The Law of God: The Ten Commandments

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The Summer issue of the RPCS ‘Good News’ magazine contains the second of three articles by Stephen on the Law of God. You can read it below. Part 1 is available here.

In the last issue we considered some objections to the fact that God’s law still applies today. We saw that there are actually different types of law in the Bible. Some of these, governing sacrifices, food and drink and daily life in the Promised Land, were never meant to be permanent. There is another set of laws, however, which apply to all people in all places in all ages. They are rooted in the character of God himself, have been in force since the creation of the world and are summarised in the Ten Commandments.

Yet even if we accept all that, it would still be possible to get the Ten Commandments wrong. Have you ever arrived late to the cinema and missed the start of a film? Sometimes it is fairly easy to pick up what’s going on, but other times it isn’t. Maybe one big event has taken place at the very beginning, and the rest of the film shows how people react to it. And if you’ve missed that vital part, you’ll not realise why people are now doing what they’re doing.

Well the introduction to the Ten Commandments (in Exodus 20:1-2) is a bit like that. If we miss it, we’ll get the Ten Commandments wrong and misunderstand what they are for.  If you’re reading a book, it often doesn’t matter if you skip the introduction or preface – but we can’t skip the introduction to the Ten Commandments, because it tells us about the God who gave them.

It has been said that the biggest problem with our society is that we’re listening to the wrong voices. There are so many voices around us telling us how we should live. But into this confusion, where everyone is doing what is right in their own eyes, God speaks.

Did you know that the Ten Commandments aren’t actually called that in the original language of the Bible? Instead, they’re called the ‘Ten Words’. Of course, they are commandments – they’re not suggestions. But calling them the ‘Ten Words’ emphasises that they come from a God who communicates with us.

Our God is a God who speaks. And that in itself is something to stop and think about. That in itself is a sign that he’s a God of grace. He doesn’t leave us in our mess and confusion. He doesn’t leave us to decide what’s right and wrong by holding a referendum. In love he calls us back to himself.

We live in a world where people are desperate to hear a message from beyond this planet. Millions of pounds a year are spent listening in hope that we will hear a message from somewhere out there. But right here in the Bible, in front of our noses, we have the words of a loving God who speaks into this broken world and tells us what his will for us is. He gives us the answers to the big questions of life. He tells us how we his creatures are to live in this world that he has given to us. The question is – are we listening?

It is also important to realise that the authority with which God speaks goes deeper than any human authority. Human authority can only tell us what to do or not do – but God’s authority extends to our thoughts and motivations.

Our justice system aims to put murderers in jail. But it’s only concerned with the act of murder – or at least the attempt. It doesn’t seek to intervene if people go through life consumed with sheer hatred for someone else. As long as they don’t say anything too hateful, and don’t try and actually murder them, they’re obeying the law.

God’s law is different. Paul says in Romans that the law is spiritual – it’s not just concerned with outward actions. Yes, when we get to Jesus’ day, the religious leaders had reduced it to outward actions – but it would be ridiculous to think that in the Old Testament, God wasn’t concerned with hate, as long as his people didn’t actually murder someone. Or that he wasn’t concerned with lust, unless people actually committed adultery. Or that his command to ‘be holy as I am holy’ was only concerned with externals.

We see that inward concern even in the Ten Commandments themselves. In his reasons for the second commandment, in vs 5&6, God talks about those who hate him and those who love him. In other words, he sums people up by their heart attitude towards him – he was never just concerned with outward obedience. In fact, the tenth commandment, about not coveting, is something that is impossible to reduce to an outward action.

No human authority can tell us not to covet. But God can and does, because he’s concerned with the heart attitude as well as the outward action.

So the first part of the introduction to the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20v1) reminds us that these ‘ten words’ were spoken to us by God himself. The second part (v2) reminds us that the Ten Commandments were given by a God who has already set us free.

The most common misconception about the Ten Commandments is that Christians are people who are trying to obey them to earn God’s favour. People think of them as a ten-rung ladder which we have to try and climb if we want to get to Heaven. This is why it is absolutely vital to remember that God begins the Ten Commandments by saying: ‘I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery’.

The Ten Commandments were first given to people who were already in a relationship with God. ‘Law’ as we think of it today is impersonal – we don’t have a personal relationship with the lawmakers. God’s law is different. 

And that relationship began before the law was given. God didn’t come to the people of Israel when they were in slavery in Egypt and say: ‘If you obey these commandments, then I’ll rescue you from slavery’. Instead, he rescued them from slavery, and then he gave them the Ten Commandments!

That changes everything. God doesn’t say ‘Obey these and I will be your God’ or ‘Obey these and I will love you’. He has already demonstrated that he loves us – the commandments simply tell us how we are to live in response.

Even as Christians, we can often end up thinking ‘If I obey, then God will love me’. ‘If I fail him, he’ll stop loving me’. But the whole Bible is shaped to stop us thinking that way. We see it even in this book of Exodus. Exodus is divided into two parts. And it’s significant that the Ten Commandments don’t come until Part Two. The first eighteen chapters of Exodus are about God’s great rescue plan to bring his people out of Egypt. And then chapters nineteen to the end are about how rescued people should live. 

We see the same pattern in the book of Ephesians. The first half is all about what God has done for us in Christ Jesus. The second half is about how we are to live in response – and includes one of the Ten Commandments quoted directly (6:1).

So God redeems us, he gives us his law – and as we’ll think about next time – he also gives us the ability and desire to keep it.