How do you feel about rules?
I know for my own two boys (5 and 2 years old), rules are more like…weak suggestions. And the rules I have had to make for them are, well, weird. Seriously. This was a sentence that came out of my mouth directed sternly at my son. “No. We do not hit the cat with the spatula!”
It’s crazy what kind of rules we have to have in our household simply to function like normal human beings. Don’t climb the entertainment center. Don’t poop on the floor. Don’t hit people with your yo-yo. Really? It’s crazy to think that we only have these rules because these things happen.
I hope you have a healthier respect for rules and guidelines than my toddler and preschooler do. When I was a teenager, I didn’t quite understand why we had such stupid rules sometimes. I went to a private high school with a fairly strict dress code. We had to wear collared shirts, tucked in, with a belt, and long pants that were free from frays or holes. Guys had to have their hair cut short, and we couldn’t have facial hair. It seemed outrageous at the time, but now that I’m older I find myself automatically dressing that way much of the time anyway.
Society has to have rules. A society without rules or a way to enforce the rules quickly dissolves into chaos.
If you were establishing a new society, a new nation, completely from the ground up, what rules would you want to have in place right from the start?
Thousands of years ago we see God, through Moses, attempting to do just that. The Hebrew people were finally freed from the tyrannical grips of the Egyptian Pharaohs. God led his people out of Egypt and into the wilderness in order to establish a holy nation out of these former slaves. For four hundred years these Hebrews had lived in Egypt. It’s the only home they had ever known. And for all we know, they only knew the Egyptian gods. If they were to stand any chance of banding together to maintain a sense of national identity and commitment to their one true God, they had to have some rules in place.
But these weren’t just any rules. They were the defining practices of the people of God.
1. I AM YHWH, your God. You shall have no other gods before me.
Like I said, they had lived for over four hundred years in a nation that had gods for everything – a sun god, a river god, an agriculture god, a fertility goddess, a protector god, a creator god, a god of the underworld, and many more. So for the Hebrews to be taken out of that culture and commit to serving only one God was a huge deal. His name is YHWH, I AM. And he is the one and only God of Israel.
2. You shall not make for yourselves an idol or graven image to worship.
Again, from their context this was revolutionary. Not only did the Egyptians have hundreds of different gods, each god or goddess had their own representation, their own idol and temple. These idols could be carved and crafted, bought and sold, transported and destroyed. God was trying to break these Hebrews completely away from any semblance of Egyptian religion and identity. They were to be an altogether different nation, and it began with their worship.
3. You shall not misuse the name of YHWH your God.
It wasn’t uncommon to invoke the name of a certain god or deity in order to get what you wanted according to these ancient religions. This is actually the basis for magic. Spells, incantations, and potions were believed to have some power over the gods, manipulating them to bow to your own will. God made it clear to his people that this is not how he works. He does not deal in magic. He does not bend his will to ours. His name is to be kept holy and revered, not tossed around haphazardly.
4. Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy.
What kind of vacation time do slaves get? How many days off per week can slaves expect to take? None. Zero. Slavery is a seven-day-a-week gig. There are no off days. No down time. No rest. No relaxation. How awesome is it that this nation of former slaves have a mandatory day of rest built into their rule book? Good thing this one doesn’t apply to us today! I’m so glad we don’t have mandatory rest and time off. We have too much work to do. We are simply too busy to take an entire day off from any kind of work… Or maybe God still wants his people to take time out of their busyness in order to reconnect with him and with each other.
5. Honor your father and mother.
Since this one comes easily and naturally to all of us, we’ll just move on to the next one…
6. Respect and preserve life – all life. (Do not murder)
Worded a little differently, but it gets at the meaning behind the command not to murder. See, Jesus came along and made it very clear that even though we don’t kill that one obnoxious neighbor of ours, when we harbor hatred and resentment we are still guilty of breaking this command. This has less to do with taking lives (which is WRONG – don’t go killing people!) and more to do with recognizing the image of God in all people and acknowledging their intrinsic value as a human being. When we belittle, ridicule, cut down, or write off the person next to us, we have not fulfilled this command.
7. Be loyal and faithful to your spouse and your family. (Do not commit adultery)
Again, Jesus told us that even if we lust after someone it’s like we are committing the act in our hearts. Loyalty to your wife/husband is incredibly important on many different levels. Strong family units are at the core of God’s society, and nothing tears those families apart like adultery and divorce. And unlike many ancient societies, this command applies equally to both men and women.
8. Respect the property rights of others. (Do not steal)
It’s one of the earliest social rules we try to teach our children – don’t take things that don’t belong to you. It seems so simple, and yet we still have to lock our houses and cars. We still need passwords for everything. We have alarm systems and armored money transport trucks. If it doesn’t belong to you, don’t take it. Plain and simple.
9. Speak the truth about and to others. (Do not bear false witness)
God’s people are to be people of truth and integrity, not those who spread rumors and gossip and slander. Satan is called the father of lies. So we speak the truth in love to a world drowning in lies and “misinformation.”
10. Be content with the blessings God has given you. (Do not covet)
Speaking of lies, one of the oldest lies in the book is that God is holding out on us. The truth is that God has given all of us much more than we could ever have dreamed. We are blessed beyond belief. And yet companies continue to pour billions of dollars into advertising each year with one goal – to make us discontent. And it works! We are the most materially blessed society in the history of the world, but we are probably the most discontent. We always want more and more and more. God’s people should learn contentment. That is one of the greatest things we could ever gain.
With these ten rules, God began the process of establishing his own holy nation. They were to be a people fully devoted to God, governed by God, serving God, worshiping God, and telling the world about God. They were to be righteous and holy, just like God is righteous and holy.
The problem was…they couldn’t do it! They never got it right. They were breaking the commandments even before the last letter was chiseled in the stone. They couldn’t ever figure out this whole righteous living thing. And then Jesus came along and told us that unless our righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, we will by no means enter the kingdom of God.
What?! If they couldn’t do it, how can we?
You see, the problem is that we get it all backwards. We don’t become righteous by following God’s laws. The good news is that we can be made righteous before God first. And then we are enabled to better obey his commands.
“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that we might become his righteousness.” 2 Corinthians 5:21.
We aren’t made righteous before God by obeying his commands. We are made righteous before God by believing in his son. And once we believe, then we can begin to obey.
What’s even better is that the commands are not impossible. There were 613 different commands given in the law of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy). Those can be condensed down to the 10 Commandments. But even those can be condensed down to two commands, the greatest commands:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.
Love your neighbor as yourself.
That’s it! That’s all there is. Granted, fulfilling those two commands can be enough to keep you busy for a lifetime. But that’s what God asks from us. That’s what Jesus commanded us to do. We don’t love in order to become righteous. We are made righteous so that we can truly know what it is to love God and to love others.
It’s time to get busy, church.
These are the days of your servant Moses, righteousness being restored.