...and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Matthew 22:35-40 (NRSV)
When you study the Ten Commandments it’s easy to look at them from the negative side. At camp, a counselor was leading a discussion on the purpose God had for everything –clouds, trees, rocks, etc. One of the children challenged, "If God had a good purpose for everything, then why did He make poison ivy?" The counselor was at a loss for words until one of the other children offered, "The reason God made poison ivy is because He wanted us to know there are some things we should keep our cotton-pickin' hands off!"
The Pharisees of Jesus' day knew all too well that there were many things God had ruled "off-limits". In fact, the Pharisees and Scribes had taken the original Ten Commandments and run the total up in the hundreds. There were over 600 negative commandments that a good Jewish boy had to learn.
The problem with this approach is that you can spend your whole life carefully avoiding crossing the line here and there; don’t do this, don’t do that. You end up never having DONE anything! What you get is existence as a substitute for real, abundant living. You know what a substitute is...a "fair imitation of the real thing." Well, I don't want a substitute, an imitation of the abundant life Jesus promised; I want the real thing!
So, what's the alternative to taking those Ten Commandments, and just trying to stay within the lines? The alternative is found in our text, in which Jesus gives the positive "thou-shalts". In these you can see the heart of all of God's law, and His purpose for our lives.
There are three PRINCIPLES contained in understanding the Ten Commandments. First is:
1. The Negative always Includes the Positive
The principle of seeing the positive aspects in negatively-stated commandments demands that we work hard at seeing the nature of God (which is entirely positive). God says, for instance, "You must not commit murder." I say, "OK, I will simply beat the tar out of you, but stop short of killing you." I have lived within the rule, but I violate the spirit of what was intended. What did God intend when He said, "Thou shalt not kill"? He meant for us to actively seek the preservation of life.
In the parable of the Good Samaritan you have a Jew going up to Jerusalem to worship. He gets mugged, beaten, stripped and thrown in the ditch by the side of the road. The story has two other fellow Jews – very religious people – who pass by the scene, but opt to not get involved.
The third person in Jesus’ story could have passed-by on the other side of the road when he saw the mugging victim lying in the ditch; after all, the religious folks did! Instead, the man gets in the ditch, dresses the wounds and assumes responsibility to see that he gets better.
Jesus’ punch-line to the story is that this third man is a Samaritan. The Samaritans were natural enemies of the Jews; in the now famous words of Monday Night Football’s Hank Williams, Jr., it would have been like Hitler stopping to help out Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu!
And Jesus calls him the Good Samaritan…the hero of the story. To make the point, Jesus asks a question of the religious leaders who were listening to his story – which of the three was a genuine neighbor to the mugging victim? The religious leaders hadn't beaten the man; they never laid a hand on him. But they acted as if his life wasn’t as important as their comfort. They kept the negative rule of the commandment, but they ignored the positive view that they needed to seek his good.
Jesus telescopes Ten Commands down two positive statements; Love God, Love your neighbor. This roughly parallels the arrangement of the commandments; the first group speaks of our relationship with God, and the last bunch that teaches us how to love each other.
How does the negative include the positive?
Consider the first commandment – it’s negatively stated (thou shalt have no other gods – that’s idolatry). Our principle "the negative includes the positive" means that it is not simply avoiding other gods that makes us obedient. Rather our job is to elevate Christ as OUR ONE AND ONLY GOD. It means actively loving God, not just avoiding bad stuff.
An example of God’s heart in this might be: Imagine you are my father and I’m 9 years old. You leave me with my 6 year-old brother and tell me to not aggravate him. Your fondest hope is that I'll be kind and gentle, and in so doing there will be a wonderful memory for the both of us. But, at the very least, you’re hoping I won't squash him like a bug!
And so the principle of the positive included within the negative means we are to "go beyond" duty, all the way to love. Isn't that what Jesus did at the cross?
So, the negative includes the positive, and then…
2. The Specific Command Includes That Which Is Like It
A principle is always more general than a rule; it always extends to a wider application. For instance, commandment #5 is to "honor father and mother". Scripture also indicates honoring your parents extends beyond father and mother to include "elders". This can be political leaders, church leaders, business and family members. What would life be like without this principle?
Applying this principle, we could also use commandment #1 where the Bible specifically prohibits the making of "graven" or carved images as objects of worship. If we stick just to the specifics, then it would be fine to make cast, forged, or computerized images. Let's face it, if you want to find a loophole you can rationalize some way to do whatever you want to do.
In the wonderful comic strip Frank and Ernest, the two are standing at Hell's entrance. Frank is reading the Bible, and Ernest questions him, "What are you doing?" Frank says, "I’m looking for loopholes".
When Jesus stated the first of the great commandments he said we were to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, mind and soul. In short, I believe that means that we are not to "nitpick" over the larger picture when it comes to obeying the Spirit of God. This is just exactly what Jesus would tell the Pharisees later, "You strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel." You go to great lengths to give the appearance of religious lifestyle, and haven't got the sense of a child to see your own need.
The negative includes the positive; the specific includes those like it, and…
3. What is forbidden in deed is also forbidden for the heart
Principles are great; usually you can plug them into some situation, and come up with an action, or a course to take. But when it comes to matters of the heart, or attitude, suddenly we are confronted with our own sin. Genesis 8 tells us that when God looked down at His creation, He saw that mankind had indeed "come a long way, baby".
The hearts, the intentions of every man was continually wicked. God is in the business of searching our hearts. God is able to see what we allow no-one else on the face of the earth to see; the fact that each of us has a darkness deep within. It is that sense of knowing ourselves, and the things we do…or would do if we knew we could get away with it.
Friends, let us talk honestly here. Probably most of us have never murdered; we haven’t done the deed. But how many of us can honestly say we've never entertained the motion in our hearts? The Bible principle says that we must not do the deed with our hands, or with our minds. And immediately you say, "Well I can't control what enters my mind." And immediately God's Word says back to us, "Correct!" The fact is we are powerless, apart from the power of Christ. All that we are shows us we cannot obey God's law perfectly.
If that were possible Jesus wouldn't have had to die on the cross. We have all sinned, and will all sin. So what now? Even though I understand the principles of God's Commandments, I can't live that perfectly.
What do I DO to inherit eternal life? How can I be good enough for God? Answer: You’re right – you can’t live that perfectly…and you’re not supposed to DO anything. God is simply waiting for you to acknowledge that reality, to give up being your own savior. Instead of trying to BE so good that God will accept you, He just wants you to love Him and be willing to love others like He already loves you. The problem most people have when it comes to getting it right with God is that they think they can do it all on their own; they’re not willing to admit that God has already done it all. That’s what Calvary was about. Your job is to acknowledge it!
It’s hard to do that in our culture – we feel we can do anything. We’re even told that from the time we are toddlers – you can do anything you set your mind to do. But God knows that isn’t true, and He is just waiting for us to get over ourselves and surrender!
Jim Henry, who was the pastor of Orlando's First Baptist church, tells of a man who fell into the water. As the man thrashed around, it was very obvious that he couldn’t swim and was going to drown. A strong swimmer stood by watching him go down several times. A man standing nearby shouted, "Why don't you leap in and save him?" But the man just stood there. After watching a moment more, the strong swimmer finally jumped into the water and rescued the man. The bystander asked, "Why did you wait so long?" The rescuer said, "He was too strong before. I had to wait until his strength was gone."
God never saves a person, or delivers him against his own will. It is the person that gives up on his own strength whom Jesus can rescue.
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen!