10 words for living - Deuteronomy 5:1-22

This is a sermon by Lee McMunn from the evening service on 28th May 2006.

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After the horrific murder of James Bulger in November 1993, the British Prime Minister launched a determined campaign to put moral values at the very centre of British life. John Major called it Back to Basics. You might remember the campaign. The British Prime Minister wanted to lead his nation away from the edge of a moral abyss. The murder of James Bulger had been a wake-up call and John Major saw one of his fundamental responsibilities as the national leader to inject basic moral values into the lives of British citizens. There was just one problem. He offered no suggestion what the ‘basics’ should be. It was a clever catchphrase but underneath the spin there was absolutely no substance. There was also no mention of God and no mention of the creator’s instructions for how human beings were designed to interact. In fact, on Monday 29th November, less than a week after the murder of James Bulger, the Government brought before Parliament a Bill to de-regulate Sunday trading. It seems that an appeal to get ‘back to basics’ was accompanied by a law to destroy the relevance of one of the Ten Commandments. Obviously for some of the Government they were not considered to be very basic! Two years later, after another wave of violence, including the murder of headmaster Philip Lawrence outside his north London school, the nation went through another bout of soul searching. However, having forgotten where its soul came from this is what one Member of Parliament suggested: “We need something like the Ten Commandments.” Only something like the Ten Commandments? What was he thinking? Did he actually believe he could improve on them? Did he imagine he could do a better job than the creator of the universe when it came to deciding the best way for human beings to interact? Of course he did. Because that’s what all sinful human beings think. Ever since the Garden of Eden God’s creatures have always wanted to take God’s place.

Do you remember the original desire of Adam and Eve? It was to decide for themselves what was right and wrong. The original intention of God was for his people to live in his place and to enjoy the wonderful provision of his rule. The plan was for God to decide what was right and wrong. And it was a fantastic plan! With all the complexities of life what better person to have in the driving seat of decision making that the one who designed our complicated species in the first place? And yet the disaster of the human race is that we have thought it wisdom to take God’s place and decide for ourselves how we should behave. But the alarming consequence of living in a world where human beings decide what is right and wrong is that in such a world the concepts of right and wrong are completely meaningless! They do not exist. Take God out of the picture and there are no universal and everlasting basics. Instead, all we are left with are the best guesses of the current majority. And we only have to look at the state of our world to see how successful those have been.

There are many benefits of becoming a Christian but I think one of the advantages we frequently ignore is the sheer privilege of living under the rule of God. Often to guard against the cries of ‘legalism’ or fearful that people might suspect we are trying to earn our way to heaven, many Christians have neglected to speak about the amazing opportunity they now have to live life as it ought to be lived. God’s people have never been saved because of their law keeping. Heaven has never been gained by a single person because they have managed to reach a certain level of moral goodness. God has always been a God of grace, both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. He has always been in the business of rescuing people who never deserved it. But here is the issue: God’s rescued people have always had the privilege and the responsibility of living under God’s rule.

And that’s what Moses is talking about in Deuteronomy chapter 5. Have a look at verse 1. “Moses summoned all Israel and said: Hear, O Israel, the decrees and laws I declare in your hearing today. Learn them and be sure to follow them.  2 The LORD our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. 

3 It was not with our fathers that the LORD made this covenant, but with us, with all of us who are alive here today.”

At last we have arrived at the main section of the book of Deuteronomy. It runs all the way from Deuteronomy chapter 5 to the end of Deuteronomy chapter 26. Previously, in the first four chapters, Moses has been giving the people of God a history lesson. He has been pointing out to them the major lessons that they should learn for the future. The current generation are not to repeat the same mistakes as their forefathers. Instead, they are to trust in God’s power as they prepare to enter into the Promised Land. Despite the obstacles they see they are to be convinced that when God is on your side nothing is impossible.

But what about when they get there? Assuming they don’t end up in the same disastrous situation as the previous generation, who had to spend 40 years wandering aimlessly in the desert, how are they live under God’s rule in a new situation? Moses tells them in these central chapters of Deuteronomy. And notice how seriously he takes his responsibility. Verse 1. “Moses summoned all Israel and said: Hear, O Israel, the decrees and laws I declare in your hearing today. Learn them and be sure to follow them.” This was no optional gathering. This was no meeting you could give your apologies for. “Sorry Moses I can’t come. My family want to go to the beach.” You had no choice, no matter what age you were. Moses summoned all the people to gather around him and when they were he told them to do three things. First of all, to hear God’s commandments. Secondly, to learn God’s commandments. And, thirdly, to obey God’s commandments. 

