A letter that’s been going around the internet for the last 10 years or so, claims to be written to Laura Schlesinger, a US radio personality, who as an Orthodox Jew stated her view that homosexuality was a sin. Here’s part of the letter:
Dear Dr. Laura:
Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God’s Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination… End of debate. I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some other elements of God’s Laws and how to follow them.
1. Leviticus 25:44 states that I may possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can’t I own Canadians?
2. When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord – Lev.1:9. The problem is, my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?
3. I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2. clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself, or should I ask the police to do it?
4. A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination – Lev. 11:10, it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don’t agree. Can you settle this? Are there ‘degrees’ of abomination?
5. Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev. 19:27. How should they die?
I know you have studied these things extensively, so I am confident you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God’s word is eternal and unchanging.
Obviously it’s a very sarcastic letter. Whether or not it is genuine, the issues it raises are fairly common questions people ask about Christianity. Christians are often accused of being inconsistent in the way we use the Old Testament Law. Why do we seem to treat some parts as authoritative and others parts as if they no longer apply? For example, if we say the ten commandments still apply then why don’t we put people to death for breaking the Sabbath or committing adultery as the law states?
Many people are quick to dismiss the Bible or the ten commandments. Some would say they are over three thousand years old and have become outdated. It’s time to move on, and establish a new ethical code more in keeping with modern thinking. Do the ten commandments have any practical relevance for modern people? That’s the question I’d like us to look at today. I’d like us to consider 5 practical ways the ten commandments can help us today:
1. Help us to know and love the true God
He declared to you his covenant, the Ten Commandments, which he commanded you to follow and then wrote them on two stone tablets. (Deuteronomy 4:13).
In Hebrew the ten commandments is literally the ten words. Sometimes we refer to them as the decalogue: deca – 10, and logos – word, the ten words. They are 10 words from God. These commandments are God revealing himself to us.
The ten commandments are recorded twice in the Bible. Here in Deuteronomy 5 is the second time. As the Israelites are about to enter the promised land, Moses reminds them of the first time, forty years previously in Exodus 20 where God spoke to them from Mount Sinai, Look at v4 the Lord spoke to you face to face out of the fire on the mountain. The ten commandments are God speaking and revealing himself to his people.
There is so much about God we can learn here. We can just notice it quickly here because we’ll come back to each commandment over the coming weeks. We can see his name – the LORD, or Yahweh. God is a personal God, who can be known. He’s a rescuing God, in v6 he tells them how he brought them out of the land of slavery. He’s the only true God – v7 he says you shall have no other gods before me, he’s not like Egyptian God Ra who was one God among many, or the Greek God Zeus who was one of many gods. He is the only true God. He tells us in v9 he’s a jealous God, not in a negative insecure way, but in the loving way of someone who wants what’s best for his people. v9-10 show he’s a just God who must punish sin, but he’s also a loving God who wants us to love and obey him. Even the commandments which tell us how to treat others, reveal to us what God is like. For example God says ‘You shall not commit adultery’, because he himself is faithful to his promises. He says, ‘You shall not bear false witness’ because he himself is truthful and cannot lie.
v2 reminds us he’s a God who makes covenants, or agreements with his people. He makes promises to them, and has expectations of how we should respond to him. In this time period – the second millenium BC, covenants were very common. Some scholars have suggested that in fact the whole of Deuteronomy is like a covenant, or a treaty and the ten commandments itself is in the form of a covenant. Yahweh is not a distant God who sits up there and doesn’t care what happens, he’s a God who’s intimately interested in how we relate to him, he gives us commands to show us what he is like, and how he wants us to live.
In the book Death of a Guru, Rabindranath Maharaj tells his story. He was a young Yogi, a Guru and a member of the Brahman caste, the highest Hindu caste. As he grew in Hindu meditation, he experienced astral travel to other planets, and received yogic visions. His deep meditation led to higher and higher states of consciousness. Rabi discovered, though, that each step closer to his Hindu gods was a step farther from the true God he was seeking in his heart. When confronted with the utter emptiness of life, the shallowness of religion, and his inability to control his temper he cried out, “I want to know the true God, the Creator of the universe!” (p122)
By God’s grace he did come to know the true God as someone shared with him the gospel of Jesus, and by God’s grace, we can too. The Israelites, like us lived in a world where people worshipped many gods, the Egyptians had all sorts of gods, but amazingly the true God comes and reveals himself to them, and to us.
