READ : Exodus 20:17
The Law can’t change our craving hearts, but Christ can.
Welcome to this final in our series on the Ten Commandments. It’s been a rich experience for me to work through these commandments and to share them with you. I hope that you will profit by them in even a small measure of the blessing they’ve brought to me.
Do you remember what I’ve been saying each week: the background of God’s grace, his beforehand love? He first acts in redeeming grace and then calls us to obey. And the commands are for our good always, not burdensome, but pointing to the will of God that is really good. Today we wind up our series with the tenth commandment: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife or his man servant or his maidservant or his ox or his donkey or anything that is your neighbors.”
Did you notice how this command is different from the others? Think about that. It’s not just actions that are spoken of here, not just words, but even attitudes, even desires. This commandment in a special way speaks to the human heart.
What is Forbidden
Let’s look at what the command forbids. It doesn’t condemn desire itself. That’s a vital part of our humanness. It’s desiring for ourselves what belongs to another. Listed here are a person’s house, a person’s wife, servants, animals, anything that is his or hers. It’s setting your heart on something that isn’t yours, that belongs to another.
It’s desire also that’s inordinate, excessive, obsessive, desire that gains control over you. You want something so much that it becomes a kind of substitute god for you. Or it’s desire that’s directed toward things unlawful for you to have. Paul writes in 1 Timothy 6 about foolish and hurtful desires.
The letter of James speaks powerfuly to this: “You want something and do not have it so you commit murder, and you covet something and cannot obtain it so you engage in disputes and conflicts” (James 4:2). There’s a kind of desiring and craving in our hearts that’s destructive, a craving to be rich, a craving to have power, a craving to be in control, to remove people who get in your way.
Let me think with you now about the monster of envy that’s very much related to wrong cravings. Envy is sometimes called “the green-eyed monster.” Webster defines it this way: “Painful or resentful awareness of an advantage enjoyed by another, joined with the desire to possess the same advantage.”
Envy says, “I don’t like it when I see this in somebody else. I think it should be mine.” Envy comes from a French word which means “to look on,” to see someone else’s advantage, want it for yourself and then feel pain and resentment. You’re envious when you notice things in others and don’t like what you see.
Why is it called a “green-eyed monster”? I suppose it’s partly physiological. Someone said that envy can cause “peripheral contraction of the capillary arteries.” You get pale or green!
And it’s a “monster” because, of all evils, this is perhaps the most damaging to happiness and destructive to persons and damning to the soul. Envy is a killer.
Remember Cain and Abel? Cain kills because Abel’s offering was accepted and his not. Saul tries to pin David to the wall with a spear because people are singing David’s praises instead of his. We can hardly exaggerate how deadly this kind of craving and envy can be.
What Is Called for
All right, now, what does the command call for? What God looks for and wants to see in us is contentment. Remember how Paul speaks in Philippians of how he has learned in whatever condition he is in to be content? He writes to Timothy about being content with food and raiment, with modest necessities. The letter to the Hebrews speaks about how we are to be content in all things because the Lord has said, “I will never leave you. I will never forsake you.” Here we get a glimpse of the heart issue, don’t we? Is the Lord’s presence and blessing our highest good, or is there something else we desire most?
The command also envisions delight in what others may have or achieve. I love this about John the Baptist, his beautiful attitude toward Jesus, “He rejoices in the bridegroom’s voice. He realized that all eminence comes from God.” Here John is ready to decrease so that Jesus may increase. He’s content with his lot as one who announces the coming of the Great One. And isn’t that the humility of the Great One himself? Read 1 Corinthians 12. We’re aware that we’re members together of one body. We’re not competing individuals in the church. We’re weeping with those who weep, and we’re rejoicing with those who rejoice. And sometimes the weeping part comes easier.
