You shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself an idol…
You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God.
Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.
Honour your father and your mother.
You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not give false testimony.
You shall not covet.
“So be careful to do what Yahweh your God has commanded you; do not turn aside to the right or to the left. Walk in obedience to all that Yahweh your God has commanded you, so that you may live and prosper and prolong your days in the land that you will possess.” (Deuteronomy 5:32,33)
The Ten Commandments describe the lifestyle of those who have been redeemed, and who therefore belong to God. They cannot be imposed on the rest of the world; it does not acknowledge the true God, so it will not observe even the first commandment, let alone the other nine! Yet at the same time, they are not totally alien: laws against murder and theft are universal, and people in most cultures would agree that honesty, marital fidelity, and respect for parents are good ideals. By keeping them, then, we shall be holding up a ‘standard’ that all people, whatever their background, should be able to recognise and acknowledge as good.
Do not turn aside to the right…
Human beings like rules, because they take the effort out of decision-making. The Law of Moses amplified these basic ten commands into dozens (and eventually thousands) of prescriptive and often culturally focussed rules. Not only did the sheer number of rules eventually become burdensome, but many of them would be ridiculous if applied literally in a modern, industrial society. And if we are not careful, we Christians can treat the Law in the same way, simply replacing one set of Bronze Age rules with another set of 21st-century rules – which will go out of date even more quickly!
Over-reliance upon rules also creates problems. Rules are merciless and inflexible; they cannot possibly cover every situation. In some circumstances, they may even be contradictory. (For example: is it permissible to tell a lie in order to save someone’s life?) The Law of Moses never made the Israelites a holy people – even though it was given by God! (Jeremiah 31:31,32) Rather, it demonstrated that it was impossible to attain holiness through law-keeping. Even the Pharisees – the experts in living by law – did not thereby become righteous in God’s eyes (Matthew 5:20). Instead, they became arrogant, hypocritical, and over-obsessed with trivialities (Matthew 23:16-24).
…or to the left.
It is therefore tempting to go to the opposite extreme and reject God’s law altogether. But Christians are ‘slaves of righteousness’ (Romans 6:18). If we do not have a code of behaviour to live by, we are groping around in a moral mist, with only our consciences to guide us. And even with the help of the Holy Spirit, conscience is not infallible. Hence the many passages in the New Testament letters dealing with what is or isn’t appropriate Christian behaviour. Almost all of the Ten Commandments are explicitly endorsed in the New Testament, and so they cannot be dismissed as irrelevant or outdated.
A Christian lifestyle is not attained by observing rules, but by imitating Christ. In no way is it some kind of moral ‘freestyle’ without guidance or direction. This is where the Holy Spirit comes in. “If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.” (Galatians 5:18) He works in us to apply His inward law and thus produce the fruit of righteousness: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22,23). We “keep in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25) by putting these qualities into practice – and the Ten Commandments show us how to go about it.
Read more about the Ten Commandments here.
God of truth,
Help us to keep Your law of love
And to walk in ways of wisdom,
That we may find true life
In Jesus Christ Your Son.
(Collect for 1st Sunday after Trinity)