The Ten Commandments, Part 1 - But First, A Word with You

    Quick quiz – list the Ten Commandments. 
    OK, name one commandment. 
    And now for the final question (winner take all): can you recite the two verses that immediately precede the Ten Commandments?
    No matter how you scored on this little pop quiz, you probably have one thing in common with most everyone else who has taken it: they have no recollection of what comes before the commandments. After all, isn't the Decalogue (another name for the commandments, meaning “ten words”) the star of the show? It would seem as though talking about the verses before the commandments would be to fixate on the salad instead of the steak, or to talk about the lobby instead of the main room.
    But if you're going to make sense of the Ten Words, you've got to understand the words that preface them.

An Important Introduction

    Exodus 20:1-2 reads, “And God spake all these words, saying, I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” Of course Moses and the Israelites would have known it was God who was speaking to them; but before they heard His commands for them, they needed to be reminded of who He was and of what He had done for them – and of how they were to respond to His grace. 
    In other words, these commandments didn't drop impersonally out of the sky. They were given directly to God's people by a personal God in the context of a relationship.
    “I am the Lord thy God”: as “Lord” (in Hebrew, this name is literally “I am that I am,”), He is reminding the people that He is the eternal, self-existent God on whom they depend for life. And this name, “Lord,” is also a personal and relational name for God: it's the name God revealed to Moses at the burning bush, when He told Moses that he would lead His people out of the land of Egypt. 
    And in saying, “I brought you out of the land of Egypt – out of the house of bondage,” the Lord is refreshing Israel's memory about what He'd just done for them. They had become enslaved in a foreign land to which they'd once come to escape famine. They were relatively few in number. By all human calculations, Israel should not have been alive – much less on the way to the Promised Land!
    These words form the preface to the covenant relationship that the Lord is instituting with His people Israel. In one sense, they're common to the covenants of those days.
    Yet these aren't any old words; they're God's words, and they're eternally significant. They tell you and me about how great the Lord is, how good the Lord is, and how thankful we should be to Him.
    Sometimes when parents have a disciplinary talk with their children, they preface their instructions (“Stop throwing Legos at your brother!”) with a reminder of the relationship they enjoy with their children (“Remember, we're Mommy and Daddy, and we love you, and we're here to teach you what's right”). Viewed in this light, commands are given in the context of love. They are, in fact, the outflow of love.

Grace, then Obedience

    So what does this preface mean for the Ten Commandments – and for you? At least two things.
    One, God didn't give these commands to Israel in order for Israel to keep them and thereby to be saved, or to be right in His eyes. He gave these commands after He'd already delivered them from slavery. 
    You might not have been freed from literal enslavement to another person, but if you've come to know God's forgiveness in Jesus Christ, you definitely have been freed from slavery to sin. St. Paul says this very thing in Romans 6:7. This means that the Ten Commandments aren't there for you to obey in order to have your sin removed, or to be accepted into God's presence. No, only Jesus Christ can save you and free you. The same grace that the Israelites knew is the grace you and I experience in Christ: the joy of knowing that the Lord is our God, and He has freed us from the yoke of sin and guilt before Him.
    Second, the Ten Commandments are given to guide you in how you are to live in the freedom Jesus Christ has won for you. Your obedience to them is not the basis for your salvation – but it is the fruit of your saved and grateful heart. God wanted His people to live a victorious life in His grace, not submitting again to the yoke of spiritual slavery. Indeed, part of His grace is in giving you and me the moral law to direct us (Rom 6:14)!
    Next time, we'll explore some aspects of the First Commandment together. But we'll do so in the proper order: by remembering the priority of God's grace to us in Christ.  

Identity, Part Four – Redemption and Renewal

In our last entry, we spoke of humanity in terms of two Adams. The First Adam, the father of all people, failed to protect his wife spiritually from the sly encroachment of the serpent. In fact, he himself gave in to the enemy's temptation. The First Adam took upon himself the role of God, making up his own rules while snubbing God's law (which was, essentially, “You shall not eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil”). 

