Now if you would please take a copy of God’s Word in your hands and turn with me to Exodus chapter 20. We are coming back to our ongoing studies in the Ten Commandments. Page 61 if you’re using one of our church Bibles. Last time we were beginning to think about the second table of the Law, commandments 6 through 10, 5 through 10 rather, which deal with our duty toward our neighbor. We looked at the fifth commandment last time, “Honor your father and your mother,” which brings us today to the sixth. Just two words in Hebrew, “lo pratza” - “You shall not murder.” Before we read the Ten Commandments, Exodus 20:1-17, and then consider verse 13 together, let me ask you first of all to bow your heads with me as we pray. Let’s pray.
O Lord, how we pray the promise of our Savior who told us that the Father would give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him. Would You pour out your Spirit upon the reading and the preaching of Your Word, upon the assembly of Your people, that the truth of Your holy Law as it shows us ourselves and as it leads us to Jesus, might be known and tasted and felt in its transforming, sin-exposing, Christ-exalting, new life-shaping power. For Jesus’ sake we pray, amen.
Exodus chapter 20 at verse 1. This is the Word of Almighty God:
“And God spoke all these words, saying,
‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
You shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.
You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.
You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor's.’”
Amen, and we praise God for this reading of His holy and inerrant Word.
I am not a fan of the theology of Pope John Paul II nor am I given really to quoting him, but he was right when he said that ours can justly be called “a culture of death.” Let me give you just a couple of examples to justify that statement, the first from the realm of entertainment. Film critic, Vincent Canby, writing for The New York Times back in 1990, describes the way in which death and brutality are being used and portrayed in Hollywood these days. “If you have the impression that movies today are bloodier and more brutal than ever in the past and that their body counts are skyrocketing, you’re absolutely right. Inflation has hit the action-adventure movie with a big, slimy, splat. Modern action movies don’t require that the audience be able to read, as do silent movies, or even to reason as do conventional talkies. They evoke only gut feelings, visceral sensations. It’s enough that the audience faces the screen. Pain and terror don’t have to be understood, merely enjoyed as entertainment.” Let that last sentence sink in for a moment. “Pain and terror don’t have to be understood, merely enjoyed as entertainment.” The casual portrayal of murder and violence has become an essential, if utterly unremarkable, part of our daily entertainment.
Or think about the realm of moral philosophy! From the ridiculous, perhaps, to the sublime, although I doubt you’d call this sublime when you hear what I have to say. Dr. Peter Singer, DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University’s Center for Human Values, asks the following question: “Can we justify attributing equal value to all human lives while at the same time attributing to human life a value that is superior to all animal life?” He dismisses as patently false, the Christian perspective on human dignity and argues further that, “I do not see any argument in the claim that merely being a member of the species, homo sapiens, gives you moral worth and dignity, whereas being a member of the species, pan troglodytes” - that is, chimpanzees - “does not give you worth and dignity.” In fact, he goes on to argue that the only credible options available to us are as follows. There are three; First, that we raise the status of animals, “granting them the same state as we now grant to humans,” or secondly, that we “preserve quality by lowering the status of humans to that to which we now grant to animals,” or thirdly, that we “abandon the idea of the equal value of all humans replacing that with a more graded view in which moral status depends on some aspect of cognitive ability.” And that graded view is applied to both humans and non-humans. And then he rejects the first two options - raising animals to human status, lowering humans to animal status - and advocates for the third. “If one has the cognitive capacity scoring highly enough on a graded scale, then one may be recognized as equally morally valid and valuable as a human being.” The implications of that perspective are staggering. This is a man teaching ethics at one of the leading universities in the world.
It means, that in Professor Singer’s view, those who are cognitively impaired, whether as a result of a congenital condition, a degenerative disease, or as a result of accident or injury, ought not to be regarded as intrinsically equally valuable human beings along with the rest of society. An unborn child, similarly, does not meet Professor Singer’s criteria for human equal validity and moral dignity, which means of course that such people without any moral consequence or inference of guilt can be managed, used, controlled, even killed and discarded. Actually, rather interestingly, Singer’s own mother has Alzheimer’s and he has spent a considerable portion of his own wealth on her care. And when he’s asked about the inconsistency of that he admits that were he solely responsible for her care, “she might not be alive today.” That is chilling. Those are the consequences of his ideas.
