Law of God

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.

The Law of God: Introduction

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As well as an article and book review about William Symington, the latest Good News magazine also has the first in a series by Stephen on the law of God. You can read it below:

Why begin a series on the Law of God? Perhaps as soon as you see the word ‘law’, you immediately think ‘legalism’. And it brings back memories of a legalistic family background or a legalistic church experience. There may not have been out-and-out teaching that you had to obey the law to get to Heaven – but there was a focus on the outward rather than the inward. People were expected to do things which God never commanded.

For others, your objection may be more theological. After all, doesn’t the New Testament tell us that we’re not under law, but under grace? Does it not say that the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life? Should we not be more concerned with love than with rules?

And yet if we as Christians aren’t clear on God’s law, we’ll not last long in our twenty-first century world. Imagine you are talking to a friend and have just taken a stand for the biblical view of marriage as a lifelong commitment between one man and one woman. But your friend replies: ‘so if homosexuality’s wrong, is it also wrong to wear clothes with two kinds of fabric? What about eating bacon? The same book (Leviticus) that condemns homosexuality condemns those things as well. You Christians pick and choose which laws you want to keep!’ One response to that objection, which I heard from a Christian who phoned in to Stephen Nolan, was ‘that’s the Old Testament – it doesn’t apply anymore’. But that won’t do either, not least because when Jesus came he said ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law’ (Matthew 5:17). Instead, he came to ‘fulfil’ the law – and whatever ‘fulfil’ means, it doesn’t mean ‘abolish’!

One area where the whole question of the law becomes immediately relevant to us is in regards to the Fourth Commandment. Perhaps you don’t allow your child to play sport or go to parties on Sundays, but your friend, who’s also a Christian, does. And in support of their actions they quote Colossians 2:16 – ‘Let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath’.

These aren’t small matters. Jesus himself said: ‘whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 5:19). How can we avoid legalism on one side and antinomianism on the other?

Historically, the church has navigated these difficult issues by understanding the Bible as containing three different (though at times overlapping) categories of law. This ‘threefold division of the law’ distinguishes between the moral law (summarised in the Ten Commandments), the ceremonial law (regulating Israel’s sacrificial system and matters such as ceremonial cleanliness) and the civil law (specific laws to be obeyed by the nation of Israel in the Promised Land). So called ‘New Covenant Theology’ rejects this division and says we must interpret the law as a whole. Before throwing out this distinction as a human imposition however, it should give us pause for thought when we see that the roots of it go back until at least the second century AD (as Philip Ross has shown in his excellent book on the subject, From the Finger of God).

The big question however is whether the Bible distinguishes between different types of laws – and it seems clear that it does. For example, after Jesus tells the people that what goes into someone from outside can’t defile him, Mark writes in his gospel: ‘Thus he declared all foods clean’ (7:19). So the New Testament itself teaches that those Old Testament laws about clean and unclean food no longer apply to us as Christians. The book of Hebrews tells us that we no longer need priests or sacrifices, because Jesus has fulfilled them. Those laws were there to teach the people about Jesus. Once he came, there was no need to keep observing them. Therefore the ceremonial law no longer binds Christians. You can eat a bacon roll wearing a jumper of mixed fabric, giving thanks for both! And yet, while the ceremonial law is fulfilled, it’s not irrelevant – it still points us to Jesus.

The second category of laws applied to God’s people in the Promised Land. In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses himself seems to explicitly differentiate ‘his covenant…the Ten Commandments’ from ‘statutes and rules’ which were to be obeyed ‘in the land’ (4:13-14). A classic example of one of these ‘civil laws’ is the requirement that new-build houses must have a parapet on their roof to stop people falling off (22:8). That specific regulation no longer applies to builders today – but the underlying principle (a due regard for health and safety) remains binding. The civil law was simply an application of the moral law to a specific historical situation.

However the Bible presents the Ten Commandments as utterly unique. Only they are spoken audibly by God to the people, and written by him on tablets of stone (a pretty good indication they were intended to be permanent!). Only the Ten Commandments were placed in the ark of the covenant, the sacred chest which was kept in the most holy place on earth.

Another big distinction is that the ceremonial and civil laws were only given to the Jews, whereas the Ten Commandments were in operation from the beginning of Creation. They are not merely Jewish laws, as they existed centuries before there was such a thing as a Jew. Rather, they are based on who God is. And so unless God changes, the commandments won’t change. For example, when Cain killed Abel in Genesis ch 4, he still knew it was wrong, even though it was centuries before the Ten Commandments were given at Sinai. In Genesis 9, it was wrong for Ham to dishonour his Father even before the fifth commandment was written in stone. When Potiphar’s wife tried to get Joseph to sleep with her in Genesis 39, he refused because he knew that adultery was wrong. When God gave the people manna in the wilderness, he told them that there wouldn’t be any on the seventh day, because it was the Sabbath. Even though the Ten Commandments had not yet been given, he didn’t need to explain the concept of the Sabbath to them – because it was inbuilt into Creation.

In fact, the commandments are not just built into Creation, they are also inbuilt into us. Romans 2:15 says that when Gentiles, who’ve never read the Bible, do the things that the law requires, they show that the law is written on their hearts (though since the fall, only fragments of it remain within us).

This should all give us pause for thought before we reject the idea of law altogether. The Bible itself distinguishes between the types of laws it contains, making clear which are temporary and which are permanent. And while sympathetic towards those burned by legalism, the misuse of the law by some does not mean there is something inherently wrong with the law itself – rather, it is ‘holy, righteous and good’ (Romans 7:12).

It is to the use and abuse of the law that we will come next time.

Kenneth Stewart on the Fourth Commandment

On Sunday mornings we've been looking together at the Ten Commandments. We're taking two weeks to look at the fourth commandment, as it's largely ignored today, even by many within the church.

For an even more in-depth look at this commandment, we highly recommend this series of four sermons preached in Glasgow RPC by Rev. Kenneth Stewart.