Ten Commandments – or Just One?

LENT 3B – 11th March, 2012 – St Matthew’s, Guildford


On the walls of the south transept of St Matthew’s, you will see four large framed items (“plaques” doesn’t do them justice).  One bears the Lord’s Prayer, one the Apostles’ Creed and two the Ten Commandments.  I believe these held pride of place on the pillars either side of the sanctuary for many years.  I’m sure some of you remember when they were relocated to the south transept, and I imagine the move was not accomplished without some difference of opinion.  The plaques represent dearly held traditions both in their content and their relative antiquity.

In the United States, a land containing proportionately many more “Bible-believing Christians” than our own, there are often demands that the Ten Commandments be inscribed prominently in such places as courthouses and parliamentary buildings.  Somehow it is believed that the presence of the Decalogue (a fancy word for the Commandments!) will bring about a wave of better behaviour in the general populace and a reduction in crime.

Even here in Australia, we not infrequently read letters to the Editors of our newspapers with much the same sort of suggestions.  “Bring back the Lord’s Prayer in our schools and teach the kids the Ten Commandments and there’ll be less juvenile delinquency”, they say.  And if I had a dollar for every time someone has said to me, “If everyone just lived by the Ten Commandments, the world would be a much better place”, I could retire comfortably tomorrow!    The little devil on my shoulder often urges me to ask the person, “OK, please enlighten me – what is the sixth of the commandments?”   And sometimes I succumb.

The Ten Commandments are often talked about, but usually not genuinely well-known in detail.

I suppose everyone would like a better world, with no crime – theft, lying and murder – and possibly no adultery; but very few people – myself included – know how to live without coveting something which another person possesses.  And even less folk want to acknowledge God as the only God, with all the challenges that would make to daily living.  No, it seems that the “Ten Commandments”, like most other codes of behaviour, are “for other people”.

Well, the truth is that the Ten Commandments were not given for all people and for all time!  Heretical as it may seem for a priest to say so, God did not give the Decalogue as a set of rules for all humanity, much as they may be seen as appropriate for all.

The context of today’s reading from Exodus chapter 20 is that of the people of Israel living in and traversing the wilderness after God has used Moses to lead them out of their slavery in Egypt.  They are on their way to the Promised Land, having fled Egypt by night, having crossed the Red Sea on dry land, and having been provided by God with good food and sweet water in what must have seemed impossible circumstances.

For the last two Sundays, we have heard readings from the book Genesis, telling us of God’s “covenants” with Noah and Abraham, and today’s reading comes from the book Exodus in the context of yet another “covenant”.

In the Noah story, God has destroyed all of humanity, with the exception of Noah and his immediate family, in a flood which covered the whole earth.  In the covenant with Noah, God promises,

As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 10and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. *I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.[1]

And God gives the rainbow as a sign of the covenant.

Last Sunday, we heard of God’s covenant with Abraham, with God declaring,

I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring* after you. And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God.’[2]

And the sign of that covenant is that Abraham and all the males of his household and future generations are to be circumcised.

The scope of God’s covenants – or at least the people covered – is narrowing.

Today’s covenant involves “only” the people of Israel whom God has brought out of Egypt and their descendants in perpetuity.  The First Commandment sets the context quite precisely:

I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.”

And then follow the other nine:

  • No idols
  • No “wrongful use” of God’s name
  • Keep the Sabbath
  • Honour your parents
  • No murder
  • No adultery
  • No stealing
  • No lying
  • And no coveting

These are the rules; keeping these is the responsibility of those who are included in the covenant established by God with God’s chosen people.

And there is still no evidence that these are the rules for the rest of humanity.  We can use them, if we wish, as a guide to good living, but that is all.

Now if I were to ask you, “What are the two major parts of our Bible?” I hope you would tell me, “The Old Testament” and “The Old Testament”.  Did you know that the word “testament” is the same word as that we have translated as “covenant” so far this morning?  And do you remember that, at the Last Supper, Jesus took a cup of wine and said, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”[3]

In Jesus’ life and death and resurrection, a new covenant is established between God and all humanity – or, rather, between God and those who willingly come into this relationship through Jesus.

Let me quote again from the baptismal prayer to which I referred in last Sunday’s sermon:

“Merciful God, in your infinite love you have made a new covenant with us
in your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ,
promising to be our God and the God of our children.”

And the sign of that covenant is the pouring of water “in the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” and the marking with the sign of the cross “to show that you are marked as Christ’s own forever.”

So, if the Ten Commandments were and are for Israel and those of the Jewish faith, what are the rules for Christians, we who are under the new covenant sealed in the blood of Jesus?

Well, Jesus never claimed to have done away with the Law of Moses.  He said in the Sermon on the Mount, “I have not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfil it.”[4]  But when it came to detail, Jesus seemed on the one hand to expand and on the other to contract it.

For instance, he says, ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.”But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.’[5]  Something which leaves most of us blokes wincing!

But when he is asked by a Jewish lawyer about the commandments, he summarises them in the form we heard earlier in this service: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’[6]

And those “two great commandments” are a simple summary of the Ten.  If we genuinely love God, we will not have any other gods, nor will we worship idols or use God’s name wrongly.  And if we genuinely love our neighbour as ourselves, we will not offend against our parents or others, nor will we steal, kill, lie or commit adultery.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus gives his disciples what he calls “a new commandment”.         ”I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”[7]

So we might say that the sign of the New Covenant is simply love.  It is not about a list of negatives – “Thou shalt not …”, but it is all about “Thou shalt love”.  As Christians, we are not a lawless people, but we are a people who are freed to love and honour God, one another and everyone in our world.

Go do it!














[1] Genesis 9:9-11

[2] Genesis 17:7-8

[3] Luke 22:20

[4] Matthew 5:17

[5] Matthew 5:27-28

[6] Matthew 22:37-38

[7] John 13:34-35


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