In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Luther begins his summary of the Commandments in the Large Catechism saying:
“Thus we have the Ten Commandments, a summary of divine teaching about what we are to do in order that our whole life may be pleasing to God. Everything that is to be a good work must arise and flow from and in this true fountain and channel. So apart from the Ten Commandments, no work or thing can be good or pleasing to God, no matter how great or precious it is in the eyes of the world” (LC I 311).
We can say right away that reading and hearing the Ten Commandments lead us immediately to realize our guilt, that we have not kept the Commandments as we should. We indeed do hear them teach “what we are to do in order that our whole life may be pleasing to God”—and confess, “My whole life is not pleasing to God in what I think, say, or do.” The Law does its work: Lex semper accusat. The Law always accuses.
Yet what have we done with this holy Word of God by going right to “The Rules” and wondering, “How well have I done?” We skip right over God’s words of mercy, grace, and deliverance—words of Gospel, Good News for His people—and we forget about the setting in which God gave these words, and His purpose for them. How does God the Holy Spirit have Moses begin this part of the account? “And God spoke all these words.” What does He call them? Not commandments, but words. Whose words are they? God’s words, which makes them holy and true and good. They should also remind us, first and foremost, of Him who is the Word of the Lord, God the Son, Christ Jesus. His Word is living and active, and it does what it says. “And God spoke all these words, saying, ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.’” Before the Lord God sets forth a single command, He declares who He is and what He has done for His people, what He has done for you. He speaks very personally here. The King James Version is clearer: “I am the Lord thy God”—thy, second person singular. He is speaking to thee, each one of you. There are different ways of numbering the Commandments. The traditional Jewish numbering doesn’t begin with “You shall have no other gods,” but with this word instead: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”
When we begin our meditation on these words of God with thoughts of “how I’m doing,” we’re already off the mark. Where does the Word start? With God, and what He has done for us! By the time of our text, when God is giving the Commandments as part of His covenant with His chosen people Israel, He has already brought them out of their slavery in Egypt, through the Red Sea, defeating their enemies, and through the desert to Mount Sinai. All are His work of grace, mercy, deliverance, salvation, loving-kindness, “without any merit or worthiness” in them. The Law, or the Torah, the teaching of God in these Commandments, is a gift of God, His gracious word to you. He is your Creator, and He is your Redeemer. He is Goodness and Love. He is also your neighbor’s Creator and Redeemer, and He loves your neighbor just as He loves you. “In order to live as a creature, it is necessary to fear, love, and trust your Creator, to use his name properly and listen to what he has to say. And in order to live among other people, it is necessary to observe some elementary human requirements—to honor parents, protect life and its genesis, to respect property, the communication among neighbors, and the trust necessary to community life” (James Nestingen). God’s Commandments, and His preface to them, are words of and for peace, rest, reconciliation, trust, providence, love, mercy, and life.
Each of the Ten Commandments goes back to this first word of God, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of … slavery.” For His ancient people, it was from an earthly bondage to another nation. For all people everywhere, it is rescue from slavery to sin, death, the devil, and our own sinful flesh. Once we get to the Commandments, the very first one tells us how we are to regard this God who created and redeemed us, and Luther rightly calls it “the first and chief commandment, from which all the others must flow and proceed” (LC I 324). Ponder each one, why God has given that commandment, His good purpose for it, and how it has been broken, and you will see that each one goes back to the First Commandment: “You shall have no other gods before Me.” “For I the Lord your God am a jealous God.” There are no other true gods. The Triune God is the sole being who exists of Himself and needs no other; He is the sole being who could make us and all creatures and continually sustain us; and He is the sole being who could rescue us from the mire of sin. God warns His people—all people, really—against idol-making because the fallen human heart is an idol factory. “Let us, then, learn well the First Commandment,” Luther exhorts, “since it is of chief importance, because … where the heart is rightly disposed toward God, and this commandment is observed, all the others follow” (LC I 47–48). The First Commandment exhorts us to faith and trust in this one true God, “that man’s entire heart and all his confidence be placed in God alone, and in no one else. For to have God … [is] when the heart lays hold of Him and clings to Him. But to cling to Him with the heart is nothing else than to trust in Him entirely. For this reason He wishes to turn us away from everything else that exists outside of Him, and to draw us to Himself, namely, because He is the only eternal good” (LC I 13–15).
