The Decalogue

This homily draws heavily from the Catechism of the Anglican Church in North America.


 We begin our summer with the Ten Commandments.  I want to begin with two quick introductory points concerning the style and depth of the Old Testament Law.

Stylistically, written laws in the ancient world, including the Bible, were exemplary, not specific.  Today we’re used to specific laws: a law for everything, and for everything a law.  This puts a lot of weight on the role of the lawyer, discerning what laws have been broken or not broken, and arguing the case accordingly.  The ancient way was different; laws were given as examples.  The book of Leviticus deals with what to do if a bull gores and kills somebody, but not if a different kind of farm animal kills somebody.  This isn’t because only bulls are significant, but because they’re an example from which the law can be applied to a whole range of situations.  This shifts weight toward the role of the judge.  When we read the Ten Commandments, we’re looking at exemplary laws, not specific laws.

As for the depth of the commandments, the writers of Scripture always look at the human individual as a whole. They see behavior as a “fruit,” not as something external or separate from heart and character. They therefore always speak of human behavior in terms that link behavior with motivation and purpose. For Jesus, acts are only right insofar as the attitude of mind and heart that they express is right.  So when we look at the Decalogue, or the Ten Commandments, we should look not simply at the external behaviors commanded and forbidden, but also the internal character and motivation requiste to those behaviors.

How to Count to Ten

The original Hebrew has no verse numbers, much less bullet point number signs, to tell us which sentences go together as the ten commandments. As a result, there are a couple different ways that the Ten are reckoned and counted. The differences lie in how we identify the first two and last two commandments, so we’ll deal with those as they come up.

The First (Two) Commandment(s)

The First Commandment is: “I am the Lord your God, You shall have no other gods before me.”  It means that there should be nothing in my life more important than God and obeying his will. I should love, revere, trust, and worship him only (Exodus 34:14; Deuteronomy 6:4, 10-15; 12:29-31; Jeremiah 10:6-10; Matthew 4:10; 28:8-20).

Now, Only our Lord Jesus Christ worshiped God perfectly. He leads the Church today to seek to do the same (Matthew 4:1-11; 26:36-46; Revelation 4-5).  We, on the other hand, are tempted to trust in ourselves, our possessions, relationships, and success, believing that they will give us happiness, security, and meaning. We are also tempted to believe superstitions and false religious claims, and to reject God’s call to worship him alone (Psalm 73:1-17; Romans 1:18-32).

The Second Commandment is: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them.”  This means that God’s people are neither to worship man-made images of God or of other gods, nor make such images for the purpose of worshiping them. (Deuteronomy 4:15-24)

Israel worshiped the gods of the nations around them, neglected God’s Law, and corrupted the worship of the Temple, thus earning God’s punishment (Exodus 32; Judges 2:11-15, Psalm 78:56-72; Jeremiah 32:30-35).  Israel’s neighbors worshiped false gods by means of images, or idols, believing they could manipulate these imaginary gods to gain favor with them (Isaiah 40:18-26; 44:9-20).

Catholic and Lutheran tradition consider the first two commandments to be one.  The reasoning is that making images and idols to worship is simply an example of the previous prohibition against having other gods.   The Reformed tradition, which influenced Anglican liturgy, separated these due to a heightened concern for idolatry in images of Christ. To this day there are those who consider all visual depictions of Jesus to be blasphemous idols, and forbidden.

But are all carved images wrong?  No. God, who forbids the making of idols and worship of images, commanded carvings and pictures for the Tabernacle. These represented neither God nor false gods, but rather angels, trees, and fruits from the Garden of Eden (Exodus 37:1-9; 39:22-26; 1 Kings 6:14-19).

Furthermore, not all idols are images.   Relationships, habits, aspirations, and ideologies can become idols in my mind if I look to them for salvation from misery, guilt, poverty, loneliness, or despair (Ezekiel 14:4-5; Isaiah 2:20; Ephesians 5:2; 1 John 5:21).