2. Help us to know ourselves
One of the biggest struggles modern people have is the issue of identity & purpose – who am I? What am I here for? If we’re all just the descendants of some primeval slime, if we’re all just here by accident, it’s hard to have any sense of identity or purpose isn’t it? We often look for identity in things like our job or our role, that’s the first questions we often ask – what do you do? And if you don’t like your job, or you’ve lost your job you can feel bad about yourself if you see your identity in what you do. Or if you think you have a great job, you can have an overinflated opinion of yourself if your identity is in what you do.
Many of us look for identity in what we look like: A recent survey of 15-year-old boys found that only 13% were happy with their bodies, and 84% believed their lives would improve if they had a better body. A survey of teenage girls revealed similar statistics, with only 14% of them happy with their appearance. It’s an issue not restricted to teenagers. Even middle-aged adults choose carefully, and even alter the selfies we put on instagram or facebook so we can make ourselves appear in the best possible light.
In the ten commandments, God helps us see that our identity is not in what we do, or in what we look like. He says: I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt. He gives his people an identity, he is their God, they are part of his people, the people he has rescued and redeemed. Moses reminds them: From heaven he made you hear his voice to discipline you. On earth he showed you his great fire, and you heard his words from out of the fire. Because he loved your ancestors and chose their descendants after them, he brought you out of Egypt by his Presence and his great strength (Deuteronomy 4:36-37). The ten commandments helped the Israelites see who they were, their identity came in being loved by God, chosen by him, being part of his people.
One of the warmest verses in the New Testament is this one by Paul, when he says: I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20). There’s an intimacy here, an assurance, he knows Jesus loves him, gave himself for him, and it changes the way that he views himself. For Christians our identity comes not in what we do, or what we look like, but in who we are as God’s children, loved by God in Jesus.
3. Grow our gratitude for Jesus’ fulfilment of the law
Jesus tells us: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. (Matthew 5:17) How does Jesus fulfill the law? He fulfils it in that he perfectly obeys it, but he’s also the culmination of it: Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes. (Romans 10:4). The whole of the Old Testament, including the law points to him. After Jesus rose from the dead, and was alone with two disciples, we read that: beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.. (Luke 24:27) Jesus said to the religious leaders: You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, (John 5:39).
We can’t properly understand any Old Testament passage, including the ten commandments without recognising that it points to Jesus. The law points to Jesus’ life – the one person who perfectly obeyed it. The law’s sacrificial system, points us to Jesus death as the ultimate sacrifice who brings forgiveness for all who trust in him.
Understanding that Jesus’ fulfills the law, is what helps when people say Christians are inconsistent with the way they use the Old Testament. If we take Jesus at his word, if we take the Bible on its own terms we see that it testifies about Jesus, that he is the fulfillment of it, that the whole Old Testament is pointing to him. So if we no longer follow the sacrificial system that he fulfilled we’re not inconsistent. In fact to offer sacrifices now, would be going backwards, that’s the point the book of Hebrews makes. It is still all God’s eternal word, it still does all point us to Jesus, but part of its function has changed now that Jesus has fulfilled it.
If you claim that the Bible is just a hopeless mishmash of rules, and that anyone who uses it is being inconsistent, it shows that you haven’t taken the time to try to understand the Bible on its own terms. If Jesus is God, then there is a perfectly consistent way of reading the Old Testament law as pointing to him. The Bible only begins to make sense once you recognise Jesus is God and that his life, death and resurrection are what the Old Testament points to.
You may not believe Jesus is God, but if someone does, you can’t say they are being inconsistent for not sacrificing animals, or killing people for breaking the Sabbath, they are being perfectly consistent, they are taking the Bible on its own terms, they are taking Jesus at his own word. They are seeing the Old Testament law as being fulfilled in him, and testifying about him.
As we study these ten commandments, one question we should be asking each week is, how does Jesus fulfill this? How does it testify about him? Reading the ten commandments, should grow our gratitude to Jesus for all he’s done to fulfill the law.
4. Graciously convict us of sin and so drive us to Jesus
What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful? Certainly not! Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law (Romans 7:7) The law shows us what sin is.
