Don’t steal

We all know the sinking feeling we get when something is missing. And it’s worse if we think if it has been stolen.  But this commandment is not about what might happen to us. It’s about what I may do myself.

God is a giver, and he wants us to be like him. Taking what doesn’t belong to us is no part of his economy! Let’s look at some of the ways this taking and giving happens.

The most obvious stealing is taking someone else’s property—by violence or stealth. Some are clever enough to do it legally. There are many kinds of property, including intellectual property. A thief puts his own interest above that of others and above the well-being of the whole community.

Then there’s stealing by withholding what we owe someone else. This doesn’t attract the same attention as direct stealth, but it is just as damaging. For example, if someone employs you, you owe them your good service. And if someone provides a service to you, they need your prompt payment. Failure here breeds distrust and broken relationships. It’s stealing.

On a more personal level, Paul says, ‘Owe no man anything except to love one another’ (Romans 13:8). In other words, pay your bills, but you’ll never finish paying the debt of love to those around you. God’s love has filled you up so full that you have the resources to help others. If you close up your heart, you’re not paying your bill!

Love is powerful. It builds and heals and provides and creates hope. Withholding of love is also powerful. It breaks and bruises and steals and creates despair.

Paul tells thieves who’ve become Christians not to steal anymore. Rather, they should work at something so they have enough to look after themselves and to give to those in need (Ephesians 4:28). God has designed us to look after things, and each other.

God is not running his creation legally—as though we only have to do a minimum to keep ourselves out of trouble. He wants everyone contributing what they can, and as they have opportunity. John tells us that if we have resources and see someone in need and do nothing, God’s love doesn’t live I us (1 John 3:17). That’s serious!

By telling us not to steal from one another, the Lord has raised the matter of property. This is clear from the fact that we are not to take what belongs to someone else.

But is owning certain things a right? We talk about it all the time in the community. But the value of property is greater than a right. It’s a gift. James tells us, ‘Every good and perfect gift comes down from the Father…’ (James 1:17).

This means that if I steal from someone else, whether property, or service or opportunity, I am not merely offending the victim, I am messing with God’s generosity.

We may think that if we work consistently and well, we deserve to have what we have earned. But God sees us doing our job as his gift (Psalm 104:23-24). He’s given us a planet with its seasons and systems that enable things to work. He ensures the success of our work—or otherwise. And he’s given us the joy of participating in making everything function well. And then he gives us the fruits of our own work.

The Lord who gives us these commands is leading Israel to their own country. They are going to have their own plot of land—and it will be protected, productive and pleasurable (Deuteronomy 26:8-10).

And this is true for all of us. The Lord gives freely to all the peoples of the earth so that everyone can eat heartily and enjoy their life (Acts 13:15-18; 17:24-26).

So, the Lord is telling us not to get in the road of his generosity to all his creatures! We’ve been made to reflect his kindness, not obscure it.

People who steal don’t understand what it means to be a human being. They are trying to get something for nothing. This denies our need to contribute, to grow and to love.

Thieves may want to be rich, or fulfill an ambition, or get out of trouble, or impress someone, and take the shortest route to get there. But they are saying ‘No’ to hard work, to difficulty, to saving, to waiting. They are also saying ‘No’ to caring for others, to development of character and to love.

God gives to Israel some interesting laws that show how important it is to be concerned about the property of other people. You can check them out at Exodus 22:26-27, Leviticus 19:9-11, and Deuteronomy 15:12-18.

Perhaps we’ve been taking something that’s not our own, or of not providing something we should have given. Our situation is more serious than civil courts can deal with. Our hearts are being exposed for what they are (Mark 7:21; Romans 7:14-24). The love of God is not there! We are not in a good place. If thieves go on stealing, they won’t be part of God’s future (1 Corinthians 6:10).

But if you feel exposed, that’s what this law was meant to do. And it is meant to take you back to the Saviour who saves you. The wretchedness we may feel does not come down from God so much as up from our own hearts. We know this is no way to respond to God’s kindness!

So, we turn from feeling proud of ourselves to being what we are—sinners saved by grace. And we resolve, not to try harder, but to receive the ministry of the Holy Spirit who is showing us who we are, what we have received, and how we may serve our neighbour.

Don’t murder

The sixth commandment says simply: ‘Don’t kill’. The Lord is prohibiting killing that is malicious and intentional. Other laws given to Israel will cover accidental or judicial killing.

We may think this command is simple, understandable, and hardly necessary to talk about because it would never occur to us to kill someone. But each of God’s commands show he is not just interested in what we do but in what we would like to do. This raises different questions!

Murder has been with us from the beginning. The world’s first family has to deal with homicide when Cain kills his brother. Later on, Lamech will attack anyone who gets in his way (Genesis 4:23-24).

Then the earth becomes ‘full of violence’ (Genesis 6:11), and God judges it with a flood. But God says we have no business killing each other because everyone is made in his image (Genesis 9:5-6).

What then lies behind murder? Jesus says, ‘You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “Do not murder…”. But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment’ (Matthew 5:22). He urges us to be reconciled rather than to maintain our rage.

James says something similar. I’ll quote it as Peterson translates it in ‘The Message’. ‘Where do you think all these appalling wars and quarrels come from? … They come about because you want your own way…. You lust for what you don’t have and are willing to kill to get it. You want what isn’t yours and will risk violence to get your hands on it’ (James 4:1-3).

So, the command is requiring us to guard our anger, and so, to prevent murder. Here, of course, is something that affects us all.

