The Ten Commandments
The Sixth Sunday after Trinity| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| July 15, 2012| Exodus 20:1-17
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 a 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 your God, am 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. 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. 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 male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made the heavens 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. Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the LORD your God is giving you. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s.” Exodus 20:1-17
God wrote the Ten Commandments and gave them to Moses for the children of Israel. God begins by identifying himself and his people. He says, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” God did not give the Ten Commandments to the Norwegians, the Japanese, or the Germans. He did not bring these nations out of slavery in Egypt. He brought Israel out of slavery in Egypt. God gave the Ten Commandments to Israel.
First God set Israel free. Then he gave them the Ten Commandments. He made them his people by bringing them out of bondage. Then he gave them the Ten Commandments. God set Israel free through water. He drowned their enemies in the Red Sea. God set us free through water. He drowned our sins in the waters of Holy Baptism. First God sets you free. Then he tells you the kind of life you will live. God doesn’t tell you the kind of life you must live to obtain your freedom. He tells you the kind of life you will live because you are free. First God sets you free. If God does not set you free you cannot do anything to please him. You are either a slave of the devil or a child of God. You are either under the devil’s power or you have been set free by God to serve him. If God has not set you free you are not free. Before God gave Israel a single commandment, he set them free from bondage in Egypt.
God gave the Ten Commandments to Israel. They were tailor made for Israel. This is so obvious according to the Holy Scriptures, but so widely ignored by fundamentalist Christians who think they are being faithful by being obtuse. Insofar as the Ten Commandments reflect God’s natural law – the law that is revealed to the conscience and repeated in the New Testament – they apply to all people everywhere. Clearly, it has always been wrong and will always be wrong to worship idols, to misuse God’s name, to dishonor parents, to murder, to commit adultery, to steal, to lie and to covet what belongs to the neighbor. Such things were sinful before God spoke to Moses on Mt. Sinai and they will be sinful until the end of time. They reflect the law that God reveals in nature and to our own conscience.
But just as obvious, there are features of the Ten Commandments that do not reflect the natural law and are not binding on anyone today. For example, the prohibition against the use of carved images in worship and the requirement that nobody do any work on Saturday are not binding today. They do not belong to the natural law. True, we may not worship any carved image. We must worship God alone. And we still need a day of rest and a time to set aside to hear God’s word and worship him as his people. But Christians who forbid the use of statues in worship or who insist that it is a sin to work on this or that day of the week misunderstand and misapply the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments served as civil and ceremonial law for a nation that no longer exists. When Christ came, he fulfilled the whole law of God. The moral law retains its authority, but the civil and ceremonial features of the Mosaic Law have been abolished forever. While idolatry is a sin, the use of statues in worship is not. While the Church gathers together to hear the gospel, God’s word does not specify which day we do it.
The Ten Commandments do not teach us how to become righteous. They teach us how people who are already righteous are to live. They describe the righteous life. To become righteous we don’t do anything. We become righteous through faith, not just any faith, but faith in Jesus Christ who fulfilled the demands of God’s holy law by obeying it and suffering its judgment against us sinners. No one ever became righteous before God except through faith in Jesus Christ. This is the only way to become righteous because righteousness doesn’t come by way of the law. Rather, the law shows us our sins. Those who think they can become righteous by obeying the law don’t know the first thing about the law.
The First Commandment sets the foundation for the rest of the commandments. “You shall have no other gods before Me.” Idolatry is the fundamental sin. Every sin flows from it. To have the LORD alone as your God means that you fear, love, and trust in him above all things. You love him with your whole heart, soul, strength, and mind. This is expressed in obedience to the commandments.
“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.” The word “L-O-R-D” (in all capital letters) is the English word used to translate the Hebrew word JHWH, which was the personal name for God in the Old Testament. Since the Second Commandment forbade the misuse of the name JHWH, God’s Old Testament people did not use the name JHWH. Instead, they used the generic word “Lord” whenever they wanted to refer to their God. This is how the word LORD became the personal name for God when it is really a title and not a name. The name JHWH means the one who was, is, and is to come. It is the eternal one who has revealed himself to us graciously in his Son. God’s name is whatever truly describes him. To take God’s name in vain is to misrepresent who he is.
