As many of you know, my wife Valentina is Italian. When I talk to people in the UK about Italy, I often find people have various myths in their minds about life in Italy. Not everyone believes them. Some people do. Some don't. But they are 'out there'.
Myth number one is that Christmas must be hot in Italy! It depends on the region. Let me tell you the second time I arrived at Turin Airport, near the Alps, to see Vale the temperature was -10. Myth number two is a classic: 'Italian people only eat pasta'. The first thing to say in defence of pasta is that there are lots of different types of pasta – and lots of different sauces! But no, Italian people eat also risotto, polenta, fish, octopus, squid, mussels, meat and lots of seasonal fruit and vegetables.
Myths die hard, don't they?! It's a bit like that with the Ten Commandments. We're so familiar with hearing about them – that we think we know what they are all about. So here are three 'myths' about the Ten Commandments. I wonder if any of those resonate with you?
Myth 1 = 'The Ten Commandments can make us right with God'
Myth 2 = 'The Ten Commandments are just a code of conduct'
Myth 3 = 'The Ten Commandments don't apply to Christians'
I have two aims this evening. Firstly, I want to dispel these three myths. Secondly, I want to apply the first four commandments to our lives today.
1. The Ten Commandments are Responsive
Many people today assume that Christianity functions in the same way as other world religions: do good and then you're in God's good books. But that is to totally misunderstand the whole Bible message. Let's turn to Exodus chapter 20. Moses here is God's spokesperson to God's Old Testament people. In Exodus 19:25, he comes down to the foot of Mount Sinai and gives the Ten Commandments to the people. Here's what he says. Verse 2:
"I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery."
The LORD God speaking to the Israelites here is the one who rescued them from slavery in Egypt. In Exodus 6:6-7, the LORD promised he would do just that while they were still slaves in Egypt:
"Say therefore to the people of Israel, 'I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgement. I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.'"
And in chapter 14, the LORD delivered on his promises. Verse 30:
"Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the hand of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore."
So the Lord rescued his people from Egypt. He saved them. And he did that first, before he asked them to obey the Ten Commandments. That's really significant. The Ten Commandments were not given as a way for people to enter into relationship with God. They were given as commands to obey in response to the LORD God saving his people.
2. The Ten Commandments are Relational
In our society we are used to all kinds of rules. There are rules for cars on Road Tax, Insurance and MOTs. There are rules at work which for absence, expenses claims and recruitment. Usually these rules are drawn up by a group of humans to try to make a company or society work better together. And that's no bad thing. But we probably don't know the people who made the rules personally. They are rules to follow. A code of conduct. Impersonal.
Are the Ten Commandments impersonal in that sense? No! They are actually deeply personal. Look again at verses 2.
"I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery."
Then look at the kind of fierce loyalty God requires of his people. Verse 3:
"You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God..."
God is like a jealous husband who wants exclusive loyalty from his wife. He rescued his people – they belong to him and must be loyal. So as you read these ten commandments, don't think of God as a distant headmaster figure! He is relational. He loves his people. So what he commands of us is also what is best for us, because he know what is best for us.
3. The Ten Commandments are Relevant
Some in Christian circles try to distance themselves from them. They say: 'The Ten Commandments are there to point us to Christ. They are for not us to keep.'
The first part of what I said is absolutely true. Galatians 3:24 says:
"… the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith."
So if you are not yet a Christian here this evening, God's moral law, the Ten Commandments, will show you your sin and that your only hope to be accepted by God is to believe in Jesus.
That's one purpose of the Law, but it's not the only purpose of the Law for Christians. As God's people, rescued by him from our sin and from hell, we are called to obey God's Law, with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives within us. We can't ignore the Ten Commandments! In fact, Jesus has strong words against teachers who say that believers don't need to keep God's Law. In Matthew 5:19, he says:
"Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven."
So the Ten Commandments are relevant. We do need to obey God's Law – with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us as Christians – not to get right with God, but to show that we belong to him.
