Sermon illustrations

The Ten Commandments

The Crucial Bridge in the 10 Commandments

Interpretation series editor Patrick Miller has shrewdly observed that the fourth commandment on Sabbath is the “crucial bridge” that connects the Ten Commandments together. The fourth commandment looks back to the first three commandments and the God who rests (Exod. 20:3–7). At the same time, the Sabbath commandment looks forward to the last six commandments that concern the neighbor (vv. 12–17); they provide for rest alongside the neighbor.

God, self, and all members of the household share in common rest on the seventh day; that social reality provides a commonality and a coherence not only to the community of covenant but to the commandments of Sinai as well. For that reason, it is appropriate in our study of the Sabbath commandment to begin with a reflection on the first commandment and, subsequently, to finish our work with a consideration of the tenth commandment that concludes the Decalogue.

Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance, New Edition with Study Guide: Saying No to the Culture of Now, Westminster John Knox Press, 2017.

For Whom the Bell Tolls

While lying in bed due to a serious illness, the poet and pastor John Donne heard over and over again the funeral bells at his church, which would ring to announce the death of someone in the parish. Ill and away from his ministry, he was therefore unaware of the goings-on in his church and who had “shuffled off this mortal coil,” so to speak.  With each ring of the bell, Donne wondered, “Who is it that has died?”

After some time, he finally answered himself, “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Why, we might ask? It is because “No man is an island, entire of itself.”

And he continued:

“Each is a piece of the continent,

a part of the main;

if a clod be washed away by the sea,

Europe is the less…

Each man’s death diminishes me,

For I am involved in mankind.”

As J. Ellsworth Kalas notes in his short book on the Ten Commandments, John Donne has, in this poem, unintentionally provided commentary on the sixth commandment. “You shall not murder,” as brief a command as it may be, has to do with not just protecting me, but protecting my neighbor as well. Death by violence makes each involved less than they once were. As Kalas notes, “Both my neighbor and I are part of the mainland of life; if my neighbor dies, I am the less, and if I die, my neighbor is, to some degree, impoverished.”

Stuart Strachan Jr., Source Material from J. Ellsworth Kalas, The Ten Commandments From the Backside, Abingdon Press, 2013.

The Grievous Sin

In 1988, I (Randy) moved with my wife and two sons (ages two and eight weeks) from Texas to Sulawesi, an island north of Australia and south of the Philippines. We served as missionaries to a cluster of islands in eastern Indonesia until returning in 1996…While in Indonesia, I taught in a small, indigenous Bible college and worked with churches scattered from Borneo to Papua.

One day, I was sitting in a hut with a group of church elders from a remote island village off the coast of Borneo. They asked my opinion about a thorny church issue. A young couple had relocated to their village many years before because they had committed a grievous sin in their home village. For as long as they had resided here, they had lived exemplary lives of godliness and had attended church faith fully. Now, a decade later, they wanted to join the church.

“Should we let them?” asked the obviously troubled elders. Attempting to avoid the question, I replied, “Well, what grievous sin did they commit?”

The elders were reluctant to air the village’s dirty laundry before a guest, but finally one of them replied, “They married on the run.”

In America, we call that eloping.

“That’s it?” I blurted out. “What was the sin?”

Quite shocked, they stared at this young (and foolish) missionary and asked, “Have you never read Paul?”

I certainly thought I had. My Ph.D. was in Paul. They reminded me that Paul told believers to obey their parents (Eph 6:1). They were willing to admit that everyone makes mistakes. We don’t always obey.

But surely one should obey in what is likely the most important decision of his or her life: choosing a spouse. I suddenly found myself wondering if I had, in fact, ever really read Paul. My “American Paul” clearly did not expect his command to include adult children deciding whom to marry. Moreover, it was clear that my reading (or misreading?) had implications for how I counseled church leaders committed to faithful and obedient discipleship.

Taken from Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien Copyright (c) 2012 by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

The First Commandment and the Importance of Priorities 

The pastor J. Ellsworth Kalas begins his discussion of the first Commandment by discussing priorities, which of course, is at the heart of the first commandment:

The biggest issue in life is priorities.

You don’t have to be religious to know that. We all acknowledge it every day, dozens of times a day. It is the essence of life for us list-makers; we draw up the list of the things we plan to do, then start numbering them in order of priority. Those whose budget is stretched to the limits stack up their bills according to the priority rule, “Which creditor will be most heartless?” For some it gets no more existential than a box of chocolates: Do I eat the creams first. Or the caramels?

Most of us manage our priorities reasonably well at these levels. Interestingly enough, we also do pretty well at the frightening extremities of life.

