Exodus 20:1-17, II Corinthians 3:1-8
March 19, 2006
As I promised, we look today at yet another covenant. First we looked at the covenant with Noah, the sign of which was the rainbow. Second we looked at the covenant with Abraham and Sarah, the sign of which was the promised son, Isaac. Today we look at the covenant with the people of Israel given through Moses. And this time, the covenant was literally written in stone! This is the covenant of the Ten Commandments.
It’s funny, I wasn’t going to refer to the actual Ten Commandments today, except to talk in terms of covenant in general. I wasn’t going to get real specific. I was going to have us think more about Paul’s words which talked about the covenant of God being “written on the heart.” Because that brings it home to us!
That was an important thing for Paul. And it represented a big change of heart even for Paul to say those things. Being a Pharisee, the Ten Commandments, the Torah, the “Law” – with a capitol “L” – was everything. And following the Law to the very letter of the law was the sole objective of a Pharisee’s life! Now, as we read the words of this Pharisee, we see quite a change. We see him talking about heart and spirit. And that’s really quite amazing!
That’s how I was going to proceed with this. But it’s a funny thing. I got to looking at the Ten Commandments in Exodus, and some things about it jumped out at me! That wasn’t what I had expected! That never happened before with something as straight-forward as the Ten Commandments. They seemed more like rules “cut and dried” nothing more. Yet I know this was a living document to the Hebrews, and I think it “came alive” a little more to me!
What caught my attention was one of those “visual impression” kind of things. As I looked at this most important document, this document that gave the Hebrew people their very identity, I saw on that page that there a lot of the commandments that contained only a few words. “Thou shalt not kill.” “Thou shalt not steal.” lines like that. But there were three of those commandments that came with longer explanations. And I got to thinking that maybe we ought to consider a little more closely those which God spent extra time “esplainin’.” So let’s do that before we make the spiritual connection with these commandments that Paul leads us to in II Corinthians.
The three with longer explanations are these: 1 Do not make any graven images; 2 Remember the Sabbath; and 3 Do not covet. They don’t seem particularly noteworthy. But wouldn’t life be different if we followed those particular three a little more carefully? Listen to what God is saying here. First, echoing the first commandment “Have no other God’s before me,” he’s saying, “Don’t make ‘gods’ out of anything in this life that will take the place of me.” Then he’s saying, “Remember the need to have special time to worship and to rest and rejuvenate!” And third, “Be satisfied with what you have in this life. Don’t be caught up in the frenzy to have more all the time!”
Just imagine that! Contrast it to the lives of people in this world that are so full of things that demand their devotion and allegiance, that are so busy they have no time to take care of themselves, and that are consumed with the obsession of getting more and having more all the time! That focus and the stress and turmoil that produces is not what God wanted for his people! He wanted the very best for them and for us.
The Ten Commandments were not written just as a series of “do’s and don’t’s.” It was in essence a covenant, a sign of the people’s relationship with God. And that relationship was based on God’s love for his people and his desire for them to have a life of peace and glory. Ultimately it was the Law that was made for the benefit of God’s people, not the other way around. Jesus himself said that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.
So as you think about the Ten Commandments, think about these three. And know the kind of life God wants for you. Don’t make gods out of worldly things, keep a Sabbath of worship and rest, and be satisfied with what you have and don’t get caught up in the world’s passion for having more and more.
Then remember what Paul said when he made this reference to “tablets of human hearts.” And know of course that his readers would have understood exactly what he meant when he used the word “tablets.” But then he tried to help them see a little of what God showed me in seeing those three commandments in light of the life God wants for us. He told them more about the understanding behind the Law, something I believe he was rediscovering in his own experience.
I really believe that understanding is sorely needed in our world! Too often people have seen the Christian faith as a “set of rules.” They would think only of those stone tablets and the “Law” they represented. I think that’s part of the animosity we see in our world toward our Judeo-Christian culture. We need totell people about the spirit of those Laws and know that what is really important about them is written on our hearts.
That’s what Paul is saying here. He was telling the people that their lives were to be lived in relationship with God. The covenant, that which was so important to them, was about the spirit of the Law and the love of God who gave it. It wasn’t about just figuring out what the rules were and following them. Paul reminded them that Moses, who brought the tablets down from the mountain, was so filled with that spirit of God that his face glowed. We’re not exactly sure what that looked like. But however it appeared, the people were afraid to look at him! This covenant is about the spirit of God in our lives. It’s not about cold stone! It’s about warm hearts!
Friends that’s what I want you to take away from these thoughts about this covenant. The Ten Commandments are about God’s love for this tribe of people so long ago. They are about his desire for them to have the very best of life. That’s why he gave them this “law.” And I want you to remember God’s steadfast love, how he loved these people even when they had forsaken him again and again. Because what God wanted for them was not covenantal law, but living relationship!
That’s what he wants for us. The Old and New Testaments are not really that much different if you think about them in those terms, are they?! It has always been the heart that God has looked on. In speaking of repentance the psalmist said, “For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Psalm 51:16-17) I had a difficult time finding that verse, because in the Old Testament alone the word “heart” occurs 500 times!
Jesus came to tell us the same thing. God looks on the heart. But too often people want to avoid that. They want to learn what to believe and to know instead. When Jesus was here, a lot of people wanted to talk to him about laws and doctrines, but Jesus talked instead about their hearts – and the heart of God. Remember how he told the Pharisees that they were upholding the letter of the Law but they had forsaken the spirit of the Law.
Sometimes I think people haven’t changed all that much. When it comes to faith, there is still too much of a tendency for people to discuss doctrine and law. The even allow themselves to get upset about such things. Still, they seem to forget about the heart of things.
Do we ever do that? When we think about our own faith, we do tend to think about the doctrines and beliefs rather than thinking about our relationship with God? How would it be if when someone asked us what we believe, we said, “I believe that God loves me, and that he’s with me always.” Nothing else! Think about that. The very last thing Jesus said to his disciples was, “Lo I am with you always, even to the close of the age.”
But how many people live their faith as though God were in this place and only in this place. God is with us outside of those doors as well. In fact, the time we have here represents only one hour a week. (And heaven forbid we ever go over that hour!) But if we live as though that’s enough time in God’s presence, we are mistaken. Besides this hour there are 167 other hours in every week. Those 167 will easily eclipse the one if we forget God when we leave this place. Theoretically, this is the time we come to rejoice that God has been with us the rest of the week!
This Lenten season, I encourage you to think seriously about your faith and how you’re spending the other 167 hours. Are you living with God each day? Are you making sure you are not replacing him with anything? Are you worshipping and resting in him? Are you satisfied with him alone in this life? Remember those three commandments.
But most importantly, is God’s word written only on the tablets of stone? Is it written only in your minds, in that you have learned a lot about God and you know a lot about what you believe? Or is it written on your hearts!
Eternal God, you have stepped into our lives, and you have touched our hearts. Help us to live each day in your presence, not just one. Help us to seek to know you more all the time. Help us to pour out our hearts before you. Help us to grow in our relationship with you throughout this time of Lent and all year long. For this we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.