Anger can take many forms. It might be verbal or physical. But then, it might be just withdrawal from real relationships. We think we are not doing any harm, but lack of love is powerful—just as love is.

Our anger may be about not being able to get something we really want or feel we deserve. Effectively, it’s a little god for which everything else must be sacrificed.

But there is a time and place to be angry. Just check the number of times the Bible tells us that God is angry. He is not content with the status quo when wrong is being done. People who abuse others need our attention. Those who neglect a responsibility deserve our anger.

But then, how does God get angry? His anger is very different to ours. We need to turn to Jesus who has revealed God to us. There are just a few examples to look at.

First, Jesus is among people who are critical of him healing someone on a Sabbath day. He looks at them ‘in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts’ (Mark 3:5). Notice the double description of his emotions—anger, and deep distress or grief.

On another occasion, he attends the funeral of a friend and is ‘deeply moved in spirit and troubled’ (John 11:33, 38). Again, both words are important.

Actually, the first word here means he is outraged. The cause of his anger seems to be the distress and hopelessness that death creates for us in this world.

In a way, we all get angry with death—ours, or that of someone we love. Jesus is well out front of us here. He is not only angry. He is going to do something about it (Hebrews 2:14-15).

But in these examples, the anger of Jesus doesn’t stand alone. He is also ‘troubled’, or ‘distressed’. It is a kind of grief that things have got to this state.

On another occasion, Jesus clears the temple of animal traders using God’s space for their private enterprise (Luke 19:45). Clearly, he is angry. But just before this he weeps over the city because it refuses to recognise what will bring them peace (v. 41). Again, the anger of Jesus—and the anger of God—is linked with grief.

If Jesus is angry, it’s because we are preferring our littleness to his generosity. He is grieved that we are not living in the good of what he is doing for us. His grief is a kind of hope. He knows things can be different, and that one day they will be. He refuses to accept the status quo and doesn’t want us to either.

Without this revelation, people who want to protest often move straight to anger—without grief. It’s clear that we can’t cure the world’s problems with anger! Two lots of anger don’t make peace! They divide our communities and make it impossible to talk to one another. Murder happens!

We need to see that God is more offended by wrong than we are. His anger expresses his goodness, not his frustration. It comes with compassion, not distain. He can see that we don’t know him.

And it is because we don’t know God that frustration makes us angry. We don’t know his care for us or his purpose to have us share with him in healing the world. So, everything that goes wrong we take personally. Jesus has loved us, and died for us, to remove this awful sense of loss and replace it with the certainty that we are God’s children.

This is why James can talk about the wisdom that comes down from God and which is pure and peaceable (James 3:17). It is why he can say, ‘Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires’ (James 1:19-20).

Whatever the cause of our anger may be, this command is asking us to take control of it. By reacting, we may be part of the problem! And, as a result, the devil plays games with us. Paul says, ‘In your anger, do not sin. Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold’ (Ephesians 4:26-27, 31).

So, don’t murder! That is, don’t even think about it! But even more, see how eager God is that we don’t die, but live—us, and everyone around us as well.

Don’t commit adultery

In this seventh commandment the Lord tells us how important marriage is to him, and what he wants us to do to protect it. ‘You shall not commit adultery.’

He means that if someone is married, they shouldn’t have a sexual relationship with anyone else. Sex is not a way of having a casual relationship, or excitement, or doing whatever you feel like. It’s for marriage.

Does this sound as though God is only interested in restricting our freedom? This opinion is commonly held, so, it’s important to remember the events from which these commands arise.

The Lord has saved Israel from slavery. He’s leading them to a land of their own. He calls them his ‘special possession’. By favouring them, he is revealing himself to many others as well. There’s already been 19 chapters of Exodus to tell this story before we get to the commands in chapter 20.

If you don’t have this narrative—and then the fascinating story that follows, right up until God’s Son comes to earth—these commands may be hard to understand.

Commands work properly when they are part of a story of how everything fits together. In fact, if you don’t want’ God’s story. you need to write another narrative to fit the way you want to live.

For example, these other narratives may say that our being alive is simply a matter of chance, that commands are the way we become victims of power plays, or that we must decide for ourselves who we are and what is right for us to do. A lot of work goes in to building up these story lines.

Then, these narratives lead to commands—just as certainly as the Lord’s story does. Just listen to the daily news! We have to make sure other people conform to our story line so that our freedom is secured and we can arrive at the land we have imagined.

However, if these narratives have not researched what God has said to the world, and what he has promised and what he has done, they are not based on all the available information. On the other hand, if we believe our Creator is kind and generous and that he has sent his Son to live among us, we can follow through what his command about marriage means. So, that’s what I’ll do!

There’s nothing new about a man and a woman meeting and marrying. It’s been with us from the beginning (see Genesis 2:18-25). God makes a man, and says it’s not good for him to be alone. So, he makes a woman—a creature like him but opposite to him. He brings her to the man. Only then can they take up their responsibility to look after the creation.

In this creation story, there’s a line of explanation about all subsequent marriages: ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh’ (Genesis 2:24). That is, before they express their love physically, they need to leave one family to create another one, and be faithful to the one who is like but different. Then, they become one flesh by sexual union (1 Cor. 6:16).

The dynamics of people sharing a sexual relationship is so profound that the only place it ought to happen is when a man and a woman say to each other, “I’m going to belong to you and care for you as long as we both live.’ That is what sex is expressing. And marriage is what enables sex to be a power for good rather than a power to pollute and destroy.

And this is what the Lord is now protecting by his command.