If our house catches fire, for instance, we’ll probably decide quickly and incisively about what to carry out and what to leave behind. But life itself is a more complicated call. Renowned preacher and author George Buttrick came one day upon a farmer who had just retrieved a lost sheep. When Buttrick asked how sheep wander away, the farmer answered, ‘They just nibble themselves lost,” They go, he explained, from one tuft of grass to another, until at last they’ve lost their way. And that, of course, is what happens with life. Unless we purposely establish a structure of priorities, we will nibble away at each inconsequential tuft of decision until life is gone, and we have little idea of what has happened to it.

J. Ellsworth Kalas, The Ten Commandments From the Backside, Abingdon Press, 2013.

How Heavy am I?

The fifth commandment contains a mandate that is not only an encouragement to fathers and mothers but contains an unmistakable challenge to them as We who are parents are grateful to hear the good advice that is being given to our children, but, as we ponder the full meaning of the word honor, we are also deeply challenged by the mandate to ask several questions of ourselves.

One is, “How heavy am I?”—not in the “weight-watcher” sense, but in that deeper sense of the will of God for my life. When I am weighed, how substantial is my life as a parent, friend, and model to my children?

Earl Palmer, Old Law, New Life:  The Ten Commandments and New Testament Faith, Abingdon, 1984.

Jesus’ Approach to the Ten Commandments

It is evident that Jesus regarded the Ten Commandments as the revealed will of God and in this respect did not differ from the Judaism of his age. To the rich young ruler (Matt.19.18ff. and parallels) who sought eternal life, Jesus simply quoted the ten commandments as the expressed will of God.

He attacked the Pharisees for their hypocrisy in subverting the divine commands, specifically the fifth commandment, and substituting their own tradition (Matt.15.4ff.)….Yet it is equally evident that Jesus retained a complete freedom toward the law. Not only did he antagonize the Pharisees by healing on the sabbath and disregarding food laws, but he struck at the root of the Pharisaical interpretation by proclaiming that ‘the sabbath was made for man’ (Mark 2.27), and that ‘nothing outside a man which goes into him can defile him’ (Mark 7.15)

Brevard Childs, The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary, p.429.

Mark Twain & The Ruthless Businessman

A businessman known for his ruthlessness, arrogance, and religiosity told Mark Twain that before he died he intended to visit the Holy Land, climb Mount Sinai, and read the Ten Commandments aloud. ‘I have a better idea,’ Twain replied. ‘Just stay here in Boston and keep them!’  We’d rather cogitate on what we don’t know, than act on what we know we need to do. 

Source Unknown

A Poignant, if not “Stinging,” Parable on the Importance of Honoring your Parents

The fifth commandment does not by any means deny that honored assumption, but it does turn it around for another viewing. It reminds children that when they care for their parents—“honor” them is a wonderfully inclusive word—they are really caring for themselves.

The Brothers Grimm put that truth in a rather stinging fairy tale. Once there was a little old man, of trembling hands and feeble eyes, whose uncertain table habits became increasingly offensive to the daughter-in-law with whom he lived, until one day she objected vigorously to her husband, the old man’s son.

She and her husband took the fumbling old man to a corner of the kitchen, set him on a stool, and gave him his food in an earthenware bowl. Now he was no longer troubling them by his dribbled food; now the tablecloth was no longer soiled by his trembling behavior.

One day, in his trembling, he dropped the bowl and broke it. Now the daughter-in-law ceased even her moderate civility. ‘If you are a pig,” she said, “you must eat from a trough.” And they made a little wooden trough, and he ate from it.

The pride of their lives was their own four-year-old son. One evening they noticed the boy playing with blocks of wood in the serious fashion which children so often invest in their play—

When the father asked what he was doing, the boy said with an engaging smile, “I’m making a trough to feed you and Mamma out of when I get big.”

For a while the man and woman just looked at each other, not saying anything. Then they cried; and then they went to the corner and led the little old man back to his place at the table. They gave him a comfortable chair, and put his food on a plate. And never again were they really, deeply troubled by the food he spilled or by the dishes he occasionally broke. They had learned that, in honoring a parent, they possessed their own futur

J. Ellsworth Kalas, The Ten Commandments From the Backside, Abingdon Press, 2013.

A Roman’s view of the Jewish Faith and its Interaction with Egypt

In this excerpt by the Roman historian Tacitus, we get insight into the Jewish faith from an ancient, extra-Biblical account. We also see how the Israelites took the first commandment seriously:

The Egyptians worship many animals and images of monstrous form; the Jews have purely mental conceptions of Deity, as one in essence. They call those profane who make representations of God in human shape out of perishable materials. They believe that Being to be supreme and eternal, neither capable of representation, nor of decay. They therefore do not allow any images to stand in their cities, much less in their temples. 