“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” Jesus Christ fulfilled the Sabbath law. God rested on Saturday after creating the world in six days. He taught his Old Testament people to rest on Saturday as a confession of the true faith. Jesus came and fulfilled God’s promise of true rest and peace. He bore the burden of our sins on Friday, and rested in the grave on Saturday. He established peace where he suffered and died for us all. Rising from the dead on Sunday morning he brought peace to the world. If resting from our physical labors is a good idea – after all, we need rest if we are to retain our physical strength – spiritual rest is necessary. We find our spiritual rest only in Jesus who has borne for us the burden of sin and set us free from it. This is why we need to go to church. We need Jesus. We need to hear his gospel. His gospel gives us rest and peace. We need to receive his body and blood, given and shed for the forgiveness of sins. We need to go to church because church is where Jesus is. Where the baptized gather in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost and receive from God his gospel and sacraments is where Jesus, our true Sabbath rest, fulfills his promise: “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28) By speaking words of peace to us Jesus gives us peace with God.
The commandments teach us love for God by forbidding all forms of idolatry, teaching us to revere God’s name, and showing us where to find rest for our souls. The God who has set us free from slavery to sin, fear of death, and the tyranny of the devil, does not toss us out to fend for ourselves in this world, but blesses us with people and places and things to sweeten life in this world for us and for those around us. The commandments that pertain to loving our neighbor were not given as arbitrary rules. God established them to protect what is precious.
God commands us to honor our father and our mother. Why? Because we need human government as long as we are living in this world. The authority of father and mother in the home is the foundational authority for all human government. Children who honor their fathers and mothers grow up to honor all civil authority and to live decent and productive lives of benefit to others. Children who disobey the Fourth Commandment and dishonor their fathers and mothers end up in prison where they belong.
You shall not murder because your neighbor’s life is as valuable as yours is. God determines the value of life. The God who created us in his image redeemed us by his blood and sanctifies us by his Spirit. To rob another of life – whether it is an unborn baby or a sick and elderly person – is an assault on the Triune God who creates, redeems, and sanctifies human life. Love is as love does. Love affirms life. Hatred is murder and no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.
You shall not commit adultery because marriage is not a human convention but a lifelong union of one man and one woman that God himself established in Paradise before the fall into sin. God will defend marriage until the end of time and he will judge those who sin against it.
You shall not steal because your neighbor’s property belongs to him and not to you and you have no right to take what is not yours. Private property is not an economic construct invented by men. It is God’s clear word and will for us all. Respect your neighbor’s property even as you respect your neighbor.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor because honor is easy to steal but nearly impossible to regain after it is stolen from you. If you want a good reputation, defend the reputation of others, especially those you think you have reason to hate.
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house because God gave it to him. Just because you can get it by a show of right does not make it right. You should help your neighbor improve and protect what belongs to him and not try to get it away from him in any deceitful or dishonest way.
What are these commandments designed to teach us? How to love! We think we are experts on love. We feel. Oh, how we feel! But what we feel inside reflects sin. That shouldn’t be surprising, since we are sinners. So we don’t determine what love is by what we feel. We go by what God says. The Ten Commandments teach us how God wants us to love. God is love. He’s the expert on what love entails.
God is jealous. He is possessive. What he claims he defends. He punishes those who disobey him. He blesses those who love and obey him. Life is better for those who obey the Ten Commandments. Life is not good for those who do not. That’s what God threatens and that’s what God promises.
Do these commandments describe your life? Have you faithfully obeyed them? Have you, from the heart, done what love requires of you? Or must you confess that you, a child of God, have not behaved as the saint that God called you to be but rather as a sinner? And if you must confess, what will God say in response to your confession?
St. John writes: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:8-9) Jesus shed his blood for us, washing away our sins by his holy obedience and suffering. He forgives us all our sins committed against God’s commandments. He won that forgiveness by his bitter pain and sorrow. He gives it freely. It is ours through faith in his gospel – and through faith alone. We have in Christ the righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. We are free. The Ten Commandments serve us by describing for us what a life of freedom is. When we fall into sin we confess them to him who bore our sin on the cross, finding forgiveness in his wounds, peace in the words of his gospel, and strength to live Christian lives. Amen