Thursday, July 01, 2021

Command Performance

I’ve been thinking about the commandments.

People say that in the Old Testament, God is full of these things. Rabbis claim there are 613 of them, as a matter of fact — an odd number, to be sure. Why should God have an opinion on these particular items? Why not 614? Why not fewer?

And the nature of the commandments — everything from killing each other, to what people eat, to how they wash, to how they match their fabrics … and still the list is not exhaustive, for it leaves many aspects of life totally unmentioned and spends what we might deem far too much time on others.

Why does God care about all these particulars?

God of the Old, God of the New

Another thing they say about the God of the Old Testament is that he’s a God of wrath and distance, autocratically handing down arbitrary commandments to the cringing masses below, and threatening them with divine retribution if they fail to comply in the least; whereas the God of the New Testament is warmer, closer and more entreating. He is slow to wrath, generous in forgiveness, dedicated to salvation and patient beyond measure. And even if we don’t believe what some Bible critics have supposed — namely that the God of the Old Testament is a different sort of God than the one of the New — yet we cannot help but feel some qualitative difference. Despite this, we know that since there is one God, they must indeed be one and the same … but how?

But lately I’ve been thinking about the God of commandments a different way. What set me off was Hebrews 1, which speaks of how God, in times past, spoke at many times and in many ways to the Hebrews fathers through their prophets. In the last days, says the passage, he has spoken to us in his Son, whom he calls “the exact imprint of his nature” — the perfect expression of all that God is. But because ONLY Christ is that perfect expression, prior to that, all of God’s self-revelation was, as it were, through ‘broken speech’ — “at many times and in many ways”, as Hebrews says. Nothing was the perfect revelation of God before Christ. If so, then God is not only a God of warmth and mercy in the New Testament, but in the Old as well: and it must not be the case that he wanted commandments in the Old Covenant, but relationship in the New.

But why would a God of grace and relationship issue commandments in the first place? I decided to start looking at them not as particular isolated edicts, but rather as the fragmentary clues placed there by the loving God of the New Testament scattered clues intended to help his people understand what was necessary to enter into a genuine relationship with him. When I started viewing the commandments like this, it changed my view of particularly the Old Testament depictions of God profoundly.

Let me try to show you how we might view the ‘Big Ten’, just so you can get an idea of what I mean:

Ten Commandments as Principles of Relationship

  1. You shall have no other gods before me. If you want to know God relationally, you can only know him as he is: which is to say, the source of all life, the ground of all being, and the ultimate reality in the universe. He is its beginning and its end, the meaning of all that exists. If, in your imagination, you relegate him to something less or other than that, a thing secondary in value or importance, then whatever you think you ‘know’ is not God: and there is no relationship with him that can be established on that basis.
  2. You shall not make for yourself a carved image. If you want a relationship, you will have to purge from your affections any thoughts of entertaining a rival to God. And since God is, in his essence, invisible, you cannot relate to him through visual representation. You must know him through his self-revelation, given through his word … and not through the products of your imagination or the crafting of your hands.
  3. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain. If you want a relationship, you must be serious. You must reverence his very name, and fear to take it on your tongue lightly or insultingly. You must understand that his name is awesome and holy, and refers to the most supremely valuable being in the universe. You shall not think that he is to be employed by oath to seal your own will; rather, you shall never forget that you are subject to his will.
  4. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. If you want a relationship with God, you must give up on your works. True, good works are good, and those who are in a relationship with him must do them in testimony that he is good, but they are never to become a condition of that relationship. You must forsake the illusion of your own goodness and choose to trust him in total rest from what have done, or ever can do.
  5. Honor your father and your mother. Proximally speaking, you owe your existence and all that you are to your parents. And to be grateful to them is to enter into an attitude which, in a much greater form, you must sustain toward your ultimate Creator and Provider. You must know him as the very source of your being, revering him and living gratefully as a consequence.
  6. You shall not murder. You must see that all souls belong to God. He plans their existence and gives them life, and their accounting for that is to him alone. Other people are not your property but his, and thus you shall not deprive them of their God-given right to live. You shall thus remain mindful that your life is also not your own.
  7. You shall not commit adultery. If you want to relate to God, you must enter into a faithful covenant. You must realize he is a rightfully-jealous husband, and there can be no rivals for your love. None.
  8. You shall not steal. If you want to know God, you must know him as your ultimate Provider as well. You shall rejoice in his provision to you, and respect the provision he makes for others. You must work within the means he provides for you, not seek to exceed those means by theft.
  9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. You’ll never know God if you do not love truth. God is Truth. Those who love truth come to him. When the truth is revealed, it shows he is right. He is also the ultimate Judge, the faultlessly Just One. Those who love justice love him. He judges in righteousness, and those who love him must not pervert justice. They must cling to the truth.
  10. You shall not covet … anything that is your neighbor’s. If you want to know God, focus on being faithful in what he has given to you as your portion; do not become desirous of another portion. To know him is to enter into a right relationship, a relationship of peace and contentment. Consequently, an uncovetous relationship with others becomes possible as well.

If I’m right, then the commandments are God’s instruction book to his Old Testament people, telling them who he really is, by revealing bits and pieces of himself, so that they might discover how to relate to a Being so unlike them in so very many ways.

As a teacher might put it, they are the guided praxis that teaches the key principles, not an end in themselves.

It is no understatement that thinking about the intentions of God in this way, particularly in the Old Testament, has revolutionized my whole view of scripture. I now see the whole Book as filled with the single objective of producing right relationship between uncomprehending man and a holy God, through the fragmentary and unsatisfactory means that were all that was available before the living word, Jesus Christ himself, came along and expressed perfectly all that was in the heart of God in an incarnate language of perfect eloquence.

Could it do the same for you?


  1. Agreed regarding God of OT vs God of NT: Any position on that issue that insists they are 'different' in any way other than degree of accommodation to the ignorance of man is either: (a) incoherent; (b) unread; or (c) actively looking to dismiss the issue of God altogether while affecting the pretense of serious scrutiny.

  2. excellent article! this speaks poignantly to my heart and further reveals the path of relationship rather than the plight of religion. Psalm 16:11 - Thou wilt show me the path of life, in thy presence is fulness of joy and at thy right hand as pleasures for evermore.

  3. "And since God is, in his essence, invisible, you cannot relate to him through visual representation. You must know him through his self-revelation, given through his word … and not through the products of your imagination or the crafting of your hands."

    I am going to make the assumption here that you do not mean artists portraying God in their work since that is not intended for worship (as the golden calf in the OT). Also, as God's creation we don't really have a choice about using and being affected by our imagination since it's (by design) built in and, obviously, by design is quite essential. (I always admire the person who had the imagination to, e.g , realize the concept of a pocket nail clipper (and I am also somewhat jealous of the fact that it probably made him/her a bundle with their own private island in Lake Placid NY. Last time we visited there and took the lake tour we cruised around the island owned by the person who had the imagination to invent the milk carton) 8-).