So not just to hear. Of course listening to the Word of God was vital for the people of God but listening on its own was not good enough. The people had to learn what Moses was teaching them. I wonder, how many of us can recite the Ten Commandments? Suppose I passed out enough pieces of paper for the congregation and asked you to write down the Ten Commandments, how many of us would be keen to put our name at the top? Let’s make sure we are not people who simply listen to the Word of God but who also make it our business to commit to memory the wonderful instructions of our Creator. And when we have let’s make sure we actually put them into practice. Listening and learning without obedience is completely pointless. It is a waste of time. There are countless RE teachers in this country who know what God says in the Bible, who have learned what God says in the Bible but who never put those teachings into practice. It is a waste of time. And that’s why Moses commanded the Israelites to listen, to learn and to follow whatever he said to them.  

I don’t know if you like people telling you what to do. My haunch is most of us don’t. Most of us react very negatively when anyone orders us to do something. But it’s precisely in this area where we need to learn an important lesson. God’s people have a responsibility to live under God’s rule. Have a look at verse 2. “The LORD our God made a covenant with us at Horeb.” Now it’s vital that we get the order right. The events at Horeb, or Sinai as it is called elsewhere in the Bible, did not happen before the people were delivered from slavery in Egypt. The rescue happened first, the rules were given next. The people were saved for obedience not saved by obedience. But here is the vital truth for us to get fixed clearly in our minds. There is no separation in the Bible between God as Saviour and God as King. God always presents himself as the powerful King who has saved his people. So, take the Israelites for example. What was their situation before the Exodus? They were enslaved under the rule of an Egyptian Pharaoh. They were oppressed because of the tyranny of an evil dictator.

And so what had to happen if the Israelites were to be released from their bondage? A more powerful ruler had to step into the equation. A more powerful King had to liberate a people from an oppressive regime. And that’s exactly what happened. But after their liberation from Egypt the people of God were not free to do whatever they wanted. They were not free to simply decide for themselves how they should live. They were now the treasured position of Almighty God and so therefore they were responsible for living under his rule. Which is why God made a covenant with his people at Mount Horeb. A covenant is simply an agreement between two parties about how their future relationship will be conducted. It is a contract that specifies how the two parties should interact with each other. Now during the days of Moses these covenants were frequently made between a conquering King and a conquered people. But, as I’m sure you can imagine, it was never a two-way negotiation. Both parties did not come to the bargaining table with various proposals and then haggle for what they could get. No, without exception a conquering King dictated the terms to a conquered people. And that’s why we read in verse 2, “The LORD our God made a covenant with us at Horeb” and not “We made a covenant with the LORD our God at Horeb.” It was the God of Israel who dictated the terms that day.

But did you notice who Moses says the covenant was made with? Verse 3. “It was not with our fathers that the LORD made this covenant, but with us, with all of us who are alive here today. 4 The LORD spoke to you face to face out of the fire on the mountain.” Now this wasn’t historically true. Remember by this stage most of the generation who had actually stood at the bottom of Mount Horeb and the heard the voice of God speaking the Ten Commandments, which is what this covenant refers to, were now rotting somewhere in the desert. Because of their previous disobedience they had missed out on the privilege of living in the Promised Land. So what is Moses talking about when he says, “It was not with our fathers that the LORD made this covenant, but with us, with all of us who are alive here today”?

Well, of course, the covenant did apply to the previous generation of God’s people but Moses point is that the Ten Commandments were not restricted to that original generation. So perhaps it would be better to translate the phrase “It was not only with our fathers that the LORD made this covenant, but also with us, with all of us who are alive here today.” Or to put it simply, every generation of Israelites before the coming of Christ was under obligation to relate to God on the basis of the Ten Commandments. God did not make a new agreement with every generation. Instead, they were always referred back to the contract signed on Mount Horeb.

But what about us? As New Testament Christians are we still responsible for keeping the Ten Commandments?

A number of years ago a contractor’s firm was busy demolishing a church building. The workmen had strict instructions to preserve anything of value. One of them noticed a stone slab with the Ten Commandments chiselled on it. “Do we keep that?” he asked the foreman. “No,” he said. “They don’t use them these days.”

But why should we use the Ten Commandments today? We are not the Old Testament people of God, we are the New Testament people of God. So why should we put into practice what is written in the pages before the coming of Christ?

Some Christians opt for a pick and mix approach to the laws of the Old Testament. Whatever seems wise in their eyes continues to be obeyed but whenever they come across a law that seems a little old fashioned or just plain weird they consign it to the dustbin of irrelevance. So, normally, using this approach the Ten Commandments are preserved. They seem like universal rules for all time and for all people. Never mind the fact that they were given to a particular people at a particular time for a particular purpose. Our wisdom suggests that they can be detached from the biblical story and chiselled onto stone slabs.

