Exodus 20:1-17 New International Version (NIV)
1 And God spoke all these words: 2 “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. 3 “You shall have no other gods before me.
4 “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
7 “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.
8 “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
12 “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.
13 “You shall not murder.
14 “You shall not commit adultery.
15 “You shall not steal.
16 “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
We are in week three of Lent, and less than one month away from Easter Sunday. Lent is meant to be a period of reflection and introspection. We take these forty days, which are symbolic of Jesus’s time in the wilderness, to ask what we have done wrong and how we can do better. For some of us, forty days isn’t long enough to cover all of that. I’ve got a long way to go, and I am thankful for the grace of God and those around me. Please know that I am trying to be a better person, a better pastor, a better husband, a better father, and a better son.
As we walk through these next few weeks, I simply want to invite you to join me in this endeavor to do better and to be better. Not because this will make God love us more, and not because following all the rules will get us into heaven when we die. No, I believe the teachings of Jesus and the ethical teachings within the Bible are meant to help us live in the best way possible here on earth. These rules are for our own good.
Last week I spoke about how Paul was essentially throwing out some rules, or at least saying that they were no longer necessary. I called those rules “purity laws.” These were the laws that kept the Jewish people “pure” and separate from the Gentiles. There are also “holiness laws,” laws that are meant to keep the people of God from worshipping other gods. While I don’t think that all of these laws still need to be followed to the last iota, the point is still valid. The same thing is true with the ethical laws. The point of the ethical laws is still just as relevant as it ever was. And in many cases, when Jesus talks about the point of these laws, he makes them even more difficult to keep.
Today we are looking at what we commonly call “The Ten Commandments.” The commandments show us that it isn’t always that easy to distinguish between holiness and ethical teachings, as some of these would be difficult to put into one category or another. For instance, Don’t work on the Sabbath, sounds like an ethical teaching, to keep it holy makes it sound like a holiness teaching. So they aren’t always that clear, but it also doesn’t always really matter.
But let’s start by messing with everything that you’ve ever been taught about the Ten Commandments. First question, which is the first commandment? If you are a Christian, you will probably start at verse 3, “You shall have no other gods before me.” But if you are a Jew, you will start with verse 2, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.”
To make it come out to ten commandments, Jewish people traditionally combine what we Christians consider numbers two and three, “You shall have no other gods before me,” and the extended commandment about not making any graven images.
Now if you are paying close attention, you may read that first part about God being the one who brought the people out of Egypt and say, “That isn’t a commandment; that’s a historical reference.” And if you said that, you would be right! So how can the Jewish people call this the Ten Commandments?
Do you know who else doesn’t? The Bible. The Bible calls them the Devarim, the words, the sayings. Nowhere does the Bible call them commandments. And nowhere does the Bible say that there are ten. If you separate out all of the different sayings about not coveting, you actually get the 14 or 15 words. But “the 14-15 words” just doesn’t roll off your tongue like “The Ten Commandments.” And they are commandments, even if they aren’t labeled as such by the Bible, and they can be placed into ten different categories.
So don’t be too critical of the Jewish people and how they categorize and number these teachings. If we are honest, they’ve been doing it longer than we have, so we should respect their decisions.
But there is more to the Jewish way of numbering than a random decision to start in verse two rather than verse three. When Moses received the Ten Commandments, the Hebrew people had just come out of slavery in Egypt where they were subjected to teachings about all sorts of different gods and demigods. However, they hadn’t received much teaching about the God of their ancestors. So this is a clear reminder to them of who is speaking these words to them and the authority that he has. This isn’t some distant and out-of-touch deity. This is the God of the Exodus, laying claim on these people. I will be your God, and you will be my people. Therefore, as my people, this is how you are to act, this is how you are to live. This is how you are to treat your servants, this is how you are to treat your neighbors.
One more thing I want to bring to your attention before we dig into some of the details here. Look at verse 17, the commandment about not coveting: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
Notice that your neighbor’s house is separated out, and then everything else is lumped together. By lumping the rest together, it would appear that our neighbors’ wives are essentially put on the same level as our neighbors’ donkeys. I don’t know what to make of that.
Actually, I do. We know that women were seen as possessions in those day, as were the servants. The Ten Commandments were originally given soon after the Israelites came out of Egypt. But after the Israelites wander in the wilderness for forty years, they receive the Torah again. That is the meaning of Deuteronomy, second [giving of the] law. And we find the Ten Commandments again in Deuteronomy 5 with very little change, only slightly different wording. But the wording seems significant when it speaks of women. After 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, now the women are not lumped together with the donkeys. The men and women servants are, but at least for the free women, there is some progress.
And if you recall as I opened this message, I said that I believe that is what God is looking for. God wants us to make progress. God doesn’t expect perfection, but God does expect us to try, to make an effort, to make progress.
The first few commandments seem to be focused on the supremacy of the God of Israel. Even the opening remarks about God being the one who brought the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt is a reminder of all the signs and wonders that God has done. God is more powerful than the gods of Egypt. God is more powerful than Pharaoh. Therefore, you should not put any gods before the God of Israel.
