Law often has a bad connotation for Christians. Law is considered bad or obsolete. Law is old covenant, and now we are living new covenant. Law seems legalistic; with a bunch of rules aimed at robbing individuals of any fun. (Don’t do this. Don’t do that.) It’s no wonder many cringe at the thought of law.
At the same time, there is an appeal to law. Yes, the law wasn’t perfect, and could never fully save, however, there is a part of law that resonates with us, especially because it sets out clear expectations. There is no wondering about whether one is in or out; lost or saved. The law makes everything clear. If you’ve sinned, offer the appropriate sacrifice with the priest at the temple, and all is forgiven. If you are unsure what is the appropriate sacrifice, simply read the first seven chapters of the book of Leviticus which goes into specific details of what to bring and how to prepare the sacrifice. Even though it’s not perfect and seems legalistic, it is a simple, straightforward process; thus the appeal.
The law had a purpose, however, beyond just trying to ensure salvation. The LORD our God was trying to form a people who had no concept of what it meant to be free. All Israel knew, when God rescued them in the beginning chapters of the book of Exodus, was Egypt, slavery, and Pharaoh. Israel knew how to work for the glory of Egypt and Pharaoh, but no concept of how to work for the glory of God. Therefore, when the LORD our God rescues them from the land of Egypt, and the house of slavery, Yahweh has to try to form them into a community that instinctively loves God and loves others. In order to form this type of community, the LORD our God has to train Israel. Just as a parent gives basic rules to a child to teach obedience and right behavior hoping eventually that righteous living will become second nature, the LORD our God is trying to guide Israel into righteous living. The Law then, as Paul describes it in Galatians, serves as a tutor, guide, mentor, and even at times disciplinarian; pointing Israel to the type of life she should lead and then eventually fading into the background once the tutor is no longer needed. In this sense, the law was always pointing beyond itself to something greater. The law was not just a list of rules to follow or avoid, but was always leading toward a life or righteousness.
It’s with the tenth commandment that this path of leading toward righteousness becomes most apparent. Up to this point, the commands focus mostly on outward actions. Do not craft idols and bow down to them. Keep the Sabbath; don’t do any work on those days. Don’t kill. Don’t steal. Don’t commit adultery. All of these commands are focused on outward actions. There are clear visible signs that will prove whether one has committed an act or not. Thus, all one has to do is avoid the outward act, it would seem, and one will be in right standing with God. But this changes with the reading of the 10th commandment, because now following the law becomes more than just outward actions, but a matter of the heart. For coveting is an inward emotion that becomes difficult to legislate and prove, but which leads to all of the other mistakes.
The tenth commandment is thus a paradigm shifting moment. It is the moment one realizes God is more concerned with the heart than just the outward actions. It’s not just that one should avoid stealing, one shouldn’t even desire to take possessions that belong to another. It’s not just that one shouldn’t commit adultery, one shouldn’t even desire a sexual relationship with someone who is not their spouse. The command not to covet helps Israel to understand what it means to live as free people, and ultimately helps to frame a heart that no longer needs the individual rules because the heart is living a life of righteousness.
Once the paradigm shifts with the tenth commandment, we come to better understand all of the commandments. God isn’t trying to create just a bunch of rules, but is trying to lead us, former slaves, into righteous living. Thus, we are drawn back into the text and challenged to reread the commands and begin asking deeper questions; what type of life does the LORD our God desire? For instance, it’s not just asking what are the idols in my life that I need to avoid, but what is in my heart that causes me to search after some created thing for meaning? Why do I feel that I won’t be complete without a particular possession or a particular honor? Why is God alone not enough? Or another, it’s not just asking how do I keep from using God’s name in a derogatory way, but how do I keep God’s name as holy before the world? How is the way I live a sign to the world that being a Christian actually matters and informs daily decisions? How do the policies and causes I champion compliment my Christian faith? How do I honor God’s name as holy by being a peaceful presence in a world of hate and war? Or in questions of murder or stealing, it’s often not the literal sins that I’m in danger of committing, but instead the commandments are challenging me to think deeper. How are the greater systems I’m apart of honoring the lives of other people? Is the way I’m living or the policies I support leading to a life of flourishing for all people? How can I be a person who doesn’t think it’s enough to simply avoid taking life, but actively works toward giving life to all people? Or consider adultery, it’s not just avoiding sexual relations with someone who is not my spouse, but am I honoring my commitments and treating everyone as fully human? Is the other just another pretty body for me to objectify and lust over, or is the other one who is made in the image of God and worthy of respect? Am I just technically keeping the command avoiding sexual relations with another, or am I guarding my heart and my mind so that I wouldn’t even imagine finding intimacy aside from my spouse?
It’s one thing to think of the Ten Commandments as a great list of rules given in the Old Testament, but no longer needing to follow completely because we now have life in Christ. But to think that way, is a disservice to the commandments, and shortsighted on our own part. For God is trying to form a community. Not just ancient Israel, but even us today. In the commandments, God is challenging us to go deeper; to be a people who are characterized in every way by righteousness. God wants us to know what it means to be free, and to live into our freedom. That means that we can’t take the easy way out. We have to keep asking the hard questions, challenging ourselves everyday to deeper faith and commitment, to richer discipleship, and to die to self daily so we can take up our cross and live for God.