 Apart from breaking God’s Law, idolatry is bad for us.  If I worship idols I will become like them, empty and worthless, and alienated from God, the only One who can make me whole (Psalm 115:4-8; Jeremiah 2:11-19; Romans 1:18-32).  Instead, the Holy Scriptures teach me how to worship God, and the Church’s liturgy guides my worship in keeping with the Scriptures. I can show love to God by worshiping him in this way (Romans 12:1-2; Hebrews 9:11-14; 10:11-25; 12:18-29; 13:1-19).

The Third Commandment

The Third Commandment is: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.”  This teaches us that all forms of God’s Name are holy, and those who love him should use his Name with reverence, not lightly or for selfish purposes (Leviticus 19:12; Psalm 29:2; Psalm 99:1-5; Revelation 15:3 – See Questions 169-175).  We use God’s Name irreverently when in false or half-hearted worship, oppression of the poor, and conflicts cloaked with divine cause, we use God’s Name without reverence for him, and only to further our own goals (Ezekiel 36:22-23).  Also, profanity, careless speech, broken vows, open sin, and meaningless exclamations all cheapen God’s Name. These treat God’s Name as “empty” of the reality for which it stands (Matthew 5: 33-37; Articles of Religion, 39).  Instead we are to honor and love God’s Name, in which we were baptized, by keeping our promises and by upholding honor in relationships, charity in society, justice in law, uprightness in vocation, and holiness in worship (Deuteronomy 12:11; Psalm 138:2; Proverbs 30:7-9; Matthew 5:22-23; Ephesians 4:25; James 5:12).

The Fourth Commandment

The Fourth Commandment is: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.”  “Sabbath” is from the Hebrew shavath, which means “rest.” God commanded Israel to set apart each seventh day following six days of work for rest and worship (Exodus 19:8-11).  I rest, as Israel was to rest, because God rested on the seventh day from his work of creation. The Sabbath rest brought rhythm to life, work, and worship; freedom from slavery to unending labor; and awareness that God is Lord of all time, including mine (Genesis 2:1-2; Deuteronomy 5:12-15).  We learn about the holiness of time in creation, through God’s ordering of the sun, moon, and stars; in the Law, through Israel’s calendar of sacrifices and feasts and fasts.  Also in the Church’s liturgy, patterned after Temple worship, we learn that time belongs to God and is ordered by him (Genesis 1:14-15; Numbers 28:9-10; Deuteronomy 16-18).

As its Lord, Jesus both kept and fulfilled the Sabbath (Matthew 5:17-20; Mark 2:23-27).  When the Church is perfected in Christ, all believers will be completely free from sin and its curse, and established in an eternity of love, adoration, and joy. This will be our unending Sabbath rest (Isaiah 66: 22-23; Romans 8:18-30; 1 Corinthians 15; Hebrews 4).  As we join in the Church’s weekly worship and participation in God’s heavenly rest, it brings order, meaning, and holiness to the other six days of our week (Hebrews 4:9-10; Colossians 2:16-19).

The Fifth Commandment

The Fifth Commandment is: “Honor your father and your mother.”  While still a child, I should obey my parents; also I should honor, serve, respect, love, and care for them all their lives (Proverbs 2:10; 23:22; Ephesians 6:1-4; Colossians 3:20-21).  After all, as a child Jesus submitted himself to Mary and Joseph, and honored his mother even as he suffered on the cross by entrusting her to his beloved disciple’s care (Luke 2:39-52; John 19:25-27).

 I keep the Fifth Commandment in love to God by showing respect for the aged; submitting to my teachers, pastors, and directors; respecting tradition and civil authority; and ordering myself in reverent humility, as is fitting for a servant and child of God (Matthew 22:15-22; Romans 13; Colossians 3:18-4:1; 1 Tim 6:1-2; Hebrews 13:7,17; Articles of Religion, 37).  Earthly authority does have limits though.  All authority comes from God, who is the King of kings and who expects me to love, honor, and obey him rather than others if they command me to sin (Exodus 1:17; Daniel 1:8-16; 3:16-18; Acts 5:29; Romans 13:1-5; Colossians 4:1; 1 Peter 2:14-15).