It’s not surprising that God makes so much of this. He is creating a community to be close to him, and to be cared for by him. Jesus Christ comes to take this church as his bride (Eph. 5: 25-31).

Marriage between a man and a woman is a covenant like God’s covenant with us. It represents this God-relationship in a human-to-human relationship. And because children are born into this union, they can grow up in an environment of faithful love. This is how they learn to be human beings.

You may say this is all idealistic. Not really. An ideal is an idea we turn into a doctrine—something we create. But marriage is something God creates. It’s not an idea. It’s how things are.

If you are married, there’s something you share with that person that you can’t share with anyone else—sexual union, and all the intimacy that goes with that.

Sex is not OK if you are steady with your girlfriend or boyfriend. It’s not OK if you feel deeply about each other. Your body’s not your own to do what you like with. It needs to be kept for the person you may marry one day. This is the way it is spelled out for young people in the book of Proverbs (Prov. 5:15-21).

Clearly, sexual interest is strong when we are young. God made us this way. However, the fact that our community makes so much of sex doesn’t encourage restraint, so we need to be prepared to be different. And waiting won’t do us any damage—even though it may feel like it sometimes! In fact, it will give us character, and purity to give to the one we want to spend our life with.

Outside of marriage, sex makes increasing demands. Because it’s not ‘the real thing’—that is, an expression of married love—it needs increasing doses, like a drug (Mark 7:20-23). It leads to other kinds of dissipation as well (Galatians 5:19-21)—even community violence.

For generations, our culture has encouraged free sexual expression. But it hasn’t encouraged the best in our humanity. It hasn’t led to happiness. Just look at the number of court cases going on at present over this issue. It hasn’t led to greater creativity and energy. Rather, it leads to dissipation. There’s a dynamic or energy in sex that needs marriage for it to be a power for good rather than a power for evil.

The way Jesus spells this out makes the matter even clearer (Matt. 5:27-28; 19:8-9). He says, ‘You have heard that it was said, “Do not commit adultery.” But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart’ (Matthew 5:28). He goes on to show the lengths we should go to if we are going to avoid sinning with our eyes or our hands.

Paul spells out how careful we need to be with our morality at this point (Ephesians 5:3-7). Effectively, he says, you can’t be a Christian and mess around with your sexual life.

What happens if you’ve been living without this perspective? What if, very deeply, your life is now shaped and soiled by breaking God’s command? Here’s where the difference between God’s story and the story we write for ourselves matters a lot. The stories we write can’t invent a redeemer. But God sends one.

This is why we love Christ so much. He takes to himself all the pollution we gather about ourselves by breaking his commands. He bears God’s judgement on it. And he rises from the dead and says to you and me, ‘You are clean again!’ Whatever has happened in the past, you can be live as someone who is clean, and ready for real marriage. This leaves many current issues unaddressed—things like gender fluidity and homosexuality. But if we understand how God made us, the command he has given us, and the redemption he has accomplished, we will know that sex is for marriage between a man and a woman, and not for anything else. All the other things we discuss need to take this as their starting point.

Sharing God’s rest

Here’s another commandment given to Israel, but still a commandment to help us Christians keep on track. It’s longer than any of the others, which could suggest we will try to find ways to avoid what it says!

‘Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy…’. He tells us there are six days for getting all our jobs done—for us and for everyone we are responsible for. Then, there’s a day of rest—which is what Sabbath means.

The Lord’s talking about time. When we’re busy, forgetting is easy! This may be why the command is, ‘Remember!’ It’s here to help us guard our time—so that we don’t entertain other gods in place of the Lord.

We can gather up what this command means under two headings.

First, we are creatures and not slaves

The Lord’s reason for requiring a Sabbath comes from the creation story. He shows what is important to him by resting on his last day of making everything. He doesn’t need a day off! It’s more a celebration of work completed. And he calls us to share this day with him—a holy day.

We need to know that the world we live in doesn’t just happen, or continue, by our ceaseless activity. God makes everything. We are not merely the result of time and chance. We are what God makes. Everything is for the Lord—that is, holy. And he wants us to share in the delight of that being so.

By stopping for this Sabbath, we acknowledge that the Lord makes things and looks after them and determines their purpose and progress. So, if worship doesn’t affect our time table, we’re missing out on something.

God not only calls his rest day holy. He blesses it. Everything else God blesses in creation is so something can be ‘fruitful and multiply’. So, if we have a sabbath, what will happen? We will have the pleasure of seeing that everything works because of God—not because of us.

One Psalm tells us about how risky this world seems to be—‘mountains fall into the heart of the sea’. But then he says how peaceful it is knowing who is in charge of it (Psalm 46). Then he says, ‘Be still, and know that I am God’. The word for ‘be still’ actually means, simply, ‘stop!’

Another Psalm tells us, ‘In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat—for he grants sleep to those he loves’  (Psalm 127:2).

There’s a second reason we are given this command. Moses, later on, repeats the command and says, ‘Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm’ (Deuteronomy 5:15).

Slaves can’t plan their own time table. That’s why Israel had to leave Egypt and worship the Lord in the wilderness. Like them, we need to be delivered from this present evil world—it’s goals of self-sufficiency, self-sovereignty and self-determination. These things don’t set us free. They make us their slaves.

So, remembering to stop for long enough to acknowledge and enjoy that God is Creator, and Redeemer, is essential to true worship. It is also essential for human health and social well-being.