But what about later in the book of Deuteronomy when God’s people are commanded to build parapets around the roofs of their houses and are commanded not to wear clothes made of wool and linen woven together? How should we apply those commandments today? “Well, they seem a bit strange, don’t they? They can’t be relevant for us living in the 21st century, can they?” But why not? Do you see the problem of using a pick and mix approach to handle Old Testament commandments? There is absolutely no consistency!

Now because of this inconsistency another common approach to handling Old Testament commandments is to divide the Old Testament laws into three categories: moral law, civil law and ceremonial law. So all the sacrifices, for example, get placed under the heading ceremonial law, and all various laws connected with Israel as a political nation get placed in the category of civil law, which leaves everything else as universal moral laws that apply in every generation. It is then argued that because of the coming of Christ the civil and ceremonial laws no longer apply to God’s people, however, the moral laws of the Old Testament are still binding for Christians today. Now as helpful as this distinction is there are two major problems with it. First of all, the laws of the Old Testament are never divided like this in the Bible. And, secondly, there is no universal agreement about which commandments fit into each category. So, again, there is the great danger of personal preference triumphing over Biblical truth.

So where does that leave us? Well, we could opt for another view that says that unless something is explicitly commanded in the New Testament we are not bound to follow it. As the people of God living in the days after the coming of Christ we are not under the Law of Moses. The New Testament makes this very clear. Instead, we are under the law of Christ. Not saved by the law of Christ but saved to be obedient to the commandments of Christ. So it is true to say that unless the New Testament explicitly commandants a Christian to do something we are under no obligation to do it.  

And yet I think such an approach devalues the special place given to the Ten Commandments in the whole of Scripture. Let me try and explain what I mean. Have a look at verse 4. “The LORD spoke to you face to face out of the fire on the mountain.” Now in verse 5 we are told that for most of that time Moses was the one responsible for communicating the words of God to the people of God. Most of the laws heard that day came via the mouth of Moses. But the Ten Commandments were different. These ten statements were spoken directly to the Israelites by God himself. Verse 22. “These are the commandments the LORD proclaimed in a loud voice to your whole assembly there on the mountain from out of the fire, the cloud and the deep darkness; and he added nothing more. Then he wrote them on two stone tablets and gave them to me.” And notice how the people responded to hearing the voice of God. Verse 23. “When you heard the voice out of the darkness, while the mountain was ablaze with fire, all the leading men of your tribes and your elders came to me.  24 And you said, “The LORD our God has shown us his glory and his majesty, and we have heard his voice from the fire. Today we have seen that a man can live even if God speaks with him.  25 But now, why should we die? This great fire will consume us, and we will die if we hear the voice of the LORD our God any longer.  26 For what mortal man has ever heard the voice of the living God speaking out of fire, as we have, and survived?  27 Go near and listen to all that the LORD our God says. Then tell us whatever the LORD our God tells you. We will listen and obey.””

From this point onwards Moses was to be the mediator of God’s words to his people. They were not to hear the voice of God again. The Ten Commandments were in a category of their own. And as I suggested a few weeks ago all the other commandments we find in the Old Testament are simply more detailed applications of these 10 statements. So without doubt the Ten Commandments have a special place in the Old Testament.

And it seems to me that they also have a special place in the New Testament. Again and again they appear as the basis of how New Testament Christians are expected to live. So here’s my point. The Ten Commandments are the basic and universal guidelines for God’s people in every generation.

Apparently, the European Common Market regulations on the trading of cauliflowers runs to a staggering 30,000 words. Can you believe that? 30,000 words to describe best practice when it comes to handling one type of fresh vegetable.

Do you know how many words make up the Ten Commandments? 173 words in the original Hebrew! For all the complexities of human life God has provided his people with basic and universal guidelines that are valid in every age. Now, admittedly, their particular application will differ depending on the historical circumstances confronting God’s people but, nevertheless, their original intention remains binding in every age. 

So, for example, the people of God should always…

1)      Recognise God’s uniqueness. That’s the purpose of the first commandment. You shall have no other gods before me, literally before my face. We are never to act like the adulterer who shamelessly parades their lover before their other half.  The Trinitarian God is unique and he is our rescuer so how dare we trust in other things to provide what God promises! We are to recognise God’s uniqueness.

2)      We are to value his words. Verse 8. “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.” Our Creator is a speaking God and we are to relate to him on the basis of his words. We are not to corrupt our thinking about God by representing him visually. Have you noticed that most pictures of Jesus picture him as a slightly wet European male?

