PART ONE: Introductory
Revisiting the Ten Commandments: 1. Clearing the Ground
Ex 20:1,2 And God spoke all these words: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt , out of the land of slavery.
Today: A number of years ago I wrote a series on ‘The Wonders of the Ten Commandments’. Just recently I happened to hear two messages on two of the commandments, the least said of which the better, but it provoked me to go back and reread what I had written previously. This was only to find a measure of dissatisfaction about what I had written which then provoked me to consider how I now view these commands given to Moses on Mount Sinai. (I may use some of the previous material here but emphasize context and application more).
Two Questions: Listening and then rereading these commands afresh has caused me to ponder three questions: first, why should we think these commandments are relevant today and, second, how are we to convey them so that they release faith and not guilt and, third, how can we teach them with a sense of realism and honesty? (I will explain below)
i) Loss of Confidence: The first of those three questions needs to be considered in an age that, in the West at least, has moved more into situational, relative or even personal ethics that says, who are you to say what I should or should not do, my circumstances are different from yours, let me just live my life as I want! Put alongside this a way of thinking that has become more and more vocal in recent years, even in those who once attended church – “well there are so many translations and paraphrases of the Bible today, that are saying different things, can we really believe any of them?” or, “well, there are so many difficulties with the Bible that we now realize today that it has lost its credibility and so we need to reject large parts of it.” There are a whole spectrum of these bad ways of thinking and so without giving answers to such things here, I will simply say that I think that all of these negatives are the result of poor reading or even the absence of reading the Bible, and the more and more we do read it and think about what we read, the more we will be confident about what we find there.
ii) Avoiding Legalism & Self Effort: The fact is that with these Ten Commandments we have the best known part of the Law of Moses and so if we are to convey teaching about them we have to recognize two things. First, these are law. Second, law does not release faith. There is a way of teaching in evangelical circles that can only be described as ‘behavioral teaching’, i.e. we focus on behaviour and demand adherence to it. Now the fact that that is so common testifies to its validity; we are to conform to God’s design, but the big issue is how our behaviour comes about.
Behavioral teaching focuses on me, the individual, and sets goals for me to conform to. Behavioral teaching says, “This is what you ought to do, this is how you should behave.” That is law. It’s what the Pharisees of Jesus’ day said. The problem is that you only need to read Romans chapter 7 to realize that even the great apostle Paul struggled with trying to conform to the law. All of our struggles to conform to the legalistic preacher’s expectations of us, so often only produce failure and with failure comes a sense of guilt and even hopelessness. Often associated with this is the ‘method approach’ of behaviour – these are the things you need to do, the way you need to think and how you need to order them – which is very common, especially from ‘the cousins’ across the water who are so good at systematizing behaviour. This can seem to produce a good result, but when you examine it carefully, it tends to be godless. It mentions God, but the working out of it is by human effort and human planning which can proceed without the presence of God within it. It also tends to create a judgmental attitude against those who don’t seem to be doing very well at conforming to the requirements.
What, I suggest, we need instead is what I might call ‘identity teaching’ which says, this is who you are in Christ, this is the wonder of what he has done for you, this is what he thinks about you, here are the resources he has provided for you, and here is the wonder of the life that you can aspire to with the help of his Spirit and his word. When we realize the wonder of what he has done for us and what he thinks about us, what are the resources he has provided for us (most simply put – his work on the Cross and the provision of his indwelling Holy Spirit), experience his presence in revelatory word or power, that will release love in us which is aspirational and enabled, and brought with a sense of wonder that encourages us to reach out and up for greater things.
iii) The Need for Realism and Honesty: There is, further, a style of teaching from the pulpit that asks the congregation to think about and come up with answers about personal life-styles, and the Ten Commandments provide a fertile ground for this approach which, I am going to suggest, is unreal. I have observed this many times and so, to take just one example in the Ten Commandments series, the preacher doesn’t preach and convey truth but asks, “I want you to think what are the idols in your life, for we all have them,” and they make various suggestions and may even line this up with what are to sort of things you would find difficult to let go of in your life, using Abraham being asked to sacrifice Isaac as an example. Other likely ‘idols’ may be careers, ambition, loved ones, your home, your car etc. etc. I have heard all of these things more than a few times over the decades of preaching that I have listened to.
A Way Ahead? Now please hear me clearly. I accept that it is quite possible that we elevate these things, any or all of them, to unhealthy heights. We may be dominated by oppressive family ties, we may feel insecure and so be worrying about making money go round, we may not have got to the point where some irresponsible character scratching our car is not the end of the world, but I would like to suggest a simple check list of things that might help us here:
- Unless the Spirit of God convicts you of the wrongness of a particular attitude you may have, (or it blatantly conflicts with Scripture) I suggest trawling our minds and memories for points of failure is simply providing the enemy with fertile grounds for breeding deception, guilt and a sense of failure, and there are many in the church who, having been brought up in this school, suffer ongoing guilt, strongly vulnerable to the lying whispers of the enemy. Your concern for money may simply be a concern to provide for your family. It may become idolatrous if you never take it to the Lord seeking His help, but then anything we keep from Him has that potential, and that is at the heart of the matter.
- Trying to assess your success levels of behaviour breeds deception. Constantly trying to assess our attitudes quite often not only breeds the guilt I referred to above, but it gives you a false sense of achievement and superiority over those less capable individuals around you. Some commands of God in Scripture are easy to assess, we think, such as don’t lie, but then we have to think further when we realize Rahab lied (Josh 2:4-6) and so perhaps it isn’t always quite clear, which is why we constantly need to seek Him for wisdom and learn to catch the Scripture-wide teaching. That we’ll try and do.
- Focusing on achievement, therefore, invites deception and failure. Focusing on the wonder of God, His love for you and His good intentions towards you, creates a sense a sense of living freedom which releases from insecurity and paves the way towards growth and being a blessing to God and those around you. A life conforming to His word, and of being led, inspired and empowered by the loving and wonderful Holy Spirit, is ‘life’ and life flows and grows.
And So? So the question arises, how can we approach these ‘commands’ and ‘laws’ in such a way that they thrill us not threaten us, empower us not enrage us (for God giving us impossible goals!)? The answer I suspect is by truth and grace (of which Jesus was full – see Jn 1:14). Can we seek out the truth behind each of these ten commandments and can we view them as the grace of God that is being held out to us? They were given originally to a brand new nation, Israel, in its embryonic and primitive state. We today have the whole canon of Scripture to help enlighten us which includes Jesus’ take on some of these things, so we’re in a better place to comprehend them. They struggled over the centuries, as we’ll see, to be obedient because they hadn’t the clarity of God’s Goal that we now have in the entire Bible, focused by Jesus and by his Spirit. Come with an open heart, praying for wisdom, relying on Him in prayer as you approach each one, and together let’s see if we can open our hearts to Him in a new way. Amen? Amen!
Application: I think these Commandments, and therefore these studies, ought to direct us to God and so I wish to conclude each study with a ‘devotional’ suggestion. We have been considering in this first study how we may go about studying these commandments, so may we pray now, something like, “Lord, please open my eyes to see the wonder of your commands, not as harsh instructions but as gifts of grace to my life to bless me, as I believe that is what they are supposed to be. Amen.”