Growing up, I revered the Ten Commandments. My understanding of them, however, was limited in such a way that revealed my pride: They were to me a list of what I should (and could) do to earn God’s favor.
To me, the Ten Commandments seemed an achievable measure of a sinless life. There’s only ten of them, I’d think to myself, it can’t be that hard.
I read the Ten Commandments with me at the center. I thought God was talking about me only: Do this. Don’t do that. I thought he was telling me how I should behave in order to be a part of his family.
I would learn the law was and is way more than this. The Ten Commandments are not pre-requisites to joining God’s people, but his response to the Israelites after he made them his people. Nor are they only about human behavior, but also about God’s character.
Through the Ten Commandments, which are given in all seriousness and severity, God graciously teaches his already adopted children how to be holy like him.
Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount
Thinking I could live a sinless life brought me into a place of great ignorance and naivety.
I sinned, and I twisted the specificity of Exodus 20 to explain away my sin. For example, I placed many things before God, but, I explained to myself, I did not have any carved images I bowed down to. I hated others, but I hadn’t killed anyone. I coveted my friend’s PlayStation, but I didn’t covet their house, their wife, or their oxen!
Did I really think that when I stood in front of the Judgment Seat I would be saved by some technicalities?
It was Jesus who showed me how flawed my thoughts were, and how great a sinner I had always been. Read these chilling words, just one of many great truths in the sermon on the mount:
“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.” (Matthew 5:21-22)
I call them chilling because they caused me to break out in a cold sweat, realizing I, without Christ, was liable to the hell of fire. I had not been perfect, nor could I ever be.
Jesus seems to be placing a heavy burden on people. He sets the standard unachievably high and says that anyone who slips up is “liable to the hell of fire.” And yet, Jesus will later say. “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11.29-30).
How do we make sense of this?
Why Is the Standard Set So High?
In this sermon Jesus gave from the mount, he said to those listening:
“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.” (Matthew 5:17)
In other words, Jesus’s ministry did not preach that the Ten Commandments were null and void. He came to say that they were as active as ever! More than this, Jesus preaches that the commandments require more of me than I originally thought.
More than avoiding a specific behavior, like murder, Christ reveals that perfect obedience to the law also requires one to abstain from evil thoughts against a brother!
In Unlocking the Bible Story, Pastor Colin Smith offers some insight into why the law requires unrelenting perfection:
Every one of the Ten Commandments… reflects some aspect of the character of God… Why should you not commit adultery? Because God is faithful… Why should you not lie? Because God is truth. (80-81)
Far more than a man-centric to-do list, the Ten Commandments teach us about God’s perfect character. The laws are windows into God’s holiness. And it follows, then, to fulfill the law means to be God himself.
Be holy, for I am holy. (Leviticus 11:44, 45; 19:2; 21:8; 1 Peter 1:16)
God commands holiness. But never forget this wonderful truth about our God: God gives what he commands. He, in his grace and majesty, has provided holiness to us through the perfect life, atoning death, and death-defeating resurrection of Jesus Christ:
For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21)
Yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. … I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. (Galatians 2:16, 20)
When I re-read Matthew 5 and Exodus 20 with the above verses in mind, I can almost hear Jesus’s voice saying, “You must do these things. But you will never be able to do them on your own—you need me! Believe in me.”
Praise Jesus, that he did not leave us after the Sermon on the Mount. God did not come down to earth only to show us our sin, though this was part of his mission. Jesus took on human flesh to pay the penalty for those sins. Jesus came so we may be reconciled back to God.
Run Toward Lasting Joy
Here is what I completely missed about the Ten Commandments: For the Christian, the law doesn’t push us from God, it brings us closer to him! The law, like all Scripture, graciously reveals God’s character to us.
Without Christ, the law is frightening, “since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20). With Christ, however, our sin is wiped away, and the law becomes a great gift revealing to us God’s holy, immutable nature.
God does not keep himself secret from us. In his great mercy, our God reveals himself to us knowing that it will bring lasting joy. Through Jesus, we no longer fixate on our sins. While we still hate what is evil, we focus on what is good.
We run toward holiness, toward lasting joy found in the Lord, with complete assurance due to our relationship with Jesus Christ.