The Sixth Commandment

The Sixth Commandment is: “You shall not murder.”  Since God declares human life sacred from conception to natural death, I may not take the life of neighbors unjustly, bear them malice in my heart, or harm them by word or deed; rather, I should seek to cause their lives to flourish (Genesis 9:6; Leviticus 19:16; Deuteronomy 19:4-7).  Jesus sought the well-being of all who came to him: he made the blind see and the deaf hear, caused the lame to walk, cured the sick, fed the hungry, cast out demons, raised the dead, and preached good news to all (Luke 4:17-21; Matthew 14:13-21, 34-36).  Suicide, abortion, genocide, infanticide, and euthanasia are forms of murder. Related sins include abuse, abandonment, recklessness, and hatred or derision.  It is important to remember, too, that Jesus equated even unjust anger with murder (Matthew 5:21-22; 1 John 3:15).  Now, yes, anger can be just if I am motivated not by fear, pride, or revenge, but purely by love for God’s honor and my neighbor’s well-being. More often than not, however, human anger is sinful (Ephesians 4:26-27).

 Also, there are rare times when the claims of justice, mercy, and life itself may require doing harm or even bringing death to others.  It is the particular task of government to do this in society (Romans 13:1-4).

 The Seventh Commandment

The Seventh Commandment is: “You shall not commit adultery.”  Marriage is holy. Married persons are to be faithful to their spouses as long as they both shall live. So I must not engage in sexual activity with anyone other than my spouse (Deuteronomy 22-24:5; See Questions 128-130).  God ordains marriage for three important purposes: for the procreation of children to be brought up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord; for a remedy against sin and to avoid fornication; and for mutual friendship, help, and comfort, both in prosperity and adversity (Genesis 1:28; Deuteronomy 6:7; Proverbs 22:6; 31:10-12; 1 Corinthians 7:2-5; Book of Common Prayer).  Furthermore, the New Testament reveals that human marriage is meant to reflect the faithful love that unites Christ to his Church (Ephesians 5:21-33).

The seventh commandment also forbids fornication, same-gender sexual acts, rape, incest, pedophilia, bestiality, pornography, lust, or any other form of self-centered sexual desire and behavior (Leviticus 18; Romans 1:18-28; Matthew 5:27-30).

It should be noted here that chastity does not mean utter sexual abstinence, but that one must refrain from sexual acts outside of marriage; and we must respect ourselves and all others in body, mind, and spirit; practice sexual purity; and view others as image bearers of God, not as objects of personal gratification (1 Thessalonians 4:3-7).  Remember the words of our Lord Jesus Christ on the subject of temptation: if you “just can’t keep your hands off her” as some men claim, then cut off your hand.  And “if your eye causes you to sin,” gouge it out.  Modesty in dress is a matter of wisdom, but the eyes that feast on exposed skin are guilty of sin.  The two are not equal.

The Eighth Commandment

The Eighth Commandment is: “You shall not steal.”  Because God is Creator and Lord of this world, the created order is holy, and all things fundamentally belong to him. Since I am required to love God and my neighbor, I must not take what does not belong to me, and I must be true, honest, and just in all my business dealings (Leviticus 19:10-12; Ephesians 4:28; Articles of Religion, 38).

 A fair question that sometimes comes up here is that if all things belong to God, is it even appropriate for us to have private property?  Yes. However, everything I own I hold as God’s steward, to cultivate and use for his glory while respecting what he has entrusted to others (Genesis 1-2; 9; Leviticus 25-27; Psalm 24:1).  We also see that God gave land and possessions to people as a trust from him, which could be bought, sold, and inherited. He required restitution when property was stolen, and forbade unjust loans and interest (Exodus 22:1; Leviticus 25:36-37; Numbers 27; 33:50-36:12).  The Bible’s constant rejection of unjust loans and the charging of interest is perhaps one of the most foreign concepts to modern economists.

