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God’s Word for You

Luke 18:20 law and gospel

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Wednesday, December 12, 2018

20 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother.’”

Why does Jesus quote the Ten Commandments? Why doesn’t he get the wording exactly right? Why doesn’t he quote them in order?

Let’s take these questions in reverse order. First, Jesus doesn’t quote all the commandments, nor does he quote them in order. He brings out the ones that Christians have historically and traditionally numbered the Sixth, the Fifth, the Seventh, the Eighth, and the Fourth. Except for the Ninth and Tenth (quoted in this context in Mark 10:19 as “Do not defraud”), these are the commandments in the Second Table of the Law. Notice that Jesus takes them in just about the order you would think of if you wanted to group them easiest to hardest to keep, at least from the point of view of someone else looking at your life:

Don’t commit adultery? – Check. Technically.
Don’t murder? – Check. Unless you count ‘hurting.’
Don’t steal? – Check. Sort of.
Don’t bear false witness? – Check. If no one noticed.
Honor… well, if mom and dad overlook a few things, check?

Jesus is leading this man to realize that we cannot keep God’s law, not perfectly as he demands. And if we’re honest with ourselves, we will all admit that even if it might look as if we’ve kept the commandments, the truth is that we violate them all in our hearts. Jesus doesn’t worry about the exact order in order to make his point.

What about the exact wording? In any English translation, they look fine. And of course, Luke is writing in Greek while Exodus and Deuteronomy (the books where the Commandments are listed) were written in Hebrew. But even in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the forms of the verbs are a little bit different (μοιχεύσῃς aorist subjunctive rather than μοιχεύσεις future indicative, etc.). The difference is something like “You must not” (Jesus) rather than “You will not” (Moses’ Greek translator). But Jesus’ is not bound by the precise forms of the words. He emphasizes their meaning. This is also what he did when he explained commandment after commandment in the Sermon on the Mount when he said, “You have heard that it was said… but I tell you” (Matthew 5:21-22, 5:27-28, and many more times). He wants us to ponder, apply, and keep the commandments—not quibble about which one is number four.

Finally, why does he quote them at all? We’ve already answered this. He wanted the young man to be crushed by the law, not to think that he had conquered the law and was its master. This is always the pattern of preaching in the Bible, law and gospel, and it needs to be the pattern of preaching in our churches. If this doesn’t sound familiar, as if this isn’t what you hear in your pulpit, then you need to ask the one in your pulpit.

The law convicts and condemns us. Our righteousness does not and cannot come from the law (Philippians 3:9), for as James says, “Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it” (James 2:10). But without the law, we would not know our sins, the depth of our sins, or the desperate need we have for a Savior.

The gospel rescues and saves us. The gospel, by which we mean the saving promises of the Bible and the saving works of Jesus (everything in the Scriptures that shows us our Savior) is the medicine that saves us. The gospel cures us of the poison of sin, and at the same time offers and hands to us the forgiveness of sins, eternal life, the resurrection from the dead, and a place with Jesus forever in heaven. The one who brings the good news of the gospel brings peace (Nahum 1:15).

We must not add anything to the gospel. Taken pure from the spring, the gospel announces the grace of God to the sinner. This is what Jesus wants us to know. We get into trouble whenever we try to add to it, with terrible legal writs that bind us to the devil with language like, “But first you must…,” or “As long as you…,” or with the damning additional phrase, “but only up to a point.” Heresy! False doctrine! Damning words, as condemning as “I don’t believe” or “Hail Mary,” one of which would subtract from faith and the other would add to it. But we must neither add nor subtract, but only take it directly from the life-giving spring of living water. The gospel of pure forgiveness and eternal life is what Jesus was leading this young ruler toward, and it is what he leads toward, week by week, Sunday by Sunday, from our baptism to the spoken absolution to the forgiveness we receive in the Lord’s Supper, all through our lives to the very end. He is with us with his gospel promise every step along the way.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim SmithAbout Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. His wife, Kathryn, attended the Chapel from 1987-1990 while studying Secondary Education (Theater and Math) at UW-Madison. Kathryn’s father, John Meyer, was also the first man to serve as a Vicar at Chapel.

To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.

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