By Raymond Krajci
On my way to Columbus, I pass a pair of massive billboards alongside the highway. They hold the Ten Commandments in large white letters against a pitch black background. Every instance of the word “not” occurs in a vibrant red evocative of the scarlet letter or fire. At the very bottom, in even larger red letters, the sign proclaims too all who pass by “Hell is real”. Imposing and aggressive, these billboards embody shame, judgment, and punishment. Though perhaps well intentioned, they tell of a Christian faith with no love and no forgiveness; only swift and terrible retribution to all sinners. I wonder how passers-by feel: Are they intrigued? Do they start to shape-up their lives? Do they wonder what comes next? I doubt it. These boards miss a crucial element of their message, the corner stone of our Christian faith: Jesus Christ!
The Ten Commandments are a high-visibility, high controversy part of our faith. Debates on free speech surround their placement in courthouses, schools, and, yes, even highways. Rather than gracious reminders of Christian conduct, the Ten Commandments are questioned in matters of public decency. As evangelists, commissioned by Jesus Christ to
“go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19),
we must be aware of our message: not what we mean to say, but what we are actually saying. If our message doesn’t encourage others to find Christ, then we should have nothing to do with it.
Those Ten Commandments on the highway say to me “Welcome to Christianity – How may we damn you today?” But it shouldn’t. We are called to spread the Word of God, by our Savior Jesus Christ, so all may be saved. The Word of God is not the law. Don’t preach the law, preach Christ!
No doubt the Ten Commandments and the rest of the law are important, but they are far from central. In a way, they’re also a little redundant. In the book “Mere Christianity”, C.S. Lewis provides a fantastic bottom-up analysis of human morality. He finds we all subscribe to some higher law, demand others abide by that law, and make excuses so we don’t have to. God imbued us with this conscience at our creation in His image and likeness. The ideal conscience guides us through all the gray areas of life, so why do we need the law?
Well, it goes without saying: None of us is ideal, none of us is perfect. We make poor choices, we tarnish our God-given discernment, and, hopefully, we try to complete the spiritual cycle of refusal, repentance, and reconciliation. For the Israelites, called from their homes to a new land and an unknown future, the time was right to begin preparations for the messiah. The people needed a guide to define sin and help them towards righteousness. In his mercy, God made a concession to humanity, and gave us the law in writing. Stone writing.
As far as laws go, the Ten Commandments are interesting. For one, with the whole Israelite nation present, God chose to send them only ten. The commandments are mostly prohibitive – don’t do this, don’t do that. Reasons are not explicit. They are simple, to the point, and more akin to a parent’s rules than the laws of a government. It is in our best interest to follow these rules, given to us for our own good, but they are merely elementary.
Christ, our teacher, graduated us to the next level of faith in his ministry. A large portion of his Sermon on the Mount expanded on the Ten Commandments. He revealed anger is akin to murder, adultery begins with a lustful look, and evil may never be overcome with evil. Our lesson is to internalize the law, so our thoughts, words, and actions may be in union with God’s intention for us. Our goal is righteousness by and communion with God and His will. Jesus spoke plainly, saying
“unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).
Of all people, the scribes and the Pharisees knew the law best. They obsessed over the law. What could they have missed? Love.
In the Gospel of Matthew a brave lawyer asks Jesus for the greatest commandment. The question is shrewd; In the old testament there are six hundred thirteen commandments – too many for anyone to follow them all. Jesus replied
“’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and Prophets’” (Matthew 22:37 – 40).
The scribes and Pharisees deluded themselves with the law. They forgot that the law serves love and should not – must not – preclude it! Jesus rebukes them and the hardness of their hearts for believing the Sabbath more important than mercy. Jesus heals and absolves before their very eyes, demonstrating the proper place of the law. All the law revolves around love. All the law revolves around Him.
God loves us enough to give us being, making us creatures in His own image. God loves us enough to have given us the tools, the law, necessary to guide our spiritual journey towards Him. God loves us enough that
“he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).
All so that we may love Him, commune with Him, and share that love with our brothers and sisters throughout the world!
Through this, and the words of Jesus to the lawyer, we find the true intention and place of the law. Not as our master, but merely our tutor. We strive to obey them and follow Christ’s teachings, aligning ourselves towards Christ and God through our obedience. More than that, we strive to go above and beyond as Christ calls us – not merely to abstain from evil, but to seek out good. In this way we obey the Holy Spirit, an authority far greater than the law, and testify to Christ through mercy, compassion, and love. The Ten Commandments are children’s Christianity – Don’t lie, don’t steal, obey your father and your mother. As evangelists we must press on, unafraid to mature in our faith, and show Christ to others through our every word, our every action.
In this way we spread the Word of God in the most authentic fashion. Our love must not be passive – God’s love is the most dynamic we know – and by God’s grace we may manifest that love throughout the world to all people. We hold Truth, and Christ’s commissioned us to bring that Truth to the four corners of the earth. The medium and the message are the same: Love. Christ’s love. God’s love.
Remember those billboards I pass on the highway? Imposing, judgmental, and concluding with “hell is real”? What does that say about us? Nothing good, nothing encouraging, and certainly nothing loving. What’s missing is Christ’s message. The law is a fine thing when used as a guide towards Christ. Without Christ the Law devoid of life, devoid of love.
Let us preach Christ, not the law! Hoping that, in due time, we may also discuss the law.
Let us preach Christ! Our Lord and God and Savior who, through His incarnation, crucifixion, and glorious resurrection saved us all in His abundant love for mankind! That is our message.
In the name of the +Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Preached at the 2011 Festival of Young Preachers.
H/T: Preacher’s Institute