Second, Sabbath is a sign not a ceremony

God says the Sabbath is ‘a sign between me and you for the generations to come, so that you may know that I am the Lord, who makes you holy’ (Exodus 31:12; Ezekiel 20:12). They stop for a day, and God is able to show them that they belong to him.

But Sabbath also shows other nations that Israel belongs to the Lord. They are not slaves to the creation but belong to its Maker, and this affects everything.

But then, when Jesus comes, Sabbath keeping has fallen on bad times. Israel’s leaders have made it a time to signal how pious they are, not how good God is.

First, the Pharisees hate what Jesus does on a Sabbath. He is living in Sabbath rest—all the time. The Pharisees are ‘up tight’—all the time, and their Sabbath is only a ceremony.

Second, Sabbath points to something—to Christ who has come to give Sabbath rest. It takes more than just a day off to know that our life is made useful by God and not by us. Jesus will fulfill what Sabbath means.

Our Lord says, ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest’ (Matthew 11:28). Only Jesus, making himself an offering for our sins, can give us rest from trying to be something by ourselves. Coming to him is the way we enter Sabbath rest (Hebrews 4:10).

So how can Christians go about keeping the third commandment? First, we need Christ to take from us the ‘puff’ of making out we are good. We need him to be our Saviour. But then, we, like Israel, need a sign that we are the Lord’s workmanship—a time to know the Lord is God, and that we are not! It needs to affect our time table!

Paul notes that some people keep a special day and some don’t (Romans 14:5). Clearly, the sign is what is important, not the ceremony.

The first Christians start meeting together on the day Jesus rises from the dead. Gradually, this becomes the pattern (Acts 20:7). Sabbath, for us, is a day, or a time, to be with the Lord, to hear his word and to be with others who trust and love him. Hebrews warns us about missing out on getting together with others (Hebrews 10:25).

As the gospel crosses cultures, each Christian and each church must decide how to regulate their time to remember the Lord. It takes time to know that we are made for God—holy. It requires some stopping of our usual things to realise that God makes us fruitful. It takes time hear and know his word. It takes time to build others up in faith, hope and love.

Those who expect their Christian life to just happen—without heeding the third commandment—may find they drift, or become unfruitful. Or worse.

The Lord finishes his creation by resting. He shows Israel he is their Creator and Redeemer by commanding them to rest on their Sabbath. He sends Christ to make this rest actual and permanent. And then, by resting in the Lord now, we look forward to the day when the whole creation will be fully cleansed, developed and glorious, and ruled over by Christ and all his followers. It is the final Sabbath to which all creation is moving (Revelation 14:13).

Honour your parents

The fifth commandment begins the section of God’s law that tells us how to live with one another. ‘Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you’ (Exodus 20:12).

We remember that these commandments are not written for just anybody. They are given to the people the Lord has freed from slavery. God has every reason to expect that Israel will want to go on being free—and he is showing them the way.

It’s no surprise that this section begins with honouring parents. He is the Father of all the families of the earth (Ephesians 3:14). Israel knows this because he calls them his children (Exodus 4:23; also Deuteronomy 14:1-2). And Christians have lots more reason to know this.

Jesus is God’s Son and he fully reveals the Father (John 1:18). He brings forgiveness through his death, and then leads us to share with him in being sons and daughters of God—his family (Ephesians 2:17-18). Our earthly families are the way we get used to the idea that this world is created as a family affair.

What happens in families affects us deeply. This is where we get our idea of ‘normal’—what we can expect life to be and how to cope with that. It’s here we find out who we are, what we can do, who other people are and how we relate to them. It’s here we learn what to believe in, and why.

So, what parents do matters. But then, it also matters a lot how we respond to what our parents do.

Sometimes, parenting is done badly. And there is something wrong about every family! But bad parenting can’t be replaced with something that isn’t parenting. God, the Father, has made humanity to work this way. The need to honour parents is not because they deserve it but because we need to do it.

So, what does it looks like to honour our mother and father? The word means to ‘give weight to’ who they are. Clearly, this will vary as we grow.

The command is addressed to everyone, and perhaps primarily to adults. There is never a time when parents can be treated as ‘light-weight’. How we regard them and treat them is always shaping what we are. They are a constant witness to the fact that we are not self-made but dependent.

Being a child begins with having no choice—we lie where parents put us and eat what they put in our mouths!

But then, we have a will of our own and need to learn what to do with that! Do our parents need to know what we think, how we feel? Of course.  We are finding out how life works and this is part of it. But then, they have a bigger frame of reference than us. It’s important to defer to that.

Then our frame of reference grows. This is as it should be. No-one is meant to follow parents all their life. Rather, they have been bearing witness to an authority greater than their own—the Lord’s. That’s who they represent, whether they know it or not.

The time comes when we have to take responsibility for responding to that authority ourselves. Being an adult is not doing whatever we like. Rather, it’s understanding God’s word, and doing that. It’s good if parents understand this and help it happen gradually.

Some children have had to honour their parents by not doing what they have been taught. This is why Paul tells children to obey their parents ‘in the Lord’ (Ephesians 6:1). There is a higher authority.

Then, parents get old. Perhaps they need to be wheeled around! How we treat them now tells us a lot about how we regard the Lord. Paul tells us that if children don’t care for their parents they have denied the faith and are worse than unbelievers (1 Timothy 5:4-8). So, honour for parents is life-long.

This is the only command to which the Lord attaches a promise; ‘…so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.’ He adds an incentive to encourage us. This gives hope to all that happens in our families. It happens in two ways.

