Ten Commandments: Maps, Muzzles and Mirrors
by Jack Wald | August 3rd, 2006

Exodus 20, Deuteronomy 5

On our two week vacation at the end of August, we had three significant volcano experiences. The first was on the Greek island of Santorini. These Greek islands were the home of the Minoan civilization that lasted for over three thousand years and the destruction of this civilization is probably the origin of the legend of Atlantis. They were developed mariners and traded throughout the Mediterranean Sea. They made beautiful pottery and art work. But then in 1650 BC, the volcano erupted sending 30 cubic kilometers of molten rock about 36 kilometers up in the sky. Don’t let these numbers rush by you. Consider a container one kilometer long, one kilometer wide and one kilometer high. Fill that container with molten rock and now think of thirty of them. Fill the 410 meter tall twin World Trade Towers in NYC that were destroyed by terrorists with molten rock and do that 9,000 times and you have the amount of magma that was shot out of the volcano up into the stratosphere. The whole Eastern Mediterranean would have been able to see this column of lava and smoke. The removal of such a large volume of magma caused the volcano to collapse. When the sea rushed in to fill the hole that had been made, a tsunami was created and a 240 meter high tsunami hit Crete, destroying life on that island. Today Santorini it is a picturesque scene with a center island and a ring of islands around it. 3,700 years ago, it destroyed an entire civilization.

We also visited Pompeii which is located below the slopes of Mt. Vesuvius, near Naples in Italy. Pompeii was a Roman town of about 22,000 people. On February 24, 79 AD, the volcano erupted and just after midday, fragments of ash, pumice and other volcanic debris began pouring down on Pompeii. Most people fled but about 2,200 people stayed behind and were killed either when hit by debris or by the poisonous gases which reached the city walls on the morning of August 25. Six to seven meters of ash covered the town and kept it undisturbed for another 1600 years. It was not until the middle 1800s that excavation began on the town and it is the best picture of Roman life that exists today.

As we sailed in the Tyrrhenian Sea on the western side of Italy on our way back to Rome, we  saw the night time eruptions of Mt. Stromboli. In half an hour I saw two large eruptions of lava into the sky and two smaller eruptions. We were quite a distance away and I imagine the eruptions had to be several hundred feet high for us to see them as we did.

Living by the side of a mountain that makes the ground shake, sends smoke into the sky and shoots out fire has to be a terribly frightening experience.

And that was the experience of Israel as they camped by the side of Mt. Sinai as Moses went to the top of the mountain to receive the law from God.

Exodus 19:16
On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled.  17 Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain.  18 Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the LORD descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, the whole mountain trembled violently,  19 and the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder. Then Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him.
20 The LORD descended to the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses to the top of the mountain. So Moses went up  21 and the LORD said to him, “Go down and warn the people so they do not force their way through to see the LORD and many of them perish.  22 Even the priests, who approach the LORD, must consecrate themselves, or the LORD will break out against them.”

You can tell the importance of something by the way it is given. If you walk down the street and drop a dirham into the hand of a beggar, it is a casual act drawing little or no attention. But if you donate 1,000,000 dirhams to an association, there will be a ceremony with photographers and a tent set up to celebrate the occasion with a meal.

God did not speak to Moses as he was strolling along through the desert and say, “Hey Moses, nice day, isn’t it? By the way, here are some laws for you to use to rule this people I have saved.” The giving of the law was an elaborate production used to impress on Israel the importance of what was being given.

What was so important about the law God gave to Moses?

When God created the world, he created a world that was a part of himself. I don’t mean by this that the world is a part of God as do pantheists when they say God is in the tree, God is in the rock, God is in all that we see. What I mean is that when you look at the world you see a bit of who God is. This is what theologians call general revelation. Creation speaks to us about God.

You see this in Psalm 19, that we read at the beginning of the service, when the psalmist tells us:
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
2 Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they display knowledge.

The creation of God reveals his character and the laws he gave to Moses do the same. In fact, the laws God gave to Moses mesh with his creation so that when his laws are followed, men and women are best able to enjoy his creation.

It is like buying an elaborate, expensive piece of electronic equipment. Such a piece of equipment also comes with a owner’s manual that tells you how best to use what you have purchased. Of course you can ignore the owner’s manual and just start putting pieces together and pressing buttons but when it does not work, no one is to blame but yourself. When you follow the instructions and put it together as it was meant to be built and use it as it was meant to be used, it works wonderfully.

What was so important about the law God gave to Moses? The law tells us how to live in harmony with the world God created.

