The Laws of Nature and Morality
Among the innumerable ethical laws and rules that regulate human behavior the most concise, clear and important are the Ten commandments. Although they were written many thousands of years ago when social conditions were drastically different from ours, their importance and authority has not diminished. To the contrary, the more our lives are entangled with contradictory opinions about what is right and what is wrong, the more we need the clear and unambiguous guidance of our Creator and Law-Giver.
Morally sensitive people have always regarded God’s commandments with great esteem and considered them to be an inexhaustible source of wisdom and inspiration. “Thy commandments make me wiser than my enemies … Great peace have those who love Thy law, and nothing causes them to stumble,” we read in the book of Psalms (Excerpts from Psalm 119:1, 77, 97, 98, 165). For a believing Christian the commandments of God can be likened to a bright star which guides him to the Kingdom of Heaven.
When comparing the commandments of God to the laws of nature, we can discern some interesting similarities and differences. For instance, they both originate from the same Divine Source and complement each other, with one set of rules regulating physical events and the other set governing the behavior of moral beings. The difference lies in that, while the laws of nature are compulsory, the moral laws appeal to the will of a free and intelligent spirit. In endowing us with the freedom of choice God has elevated us above all other creatures. This moral freedom gives us an opportunity to grow spiritually, perfect ourselves and even to become like our Creator. On the other hand this freedom places on us great responsibility and may become dangerous and destructive if misused.
A conscious violation of God’s commandments leads moral beings (angels and humans) to moral degeneration, spiritual bondage, suffering and even to complete social destruction. Thus, for example, even before God created our visible world, a great tragedy occurred among the angels when one of them, the proud Lucifer, rebelled against his Creator and incited other angels to disobedience. Then many angels left their heavenly abodes to establish their own kingdom. After this Lucifer became known as Satan and his angels demons, and their kingdom, now called hell, became a place of eternal darkness and suffering.
Another tragedy occurred in the life of mankind when our ancestors Adam and Eve violated God’s commandment regarding the tree of knowledge. Because of their transgression, human nature became sinful, and the life of their descendants became filled with crime, suffering and misfortune. Catastrophes of a lesser degree belong to the deluge during Noah’s time, the devastation of the perverted cities of Sodom and Gomorra, the destruction of the kingdoms of Israel and Judea, and the fall of many ancient empires. Historians strive to find external causes which contributed to these calamities, but the Bible reveals to us that the ultimate cause was in the moral degradation of the people. Comparing further the laws of nature with the commandments of God, it must be said that the former are temporary and conditional because they are bound to this transient physical world. Moral laws, on the other hand, are eternal because they reflect the perfection of the Creator, who is eternal and unchanging.
In what follows we shall briefly narrate the history of the Ten commandments, comment on their significance and explain their meaning in the light of New Testament teaching.
Historical Circumstances of the Ten Commandments
The reception of the Ten commandments is one of the most significant events of the Old Testament. With this event is connected the very formation of the Jewish nation and the beginning of the covenant with God that ultimately led to the creation of the New Testament. Before the reception of the Ten commandments there lived in Egypt an obscure and illiterate Semitic tribe, enslaved to build cities and monuments for the pharaohs; after it there arose a great nation called upon to serve God and to spread among other nations the true faith in Him and salvation in His Messiah, our Lord Jesus Christ.
The circumstances surrounding the receipt of the Ten commandments are related in the book of Exodus (chapters 19-20 and 24). In approximately 1500 B.C., following the great miracles performed by Moses in Egypt, the pharaoh was compelled to free from slavery the Hebrew people. Led by Moses, the Hebrews miraculously crossed the Red Sea and went south across the desert of the Sinai peninsula, setting their course towards the promised land. On the fiftieth day after the exodus from Egypt, the Hebrews arrived at the foothills of Mount Sinai and encamped nearby. As Moses ascended the mountain, God appeared to him and said, “Thus you shall tell the children of Israel: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My Covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.'” When Moses repeated to the people what God just said to him, they answered, “All that the Lord has spoken, we will do” (Exodus 19:5-8).
Then the Lord instructed Moses to prepare the people for the receipt of the commandments by abstinence, fasting and praying. Moses again ascended to Mount Sinai. On the third day, as a dense cloud covered the mountain, it started shaking. After this, bright lightning flashed, thunder roared and the loud sound of trumpets was heard. All the people from far away observed these events with trepidation.