 Apart from property, though, one can steal reputation, wages, and honor; credit, answers, and inventions; friendship, hope, and goodwill from others. I must repay and, to the best of my ability, restore what I have stolen (Deuteronomy 24:14-15, 17-18; 2 Samuel 11-15; 1 Kings 21).  More positively, as I am able, I should earn my own living so that I may set aside offerings for worship, give alms to the poor, and care for my dependents; and I should use all my possessions, gifts and abilities to glorify God, better the state of the creation, and love my neighbors (Proverbs 19:17, 30:8-9; 1 Corinthians 16:2; Ephesians 4:28).  As far as defining those offerings and alms, the tithe, which is ten percent of my income, is the minimum standard and goal of giving for the work of God; yet Jesus expects more than my minimum (Deuteronomy 14:22-29; Luke 21:1-4).

The Ninth Commandment

The Ninth Commandment is: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”  This means that I am to love God and my neighbor by speaking truthfully and graciously at all times, and by keeping my tongue from lying, slander, or gossip (Proverbs 6:19; Matthew 5:33-37; 12:36; Ephesians 4:15-16).  On the cosmic scale, telling the truth is life-saving: Jesus always speaks the truth, about himself and about us, and bears witness before God and Satan that his people belong to him (John 17:6-8; 18:19-24).  As for us, we are forbidden to gossip or slander, but we must speak the truth in love to our neighbor, report crimes, advocate for the helpless, and protect the community (Ephesians 4:15, Leviticus 19:17-18; Matthew 18:15; James 5:18-20).

The Tenth Commandment

The Tenth Commandment is: “You shall not covet.”  I am not to let envy make me want what others have, but in humility should be content with what I have (Micah 2:1-2; Hebrews 13:5-6; Philippians 4:10-13).  In contentment, Jesus took on the form of a servant without wealth or possessions, and in his earthly life loved and trusted his Father in all things (Matthew 6:25-34; Philippians 2:3-11).

 In Catholic and Lutheran catechetical tradition, the tenth commandment is split into two. The reason is located in the underlying sinful desire. To covet one’s neighbor’s wife is a sin of lust, whereas to covet the other things is a sin of greed.

So, covetousness is particularly dangerous as it begins with discontent in mind and spirit, and as it grows in the heart, it can lead to sins such as idolatry, adultery, and theft (2 Samuel 11:1-4; 1 Kings 21:1-15; Luke 12:15; James. 1:15).  Instead, one should think often of the inheritance that Jesus has prepared for us, meditate upon his care for the birds of the air and the flowers of the field, be generous with what God has entrusted to us, and help others to keep what is rightfully theirs (Matthew 6:25-34; Romans 12:13; Philippians 4:8; Hebrews 13:5; 1 Timothy 6:6-10; 1 Peter 1:3-5).

Final Thoughts

What I’ve hoped you’ve noticed, going through these, is that the commandments are not simply laws to follow for the sake of following them.  Law and order is important, but that is by no means the full scope of God’s concern.  In fact, the rule of law and the right ordering of ourselves and society are simply means to an end: the beauty of holiness.  The prosperity gospel heretics say God wants us to be “happy, healthy, and wise.”  They’re right about that, if compeltely wrong in their understanding of it.  Through the discipline of obedience we grow in wisdom.  Through the practice of obedience we become more spiritually healthy.  And the fruit of obdedience is happiness, or blessedness – that is, we become more like Christ.  Furthermore, all this is possible only with the aid of the Holy Spirit.  Any teacher or preacher who says you need to pull yourself up by your bootstraps is teaching or preaching a deadly lie.  You cannot do this yourself, none of us can, and really that’s the point.  This Law both shows us our inadequacy and need for the grace of our Savior Jesus Christ, and shows us the ideal, the goal, the trajectory of the Christian life.  In these commandments we see both the beginning of our downfall and the final end of our salvation.  Therefore let us heed these words not only with a sense of duty and fear, but also with a sense of joy.  Amen.


About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about liturgy & spiritual formation, theology & biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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