First, parents know their instruction doesn’t start with their own competence and goodness. When their children ask why they have to keep these rules, they must answer, ‘We were slaves…but the Lord brought us out…’ (Deuteronomy 6:20-21).

We all need saving from slavery to this world. If parents know this, and share this with their children, it prevents instruction being dreary and legalistic.

Second, children know they have an inheritance, but staying in it is going to depend on honouring their parents and what they teach. They won’t just grow up. They will grow deeper and richer. It gives ‘weight’ not just to their parents but to them. They are significant.

On a very practical level, our parents may give us a good start to life by providing property, education and opportunity. But this ‘inheritance’ is not our security. We need personal qualities—self-knowledge, humility, determination, tolerance, kindness. We especially need a sense that life is not about ourselves. This is what we can learn by honouring parents.

Jesus makes an important statement about children. Parents are bringing their children to him for a blessing. When disciples think this is an intrusion, Jesus protests and welcomes them. His explanation is, ‘for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.’ And, ‘…anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it’ (Mark 10:14-15).

One way or another, we need to learn to be childlike. We come from parents. A lot of what we are is because of them. Similarly, there’s no self-made people in God’s kingdom! No proud people! No-one who says they don’t need to be taught!

The Lord showed me something new about being a son to my father when I was in my fifties. I was still learning to be vulnerable. I was able to tell him about things that were troubling me. And it was the best thing— liberating! It didn’t just change things between my father and me. It changed me.

God designed us to learn many things about being his sons and daughters through honouring our parents—as children, and as adults. If we don’t learn it here, we may learn it somewhere else, but then the consequences may be more severe and painful.

But then, honouring parents is being truly human. It’s letting God being our Father get worked out in ordinary life. No matter what our past has been, it will always be a liberating experience to look at them, to appreciate them, to find out what they have to give, and to serve them if that is what they need.

Don’t misuse the Lord’s name

It’s a remarkable thing that the Lord has given us his ten commandments or law. As Christians, we are not under this law—that is, it doesn’t secure our relationship to him. Jesus Christ does that. But God is developing these things in us through his gospel (Romans 8:4). And many things can distract us so and the commandments help keep us on track.

The third command requires that we guard our tongue. ‘You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name’. The Lord’s name tells us who he is, so it’s important not to abuse it.

So, how should we use the Lord’s name? That will help us notice when we misuse it.

We can pray to the Lord by name. Moses is told the name Israel can use for God (Exodus 3:14-15; 6:3-7). Then, in this name, Moses leads God’s people to freedom (Exodus 15:1-3).

The same is true for us as Christians. God has revealed himself to us in the name of Jesus (Acts 9:4-5; 2 Corinthians 4:6). Then, the apostles announce that everyone who calls on his name will be saved (Acts 2:21, 38).

Jesus gives us the name to use when we pray—it’s ‘Father’ (Matthew 6:9). He sends his Spirit so our cry comes with all the certainty of being his sons and daughters (Galatians 4:6-7)). This is astonishing. We know the name of God, and can call on him to save us because we know who he is.

We can only be secure in this world if we have a great God. And it is a great kindness on God’s part to reveal himself in this way. A proverb says, ‘The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous run into it and are safe’ (Proverbs 18:10).

So how could we misuse this name? The word actually means to treat it in an empty way.

We think that someone who uses ‘God’ or ‘Jesus’ to impress or to swear is misusing his name. That is certainly an abuse of the Lord’s name. But this law is addressed to us who know him. It’s us who know the fullness of his name who are most likely to use it in an empty way.

What if we say the Lord is alive but act as though he didn’t exist? What if we pray to the Lord and don’t expect him to do us any good (James 1:6-8)? What if we tell friends we believe in the Lord, and then don’t demonstrate his goodness in our living (Romans 2:24; 1 Corinthians 6:5-6)? What if we sing songs in church but don’t actually love the Lord (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)? What if we say ‘Lord, Lord’—expecting him to hear our prayer—but don’t do what he says (Matthew 7:21).

What if we promise something ‘in God’s name’ (Deuteronomy 6:13), or introduce our promise with, ‘As surely as the Lord lives…’ (Jeremiah 4:2). The Lord expects that we will use his name in this way—as we shall see. But if we want to sound more confident than we are, or want to create a bigger impression than we deserve, or, just deceive people about our honesty, we have misused the Lord’s name (Isaiah 48:1).

This is such a big problem when Jesus comes that he teaches us not to swear in God’s name at all. We should just say, ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ and mean it (Matthew 5:33-37). The formal use of swearing an oath in the Lord’s name is being so badly abused that he says it is beyond repairing.

James tells us what an unruly thing our tongue is (James 3:1-12). And we are not just talking about a ‘slip of the tongue’. Our talking is the spill-over of what is going on in our hearts (Matthew 12:34).

If, in any way, our hearts are not settled in the love of God, or our conscience at peace through Christ’s offering, we are very likely to ‘overspeak’. That is, our tongues will ‘run away with us’ and we’ll draw attention to ourselves and not to our Lord and Saviour. It is this that is at the heart of ‘taking the Lord’s name in vain’.

However, the Lord is pleased for us to use his name to support our promises. Paul is an example (Romans 1:9; 9:1-2). The Lord’s faithfulness helps us be faithful. We know we have God watching to see if we mean what we say. This ‘checking up’ by God is good for us. We are not just dealing with people we may be able to deceive or impress. We are dealing with God.

