[Photo cred Levi Yancey, Unsplash]
Much confusion surrounds the Ten Commandments and how they are to apply to us today–or if they apply at all. This was brought to the forefront of public consumption a few years ago when Andy Stanley made headlines after purporting that we don’t really need the Ten Commandments, or the Old Testament, since our foundation is Jesus alone and his resurrection. Others oppose this view, insisting that the Ten Commandments are to be embraced and implemented by our governing authorities since they are the bedrock of any healthy civilization. Which is true? Are we to embrace the Ten Commandments or distance ourselves from them? Is Jesus all we need? Should we discard this part of Israel’s history or are the Ten Commandments in fact relevant for today?
Peter J. Leithart is not the first one to make a connection between Sabbath and God’s expectation of, and heart for, justice. This much should be clear to any careful reader of the text. In The Ten Commandments: A Guide to The Perfect Law of Liberty, Leithart notes that Jesus picked up on this Old Testament connection/theme throughout his earthly ministry, choosing to work justice on the Sabbath since Sabbath is a call to justice, shalom, and human flourishing.
Jesus fulfilled Sabbath by making it a day about God, and one cannot make a day about God without making it a day about human flourishing and justice. On this particular day, Jesus went about releasing people from their oppression and suffering because that’s the true heart of the Sabbath as God intended.
“We work, but aren’t slaves to work.” Peter Leithart on Sabbath, from The Ten Commandments (Lexham Press 2020)Tweet
The author asks the reader to reflect on and examine where they get their cues from. Society? A perfectionist parent you’re trying to please? What you see on social media? Do you, like many, think that with a bit more money and security you would be happy? “You’re looking to a counterfeit savior—money, success, velvety comforts” (p. 25). The author also asks the reader to think on their response when they are pressured or stressed out. Who do we tend to blame? A spouse or child? It’s all too common to excuse one’s own sins by scapegoating a family member, and it’s also all too common that we subconsciously work hard to please people more than we try to please God.
Where we get our cues from can determine where our heart lies. How we respond in times of stress can also help determine what or who has our full devotion.
But aren’t idols a thing of the past? Haven’t we progressed past them in our advanced and modernized age?
Leithart insists that this is wishful thinking and that “Modernity manufactures as many idols as any age. Mammon rules the market. We kill to keep ourselves comfortably surrounded by more and new stuff” (p. 27). Not only that—our idols tear us of our true humanity. Only when we have no gods before Yahweh can we experience true wholeness and a transcendent satisfaction.
Just as no human can flourish in the presence of idols, so too no society can begin to flourish until its idols are recklessly abandoned. “When we worship the one God, our hearts can be single, our desires focused, our lives whole. Idols tear us apart, with their contradictory, shape-shifting demands. We find coherence in keeping the First Word [you shall have no other gods before you]” (p. 27). Saying no to God is saying no to human wholeness on an individual level and corporate level as well. “If we don’t honor the living God, we’ll bow before some terrible idol, who will devour our souls” (p. 28). Our independence and freedom is dependent upon our response to God and our response to idols vying for our devotion.
“Idols like company. Idolatry is inherently polytheistic. Idols feed off one another, cluster together, transmogrify to keep hold of your heart. Your idols feed off the idols of others. Codependency is more biblically characterized as co-idolatry.” Peter LeithartTweet
Where Does Jesus Fit In?
The author notes Israel’s hardened heart and tragic resistance to God was the norm throughout her history, and yet God was stubborn. “Israel isn’t left helpless. Yahweh will have a son who conforms to the Ten Words. The father does have such a Son, the eternal Son who became Israel to be and do what Israel failed to be and do.”
Leithart directs our attention to Moses, who mediated between God and God’s people, and how he rushed down the mountain to crush the idol of the golden calf. We are in need of one greater than Moses, a powerful mediator “who can demolish the idols of our hearts” (p. 28).
“The Ten Words are a character portrait of Jesus, the Son of God.” Peter Leithart, from The Ten Commandments: A Guide to the Perfect Law of Liberty (Lexham Press, 2020)Tweet
I appreciate the way in which the author connects Israel’s rich history with the story of Christ, doing so in an organic way rather than forcing the text. While at times he can come off as direct and preachy, I find that it works.
In my own upbringing, it was impressed upon me–for whatever reason–that the Ten Commandments are unattainable. Rather than promoting this, Leithart seems to suggest that the pathway to wholeness is rooted in how we respond to God’s Ten Words. That is, to embrace the Ten Words is to embrace God. Our resistance to the Ten Words is our way of saying that God is not enough and that we know better. To embrace the Ten Commandments is to embrace liberty while to reject them is to reject God’s love and his plan for vibrant human wholeness.
This is a much-needed reminder that our idols do not need mere taming but require an intentional crushing and smashing on our part, and that we need to destroy them before they devour us.
Drawing from the deep wells of biblical wisdom, The Ten Commandments is a must-read for any student of Scripture. Rooted in the Old Testament world and constantly pointing us to Christ, I have greatly benefited from Leithart’s work here.
Though written by a top-notch scholar, the book is very easy to understand, so much so that I read some of it along with my six-year-old son at his insistence, who was initially captivated by the cover and some of the visuals inside. Visually appealing, clearly and carefully written, and highly readable, this is a gem for any library. Great for personal reading or for a group setting, this is a resource that can help many who are genuinely confused about the Ten Commandments and their role today.
Below are a handful of quotes that I found powerful:
“”Thou shalt have no gods before me” is a declaration of independence for a society free of the empty, emptying gods who compete for our love, loyalty, hope, and trust” (from p. 27).
“Idols like company. Idolatry is inherently polytheistic. Idols feed off one another, cluster together, transmogrify to keep hold of your heart. Your idols feed off the idols of others. Codependency is more biblically characterized as co-idolatry” (from p. 26).
“A community dominated by disrespect for parents, workaholism, violence, envy, theft, and lies isn’t free” (from p. 5, Introduction).
On taking the Lord’s name in vain: “We bear the Name lightly with indifferent or disobedient worship (Exod 20:22-36), with casual sex (Amos 2:7), or when we steal (Lev 6:2-5). Speaking or silent, active or passive, we bear the name all the time in everything we do” (from p. 47, Introduction).
Thanks to Lexham Press for the copy!