March 4, 2018, Lent 3, Freed from Our Old Captivity – a sermon on the Ten Commandments by Carroll Boswell guest speaker
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000067
During Lent our sermon theme is the idea of the covenant. It is important because “covenant” is the word the Bible uses whenever it talks about our relationship with God. You hear a lot about a “personal relationship” with God these days, but the Bible never uses that phrase. It is not a fully biblical way of thinking about God. The idea of a covenant is a bit unfamiliar; it’s not a word we commonly use today, but the idea is a familiar one. There are two easy modern examples of covenants. One is marriage. It is a covenant arrangement between two people who are in love, who make public promises and commitments to each other. Marriage is used through the whole Bible to picture God’s relationship to His people. Another kind of covenant we have today is the business contract. It’s not as exciting as the marriage idea, but it is an image used in the Bible to picture God’s relationship with His people. Some couples nowadays have a written contract of their expectations and their commitments in marriage. That seems kind of weird to me, but it would not have been weird in biblical times; the same word was used for both. Today I want to talk about both pictures, the marriage and the contract.
When we first look at the idea of the covenant in the Bible, it seems very confusing. There are a lot of them and of different kinds. Fortunately, we only need to look at three of them now.
First, the covenant God made with Abraham. It that covenant God promised to make Abraham the father of many nations, to make him a blessing to every nation in the world, and to count his faith as righteousness. The second covenant was the one given through Moses when he brought the Ten Commandments down from the mountain. We didn’t read the scary part of that story (see Exodus 19): the dark cloud with lightning and thunder, the trumpet blast that seemed to come from nowhere, and the threat of death even to animals that touched the side of the mountain. There’s quite a between the covenants with Abraham and through Moses. With Abraham God had no problem walking right up to him and talking to him, but with Moses and the Ten Commandments there was suddenly a serious problem. There was real danger God might just destroy them all if He did any walking in their camp. What changed? Is God bipolar or something? Had the people become more disgusting than they had been? It is this whole section of the Bible that begins God’s reputation for being wrathful and severe. The reason for it is the subject of a different sermon.
But the third covenant to look at is the one Jesus introduced when he gave the wine to the disciples and said, “this cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” Now if a covenant is like a marriage relationship, why are there three of them? How are they connected? Why are some scary and some amazingly sweet? And especially, now we have a covenant with Jesus, what happened to the covenant Moses brought down from the mountain, the Ten Commandments? What about the covenant God made with Abraham?
To spell out the connection between the covenants, Paul used both pictures, the business contract and the marriage. First he used the business contract idea to explain the connection between Abraham and Moses. You all know how contracts work. Most of you have had a mortgage or bought a car. You make a deal with the bank. They let you use their money and you promise to pay it all back with interest. They do not look kindly on you if you don’t make that payment. You signed on the dotted line, and you can’t change the deal if you lose your job. You may lose your house if you don’t keep the deal.
Paul picks up on this same idea. He says that God made a deal with Abraham; then a long time later He made another deal with the whole nation of Israel. In Galatians 3:15, 17 he says, “To give a human example, brothers, even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified. … This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void.” God had counted Abraham’s faith as righteousness, but the Law said nothing counted as righteousness except obedience, that there is no mercy if you break it. In Galatians Paul points out that the Law could not set aside the deal God had already made. No matter what the Ten Commandments said, God had promised to count faith as righteousness and the Law had no power to change it. The whole law was set aside if it disagreed with what God had already promised. God keeps His promises.
Paul then used the picture of marriage to explain how the new covenant with Jesus is related to the covenant of the Ten Commandments. First understand that the Ten Commandments were only given to Israel. They were not given to the Egyptians, or the Canaanites, or any of us Gentiles so it is a moot point to us. Paul said that the Ten Commandments were like a wedding covenant between Israel and the Law, and the new covenant through Jesus is also like a wedding covenant between the Church and God. That’s why the Church is called the bride of Christ. He loves us like a husband loves his wife. But Israel was already married to the Law. How could Israel be married to both the Law and to God? Notice it is the first husband who is the legal one, in this case, the Law.