Having a faithful God, and calling on him truly, does lead to a faithful life. Our passions are subdued, our fears are calmed, our egos are tamed. The Lord anticipates that we will become like him. People will be able to trust us. This helps a whole community to grow. We need everyone to mean what they say. Otherwise, people become cynical and loyalty begins to die.

And now, the Lord tells us he ‘won’t hold anyone guiltless’ if they break this command. The Lord values his name, even when we don’t, and he won’t overlook our empty talk (Matthew 12:36). If he doesn’t act, we live on in our self-deception, and his name is shamed in the world. If we get ‘full of ourselves’, the Lord may have to let us fail, and be humbled.

Given that our tongue is the hardest thing to control, how glad we are that our keeping of this command does not begin from yesterday’s mistakes but from the righteousness of Christ. It is this that gives full flow to our desire to please the Lord. We do not keep the commandments because we have to but because we want to.

So, let us love the name of the Lord. Let us call on his name. Let us proclaim the Lord’s name. And let us claim integrity in his name. But don’t ever think the name doesn’t mean anything!

No idol can be the Lord

The Lord’s doesn’t want us to have other gods. And of course, why would we want to? There’s only one Creator. And there’s only one who has loved us as sinners and set us free to be his people.

However, the matter of coming to the Lord can be tricky. Trusting in the Lord—alone—doesn’t come naturally. The next three commands spell out what it means to have him alone as God.

This second command talks about idols. ‘You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God…’ (Exodus 20:4-5).

If the first command is about guarding our heart, this one is about guarding our hands because the Lord is speaking about something we make.

Worship may be tricky because we can’t see God and we like to deal with things we can see and handle and control. As one lady said to me, ‘I like to have God with skin on!’

But here, the Lord tells us not to put something in between him and us—something that represents him but isn’t him.

Israel has a problem with this. They have heard the Lord speak to them from Mount Sinai, but they would prefer just to hear from Moses. They can see him, argue with him, oppose him. On the other hand, when the Lord himself comes near, they can see fire and smoke and hear thunder. But there’s nothing they can get their hands on. They don’t like something so ‘out there’ and ask for it to stop (Exodus 20:18-21).

Then, when Moses returns to the mountain to get the ‘hard copy’ of the commandments, engraved in stone, they feel they are out in the wilderness with nobody to lead them. They want something tangible to trust. So, the Priest, Aaron, makes an image, a golden calf. The people dance around it, and say, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt’ (Exodus 32:4). They break the second commandment—straight away.

So, do we need something visible so we can come to God? Moses says no: ‘… the Lord spoke to you out of the fire. You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice. He declared to you his covenant, the Ten Commandments, which he commanded you to follow and then wrote them on two stone tablets’ (Deuteronomy 4:12-13). God is spirit. He can’t be pinned down to something we can make, or manage!

To worship the Lord truly, we need to be listening and responding to what he says. This is how he gives himself to us and how he gives us a way of coming to him.

Making an idol to represent or replace the Lord is a way of keeping the Lord at a distance. We are on the way to shaping God according to our image, instead of him forming us according to his image.

The Lord tells us he is ‘jealous’ about this. He will make sure we know him as he is and not as something less. Whatever we make is going to be less than the Lord, different to who the Lord is, and have no power or goodness or capacity to love. The Lord will not stand by and let us do that!

How does this work out now? Clearly, we have hands—and minds and skills and artistry—that we should use to worship the lord. Beautiful music, careful thinking, hard work and loving action are all part of our worship of the Lord. This is loving the Lord with all our heart and soul.

But what we do and make is a witness to the Lord, not the Lord. Only Jesus can be the image of God (2 Corinthians 4:4; Hebrews 1:3). And we are being transformed into that image, but only because it is the Lord who is doing it (2 Corinthians 3:18).

We guard against false worship by hearing what the Lord is saying to us and by responding to him. We guard against false worship by making it our first duty each day to have our ‘soul happy in God’. (This was what George Muller’s decided.) If we don’t do this, what we do may become a replacement for a real relationship with the Lord.

What are you thinking about when you serve the Lord? Is it him? Or is it something you do for him—something you can understand and manage? It may be how well you are doing as a Christian. How we are living matters a lot, but it isn’t the Lord. It may be what you are responsible for at Church. That could be important, but it isn’t the Lord. It could be how well you know the Bible. That is important, but it isn’t the Lord. It might be the needs of others. This is important too, but it isn’t the Lord.

Your idol may be how you feel about God. If your feelings have been produced by the Lord, that would be true worship. But then, they may be something you are producing. That is an idol and the Lord would not want to be identified by anything you or I produce. He is jealous of who he is, and of how we are thinking about him.

We are great at making idols and dancing around them—just like Israel. And then we begin to argue about which idols are the most important!

So, what should true worship look like? Here’s a few pointers.

First, it will be real. A Samaritan lady asks Jesus if people should worship in Samaria or Jerusalem. He says, ‘…a time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipper must worship in spirit and in truth’ (John 4:23-24). True worship is love—for the Lord.

Second, it will be eagerness to hear God’s word—and about Jesus Christ in particular. Jesus tells the Samaritan lady that the time for true worship has come because he has come. So true worship gathers around Jesus Christ—who is God’s Word. We will want to hear what God has done, what he has promised and how we may share in his salvation.

Third, it will be asking how we can build up others in faith, hope and love. God has made his church a witness to his presence—an actual house of God. Paul envisages that if we are together, hearing and loving God’s word, someone may recognise that the Lord is among us (1 Corinthians 14:23-25).

