This morning we are beginning a new series of sermons on the Ten Commandments. But why? Well, an answer appropriate to this Foundation Service, and JPC’s mission of 'Godly Living, Church Growth and Changing Britain' is because of the eleventh Commandment (as it has been called). And what is that? The answer is in Jesus’ last words to his eleven disciples according to Matthew’s Gospel, namely (Matthew 28.19-20):
Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.
So 'Church Growth' (making adult disciples anywhere in the world) is not just teaching people about Jesus’ death and resurrection foundational though they are, but in our witnessing and disciple making, we have to teach folk:
to observe all that I [Jesus] have commanded you.
And that includes Jesus’ teaching on the Ten Commandments in his Sermon on the Mount as Matthew recorded it. Well enough by way of introduction and by way of introducing you to the 11th Commandment (so called). It is one reason why we need this series on the Ten Commandments. So let’s now open our Bibles to page 150 (or our now silent electronic devices to) Deuteronomy 5.1-6 and pray that we learn what God needs to teach us from this passage:
Heavenly Father, will you now, by your Holy Spirit, open your word to our hearts and minds and our hearts and minds to your word, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
I have just two headings this morning: first, Our Covenant God Then, and, secondly, Our Covenant God Now.
1. Our Covenant God Then
And, I begin with The Covenant Renewal. Look at Deuteronomy 5.1-3:
And Moses summoned all Israel and said to them, “Hear, O Israel, the statutes and the rules that I speak in your hearing today, and you shall learn them and be careful to do them. The Lord our God made a covenant with us in Horeb…
Moses and “all” Israel in their migration after their escape from Egypt are at a critical moment. They are coming to the end of their 40 years no-man’s land existence between Egypt and Canaan (Canaan being their promised land and objective). They have, latterly, gained a foot-hold in the land of Moab, having defeated Sihon, King of Heshbon, and Og, King of Bashan but their invasion, leading to occupation, has yet to take place. Moses himself, is not allowed to go in. So Joshua, Moses’ second in command, is going to lead the people in the conquest but Moses still has a task to complete. Deuteronomy 2.5 refers to that occasion:
The Lord our God made a covenant with us in Horeb.
This, therefore, is a virtual renewal of that covenant by way of reminder. But what is a covenant? Well, archaeologists have suggested it is parallel to some national treaties in the ancient Middle East. Such a treaty was when you wanted some security against a more powerful aggressor nation. You then negotiated an alliance with another powerful nation. But it was on quite unequal terms or requirements, one party was powerful, the other (you) weak. And the terms that your ally demanded were listed clearly, and there was often an introduction about past relationships of the sovereign to the dependent. Whether this 'suzerainty treaty thesis' is correct, certainly something like that was set up between God and his people at Sinai, with God the powerful party. And there was a vital introduction about a past event in history followed by ten requirements (or commandments). We have that introduction at the end of our passage for this morning in Deuteronomy 5.6 and with God speaking:Moses, rehearsing these verses, therefore, that we going to be studying over the next few weeks that form the Ten Commandments, is a virtual renewal of that covenant by way of reminder. So what is this covenant? Well, archaeologists have suggested it is parallel to some national treaties in the ancient Middle East. Such a treaty was when you wanted some security against a more powerful aggressor nation. You then negotiated an alliance with another powerful nation. But it was on quite unequal terms or requirements, one party was powerful, the other (you) weak. And the terms that your ally demanded were listed clearly, and there was often an introduction about past relationships of the sovereign to the dependent. Whether this 'suzerainty treaty thesis' is correct, certainly something like that was set up between God and his people at Sinai, with God the powerful party and the people of Israel's decendents. And there was a vital introduction about a past event in history followed by ten requirements (or commandments). We have that introduction at the end of our passage for this morning in Deuteronomy 5.6 and with God speaking:
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
That was so significant. For it underlines the principle that God only asks us to act in obedience when he has first acted for us – proving that he wants the best for us and he loves us. This was in such contrast to Israel’s new neighbours. Raymond Brown, the Old Testament scholar, referring to these gods (or baals) puts it like this:
[Their activities]…were mere fanciful tales, passed on from one generation to another. They described the adventures of gods and goddesses whose favour could be won by performing certain religious acts, even…human sacrifice. But none of the stories was true because none of the gods was real. Israel’s God, the only God, spoke to his people at Sinai. It was a true story of what actually happened in history and a story of [listen] a God who gives before he commands.”
So, a virtual covenant renewal was taking place. And all Israel was reminded, first, of the goodness of their God freeing them from slavery and, then, a way of worship and community living for the benefit of all through the Ten Commandments. But secondly, the majesty and glory of God had been revealed. Look now at Deuteronomy 5.4-5 (this is Moses still speaking):o, a virtual covenant renewal was taking place. And all Israel was reminded of the goodness of their God freeing them from slavery and a way of worship and community living for the benefit of all. But secondly, The majesty and glory of God was being revealed. Look now at Deuteronomy 5.4-5 (this is Moses still speaking):
The Lord spoke with you face to face at the mountain, out of the midst of the fire, while I stood between the Lord and you at that time, to declare to you the word of the Lord. For you were afraid because of the fire, and you did not go up into the mountain.