If you read the 10 commandments, and start to feel good about the way you’re living your life, then you haven’t understood them. When we read the ten commandments we should be thinking: If this is the basis on which God judges me, I’m in a lot of trouble! I haven’t worshipped God as the true god, I’ve loved and trusted other things more than God, I’ve lived as though I’m more important than God. I haven’t honoured his name as I should have, I have honoured my parents, I’ve lied, I’ve stolen, I’ve coveted what belongs to others.
When we fully comprehend the kind of life the law requires of us, it can be intimidating… If you listen at all to the law of God, you will feel naked and exposed, ashamed and helpless, and you will seek out the mercy of God. (Tim Keller)
Then ten commandments are good for us, because they help us to see how far from perfect we are, how far we fall short of God’s standards, how far we run the other way. That isn’t so we’ll feel miserable about ourselves, but so we’ll run to Jesus, and see how much we need his death for us. The ten commandments help us to put our hope in Jesus.
I read recently the story of an atheist, a skeptic who used to reject the Bible. Then she met a thoughtful Christian who graciously challenged her to examine her own thinking. Eventually she started reading the Bible. As she did, one effect was that she became confronted by her own sin. She realised how arrogant she was and how prone to anger, how unforgiving and selfish she’d been. She realised that she hadn’t even lived by her own sexual boundaries, let alone God’s.
The fact that I had failed…filled me with deep regret. Yet I could do nothing to right these wrongs. The Cross no longer looked merely like a symbol of love, but like the answer to an incurable need. When I read the Crucifixion scene in the Book of John for the first time, I wept. (Jordan Monge) This is what the ten commandments graciously do for us, they help us to see our sin, and drive us to Jesus, our only hope.
5. Help us understand how to love others
In Romans 13 Paul, echoes the words of Jesus we heard earlier from Matthew 22, when he says: The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (Rom 13:9-10)
I saw these vintage ads that involved children on a website recently. The first one uses a baby and a new mum to sell cigarettes, saying how good and gentle they are for new mums. The second uses a young girl at the doctor saying that cigarette brand is used by more doctors than any other. The third ad is selling televisions saying that watching TV leads to better behaviour at home, and better marks at school. The fourth picture has a baby with a bottle of 7Up saying how pure and wholesome it is for babies. The final one is a grandfather with his daughter both with beers in their hands, encouraging both age groups to cultivate a beer habit, saying how healthy it is. You can’t imagine any of those ads running today can you? Yet they are all genuine ads that were running in the last 50 years or so. It’s just a small example of how much views can change in only 50 years. If you’re looking at these 10 commandments and thinking, these seem a bit rigid, a bit old-fashioned in our society, remember how quickly society’s views can change. In comparison the ten commandments are timeless.
If you think the 10 commandments are outdated, ask yourself are there any of these issues on which you think there is right and wrong? If you say adultery is okay, is there anywhere that you’d draw the line on sexual ethics? What about lying or stealing? Everyone draws the line somewhere, how do you know where to draw the line? Most of us have been around for 40 or 50 years at the most, are we really confident that we are a greater authority than these commands of God, that have been so widely recognised across so many cultures for thousands of years? How do you know right and wrong – do you base it on what society thinks? What does society think, there are so many diverse views, and they are so quickly changing?
Even if you said, as the Beatles did “All we need is love” what does that mean? What does it look like, how do we know how to love others? Wouldn’t it be great if we could know with certainty? We can, that’s the point of the commandments: ‘how do you know what is the best thing for a person?’ Is sleeping together with someone before marriage the best thing or the worst thing for him or her? How do you know? The law is God’s way of saying, ‘If you want to love others, act this way. I created people. I know what the best thing for them is. (Tim Keller)
The ten commandments are not God getting out a stick and saying, I want to make your life miserable. They are God showing us the best way to live, the way that will bring the most joy, contentment & show love . They are not ten suggestions, they are ten commandments, ten words from God, but they are good words, loving words, they are ten words of grace.
(Edited transcript of sermon preached at MEC 5 May 2013. You can listen to or download the sermon here )
 Death of a Guru, Rabindranath Maharaj, 122.
 Cited in Vaughan Roberts, Battles Christians Face, 4-5.
 http://www.redeemer.com/news_and_events/newsletter/index.html?aid=119 (the outline for this sermon is adapted in part from this article).