It was during this awesome appearance that the Lord proclaimed to Moses His Ten commandments and inscribed them on two stone tablets. After descending from the mountain, Moses gave these commandments to the people, and they promised to observe them because they all witnessed the glory and power of God. Then the covenant between God and the Hebrews was established: the Lord promised the Hebrews His mercies and protection, and they in turn promised to Him that they would live righteously. Moses once more ascended the mountain, remaining there for forty days while fasting and praying. Here the Lord gave Moses other laws, both ecclesiastical and laic, and commanded him to erect a transportable temple-tent, and gave him maxims regarding priestly service and sacrificial offerings. The two stone tablets with the commandments were placed in the “Ark of the Covenant” (a gilded chest depicting cherubim on the lid) as an everlasting reminder of the covenant between God and the Israelite people.
Comment: The whereabouts of these stone tablets is unknown. In the 2nd chapter of the second book of Maccabees it is mentioned that during the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar in the 6th century B.C. the prophet Jeremiah hid the stone tablets as well as some other belongings of the temple in a cave on Mount Nebo. This mountain is within twenty kilometers to the east of where of the mouth of river Jordan on the Dead Sea. Just before the entry of the Israelites into the promised land (about 1400 years B.C.) the prophet Moses was buried on this same mountain. Repeated attempts to find these stone tablets with the Ten commandments have been in vain so far.
Here is the text of the Ten commandments: (Note that between the Ten commandments presented in the book of Exodus 20:1-17 and the book of Deuteronomy 5:6-21) there is an insignificant difference with brief comments added to them. These little amplifications are omitted here.
1. I am the Lord your God … thou shalt have no other gods before Me.
2. Thou shalt not make for thee any graven 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; thou shalt not bow down to them, nor serve them.
3. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.
4. Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days thou shalt labor and do all thy work, but the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God.
5. Honor thy father and thy mother, that it may be well with thee, and that thy days may be long upon the earth.
6. Thou shalt not kill.
7. Thou shalt not commit adultery.
8. Thou shalt not steal.
9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife; thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, nor his field … nor anything that is thy neighbor’s.
During the subsequent forty-year-long journey through the desert, Moses gradually recorded what God was revealing to him as well as many historical events in the life of the Jewish nation. Ultimately these writings formed the first five books of the Bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
The Significance of the Ten Commandments
The Old Testament books contain many laws which regulated not only the religious life of the Hebrews but their civil life also. With the beginning of the New Testament, the majority of these civil laws as well as many religious rituals had lost their significance and were discarded by the Apostles at their council in Jerusalem (see Acts chapter 15). However, the Ten commandments, which contain the most fundamental principles of moral life, without which the very existence of human society becomes impossible, were retained and even reinforced in the New Testament. It was because of such importance and inviolability that the Ten commandments were written not on paper or some other perishable material but on stone.
As we shall see, the Ten commandments follow a specific plan. They start with the most important and obvious and go to the less important and less obvious. The first four define duties towards God, while the following five define duties towards other people. The last commandment speaks of controlling one’s thoughts and desires.
Some similarities can be found between the Ten commandments and laws of ancient nations that inhabited the northwestern part of Mesopotamia (well-known laws of the Sumerian king Ur-Nammu (2050 B.C.), the Amorite king Bilalam, the Sumer-Akkadian ruler Lirit-Ishtar, the Babylonian king Hammurabi (1800 B.C.), and the Assyrian and Hittite laws composed around 1500 B.C. ). These similarities and common elements between the God-revealed and natural laws are due to the fact that the moral law is ingrained by God into the human soul, so human beings, even when they don’t know God, have a good natural feeling of what is right and what is wrong. If our nature were not corrupted by primordial sin, it is most likely that just the voice of conscience would be sufficient to regulate our personal and social life.
The Ten commandments express moral duties in a minimal and most general form, thus allowing maximum freedom in the arrangement of one’s life’s affairs. They are aimed at setting those boundaries which, when transpassed, can damage family and community life. Our Lord Jesus Christ in His sermons often referred to the Ten commandments and explained their deep spiritual meaning. We now shall turn our attention to each commandment successively and comment on them in the light of the New Testament.
The First Commandment
“I am the Lord your God … thou shalt have no other gods before Me.”
With this commandment, the Lord draws our attention toward Himself as the ultimate Source of our existence and of all goodness in life, and as the supreme Goal of our existence. He is eternal, almighty, knows everything, and lives in an approachable light. He is the only true God, the Creator of everything visible and invisible; He is the Author of life, the Lawgiver, our most merciful Savior and loving Benefactor. For this reason He deserves all our respect, reverence and sincere love. He deserves that all our thoughts, words and actions be inspired by Him and be directed toward His glory, as the Lord Jesus Christ has taught us to wish and pray: “Hallowed be Thy Name; Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.”
