Rev. Chip Hammond -
Our church is perhaps one of the very few remaining that regularly reads the Ten Commandments. As has been demonstrated by many people, from George Barna to Jay Leno, the majority of people who say they revere the Ten Commandments can’t name even one of them.
The people of our Church are perhaps among the very few who know that the Ten Commandments are not commandments at all. In the Hebrew they do not appear in the imperative, the grammatical form for command. They are referred to in the Scriptures not as “law,” but rather as “covenant.” And most telling, only in our English translations are they called Ten Commandments. In the original Hebrew, and in the Greek (300 B.C.) and Latin (A.D. 400) translations, they are the Ten Words, ten statements, nine of which are irreal (= a condition not yet fulfilled) statements that are to be realized in the lives of God’s people. Why do we think of them as commandments?
These Ten Words are never enumerated anywhere, and different traditions have come up with different divisions. Our own tradition has not really known what to do with the statement “I am the LORD your God . . . ” and so has often referred to it as a preface. Judaism, though, understands this statement to be the first and stand-alone Word, with an implicit “therefore” between it and the nine Words that follow. “I am,” therefore “you shall.” “I am the LORD your God; consecrate yourselves therefore and be holy, because I am holy” (Lev. 11:44).
These Ten Words are reflections of who God is—I AM. And because He is, we who are His redeemed people are to be those things that follow. We are to be faithful because He is faithful. We are to speak truth because He is the Truth. We are to respect human life because man is made in the image of Him who is Life. The first Word, the Word is “I AM.” All the other Words are God’s own attributes, and we who are made in His image have been redeemed and we are to be like Him.
I have come to believe that the Ten Words, rightly understood, are a context for the prologue of John’s Gospel. Many commentators throughout the Christian era have assumed that the background of the opening of John’s Gospel was Greek thought. It makes sense. Christ is called the Logos, and in Greek thought the Logos is the unifying principle, the design, that holds everything together. To tap into the Logos is to have a unified and consistent worldview, the key to making sense of the universe in all its diversity and complexity.
Now certainly the gentiles, apart from the Scriptures, have an astonishing knowledge of God, not because they’ve “discovered” it, but because God has revealed it to them through creation (Ps. 19:1-6, Rom. 1:19-20, 2:14-16). It certainly should give us pause that the pagan Parthian Magi, and not the Levitical Priests of Jerusalem, came looking for the one who was born King of the Jews (Matt. 2:1-3). The Magi studied the scriptures and wisdom writings of every culture they came in contact with, and no doubt had copies of the Hebrew Scriptures from Israel’s captivity in Babylon. But only by fanciful interpretation can one find any mention of the rising of a star to herald the birth of the Messiah in the Hebrew Scriptures.
I supposed John could have had Greek philosophy in mind, but John was not a trained philosopher. He was a Galilean fisherman. As a Jew he knew the Scriptures, but beyond that he was uneducated, a fact that the simplicity of his grammar and vocabulary corroborate.
I suspect, therefore, that when John wrote,
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being by Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. . . . He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth (from John 1, NASB)
it was not the Greek concept of the Logos that he had in mind, but rather the first Word of the Decalogue (literally, “ten words”). The first Word – the Word – “I AM the LORD your God . . .” – became flesh and dwelt among us.
We beheld His glory. It is true that, as the prophet Isaiah said of Him, “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to Him, nothing in His appearance that we should desire Him” (53:2). But His glory was seen by those who spent time with Him. They saw Him perfectly live out – flesh out – the other Nine Words, not only because they were who He was, but because they were what God created us to be. When Jesus was born, even when He was conceived, He reflected perfectly what we reflect now only dimly because of our sin. He in His humanity is the image of God (2 Cor. 4:4, Col. 1:15). The giving of the Decalogue was a covenant (Ex. 34:28). God’s gift of Christ to the world was the new covenant (Jer. 31:31, Lk. 22:20).
Let me return to the question I asked earlier. Why do we persist in thinking of these Ten Words, which are not called law, but rather covenant; which are not in the imperative but in a Hebrew tense called the non-perfective; which are not referred to as “commandments,” but “words;” as commandments?
I think it is because we have a deep-seated impulse to try to justify ourselves before God. But the impulse leads to futility. “By the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). Christ came into the world to do for us what we are completely disabled from and incapable of doing for ourselves. He reconciled us to God.
In those passages where God says “You shall be holy, for I am holy,” just as with the Ten Words, the “you shall” is never a command. It is always the statement of an irreal condition, to be fulfilled in us because God is.
So the Word (“I AM the LORD your God”) became flesh. And as a man He lived out every one of the other Words. He did so in order that, in Him who is the Image of God, the image of God badly marred in us by sin, may be renewed in us. “For those God foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Rom. 8:29); “And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man [Adam], so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven [Jesus]” (1 Cor. 15:49); “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into His likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18); “[We] have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator” (Col. 3:10).
Because He is holy, we shall be holy. And though we are called upon to work out our salvation (Phil 2:12); to strive to enter by the narrow gate (Lk 13:24); and to cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God (2 Cor. 7:1); yet the renewal of the image of God in us will not depend upon our working, or striving, or our perfecting. It will depend on Christ, the Word made flesh for us. “For both He that makes men holy and they who are made holy are all of one, so Jesus is not ashamed to call them ‘brothers’” (Heb. 2:11).
My prayer for you this Advent Season is that you will have a deeper appreciation for who Jesus is and what He has come to give you. And that you will say with the Apostle Paul, “Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!” (2 Cor. 9:15).