I know people who, when they play golf, seem as happy with another person’s good shot as they are with their own. I’m not yet to that height of sanctification that I can do that, but I know people who are genuinely that way! And of course, supreme in this is the example of our Lord Jesus Christ, looking not to his own interests but to those of others.
We’re reminded by this command that all of God’s commandments reach inwardly. They go deeper than behavior. God sees evil not only in acts and words but even in lawless desires. The psalmists have a sense of this – that God is concerned about more than action. “Let the words of my mouth,” says the psalmist, “and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer” (Ps. 19:14). And we find a prayer like this in Psalm 139, “Search me, O God, and know my heart. Try me and know my thoughts. And see if there be any wicked way in me. And lead me in the way everlasting.”
Jesus, when he talked about the commandments in the Sermon on the Mount, always went beyond the actual act – not just the deed of murder but all the hostile things that lead to it. Not just the act of adultery but any lust and craving that people project toward those of the opposite sex. And Jesus deals with what we’re talking about today – not just when you steal but when you covet what belongs to someone else. The human heart in Jesus’ teaching is the source from which all kinds of evil come. And we need to recognize that this commandment more than any others speaks to that craving condition of the human heart.
Probably Exhibit A of what Jesus is referring to and what the commandment deals with is the rich young ruler. Remember this man who came to Jesus and wanted to enter into life? He wants to know what he can do to have eternal life, and he says he has kept all the commands from his youth. One thing, Jesus says, he lacks. Is it obedience to this command? Because when Jesus says “Go, sell what you have and give to the poor,” he doesn’t mention this commandment but he spells out its meaning for this ruler. Apparently the love of his possessions has captured his heart. The thought of selling them and giving his wealth away shows where he really has his treasure. The promise of treasure in heaven doesn’t comfort him. He can’t believe that God will give something better than his riches so he doesn’t follow Jesus. He goes away. He goes away sad.
What has Jesus done for this man? He’s shown him his heart, exposed his idol, and promised him true life. But then when he won’t respond to it, he lets him go. Jesus loved him, loved him too much to leave him in his self deception. He wanted him to see his true condition. And I believe that that young man probably came back later and gave his life to the Lord.
God’s Command and our Coveting
The unfolding story of the Bible teaches us something shocking and profound. God in his love gave the commandments knowing full well that we would fail to keep them. That was Israel’s story. And ours also, over and over again because, you see, the law was never meant to be a way of salvation for people, that is, a kind of ladder on which they could climb to heaven. It was rather to show us how far short we fall, and to convince us of our sin and lostness. It was a schoolmaster, as Paul says, a pedagogue, to lead us to Christ, that we may find life and hope and salvation in him. Finally, the law is a guide for our life of gratitude.
You see, the commandment “You shall not covet” can’t do anything to help you get rid of your coveting. It can’t show you how. In fact, as Paul said, it tends to stir up coveting within us. Paul says in Romans 7 that he would not have known coveting if the law hadn’t said “You shall not covet.” So, friends, never expect that the Ten Commandments will make you a better person.
God’s Marvelous Provision in Christ
It’s God’s grace, his forgiveness through Jesus’ sacrifice, his power through the Holy Spirit living in our hearts, the law written now not on tables of stone but on the inner tablets of our hearts – that’s God’s plan for making us new people.
Remember that ancient promise of a new covenant where God would write his law on the hearts of his people? (Jeremiah 31:31-34). And he would give them a new heart and a new spirit? (Ezek. 36). He’s talking there about Jesus Christ and his work and about the indwelling Spirit of God.
You see, the fruit of the Spirit that we read about in Galatians 5 is the character of Jesus Christ being formed in us. That work isn’t completed yet. We’re still vulnerable to lapses and failures. We have the first fruits of the Spirit, but we need to grow in power to love God and others as we pray and depend on the Lord. He, the gracious Savior, is the one who by his Word and Spirit is changing our hearts. As someone has put it, the one sure way to stop coveting is to want God so much that we can’t be bothered with cravings for anything else.