Thus the first commandment lays the proper foundation for private and social life and for this reason it holds a preeminent place among the other commandments. It casts man’s spiritual outlook toward God and tells him to make the Lord the object of all his thoughts and endeavors. Consider the knowledge of God as the most precious knowledge, His will – the highest authority, service to Him – your life’s calling. Because of this all-encompassing content, the first commandment reveals the superiority of the God-revealed law over all human legislation – ancient as well as contemporary. Experience shows that a healthy morality can be built only when it is founded on religious principles. Without divine authority, all human laws become conditional, unconvincing and subject to change.
In our age, the first commandment is as applicable and important as it was thousands of years ago. Indeed, although many contemporary people are saturated by all sorts of information and knowledge, they have but a dim awareness of God’s existence and role in their life. This estrangement from God deprives people’s intellects of necessary spiritual guidance and makes their lives wavering and empty. To find the correct direction in life, one should learn about God and His revelation by studying the Holy Scriptures and meditating, which can be augmented by reading the writings of the Holy Fathers and other religious books approved by the Church. This process of spiritual self-education becomes especially fruitful when it is accompanied by prayer and a sincere desire to become a better Christian. This acquired religious knowledge will enlighten not only the mind but will also permeate the heart and become the light of Christ shining in good deeds. Because of this wide scope, the first commandment includes in itself the rest of the commandments, which expand its meaning with specific actions.
Sins against the first commandment result from indifference toward God and His revelation or, what is even worse, from deliberate rejection of His will. These sins include atheism (militant rejection of God’s existence), polytheism (belief in many gods), disbelief or agnosticism (unwillingness to learn about Him), superstition, disavowal of faith, heresy (distortion of His revealed truth) and despair (disbelief in His providence and mercy). All of these are, first of all, sins of the mind. Because sins of the mind invariably lead to sinful life and falling away from God, the Fathers of the Church always struggled with great energy and forbearance to preserve the purity of faith in God.
The Second Commandment
“Thou shalt not make for thee any graven 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; thou shalt not bow down to them, nor serve them.”
This commandment forbids creation of any substitutes for God – worship of any kinds of idols, either physical or imaginary. The commandment was given when idolatry was mankind’s sickness. In those times pagans deified all kind of objects – innumerable gods and goddesses – heavenly bodies, animals, birds, reptiles, plants, all kinds of demonic and grotesque creatures, anything in which dark superstition saw something supernatural or unexplainable. The Old Testament prophets and subsequently the Apostles and Christian preachers enlightened the world with faith in one and only one true God, the Creator of the universe and the Heavenly Father of mankind. Gradually, Christian teaching has almost completely eradicated the old paganism, and in our days the worship of idols is confined to just a few corners of the world (Japan, India, and the jungles of South America and Africa) as remnants of ancient superstitions.
However, there still exists a more subtle form of idolatry which persists even among those who would consider ludicrous any literal worship of idols. Indeed, the spirit of the second commandment forbids worship of anything or regard of anything more than God. When any relative object becomes for a person something to which he dedicates all his thoughts, time and energies, that object becomes an idol. Not only unbelievers but many contemporary Christians as well are mostly concerned about gathering material wealth and worldly fortunes, about making a successful career, achieving physical happiness and physical gratifications. There are many who give themselves up to political ideas or adore worldly leaders, movie or music stars, and because of their own little temporary gods, they completely forsake the true God and the salvation of their souls. For some, contemporary science has becomes the supreme authority by which they judge and even reject the God-revealed truths. In general, anything material and temporal that becomes the most important object for a person to the detriment of his soul has become his false god. Also, such strong passions as sex, drug addiction, drunkenness, smoking, gambling, gluttony, greed, vanity, pride, et cetera, have become the cruel masters of many. When the book of Revelation predicts the increase of paganism toward the end of the world, it certainly means this indirect form of idolatry: “They worshipped idols of gold, silver, brass, stone and wood which can neither see nor hear nor walk” (Revelations 9:20). The Apostle Paul labels greed as idolatry, and regarding gluttons he comments that “their god is their belly” (Colossians 3:5; Philippians 3:19).
Comments: God does not prohibit in His second commandment the fine arts of sculpture and paintings in themselves, because this would be a contradiction to all that He has said elsewhere about the decoration of the Temple.