In the Third Commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy,” God explains the reason not only for why He gave the Sabbath, the day of rest, but more of the ‘why’ of all the Commandments: “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” (Ex 20:11). It comes back to who He is and what He has done, and that we are totally dependent upon Him as His creatures, and as dearly beloved children of our dear heavenly Father. That is why He gives fathers and mothers to children, to be His stand-ins, to be “God with skin on” to their children, who are dependent on them for life, sustenance, protection, and learning. To honor your parents is, in truth, to honor God. And how long are you to honor your father and your mother? Not as long as they live, but as long as you live.
Nancy Pearcey used to be an agnostic, but she is now a Christian, and a professor of apologetics at Houston Baptist University. She is also the author of several books on faith, culture, science, and anthropology (our understanding of man and human nature). Among her books are Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity, Finding Truth: 5 Principles for Unmasking Atheism, Secularism, and Other God Substitutes, and her latest, due out soon, Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions about Life and Sexuality. In the current issue of Salvo magazine, she writes about modern society’s contempt for the Sixth Commandment, and the Fifth, and the First:
“A society’s view of sex reflects its deeper commitments—its prevailing ethos or worldview. The sexual liberation ethic stems from an underlying idea that the world is a product of blind, material forces. As a recent New Yorker article put it, ‘the loyalty oath of modernity’ is that ‘nature is without conscious design … the emergence of Homo sapiens was without meaning or telos’ (purpose).
“And if the human body is said to have no meaning or purpose, neither does sex. On one hand, that means we are free to make up our own rules. On the other hand, it means that under all the hype about being bold and experimental is a fundamental despair—the belief that sex is insignificant in a literal sense: signifying nothing.”
“Make up our own rules.” Be our own ‘gods.’ It’s the same old first temptation the serpent used in the Garden of Eden. It really is as Solomon said: “There is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl [Qoh] 1:9). In the midst of the war between the law of God in his mind and the law of in his flesh, St. Paul cried out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Rom 7:24) In the war waging in our culture between faith in the God who speaks truth and creates reality, and faith in human hearts and minds that speak lies and create delusions, we may cry out, “Wretched mankind that we are! Who will rescue us from this mentality of meaninglessness?” And faith answers, confessing as Paul did, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom 7:25) Talk about keeping the First Commandment!
That’s what today’s Epistle and Gospel readings are really about: God once again fulfills His first word to His people at the head of the Commandments, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of … slavery,” by sending His Son to cleanse His temple, and by then giving His beloved and only-begotten Son to be The Temple, the place of sacrifice and the place of God’s presence, and by His Holy Spirit to cleanse the hearts of the people. Where you could not by your own reason or strength believe in Him or keep His commandments, Jesus has believed and obeyed for you. In your stead, He suffered the false accusations that He was a lawbreaker—from those temple “servants” who defiled the temple! Notice that they would later take Jesus’ words, “You destroy this temple (meaning His body) and in three days I will raise it up,” and twist them into false witness which they would bear against Him in His trial before the Council: “This man said, ‘I am able to destroy this temple, and to rebuild it in three days’” (Mt 26:61). (He never said any such thing.)
Your God and Savior Jesus Christ suffered in His whole being the breaking of every Commandment—and so much of it directed right at Him, even as He was beaten, spat upon, whipped, and as He hung on the cross. His anguish and agony—what sorrow! But don’t despair! For that is why He came, that by His sacrifice, His suffering in body and soul, the shedding of His holy, precious blood and His innocent suffering and death, you don’t have to suffer that punishment for your sin. Washed in His blood through Holy Baptism, you are in Him, and all His obedience, all His righteousness, all His keeping of the Commandments, is yours. Christ Jesus has made His God and Father your God and Father, and God has made Him your wisdom and your righteousness and sanctification and redemption. So go ahead and delight to love the Lord your God with all your being, and to love your neighbor as yourself. And go ahead and boast in the Lord, who has done this for you and in you. Go ahead, boast … in Him!
In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.