10 Rules for Life

Exodus 20:1-17

You may have seen this story in the news this week.

’Headteacher bans children from touching the snow’. Ges Smith, Head of a big East London Secondary School faced a storm of criticism when it came out that his school doesn’t just tell kids not to throw snowballs, it won’t allow them even to touch the stuff. He cited Health & Safety concerns and explained that his school always looks for simple rules which are absolutely clear and easily applied. So, don’t touch the snow.

You can imagine how that went down!

And today we get the 10 commandments - the basic rule book of the church and the foundation for many of a view of faith as moralistic, dull and freedom limiting. As if God is a grumpy Health and Safety obsessed Head Teacher in the sky who needs to keep us in line and so pins up a series of laws designed to stop us having fun.

But the commandments aren’t divine Health & Safety. They are much more important than that.

The commandments aren’t given to Moses at the start of the story of Israel’s escape from Egypt, either as a Health & Safety briefing before their adventure in Sinai, nor as a moral tick list - ‘I’ll set you free so long as you behave properly.’ Instead they’re given after their escape through the Red Sea and after they have been given their great calling to be ‘a priestly kingdom and a holy nation’. 

It’s only after Israel has been set free, provided for and given a purpose that they are given these commandments. This isn’t a dull divine moral rulebook. This is what life in the Promised Land looks like. To live fully in God’s presence means to live within these simple boundaries. 

God knows that we need this stuff. He knows what we’re like; how easily we descend into chaos and unkindness and suffering. And he doesn’t want that for us - he wants us to live with freedom and purpose. And so he gives us some basic rules.

If you’ve done Alpha you may remember Nicky Gumbel telling a story about a game of football. His son was playing in a match, but the referee was late. The boys wanted to get started so asked him to stand in as referee. He had no whistle, didn’t know the boys names and didn’t know the rules very well, but he agreed and the game began. It very quickly descended into total chaos; within a few minutes there were children fighting, others lying injured and massed arguments were going on around the pitch. Fortunately at that point the real ref turned up, blew his whistle, called the boys who were causing the trouble, sorted it out and got the game going properly - and everyone had a great time.

The 10 commandments, the rules for living, like a football referee, provide a framework for a good life. Step outside them and we risk suffering and unhappiness. 

And we should take them completely literally. If God has said that these things matter, then these really are the things that matter. And if you’re not sure, just think what a world without lying, without covetousness, without adultery or stealing would look like. Imagine what things would be like if everyone followed the call to worship God and to do his will - which said Jesus, unpacking the commandments many years later - is to love God and to love your neighbour. A world in which these commandments were being fully lived out would be, I think, remarkably like the kingdom of heaven.

In a society which is desperately searching for truth and for answers; in which self help books and wellbeing guides abound, it may well be that the ancient wisdom contained in these 10 simple statements gives us what we’re looking for. 

So what of the commandments themselves?

I assume we’re all ok with the second half - numbers 5 to 10. Honouring your parents, not murdering, not committing adultery, not stealing, not lying and not coveting stuff that’s not ours - those are all fairly self explanatory and hopefully nobody disputes them. 

I’ve often spoken about idolatry and why it matters that we know which Lord it is that we’re following, which is the subject of the first two commandments - so, essentially important as they are, I’m not going to talk about those ones either. 

But there are no optional commandments in this list.  We don’t get to pick the ones we like and ditch the ones we don’t - it’s very clear that they all matter equally.  So I want to look at the two commands that we skim over and ignore most easily - number 3 and number 4.

Number 3 ‘You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.’  - in the traditional translation ‘you shall not take the Lord’s name in vain.’ 

Really? Is that really one of the top 10 commandments. Couldn’t God have done a bit better than that? Is it really that bad to say ‘O my God!’ or ‘Jesus Christ!’ or ‘What in God’s name are you doing!’ 

But here it is in the list of commandments - ‘make sure you use God’s name properly’. 

And it matters because names tell us who we are, they carry our identity and they carry authority. Even in an age of electronic passwords, it’s only our signature - the unique, individual writing of our name - that means a contract has been made.