It is wrong to assume that the second commandment forbids the Orthodox honoring of holy icons or other religious items. Orthodox Christians do not perceive icons as deities, but rather as reminders of spiritual truths – of God as He has appeared to Prophets, of the Incarnate Savior, of angels and miraculous biblical events. An icon, through its figures and colors, conveys that which the Holy Scripture describes in words. Sacred pictures are lawful symbols on the same grounds as words are symbols that can convey religious ideas. Christians, in praying before an icon, give honor not to the material from which it is made, but to the One Who is depicted thereupon. Man’s makeup is such that, eyesight, hearing and other senses greatly influence his thoughts and spiritual mood. It is much easier to concentrate in prayer, to address the Savior and to feel His closeness when one sees a representation of Him, rather than by watching an empty wall or something that distracts us.
It is noteworthy that Moses, through whom God forbade the worship of idols, was ordered by God to place gold cherubim on the cover of the Ark of the Covenant. The Lord said to Moses: “Place them on both ends of the cover. There I shall unveil Myself to you and speak with you above the cover between two Cherubim.” Likewise the Lord commanded weaving of the likeness of the cherubim on the curtain separating the Sanctuary from the Holy of Holies and on the inside of the hanging coverings of the tabernacle (Exodus 25:18-22 and 26:1-37). Subsequently, in the temple of Solomon, there were sculptures and embroidered likenesses of the cherubim (1 Kings 6:27-29 and 2 Chronicles 3:7-14). The Lord approved these holy images during the dedication of the temple, as we read in the Bible: “The glory of the Lord [in the form of a cloud] filled the house of the Lord” (1 Kings 8:11).
There were no icons of the Lord God in the Tabernacle tent or in the temple of Solomon because He had not yet revealed Himself in the flesh as God Incarnate. There were no likenesses of the Old Testament righteous men since mankind was not as yet redeemed and justified. The Lord Jesus Christ sent a miraculous icon of His Face to King Avgar of Edessa. It was known as the “Icon-not-made-by-hand.” Having prayed before this icon of Christ, Avgar was cured of leprosy. The Evangelist Luke, a physician and artist, painted and left to posterity several icons of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Several of them are found in Russia and in Greece. Christians made copies from these portrayals of the Savior and the Blessed Virgin, many of which the Lord glorified with miraculous works. Thus evolved the many miracle working icons – the carriers of Divine Grace and blessings.
The honoring of God’s saints, their icons and relics (holy remains) does not contradict the second commandment. Angels and saints should be considered our elder brothers who help us to attain salvation and pray for us before the throne of God (Rev 5:8). The Lord Himself enjoined: “Pray for each other.” As we know from the Gospels, the Lord always helped those for whom others interceded.
The Third Commandment
“Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.”
This commandment forbids the impious and disrespectful use of the name of God as, for example, in meaningless conversations or jokes. Sins against the third commandment include swearing (thoughtless, habitual oaths in casual conversations), blasphemy (audacious words against God), (“If he has blasphemed God and the king, take him out and stone him that he may die” (1 Kings 21:10)) sacrilege (when people scoff or jest at sacred things), perjury (oath breaking), calling upon God as a witness in meaningless worldly affairs, and breaking promises given to God. Also, joking and laughing in church are sins against this commandment.
Because the name of God designates the Supreme and Almighty Being, it carries a great and miraculous power. As we know from the Bible, nature instantly submits to God’s name when people invoke it with faith and reverence. For example, by invoking God in his prayer, Moses divided the waters of the Red Sea so that the Israelites could cross it. The prophet Elijah prayed that it would not rain and it did not rain for more than three years; and when he prayed again, the heaven gave rain, and the earth produced its fruit. The book of the Acts of the Apostles narrates many miraculous healings and exorcism of evil spirits accomplished by invocation of the name of the Incarnate Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, one should use the name of God with awe and reverence as, for example, in pious prayer, in preaching, in serious religious conversations, and in similar well-intended activities. Using God’s name in an oath is permitted only in special circumstances such as judicial proceedings (Hebrews 6:16-17). The name of God invoked attentively and piously always draws to man Divine Grace. It brings to him enlightenment of mind and gladness of heart.
The Fourth Commandment
“Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days thou shalt labor and do all thy work, but the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God.”
Here the Lord God directs us to labor during six days according to our vocation and the seventh day of the week to dedicate to Him, either in rest or in good activities. Activities that are pleasing to Him include concern about saving one’s soul, prayer in church and at home, study of the word of God, enlightenment of mind and heart with meditation on spiritual subjects, religious discussions, helping the needy, visiting the sick and the imprisoned, giving succor to the grieving and other similar acts of mercy.