Yes, that act of rebellion might have occurred thousands of years ago by one man; but Scripture asserts that Adam's sin has brought death – spiritual and physical – upon all human beings. Even you and me.

Finding your identity, then, means that you come to grips with the identity of your first father, Fallen Adam.

Recently, companies have advertised mail-in kits that allow for a DNA sample to be analyzed so you can know your actual heritage. One wonders how many folks have been stunned by the results! Frankly, discovering one's family origins can be downright humbling.

This is exactly the case for you when you search God's Word with an open heart and mind – and receive what's taught in Romans 5:12-21.

A Past I Can't Shake?

One of my seminary professors told the story of a student of his who had come from a family with a deservedly poor reputation in their community. The family's last name was synonymous with immorality, dishonesty and generally base conduct. 

By God's grace, the student had come to repent of his sin and to believe on Jesus Christ and even sensed God's calling to the ministry. While at seminary, however, he was disturbed by the shadows of his family's past. It was almost as if he'd never be able to outrun their sullied reputation, or that God couldn't use him in the pastorate because of his last name.

My professor comforted the man with this truth: all of us, as children of the first Adam, have a “bad family past.” None of us deserves salvation. And all of us who trust in Jesus Christ enjoy this glorious prospect: in Him, we are not dragged down by our past (or our family's past, however broadly one conceives of “family”); rather, we are always looking to the future through the lens of our new, forgiven, restored identity in Jesus Christ (1 John 3:2-3).

The Faithful Adam

As we've already mentioned, St. Paul refers to our Lord Jesus Christ in various ways in his letters, but one name for the Savior – “the Last Adam” – captures the connectedness of God's plan of salvation in history. History and humanity really are a “tale of two Adams.”

This is the message of Romans 5:12-21 and 1 Corinthians 15:21-22. The First Adam broke God's covenant and brought death on us all. The Last Adam, Jesus, obeyed God's covenant and through his death (for your covenant-breaking!) gives life to all who believe on him. The First Adam shattered man's fellowship with God; the Last Adam restores that fellowship (because, as he bore the sin of his people on the cross, his fellowship with God the Father was severed for a time: see Matthew 27:46 and Habakkuk 1:13).

The First Adam brought shame – and bowed heads – to us all. The Last Adam bestows dignity and, with his own hand, lifts the heads of all who trust in him.

Taking on the Family Resemblance 

Isn't it fun to note characteristics among family members? One side of my family has a telltale “schnoz” (nose). The other side is rife with small, chubby hands and feet. 

Your family has traits, too. Oddly, even family members who aren't blood relatives seem to begin to look like one another over time – that seems to be the case with couples who've been married for decades. We tend to take on the family resemblance.

When a person believes on the Last Adam for salvation, he immediately is forgiven by God (1 John 1:8-9) and adopted into God's family. What's more, by God's work in us, you and I begin to take on the resemblance of God's family. Specifically, the Lord enables us to bear His image – to look more like Him – in daily life.

Writing to the Ephesians and to the Colossians, the Apostle Paul says we're being renewed continually in the spirit of our minds, so that Christians are always shedding the “old self” (the First Adam and his sin) and putting on the new man (the Last Adam and his obedience). In fact, he writes in Ephesians 4:24 and in Colossians 3:10, we're putting on the very likeness of God, who made us!

Now, this doesn't mean you're becoming divine. Of course not. 

But it means you're growing in the knowledge of God, intellectually (through Bible reading and study) and personally (through fellowship with Him in prayer and in the sacraments of baptism and of the Supper). It means you're loving more and more what He loves and rejecting what He rejects (sin, filth, pride, greed and the like). You're taking on his mindset, which was of submission to the Word, while casting off the reign of idols (especially the idol of “me”).

You're living out your new identity in Jesus Christ, the Last Adam – an identity of dignity, of uprightness and of hope.

What's your identity? It's not in a cause or in your past or in your work or in your hobbies. 

It's in your Savior – the true and perfect man, Jesus Christ.

Questions or comments?

