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Sunday, March 06, 2005

It Really isn't About the Ten Nor About the Commandments

I have been thinking through the Mosaic Commandments found in Exodus 20: 1-17, popularly known as the "Ten Commandments". As I said earlier, there were not really ten Commandments. In fact, some have counted as many as 17, and the phrase "Ten Commandments" itself is not used in the Scriptures.

When Jesus was asked which of the Commandments were the Greatest, it is instructive that He did not even name one of these as Greatest. Rather, Jesus quoted from Deuteronomy 6:4, which, in context, reiterated the giving of the Commandments, and from Leviticus 19:18, which again, in context, reinforced the principles for living in community. But in both places the commandments Jesus quoted were not part of the "original" set.

Jesus said that these two Greatest Commandments sum up not just the Law of Moses, but the Prophets as well. Further, He underscored that for his disciples, the New Commandment was given in order that they might keep it to fulfill His word (as implied by His earlier assurance that He had not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it, and the clause "by this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." I suggested earlier that this passage ought to be the Mission Statement for the Church's evangelistic and apologetic tasks).

The "disciple whom Jesus loved", John, seemed to share His vision:
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.
In fact John understood our demonstration of love for our brother to be the ultimate test of whether or not we have the Spirit - that is, whether or not we belonged to God (verse 20).

The current controversy surrounding the public display of the Decalogue seems to show the common misunderstanding about the Commandments. Some think there ought not be public displays of the Decalogue because in a pluralistic society, it would be unjust (and therefore unloving) to impose upon those who do not share the faith expressed therein.

I think it is not a good idea also because the Commandments were given not as representative of Moral Laws and to portray them as such betrays its Relationship focus upon which it was based. If the Decalogue has less to do with Moral Laws than with Relationship, it is even less symbolic of Legal or Civil Laws that "Public Display" argument proponents assume it is.

A few are suggesting that perhaps the Ten Commandments do not truly represent the Christian morality. Some are calling for an emphasis on the more radical morality expressed by the Beatitudes.

This view is probably more in line with the thrust of the message of grace and love embedded in all of Scripture, than say, the use of the Ten Commandments as a kind of litmus test of morality suggestedby a commenter recently over at Parableman's blog in his controversial presentation on the morality of slavery.

(My own view is that Jeremy's thesis is off because he used "slavery" to apply to different relationships when it probably is not really about "slavery" but more about ownership or freedom or some such that distinguishes each type of relationship. But I digress).

My point is that the message of grace and love in the Bible is pervasive from Genesis through Revelation, and is richly expressed in the laws of Moses. True, it needs the full revelation of the both Testaments to illuminate its message. The fact remains that the Commandments were not just about moral laws, but more about the relationship that God established between Himself and His people.

For instance, see Deuteronomy 6:20ff, when Moses instructed Israel,
In the future, when your son asks you, "What is the meaning of the stipulations, decrees and laws the LORD our God has commanded you?" tell him: "We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. Before our eyes the LORD sent miraculous signs and wonders-great and terrible-upon Egypt and Pharaoh and his whole household. But he brought us out from there to bring us in and give us the land that he promised on oath to our forefathers. The LORD commanded us to obey all these decrees and to fear the LORD our God, so that we might always prosper and be kept alive, as is the case today. And if we are careful to obey all this law before the LORD our God, as he has commanded us, that will be our righteousness."
Here we see that the special relationship that Israel had with their God is emphasized as the foundation upon which the law was given for their obedience.

In being overly concerned about obedience to the law, however, the Pharisees apparently failed to see that the Law consists of more than just commands to be obeyed blindly and rigidly.

The Law also included the rituals and sacrifices that underscored right relationship with God. These rites and rituals culminated each year with the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16) which allowed Israel to maintain their relationship with the Holy One, to be forgiven, and for their sin be put "as far as the East is from the West".

You can see why Jesus highlighted love for God as the Greatest of all of the Commandments. And, when Jesus says He is the fulfillment of the Law, He means that even though grace was interwoven throughout the Old Testament relationship, it is only because of what He came to do on the cross that sin and guilt can finally be atoned. 1 John 4:10:
This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.
Christ made it possible for God to forgive our sins and for His people to find peace. Understanding the Commandments this way allows us to see that Jesus' apparent re-interpretation of the Commandments in the gospels is really not all that radical. (If so, then, perhaps the Ten Commandments are equivalent to the Beatitudes in representing Jesus's new morality, but only if they are understood from the context of the Relationship focus of Exodus 20:1-2 and Deuteronomy 6: 3, and verse 20ff).

All along, the Commandments have been about motive, heart and spirit, and not about letter, litmus tests about what is, or is not, moral. Instead, it has always been about who is, or is not, right with God.

He made it abundantly clear from Genesis to Leviticus through Romans to Revelations that the only Righteousness that is possible is through the Love that He has shown in the Sacrificial Lamb that He offers for the forgiveness and atonement of sin.