Two Commanding Lessons

Brad’s father regularly offered him advice. Often Brad appreciated it. His dad had helpful insights into a variety of matters. But no matter what the situation, it seemed the litany of instructions regularly carried certain words: “Slow down and think things through.”

Those words helped shape the way Brad approached life. As he grew older Brad found that whenever he grew frantic or worried, his father’s words echoed in his head. He gained the reputation of being someone who remained cool-headed in stressful situations.

In God’s written Word, God gives instructions that shape the lives of his followers. For example, the Ten Commandments are more than merely a list of do’s and don’ts. They give us insight for how we can thrive in our walk with God.

We discover many practical benefits to following God’s commands: When we strive to honor our parents, we enjoy better family relationships. When we develop the practice of telling the truth and protecting our neighbors, we find that people more easily trust us. When we strive to follow God’s commandments, we might even discover a level of peace.

Even though most of God’s commandments are quite practical and easily understood, two offer greater challenges as we strive to understand and live by them.

The Challenge of the Fourth

The fourth commandment tells us to “remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy” (Ex. 20:8). Throughout history people have debated how to keep this commandment. During his time on earth, Jesus was often accused of breaking this commandment.

I remember many debates within my family about what was forbidden and what was permitted on Sundays. We ended up with rules that often seemed inconsistent: We couldn’t swim, but we could run under a sprinkler. We couldn’t go to a restaurant, but we could purchase a can of pop from a machine.

Even today, whenever I preach on the fourth commandment, listeners regularly ask about what is forbidden and what is permitted on the Sabbath.

There is value to discussing how we can best keep the Sabbath day.  But it’s difficult to give strict guidelines about the fourth commandment, then say with confidence you have spoken the words of the Lord.

The New Testament does not contain a lot of instruction about how followers of Christ should observe the Sabbath. Romans 14:5 even indicates that some observe special days while some do not, and that both perspectives are considered legitimate.

The Challenge of the 10th

The 10th commandment offers a different challenge: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or his maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Ex. 20:17).

Unlike the fourth commandment, this one seems clear as to what it forbids: we should not set our hearts on things that belong to others. We could even argue that it teaches us we should not desire what God does not desire for us.

The difficulty with this commandment is not in understanding it, but in observing it.

One difficulty in observing this commandment is knowing whether we are violating it. How do we know when we have crossed the line from a legitimate desire to coveting?

A second complication becomes evident as we try to control our desires. Have you ever tried to stop wanting something? Even when we’re aware we desire something contrary to God’s will, it’s not easy to change that desire.

Contrast this commandment to the others. If I realize I’ve told a lie, I can repent by confessing and telling the truth. If I’m tempted to steal a candy bar from the grocery store, I can, by an act of will, force myself not to steal. It is theoretically possible for me to force myself to observe most of the commandments. However, I cannot force myself to stop coveting.

I find in weak moments that I wish I could steal or tell a lie or walk away from God’s desires. In those weak moments, I desire something that is contrary to God’s will. I am guilty of coveting. It’s important to understand this commandment, but it seems futile to try to keep it.

The Lessons of Both

The fourth and 10th commandments seem very different from each other. One tells us to keep a holy day. The other tells us to control our desires. What could they have in common?

Remember Brad? His father’s words, while perhaps not immediately practical, helped shape the way Brad approached life.

The lessons of the fourth and 10th commandments have the same quality as the advice from Brad’s father. They might not seem immediately practical, but they shape our understanding of life with God.

The 10th commandment teaches us the depth of our sinful nature. When we first begin to comprehend the reality of sin, we tend to believe it’s limited to the “bad things” we do. We believe that sin is lying, stealing, or disobeying our parents. If we didn’t have the 10th commandment, we might believe we could eliminate sin from our lives simply by behaving well.

But the 10th commandment makes us realize we have an innate tendency to walk away from God. It helps us realize that sin is a problem that runs far deeper than our behavior. The more we strive to keep God’s law, the more we get confronted with the stain of sin in our lives. That stain seems to taint all we do.

This stain of sin would cause us great despair if it were not for the lesson of the fourth commandment.

The fourth commandment reveals the wonderful nature of God’s grace.

As I was growing up, the fourth commandment seemed to be a law that limited my Sunday activity. It meant I could not do many things I wanted to do. But the people of Israel might have heard this commandment differently.

When God first spoke these words, God was addressing a group of people who had just been released from centuries of slavery. In Egypt the people of Israel did not have many things we take for granted today. Most slave drivers did not allow weekends away from work; rather, they drove the Israelites mercilessly, often not even giving them enough supplies to do the job.

It’s not hard to imagine that the people of Israel rarely, if ever, received a day of rest.

After lives of endless work, these people are given a gift. They’re not merely given permission to rest; they’re commanded to do so. God will take care of them from now on.

God tells them that on this special day of rest, they will not even have to get out of bed early to collect the free bread from heaven. God would preserve the bread from the previous day.

The Sabbath is a gift. It’s a day to bask in the comfort of knowing you are free from your ultimate worries because God is in control of your life. God will see to it that you have everything you need.

For people who have faced the reality of the 10th commandment, this gift of Sabbath grace comes as a great relief. We realize our sin is great, but we also realize that Jesus Christ frees us from the consequences of our sinfulness. We can rest in God’s care.

Brad’s father never came out and told him that he should be an even-tempered, thoughtful person. Instead, he gave him instruction that naturally shaped him. Consider how your heavenly Father uses these two commandments to shape your own life of faith.  ¦ 

For Discussion
  1. What is the meaning of Sabbath now that Jesus has come into the world? How should we keep the Sabbath as Christians? What should we do? What shouldn’t we do? How might we resolve our disagreements on this?
  2. What’s the difference between a legitimate desire and sinful coveting?
  3. How does “The fourth commandment reveal the wonderful nature of God’s grace”?
  4. How, according to Rev. Sytsma, can we get ourselves to stop coveting? (Hint: how does keeping the fourth commandment help you to keep the 10th?) Can you give examples from your own life how that might work?
  5. What kinds of instructions/advice that you have received either from Scripture or elsewhere have naturally shaped you into a better child of God?



About the Author

Rev. Bill Sytsma is pastor of Cutlerville East CRC, Cutlerville, Mich

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