During Old Testament times the Sabbath (“Shabbash” in ancient Hebrew means “rest”) was celebrated in remembrance of God’s completion of the world in six “days,” after which God “rested,” blessing and sanctifying the seventh day (Genesis 2:3). Following the captivity in Babylon after 400 B.C., the Jewish scribes reinterpreted the commandment regarding the Sabbath in an overly rigorous way and forbade on that day any activity. The Gospels relate that the scribes accused even the Savior of transgressing the Sabbath when on that day He cured someone. Correcting their misinterpretation on the fourth commandment, the Lord explained to them that “the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27) i.e., the Sabbath rest was established for the benefit of man and not for his subjugation or deprivation of good works. The weekly estrangement from the usual routines affords man the possibility to gather his thoughts, renew his physical and spiritual strength, and reevaluate his activities in the light of eternity. Labors are necessary for our temporary life, but we should not lose sight of the main goal of our existence – the salvation of our soul. The Christian observation of the seventh day helps us to correct our life journey.
Prior to and during apostolic times, the Sabbath was commemorated by the Jews only. Pagans never heard of it. Many Jews, after becoming Christians, continued to observe their Sabbath day. However, they also started to observe the day after the Sabbath, which then was christened the “Lord’s day” in commemoration of Christ’s resurrection. In practice it turned out that most of the early Christian Jews celebrated two days of the week – the Sabbath as the day of rest, and the Lord’s day (Sunday) – as the day of communal prayer and Communion. In converting pagans to Christianity, the Apostles did not demand from them the observance of the Sabbath (or any other Jewish holiday) but taught them to gather for communal prayer and communion on the Lord’s day. Gradually, as the number of Christians converted from paganism increased relative to the Christian Jews, the old Sabbath was forgotten, and Sunday became the new Christian Sabbath. Thus the Apostles gave to the fourth commandment a new Christian meaning.
The fourth commandment can be broken in several ways, when, for example, someone works on the day that should be dedicated to God or when one remains idle during the week days, bowing out of his duties. Indeed, the fourth commandment specifically says: “Six days thou shalt labor.” This commandment is also broken by those who skip church services and pass the Lord’s day in amusement, in carousing and in all kinds of useless undertakings. By doing this, they “rob” their Lord of what belongs to Him.
It would behoove Orthodox Christians to rekindle within themselves the zeal of the Christians of the first centuries and be truly dedicated to the Lord on the seventh day by going to church and taking holy Communion. By doing this, they will attract to themselves the blessing of the Lord, and their other activities will become more profitable.
The Fifth Commandment
“Honor thy father and thy mother, that it may be well with thee, and that thy days may be long upon the earth.”
Here the Lord God enjoins us to respect our parents, and as a reward for this He promises a felicitous and long life. To honor one’s parents means to respect their authority, to love them and under no circumstances to offend them by any word or action, to submit to them, to assist them in their work, to be solicitous in their time of need and especially during illness or old age, and likewise to pray to God for them during their life as well as after their death. Dishonoring one’s parents is a grave sin. In the Old Testament, anyone who slandered his parents was punished by death. (“He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death” (Exodus 21:17)).
In His sermons the Lord Jesus Christ reminded the Jews of the importance of honoring one’s parents (Mark 7:10). Being the Son of God, He respected his earthly parents, submitted to His Mother and helped Joseph in his daily work. Jesus reproached the Pharisees, who under the guise of dedicating their wealth to God, refused to their parents needful support. (Matthew 15:4-6).
Because the family is the most basic cell of both human society and the Church, the Apostles were always concerned with strengthening proper relationships among family members. In apostolic epistles we often find such instructions as: “Children obey your parents in the Lord for this is right … And you fathers do not provoke your children to wrath … Wives submit to your own husbands as is fitting in the Lord … Husbands love your wives and do not be bitter toward them” (Ephesians 6:1, Colossians 3:18-20; 1 Timothy 5:4).
As to relationships with non-family members, the Christian faith teaches the necessity to show respect to every person, in accordance with his age and status. Saint Paul wrote, “Render to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor” (Romans 13:7). In the spirit of this apostolic directive, a Christian should honor pastors of the Church and spiritual authorities; civilian administrators who concern themselves with justice, peace and the welfare of the nation; educators; teachers; benefactors and, in general, all who are older. It is very sad that many contemporary youngsters disrespect their parents, teachers and elders, considering them “foolish” or “backward” people, disregarding the commandment that says: “You shall rise before the gray headed and honor the presence of an old man” (Leviticus 19:32).