We are speaking of no human political contract or treaty. It was unlike any treaty our politicians negotiate. It was an unimaginable volcanic event. But it was God somehow really speaking (for he is a speaking God) and being heard by his people and revealing not only fundamental ethics for all time but also his majesty and glory. Listen to Moses' description and underlining of what happened in Deuteronomy 5.22-24:
“These words the Lord spoke to all your assembly at the mountain out of the midst of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness, with a loud voice; and he added no more. And he wrote them on two tablets of stone and gave them to me [Moses]. And as soon as you heard the voice out of the midst of the darkness, while the mountain was burning with fire, you came near to me, all the heads of your tribes, and your elders. And you said, ‘Behold, the Lord our God has shown us his glory and greatness, and we have heard his voice out of the midst of the fire. This day we have seen God speak with man, and man still lives.”
Yes, this was an utterly unique event, when God himself (not, at this point, his prophet Moses) – but God himself spoke these words of introduction and then the Ten Commandments. Surely this was a pivotal event in world history. If so, how seriously we must take all these words, Certainly they have influenced western law and our Coronation oath. Therefore how we must pray and work for that influence to continue, for since the 1960s they have been little by little edged out by influences that mean we are approaching a situation as in the book of Judges where (Judges 17.6):
everyone did what was right in his own eyes
It was disastrous then it will be disastrous today. We cannot spurn the glory and greatness of God. And that that brings us to:
2. Our Covenant God Now
So how do we relate to the Ten Commandments and God’s law that comes from it in January 2022? How does all that we’ve been thinking about relate to the average believer today who has heard that they are not under law but under grace and so are tempted to reject these commandments as out of date? Well, the first lesson is not all is new in the New Covenant. As in the Old Covenant the law of God is not to be thought as hostile and wanting to make life harder than it is. No! For the law is the expression of God’s will for life and human flourishing. God’s will is always (Romans 12.2):
good and acceptable and perfect
He has made us, so God’s laws are like the maker’s instructions. When you ignore a maker’s instructions often it can be quite disastrous and time-wasting but following them leads to success. (I’ve learnt that the hard way recently this autumn with regard to two chairs from IKEA when I didn’t follow the instructions properly). And Paul says with regard to God’s law, Romans 7.12:
So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.
There is nothing wrong with the God’s law, it is us (the probleim is us sinful men and women). Most know that if only the Ten Commandments were perfectly obeyed, there would be bliss all round. Jim Packer writes:
Suppose people generally began to say: ‘By God’s help I will live by the Ten Commandments every day from now on. I will set myself to honour God and obey him. I will take note of all that he says. I will be in church for worship each week. I will respect duly constituted authority and show thanks to those to whom I owe most. I will not murder or hate. I will not commit adultery or indulge myself in lust, or stir up lust in others. I will not steal, nor leave the path of total honesty. I will not lie or cheat. I will not envy or covet.’ Community life would be transformed and massive national problems would dissolve overnight. It is something more to pray and work for.
So God’s laws are for our good. They were at Horeb in the wilderness and they are now. Remember he is a saving God, from Egypt then, and now since Christ and through his Cross, from the penalty of our sins – he is the one who issues these Commandments. That brings us to the second lesson that relates to 'being free from the law'. There are various ways that phrase can be understood (or misunderstood). Let me quote these words from Article 7 of the Church of England's 39 Articles:
Although the Law given from God by Moses, as touching Ceremonies and Rites, do not bind Christian men, nor the Civil precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the Commandments which are called Moral.
In Jewish Old Covenant times, you got as right as you could be with God through 'Ceremonies and Rites' (in sacrificial rituals). But, of course, those sacrifices for sins are now fulfilled once and for all in the one sacrifice once offered of Christ on the Cross as Hebrews 10 explains. So those rituals, as Article 7 says, 'no longer bind Christian men.' You are free then from those laws 'as touching Ceremonies and Rites'. However, 'no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the Commandments which are called Moral'. The subject there being a Christian man, 'moral' must be referring to all ten of the Ten Commandments, with first four referring to our duty to God and the last six with our duty to one another. And these ten laws are absolute and for all time and everywhere. So Christian people are not free from the moral law as a way to live. Yes, they are free from the moral law as a way of salvation that makes you right with God (Romans 3.30):
For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his [God’s] sight
That is because their works, including all the good they’ve failed to do, fall short of God’s standard. However, once saved and right with God through faith in Christ, they can now work for the good life with the new covenant power of the Holy Spirit. As God says, promising a New Covenant in Old Testament times (Jeremiah 31.33):
I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.
So Christian people are free from the moral law as a ways of salvation, but not as a way of living – yes, they will fail many times, but there is always forgiveness through Christ’s death if we admit our failures. Then the third lesson with regard to the new covenant is Jesus’ approach to the Ten Commandments. There are two things to remember. First, what Jesus said at the beginning of his exposition of the Ten Commandments in his Sermon on the Mount this vital fact (Matthew 5.17):
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.
He then proceed to apply the Commandments not just to bare acts but to internal attitudes and desires, but, secondly, and with this I close, is Jesus most profound teaching in Matthew 22.36-40 in answer to a question, which was from a lawyer:
“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
Christians down the ages have said that the main functions of God’s law is, one, to convict us of our sins, two, to restrain the ungodly but, three, to guide the godly. So the questions we need to ask ourselves now, in Jesmond, in January 2022 is: Do I love the Lord my God with all my heart and with all my soul and with all my mind? And: Do I love my neighbour as myself? Then, pray in the light of these lessons for forgiveness and guidance. Amen.