on the place of the ten commandments

What place would you say the Ten Commandments still has for us today?

It has always struck me that for many non-Christians, and not a few self-professed Christians as well, the heart of Christianity is the Ten Commandments: whether or not you adhere to them, the similarity of your life in comparison to the standards and ideas laid out on those stone tablets. The measure of how good a Christian you are seems to hinge on your ability to mold yourself based on the Ten Commandments, your ability to transcend your own nature and force yourself to become godly and Ten Commandments-y.

Now on the other hand some would say that the Ten Commandments are not really relevant anymore. If the Old Testament is all about wrath and Law and the New about grace and Jesus, that means that they have no power over us anymore; they might be important in a sentimental kind of way, but if we’re honest, irrelevant in practice. It’s all about grace and forgiveness, not based on what we do but based on what Jesus does.

But here’s a curious image: think about the context of the Ten Commandments – what came before it, what came after it? Notice how before the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20) was the Exodus, not the other way around. The Law was not given to the Israelites to prove themselves worthy of rescue; it was given after God had already carried them on eagle’s wings out of Egypt and brought them to himself. When the angel of death was sent to kill all the firstborn in Egypt (including those of Israel), it was not moral goodness and holiness that made Israel worthy of protection, but the blood of innocent lambs. And what came after the giving of the Ten Commandments? Pretty soon afterward God laid out how Israel was to provide burnt offerings, how she would kill even more innocent lambs – almost as if he knew that the Israelites would need to protect themselves from more wrath.

So what saved the Israelites before they were given the Law? The blood of lambs. What saved them after they were given the Law? The blood of lambs, because as the Old Testament shows, they proved incapable of following the Law even mostly (nevermind completely), and very much capable of bringing down wrath upon themselves. The constant animal sacrifices and the wrath must have been a sobering reminder to the Israelites that were very far from being able to live according to their God’s standards, and in serious need of someone or something to help them do so.

Because the old Law was, as Paul said (2 Cor 3:7-9) a ministry of death and condemnation. The Ten Commandments are a charter of God’s perfection, and their job was very much to make us realise how hopelessly rotten we are, how hopelessly unable we are to reach God’s level. If one looks at the Ten Commandments and sees something very much doable, he is either vastly overestimating his ability or probably has a vastly underrated view of what perfection means!

But back to the blood of lambs – that is what saved God’s people from the final plague in Egypt, it’s what saved them during their tumultuous relationship with God in the days of the Kingdom of Israel, and it’s what saves them today. It’s what saves the Church today from the crushing weight of God’s glory. The Law’s killing goodness and the soberingly regular sacrifices were always meant to teach one abiding, life-giving lesson: we cannot take away our own sins by attaining the impossible standards of an impossibly holy God, and so we are always one sacrifice away from wrath.

But the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, became the final lamb sacrifice, to finally put an end to our sin, put an end to the Law’s ability to condemn us, and do to the fullest what the blood of hundreds of thousands of innocent lambs could only whisper of: make us finally and forever right with God. The Lamb’s name is Jesus.

It is the death on the cross and resurrection of Jesus the Son of God that makes us right with God, not adherence to the Law. Adherence to the Law has never been possible and will never be this side of heaven. So as Christians today let’s look at the Law knowing what the blood of the Lamb has done. The Law is still good, as it always has been (because it was given by a good God), but that goodness is no longer an awful, dreadful, killing goodness, it is now something that we can own and reach for because of the saving, life-giving power of Jesus Christ. Instead of dreading its condemnation of our sinfulness, we are free to finally own and live the Law’s goodness, because we are in Christ, because he is bigger than all our weaknesses, past, present or future.

And so let’s not trample the Law by holding it unimportant in an age of grace – because it is good, and our inability to attain that goodness was so serious that God sent his Son to rectify it. And Jesus himself said that he’d come not to abolish the Law but fulfill it (Mat 5:17-18), and in many ways make it even more extensive! But on the other hand let’s not fall into the trap of worshipping it instead of the King who made it – the one who set it over us so that we could give up on our own goodness and live in his. We shouldn’t live as practical Pharisees, giving lip service to the unique power of Jesus but in reality making it all dependent on our performance, our morality.

Let’s not rely on obedience to the Law to save us, because that was never what the Law was meant for. Let’s not follow God in a way that depends on how good and moral we can be. The Law was and remains a charter of God’s goodness but not the key to attaining it. But now instead of feeling dread at that goodness, we feel relief and joy. Because through Christ the price of imperfection has been paid for, and the goodness of the Law is now ours to live, free from fear, anxiety and performance.

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