God's words for God's world - Deuteronomy 5:1-6

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the evening service on 6th May 2001.

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A contractor’s firm was busy demolishing a church building some years ago. The workmen had strict instructions to preserve anything of any value. One of them noticed a stone slab which was on a wall near the front of the church. On it were chiselled some words in very antiquated language: "Thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not commit adultery." "Do we keep this?" the workman asked his foreman. "No," said the foreman, "they don’t use them these days."

Well that foreman had said what many people, even some Christians, think. The Ten Commandments are outdated and irrelevant. For a start they were written over three thousand years ago, and by definition anything which tells us what to do from that long ago must be wrong. Also they are in antiquated language. All those shalts and shalt nots. And as for having a man servant and a maidservant or coveting someone’s donkey, well you have to be joking, don’t you? And what about the alien living within your gates? I mean I know the X Files are popular but that’s ridiculous. And they are just so negative aren’t they? Why does God tell us what not to do? Can we do anything? And what about love? Surely a God of love should just let us get on with life and let us be? Where’s the freedom that Jesus promises?

Well those are all comments that many people might think about the ten commandments, perhaps even some Christians. But actually, when we study them in more depth, as we are beginning to do today, we discover something far more rich than we could possibly imagine. In fact, I can promise you, that our journey in the next weeks in these evening services will be one of the most thrilling we could go on. For we’ll discover wonderful truths about God, we’ll find that he loves us so much that he gives us boundary markers to stop us going off track, and we’ll find that his laws ultimately lead to freedom and not slavery. And it’s our task tonight to begin to look at these ancient words, to lay the foundations for our study of these remarkable words. For that is what they are. The Old Testament calls them the Ten Words. They are God’s Ten Words to his people, and even though they were chiselled in stone over three thousand years ago, yet God still speaks to us, even here in Hull in the 21st century. And this evening I want us to focus on four truths about the ten commandments which we can see from those opening verses in Deuteronomy 5.


1) God’s Words are Timelessly Relevant

2) God’s Words Reveal God’s Character

3) God’s Words Guide God’s People

4) God’s Words Point us to Jesus

1) God’s Words are Timelessly Relevant

So first, then, we discover that God’s words, his ten commandments, are timelessly relevant. Notice what Moses says to the people in verse 2: "The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Horeb [that is, Mount Sinai]. It was not with our fathers that the Lord made this covenant, but with us, with all of us who are alive here today." Now the interesting thing about this speech of Moses to the people of Israel, is that it is given forty years after the original giving of the law on Mount Sinai. In that forty years the people of Israel had wandered around the desert, a punishment for not obeying God and trusting him. And this was an entirely new generation apart from Moses himself, and his two top officials, Joshua and Caleb. And now the people of Israel are on the verge of entering the Promised Land. And Deuteronomy is Moses’ speech to the people as they are about to enter that land. He is recapping the laws that God gave the original people forty years before. These are the same laws that the people of God are to follow in the land of Canaan and God expects his people to live by them and follow them.

But notice in these verses what Moses doesn’t say. He doesn’t say: "Remember what God told your forefathers and make sure you obey." No, he says in verse 3 that it was not with their fathers that God made the covenant and gave them the law, but with this generation, the new generation. Now what is Moses saying here? Has he made a mistake? It’s pretty clear that this present generation was not the one which was at Sinai personally. It was their forefathers. And Moses is saying that they were there. Well Moses’ point is very simple: God’s covenant is personal for each and every generation. It is relevant to each succeeding generation, so relevant in fact that it is as if this generation was at Sinai personally. They weren’t of course, but Moses is saying they may as well have been, because nothing has changed. The law is as fresh as the day God gave it. And so he can say in verse 4; "The Lord spoke to you face to face." Historically of course God didn’t. It was previous generation forty years before. Theologically Moses is spot on. God’s words are for each fresh generation. And the reason is that they are timelessly relevant. So the people are to obey the law God has given them, and not fall into the same trap as their forefathers.

Now this is a very significant point, because it reminds us that God’s words are always relevant. They are never out of date. Now of course, here Moses is talking about the covenant as a whole, which God has made with his people. But it does show us more broadly that God’s moral standards never change. They are timeless. Now this is far cry from what we are told today. One very popular way to think about morality and ethics is a theory called situation ethics. One man Joseph Fletcher wrote a book in the sixties under that title which has become very influential. He argued that because circumstances differ, therefore we need to be much more flexible about our approach to ethics and morality, rather than insisting on fixed clear defined morality, like the ten commandments. Fletcher said that nothing is intrinsically right or wrong. The only thing which is essentially good is love, and everything must be judged by love and secondly justice. So, the argument would go, because two people love each other, what is to stop them sleeping with each other, despite the fact that both may be married to other people. Or in the case of homosexuality, if two men or two women are attracted to each, what is wrong with allowing them to opening practice their relationship in a physical way. They aren’t hurting anyone. These are modern times. Times have changed. And the problem is that that attitude has seemed right throughout society. Just this week, two different teenagers told me that they thought that we allow homosexuality to be practised for those same reasons. Love and the times in which we live. The situation determines our ethics.