4. The Ten Commandments are Revolutionary
It's easy for Christians to read the Ten Commandments and just think it's a spiritual equivalent of 'Stop! Look! Listen!' It's pretty basic. 'Don't murder people. Don't steal. Don't worship statues…'
But the Ten Commandments are actually revolutionary.
- First Commandment – revolutionary allegiance
The first commandment calls for revolutionary allegiance. Verse 3:
"You shall have no other gods before me."
Is the Bible saying there are other gods besides the God of the Bible? No. There are two realities to hold onto:
1) The God of the Bible is the only true God
2) People do worship other fake 'gods' as God
And so we as God's people, rescued by him, united to him, are called to be exclusively loyal to him. No rivals. No flirting with other gods. This means Christians must not 'two-time' God by trying out other religions, or experimenting with the occult or being materialistic. Jesus says in Matthew 6:24:
"No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money."
…Riches I heed not, nor man's empty praise,
Thou mine Inheritance, now and always:
Thou and Thou only, first in my heart,
High King of Heaven, my Treasure Thou art
That's the kind of revolutionary allegiance God wants from you and I.
- Second commandment > Revolutionary worship
In the second commandment, God calls for revolutionary worship from his people.
"You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments."
If you flick forward to Exodus 32:1 you'll see it didn't take God's people long to disobey this command! They made a golden calf and worshipped it as the god who brought them out of Egypt. But we wouldn't do that, would we? Maybe making a physical idol and bowing down to it is a bit crude. But we do conjure up false views of God in our imaginations which don't square with the Bible: 'I can't believe in a God who would punish his enemies.' Look at Exodus 14! The God of the Bible drowned the Egyptians!
'The God I know promises shelter from all the difficulties of life.' Look at Exodus 16-17! The God of the Bible tests his people.
'I'm sure God has given up with me. I'm hopeless at following him.' Look at Exodus 15! He's a God who rescues. Look at Exodus 16-17! He's a God who provides. Look at Exodus 33-40! He's a God who won't give up on his people.
And this is the same God that we worship as Christians.
- Third commandment > Revolutionary honour
In the third commandment, God calls for revolutionary honour from his people.
"You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain."
Our instinct, I think, is to assume that this commandment is directed against those who use the name of Jesus degradingly as a swear word – or trivially as an expression of surprise.
But it's much more than that. God's name is his character. We should honour God by relating to him, speaking about him and living for him with gravity, reverence and respect. We should not mess around or be casual in the way we relate to him – for that would be to misuse his name, which God will hold us to account for.
In particular, the third commandment places a heavy responsibility on those of us involved in explaining the Bible through sermons, Bible studies, children's groups and seminars. We are not at liberty to misuse God's name. We must not misrepresent his character to those we are speaking to. We must not abuse our positions of responsibility within the church to ride our biblical hobby horses, or display the biblical bees in our bonnet.
We must talk about God as he reveals himself in Scripture. We must tell people what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. Remember the warning in James 3:1:
"Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness."
- Fourth commandment> Revolutionary rest
In the fourth commandment, God calls for revolutionary rest from his people. Verse 8:
"Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy."
Now when my wife Valentina says to me: 'Remember to pick Isabella up from school!' She doesn't mean that I should remember that Isabella needs to be picked up from school and then just carry on working. No she is asking for action! 'Don't forget to pick up Isabella!'
Similarly, God's people are commanded to not forget the Sabbath day, but rather to keep it holy – to set is apart as special. What does that mean in practice? Verse 9:
"Six days you shall labour, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates."
Next question: what's the motivation for this? Verse 11:
"For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy."
Exodus 20 gives the creation reason for the Sabbath. The Sabbath is a rest from work. It's about remembering creation. The parallel passage in Deuteronomy 5:15 gives the rescue reason:
"You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day."
So there the Sabbath is a rest from slavery. It's about remembering rescue.