God gave to us a beautiful world and rules to live by in his world. Both his creation and law reveal to us the character of God and by studying them, we are able to have a deeper understanding of the God who created us and has drawn ourselves to him.

It is for this reason, that the law God gave Moses did not change when Jesus came. It is a little complicated and although we do not have time to go into this now, let me quickly summarize. There are three types of law in the Old Testament: ceremonial law that told Israel how to celebrate religious festivals and to worship God in his sanctuary; civil law that told Israel how to govern itself as a nation; and moral law which is summarized in the Ten Commandments. With the coming of Jesus, the ceremonial and civil laws have been replaced, but the moral law summarized in the Ten Commandments still stands and cannot change because it reflects the character of God. When I talk about the law, I am talking about the moral law.

There are some who say the Old Testament is about law and the New Testament is about grace and because of this, Christians no longer have to pay attention to the law.

The reason this cannot be true is that since the law reflects the character of God and God’s character does not change, the law cannot be invalidated.

The law reveals the character of God and still stands but its purpose has been altered by the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus and this is where I want to stay for the rest of the sermon. What is the purpose of the law for us as Christians?

In the Old Testament, obedience to the law was the path to salvation. Obey the law perfectly and you were saved. This is why the Pharisees developed such an intricate system of laws, creating eventually 603 laws with thousands of variations based on these.

With the death and resurrection of Jesus, the law no longer saves us. And in fact, it is revealed that obedience to the law was never really an option because, as Paul said, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

The law does not save us because we are incapable of obeying it perfectly. It is only the grace of God expressed through Jesus that can save us. We are saved by grace and grace alone.

If this is the case, what purpose does the law serve for we who are followers of Jesus, we who have been saved by grace, we who have received the free gift of salvation?

In the bulletin there are three pictures in the section where you can take notes on the sermon. We will talk about the purpose of the law for Christians as a map, a muzzle and a mirror.

First the map.
If you are walking with a friend and at the beginning of the day decide to set off in a slightly different direction, just one click of the second hand of a clock, and walk in that direction for just one day (24 miles or 38 kilometers), do you know how far apart you will be at the end of the day? Guess. At the end of the day you will be 2.5 miles or 4 kilometers away from the friend you were walking with that morning. Even halfway through that day, you will not be able to see your friend. You will have lost track of your friend.

The followers of Jesus were first called Christians in Antioch, in what is now Syria. Christian means that we are Christ-like. In our Christian life, our goal is to be like Christ, to walk alongside him.

When we sin, we take a small step away, heading in a different direction. One click of the clock in a different direction and we end up at the end of the day, four kilometers away.

We started the day intending to walk with Jesus, but then chose our self-interest and headed off in our own direction and now we are lost. Where is Jesus?

Since we cannot see Jesus, how do we know where to walk so we can walk alongside him? When we sin and find ourselves far away from Jesus, how do we find our way back to the path on which he is walking?

The law is a map that shows us how to walk with Jesus. Obedience to the law does not save us but it shows us how to walk alongside the one who does save us.

So lets say that in the morning I prayed and told Jesus I wanted to walk with him that day. But then I get a phone call and am reminded that I have to pay a bill for my child’s school. I don’t have enough money to pay the bill and I begin to think of all the other things I need to pay for which I don’t have money. I begin to think about where I can get the money. Can I ask for a raise where I work? Can I get a second job? Where can I borrow some money? Who could I call and ask for some money? As I run through possibilities I become more and more anxious. I begin to think of things I could have done in the past that would have made me wealthier.

I started off that morning wanting to walk with Jesus but now I find myself far from him, worried and anxious. I open my Bible and read the first commandment:
I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.  3 “You shall have no other gods before me.
And I am reminded that God is the one who provides for me. It is in God that I need to trust. Paul taught,
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.
I stop my worrying, pray and remember that God is sovereign. God rules over all. I don’t know how I will pay the school tuition but I trust in God.

It may be that in school my friends cheat and so it is easy to follow with them in what they do. So I cheat and walk away from Jesus. I use a false name on a passport to get money from Western Union and I walk away from Jesus. You shall not steal shows me how to get back to Jesus.

The law is a map that tells us how we can find our way to walk alongside Jesus.

For Christians in New Testament times, the law is a map and it is a muzzle.

A muzzle is a device that is placed over the mouth of an animal to keep it from biting or opening its mouth. A dog may want to bite you. It’s teeth are sharp and ready to tear open the flesh of your arm or leg but a muzzle prevents it from doing so.

