The legal conflict over the public display of the Ten Commandments provides a wonderful opportunity to examine the content of the commandments. Although almost universally revered, the Ten Commandments are often thought of as rules that cannot be kept, or as an ideal that no one is really expected to attain. Or else, if the commandments really do define a normative standard of conduct, they are God's great guilt trip, since we are condemned for failing to achieve the impossible, no matter how hard we try.
This dilemma raises serious challenges to the character of a loving God. Since the law of God is the measure of human conduct in the final judgment spoken of in the Bible, how can a just and loving God condemn anyone for not living up to an impossible ideal? The answer is found in a proper understanding of the "new covenant." This covenant is first announced by the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, who served at a time of spiritual decline, when Jerusalem was succumbing to a series of invasions from Babylon. It is repeated in the New Testament book of Hebrews.
"But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, 'Know the Lord,' for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more" (Jeremiah 31:33, 34).*
The new covenant is not based on human promises, but on God's promise of what He will do for us. God has promised a heart transformation. We shall "know" God, which in the biblical sense means to have an intimate relationship. We are not to be judged based on what we have achieved or failed to do, but based on our willingness to accept the power of God to change us from the inside out, motives and attitudes first, and then behavior will follow. In this light, the Ten Commandments are best understood as a bill of freedoms. Rather than a moral code that is against us, because we are incapable of rising to the standard, the Ten Commandments represent a promise of what God wants to do in our lives.
It is quite obviously humanly impossible to obey the commandments completely. The commandments are God's pledge to provide the needed ability. Our perspective shifts dramatically when the Ten Commandments become promises of freedom, rather than unreachable or unfair obligations.
Here is a summary of the whole law: The One who parted the seas and delivered a nation wants a personal relationship with you. He wants your supreme affection. God has revealed Himself in history, so that we will respond in love. In anticipation of His death, Jesus, the Incarnate Son of God, declared: "'And, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.' (John 12:32, 33). This He said, signifying by what death He would die" This commandment is a promise that God will establish the relationship based on love, if we will consent.
This is a prohibition against worshipping a representation of God. The Intelligence that created and sustains the universe cannot be represented by something that was made. Human beings are said to have been made in the image of God. A right concept of the self must begin with a right concept of a holy God. We degrade our concept of God by representing Him in earthly form, and so also degrade ourselves. A healthy sense of self cannot be sustained on a lie about God or humanity, but can only spring from a true appreciation of God's inherent holiness and our createdness. This commandment frees us from the confusion of seeing God in terms of what is created.
There is only one God, but other things can become gods in our affections and supplant God. God deserves our best affection not only because He made us, but because He demonstrated His amazing love in sending Jesus to die for our sins and to secure eternal life on our behalf. Modern idolatry may be more sophisticated than the ancient worship of statues of the Deity. Today we worship celebrity, wealth, beauty, or possessions. Sports, money, and sex are powerful American idols. The commandment does not teach that these idols are inherently evil; only as they supplant love for God do they become idolatrous. Jesus said: "If you love Me, keep My commandments" (John 14:15). This commandment is a promise that we can love God supremely and keep His commandments.
The common conception of this command is to avoid using God's name as profanity. The commandment does encompass freedom from impure speech and the use of coarse and vulgar expressions, but it goes far beyond. To "take the name of the Lord" is to become God's representative. To take God's name but not His character is to profane God's name. This commandment implicates religious hypocrisy, which is a very serious matter, since it misrepresents God. The promise is that we need not be self-righteous hypocrites, but can actually practice what we preach. In short, God promises us a character befitting a child of the King.
The seventh-day Sabbath has fallen out of favor in the Christian world, but properly understood, it is vital to physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health. God has set aside a special time to spend with us. He requires that we leave aside the cares of life and business for a day, to worship, to commune, to rest, and to be renewed by His presence. If we truly value our relationship with God, we will cherish the opportunity the Sabbath brings. "The Sabbath was made for man," Jesus said (Mark 2:27), and so it was. It was made for us. We need it.
As a memorial of Creation, the Sabbath reminds us not only of God's power to create, but God's power to save, to restore and to re-create us in His image. To experience the Sabbath rest is to be set free not only from worldly cares for a day, but from all striving to make oneself acceptable to God. On the Sabbath we celebrate God's power to transform our lives now, and we look forward to the ultimate transformation of this sin-sick world and the ushering in of the kingdom.
