The 10 Commandments: Coming Closer to God’s Intention

Mar 03, 2024

Third Sunday in Lent
Text: Exodus 20:1-17
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
     Are you still adjusting to the new name you chose last Sunday? It may have been grace or joy or beloved or forgiven or faithful; it’s the name that represents how God sees you, that is, who you are from God’s perspective. That name grows out of your covenant (promise of relationship) with God, as was true when Abram and Sarai becoming Abraham and Sarah when something new was about to take place in their lives. The challenge, though, is that as we seek to embody our new name, we falter in doing so.
     That happened for the descendants of Abraham and Sarah who ended up spending 400 years as slaves in Egypt and then were led out of slavery by God’s chosen one, Moses. (That’s a story that is much more complicated than that one sentence indicates.) Having left Egypt and the Pharoah’s army behind, they began a trek in the wilderness that was challenging. They often whined and complained, although God provided food to quell their hunger and water to quench their thirst. When they were attacked, God gave them the victory. Finally, they reached Mt. Siani; there, God renewed the covenant made with Abraham and Sarah.
     Moses tells the Israelites on behalf of God, “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagle’s wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:4-6) And the people responded, “Everything the Lord has spoken, we will do.” Then, God gave them the 10 commandments.
     This is another conditional covenant; Israel must follow God’s commandments if they are to be God’s people, live as God’s liberated children and to be a blessing to the nations. This, then, is the third covenant we have focused on this Lent, the first one being with Noah and all life on earth, an unconditional promise made by God not to destroy our planet regardless of human behavior; the sign of that covenant is the rainbow. The second covenant was made with Abraham and Sarah and their descendants that God would be their God and they would walk blameless before God; the sign of that covenant is circumcision. The third covenant is a continuation of the second and features the 10 Commandments, or 10 Words, as they are called by our Jewish friends.
     We read a narration, not just a listing, of them this morning; they are part of the story of God’s intention for humanity that began at creation. Quoting commentator Elizabeth Webb, “The whole journey from creation forward, has been leading to this place. It is at Sinai that God shows the Israelites the harmonious world in which they are meant to live and calls them to live in it. It’s as if God is saying, ‘This is what you were made for…you were made to live in this community of justice, in right relationship with your God. Stay true to these commandments, and this is where you will remain.’” (1)
     These are the words to live by; the first three focus on people’s relationship with God and are intended to reflect the rhythm of a life with God at the center. The remaining seven focus on people’s relationships with one another and, when observed, create true fellowship and a community marked by honesty, respect, integrity and truthfulness. Or, as Pastor JoAnn Taylor noted, “Each Israelite is to respect the neighbor’s life, person, marriage, legal reputation and property, as well as to care for members of the community when they age.” (2)
     Although our relationship with the 10 Commandments is not the same as the ancient Jewish community, we who are saved by and sustained by God’s grace in Jesus, must live as God outlines in the 10 commandments if we are to enjoy and share that grace. These commandments not only protect individuals, but also society from actions that have the potential to destroy them.
     One of the things that is interesting about Martin Luther’s explanation of the 10 Commandments in the Small Catechism is that he focuses not only on what not to do, but also what to do. Take, for example, the 8th Commandment; it’s one that is particularly important in a divided nation with elections looming.
     “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” Here’s what Martin Luther wrote, “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputation. Instead, we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.” (3)
     Is that ever difficult to do! So, perhaps we should listen to Pastor Sam Wise’s suggestion that we follow Luther’s advice to pray with each of the commandments asking ourselves:
            1. What does this teach me?
            2. What does this give me?
3. What does this show me to confess?
4. What does this teach me to pray for? (4)
     So, I did that with Commandment 8, which teaches me that what I say and think about others matters to God. It gives me a reminder, then, to be conscious of my words, and shows me to confess and ask for forgiveness when I make comments that intentionally (or even unintentionally) discredit another person. And it teaches me to pray for help to interpret what people do in the best possible light.
     Now, I know it’s tempting to dismiss all this as not being applicable in the 21st century, in a technological world and in a time when our lives are complicated by war, violence, economic stress and varied interpretations of morality and justice. Yet, even though I know that’s the case, I also wonder if God might be shaking the divine head and saying, “Children…keep it simple! Do not have other gods; do not misuse God’s name; remember the sabbath day and keep it holy; honor your parents; do not murder, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness against your neighbor or covet what your neighbor has.”
     If we to make the commandments a way of life, if we struggle with their implications in a 21st century world, and, as Martin Luther teaches, take an extra step to not just stop doing something harmful but also doing good, then our lives and our world will be closer to what God intended.
     This is one way to intentionally live out our new names, knowing we’ll falter, but always grateful for God’s unconditional covenant of love for the sake of our world. AMEN
  1. “Commentary on Exodus 20:1-17” by Elizabeth Webb,
  2. “Words to Live By – Sermon on Exodus 20:1-17” by JoAnn Taylor,
  3. “Luther’s Small Catechism: Study Edition” 2016 Augsburg Fortress, pg. 22
  4. “Sermon on Exodus 20:1-17” by Pastor Sam Wise,