But you only have to read the newspaper or watch the news to see how disastrous this view is. When the moral and ethical framework is chucked out, where do we stop? Chuck Colson in his book How Now Shall We Live, which is on the bookstall and well worth a read, has shown where these sorts of attitudes have lead to in America. Abortion for instance is seen as a norm for a unborn child suspected of having Down’s Syndrome.

Perhaps the most worrying part of Colson’s book is his assessment of the justice system. You would think that there truth might be upheld as an absolute thing. And yet even here, the truth decay is seeping in. Colson tells one story about a prison in Norway. Norwegians are very proud of their prison system. They boast that they have one of the most progressive systems in the world. The prison Colson visited looked, he said, more like a laboratory than a prison. The person showing him round described the huge numbers of therapists and counsellors that the inmates have. Colson was so surprised that he asked his guide how many of the inmates were mental cases. "All of them," she said somewhat surprised. She went on to explain: "Anyone who commits a crime is obviously mentally unbalanced." The theory, Colson discovered, was that people are basically good. Anyone who commits a crime must be mentally ill. The solution was therapy. Now Colson didn’t deny that in some cases therapy and counselling may be very helpful, but what shocked him was the underlying assumption that humans are OK. All it takes to correct them is a bit of therapy. But Colson was soon to discover that such theories are horribly flawed. As he was leaving he met a young prison warden who was a Christian. She was delighted to meet him and expressed her concerns about the flawed theories of the system, especially that the prisoners were never encouraged to take responsibility for their crimes. They were simply all ill. Well two days later, Colson was told that that female prison warden had been given the responsibility of escorting a prisoner to watch a film at the cinema, as part of his therapy. On the way back, he had overpowered her and then murdered her. It is a very sad reflection of where such thinking is leading us. When we leave God’s moral framework out of the picture, we end up on a road to disaster. Our only hope is to return to God’s timeless words. Outdated and irrelevant? They could not be less so. And how desperately do we need to listen again to what God has to say. God’s words are timelessly relevant.



2) God’s Words Reveal God’s Character

But then the second thing we learn is that God’s Words reveal God’s character. The ten commandments tell us as much about God as they do about us. And we can learn three at least three things:


a) God is a Personal God: And the first thing is that God is a personal God. It is very clear when we read these opening verses that God is not a distant God who bashes us over the head with a stick any time we have some fun. Rather he is a personal God who longs for us to walk in his ways. Throughout the ten commandments God is repeatedly described as the Lord our God, or the Lord your God. And his name emphasises his willingness to deal personally with his people. He is the covenant making God, Yahweh. Yahweh is God’s personal name that he gave to Moses at the burning bush for his people to use. And the very fact that God enters a covenant, a contract with his people, shows that he is personally involved. And verses 3 and 4 reinforce that. Literally Moses says in verse 3: The covenant was made "with us, with each one of us, these present today, all of us who are living". And in verse 4 we read that the Lord spoke to them "face to face". This isn’t a God who hides himself from the world. This is a God who gets stuck in, who deals with his people and his creation personally. This is a God who speaks to his people. And so if he has gone to all those lengths to speak to us it must be important, and we need to listen.

I was watching a programme about Queen Victoria recently and I discovered that after her husband Albert’s death, she became a virtual recluse and would very rarely be seen in public. And her advisors kept telling her that her subjects wanted to see her. It was vital that she made the odd appearance here and there because if she didn’t she would lose all respect and authority. Well God is a God who has dealt with us personally. He has never left us in the dark. He is not a distant God who cares nothing for us. And of course we see that supremely in Jesus, God in the flesh. Yes, he is a personal God.


b) God is a Holy God: But we also learn that God is holy God. And the laws themselves show this to be the case. God’s burning holiness is to be reflected in our own living. He alone is to be worshipped, for the simple fact that there is no other God but him. He is the holy one, the one who is set apart and who is perfect. He alone is God, and so idols are ruled out, and his name must not be abused. And his standards are to be kept by his people. Parents are to be honoured and treated with respect, life is to be preserved, sex is to be kept in its rightful place, and holiness is to mark all our dealings with other people.


c) God is a Gracious God: And then thirdly God is a gracious God. You see the wonderful thing about these laws is that they were never intended as a set of rules which if you kept them, then you could get into the kingdom of God. And that is a very common misconception. I often meet people who tell me that they obey the sermon on the mount and the ten commandments. Well if they think that by keeping these commandments they can get into God’s good books, then they are wrong. As we’ll see later, we can never keep them fully anyway. Rather they were given to the people of Israel after God had rescued them. Notice verse 6: "I am the Lord who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery." These people were God’s rescued people. They were part of his kingdom. Now, having rescued them, God gives them a code by which to live. Grace comes first. And that is vital distinction to keep in the Christian life. If we think that by doing good works and being Christian in our actions we will impress God and he’ll let us into his kingdom, then we have fundamentally misunderstood God. He isn’t like a nasty headmaster who put us through several hoops before he rewards us. No, he is a gracious God. He knows we cannot rescue ourselves. So he does it for us. He rescues us first and then shows us how to live. Grace comes before works. Works follow grace. The ten commandments are not the hoops of a strict head master. They are the pattern that a gracious saving God has given to his people to live. And that brings us on to our next discovery.