I began by saying that we need to guard our hands—that is, all the things we are capable of doing. If what we can do is our focus, it doesn’t represent the Lord any more. It has replaced him. The Lord is jealous. That is, he protects what he loves. He doesn’t want us playing make-believe!

No other God but the Lord

Here’s the first command the Lord gives to those he has saved from slavery. He starts with what we should love. ‘You shall have no other gods before me’ (Exodus 20:3). The ‘before me’ means ‘in my presence’. The Lord is like a husband or wife who is jealous of any rival, so we must keep ourselves for the Lord.

Our Lord is God of the whole earth—its Creator! There is nowhere he is not present, nothing he doesn’t know and nothing too difficult for him. And given the power and the care he takes to set us free, there is nothing he won’t do to see that we are provided for. He doesn’t need supplementing with other gods.

This is stated negatively but its purpose is entirely positive. Moses restates it later: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength’ (Deuteronomy 6:4).

And Jesus says the same: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment’ (Matthew 22:37-38).

What does it look like if we have no other God than the Lord?

Simply, we know we are not God! This is a huge relief! Many of our personal and social problems arise because we don’t know God as our Father. But if he is, we know who we are and what we are here for. We are the Lord’s creatures, his children, his beloved, his servants.

We can trust the Lord to show us how to live. We can be part of the future God is creating—something wonderful and complete. Everything we do has great significance.

Then, if everything is going well, we know who to thank. If we are in all kinds of need, we know who to ask for help. If we’ve sinned, we can ask him for forgiveness. If we are confused, we know he will show us the way to go. If we are being attacked, we can entrust ourselves to him. If we’re always thinking about ourselves, we can ask him for love for others. The Lord, being God, can cover all bases!

On the other hand, what is it like to live under a ruler and in a community where other gods are in charge?

No-one needs to tell Israel this—it leads to slavery. The battle that has just happened between Pharaoh and Moses is really about who runs this world. Pharaoh gets his magicians to practice their ‘secret arts’, and Moses prays to the Lord (see for example Exodus 8:18-19; 9:29; 14:30-31). And in this contest, the Lord wins, and Israel is released.

All of us, like Israel, need to be released from the authority of other gods and the demands of those who worship them. This is why Paul says that Jesus ‘gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age’ (Galatians 1:4). The world makes out to be a wonderful place but, if the Lord isn’t our God, we make something in the creation into a god. And this eventually makes us its slave.

The apostle John tells us not to love the world—what it craves for and boasts about. It is passing away (1 John 2:15-17). Only the Lord truly cares about us! And only the Lord has the breadth of knowledge, authority, wisdom, strength, and especially love, to do the job.

The Lord has given himself to us fully. He has not even withheld from giving up his Son for us. And now, he calls for us to give ourselves wholly to him—with no other ‘god’ to back us up in case he fails.

We noticed before that the Lord uses a ‘shall not’ rather than a ‘you shall’.

Loving the Lord shouldn’t be any problem. Paul says he is ‘constrained’ by love because ‘one man died for all’ (2 Corinthians 5:14). That should settle the matter. But it isn’t just like that. Sometimes, we need God to say ‘No!’ Our hearts are a factory for making idols—one after another.

If we have tasted that God is kind, and good, and that he has saved us, we will be grateful for this ‘No!’ Faced with a crisis, or an attraction, or a pressing need, some other ‘god’ may appear very attractive, natural and powerful. It seems impossible to see it any other way. But then, God’s command protects us, and directs us back to the love of God.

We have to ‘wait on the Lord’. That is, we have to suspend our craving, for long enough to see what God is about, and how he is going to prove to us that he is our God. You can check a story about this in Israel’s journeyings (Deuteronomy 8:2-6).

God has been wonderfully gracious to us in saving us from this world and its idols. But his kindness does not mean softness. The Lord’s kindness has brought us to himself. There is nothing more wonderful than this. And there is nothing that is more designed to makes us strong—to be who we are created to be. So, don’t entertain any other gods in the presence of our God and Father! Wait, and see, that the Lord is good.

God knows what is good

God has given us, his people, 10 commandments to tell us how to live. They are given to Moses and to Israel first, but Jesus says he came to fulfil them (Matthew 5:17). He has made this law universal so that it can speak to all of us and shape our communities. I’d like us to see how this happens.

We all need someone to tell us what to do. Many will dispute this, but then, we don’t seem to be able to avoid it. If it isn’t God telling us what is good, it’s someone else. We are surrounded with it all the time.

The difference between God’s commands and those we make for ourselves is that God’s commands arise from who he is—and he is good. Ours arise because we always trying to fix a problem—and we are not good. Again, this latter point is disputed, but the number of rules we have to make is increasing all the time, so, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that there is a problem, and that the problem is us.

God is not trying to fix a problem. He is telling us who he is, and, because he is our Creator, he is telling us what is good for us. Moses says, ‘Keep his decrees and commands, which I am giving you today, so that it may go well with you and your children after you and that you may live long in the land the Lord your God gives you for all time’ (Deuteronomy 4:40).

What God tells us to do is good in the sense that it works. It fits what we are and it enables us to live together in a way that benefits everybody. It’s not an ideology, a social construction invented by someone to solve a problem. It’s real, and really works.

It’s interesting to see where the ten commandments begin. They don’t start with, ‘You shall not…’ but with, ‘I am the Lord your God…’ (Exodus 20:2). His commands arise from him being in a relationship with us. He says to his people, ‘You belong to me and I belong to you.’

If we think that the way to have relationships is to get everyone doing ‘the right thing’—which means telling everyone what the ‘right things’ are—we wear people down and destroy real relationships.

