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Monday, January 24, 2005

Returning to the Commandments

There is this thing about blogging which is different from normal forms of writing. When you are writing a book, or an article, most of the time you know the end from the beginning. You create an outline and even might have a conclusion pretty much summarized before you attempt to write.

But I have found blogging to have this tendency to take me in all sorts of directions. I began a series on the ten commandments a while back, and got side-tracked by other stuff. Since I only have limited time to blog, I found that my interests were being pulled in different directions and it is almost strange for me to now go back to the series. So, to get back to the series, I would like to do a re-cap on where I have been so far.

The purpose of my series on the ten commandments is to reflect on the nuances of the commandments and also to see it as a whole. I have for a long time a suspicion, that most Chrsitians, or at least I, have a misconception of what the Law in general, and the ten commandments, in particular, stood for. Coming from a background where "rightly dividing the word of truth" was taken to be an important virtue, I was taught that there was a priority of grace over law. Scriptures such as John 1: 16-17, Galatians 3 and others that juxtapose faith and grace against law and works can color a Christian's thinking about the place of law in the Old Testament.

For a long time I have this sneaky suspicion that what my church taught me, and what the books I read, could have misinterpreted the issue. I believe that the Old Testament Law is not that opposed to Grace and Faith of the New Testament. Coupled with my usual inclination to question assumptions and not accept the "received version" of most teachings, I like to question what it is that we hold onto as orthordox beliefs and attempt to see if the Scriptures could be approached in fresh ways to understand what it teaches.

So turning our attention back to the commandments, first of all, its important to note that the giving of the commandments was prefaced by a declaration from God which establishes the context for the commandments. The context is this: God is a proactive, loving God who sought to love Israel and rescue them out of their slavery. They were under slavery before, against their will and now God releases them into a loving relationship with Him. Having delivered the children of Israel from their misery, God invites them to enter into a fellowship with Him. This is an important underlining principle that we must get in order to understand Old Testament Law.

In The Heart of the Commandments, I used as launching pad, the story of the rich young ruler to highlight that God desires a relationship, and not merely an obdurate observance of legal code.

The first two commandments "No Other Gods" and "No Graven Images" might have been one command, or at least two sides of the same coin. Whether it is one or two commands, it is the basis of the first and greatest commandments "Love God with all your heart, all your mind, all your strength and all your soul."

The third and the fourth commandments might be considered to belong to the "God" part of the greatest of the two commands, but upon examination, it might be better understood that these two commandments are belong to the second of the two greatest commandments.

If the two greatest commandments are first, to love God, and second, "to love your neighbor as yourself", the third and fourth commandments are best understood as belonging to the "love ... yourself" part.

Why is it important to distinguish them as belonging to the second of the two greatest commandments? I made this point in my meditations of the third and fourth commandment, but was not very clear, prompting questions from, for example, Jeremy Pierce, as to why it is necessarily to distinguish it as belonging to the first part or the second part of the two greatest commandment.

The clue is given to us in Jesus words, "Man was not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath was made for man." In other words, there is no priority in the day of the week or in the Sabbath per se. The commandment to keep the Sabbath was given to man in order to rest and be refreshed. It is a "loving yourself" part of the man's relationship with God.

Keeping the Sabbath doesn't improve one's relationship with God by itself. But, the Sabbath (rest) was given to man to have time-out, to be refreshed, and to maintain balance in order to be able to relate to God and to each other.

Similarly the third commandment is more about living authentically as a God follower, than about using or not using God's name in normal or flippant conversation. There is nothing magical about the words, although words, as Jesus pointed out, reflect what is inside of us. The commandment's focus is more on the lifestyle of someone who is in vital relationship with God and living authentically than to the use or misuse of certain words.

Understanding the commandments in the way I have outlined, I believe, offers a more balanced view of the commandments. It is not important that there are ten commandments. As I pointed out, the words "ten commandments" are not found anywhere in the Bible. It is more important to note that these commandments are not just legal artefacts, or even foundational legal principles, but to understand the commandments as the key to a dynamic relationship with God, based on his mercy and grace.

Further, it is also important to understand the commandments to express the importance of a holistic, balanced view of God's priority is for us - which is to have relationship: with him, with ourselves and with each other. Spiritual formation is not about keeping the commandments, but about having a vital relationship with God, with ourselves and with each other. Against this background, we are now ready to look at the rest of the "ten commanments," which, barring any other side trips that I might be tempted to take, I hope to post in the near future.

In the meantime, let me hear your views, and questions. Do you understand the difference I am trying to draw? Do you think such a way of understanding the ten commandments give you a better grasp of who God is, and what His priority is for you?