thinking evil about your neighbor is to bear false witness in your heart. The desire to sin is sin. You need forgiveness, not only for the outward acts that the world sees you do, but for the inward desires that are known only to God.
You say you have obeyed God and done what is good. But God’s Law says back to you: What have you desired? What have you wanted? What have you thought? This shows you what is really inside of you. As Jesus said, “For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. These are the things which defile a man.” (Matthew 15:19-20) The Ten Commandments do not just tell you how to behave. They tell you what you must want. You must want to do what is best for your neighbor. You must sincerely desire his well being just as much as you desire your own. If you do not, you have not obeyed the Ten Commandments. You say you have obeyed some of God’s commandments? St James writes, “For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all.” (James 2:10).
Listen to the words of the great hymn by Paul Speratus, “Salvation Unto Us Is Come.”
What God doth in His law demand
No man to him could render.
Before this Judge all guilty stand;
His law speaks curse in thunder.
The law demands a perfect heart;
We were defiled in every part,
And lost was our condition.
It was a false, misleading dream
That God His law had given,
That sinners could themselves redeem
And by their works gain heaven.
The law is but a mirror bright
To bring the inbred sin to light
That lurks within our nature.
I don’t want to look into that mirror and see how ugly I am. So I set aside the law that accuses me, ignore it, and go my way. But I cannot silence the law. It follows me wherever I go and it won’t stop accusing me because that is what God wants it to do: accuse! Listen to how St. Paul described it. “I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, ‘You shall not covet.’” (Romans 7:7) The law accuses. And he accuses rightly because he is holy, pure, and perfectly fair. You should not have coveted what was intended for your neighbor’s benefit, as if what you wanted was more important than what your neighbor wanted. You should have wanted what was good for your neighbor as much as you wanted what was good for you. But you did not. So the law stands against you.
And the law leaves us helpless on the side of the road, beaten, stripped of any dignity, dirty, bruised, and half-dead. There we are. The law sees us there and in implacable judgment walks on by. He walks on by without a single word of encouragement or help. All he can do is accuse, for that is his nature, to accuse. He is the law, after all, and the law is pure and holy and right, and we are impure, sinful, and wrong.
And then there comes to us the Good Samaritan. The One despised and rejected by men. He sees us in our helpless condition and he doesn’t walk by on the other side of the road. He rather comes to us, and has compassion on us. He sees us mired in our own sin, and he lifts us out of the filth we ourselves created. He bears us up on his donkey, and carries us to the Inn. He does for us what we wouldn’t do for our neighbor. And he does it purely out of his infinite love for us. He obeys where we disobeyed. He loves where we hated. He offers his obedience to God in the place of our disobedience. He willingly bears the punishment for all of our sin. The law had no claim on him. He was the good man. He had no use at all for a law. The law is designed for sinners. It could teach Jesus nothing. Jesus did by nature what was only good and right and pure. The law is for those who are born in sin and who desire what is sin and who cannot make themselves into anything other than sinners. The righteous man, Jesus, obeyed that law in the place of us sinners. He met all of its demands, and now he gives to us the credit for what he did.
In holy baptism, Jesus covers us with the robe of his own righteousness. He makes us good. He makes us good by giving us the credit for the good he did. Now we are good as we hold on in simple, child-like faith to the Jesus whom we have put on in holy baptism. In Jesus’ name, by Jesus’ word and authority, and for Jesus’ sake, we are good people. We are righteous people. Our righteousness is nothing less than the obedience of Jesus Christ himself.
Furthermore, we have in us the Holy Spirit, who daily fights against the lust, the greed, the covetousness, the hatred, and every other manifestation of evil inside of us. The Holy Spirit makes us holy by giving us the forgiveness of sins that Jesus has won and by changing us on the inside to love God and to love our neighbor. The Holy Spirit will not forsake us. He is our Comforter. He works through the gospel to strengthen us in our faith. When he convicts our conscience of sin, this is always for the sake of comforting us with the forgiveness of sins. In this way he keeps us trusting, not in ourselves or in our good works, but always and only in Jesus Christ and his obedience all the way to the death of the cross. Amen.
Written by Pastor Rolf Preus of First Evanger Lutheran Church in Fertile, Grace Lutheran Church in Crookston, and First American Lutheran Church in Mayville.