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THE VALUE OF THE COMMANDMENTS

THE VALUE OF THE COMMANDMENTS

by Ted Schroder
January 15, 2006

One of the biggest debates today is over values: which values we think most important. The debate is an international one. It is also extremely personal. What values we embrace influences our faith and our lifestyle. Books are being written and movies made to promote some values to the detriment of other values. Former President Jimmy Carter's latest book is entitled, "Our Endangered Values: America's Moral Crisis."

What some people value, others find repugnant. What criteria should we use to determine which values are important? For the Christian this must be the Scriptures. For Jews, as well as Christians, the ten commandments, the ten words of the covenant, given to Moses on Mt. Sinai, have been foundational standards by which all values are judged.

However, since the twentieth century, and particularly the 1960's, the commandments have been criticized as restrictive of personal freedom. Love, rather than law, has been interpreted as freedom to do what one likes as long as it does not hurt someone else. But such freedom has ended up as a license to do what one wants without regard for others. It is time to review again the ten commandments to see how they are still valuable for us individually and as a society.

Lewis Smedes, in Mere Morality: What God expects from Ordinary People, maintains that the commandments fit life's design. The question we have to resolve, as we consider the value of the commandments, is whether God has a plan to develop and grow human life within certain patterns and toward a purposed 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? Is the price of freedom the burden of having to watch every instant for the right signal? If so, the moral life is wearisome and burdensome. It is a life without markers, without rules, that 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.

Smedes believes that we do not have to choose between total order and perpetual innovation. God wants it both ways. "He sets us in broad channels, within which he expects us to develop our lives to fit the needs and visions of our time. He calls us to respect the boundaries, but he invites us to be free within them, for the channels do not cancel freedom. If we respect the order, we can unfold our human potential, develop our gifts, exercise the freedom of love, change our fashions, etc....If there is a design for life, first in the Creator's mind, then in ours, it may be the one thing we need to keep the human community from turning into a jungle of predatory plunderers." (p.7)

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."

Jesus also fulfilled the moral teaching of the Old Testament in his life. He taught his disciples the true interpretation of the commandments. His purpose was not to change the commandments, or annul them, but to show how they penetrated to the heart of motivation and integrity.

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. Legal permissiveness on a host of privacy issues does not constitute validation from a biblical moral perception. Just because someone is allowed by law to do something, or get away with something, does not mean that it is sanctioned for the Christian disciple. 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.

"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)

Blamires suggests that the skeptical agenda of secularists has its own ten commandments, which he calls the Decalogue of Decomposition:

Where there are objective values, let them be subjectivized.

Where there are absolutes, let them be relativized.

Where there are intimations of transcendence, let them be dismissed.

Where there are structures, moral or social, let them be fragmented.

Where there are foundations, let them be destabilized.

Where there are traditions, let them be discredited.

Where there are distinctions, let them be whittled away.

Where there are boundaries, let them be abolished.

Where there are contrasts, let them be intermingled.

Where there are contradictions, let them be amalgamated. (op.cit. 205,206)

Jesus teaches the opposite. He recognizes that some commandments are more important than others. He distinguishes between the greatest and the least of the commandments. Yet, he says, even the least commandments should be kept, and should be taught to be important. The person who breaks the commandments and teaches others to do the same will be demoted in the kingdom of heaven. The person who "practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven." (19)

In what seems to be an idealistic call for perfection, Jesus said that you cannot even enter the kingdom of heaven unless your righteousness - your obedience - is greater than the Pharisees and teachers of the law. However, he is not urging a 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 for us what we can never achieve by ourselves. The Spirit of God comes and writes the will of God in our hearts, and gives us the desire and power to obey what God wants for our good. Entry into the kingdom of heaven comes through being born again of the Spirit, to become a child of God, who is born into the righteousness of Christ, freely given to us on the Cross and in the Resurrection.

The moral commandments provide the framework by which we are called to grow into our full humanity, our new self, into the image of Christ. They never change. They are not outdated by changing culture. The ten commandments are the same today, and are as valuable today for our worship and our relationships, as they ever have been. They provide us with the direction we need to fulfill our destiny, and to develop our character.

Jesus goes on in the Sermon on the Mount to correct the false interpretations of the commandments that were current, and instead to give their true meaning. There is great confusion today, as there was then, about what is right and what is wrong. There is more debate in our society about what are our constitutional rights than about what are our moral duties. As a result we can carry about within us either, deep-seated anxiety and guilt about whether we are doing the right thing; or else, a callous disregard for others and for God in the pursuit of our own fulfillment.

As a youth I would hear the commandments 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 sinfulness, 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. "Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ." (Galatians 3:23,24) "The Jewish laws were our teacher and guide until Christ came to give us right standing with God through our faith." (Living Bible) 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 value 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.

How is God leading you in your life? Have you got to that point where you have come to the end of yourself, so that you can find the beginning of his provision for you in Christ?

And audio version of this presentation is to be found on http://www.ameliachapel.org

Amelia Plantation Chapel
Amelia Island, Florida

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