Simple enough, right? But how do we read passages like this in the new covenant era, especially after epoch-shifting statements from Jesus and Paul like, “I have come to fulfill the law” and “You are not under law but under grace” and “The law kills but the Spirit gives life”? And why are the Ten Commandments never set forth as a standard of Christian conduct, in order, anywhere in the New Testament? It’s a good thing not to steal, isn’t it?
Oh how deep the rabbit hole goes
Let’s start by defining some terms. What is stealing? We shouldn’t presume to know fully. On one level, it simply means to take another’s property without permission or legal right, without intending to return it. This we know.
But other parts of the Bible tell us that sin is more on the inside than the outside, a heart issue more than a body issue. If this is the case, then stealing isn’t simply taking someone else’s stuff — it’s wanting to, which is to say it’s the same as coveting (the tenth commandment). Though we may not make a habit of shoplifting, or looting, who among us hasn’t ever wanted someone else’s home/job/hair/talent/car/health/spouse?
All of us are thieves, in the truest definition of the word. This is why the law exists: to clarify the real threat, to highlight how that which is unseen harms us, and to make the problem more insurmountable so that we would look less to ourselves and more to God for help (Rom 5:20).
It’s a trust issue
The second question to explore is why it’s wrong to steal. “Because God says it is!” we might say, or maybe “Because it hurts people.” Those are absolutely legitimate reasons. But there’s more to it.
First, stealing is selfish. It says, “I’m more important than you,” which is the same as hate, the antithesis of love.
Second, stealing is distrust in God. It says, “I need to take things into my own hands because you’re not providing for me” or “You’re not enough!”
Third, stealing is ultimately epitomized in stealing God’s glory when we worship ourselves. It’s living or thinking arrogantly, wanting the spotlight on us instead of him. It’s like the person who perpetually takes the credit for other peoples’ work. No one likes that guy. But the bad news is, we are that guy. We’ve done that to God a thousand times. We’ve ripped him off, we’ve plagiarized him, and we’ve sought to be the kings and queens of our own contexts. It’s a precarious place to be, to say the least.
But let’s stop there for a second. The wrong way to interpret “Do not steal” would be to limit it to a moralism, as if it were still over us in the same way it was for Israel. The right way would be to read it in a New-Testament-facing way as if these laws were a part of a greater story that culminated in (and in some ways were replaced by) Jesus Christ, our true and better mediator.
Jesus, the thief
So, how does the eighth commandment lead us to Jesus Christ? How is the concealing veil of the Old Testament abolished so that it may be understood through Christ, as Augustine famously said?
First, as previously noted, it leads us to Jesus through guilt and the need for deliverance. When we read this commandment in context, we see that Israel never truly kept it. And then when we get to the New Testament, we read, and I’ll paraphrase slightly: “All have [stolen and coveted] and fallen short of the glory of God.” And, again, this is true in the body and the heart. So, the law leads us to the guilt absolver, God himself.
Second, Jesus did the opposite of stealing on the cross when he gave his body for us thieves. Luke 22:19 says, “This is my body given for you.” The omissive law of “Do not do this” is replaced and fulfilled by the more active “law” of “This has been done for you!” In other words, he’s not just keeping the law. He’s going past it. Moses said one thing, but Jesus has come to say something altogether better.
Third, and maybe most important, is to see that Jesus became a thief for us on the cross. This is often neglected hermeneutically in our modern moment. Jesus took on the brunt of the law and was cursed by it in order that we might be spared. Look at how the Bible shapes his substitutionary death: “Then two robbers were crucified with him, one on the right and one on the left” (Matt 27:38). Elsewhere in Isaiah 53:12 we read, “He poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.” Jesus was crucified among thieves, numbered among them. Like the song says, “On Friday a thief, on Sunday a king.” What scandalous but amazing love!
Do you see how far we’ve come? — how much farther the Bible goes than “Don’t shoplift, or face the consequences”? How we’re left with an awe-inspiring picture of Jesus’s death here versus a simple (but unkeepable) moral command to follow? The cross is where “Do not steal” comes to an end: with Jesus becoming like a thief for us, crucified like a common criminal, in shame and nakedness, despised and cursed. Did you feel in this article the movement from heavy, imprisoning, condemning law-talk to more light, freeing, consoling gospel-talk? If you did, it’s because the focus came off of you and what you must do and onto Jesus and what he has done. That’s the outcome we can expect when we read the Bible cover to cover or when reading a single verse in a biblical way like, say, one of the Ten Commandments.
We could apply these same ideas to the Sabbath, the fourth commandment, as well. Is it a good thing to rest? Yes. Is workaholism a sin? Yes. But the law exists to lead us to the true rest-giver, who leads us beside still waters apart from the law. We’re not saved by how well we rest, but through how Jesus rested in the tomb for us after he died for our works-worshipping sins. If we’re under anything, it’s under Jesus’s invitation to come to him to find rest for our souls — something the Sabbath could never do, which is why he breaks it in half. It was a shadow, but the substance belonged to Christ (Col 2:16). This shift invites us to rest in Christ, right now, even while you work, rather than waiting until next Sunday to try real hard at observing ‘rest rules.’
So, let’s think about these things comprehensively and circle back to one of the questions we started with: how do we understand the Ten Commandments on this side of the cross? We can acknowledge the goodness of a law or a moralism or a deed while believing Jesus is more beautiful at the same time, that he would be the good within us in a way that rote law-keeping could never produce. Christians are weird like this, or at least we should be. We don’t point to a standard of living as much as we point to a bloody cross and an empty tomb. We have come to understand that only God is good, so we cling to him for transformation rather than try to tap into it in ourselves.
In this, Christians are both attractive and offensive to the world. Attractive in that others will see a glimpse of God’s love and generosity in our love and generosity. But offended when we follow with, “But love and generosity aren’t enough.” To put it another way, Christians don’t view things in a binary manner all the time, like between “Do not steal” and “Steal” — because then we’d be left with reading “You’re not under the law” as being the same thing as “Well, I guess we’re free to steal things now!” But instead, we view three paths: “not stealing,” “stealing,” and Jesus, because the reality is thieves and non-thieves both need him, for all have sinned. So he calls us away from our badness and our goodness to be with him because salvation is union with him, not working for that 4.0 of moralistic perfection. Salvation is about being wrecked and remade by his generous, thief-becoming love. And it’s his love alone that has the power to take robbery out of our wicked hearts forever.