And if you think they are too horrific to have filtered down from the rarified ivory towers of Princeton University to the ordinary thought of our society, one need only look at the abortion statistics to see how effective that kind of thinking has been in persuading people that the unborn child is less valid and less human than the rest of us. 1.06 million abortions a year in the United States of America. 58, 586,256 abortions performed in this country since 1973. Ours is unquestionably a culture of death, a culture to which the stark prohibition of the sixth commandment speaks a contradictory word of hope dignifying human life and calling us to cherish and to nourish it and nurture it wherever it is found. Exodus 20 at verse 13, “You shall not murder,” speaks with God’s voice into our dehumanizing day with a word of hope.
As an aside, do be careful to notice that it does not say, “You shall not kill.” There are instances when the taking of a human life is lawful - a just war or the in case of self-defense, and according to Scripture, in places like Genesis 9:4-6, sometimes as a judicial penalty, especially in the case of murder. What the sixth commandment prohibits is actually the unlawful taking of human life - our own life as well as the life of others. But it does even more than that. Matthew chapter 5 verse 22, Jesus explains the sixth commandment to teach that “Anyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, anyone who insults his brother will be liable to the counsel,” that is, to the judgment of church courts,” and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” In the same way, the Apostle John writes in 1 John 3:15, “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” The root as well as the fruit are forbidden. The reach of the sixth commandment, do you see, extends to the secret hostility of our hearts as well as the murderous actions of our lives.
And following the model of the New Testament Scriptures, The Westminster Larger Catechism, which I have commended to you before, in questions 135 and 136 expounds the range of duties commanded and sins forbidden in a comprehensive and a frankly piercing manner. Let me simply read it slowly to you and see if it doesn’t sting your conscience and rebuke your heart. Let’s see if any of this lands with you:
“What are the duties required in the sixth commandment?”
“The duties required in the sixth commandment are all careful studies and lawful endeavors to preserve the life of ourselves and others by resisting all thoughts and purposes, subduing all passions and avoiding all occasions, temptations, and practices which tend to the unjust taking away the life of any; by just defense thereof against violence, patient bearing of the hand of God, quietness of mind, cheerfulness of spirit; a sober use of meat, drink, and medicine, sleep, labor, and recreations; by charitable thoughts, love, compassion, meekness, gentleness, kindness; peaceable, mild and courteous speech and behavior; forbearance, readiness to be reconciled, patient bearing and forgiving of injuries, and requiting good for evil; comforting and succoring the distressed, and protecting and defending the innocent.”
“What are the sins forbidden in the sixth commandment?”
“The sins forbidden in the sixth commandment are, all taking away the life of ourselves or of others, except cases of public justice, lawful war, or necessary defense; the neglecting or withdrawing the lawful and necessary means of preserving of life; sinful anger, hatred, envy, desire of revenge; all excessive passions, distractive cares; immoderate use of meat, drink, labor, and recreations; provoking words, oppression, quarreling, striking, wounding, and: whatsoever else tends to the destruction of the life of any.”
Put your hand up if one of those darts has not landed dead center in the target of your heart? It’s a profoundly searching exposition of the sixth commandment. Let me commend it to you! Go home and read it prayerfully, read it on your knees. It may be that you have business to do before the throne of God today for your breech of the sixth commandment.
But whatever may be true in our particular case, it’s clear, isn’t it, that the sixth commandment is calling us to a radical commitment to the overall welfare of our neighbor. It summons us to the self-sacrificial pursuit of the general well-being and highest good of all people for the glory of God and the honor of Jesus Christ. And before we conclude, I want to show you three principles lying behind the sins forbidden and the duties required that will help inform our practice that we badly need to get our heads around in our culture if we are to live for Jesus Christ to the praise and glory of God in our day. First, the dignity of human life. Then, the depravity of human life. And finally, the destiny of human life. Those three simple ideas are, as it were, the foundations upon which the sixth commandment rests and gives it its force and its urgency and its power. The dignity, depravity, and destiny of human life.
