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What are we to make of the commandments?

Exodus 20:1-17

Rev. Alan Taylor

Lent 3, series B
St. John Lutheran Church  
Galveston, Texas

Sun, Mar 7, 2021 

Lent 3B St. John, Galveston 3/7/21

Exodus 20:1-17

+ In Nomine Jesu +

Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Today’s message is based on the Old Testament reading from Exodus 20. It is the giving of the Ten Commandments. Certainly, there is way too much in the reading to consider each of the commandments individually and separately. What I’d like to this morning is for us to think of God’s commandments more broadly. For instance, when God gave the commandments to Moses to give to the Israelites, what was His intention in terms of how the commandments were to be kept? Since we can’t keep the commandments fully, why did God give them to us in the first place? In a faith such as our own, a faith that trusts in the grace of God and the forgiveness of sins, what purpose do the commandments have today? 

Many people believe that the commandments had one meaning in the Old Testament and another in the New Testament. There are a number of passages in the New Testament where Jesus seems to take the meaning of the commandments to higher level. For instance, in Matthew 5, Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” It seems that He interprets the commandments to include, not just what we do, but what we think as well.

And so, some would say that Jesus reinterpreted the commandments in broader, in a much fuller and more encompassing manner. But Jesus really did no such thing. The commandments, as they were given by Moses, were always intended to address our thoughts, our words and our deeds. They weren’t ever intended to be understood superficially, or as merely directed to our actions. In fact, even in the Old Testament, we’re told that the keeping of the commandments is a matter of the heart. Thus, in Leviticus 19, God says to His people through Moses, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.” And then, in the New Testament, Jesus says the fulfillment of the Law is “to love the Lord, your God, with your whole mind, body and soul, and to love your neighbor as yourself.”

So, the commandments are a matter of actions, but they are first and foremost matters of the heart. They apply to our thoughts, words and deeds, to what we’ve done and to what we haven’t done. And, as Jesus said, they are fulfilled only in perfect love. So, there isn’t any concept of a mechanical fulfilling of the law. It’s the motivation that counts.

That being the case, the commandments catch us and condemn us from every direction. While we might think that we have kept them by our actions, we are then convicted by our thoughts, or by our inaction as having failed to uphold them. It is for this very reason, that is, for our failure to keep the commandments, that St. Paul says, “By works of the law no human being will be justified in (God’s) sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” In the end, the commandments can’t save us. To the contrary, they can only show us how bad we are and how far short we have fallen from the will and the plan of God for our lives.

That said, we might well ask then, what is their purpose? What are we to make of the commandments? What can they do and what can’t they do in our lives? Some, it would seem, have the mistaken notion that if we proudly display the commandments in our public places, in our courthouses and schools around the land, we will become a holy and righteous nation. As if the commandments themselves make us who they call us to be. But the commandments don’t make us holy. Again, their most proper purpose is to show us just how far we have fallen from the Glory of God. They aren’t given to give us hope for a brighter day, but to give us concern for and uneasiness about ourselves.

Ultimately, the commandments are given to drive us away from ourselves, from putting our hope in ourselves for our salvation. As we read or hear the commandments recited to us, we are compelled by the word of God and by our conscience to confess to God that, “we have not loved Him with our whole heart, and we have not loved our neighbor as ourselves. Thus, we justly deserve His temporal and His eternal punishment.”

We are driven by the commandments to find hope and comfort in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and that, for two reasons. One, as the perfect Son of God, He gave His life in perfect satisfaction for our sins. The wages of sin, we are told, is death. Jesus died a sinner’s death. Not that He died having committed sin, but that He died having become sin, having been made sin. His death, then, was to satisfy the Law’s exacting demand that “the soul that sins shall surely die.”

This is what we commonly refer to, or think of, as the Gospel. Jesus died for the sins of the world in fulfillment of the righteous demands of the Law. There is though, another aspect of the Gospel that isn’t often stressed. It’s no less important than Jesus’ passive action, His having given His life on the cross for the sins of the world. This other aspect of the Gospel was fulfilled by Jesus in an active sense. 

We are confronted today with the commandments as given to us by Moses in Exodus 20. We recognize our failure to keep the commandments and we know that Jesus died on the cross to give us forgiveness. Still, we may well wonder how God sees us in relation to the commandments. I’m reminded of a bumper sticker I once saw on a car. It said, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.” There is a sense in which that statement is true. Christians still sin. Christians still fail in regard to the commandments. And yes, Christians are forgiven by the death and resurrection of Jesus. So, in one sense, that statement is true.

But, in another sense, that statement couldn’t be more wrong because it fails to understand the active obedience of Jesus in relation to God’s law, even as it fails to understand the exchange that took place between you and Jesus, when you came to faith in Him. First, Jesus lived His life in active obedience to the will of His Father, which includes every last one of the commandments. Jesus is the perfect man!! He is the One, the only One who ever kept all of the commandments perfectly, with perfect intent and perfect love!! Again, He is the perfect man!!

Had Jesus not kept the commandments perfectly, His death on the cross would have been of no benefit to you or to me because He would have died, not for the sins of the world, but for His own sins. In that sense, it was necessary that He keep every command of the Father. But it was also necessary for Him to keep every command perfectly in order for you to be seen as perfect in the eyes of the Father. When someone says, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven,” there is a sense in which they are profoundly mistaken and downright wrong.

While you may appear righteous to yourself, or to others in the world, you are righteous in the sight of God. Your righteousness though in not in yourself, it is in Christ, who lived a perfectly righteous life in your stead. Do you lament the fact that you have failed in this or that aspect of the Law? Then look to Christ, for He kept that aspect of the Law perfectly in your stead! 

Luther was fond of calling this righteous that we have before God a passive righteousness. Of this righteousness of faith, he preached a sermon in 1531, wherein he explained the great comfort and peace that is ours in this aspect of the Gospel.

He says, “In this righteousness we do nothing; nor do we have anything to give to God; we only receive and suffer Another to work within us, to wit, God. That is why this righteousness of faith, or this Christian righteousness, may be called a passive righteousness. This is the righteousness shrouded in mystery, a righteousness which the world does not understand, nay, one which even Christians do not sufficiently grasp and which they find difficult to cling to in times of temptation. This is why we must constantly drill it and stress it without ceasing. And he who does not grasp it and cling to it in afflictions and amid the terrors of conscience cannot hold his own; for besides this passive righteousness there is no other comfort of conscience so firm and certain.”

Jesus was made sin and died for you, but first He lived a perfect life in your stead, in your place. Thus, “Christians, at least before God, are perfect, because they are forgiven.” In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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