Why Study the Ten Commandments?

And why spend six months of our lives doing it?

Aren’t these the defunct stipulations of an old covenant made with Israel, while we who are in Christ are under a new covenant?

It is true that Jesus fulfilled the law of Moses, so that, as Paul famously declared, “Christ is the end of the law.”  However, according to Jesus this doesn’t mean that the commandments no longer speak to us authoritatively as God’s abiding word:

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. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.

In fact, far from rendering it obsolete, Jesus’ fulfillment enshrines the law as an enduring standard of God’s coming kingdom. So much so, it appears, that honoring the law’s commandments marks both membership in and ranking within the kingdom of heaven:

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. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Before his “come to Jesus meeting” on the Damascus road, Paul was one of these Pharisees. He wrote of his pre-conversion “record”: “…as to the righteousness under the law, [I was] blameless.” But however scrupulous his observance of Moses, however zealous for the traditions of his fathers, however far advanced in Judaism, it wasn’t enough to justify Paul before God. It would never be enough.


Law as Mirror

Paul knew this – at least he did in his uneasy conscience – not despite the law but because of it (the 10th commandment, in particular):

… if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness.

The law exposed Paul’s bankrupt condition, despite all the trappings of righteousness he accumulated. As John Calvin wrote, “the Law is a kind of mirror … in which we see first our weakness, and then our sin.” This is known as the first use of the law.

There are two possible responses to seeing ourselves in the law’s mirror. One is to try to cover up our lack of righteousness through a compensating performance – which, even when valiantly attempted, is always inadequate to cover us. This is what the scribes and Pharisees did, by and large, and it resulted in a superficial righteousness that Jesus said would never give them entrance into the kingdom of God.

The second response – and what the law’s first use is intended to produce in us – is to humbly acknowledge our spiritual poverty, and then turn to God as those who hunger and thirst for true righteousness. It is found only in Christ. But unbelieving Israel failed to heed Moses’ reassuring word of promise.  Instead of submitting to God’s righteousness – now finally unveiled in Jesus – they pursued it “as if it were based on works … seeking to establish their own,” (Rom.9:30-10:3).

But if righteousness comes as a gift by faith, as a promise kept, then what place does the law have for Christians?  Isn’t the law outmoded after Christ’s fulfillment?

Yes, actually, it is.  As a temporary arrangement, the law served “as our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.” Now that Christ has come, we are no longer under its lock and key.  The law covenant has served its purposes.  The administration of Moses has given way to a new and better administration.  This is at least part of what the apostle means when he says, “Jesus is the end of the law.”

So, now the law itself must be null and void for those justified by faith, right? Paul anticipates our logic:

Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.  


Law as Map

In his Sermon in the Mount, Jesus clearly expects his disciples to obey the law.  According to him, every last dot and stroke of the pen continues in force. But note: it applies through the fulfillment of Jesus. We don’t read the law of Moses as though Jesus hasn’t come, that is, through the veil of Moses. We read with faces unveiled by the Spirit of the Lord. And so we interpret “every jot and tittle” through the Person and Work of Christ. This is only right because Jesus is the long-awaited culmination and completion – the end! – of the law. For this reason we now read and apply the law through the gospel.

Here’s what we find. Through the gospel’s focused lens we see that some of the law’s commandments no longer apply directly to us. These include the many ceremonial aspects of the law (see Article 25 of the Belgic Confession). They also include the civil codes, as they applied directly to national Israel. But they all still apply to us. Paul, for instance, can use an obscure command from Deuteronomy about muzzling oxen as a continuing norm for the churches. The ceremonial laws instruct us about the meaning and depth of Christ’s atoning death (see Hebrews 9:1-10), as well as carry continued ethical implications for the new covenant people of God (see 1Cor.5:6-82Cor.6:14-7:1).  Even the curses pronounced in the law, which for us have blessedly been fully exhausted in Christ, continue to warn and exhort us.

Of course other commands do apply directly to us, such as, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” found in the Holiness Code of Leviticus, and, “You shall have no other gods before Me,” found in the Ten Commandments and echoed throughout the whole Pentateuch (not the mention the rest of the Bible).

So the law, in its entirety, continues to guide us as a map. And this certainly includes the Ten Commandments, which are featured prominently in both the Old and New Testaments. This is historically known as the third use of the law (the so-called second use will be addressed in the sermon series).


Law as Model

Finally, the reason the law continues to be both instructive and applicable to us is because it is the true and glorious revelation of God’s eternal nature and holy character. This is the basic thrust of Moses’ lengthy preface to the Ten Commandments, which stand as the head and summary of all Israel’s laws.  Here he recounts the nation’s traumatic “face to face” (Dt.5:4) encounter with their God on Mt. Sinai. In the giving of the law, Israel met the God of their fathers. There they experienced not only a righteous Judge, punishing all those who hate him, but also a merciful Redeemer and forgiving Lord – full of grace and truth (Ex.34:6-7).

So when we read the law of Moses, we too encounter the living God. We see his unchanging character and righteous decrees, which are (still) better than gold and sweeter than honey (Ps.19:10). But as “holy and righteous and good” as the law is, it isn’t God’s final or even best word to us.  Israel didn’t see God in their encounter on Sinai.  They only heard the voice and the thunder, and saw the thick smoke and fire.  Moses likewise only saw on the mountain the “backside” of God’s glory (Ex.33:20-23).  But in God’s final word to us, the word to which all the Law and the Prophets point, we encounter something even better:

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. … For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.  For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.

The law is the model.  Jesus is the real deal – in the flesh!

As we study and savor the Ten Commandments – an eloquent encapsulation of the entire Law, and, as such, a pristine model of God’s character and flawless expression of his righteousness – we better understand and more fully enjoy the all-surpassing value and infinitely sweeter knowledge of God found in Jesus Christ.

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