Aretha Franklin sang about respect. Rodney Dangerfield complained about not getting any. With this commandment, attention shifts from our relationship to the Creator to our human relations. Quite properly, the first such command addresses our attitude toward those who bring us into this world. Honor is more than respect; it encompasses appreciation, gratitude, faithfulness, and devotion. Honor does not mean blind, unreasoning obedience. When we accept the freedom to honor our parents, we secure the foundation for healthy relationships. This command does not let parents off the hook. By implication, it promises parents the freedom to live lives worthy of honor.
That's easy, you say, no big deal. I haven't stabbed anyone lately. But wait: "If you hate your brother in your heart," Jesus said, "you are guilty of murder" (see Matthew 5:22). Murder is the end result of broken relationships, of nourished anger and resentment. The command goes to the heart of the matter and expresses God's ideal of reconciliation. Heaven is a place where all live in peace. Even the animal kingdom will overcome animosities, as the lion and the lamb dwell together. This command teaches us that we are free to overcome alienation from one another and to be reconciled. We are free to love.
The biblical standard of sexual morality as expressed within a monogamous heterosexual relationship has definitely come under fire today. Adultery is exciting. Sex sells.
Sadly, the reason for the biblical standard is poorly understood. As specified by God in Genesis, marriage is the union of a man and a woman. Such a union is more than physical or emotional; it is spiritual. Such a complete union requires more than love; it requires trust and faithfulness. Adultery destroys the foundation for genuine intimacy. Serial monogamy, considered moral by many, also destroys the capacity to trust and to surrender oneself fully to love. When we expect a relationship to end, we hold back, and in so doing, we undermine the relationship. God promises us freedom to be trustworthy and faithful in all our relationships.
This requires perfect honesty in all of our business dealings, in our finances, in our taxes. This is hard. Compromising our integrity springs from a lack of trust in God, and a false sense of self. When we trust God to provide for our needs, we depend on Him and do not need to sacrifice our character. We have learned, as the apostle Paul did, how to be content in all circumstances, even when the price seems high. When we see ourselves as a child of God, we take pride in the family name and heritage and will not disgrace the family by our dishonesty. When we value others as brothers and sisters in the family of God, we will not think of stealing from them. We are free to value our own dignity and that of others, and so practice strict integrity.
This is more than a command against perjured testimony in court. It is a general prohibition against all forms of lying and deceit. Deceit not only stains one's own character, but it destroys relationships. Gossip is one of the most pervasive forms of false witness. Many think nothing of tearing down others behind their backs. Cherishing a critical, negative spirit toward others inevitably results in bearing false witness. By contrast, love builds healthy relationships, encourages, heals, and sustains. In this command we are set free to love one another in word and deed, not to diminish one another through falsehood or gossip.
The essence of all that has been said about these "freedoms" is that God gives us the freedom to love. If we love someone, we want what is best for them. We are happy for what they are able to obtain, without feeling that we have to have it for ourselves. "One's life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses," said Jesus (Luke 12:15). We are free to find our joy and peace in God's love and in fulfilling human relationships. When we covet, we value things more than people. This is backwards. We are free to love.
Precept and Promise
It should be clear by now that the Ten Commandments are far more than a list of do's and don'ts. Indeed, they are a primary source of wisdom about the nature of love and the character of God. They express the ideal of humanity living in intimate relation to the Creator, as well as in harmony with one another. The Ten Commandments are really promises of what God will do for those who dare to ask. "Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find" (Matthew 7:7). The psalmist writes: "I will walk at liberty, for I seek your precepts" (Psalm 119:45). To experience the reality of these commandments is to know true freedom.
Understanding the Ten Commandments is foundational to a proper perspective on the legal conflict. Whatever the Supreme Court decides about the limits of government's role in displaying or promoting the Ten Commandments, we can better appreciate that the state cannot do for us what God alone is capable of achieving: writing His law upon the human heart. The state cannot give us hearts to love God or to love one another. Our real need is not for more public monuments in honor of commandments that no one really tries to keep. We need the law written on our own hearts.
Texts quoted in this article are from the New King James Version. Copyright
Alan J. Reinach is Executive Director of the Church State Council, the religious liberty educational and advocacy arm of the Pacific Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, representing five western states: Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada and Utah. His legal practice emphasizes First Amendment religious freedom cases, and religious accommodation cases under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and related state civil rights laws. Reinach is also a Seventh-day Adventist minister who speaks regularly on religious freedom topics, and is the host of a nationally syndicated weekly radio broadcast, “Freedom’s Ring.” He is the principal author and editor of Politics and Prophecy: The Battle for Religious Liberty and the Authentic Gospel, and a frequent contributor to Libertymagazine.