The Ten Commandments
It is interesting to note the Jewish translation of Deuteronomy 5:22.¹ The direct announcement of the commandments from Sinai “went on no more.” It wasn’t (as other versions imply) that God added no more words, thus making the ten commandments a unique set of laws distinct from the rest of the law, but that the people, as the story goes on to say (Deut. 5:22-28), could not bear to hear God’s voice. In response God continued with the announcement of the law through Moses. In this case the ten commandments are separated from the rest of the law because God was interrupted by the extreme fear of the people. In the New Testament, laws are quoted without distinction from in and out of the ten commandments (see Matt. 19:18, 19, five from the ten commandments and one not; Mark 10:19, five from the ten commandments, one not). Certainly the “ten words” were unique in the sense that they were spoken from the mountain directly to Israel. It is also true that laws against killing and adultery have permanent validity for all men. But it is nowhere said that all ten (which includes the Sabbath law representing the whole Sabbatical system) are binding on all men at all times. The ten commandments are part of a whole legal system given to Israel.
In II Corinthians 3 Paul deliberately contrasts the provisional nature of the ten commandments as a system of law with the new spirit of the law which characterizes the Christian faith. The old system “came with glory” (v. 7), but that glory is outdone by the new administration of the spirit. The law given at Sinai was written on tablets of stone (a reference to the ten commandments in Ex. 34:28, 29), but the “epistle” written by the spirit of Christ in the heart (v. 3) is far superior. The law was a “custodian” or “tutor” to lead us to Christ (Gal. 3:24). It was enacted 430 years after the covenant made with Abraham (Gal. 3:17). It was added temporarily, until the seed would come (Gal. 3:19). Paul did not say that the law given through Moses was “God’s eternal law.”
“What matters,” says Paul, “is not circumcision or uncircumcision but the keeping of God’s commandments” (I Cor. 7:19). But his reference is not to the ten commandments. He did not say “the commandments of God as given through Moses” but “commandments of God,” i.e., divine commands, and these are now summed up as the “law of Christ,” not the law of Moses. If we compare other passages where Paul disparages the need for circumcision, we see the contrast he seeks to establish:
“For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything [though in the Old Testament it meant everything, see Gen. 17:9-14], but faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6).
“For neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation [is all-important]” (Gal. 6:15).
For some Sabbath-keepers it seems that Paul should have said, “Circumcision is nothing, but Sabbath and holy day observance, on the correct day, is everything.”
We need to emphasize the point that in Genesis 17 one could not be a full member of the community of the people of God unless one was circumcised physically. This applied equally to foreigners living with the descendants of Abraham.
The radical difference between mandatory circumcision for everyone and Paul’s indifference to circumcision alerts us to the very great differences of practice between the two Testaments and helps us to anticipate “spiritualizing” of the law in other respects, not least in the matter of the observance of the days given to Israel. In Acts 15 a council was held to address the pressing problem raised by some Jewish Christians who were “teaching the brethren that unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved…Some believers who belonged to the Pharisees rose up and said: ‘It is necessary to circumcise them, and to charge them to keep the law of Moses’” (Acts 15:1, 5). Peter’s response indicates the enormous change of policy directed by God and the Messiah for the international body of Christians: “Now therefore why do you make trial of God by putting a yoke upon the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we shall be saved by the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will” (vv. 10, 11). It would be a direct contradiction of Scripture to say that the Torah in its Mosaic form was an unmixed blessing for Israel! There was much which was intended as a severe discipline and its purpose was to build a barrier between Israel and the nations. Under the New Covenant, as Peter explained, God has now given the holy spirit to Gentiles as well as to Jews, “and He made no distinction between us and them, but cleansed their hearts by faith” (v. 9). It was the intelligent reception of the Gospel of the Kingdom of God which purified the hearts of every one who believed the Gospel as Jesus preached it (Mark 1:14, 15; 4:11, 12; Matt. 13:19; Luke 8:11, 12; John 15:3; Acts 26:18; Rom 10:17; I John 5:20; Isa 53:11).
(1) Soncino Chumash, A. Cohen, ed., Soncino Press, 1968, p. 1019.