Most Christians are familiar with the fact there are 10 commandments. Ex 20.1-17 Not so familiar with the actual 10 commands, but we do tend to know there are 10 of them, and it wouldn’t hurt to live by them. In fact the politically-minded among us think it’d be a good idea for the whole of the United States to live by them… although it’s a bit of a puzzler how we might simultaneously enforce “You’ll have no other gods before me” Ex 20.3 and “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Amendment 1
Some of us have also heard the idea there are 12 commandments. Where’d the extra two come from? Well, someone once asked Jesus his opinion on the greatest command.
- Mark 12.28-31 KWL
- 28 One of the scribes was standing there listening to the discussion.
- Recognizing how well Jesus answered the Sadducees, he asked him,
- “Which command is first of all?” 29 Jesus gave this answer:
- “First is, ‘Listen Israel: Our god is the Lord. The Lord is One.
- 30 You must love your Lord God with all your heart, life, purpose, and might.’ Dt 6.4-5
- Second is, ‘Love your neighbor like yourself.’ Lv 19.18
- No command is higher than these.”
Since these two commands aren’t among the 10, certain Christians tack ’em on at the end.
But there’s far from just 12 commands. There’s 613.
Technically there are even more than 613. But when you combine redundant commands—namely all the commands repeated in Deuteronomy, like the 10 commandments Dt 5.1-21 —you get 613 of them. Or at least that was the conclusion of Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon of Spain (1135-1204, also called Maimonides by westerners, Rambam by Jews). Moshe listed them in his book Sefer Hamitzvot/“Book of Good Deeds.” He had slightly different priorities than Jesus, which is why he put loving God at 3 and 4 in his list, and loving neighbors at 13.
These commands are mostly for everyone. There are many priest-specific commands, which don’t apply to the general population. (Although Pharisees customarily practiced ’em anyway, figuring all Jews ought to be as ritually clean as priests.) There are also many gender-specific commands, which apply to men and not women, or women and not men.
And let’s be honest: There is a double standard in the Law. Women and men may be equal in Christ, Ga 3.28 but not under Law. Fr’instance there’s a test for a wife’s faithfulness, Nu 5.11-30 but no such thing for husbands. ’Cause under patriarchy, men could have sex with any woman in their household. The Law abolished many of patriarchy’s customs—no they couldn’t have sex with just anyone they wished. But though abolishing patriarchy was God’s goal—with men in leadership or service practicing monogamy 1Ti 3.2, 12 and loving their wives like Christ loves his church Ep 5.25 —he didn’t do it outright in his Law. Though certainly the test of a wife’s faithfulness under the Law is considerably better than the previous patriarchal custom: Kills her without any trial. Ge 38.24
How Christians see the Law.
Christians are of three minds when it comes to following the Law. And some of us are of multiple minds: Sometimes we follow one of these practices, and sometimes another, depending on when it’s convenient or advantageous.
- Fulfilled. The most common belief you’ll find among Christian theologians is there are three types of commands:
- Moral, defining right and wrong. They always apply.
- Ritual, defining the religious practices of ancient Israel and ritual cleanliness. In his self-sacrifice, Jesus rendered them irrelevant: We don’t need to sacrifice animals and grain anymore, or practice ritual cleanliness. (In fact, doing so indicates we don’t really believe in what Jesus did for us.)
- Judicial, defining the civic society of ancient Israel. They apply to Israelis, not gentiles. Gentile Christians should study them, since they describe God’s will and justice, and adopt their principles in our cultures. But obedience isn’t mandatory; just recommended.
- Abolished. The most common belief you’ll find among Christian non-theologians (i.e. everybody else) is every command, of every sort, has been abolished altogether. Except maybe the 12 commandments, and the commands against homosexual stuff, and anything else we’d kinda like to apply. But in general Jesus wiped out sin, freed us from the Law, and we’re no longer under it. We’re totally, absolutely free, to do what we want, any old time. (Scholars call these folks antinomians. Jesus just calls ’em lawless. Mt 23.28)
- Advisory. Certain Christian libertarians agree with the antinomians: Every command was abolished, and we needn’t do them. But same as with the judicial commands, the Law still describes God’s will and justice, and they’re a good guideline, a good set of principles to live by. In that spirit, we should adopt those principles as our lifestyle. (But not enforce them on others. ’Cause grace.)
- Applicable. Jesus, because he’s the LORD who handed down the Law in the first place—it’s his Law—didn’t abolish any of it. He simply affirmed some issues in the Law are more important, and some issues are less important. Use your head, but follow the Law.
- Semi-applicable. Among certain Christian legalists, you’ll find the position that Jesus fulfilled the ritual commands, which no longer apply; but all the others do apply. (They’ll even include some of the cleanliness rules.) Further, these laws ought to become the law of the land.
- Applicable to Jews. If you’re a Jew, the Law still applies, ’cause God’s covenant with Israel is an everlasting one. If you’re gentile (like me), we’re not obligated to follow any commands other than the ones God applies to all humanity, as told to Noah:
- Genesis 9.1-7 KWL
- 1 God blessed Noah and his sons.
- He told them, “Bear fruit. Be many. Fill the earth.
- 2 Respect for you, and terror of you, is upon every beast of the earth, bird of the skies;
- upon everything which crawls in the dirt, every fish in the sea. They’re put in your hand.
- 3 Every moving, living thing is for you,
- for food like the plants I gave you. All for you.
- 4 Only don’t eat living meat, or blood.
- 5 I only demand from your hand your blood, your lives.
- I demand it of every living thing; I demand it of humanity.
- I demand the life of humanity from your and your brother’s hand.
- 6 One who spills human blood: Their blood will be spilled by humanity.
- For God made humanity in God’s image.
- 7 And you: Bear fruit. Be many.
- Swarm the earth. Be many in it.”
From this, they extrapolate “seven Noahide commands”: Don’t deny God, blaspheme God, murder, have illicit sex, steal, eat live animals; and create a justice system to ensure people follow the above. If gentiles do this, they’re fine with God. This is also called a dual-covenant system, and appears to be what the early Christians endorsed. Ac 15.19-21
My own view? The historic fulfilled view: Moral commands count, judicial commands ought to be taken seriously, and ritual commands are moot.
But the danger of all commands is when we try to follow them without taking God’s character into mind—without his love, grace, patience, and forgiveness. When people sin against you, forgive. Lk 17.3-4 Too many Christians “forgive,” but try to exact penalties from people for sinning, and obligate people to earn back their good graces. That may be fine for civic authorities, but wholly inappropriate for Christians.