During the season of Lent, I’ll be doing a post each midweek about a topic related to the season. This week’s post is about the Ten Commandments.
Deuteronomy 5:6-21 contains the Ten Commandments, known as the “Ten Words” (or Decalogue) by the Israelites. The word “Deuteronomy” itself means “second law.” This name comes from the fact that the book of Deuteronomy is a recounting of the history of the people of Israel after the Lord had delivered them up out of Egypt. It’s basically the events in the book of Exodus retold to the people by Moses.
So, most of Deuteronomy is Moses speaking to the people of Israel, reminding them of all that had happened to them. He is preparing them to enter into the promised land by reminding them of who they are (they are God’s people), what God has done for them (He has delivered them out of slavery), and what God is about to do for them (He is bringing them into the promised land).
To preface the Ten Commandments, Moses quotes from the Lord, saying, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” This sets the stage for all that follows. The point is that the context in which the Ten Commandments are found is one of deliverance and grace and mercy; the Lord gives His people whom He has redeemed from slavery His “Ten Words” by which they may live as His people.
And this applies to us today as much as it applied to the ancient Israelites. Through Christ, the Lord has also delivered us up out of slavery, a slavery to sin and death and the devil, and brought us into the promised land of the Church where He dwells with us through Word and Sacrament. The Lord has made us His people and He our God.
Therefore, because the Lord is our God we are to have no other gods (the First Commandment). We are to look to Him only for all good things; this is what it means to have a God. And why would we want another god? Why would we look to anything else for something good? For it is the Lord who has brought us up out of captivity and saved us; He is our God.
And so because He is our God we are to honor His name (the Second Commandment). We treat our own names with respect and a certain reverence; how much more should we treat the Lord’s name the same way. So, we are not to misuse it by doing things like using His name as a covering for our actions; for example, we’re not to sin or act arrogantly and then claim that what we are doing is God’s will. We’re also not to swear by the Lord’s name, for He is holy and so is His name.
Since the Lord is holy and He is our God, we are therefore to make time to hear Him speak to us. We are to take time off from our busy schedules in order to come together as His people and hear His Word (the Third Commandment). This is the time when we get rest from our work and receive the Lord’s blessings through Word and Sacrament.
These first three commandments are often called the First Table of the Law. They deal with our relationship with God. They are summarized elsewhere in Scripture, including by Jesus, as “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.”
If we do all this, then we are truly treating the Lord as our God, and everything else flows from this. The last seven commandments rest on the first three. For if we love the Lord as our God and look to Him only for all good things, then we will honor our parents, not murder, not commit adultery, not steal, not bear false witness, and not covet anything of our neighbor’s. In short, we are to be content with what we have and help other people uphold what they have.
These last seven commandments are often called the Second Table of the Law. They deal with our relationship with other people. The Scriptures, including Jesus, summarize these commandments as “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus attaches to these the “Golden Rule,” saying, “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”
So, this is God’s Law to us. Ultimately they all rest upon the First Commandment to have the Lord only as our God. If we do this, then everything else follows. And we have the Lord as our God through Christ, because we know the Father through His Son.
However, we are unable to be perfect, because we are fallen creatures. We are incapable of perfectly fulfilling the First Commandment. In fact, we are polytheists by heart, because we look to other things for good and trust in them as our gods. So, we all have our own sets of idols: money, pleasure, food, drugs, people, power. We have failed to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind.
So, everything else gets out of whack as well. We misuse the Lord’s name, we neglect to make time to hear His Word (even though we somehow find the time to do many other things), we fail to give our parents and those in authority the honor due their office, we get angry at other people, we lust after others, we steal and cheat, we gossip, and we get jealous and envious and covet. So, we are not perfect. We cannot fulfill God’s Law as He demands.
But, there is one who is perfect, and he is perfect for us. Jesus Christ is perfect; he perfectly fulfilled these commandments and he died for our imperfection to atone for our sins. He even rested on the Sabbath in his tomb from all his work to save you. And he gives you his righteousness as a gift through his death and resurrection. So, you have been forgiven. He has fulfilled God’s Law for you and atoned for your inability to do so.
What, then, of God’s Law? If Christ has fulfilled it, what use is it to us now? Well, in fact, God’s Law is good and has three uses.
First, it is meant to help us live in peace and order with each other. So, the first use of God’s Law is to maintain peace and order in the world. Civil government is given the sword and tasked with punishing evil and promoting good.
The second use of the Law is to show us our sins so that we do not think we are perfect. The Law removes any sense of self-righteousness from us and forces us instead to look for another way to be righteous, a way that does not rely on our own works or merits, because everything we do is tainted with sin and therefore falls short of the perfection required by God. This is where the Gospel steps in and gives us Jesus Christ and his righteousness. He is the way, the truth, and the life. We are saved by God’s grace through him. So, the Law drives us to repent and trust in God’s grace through Christ, rather than in ourselves.
And once we are reconciled to God through Jesus Christ, then the Law serves yet a third purpose. It provides us, as Christians, a guide on how to live. This is the context in which the Law was originally given, as I mentioned at the beginning. The Law shows us God’s will for us as His people and what is pleasing to Him.
Thus, as His children through Baptism, when we want to know how to do works pleasing to our Heavenly Father, we can look to the Law. We don’t need to wonder or make up our own works that we think might be pleasing to God; we have His will in His Law. He’s already told us what is pleasing to Him: love Him and those whom He has created.
This third use of the Law, then, flows from what God has first done for us. He is “the Lord your God, who brought you… out of the house of slavery.” Through Jesus Christ, the Lord has redeemed us and made us His own people. This is something He has done because He is gracious and merciful. And so our works flow out of our faith in what God has first done for us.
In our present life, the Law continues to accuse us and therefore continues to drive us to Christ for refuge. And Christ is always there, forgiving us and covering us with his righteousness. And so we are daily growing in our walk of faith. But, the day is coming when Christ is returning to make everything perfect, including us and all creation, just as he is perfect. Amen.
(Image: Moses repeated the commandments to the people, detail by a Carolingian book illuminator circa 840 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMoses_repeated_the_commandments_to_the_people_(detail).jpg)