Identity, Part Three – Man, the Sinner

This past summer brought another installment of the Olympic Games – a quadrennial reminder that human beings are capable of amazing feats. Lightning-fast (pardon the pun) Usain Bolt won his ninth gold medal. Swimmer Michael Phelps brought his career medal count to 28, making him the most-decorated Olympian of all time. A teenage gymnast named Simone Biles captured her fourth Olympic gold. Athletes obliterated world records. We could go on.

Closer to home, reach in your pocket and pull out your cell phone. Want to know the weather in Seville? Or who won the Scripps-Howard Spelling Bee in 2010? Ask your … phone? Absolutely. All thanks to human technological innovation.

Yes, people can do astounding things.

But if you're honest, you'll have to admit that people also can do unloving, unkind, unholy things. Even you and I.

Take, for example, love: have you ever said something hurtful or unkind to (or about) someone? Years later, the person confronted you with how damaging your words really were.

Or, perhaps, you selfishly used up all the hot water in your shower when you knew you had guests who'd be showering after you? 

Everyone does, says and thinks things that are unholy – regardless of how loving he or she claims to be. Why is this? Is it due to a lack of education or basic needs? That can't be correct: people with plenty of letters after their names (Ph.D., M.D., etc.) and with plenty of money in their bank accounts do plenty of unholy things. Is the solution found inside yourself – if only I tried harder? This can't be, either. Funny how there are so many self-help books out there – and plenty of repeat purchasers of self-help books.

Why do you do unholy (sinful) things? The answer goes back to the Garden of Eden.

What Happened in Eden Didn't Stay in Eden

In our last installment, we observed that God created our father Adam to live before Him in righteousness and holiness (to live an obedient, sin-free life), with knowledge of himself and of God, and with rulership over the creation. God gave Adam something to do in the Garden of Eden: to dress and to keep it (in other words, to tend to it like a place of worship). 

He also commanded Adam not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil; Adam instead was to learn about good and evil from God. This was God's grave promise: if Adam disobeyed God and played like he was the lawgiver, God would punish Adam with spiritual and, eventually, with physical death.

So when Adam didn't protect his wife Eve from the devil's wiles, and when they took and ate the fruit God had forbidden, their eyes were opened, and they knew that they were naked (Genesis 3:7). This verse doesn't mean that they suddenly realized they had no clothes on and that they were exposed to the public. There was no “public” – other than God!

Their nakedness and shame was spiritual. They now knew good and evil – but in an experiential, hurtful, destructive way. They knew God saw them, but now, for the first time, they sensed their wrong-ness and His coming judgment.

“Too bad for them,” you might be thinking to yourself. “But that was then, and this is now. I'm on my own.”

Actually, St. Paul says the opposite: you can't begin to understand your true identity until you know who your father Adam was – and how his actions have impacted you. Writing to the Roman Christians (Romans 5:12-21), Paul says that sin came through one man to all of us: Adam's disobedience to God, which brought the covenantal punishment of spiritual death on himself, also comes to you and me as his children. 

Writing to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 15:21-22), the same apostle says the same thing: death came through one disobedient man to all men and women after him.

In America, you and I don't represent ourselves in Congress. We elect men and women to represent us, and their votes impact you and me – even if we vehemently disagree with them. Similarly, in God's plan, Adam wasn't just representing himself.

Adam acted for all of us. And his lethal choice has brought death to all of us, even thousands of years later.

So How Much Did It Cost?

When Adam rebelled against God, his action brought corruption on all of us as human beings. Adam lost his right standing with God, as well as the holiness (sinlessness) with which God had endowed him in the beginning – back when things were good. Adam retained some knowledge of God's character, word and will; but his thinking became warped by sin. And his dominion over creation? That, too, was impacted severely: the ground would bear thorns and thistles, not perfect vegetation, from that point on.

Sadly, because Adam lost his original righteousness and holiness, he couldn't enjoy the same communion with God in Eden … unless God did something about it. More on that next time.

Thankfully, Adam's sin did not remove the image of God from man. Later in Genesis, in 9:6, the Lord prohibits murder even after the fall into sin, because all people still retain something of the image of God in us. That's why your life still has value, no matter your income, background, family, occupation or educational status. You still have a sense of right and wrong. You still have a mind that's capable of towering achievements (again, the “smartphone”).