Despite the fact that we know he was a Jew countless Christians still buy images of Jesus which are completely incorrect. And why do we have images at all? The New Testament never describes what Jesus looked like. It is much more concerned with what he did and what he said. So let’s beware of the great danger of relating to the true God in a false way. When we stop valuing the words of God we are in a desperate situation. And, according to verse 9, it’s not just us who will suffer but the generations after us. There are future consequences for foolish behaviour. If we give up on the word of God our children will suffer terribly and their children will be in an even worse predicament. No man is an island. Our actions reverberate through the pages of history. So let us make sure we value God’s word.

3)      God’s people are to honour his name. As children of our heavenly Father we carry his reputation around with us every single moment of the day. So let us be determined not dishonour the name of our God by hypocritical behaviour. 

4)      God’s people are to enjoy his rest. Verse 12. “Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the LORD your God has commanded you.  13 Six days you shall labor and do all your work,  14 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God.” The people of God in the Old Testament were commanded to take a day off. In fact, it was such a serious commandment that any violation of it resulted in the death penalty. Six days on, 1 day off. That was the pattern established when God created the world.

And it’s the reason given for the Sabbath day when we come across the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20. But notice that the reason in Deuteronomy chapter 5 is different.

Verse 15. “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.” It was a brilliant opportunity for the Israelites not to become so consumed in the daily pressures of life that they forgot the great redemption God had accomplished for them. They had to remember their special identity and to help them achieve this God had granted them a special day set apart for this very purpose.

Now, interestingly, when it comes to the New Testament the Sabbath day is never commanded for Christians to keep. Primarily we enjoy God’s rest by entering into a relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ, the one who said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” And, of course, we also look forward to the eternal rest which still awaits us in the future. But, nevertheless, it would still seem to be wisdom for Christians to set apart a day in their lives that is remarkably different from every other day of the week. It doesn’t have to be the same day for every single one of us. The New Testament never commands us to keep Sunday special. In fact, when the early Christians used to meet on Sundays it was not a day of rest at all but part of the normal working week. Back then the day of rest was a Saturday not a Sunday! But, in the end, whatever day we choose let’s make sure we have one. All work and no play does not simply make Jack a dull boy it also makes him more liable to stress, mental breakdown and what I call salvation forgetfulness. We are hardwired to need rest. We are not Duracell Bunnies! But also, if we are Christians, we are destined for a future life in the presence of God. Therefore, we must be careful not to be utterly consumed by the pressures of daily existence. And one of ways to prevent

such an outcome is to take a day of rest.

Now, unfortunately, I don’t have time this evening to explain the other six commandments in any detail. However, if you are interested in discovering more about what they mean then let me encourage you to check out the section on our website that stores previous sermons. If you look in the right place you will discover a whole sermon series on the 10 Commandments, which you can either listen to or read online. It’s a great resource and I hope you will be able to take advantage of it. But, in the meantime, let me end by making two simple observations.

First of all, the Ten Commandments are divided into two sections. The first four commandments focus on how we should relate to God, whereas the remaining six focus on how we should relate to other people. They tell us we should…

o       …honour our parents
o       …not murder
o       …not commit adultery
o       …not steal
o       …not lie
o       …not covet

But notice that all these commandments come second. The priority is our relationship with God and then our relationship with everyone else. Or in other words, we cannot mend the horizontal relationships properly before we fix the vertical relationship with our Creator. And that’s what we forget at our peril. Because in order to be reconciled to each other human beings first need to be reconciled to God. So let’s always remember the Ten Commandments are divided into two sections.

But, secondly, let’s also remember to read the Ten Commandments as a unity. We cannot simply concentrate on the ones we like or the ones we think we have kept. They come as a complete package. They have to be read together.

And this is especially important when anyone is trying to define goodness. I have lost count of the number of people who talk about goodness on the basis of only commandments 5-10. They conveniently forget about the first four! But that is hopeless. It’s like holding up the decapitated body of a supermodel as a prime example of beauty! Without the head it’s not beautiful, it’s grotesque.

There is only one person who has perfectly kept the Ten Commandments, the Lord Jesus Christ. And it’s because of him that Christians today can endeavour to keep them without the fear of failure. In Matthew 5:20 Jesus says, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” But, thankfully, through faith in Christ we are given the perfect righteousness he has earned on our behalf. There are two sides to the great exchange. Christ takes our sin but we also take his perfection. And this is what we need to remember when we come to the Ten Commandments. We don’t keep them in order to be saved but as God’s saved people, who have been made perfect in Christ, we obey them because our conquering King says they are the best way to live. So let’s pray that he will give us the strength to get back to basics. Let’s pray.

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