This post is by David Jones (Ph.D., Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary). Jones serves as an Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also the author of An Introduction to Biblical Ethics and God, Marriage and Family: Rebuilding the Biblical Foundation.
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The eighth commandment simply reads, “Do not steal” (Exod 20:15). Given the succinctness of this law, it may be tempting to conclude this moral precept is easy to observe, yet experience tells us we always want more than we have. Interestingly, this commandment contains no direct object—that is, man is not told what not to steal. The implication being that we are inclined to steal many different things.
Under the Old Testament civil law the penalty for violating the eighth commandment ranged from various forms of restitution to death of the perpetrator (cf. Exod 21:16; 22:1–15); yet, in the New Testament the cost of breaking this moral law is revealed to be even higher, as Paul taught that neither “thieves, greedy people . . . or swindlers will inherit God’s kingdom” (1 Cor 6:10). The magnitude of these penalties invites the question, “What, precisely, is prohibited by the eighth commandment?” Interestingly, within the Jewish tradition, this law was understood mainly to forbid kidnapping, for the Hebrew word translated “steal” in this verse can also be translated “kidnap” (cf. Exod 21:16; Deut. 24:7; 1 Tim 1:10). Yet, as even the rabbis understood, this law extends far beyond the stealing of another human being. So, while kidnapping may be the worst kind of stealing, the eighth commandment prohibits the misappropriation of anything over which man is a steward.
Ownership vs. Stewardship
The eighth commandment isn’t just about stealing; it’s also about stewardship. This is because the Bible describes God as the true owner of all things (cf. Ps 24:1; 50:10–12). The fact that God is the true owner of all things leads to two conclusions. First, man is merely a steward or a caretaker of what God actually owns. This role is not to be taken lightly, for Jesus taught that God will hold mankind accountable for his stewardship (cf. Matt 25:14–30; Luke 19:12–27). Indeed, God cares about material things and will one day restore the created order (cf. Rom 8:18–22). Second, since God is the true owner of all things, to steal anything from anyone is actually to steal from God.
The fact that God ultimately possesses all things heightens the importance of keeping the eighth commandment, yet it ought not to diminish the concepts of temporal human ownership and private property. Indeed, the eighth commandment assumes that God has given human beings temporal ownership of property, for apart from this idea, the concept of stealing makes little sense. So, while God is the ultimate owner of all things and man is his steward, man is to treat that over which he is a steward as if it were his own. Moreover, in regard to the eighth commandment, man is to respect others’ temporal possession of things, realizing God is the true owner of the world.
Jesus, our Treasure
To break any aspect of the eighth commandment is to act unlike Christ and displays a fundamental distrust in God. Believers need to accept Jesus’ teaching regarding God’s care for his children and his promise of provision of necessary goods (cf. Matt 6:19–34; 10:29–31; Luke 12:22–34). Indeed, the cure for sealing can be found in Phil 4:19, “And my God shall supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” Understanding the Lord’s providential care for the world will lead to an embrace of the eighth commandment.
As with all of the commandments, many times believers fail to keep aspects of the eighth commandment and thus become thieves. It is important to remember, however, that Jesus died on the cross between two thieves—one of whom was converted. Indeed, Jesus’ death was for mankind, and we are part of a company of thieves who, in our lost estate, would rather identify ourselves with Barabbas than with Christ. Yet, through the grace of God manifest in Jesus’ atonement, law-breakers can become law-keepers, in both an imputed and an imparted sense. This is possible because, through the cross, Jesus can become the object of our affections, the focus of our thoughts, and the thing which we covet most. In sum, Jesus is man’s treasure.