Point of Reference
by Fred Price
God’s giving of the Ten Commandments was meant to create order out of chaos by setting everyday boundaries helping the Israelites as well as the rest of mankind live peaceable, productive lives; often protecting us from ourselves. Jesus likewise characterizing the Ten Commandments as guide posts beneficial for individuals and society as a whole. Seeing a “thou shall” behind every “thou shall not.”
Western civilization in particular has promoted the Ten Commandments as the most important, far-reaching set of ethics in history; a time-tested path that leads to gratitude, contentment and peace.1Their acceptance hasn’t been universal, their application spotty at times; but I shudder to think what life might be like without them and those who have made an attempt to pattern their lives after them.
The first four commandments deal with our relationship with God, the final six with our relationships with others. That pattern is significant in that if we are right with God, we will be right – or at least more right – with others. Affording us the opportunity to, “…take hold of the life that is truly life.” 1 Timothy 6:19; “…liv(ing) a life worthy of the Lord.” Colossians 1:10
Some individuals and churches discount the applicability of the Ten Commandments today. “Thou shall not murder.”; is hard to argue with, but other gods – idols? And yet, as is often the case, when we dig a little deeper into their historical context and better understand Jesus’ emphasis on those ancient words, we find them to be profoundly relevant to life today.
Jesus looked not just at the “rule” being transgressed but at the condition of the heart that gave rise to the transgression. Beneath a murderous act were resentments, bitterness and hate; as well as the words that promote such action. ( Matthew 5:21,22) Adultery is wrong, whether it is merely engaged in mentally or fleshed out physically. (Virtually all action preceded by thought.) Most Americans today don’t have an idol in their home, but we do indeed struggle with misplaced devotion, “worshipping” and serving our wealth, jobs, pride in accomplishments, etc.” (See Matthew 6:24 & 1 John 2:15-17) Again, rightly understood, the commandments don’t merely tell us what not to do. They point us to the positive ways we’re meant to live our lives, for our benefit as well as the benefit of others.
The Israelites had been in Egypt long enough to have forgotten the specific rendering of god’s name. When he decreed, “I am the LORD your God… You must have no other gods before me.” Exodus 20:2; it was something of a revelation. Lord is a substitute for Yahweh, considered too sacred for any Jew to say or write. When God appeared to Moses in the burning bush and commissioned him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, Moses asked who he should say had sent him, “I Am Who I Am. Say I Am has sent me to you.” Exodus 3:14 Interestingly enough, I Am and Yahweh are slightly different forms of the same word – the verb “to be”; appearing more than 6000 times in the Old Testament. More importantly, God had started his law-giving with, “I am the Lord your God…” The premise for all the rest.
The word “ your” in this declaration is singular, meaning the Lord is not just the God of the Israelites, but the God of each Israelite. He had chosen these unassuming, backwoods shepherd/slaves – to be his people. Since the days of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, God had sustained and blessed them by watching over them through their years of wandering, in captivity and now in leading them back to the land promised to their fathers. This quality of God’s character, choosing the unlikely and unworthy, is understood today as grace; the underserved love and favor extended to us today by God because of his merciful kindness that focuses not on what we have been or done but on what we could be or do.
But there was/is a precondition to this proposed relationship. If God was to provide for these poor, bedraggled, homeless people, they would be expected to live up to his expectations. First and foremost being, “You must have no other gods before me.” Exodus 20:13 An exclusive relationship akin to and often referred to as a marriage. (This exclusionary clause covering the making of “graven images” or idols as well.)
Throughout the generations, the Israelites struggled with this commitment, as do we; Jesus referring to God’s will for our lives as seed being sown in a field, “…the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth…” over-riding our intent to be faithful, “…making (us) unfruitful.” Matthew 13:22 On the other hand, being committed solely to Him transforms our values, our love of Him deepening our capacity to love others. Anything that alters that love and response qualifies as a god that diminishes not only Him but us.
The command to “…not take the Lord’s name in vain,” – or wrongfully use it as if it were of no significance – is concerning; especially when you consider how often we transgress it. Specifically because it represents the One True, Most High God, who deserve and even demands our utmost respect; it concludes with a warning “The Lord won’t forgive anyone who uses his name that way.” Exodus 20:9
Jesus actually expanded on this ideal by decreeing, “…men will have to give account on the day of judgement for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” Matthew 12:36,37 Some believe Jesus made it easier to be a believer – no law, no rules – just belief. But Jesus actually ratchets up this command, because “The good (or evil) man brings good (or evil) out of the good (or evil) stored up in him.” Matthew 12:35 Therefore, “…out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.” Matthew 12:34 (See also Matthew 5:21,22; 27,28 & 39-44, refuting the idea that Jesus makes it easier to follow him, he often expanding on the meaning and application of God’s commandments.) Hallowing God’s name ( Matthew 6:9) means to regard him as holy, honoring him as sacred; done in part by reflecting his holiness into the world. ( Leviticus 11:44) We don’t do that when we fail to recognize or debase Him in word or deed.
1Quote and inspiration for this article taken from Adam Hamilton’s book Words of Life , subtitled, Jesus and the Promise of the Ten Commandments, Convergent publishing
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Fred Price - married (49 years), father of two grown children, grandfather of six.
Fred retired earlier this year after 42 years as a factory worker. He has always had a heart for young people and the challenges they face today. Over the years Fred has taught Discipleship Groups for High School and college students.
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