- The Dignity of Human Life
First of all, the sixth commandment presupposes that human life is marked by a unique dignity and essential value. We are, Genesis 1:27, made in the image of God. “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them.” Quite apart from any gifts we possess, quite apart from our cognitive ability, whatever Professor Singer might say, all people are created equal in dignity and value because we are the image-bearers of Almighty God. The likeness of the Creator shines in the features of the least and the lowest, the destitute and the diseased, the infirm and the elderly. The infant and the unborn are formed by the hand of God and are ineluctably redolent of their Maker. That’s why, in Genesis 9:5-6, God says from His fellow man, “I will require a reckoning for the life of man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed. For God made man in his own image.” The sixth commandment teaches us that murder is sin because it is an assault on the dignity of a human being made in the image of God. James, the brother of our Lord, similarly connects the violation of the sixth commandment following the teaching of Jesus in Matthew chapter 5 when we misuse our speech when, in our anger and resentment, we wound one another. He shows us that murder is sin and points us to the fact that when we misspeak, we are doing injury to the image of God in our neighbor. “When we bless our Lord and Father with our tongues,” he says, “and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.” It’s a rebuke to our anger and our resentment.
And indictment of our malicious tone, our hateful speech, passive aggressive manipulation does not avoid the condemnation of the sixth commandment. The people we belittle and wound, those whom we abuse and mistreat, bear the stamp and the imprint of the divine likeness. Your assault on them is not just an assault on them; it is an assault on the God who made them and who dignifies their humanity as well as yours with His image. As Calvin put it, “Our neighbors bear the image of God. To use him, abuse him, or misuse him is to do violence to the person of God who images Himself in every human soul.” The dignity of human life. God has stamped human beings with His image so that in our thoughts and our words and our works we are to give reverent respect to the image of God in all people, from the womb to the tomb. The dignity of human life.
- The Depravity of Human Life
Then the second thing to see that the sixth commandment presupposes is not just the dignity but also the depravity of human life. In the state of innocent, before the fall, our first parents needed no transcript of the moral law. It was written on their hearts by nature. God did tell them, “You will remember not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for in the day that you eat of it you will surely die.” Satan, of course, tempted them to eat the forbidden fruit saying, “You will not surely die.” And when our first parents took the fruit and ate, they broke the sixth commandment, willfully taking actions that would bring death to themselves and to all human beings descending from them. Romans 5:12, “Sin came into the world through one man, Adam, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” Adam’s sin killed himself and all mankind descending from him, and so it’s hardly a surprise, is it, when the next recorded sin in Scripture is what? The sin of murder, when Cain killed his brother, murdered his brother, Abel - Genesis 4:8. Murder was the epitomizing sin revealing and unmasking the depravity that has penetrated human hearts.
And if you continue to read on in the Genesis account, one of the striking features of the narrative is the way that that depravity becomes more and more apparent. Genesis 6:5, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” Now that means, among other things, that the Law of God written on our conscience by nature was no longer a reliable guide and so God has provided for us His written Word, His Law given here at Mount Sinai on tablets of stone and preserved for us in Holy Scripture, to inform our sin-darkened consciences, to restrain the worst excesses of our depravity, to guide our conduct as a society. Well we’ve largely rejected God’s standards and determined the ethics of our civil codes by pragmatic considerations and so fallen into a culture of death in these days. God calls us not just individually, not just as a church, but as a society to a culture of life where human dignity and worth are honored and preserved from the womb to the tomb. The command was given because of human dignity but also because of human depravity, which of course reminds us, doesn’t it, that we need rescuing. It shows us the depravity of our hearts. It reveals that we fall short of the glory of God. We have become transgressors of His Law. One function of God’s Law is to show us how much we need rescuing.