God continues by saying that the people should not make any image of things above, on, or below the earth. It isn’t clear if they aren’t supposed to make images of anything, or if they just aren’t supposed to make images of things and then worship them. If you read the next verse, however, I’m pretty sure it is the second option. Immediately after the commandment to not make any images, the next line says, and don’t worship those images. Well if you don’t make any images, you can’t be tempted to worship them. So I’m going to say that this isn’t a prohibition against all images, but a prohibition against making images that represent a deity. Don’t even try to make an image of the God of Israel, because nobody has seen him, so any attempt to make such an image will lead to idolatry.
Just a quick aside, this is the reason why Amish dolls do not have faces and why the Amish do not want to have their picture taken. These are seen as created images, which they believe is forbidden by this passage.
This section on the supremacy of God concludes with the reminder that even God’s name is holy and should not be abused. I personally think that this is a reference to what we often call the “tetragrammaton,” the holy name of God which is sometimes pronounced “Jehovah,” and more recent scholarship has suggested that it should be pronounced, “Yahweh.” Which is right? We don’t know, because the Jewish people were so afraid to utter this name that we lost the pronunciation over the years.
While I think that many people are missing the point and being a little legalistic about the saying of God’s name, I also have a deep respect for the Hebrew tradition of referring to God as “Ha Shem,” the name, or reading the Tetragrammaton as “Adonai,” Lord, instead of uttering the name out loud. There is deep reverence there, and I think that is the point. Reverence for the supremacy of the God of Israel over all others.
The Ten Commandments are often included in our Lent readings because Lent is a time to reflect and ask how we can do better. And today I lament that in many ways the Ten Commandments seem to be under attack in our society. I don’t mean that in the sense that some do when they argue for putting the Ten Commandments in the courthouses of America. I say that the Ten Commandments are under attack because I fear that we have failed to remember the supremacy of God. We have put other gods before God; we have made objects into idols.
Here is the thing about placing other things before God and making idols out of objects: it happens slowly and unintentionally. You tell yourself it is just going to be this time, or you justify something by saying that it is for the greater good or for the protection of your family. As we go down these slippery slopes, even something good and helpful can become an idol. And here’s the tricky thing, it might not be an idol for everyone just because it is an idol for some.
I debated whether to even mention this or not because it is such a divisive topic. But I feel compelled to share an example of how some people can make idols out of something while others can use that object without crossing that line. The object that I am speaking of is a gun.
I grew up in a hunting culture where many of my classmates missed a week of school every year for hunting season. I’ve shot my fair share of guns, and I don’t mind saying that I think it can be fun to shoot guns. I enjoy target practice, and I’m not too bad of a shot. Though we have chosen not to have a gun in our home, I understand why some people want to have a gun for protection. I disagree, but I understand.
I believe that most people in the United States do not see guns as an idol and do not put them before God. But some do. Last Sunday a church in Pennsylvania had a blessing ceremony where over two hundred people gathered, many carrying AR-15’s, some with crowns made of bullets. This was done less than two weeks after Nikolas Cruz used the same weapon to kill 17 people in a Florida High School.
The AR-15 is often classified as an assault rifle, though the AR does not stand for assault rifle, but for the name of the original manufacturer. The AR-15 and similar versions are semiautomatic versions of guns originally manufactured for the military. This is the style of gun that was used in not only in the recent school shooting, but also Orlando and Las Vegas. They can shoot a lot of bullets and shoot them very quickly.
Here’s the thing, most people support either a ban or a limit on assault-style weapons. Most people support banning “bump stocks,” which can essentially turn an AR-15 into a fully-automatic weapon. But many people don’t.
What I hear people saying is that if we limit the sale of assault weapons, the entire 2nd amendment is in danger. They won’t give an inch out of the fear that they will lose a mile.
I understand that fear, but I also believe that perfect love casts out all fear. When we put owning an assault rifle, whose sole purpose is taking human life, above the teachings of God, we’ve made that gun an idol. When we put the 2nd Amendment above the 6th Commandment, we have made it an idol.
Now don’t think that I’m naïve; I don’t think that there is any one simple solution to the gun violence problem that we have in the United States. I hear people say that we have a problem with guns, and I agree. I hear people saying we have problems with mental health and we should invest more time and money in that area, and I agree. I hear people blaming the bullying culture and violent video games, and I agree. I hear that we have a heart problem, and I agree. But ultimately, I believe we have an idolatry problem, idolizing our rights, idolizing our weapons, and glorifying violence. I think that our first step is to repent of our idolatry and turn back to the supremacy of God.
I applaud those who are making a difference. Dick’s Sporting Goods has decided that they will no longer sell assault rifles, even though that means that they will lose a lot of money. Dick’s, Walmart, and Kroger announced this week that they will voluntarily raise the age requirement to buy guns and ammo to 21. To which I say, “Kroger sells guns?” It’s one-stop shopping. We need bread, milk, and 22 long rifle ammunition.
My friends, I don’t want to take your guns away, but we do need to make progress. Let us start by repenting of idolatry, whatever that might be for you. And let us move toward something better, to supremacy of the God who called the Israelites out of captivity. The one and only God of all, revealed to us in Christ Jesus.