And it’s one of the first responsibilities of a parent to name their child. And people take it very seriously. Baby name books, checking that the initials don’t spell something rude, complex negotiations between the couple. We have the authority to shape the identity of our children by giving them a name.

But nobody ever gets to name God. His identity is entirely his own - he is the one who came before everyone else, and who can never be named. He alone has an identity that comes solely from himself - we don’t get to tell God who he is. He tells us.

And we acknowledge that otherness, we acknowledge the authority of God’s name every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer - Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Jesus’ own prayer starts by acknowledging who God is - the one who is Father of all, and the one whose name is holy, other, set aside. 

So when we use God’s name as a cheap exclamation, we diminish it and we fail to acknowledge God’s rightful authority. We try to make him just another word among words, just another name amongst names. The Lord of the heavens and the earth is reduced to just another empty swear word or exclamation. 

And so we aim to keep the Lord’s name for those things where we really want to invoke his authority - which primarily means in worship and in prayer. This makes the top ten list of commandments because it is crucial that we know in whose name real authority lies - and it’s not in great leaders, not in governments or economic systems, not in celebrities or institutions. Real authority, divine authority lies in the one who’s name is before all names, the great ‘I am’, the one at whose name our knees shall bow. 

So we honour the name of the Lord and we use it wisely and with reverence. If you find ‘OMG’ on your lips more often than you think does honour to God, perhaps this is a commandment that is for you today.

How about Commandment 4 - which is also a real challenge to us? -  ‘Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy’

God really cares that we have time off - time with him, time without a goal or an outcome matters. 

In part that’s because God knows how our bodies and brains work, and He knows that we need rest and recuperation. Remember the context in which this commandment is first given - to those who have just been freed from slavery. Sabbath reminds believers that God is a God of freedom - including economic freedom. Slavery to work - whether the overwork of the underpaid worker in the gig economy or the overstressed executive, struggling to keep her head above water - is not God’s will, and Sabbath keeping reminds us of that. 

But more than that, it also reminds us to have the right priorities. Work hard, sure; use your gifts, of course - but don’t let work become a god, don’t let who you are be defined by what you do. Taking time off is a reminder that there is only one God, and it’s not our boss, or our time sheet, or our to do list. Sabbath time reminds us that we aren’t, in the end, in control. That’s God’s job.

In fact, it’s so important in God’s eyes that of all the seven days he gave us, it’s only the one when we get to do nothing at all that is blessed and consecrated. Here’s the good news - it’s the days we don’t work that are most important!

Of course that’s difficult in a world in which work is demanding and we are accessible 24 hours a day, and in which many have to work just to get by. But nobody said the commandments were easy. It’s a discipline - something we have to make a choice about prioritising.

And of course with complex diaries, our Sabbath can’t always be Saturday or Sunday. But it does need to be a significant chunk of time - 24 hours is what God wants - and it does need to be regular and it should be consciously given to God - by which I mean a day that involves some kind of prayer and, whenever possible, a commitment to being with other Christians at church.

So, if you look at your week and realise there isn’t any proper Sabbath time - time away from your email, your phone and your responsibilities, or if you’re not praying or not coming to church because you’re just too busy, then perhaps this is the commandment for you today.

None of it is rocket science. These are ten simple, memorable truths that, if we were to live them to the full, would set us free to live in the way God longs for us to live an would bring God’s kingdom very, very close.  

So perhaps this week you could take some time with them, work your way through, and ask - which of these is the greatest challenge to me at the moment. Which one am I struggling to live fully. And then ask the Lord to help you to make the change that He needs you to make.


Going Deeper

  1. Read Exodus 20:1-17. What stands out for you? What does it make you think? What does it make you feel?

  2. The sermon suggests that we should take the commandments literally. Do you agree?

  3. Which of the 10 commandments do you think is most important?

  4. How are you doing with Commandments 3 (You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God) and 4 (Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy) ?

  5. Do these commandments matter?

  6. What do you need to do, to pray or to change as a result of reading the commandments?

Hugh Nelson