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The Ten Commandments?

And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” Acts 15.7-11.

One of the questions I have come up against time and time again over the years, in one form or another, is: “Are the ten commandments binding on Christians?” This is from people who would not for one moment imagine that, say, the Levitical laws on skin blemishes had anything to do with them, but still worry that the ten commandments might. Just the other day, in response to my post “The Missing Jesus” someone wrote to me, deeply concerned, because he had repeatedly “taken God’s name in vain” and had been brought up in a culture where people did that regularly. He quoted Exodus 20.7 — “The LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain”. “What is your take on that?” he asked me.

I replied that my take is very straightforward; and I repeat it here for those who may not read the comments and counter-comments to past posts. That commandment (like every other commandment that is to be found in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) is not, and never has been, binding on anyone who isn’t a Jew, and it is no longer binding even upon Jews if they put their faith in Jesus and thus bring themselves under the New Covenant which he sealed with his blood on Calvary.

In my own mind and heart, I am very clear about this: the Ten Commandments are, we might say, part of a legal contract which was entered into on Mount Sinai between God and Moses. God signed on his own behalf and Moses signed on behalf of all the Jews whom he had led out of slavery in Egypt. Thereupon that contract became binding on the Jews throughout all generations until Jesus came and offered a new and better contract. It was, of course, (as my correspondent pointed out) a tough and scary contract. There were lots of penalty clauses for those Jews who breached the contract, but those penalty clauses should be of not the slightest interest to someone who is not a party to that contract; and no Christian is or ever can be!

A Christian may, if he wishes, misguidedly attempt to live according to the small print in the God/Moses contract … but even if he were to succeed (which he won’t) it wouldn’t do him the slightest bit of good because he never had any obligations under that contract and he has no rights under it either. It is very sad that some churches are misguided enough to put the Ten Commandments on their walls. It reveals a complete and very, very dangerous misunderstanding of the law and the gospel and the difference between them.

None of this is to say that the stuff that the law obliged the Jews to do is bad stuff. It’s not. It’s good stuff, and if the Jews had managed to do it all they would have been good people; but they couldn’t and neither can we … except in the power of the Holy Spirit. Over time, he will teach us how to do outside the law the stuff that the Jews were commanded to do under the law.

As is clear from the reading this morning, once Gentiles started to become Christians the early church (which was composed of Jews) had to decide whether the Gentiles were to be subject to the law of Moses. The answer, thank God, was (and remains) a resounding NO.

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