A Word for (Ash) Wednesday by Jonathan Tame
10th February, 2016.
‘Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?’ asked skeptical Nathanael in John chapter 1. ‘Come and see,’ replied his friend Philip. Fortunately for Nathanael, he did go and see and came to realise how wrong he had been about Jesus of Nazareth.
Many Christians tend to write off the Law in the Bible, particularly because they see it as standing in opposition to grace. Under the old covenant, the Jews were supposed to obey the law in order to get right with God, but they failed miserably, so Jesus came and now we are saved by grace through faith – right? No, it’s not quite like that.
To borrow Philip's phrase, I want to invite you to 'come and see' the Law in the light of the simple yet profound ‘Prologue to the Decalogue’. This little verse helps me understand and be more confident of the relevance of biblical Law – which is key to the Jubilee Centre’s approach to ethical issues today.
Most people skip over Deuteronomy 5:6 when they look up the Ten Commandments, but it is crucial for thinking rightly about the Decalogue and the Law more generally. Just before the first commandment (‘You shall have no other gods before me’), God said, ‘I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.’
Think about that for a minute. Did the Israelites merit their deliverance from Egypt and their miraculous emancipation from slavery? Had they earned it by their devotion and obedience to the LORD their God? Far from it! God saved them from Egypt as an act of unconditional grace – pure, unmerited favour!
The Prologue to the Decalogue tells us that grace came before any commandment. Redemption came before the Law was given. This casts the Law in quite a different light – it cannot be a means to obtain God’s grace and favour. So what was its purpose then?
A verse in the same chapter gives us a wonderful glimpse of what was on God’s heart. Deuteronomy 5:29 reveals his intentions for the Israelites, ‘Oh that their hearts would be inclined to fear me and keep all my commands always, so that it might go well with them and their children forever!’ And in other verses he says that he is a holy God and has called them to be his chosen people, that he may walk among them and be their God.
In other words, God’s intention is that his people live in deep, personal relationship with him and with each other. From the Israelites’ point of view, that intimate relationship was entered into through God’s gracious act of redemption, and their part was to remain in that relationship by keeping the Law, which meant doing the things which please him. Jesus echoes this when he says, 'If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love' (John 15:10).
So on this Ash Wednesday, let’s reconsider the connection between grace, law and relationship in the light of the wonderful Prologue to the Decalogue.