Paul answers this in Romans 7:1-4: “Do you not know, brothers – for I am speaking to those who know the Law – that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives? Thus a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. Accordingly she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive, but if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress. Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to Him who has been raised from the dead.” In other words, Israel was married to her first husband, the Law, but by Christ’s death on the cross the Law died and so Israel became free to marry God.
In both cases the Law, the Ten Commandments, are finished, over, done, abolished. How can this be? Jesus Himself said in Matthew 5:17: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” But then Paul says, in Ephesians 2:14,15 “For He Himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments and ordinances…” Jesus said He didn’t abolish the Law, Paul says He did. What gives? Here is one of those times when knowing Greek really helps. There are two different words for “abolish”. Jesus says He came to complete the Law, not “cancel” it, not “repeal” it. Paul says Jesus “brought it to an end” by completing it. It
is the same as your mortgage. You can’t cancel it, but you can pay it off. You can’t just decide you don’t like your mortgage and quit paying. But you can bring them the rest of the money you owe and then walk away. Jesus didn’t repeal the Law; He paid it off. When He paid it off, the Law could not ask for more. It was over.
Understand we have no obligations under the Law, the Ten Commandments, just like we don’t have to keep paying a loan when it is paid. And no one wishes they had that debt again, they miss it so much. It’s a burden. In Galatians 3:23 Paul says the Law was like a jail-keeper: “Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed.” In Galatians 4:1-3 he says the Law was like a guardian: “I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father.” The Law was a guard to our cell, a guardian who ran our lives.
The point is that rules, the Law, was only for criminals, for children, for slaves. But when God counts our faith as righteousness, we are forgiven of our crimes and released from prison. When the date set by the Father comes, we inherit the family business, and the guardian loses his job. When we are adopted as children, we stopped being slaves and we became the master.
The point is that we have been set free from the Ten Commandments. Now wait a minute! We can do anything we want? Well, yes. But before you rush for the door yelling “Let’s party!”, think about it. Stupid is still stupid even without a law. Look at Galatians 5:13: “For you were called to freedom brothers, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” The Ten Commandments have all been replaced, not with some new law, but by an ideal, a goal, to aim at rather than to obey. Paul says it several times to be sure we don’t miss it. Galatians 5:14: “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Romans 13:8-10: “Owe no one anything except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments – You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet, and any other commandment – are summed up in this word :You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbor, therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” I Corinthians 10:23,24 “All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good but the good of his neighbor.”
It is critical to understand that the Christian life is not about obeying rules. The Christian life is simple: use the astonishing freedom you are given to love others, encourage them, help them become strong and prosperous. That’s the whole thing. It’s a slippery idea so Paul warns us to hold on to it. Galatians 5:1 “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Colossians 2:20-23: “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations – Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch … according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.”
Freedom is scary. We are, by nature, slaves. It is such a deep part of us that we don’t know what to do without some rules to keep us in line. No wonder churches set up systems of rules for themselves. Don’t smoke or drink or dance or swear. Some churches get sophisticated and use Paul’s own words against him so they can set up new “Christian” rules: women, obey your husbands even if they are abusive. Evangelize everyone you meet, and it’s OK to be obnoxious. Be sure you give your tithe to the church and make sure it is on your salary before taxes. And we go on inventing new things in and out of the Bible to lay on people.
It is human nature to make rules, especially for other people, and especially when we realize that Jesus isn’t going to do it. But mainly we do it because we are afraid of what we might do without something to stop us. You do not need the Law to show you how to live a righteous life because God has made you righteous already, and He has sent you the Spirit to show you what to do. This is how it is supposed to work, from Romans 7:6 “but now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.” You don’t need rules to tell you what to do because the Rule Maker lives in you. The Spirit will show you what to do; just ask and listen. Don’t be afraid. Trust God. Don’t let anyone put you back into slavery, and don’t put anyone else into slavery. Love one another.