But if it should happen that our parents or superiors should ask of us something contrary to the Christian faith or the Law of God, then we must say to them what the Apostles said to the Jewish chiefs when they insisted that the Apostles should not preach about Jesus: “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 4:19, 5:29). In such instances of conflict between the Divine and human one should be ready to endure whatever the outcome might be, because suffering for the Christian faith is an integral part of our Christian calling and is rewarded in Heaven by Him Who suffered from unjust rulers (Mat. 5:11-12).
The Sixth Commandment “Thou shalt not kill.”
The sixth commandment orders us to respect our life and the life of other people as one of the greatest and most marvelous gifts of God. Only the Author and the Giver of life can determine man’s span of life.
In light of this commandment, it should be obvious that suicide is a grave sin. Being one form of murder, it includes in itself the sins of despair, lack of faith and a rebellion against God’s providence. The most frightening aspect of suicide is that by forcefully terminating his own life one forfeits the very possibility of repentance of this sin, since after death repentance is not accepted. In order not to be overcome by despair, one must remember that temporary sufferings are allowed by God to make us better Christians. No righteous person was able to avoid sufferings. The path to Heaven is a narrow and thorny one. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus clearly illustrates the meaning of earthly sufferings. Abraham said to the rich man tormented in hell, “Son remember that in your lifetime you received many good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things, but now he is comforted and you are tormented” (Luke 16:19-31). While enduring suffering, one must remember that God is exceedingly merciful. He will never allow one to suffer beyond his strength, and during the most difficult moments, He invariably strengthens and consoles the person who believes in Him.
There exist several forms of murder – direct, indirect, spiritual, etc. A person is guilty of murder even when he does not commit the murder himself but promotes the murder or allows someone else to do it. For example: a judge condemning an accused to death when his innocence is known; anyone who does not save a neighbor from death when he is fully capable of doing it; anyone who helps another commit murder by his decree, advice, collaboration, or rationalization, or who condones and justifies a death and by that gives opportunity for more killing; anyone who by hard labor or cruel punishment exhausts victims into a weakened state and thus hastens their death.
Abortion is also a form of murder. Several Church laws impose severe penance on women who kill babies in their womb and on those who assist them in this. (Check the 2nd and 8th rule of St. Basil the Great, 21st rule of the Council of Ankir, and the 91st rule of the 6th Ecumenical Council).
In accordance with Evangelical teaching, “Whosoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him” (1 John 3:15). Therefore, anyone who harbors feelings of hatred or anger, anyone who wishes evil to another person, slanders, quarrels, or by some other means displays his enmity towards others, violates the sixth commandment. To prevent us from harming each other, the Lord Jesus Christ commands us to root out from our hearts all feelings of anger and vengeance which are the ultimate cause of all violent actions against others. In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus Christ said: “You have heard that it was said to those of old, you shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment. But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother is in danger of the judgment … You have heard that it was said, `An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also … You have heard that it was said, `You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:21-40).
Besides physical, there exists a spiritual form of murder which is an even more horrible sin because of its eternal consequences: tempting someone. Anyone who lures a person away from his faith in God or seduces to sin, kills him spiritually. The Savior thus said about the severity of the sin of tempting others, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck … Woe to the world because of offenses! For offenses must come, but woe to the man by whom the offense comes” (Matthew 18:6-7)!
Comments: How should a Christian regard such evils as war and the death penalty? Neither the Savior nor His Apostles dictated to civilian authorities how they should resolve their governmental and community problems. As long as evil abides in people, wars and crimes are inevitable evils. The only true solution to these problems is that people should overcome the evil in themselves and reform their hearts. This is precisely what the Christian aims to do. But as we know, this is a long and difficult process, and because it is conditioned on the free choice of every single person, it will hardly ever be successful in this temporary life. This is the reason there will be a Final Judgment where God will separate forever the sheep from the goats.
Although any war is evil, one must differentiate between aggressive and defensive wars. This latter is a lesser evil in comparison with allowing a foe to invade one’s country and oppress its people. The Church does not consider wartime killing as man’s personal sin. It even blesses the soldiers who go to war to defend their country and who risk their lives for the sake of others. There are several saints among warriors who were glorified with miracles, like the Great Martyr St. George, St. Alexander Nevsky the grand duke, the martyrs Sts. Theodore Tyron, Theodore Stratilatus and others.
On the same footing, the death penalty of hard-core criminals should be considered as an inevitable evil. The government has the duty to protect well-meaning citizens from evildoers like murderers, rapists, sadists and the like. Regarding the duties of civil authorities, the Apostles teach: “Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good.” “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities … For he [the ruler] is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil” (1 Pet 2:13-14; Rom. 13:1-6).