The law functions like this. The law discourages us from doing wrong. The law restrains sin in society.

In Exodus 20:20, after God had given the ten commandments to Moses, Israel was terrified with the thunder and lightening and smoke. And Moses, who had walked up into all of that thunder, lightening, smoke and fire reassured them:
Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.”

The law does not prevent us from sinning, but it does inhibit us. The law in Morocco says that when the light is red we should stop. That does not prevent us at 5 or 6 in the morning from going through the red light, but it does make us pause a little.

Paul wrote in Romans 1&2 that the moral law of God is written on our hearts. We are born with a conscience that judges itself by God’s moral law. This law acts as a muzzle to restrain human behavior. People still cheat, lie, abuse, steal and murder, but the law written on their consciences works against their behavior.

This is one of the reasons why people object to posting the Ten Commandments in public places. Reading the Ten Commandments reinforces what is already on my conscience and if I am in an adulterous relationship, it bothers me to see this reminder that I am sinning.

There are many people who are very effective at shutting out the law of God written on their hearts. There are many people who seem to be indifferent to God’s law. This is obviously a very complicated issue. But I still stand with the statement that the law of God acts as a restraint on human sinfulness. As bad as our behavior seems, it would be far worse if there was no law from God. As bad as our world seems to be with people raping and stealing and killing, it would be far worse if God had not written his law on our consciences.

For Christians in New Testament times, the law is a map, it is a muzzle and it is a mirror.

What is it that a mirror does? A mirror reflects my image. A mirror shows me what I look like to others. I can imagine that I am not aging but when I look in the mirror, I see gray hairs, not only on my head but now on my upper lip. I can imagine what I want to imagine but the mirror shows the truth.

This is what the law does for us. I can imagine that I am a pretty decent person, better than most, deserving of whatever good things God has in store for me but when I look in the mirror of the law, I see that I am a sinner in need of a savior.

I read a book this summer, Skeletons of the Zahara, about American sailors shipwrecked in 1815 on the disputed Sahara coast. For a little more than two months, they were slaves of the Sahrawis who captured them until they were ransomed in Essaouira. It is a fascinating book and one of the things it reveals is that in the culture of the Sahrawis, everyone stole from everyone else. When one man took possession of one of the sailors, he had to scheme to keep possession so he could get the ransom money. The sailors went from being the possession of one man to another because of the constant thievery that was part of life in the Sahara.

When you grow up in this environment, how do you know it is wrong to steal. You may be unhappy that someone took something that belonged to you, but that will not keep you from taking something that belongs to someone else. When everyone steals, how do you know it is wrong to do so?

The law makes clear to me that I sin. I may have grown up lying and stealing and killing and think that is just the way life is. But when I become aware of the law of God, it becomes clear to me that I am a sinner living a life of sin.

In January we will come to this argument in Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 7. Paul spends a lot of time looking at the immense struggle we have with sin and then says this:
Romans 7
So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me.  22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law;  23 but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.  24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?

The law acts as a mirror pointing out the battle we have with sin and what is increasingly clear is that it is a battle we will lose. So Paul cries out, Who will rescue me from this body of death? And the answer resounds:
Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Most of us think we are as good or better than most other people. We view ourselves in a relative way. We know we are not perfect, but we are better than most people.

When we look into a mirror we see ourselves as we really are. When we read the law, we see just how far away from perfection we really are and we see how desperately we need Jesus who saves us.

The ten commandments God gave to Moses are still valid for us today. They serve for us as a map to show us how to walk with Jesus. They serve as a muzzle to restrain sin in society. And they serve as a mirror to show us our need for a savior.

This fall we will be taking a look at each of the ten commandments. We will discover that they are not as simple as they seem. We will discover that they have been given to us, not to prevent us from having fun but to protect us so we can have fun.

As a way of preparing us for communion this morning, let me show you the grace in the law of the ten commandments.

When God gave Moses the ten commandments, he gave an introduction.
“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.  3 “You shall have no other gods before me.”

Notice the Gospel in this statement. God rescued Israel from Egypt and then gave them the law. God saved Israel and then gave them the law.

Paul wrote in Romans 5:20
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

This is the grace of God demonstrated in our lives. God acts for us, rescues us, saves us, dies for us and then reveals to us how to live in a way that pleases him.

The law is not given to us to shape us up so we can measure up to God’s standards. God saves us and then helps us learn to live in a way that pleases him and is best for us.

We are loved and accepted and then given the opportunity to change. When you come to the table this morning, come with gratitude to God who loves you in this way.