This flattery is not paid to their kings, nor this honor to our Emperors. From the fact, however, that their priests used to chant to the music of flutes and cymbals, and to wear garlands of ivy, and that a golden vine was found in the temple, some have thought that they worshipped Father Liber, the conqueror of the East, though their institutions do not by any means harmonize with the theory; for Liber established a festive and cheerful worship, while the Jewish religion is tasteless and mean.

Tacitus, The Complete Works of Tacitus, p. 660.

Revealing Our Basic Behavior Pattern

Our cars are parables of their owners. We too are wonderfully made, complex physically and even more so psychologically and spiritually. For us, too, there is a maker’s handbook—namely, God’s summary of the way to live that we find in the Ten Commandments. Whether as persons we grow and blossom or shrink and wither, whether in character we become more like God or more like the devil, depends directly on whether we seek to live by what is in the Commandments or not.

The rest of the Bible could be called God’s repair manual, since it spells out the gospel of grace that restores sin-damaged human nature. But it is the Commandments that crystallize the basic behavior pattern that brings satisfaction and contentment, and it is precisely for this way of living that God’s grace rescues and refits us.

J.I.Packer, Keeping the Ten Commandments, Crossway.

How The Ten Commandments Help Us Turn to Christ

Suppose someone says: “I try to take the Ten Commandments seriously and live by them, and they swamp me! Every day I fail somewhere. What am I to do?” The answer is: now that you know your own weakness and sin-fulness, turn to God, and to his Son Jesus Christ for pardon and power. Christ will bring you into a new kind of life, in which your heart’s deepest desire will be to go God’s way, and obedience will be burdensome no longer. 

That folk who take the law as their rule might find Christ the Savior as their Ruler is something to pray and work for. God’s love gave us the law just as his love gave us the gospel, and as there is no spiritual life for us save through the gospel, which points us to Jesus Christ the Savior, so there is no spiritual health for us save as we seek in Christ’s strength to keep the law and practice the love of God and neighbor for which it calls. 

Suppose people generally began to say, “By God’s help I will live by the Ten Commandments every day from now on. I will set myself to honor God and obey him. I will take note of all that he says. I will be in church for worship each week. I will not commit adultery or indulge myself in lust or stir up lust in others. I will not steal, nor leave the path of total honesty. I will not lie or cheat. I will not envy or covet.” Community life would be transformed, and massive national problems would dissolve overnight. It is something more to pray and work for.

J.I.Packer, Keeping the Ten Commandments, Crossway.

The Ten Commandments Controversy

In 1995, an Alabama circuit court judge set off what has now become a national controversy, exposing the profoundest rift in American society. Into a pair of rosewood tablets, the judge, Roy Moore, burned the Ten Commandments. He proceeded to hang the homemade ornament on his courtroom wall. “Not only do the Ten Commandments not belong in public courthouses or classrooms,” Harvard legal scholar Alan Dershowitz would later comment, “they do not even belong—at least without some amendments and explanatory footnotes—in the hearts and minds of contemporary Americans.”

The theologian and former Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong calls them “immoral.” In his best-selling atheist screed The God Delusion, Darwinian advocate Richard Dawkins dismisses them as “obnoxious,” explaining, “To be fair, much of the Bible is not systematically evil but just plain weird.” He proposes his own secular Ten Commandments, including the directive “Do not indoctrinate your children. Teach them how to think for themselves, how to evaluate evidence, and how to disagree with you.” But teaching your children the truth is the sine qua non of biblical religion.

In 2001, having been elevated to the office of chief justice of the state’s supreme court, Moore installed a 5,280-pound granite monument of the Ten Commandments in the Alabama Supreme Court building—a monument that was finally removed in 2003, when the will of the U.S. Supreme Court prevailed over the truculent and defiant Judge Moore’s.

David Klinghoffer, Shattered Tablets: Why we Ignore the Ten Commandments at Our Peril, Doubelday, 2007.

When the Israelites Abandoned God’s Authority

In the Bible, the children of Israel fall into disastrous behavior patterns whenever they abandon the majestic authority of God revealed to them through Moses at Mount Sinai. In fact, they commenced rebelling and kicking at the Lord almost immediately after the Sinai revelation was completed.

While still on their forty-year extended camping trip in the desert, the Jews vexed Him by whoring after the women of neighboring Midian, joining an outright revolution against Moses under the radical reformer Korach, sending spies to reconnoiter the Holy Land and then declaring that they would rather return to pagan Egypt to be slaves again, and, of course, by fashioning the idolatrous Golden Calf.

David Klinghoffer, Shattered Tablets: Why we Ignore the Ten Commandments at Our Peril, Doubelday, 2007.

See also illustrations on Judgment, The Law, The Old Testament, Sin