Yet naturally, you wander from God, apart from God, and try to fill His place in your life with stuff that simply isn't the same as Him. Eventually, you'll face death – and the wrath of a holy God.

King David puts it best in Psalm 51. He wrote that song after a long season in a dangerous place away from God. He had committed heinous sins: conspiring to have one of his most-loyal soldiers murdered because he committed adultery with that solider's wife. He had been in denial about the wretchedness of his sin. Eventually, though, God used a prophet named Nathan to bring David to repentance for his sin against the Lord.

In that psalm, David confessed, “I was shapen in iniquity (perverse character), and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5). David is saying, “I sin because I'm a sinner, and I'm a sinner because I'm a descendant of Adam.”

Just like you and me.

Any Good News Here?

No and yes.

No, there's no good news if the story stops here. If God hadn't stepped in, there would be no hope for you and me. 

And if you don't come to terms with your own sin as a child of Adam, then God's intervention in His Son Jesus cannot apply to you. You'll be entombed in the same death as the first Adam.

But yes, there is hope – because centuries later, God sent another Adam.

Questions or comments?

Identity, Part Two – Man as Covenantal Image Bearer

Last time, we began to answer the question that you and I confront at some point in life: “What is my identity?” (Or, more commonly, “Who am I?”) We started by taking a long look around and placing ourselves in the context of the creation surrounding us. Everything you and I see says to us, deep down inside, There is a God who made everything, including me. This sense is so strong, honestly, that we have to work hard to deny and to suppress it.

God made you. And if you're going to figure out who you are, you've got to start with what your Creator says about you. It simply makes sense to ask the Maker to tell you about what He's made.

We saw that the creation tells us plenty of things about God: His orderliness, wisdom, power and goodness, to name a few. But we also admitted that creation only reveals so much about God. If you and I are going to know Him in a meaningful way, we've got to meet Him where He meets us: in His written word, the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.

So what does the Bible say about you and your identity?

You're special!

No, we mean it! In a nutshell, the Scriptures describe what should be obvious: you and I, as human beings, are different from the rest of creation. We occupy an elevated status within this realm. (This doesn't give us the right to abuse God's creation, of course, but that's another matter for another day). 

After He had created everything else, Genesis 1:26-27 says God created man (and from man, woman, as we read in Genesis 2) in His image. It's as if everything that preceded the creation of Adam merely set the stage for the grand moment of man's entrance. Not that the stars and trees and cattle don't matter, but interestingly, the Scripture only refers to mankind as being “in God's image.” And only after He had created man did God pronounce His creation “very” good. Before that time, God just said the creation was “good.”

But what does it mean to be “in God's image?”

It means, in part, that you and I reflect our Creator in a unique way that the rest of the universe does not. Specifically, the Scriptures teach that bearing God's image includes the knowledge, righteousness and holiness that He originally gave our father Adam – before Adam rebelled against God. 

In his letter to the Christians at Colosse (3:10), the Apostle Paul writes that believers in Jesus are being “renewed in knowledge.” You were created to know about God, and to know Him personally. God has given you a consciousness that no other creature shares. And His will for you and me is for us to explore and to learn about His world and, through this knowledge, about Him. He also has written the knowledge of Himself and of His law on your heart, so that in the core of your being, you know right from wrong, and you know there is a Maker.

Paul also writes to the Ephesians (4:24) that bearing God's image and likeness means that in the beginning Adam possessed righteousness and holiness. He had a knowledge of what God required of him – and he actually was in right and proper standing with God. He was a “lawful man” before God. He also possessed holiness: he had no sin, so He could live in the presence of God and not experience God's punishment for sin. 

Knowledge, righteousness and holiness are characteristics of God Himself – and He imparted them to His created image-bearer, Adam. Animals didn't have these characteristics; only man did.

God also is the King of His creation (see Psalm 47:2, for example), and as His representatives on earth, you and I have dominion over what He made (Genesis 1:28). We're called to explore and to use the creation in a way that honors Him and that reflects His goodness, wisdom and truth. We're to be kind to animals, for instance. But in the end of the day, you and I are “over” the animals, and they serve us as we serve our wise, gracious and holy God.