Many children know what it is like having to perform in a certain way to secure the attention, approval or affection of their parents. But others have parents who have created a home where they know they belong. Their identity does not need to arise from how they perform but from belonging. They are beloved children. In that setting, they can hear what is required of them as something that will be in their interests to hear and do.

The same is true in a community. If we must conform to a certain set of rules to be heard or to have a place, we breed distrust, distain and social unrest. It doesn’t work—and it isn’t working.

God has made every human being in his image, so everyone has a place in it. It is because he is relating to us that he gives us his commands.

But God says more. ‘I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery’. He calls this redeeming them—that is paying the price to release them from their slave-masters. Israel belongs to God, not only because he made them but because he has made it possible for them to obey him.

We must look some more at how this happens, but for now, we simply note that God’s commands are given to people who have been released from the pressure of false gods—that is, anything that’s taken the place of God. They not only should obey him but they can, and even want to.

This has been the whole point of Jesus coming among us. He comes to save us. We get trapped by our own sins. We get caught by this world—and do what it wants rather than what God wants. This isn’t freedom. We have to do things.

But Jesus says ‘I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed’ (John 8:34-36).

If we know God is relating to us, that he has decided to love us, and that he is doing whatever is necessary to set us free from being trapped by what we have done, we will be able to receive his commands as his love reaching out to us.

So, commands might not be too bad after all! Certainly, those who realise God has made this world as a home for us, and who see what he has done to free us from our false gods, will listen to them with interest, heed them with diligence and find that it is good to be told what to do.

Something holy, at Christmas

When God is about to send his Son into the world, an angel comes to Mary to tell her she will be the child’s mother (Luke 1:26-38). She is told a number of amazing things. A son from her womb will be Israel’s Messiah. This child will be called ‘Son of the Most High’. And he will reign forever.

But the thing she asks about, understandably, is how she can have any baby without a father.

The answer is, ‘The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God’ (Luke 1:35).

This is not going to be an event for which any human being can take the credit. God has promised it, is now announcing it and will physically make it happen.

I want to speak about one word that applies to all of the things that are happening here—the word ‘holy’. The child will be holy because the Holy Spirit will ‘come upon’ Mary. God is holy and only he can cause anything else to be holy.

We tend to think that ‘holy’ refers to behaviour but it is more than that. It indicates that something comes from God, belongs to God and is to be used for his purposes. This leads to a certain kind of behaviour but it is a ‘belonging’ word.

For example, God tells Israel, ‘I am the Lord, who made you holy and who brought you out of Egypt to be your God. I am the Lord’ (Leviticus 22:32-33). And on the basis of this he tells them to keep his commands. It is because we belong that we behave.

The opposite of holy is profane. If we use something holy, like the name of Jesus, for a swear word, we utter a profanity.

The same is true for lots of other things. If I take my own humanity and use it for me instead of for God, I am turning something meant to be holy into something profane. I commit profanity. If I go to church and sing songs but am only interested in the form of the service and not its purpose, I turn something holy into something profane. (There’s an example in Ezekiel 22:26.)

Think for a moment about what the world would be like if it was holy. If we reverenced God, his nature would be reflected in all our behaviour and the resulting society. There would be no greed, rivalry or hatred, only generosity, mutuality and love. We would have a great vision of life, not mere ‘me’ goals. There would be no harming, cruelty, sickness or death. We would simply live in and look after the world God has made for us.

But think about a world that is profane. It is very self-righteous. We are constantly being told about what we should and shouldn’t do. But can we produce a loving community? We don’t just need a law to keep. We need a God behind it who says, ‘This is my law. It matters if you break it.’

If we are going to have faithful marriages, ethical business and if we are going to care for the planet, we are going to need a God who says, ‘This is my world. It matters how you live in it.’ A profane world can’t produce what it legislates.

And now, God’s holy Child is coming into this profane world. This is astonishing. It is very difficult to approach people who have no regard for us, but this is what God is doing. We disregard the fact that he made the world and sustains all its operations—and he sends us his own Son to be our Saviour.

An angel has told Joseph to call this son Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. We need healing for our profanity. We need something that only God can do. We have not been able to live without God interrupting our ease and presumption.

So, Mary’s life is all rearranged. She will have a son. There is nothing normal or safe here. God will hover over Mary, just as his Holy Spirit overshadowed the first creation to bring it to life (Genesis 1:2). Here is the beginning of a new creation. Nothing less will change us or our profane world.

These words of the angel are reflected later on when Jesus says to Nicodemus. ‘…no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again’ (John 3:3). And Nicodemus says almost the same as Mary. ‘How can someone be born when they are old?’ He is accustomed to the natural world, not to the world God owns and manages. Even though he is religious, he is profaning God’s world and his revelation. He needs a life that is from above—a holy life.

But now, see what Mary says. ‘I am the Lord’s servant. … May your word to me be fulfilled’ (Luke 1:38). And she becomes pregnant. The holy Child who will save his people from their sins, has entered our world. And his reign will never end. Holiness has arrived.

So easily can a profane world become a holy one. If with Mary, we say ‘let it be so to me according to your word’, God is our God, our sins are forgiven, love is born, eternity is in our souls, God’s will is done and the world can see its God reflected in the lives of his people.

The rest is over to God. We can only be holy by hearing his word, and letting him do in us what only he can do.

(If you would like to hear these things spelt out more fully, you can listen to a 25 minute talk at  https://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=122020610274335 )