Lenten meditations on the Small Catechism – The Ten Commandments, First Table

In true catechism form, let me begin this evening with a question: What do the Ten Commandments have to do with the season of Lent and with our preparation to remember the events of Holy Week?  The answer?  Everything.

The Ten Commandments are the law of God – his will for mankind, for all people of all time.  He gave them to his people Israel at Mt. Sinai after redeeming them from slavery in Egypt, the very first stop in their journey to the Promised Land.  Here in the Ten Commandments God has given mankind a summary of what it means to “be holy, for I, the LORD your God am holy.”

Contrary to popular belief, the Ten Commandments were not given by God to teach people what to do in order to get to heaven.  As the Apostle Paul says in Galatians, “If a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law.  But the Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin.”

So, if the whole world is, by God’s own declaration, a “prisoner of sin,” for what purpose were the Commandments given?  There are three.  First, to serve as a curb, using both threats of punishment and the promise of reward to curb sinful behavior.  “The sinful mind is hostile to God,” Paul says in Romans.  The sinful nature hates God, but it also hates suffering, so when God’s law threatens pain and punishment on the evildoer, the evildoer thinks twice before running off and sinning, not out of love for God but out of love for himself – either to avoid punishment or to receive rewards.

Secondly, and this is the big one, the Commandments were given to serve as a mirrorThrough the law, Paul says, we become conscious of sin.  And so, as God reveals his will to us in the Ten Commandments, we are to see more and more how far short we fall of his glory.  That certainly goes for unbelievers.  But the mirror of God’s law is just as important for believers, because of the sinful flesh that clings to us and threatens to bring us back into work righteousness, impenitence and self-made worship.

This evening we have before us the first three commandments, sometimes referred to as the First Table of the Law.  God gave his law to Moses – twice! – on two stone tablets. We don’t know which commandments were on Tablet or “Table” #1 and which ones were on “Table” #2, nor are the commandments numbered for us in the Scriptures. But the first three, as Luther numbered them in the Small Catechism, deal with God alone, whereas the last seven deal with God and our neighbor.

The First Table of the Law, then, is summarized in Jesus’ words, “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.”

The First Commandment 

You shall have no other gods.

What does this mean? We should fear, love and trust in God above all things.

Simple, right?  The easiest catechism explanation to learn.  A few short words.  But all the commandments hang on this one.  Here the mirror is at its brightest.

People often ask, what does it mean to “fear” God?  They don’t like that word, “fear.”  The best explanation I’ve seen is from Martin Luther, like the Small Catechism itself.  Here’s how Luther explains it:

This is what it means to fear God: to have God in view, to know that He looks at all our works, and to acknowledge Him as the Author of all things, both good and evil.  To fear God is true worship… It is really nothing else than to keep God in sight. Whoever does this has enough for time and eternity. For he keeps His Commandments, gives God His honor, exalts God as He should be exalted… We lay hold on the heart of God by fearing Him, standing in awe of Him, and honoring Him in all things. We fear because He sees all we do, and we think of nothing else than the fact that His eyes rest on us. I do nothing except with this thought in mind: “O Lord, let it not displease Thee.”  

That’s what it means to “fear God.”  Add to that both “love” for God and “trust” in God above all things, and you understand God’s will in the First Commandment.

The Second Commandment

You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.

What does this mean? We should fear and love God that we do not use his name to curse, swear, lie or deceive, or use witchcraft, but call upon God’s name in every trouble, pray, praise and give thanks.

Of course, you notice how this commandment and every other depend on that first phrase, “We should fear and love God that…”  This is why the unbeliever can’t even begin to keep the Commandments, because the fear and love of God – the true God – is not behind their outward obedience.

So, God’s will for us, according to the Second Commandment has to do with his “name,” which includes everything he has revealed about himself in Scripture – his reputation.  God’s name, revealed to us in Scripture is to be precious to us, never just thrown around, never used to support sin, but instead, called upon and proclaimed.

And it must be called upon and proclaimed rightly, not falsely, so every pastor and preacher of God’s name had better take warning.  Doctrine matters! Because doctrine is nothing else than the teaching of God’s name.

The Third Commandment

Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.

What does this mean? We should fear and love God that we do not despise preaching and his word but regard it as holy and gladly hear and learn it.

The Third Commandment is the one that confuses people the most, because only part of it still applies to us in the New Testament.  For Israel, keeping the Sabbath day holy meant doing no work on Saturday, the Day of Rest.  The New Testament reveals that part of the law as only a shadow of the true rest that Christ would bring.  It was one of those ceremonies that God required his Old Testament people to observe until Christ came.  Doing no work on Saturday is not a permanent prohibition from God.

But there is a part of the Sabbath Day commandment that remains for us, and has been part of God’s will for all people of all time: the part that has to do with hearing and honoring his Word.  The Jews were not to sit around playing sports on the Day of Rest.  They were to gather in sacred assembly to hear the Word of God.

The Psalmist writes, “You have exalted above all things your name and your word.”  Since God has done this, he expects us to do it as well. And notice that Luther’s explanation doesn’t only include “reading” the Word of God at home, but the “preaching” of his Word, too.  Having a pastor who proclaims God’s Word to you is not a nifty idea somebody came up with that you can take or leave as you wish.  It is Christ who gave some to be apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.  It’s God’s will that people gladly gather to hear and learn his Word publicly proclaimed. That is God’s will in the Third Commandment.

There are so many applications we could make for each of these three commandments.  For now, let the mirror of God’s law do its work in you from the little that has been said.  Weigh your words and actions and the thoughts of your heart against the First Table of the Law.  If only every decision in your life, every word out of your mouth, every interaction with your neighbor were preceded by the prayer, “O Lord, let it not displease Thee!”, followed by zeal for the name of God and for the Word of God.

The law always accuses. Left with the Ten Commandments alone, we would be left only with a knowledge of our sin.  That’s why we have a season of Lent: not only to consider our sin, but also sin’s cure: the righteousness of God’s Son – his obedience to the Ten Commandments, the will of God – and his sufferings and death that made payment for our disobedience.

The Ten Commandments show you your sin and drive you to Christ, to look to him for mercy. And in him God is merciful.

The season of Lent is a time for reflection, reflection in the mirror of God’s law.  It’s a time for repentance, repentance that may begin with tears of sorrow but that must end in faith and rejoicing because Christ has kept the First Table of the Law – as well as the Second – and received in his body all the punishment your sins deserve.  And the same God who is altogether serious about His law is also very serious about his Gospel in which he promises you the forgiveness of all your sins by faith in Christ Jesus.

All this time has been spent viewing the First Table of the Law chiefly as a mirror.  It does have a Third Use as well.  It serves as a guide for the believing and forgiven children of God, because the Commandments now show you the will of your Father, how you must live in God’s kingdom and how he wants you to serve him.  But even as they serve as a guide, they drive us back to repentance and faith over and over again, because the law always accuses.

The cure for the accusations of the law is always the same: the wounds of Christ and the promise of mercy for His sake.  From beginning to end, the Catechism preaches sin and grace, law and gospel, repentance and the forgiveness of sins.  The Catechism drives us to Christ.  That’s why we’re reviewing the Catechism in the season of Lent.

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