Mankind in Need of Deliverance
Venom towards others drips from our tongues, the very same tongues that praise the name of God. We stoke the fire, so easily don’t we, of long-standing grudges, nursing our resentments, taking opportunity for petty vengeance, while praying, “Our Father, forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Our consciences slumber contentedly in the comfortable allusion of our moral superiority until the Law comes in, in all its comprehensive intensity, and it exposes suddenly the ugliness and the depravity of our true condition in the sight of God and the most respectable among us are laid bare as breakers of the sixth commandment, as murderers, perhaps not in deed but at least in thought and in word. We need saving! We need saving! That’s what the sixth commandment teaches us - not just that we are dignified by the image of God, not just that His image shines in the face of every human being, but that those same human beings are depraved law-breakers whose disobedience has distorted that image and stand in need of deliverance.
- The Destiny of Human Life
Which brings us to the third great presupposition upon which the sixth commandment rests. First human dignity, then human depravity, finally human destiny. The Bible consistently holds out two destinies for all people everywhere, one of which will be your destiny eternally. Every person in this room faces one of these final ends - eternal life or eternal death! Heaven in the presence of Christ or hell where you will be punished away from the presence of the Lord. One of these will be your destiny. Job 19:25 speaks of the hope of life; “I know that my redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth and after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God!” David, Psalm 118:17, sings with hope of new life. “I shall not die but I shall live,” he says. We’re longing, Revelation 21:4, for the day when “God will wipe away every tear from our eyes and death shall be no more.” And yet, along with eternal life, there is another destiny that awaits human beings. Daniel 12:2 gets the balance right. “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt.”
Eternal life is the Christian’s great hope; eternal death is the warning set before and unbelieving world so that eternal life or eternal death describes the destiny of everyone in this room. Some of you, if you will not repent and believe in Jesus Christ, will go to hell forever! How does that relate to the sixth commandment? 1 John 3:15, remember we quoted it earlier, “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer and does not have eternal life abiding in him.” Everyone who has broken the sixth commandment is heading where? What is the consequence of our breech of the sixth commandment? Have you broken the sixth commandment? Yes you have, and so have I. And what is the consequence? It is a lost eternity, a lost eternity.
How then shall we who have broken the sixth commandment find that life and not death might be ours when it’s death we deserve? How shall we escape the wrath to come, we who have broken the sixth commandment? God has made a way, astonishingly, in the death of His Son! The murdered Christ, murdered for murderous men and women, boys and girls, like me, and like you. The one who never broke the sixth commandment bearing the penalty for all of us who have. Think of Him, bleeding and dying amidst the insults and the mockery of the crowds who crucified Him, arrested, tried in a travesty of justice. You hear the piling up of the breeches of the sixth commandment, Pilate washing his hands of Him, the religious leaders laying for His blood. The world is covered in darkness as the Son of God, the Lord and the giver of life is murdered at the hands of the people He loved and came to save. And what does He say, as agony rips through His body and His lifeblood ebbs away? What does He say to murderers? “Father, forgive them. Father, forgive them.”
We who have broken the sixth commandment, what must we do? We must go to Jesus Christ crucified and hear Him say to us what He said to the crowds that day as the nails were driven into His hands and feet, “Father, forgive them.” There is mercy for murderers at the foot of the cross. There is pardon for you in Jesus Christ! Won’t you come again, or perhaps for the very first time, for real to Jesus Christ! Ask for mercy, acknowledge the depravity of your heart, and seek the cleansing only He can give you. He will say to you, “Father, forgive them.” Let’s pray together!
Our Father, we bow before You and we turn anew to Jesus who is the image of the invisible God, who was brutalized and murdered that we might live. And we pray that You would have mercy upon us, that our Savior’s prayer for murderers might be answered in our case. “Father, forgive them.” Wash us clean and equip us to live in obedience to Your holy Law for Your glory and praise, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
©2016 First Presbyterian Church.
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