Twenty years ago I was lucky enough to be taken on holiday to Canada by my parents. We spent three weeks driving across Alberta and British Columbia – a mixture of sight-seeing, white-water rafting and mountain biking.
One day, as we travelled through the Rocky Mountains, I distinctly remember one summit being surrounded by an almost perfectly circular cloud. It stuck in my mind because I remember thinking, “Maybe that’s what Mount Sinai looked like when God gave the Ten Commandments?”
Because our passage today takes place with the people of Israel gathered at the foot of a majestic mountain. A mountain made even more awesome by the cloud, thunder and lightning that enshrouded its summit. All alone at the top, Moses receives the holy laws of a holy God, engraved on a pair of stone tablets. The commandments of God that revealed the character of God.
You may be relieved to know that I don’t propose to provide a line by line commentary on the Ten Commandments this morning! But I was quite taken by this paraphrase of them that I found online this week:
• God is Number One, so worship only him.
• His name is very special and he invented holiday!
• Kids, your Parents rule OK!
• Look after each other and be faithful to one another.
• Always tell the truth; and lastly
• Give, don’t take – enjoy the good things you’ve already got!
Of course, a rather more authoritative and concise summary of the commandments was given by Jesus in our Gospel reading this morning. In Mark chapter 12 he tells us to “Love the Lord your God” with all our heart and soul and mind and strength” and to “Love our neighbour” as ourselves. There is “no greater commandment” than these, he says.
However we choose to summarise these God-given rules, I want us this morning to consider some general spiritual lessons we can draw from them. Three general lessons about God’s rules and our right response. The three lessons have a trinitarian flavour, and are:
• Firstly, that God’s rescue comes before his rules.
• Second, Christ calls us to a higher standard; and thirdly
• The Holy Spirit writes God’s law on our heart.
Let’s look at each in turn…
God’s rescue comes before his rules!
The first spiritual truth we should note is that God’s rescue comes before his rules. The Ten Commandments come quite late on in the events of Exodus. We are near the end of our journey through this book, not the beginning.
The giving of these laws at Mount Sinai:
• come after God has had compassion on his people suffering slavery in Eqypt.
• They come after God has performed miraculous acts to liberate his people from Pharaoh;
• And the Ten Commandments come after God has provided food and fresh water to his people in the wilderness.
The great spiritual truth we should draw from these events is that God saves people BEFORE he calls them to live according to his laws. If we had to obey all his commands to earn our salvation we would have no hope. As fallen, fallible human beings we could never live such perfect lives that we would deserve God’s favour or forgiveness. Human beings can’t work their way into Heaven, however hard they try. God has to make the first move.
So obeying God’s laws and loving him comes AFTER he has saved us. Obedience to God should be our joyful response to God’s forgiveness and friendship, not what earns those things from him in the first place.
As the Apostle Paul writes, “whilst we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). If you are a Christian believer here this morning, then Jesus has already rescued you and only now calls you to love, trust and obey him in grateful response.
My love for my children is unconditional. I want them to love me in response to my love and care for them, not as a way to earn it. God’s motives are the same. God’s rescue always comes before his rules!
Christ calls Christians to a higher standard
The second truth that Scripture teaches is that Christ calls us – as Christians – to an even higher standard of behaviour than the Ten Commandments. In his famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says that his disciples should seek to be perfect, as our Heavenly Father is perfect (Matt 5:48). To put it another way, we should seek to obey the whole spirit of God’s laws, not just their letter.
Our ambition as Christians and followers of Jesus should be to please God in every way, rather than just try to get away with the minimum expected standard of behaviour. Jesus sought to please his father in every way, and that should be our ambition too – even if it is impossible (this side of Heaven) for us to be perfect in practice.
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spells out the higher standard he calls us to. A standard that goes above and beyond the letter of the Ten Commandments. For example:
• He calls us to be totally honest all of the time, not just when we’re giving testimony in court.
• He calls us to flee from lust, not just adultery.
• He calls us to avoid all anger, not merely murder.
• And he even calls us to love our enemies, not only our neighbours.
A professional cyclist or racing driver will always try to keep in the slipstream of the bike or car in front. They will perform best and travel faster the closer they are to the person in front. As Christians our calling is to live in the slipstream of Jesus, to follow in his footprints as closely as we can. As good and true as the Ten Commandments are, our ambition as Christians today should be even higher – with God’s help we should try to imitate and obey the Lord Jesus Christ himself.
The Holy Spirit has written God’s law on our hearts
So what is the help that God gives us? As the Israelites tried to obey the Ten Commandments all they had to help them will-power, self-control and a pair of stone tablets to guide them. But as New Testament believers we have the Holy Spirit to help us live according to God’s rules. If we are Christians we have God’s Spirit within us, who has written his law onto our hearts.
In the Old Testament, speaking through the prophet Jeremiah, God promised that a day would come when “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people” (Jer 33:31).
As we now know, this promise through Jeremiah was wonderfully fulfilled on the day of Pentecost. Since then, every Christians has had God’s Holy Spirit.
• A Spirit who sharpens our conscience, inscribes God’s word onto our heart, and increases our ability to resist temptation.
• When our behaviour does fall short, the Holy Spirit also helps us to recognise our failings and leads us towards confession and true repentance.
• And if we do repent, the Spirit then cleanses our conscience and inwardly assures us of our forgiveness for Christ’s sake.
The third person of the Holy Trinity has a wonderful ministry within Christians’ hearts and minds! He makes living God’s way a joy not a chore – a realistic lifestyle choice not an impossible task. Next time you feel overwhelmed by temptation, I hope you now know where to turn. Pray for the power of the Spirit to obey God’s way!
So as I finish this morning, I hope we’ve uncovered some spiritual truths from God’s Word. We’ve seen that:
• God’s rescue comes before his rules.
• Christ calls us to a higher standard; and finally
• The Holy Spirit writes God’s law on our heart.
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