Therefore there are two purposes for the Sabbath:
1) To rest! As we remember God's creation
2) To rejoice! As we remember God's rescue
So does the 4th commandment apply to Christians today? Christian leaders I respect hold different views on this issue. My view – and I've spoken with our church leadership to check they are happy for me to say this – is that that the 4th commandment applies differently, but it does apply.
It applies differently, because Christians are not called to 'keep the Sabbath' in the same way the Israelites did. As New Testament Christian believers, we are not under Old Covenant national law. Exodus 31:14 says to put Sabbath-breakers to death. We don't. Exodus 35:3 says not to light a wood-burning stove – even on a cold winter's Sunday evening. We can if we wish to!
The New Testament broadens our understanding of the Sabbath too. In Mark 2:23-3:6, Jesus, Lord of the Sabbath, opposes the inflexible Sabbath observance of the Pharisees which refuses to respond to human need. The Sabbath was made for man, not vice versa. In Matthew 11:28-30 and Colossians 2:16-17, Jesus is the fulfilment of the Sabbath. He is the one who provides us with spiritual rest. And in Hebrews 4:1-11, the Sabbath is a picture of the final rest we will enjoy in the new creation. And we're all on a journey there.
So the Sabbath does apply differently to Christians today.
But it does apply to us today. We should set aside one day a week – as best we can:
1) To rest! Because we are created by the Lord
2) To rejoice! Because we are saved by the Lord
That's how we obey the 4th commandment today as Christians. As many of you know, I work with international students. You may not know that this issue of the Sabbath is one of the biggest pastoral issues I encounter among Christian international students. And I'm fairly sure our international brothers and sisters are not alone in this. A student will come to me and say something like this:
'Ben, I'm working long hours in the library, but I'm really struggling to concentrate with my work. I'm not sleeping well and my health is not good. I'm starting to fall behind with my studies. That's why I've been in church this month. My life is a mess at the moment.' Then I'll say: 'When did you last take a day off?' The student will say: 'I can't, because I have too much work on.' I say to them that they have two problems:
Firstly, they are not resting! They are not trusting God enough to go to sleep at a sensible time, take a day off each week and prioritise meeting with other Christians. Will they trust God – or themselves? Secondly, they are not working! They don't honour God in the way they work. They don't work really hard at their studies in intensive bursts. They are distracted by social media. Or they procrastinate.
Is that a word for you? Do you need to start trusting God – and rest – and remember his goodness to you – and work for him?
Let me finish with a couple of words of advice.
Firstly, allow for complications but make positive decisions!
I know that life for many of you is very complicated. A 'Rest day' for families, for example, cannot mean rest from children! The privilege and challenge of caring for elderly relatives alongside a job makes setting aside a day a week difficult. Doctors and restaurant workers often have to work weekends. It's easier said than done. But complications mustn't paralyse us! We need to make positive decisions to obey the fourth commandment! For example: You might need to say 'no' to an exam revision session with your mates on a Sunday, because otherwise you will miss out on remembering God's great rescue together with the church family. Or maybe you can scoop up outstanding admin tasks in quieter periods during the week, so you can set aside the Sunday (or Saturday) to go for a walk with friends – and read a Christian book. Try 'no e-mails' on your day off! Or maybe even 'no phone'! Why not plan to spend more time together with other members of the church family on Sundays – including meals and use that time more intentionally to encourage each other to grow spiritually?
Secondly, allow for differences of opinion but settle your own mind!
The Sabbath issue is a minefield! Should Christians go shopping on Sundays? Play sports on Sundays? Or should the day of rest be on Saturday, or Sunday, or Friday (as it is for Middle Eastern Christians)? Romans 14:5 says this:
"One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind."
Think through the issues. Make up your mind. Allow other Christians to make up their minds. Don't let others push you around on this issue – and don't push others around either! But the most important thing is to remember that the Sabbath is about us taking a day each week to rest as we remember God's creation – and rejoice as we remember God's rescue.
That's a start on the first four commandments. Now we have the challenge of putting them into practice!