3) God Words Guide God’s People

God’s Words guide God’s people. The essence of the ten commandments is that they are God’s framework for how his people are to live and more broadly they show us how society as a whole ought to function. In one sense there is nothing new in these laws. From Genesis onwards, God has clearly shown how his people are to live. But now he has spoken them to his people so they can be in no doubts. And so Moses says to the people in verse 1: "Hear, O Israel, the decrees and laws I declare in your hearing today. Learn them and be sure to follow them." Notice how there is a great emphasis on hearing. They need to listen. But not only that, they need to learn the laws, that is take them to heart, and then act on them. As we discovered in our homegroups last week, the truth leads to godliness. We need to put into practice what we learn. And it was the same for the people of Israel. These words of God are meant to be the framework by which we live out our lives. God’s words guide God’s people.

Now one common complaint about the ten commandments are that they are so negative. They are full of "you shall nots". Why is that the case? Well I think the reason is that God is giving us very clear boundaries as to where we can go. God is not in the business of mapping out every little detail of our lives and telling us exactly what we must and what we must not do. The Pharisees fell into that trap. They wrote hundreds of extra laws, because they believed that the ten commandments were not clear enough. And so for instance they wrote whole books of laws of what you could or couldn’t do on the Sabbath for instance. But God is not out to wrap us up in red tape. He is clear though on the essentials. It is as if he has given us a map of the main roads and motorways, without having to go into great detail about where the minor roads are. And in that way God’s words remain relevant. What might be a pertinent application of one law in one generation may differ slightly in the next or in a different culture. What will be clear though is God’s abiding word, and who he wants his people to live. So we have before us ten clear marker posts telling us what we cannot do. We’re to apply those timeless principles to our situations.

And nor do they limit our freedom. Rather God’s words show us how we can really be free. Just because someone puts boundaries in our lives, doesn’t necessarily mean we are not free. For instance a loving father will tell his two year old daughter that she should not stick her finger in the plug socket, even though she thinks it may be fun. He is being a responsible a wise father. No-one in their right mind would say that we infringing upon the toddler’s civil liberties. Or to use another illustration, if you go to the beach nowadays there are signs which tell you when it is safe to swim and where it is safe to swim. If a particular flag is flying then it is safe; if another flag is flying then it is not safe. The council aren’t trying to spoil our fun, they are trying to save our lives from rip currents that will drag us out to sea. Similarly in Australia there are signs warning of sharks in the water. The sign is of a huge black shark with very sharp teeth. And the message is clear. Don’t swim: There are sharks. Some people though are never satisfied. I heard a story recently about a woman who tried to sue Sydney Council because the pictures of the sharks were scaring her children.

But God is like a loving parent who shows us where we mustn’t go, not to infringe our liberties, but to make us truly free to enjoy living for him in his world. God’s words guide God’s people.


4) God’s Words Point us to Jesus

But then lastly, God’s words point us to Jesus. You see for all the beauty of the ten commandments, for all we can see of their timeless relevance, for all the we can see of God’s character, for all their virtue in guiding us in God’s way, yet most often they show us our sin. We must be honest and say that never a day, or even an hour goes by without breaking one of these words. And so time again we are forced back to the cross. The law was given not only that we might know the right way, but that we know that have gone the wrong way. The law is like a mirror which shows us up for who we really are. And yet God is seen again to be gracious. He has provided his only Son to save us from the curse of breaking God’s law. Jesus took the penalty we deserve for breaking his law. He followed the law perfectly for us, so that we might receive his perfection. And now of course in Christ, we can keep the law. We have new hearts. The law is written on our hearts. Not that we are perfect in ourselves. But that we are blameless before God, washed clean through Jesus’ self sacrifice. And now washed clean we are set free to live as God wants, free to walk in his ways and enjoy the rich freedom of knowing him and obeying him. For true love always leads to true obedience. And over the next few weeks we will constantly see our own failures, and yet we will be constantly drawn back to Christ, our precious Saviour. For God’s words always point us ultimately to Christ.

So should we chuck out these words as old, antiquated, irrelevant antiques of a bygone age, like that builder wanted to do? Well not at all. God’s ten words to his people over three millennia ago are just as relevant and important as they were when they were first chiselled on rock. We need them more than ever. For God’s words are timelessly relevant, God words reveal God’s character, God’s words guide God’s people, and God’s words point us to Jesus.


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