While forbidding the forceful taking of the life of a person, the Christian faith teaches us to look calmly at an imminent death. When an incurable disease brings someone to the doorstep of death, it is wrong to use extreme and heroic measures to prolong his life for a while. In this circumstance, it is better to assist the dying person to reconcile with God so that he may with faith and peace depart from this temporary world.
The Seventh Commandment “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”
With this commandment God enjoins husband and wife to preserve mutual fidelity, and the unmarried to be chaste in their deeds, words, thoughts and desires. In explaining this commandment, the Lord Jesus Christ added, “Whoever looks at a woman to lust for her, has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28). In other words, not only actions but all our thoughts and feelings must also be pure. In order to avoid sins related to sexual immorality, one must shun all that evokes unclean feelings, such as unbridled behavior, obscene conversations, music and dancing which arouses lustful desires, watching of indecent movies and magazines, and the like.
To avoid sexual sins, the best remedy is to suppress sinful thoughts and desires at their root, not giving them an opportunity to strengthen and take control over our will. Knowing how difficult it is for us to do battle with carnal temptations, the Lord instructs us to be resolute and unmerciful towards ourselves when confronted by temptations: “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell” (Mattew 5:29). This figurative speech can be rephrased as follows: If someone is as dear to you as your own eye or hand, but tempts you to sin, quickly break off all relations with him or her. For it is better for you to deprive yourself of his or her friendship than of everlasting life.
Contemporary laws make it quite easy to divorce and remarry. However, Christian spouses should submit themselves to the Supreme Lawgiver, who instituted marriage and said: “What God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19:6).
Despite all contemporary efforts to justify and even legalize homosexuality as something comparable to marriage, the Bible unambiguously declares it to be a grave sin. The ancient cities of Sodom and Gomorra were destroyed precisely because their inhabitants were homosexuals (See chapter 19 of the book of Genesis). Speaking of these cities, the Apostle Jude says, “As Sodom and Gomorra … having given themselves over to sexual immorality and gone after strange flesh, are set forth as an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire” (Jude 1:7). The Apostle Paul, in the first chapter of his epistle to the Romans, speaks very harshly about homosexuals: “God gave them up to vile passions. For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature. Likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful, and receiving in themselves the penalty of their error which was due. And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting; being filled with all unrighteousness, sexual immorality, wickedness …” (Romans 1:24-29).
Regarding carnal wantonness, the Scriptures warn: “Flee sexual immorality. Every sin that a man does is outside the body, but he who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body,” and “Marriage is honorable among all, and the bed undefiled; but fornicators and adulterers God will judge” (1 Cor. 6:18; Hebrews 13:4). Besides being a sin, unconstrained life weakens one’s health and spiritual capabilities, especially his imagination and memory. It is extremely important to preserve moral purity because “we are members of Christ and temples of the Holy Spirit. If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him” (1 Cor. 3:16-17).
The Eighth Commandment “Thou shalt not steal.”
This commandment orders us to respect the property of others. Sins against this commandment include theft, robbery, sacrilege (to misuse that which belongs to the Church), extortion or bribery (requesting money or gifts for services which are supposed to be rendered free of charge), usury (overcharging interest on loans), fraud (to appropriate someone’s property by cunning). In general, robbery is committed by him who gives false weight; by him who sells at exorbitant prices; by him who, for love of gain, adulterates provisions in the market; by him who deprives his servants of their wages; by him who pays his employees starvation wages; by him who misappropriates common funds; and by him who forfeits paying a debt, conceals a find, etc.
Thirst for pleasures and material goods makes people greedy. To counter-weight this passion, the Christian faith teaches us to be honest, unselfish, industrious and merciful: “Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands for what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need” (Ephesians 4:28). Total unselfishness and renunciation of personal possessions are great Christian virtues which are suggested to those who strive for perfection. The Lord said to the young man, “If you want to be perfect, go sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come follow me” (Matthew 19:21). Such evangelistic idealism was followed by many of the faithful such as St. Antony, St. Nicholas the miracle worker, Sts. Sergey Radonezhsky and Seraphim Sarovsky, the Blessed Xenia of Petersburg, St. Herman of Alaska, St. Archbishop John of San Francisco, and many others. Monasticism places as its objective total renunciation of personal property and of the comforts of family life.
The Ninth Commandment “Thou shalt not bear false witness.”
