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It is likely that every person reading this article has studied the Ten Commandments in Luther’s Small Catechism. These Ten speak to us of divine requirements for daily living. The Hebrew word for commandment is mitzvah. This word is derived from a word meaning “to set up” or “set forth.” In some instances, God “sets up” a barrier, beyond which we are not to go. In others, He “sets up” a target toward which we are to aim our behavior.

The First Commandment sets up a barrier, on which it says, “This far and no further; this God and none other.” When we break this barrier and go beyond it, we are trespassing into forbidden territory.

The Fourth Commandment sets up a target: “Behave like this; honor your parents.” When we miss this target, we sin (the Hebrew word for “to sin” means “to miss the mark/target”).

There is another “target” that God has set up for us. John writes of it in his First Epistle (3:23): “And this is His commandment: that we should believe on the name of His Son Jesus Christ and love one another, as He gave us commandment.” This is an unusual use of the word commandment. It occurs in the Old Testament, also. For example: “The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment [note the singular] of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.” (Psalm 19:8) As Ephesians 1:17,18 points out, enlightenment comes through the knowledge of Jesus Christ (that is, the Gospel). Likewise, the salvation of the soul is not given to us through the Law, but through the Gospel: “He who keeps the commandment [singular] keeps his soul, but he who is careless of his ways will die.” (Proverbs 19:16)

These passages may be few, but they are significant. After all, God commands us, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” (Acts 16:31) “Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent.” (Acts 17:30) See also passages that use the word obey (normally reserved for the Law): Galatians 3:1, 2 Thessalonians 1:8, Hebrews 3:18 and 5:9, and 1 Peter 4:17. Thanks be to God that the command to believe carries with it the power that transforms our hearts, so that we can “obey” this commandment.

Just as the expression “the Word of God” embraces both Law and Gospel, so mitzvah can mean either Law or Gospel or both. Similarly, the Hebrew word Torah, widely translated with the word law, means “instruction” and can be understood as both. Both Law and Gospel come from God. Both are set up by Him to benefit His people..

Mitzvah is used to speak of everything that God has set forth for mankind. There is one Gospel “command”; there are many Law commands. It is not surprising, therefore, that most of the mitzvah passages refer to the Law. However, there are exceptions. Keep your mind open to the possibility that a given use of commandment or command may be referring to the Gospel, or to all the truths that God has set up for our faith and life. Try substituting some form of the expression “set up” in a given passage. For example, consider Proverbs 19:16 in this way: “He who keeps what God has set up keeps his soul.”

May God’s divine set-up guide your faith and life.

John Pfeiffer is retired from the pastoral and teaching ministry. He is a former president of Immanuel Lutheran College.