All of this means that you have inherent dignity and worth simply because God made you in His image. You don't need another person to tell you you're important, or to validate your existence.

Experiences, accomplishments, romantic relationships and possessions don't give you worth. Trying to refashion yourself into someone else won't work either. 

Your role as God's image-bearer is the reason that you are precious and deserving of respect.

It's all about relationships

As a television commercial used to say, “But that's not all!”

After creating man and woman, Genesis 2 relates that God entered into a covenantal relationship with Adam (and Adam represented all of us humans in this covenantal relationship; ser Romans 5:12-21). Now, “covenant” isn't a word used often these days, so it's important that we stop and define the term – especially because covenants lie at the heart of how God relates to us humans.

In the Scriptures, a covenant is a solemn arrangement between two parties – with God usually being one of the parties. One scholar defines “covenant” as a “bond, in blood, sovereignly administered.” That's a jam-packed way of saying that a biblical covenant is a serious relationship, initiated by God, between Himself and another party; it features stipulations for both parties; and it has life-or-death consequences for keeping or violating those stipulations. 

You and I are familiar with covenants today, even if we don't use the word much. Consider, for example, a contract with an employer: you promise to fulfill your work responsibilities as outlined in the contract and to abide by company policies; your employer promises to pay you an agreed-upon salary (and benefits). You sign the contract with ink on paper, and suddenly you're relationship has been formalized. 

Another example of a covenant that folks enter into today is marriage, with two parties formally pledging themselves to certain obligations in the solemn context of a relationship. It's a serious arrangement!

Back to God and Adam. Read Genesis 2:15-17, you'll note that God purposefully took Adam and placed him in the Garden of Eden to “dress it and to keep it.” Later, the same language is used for the priests' work in the tabernacle, which suggests that the work God gave Adam to do in the garden wasn't just to prune over here and to water over there; it was physical and spiritual work to be done in God's presence to God's glory. 

God gave Adam something to do in Eden. He also gave Adam a commandment not to do something. God invited Adam to eat freely from every tree in the garden except one: the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Why that tree? Well, we'll look at it in greater detail next time. But the word “knowledge” is really the operative word. God wanted Adam to learn about good and evil and all things from Him – not from anyone or anything else. And it was a test to see if Adam would submit to God, or if he would take God's role to himself.

If Adam would've obeyed God, it's implied that Adam – and you and me and all of his descendants – would've lived in a state of confirmed goodness and spiritual happiness. But in verse 17, God warns that if and when Adam disobeyed God, he would “surely die,” or “die the death.” He would die spiritually before God, and this inward spiritual death later would be pictured in his literal, physical death.

The actual word “covenant” doesn't appear in Genesis 2 (although it is used in Hosea 6:7 to describe Adam's sin in Eden), but all of the elements of a biblical covenant are present. 

You're in a serious relationship

So what? Here's what: when God first created Adam, the father of all of us human beings, He didn't just leave Adam be. He chose to enter into a serious relationship with Adam. He blessed Adam with everything he needed in the garden of paradise. He entrusted Adam with a solemn responsibility: to serve Him in His creation, and to obey every word He spoke. And He issued a promise: if Adam broke this covenant, he – and all of us, his children – would die completely before God.

What happens when you decide you don't feel like coming to work anymore? (Tuesdays can be pretty drab, after all). Most likely, your employer – no matter how laid-back! – eventually will penalize you. You'll probably be fired if you persist in breaking your contract.

If we humans take covenants so seriously, don't you think God takes them perfectly seriously?

Adam broke the covenant God made with him. And when Adam broke that covenant, his actions impacted you and me, living thousands of years later. 

Next time, we'll take a look at how Adam's failure affects you and your identity. But for now, ponder this truth: God put you here as His special image-bearer, and when you fail to represent Him on earth as He has commanded, there are serious consequences – because God is a serious God. 

If you're going to discover your identity, you've got to see how seriously God treats you: as one who bears His image and likeness, and as a child of rebellious Adam.

Questions or comments?