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The Purpose of the Ten Commandments

The Purpose of the Ten Commandments: Deut. 30:11-20, Matthew 5:17-20

By Ted Schroder
September 4, 2016

What is the purpose of the Ten Commandments? Why are they so important? For Jews, as well as Christians, the Ten Commandments, the ten words of the covenant, given to Moses on Mt. Sinai (c.1446 B.C.), have been foundational standards by which all values were to be judged and by which the identity of the people of God was to be defined. They were to distinguish them from their pagan neighbors. They were to be a holy people in a covenant with a holy God. This purpose has never changed. It is as true today as it was 3,462 years ago. Each of us has to decide whether we want to be in that covenant relationship with a holy God or we want to be a pagan.

How did Jesus view the commandments? In his introduction to his Sermon on the Mount he made himself clear. "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them." (Matthew 5:17-20) Jesus is referring here to the entire Old Testament. When we are tempted to think that the Old Testament is outdated and no longer relevant to us we must remember these words of Jesus. True, the Old Testament is only a partial revelation. Jesus 'fulfilled' it in the sense that he brought it to completion -- he fulfilled what it prophesied. A rhyme I learned early on in my studies helped me to see the connection between the Old and the New Testament: "The New is in the Old concealed, and the Old is in the New revealed." I recommend reading: "A Christian's Pocket Guide to the Old Testament -- Loving the Old Testament" by Alec Motyer.

Jesus fulfilled the moral teaching of the Old Testament in his life. He taught his disciples the true interpretation of the commandments. His purpose was neither to change the commandments, nor annul them, but to show how they penetrated to the heart of motivation and integrity, through forming our inner lives. This is in stark contrast to the postmodern world in which we live where vague spirituality is preferred to the God of biblical revelation. To the postmodern atheist or agnostic there are no Ten Commandments, no rules. "Morality, along with other foundations of culture, is discarded by postmodernists as oppressive and totalitarian. A pervasive relativism marks postmodern culture." (R. Albert Mohler, Jr. He Is Not Silent, p.122)

The question we have to resolve, as we consider the purpose of the commandments, is whether God has a plan to develop and grow human life within certain patterns and toward a specific goal? Does God have a personal will, a design, a template, to which he would have us measure our choices, or ignore or deny if we choose? Is there a way in which we are meant to behave? Or is human life all open-ended, with no plan, no pattern, no pre-established ordering, a play without a plot or character development. Are all human relationships so pliable that they can be kneaded into any shape or pushed in any direction? Must we be always improvising, contriving, adapting? Are we like a quarterback who has no game plan but to score points? A life without markers, without rules throws us back on our all-too-fallible and selfish instincts. But life without order is an option that many prefer. Our literature is full of characters who struggle with their choices, and the dilemma of making sense of their own and other people's choices.

In 1954 William Golding published his classic novel, "Lord of the Flies". It was adapted into movies in 1963 and 1990. It tells the story of a group of children (aged 6-12) who are marooned on a desert island after their plane, which had been evacuating them from the danger of an atomic war, crashes. No grownups survive and they are left to their own devices. They are English schoolboys and junior choristers. Gradually two 12 year olds compete for leadership. One, Ralph, attempts to organize them to build shelters and to keep a fire burning to attract the attention of passing ships. The other, Jack, the chief chorister, is more concerned to hunt pigs for food and to gain power over the others. Ralph tries to maintain some semblance of order and decency through the observance of discipline: "the rules are the only thing we've got....Which is better - to have rules and agree, or to hunt and kill?... Which is better, law and rescue, or hunting and breaking things up?" Ralph rejects the rules and the boys savagely kill two of those who do not join their tribe. They are eventually rescued by a passing naval ship before more damage can be done. Golding's theme is natural depravity, the defects of human nature. In contrast to R.M. Ballantynes, Coral Island, which depicts the civilizing influence of Christianity, he rejects the belief that man is basically and inherently good and becoming better and that children are essentially innocent. The words of Deuteronomy 30:11-20 are still valid according to Jesus.

In contemporary discussions of values the comment is sometimes made that 'public opinion has changed' on such and such an issue, and therefore the laws have also changed to reflect the perceived opinions of the electorate. Jesus made it quite clear that the moral commandments are not dependent on public opinion. "I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the law, until everything is accomplished." (18) The commandments are as enduring as the universe, and the history of salvation. They remain valid for everyone for all time. But there is a new paganism that has re-emerged in our popular culture.

"Christians today need to be perpetually vigilant against the central assault of post-Christian secularism. The assault takes the form of an attempt to relativize whatever is fixed, whatever is firm, whatever represents the absolute and the transcendent in the presuppositions on which Christian civilization has been built. It is necessary to remind ourselves continually that the post-Christian agenda is for the destruction of morality by process of decomposition. That is to say, recognized stabilities -- whether spiritual, intellectual or moral -- must be undermined. Whatever the Christian accepts as universally true, valid, binding and decisive must be rendered in appearance a matter of conjecture or opinion, of choice or whim, of variable relevance or application, of ultimately subjective significance only." (Harry Blamires, The Post-Christian Mind, pp.77,78)

Jesus is not urging legalistic perfectionism, or earning salvation by our own efforts at being a good person, but an inward righteousness of mind and motive, which can only come through the grace and love of God. God has to do in us what we can never achieve in our own fallen, depraved, nature. The Spirit of God has to come and write the will of God in our hearts, and give us the desire and power to obey what God wants for our good. This is the new covenant.

As a youth I would hear the commandments and Jesus' summary of them read every Sunday at the beginning of the Holy Communion service. I would also hear the teaching of Jesus as the true interpretation of the commandments, and see in his life the fulfillment of them. They penetrated to my heart and convicted me of my failures, my inadequacy, and my need for forgiveness. I discovered that I could not live up to this standard in my own strength. I felt a failure as a Christian. Then I heard that God had made provision for me in Christ. The law and the commandments were meant to be like a schoolmaster to prepare me for the Gospel. I had to come to an understanding of myself in which I realized my own need, and was ready to accept what Christ offered me upon the Cross: full and free forgiveness, and his willingness to come into my life and live out his life through me. The purpose of the commandments was to lead me to Christ, and, to find through faith in him, a new heart and motivation to walk in God's ways, and to fulfill his plan for my life (Gal.3:24).

How is God leading you in your life? The commandments were put in charge of us to lead us to Christ so that we might find grace through faith. Are you there?

The Rev. Ted Schroder is pastor of Amelia Chapel on Amelia Island Plantation, Florida

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