By this commandment the Lord God forbids all forms of lying, as for instance: perjury in court, false complaints, slander, gossip, and swearing. In particular, slander should be considered an act of the devil, bacause the very name “devil” means “slanderer.” Mockery magnifies the shortcomings of another person in a comic and degrading way in order to humiliate that person. It is a sign of a proud spirit and a cruel heart, which are so contrary to what Jesus Christ taught.
Any lie is not worthy of a Christian and is not in accord with respect toward our neighbors. The Apostle Paul directs us: “Wherefore putting away lying, each one speak truth with his neighbor, for we are members of one another” (Ephesians 4:25). Regarding criticizing others, the Savior categorically stated: “Judge not and you shall not be judged!” (Matthew 7:1) A person does not reform through censure or ridicule but through well-intentioned and constructive advice. Before judging others, one should remember his own or her own weaknesses. Because it is so easy to sin with the tongue, it is important to learn how to curb it and refrain from idle talk. Speech is one of the greatest gifts which likens us to our Creator, whose word is all powerful. Animals do not possess this gift. That is why every word must be used only for a good cause and to glorify God. Regarding idle talk, Jesus Christ taught: “For every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36-37).
The Tenth Commandment
“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife; thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, nor his field … nor anything that is thy neighbor’s.”
This last commandment orders us to refrain from envy and avoid all sinful desires. While the preceding commandments spoke preeminently regarding external behavior, this last one turns our attention to our inner world – to our thoughts, feelings and desires. It calls on us to strive towards spiritual cleanliness. It is important to understand that every sinful act starts inside as a sinful disposition of our soul. When a person lingers on a bad thought, it becomes a desire, and as that desire strengthens, it draws the will toward accomplishing the sinful act. That is why, in order to successfully battle against temptations, it is important to learn how to overcome them at the very onset – in our mind.
Envy is truly a poison for the soul. One who envies others always feels unhappy, even if he is the richest person in the world. The Scriptures say, “The thoughts of the wicked are an abomination to the Lord,” and, “By the envy of the devil, death entered the world” (Proverbs 15:26 and Book of Wisdom 2:24). To help us to overcome any feelings of envy or discontent, the Apostle instructs: “Having food and clothing, with these we shall be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare … For love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6:8-10). It is very helpful to remind ourselves of the innumerable mercies which God bestows on us. He should have destroyed us for our many sins, but, instead, He keeps forgiving us and sends us His material and spiritual gifts. To save us from eternal damnation, the Son of God came to our world, took our sins and spilled His Precious Blood to wash them out. With His Resurrection, He gave us eternal and blessed life in the Kingdom of Heaven. Shouldn’t we every instant thank Him for His infinite love?
One of the main goals in our life is to purify our heart to make it a temple for the Lord. The Lord Jesus Christ promises a great reward for those who have abstained from all unclean thoughts and feelings: “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). The Apostle Paul instructs, “Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, and you are that temple” (1 Cor. 3:16-17).
When a young Jew asked Jesus what he should do in order to inherit everlasting life, the Lord replied: “Observe the commandments,” and enumerated several commandments from the list of ten (Matthew 19:16-22). In many other sermons Jesus reiterated the importance of the Ten commandments and explained their spiritual meaning.
In the above exposition, we saw that the first commandment teaches us to focus on God with our thoughts and aspirations; the second forbids making anything more important than God; the third teaches us to respect God; the fourth dedicates to Him the seventh day of the week and, in general, a part of our life; the fifth teaches us to honor our parents and elders. The following four commandments admonish us to respect our neighbor’s life, family, property and good reputation. Finally, the last commandment forbids envy and calls for purity of heart.
Thus, the Ten commandments give man fundamental moral guidance for the formation of personal, family and community life. Life shows us that as long as the government in its lawmaking guides itself with these moral principles and concerns itself with their observance, life within a country flows at a normal pace. On the other hand, when it eschews these principles and begins to tread on them, be it a totalitarian or a democratic government, life within the country falls into confusion and catastrophe becomes imminent.
The Lord Jesus Christ unveiled the deep meaning of all the commandments, explaining that through their essential points they merge toward the teaching of love of God and neighbor: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40).
In order for God’s commandments to do us any good, it is necessary to make them ours; that is, we should try to have them not only as a guide for our actions, but they should also become our viewpoint, permeating our subconscious, or, according to the picturesque expression of the prophet, they should be written upon the tablets of our hearts. Then, by personal experience we will be convinced of their regenerating power, about which the righteous King David wrote, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the oath of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law he meditates day and night. He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water that brings forth its fruit in its season, whose leaf also shall not wither; and whatever he does shall prosper” (Psalm 1:1-3).