“Neither shalt thou steal.” Deuteronomy 5:19.
It is interesting how so few words are able to define so broad a responsibility!
Notice how the second table of the law is linked together: “Honour thy father and thy mother, . . . Thou shalt not kill. Neither shalt thou commit adultery. Neither shalt thou steal.” Verses 16–19. [Emphasis supplied.] If you break one point, you have broken the whole law.
This linkage occurs because the second part of the law is linked together as man’s responsibility to man. It is linked together with the first table of the law so it becomes one whole. This is why James says, “For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one [point], he is guilty of all.” James 2:10. If you break one link in the chain, you have broken the entire chain. It will be of no value to you if you break one link.
This eighth commandment is brief, yet it covers many areas of which we normally do not think. The violation of this commandment calls for a different penalty for its violation than do the rest of the commandments for their violation.
All of the previous commandments called for the death penalty under Mosaic Law. This commandment does not call for the death penalty, but for restoration. It calls for the restoration of light goods many times over.
In Old Testament times, there was not even a prison sentence if a person was caught violating this commandment, because Israel did not operate in that way. There were basically three penalties for the violation of the law: (1) death by stoning, (2) restoration, and (3) a fine. These three penalties certainly kept the prison population to a minimum!
But even though, in the Mosaic Law, there was a lesser penalty for this violation, do not for a moment think that a lesser penalty will be applied when the tribunal of heaven reviews one’s life in the judgment. If our sins have not been confessed, if our sins have not been forgiven, the death penalty will be meted out in the final end of all things.
When the Bible says, “Thou shalt not steal,” yet someone violates this command, it is still sin in the eyes of God. The Bible makes it very clear that “the wages of sin [is] death.” Romans 6:23.
As we consider the universal application of the Ten Commandments, the eighth commandment is recognized as a universal law all over the world, by all people, everywhere. They may not recognize or acknowledge the one true God of heaven, but they recognize the truth that says that another person’s property belongs to him or her and another person should not tamper with it. From the most civilized to the most heathenish, this law is recognized as contributing to the betterment of the society in which we live.
“Thou shalt not steal.” On the surface, this short statement commands respect for another’s property. This is part of God’s plan for character development, because, as we are observant and obedient to His law, as we recognize the prohibitions that are there, it does something for us as well as something for society. We develop character.
More Than Superficial
Romans 7:14 tells us “that the law is spiritual” and that it has depth below the surface. The law is more than just prohibitions written on tables of stone; it has a spiritual side as well.
To say that the law has a spiritual side means that it deals with the thoughts and the intents of the heart, not just the outward acts. This is the direction that the Law of Moses actually goes as well. This is the direction that God’s Law goes—from the outward to the inward, from the act to the thoughts.
So when the commandment says, “Thou shalt not steal,” the spiritual depth says, by its very nature, that there is more here than just a physical act. The question we have to ask ourselves is, Just how far does it go? An insight as to the nature of this commandment may be gathered from the writings of Ellen White.
Speaking of the eighth commandment, she says: “Both public and private sins are included in this prohibition. The eighth commandment condemns manstealing and slave dealing, and forbids wars of conquest. It condemns theft and robbery. It demands strict integrity in the minutest details of the affairs of life. It forbids overreaching in trade, and requires the payment of just debts or wages. It declares that every attempt to advantage oneself by the ignorance, weakness, or misfortune of another is registered as fraud in the books of heaven.” Patriarchs and Prophets, 309.
When this counsel was written, there were still many places in the world where the slave trade flourished. Whether you realize it or not, there are still many places in the world today where the slave trade is still perpetuated.
Right here in the United States the slave trade is still in operation! More than 50,000 children a year disappear; many of those children disappear into the slave trade. The people who steal them force them into bondage of prostituting themselves, both boys and girls. It is estimated that one million children are enslaved in prostitution in Asia. (Carol Smolenski, “Sex tourism and the sexual exploitation of children,” Christian Century, November 15, 1995.) When Mrs. White talks about the eighth commandment, her counsel applies to the slave trade; it is very applicable today.
Only those who are allowing their characters to be transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit are in tune with the law. They begin to allow their characters to develop so these things will no longer take place.
We in the United States are facing a time when every principle of our Constitution will be disregarded. Men and women will lose their sense as to what is right and what is wrong, and the slave trade of which Mrs. White was speaking will come back in some degree of application again. As we read the Spirit of Prophecy, she makes it very plain that slave trade will come back with the Sunday law. (See, for example, Christian Service, 155–158.) How this will happen I do not know, but there will be people, when the Holy Spirit is withdrawn, who will think that it is a good thing to have a slave or two. This is why the Law of God is so important as we come into the last days. It is God’s revealed will and what He expects of His people in the last days.
If the world had followed the Law of God all along, we would not have the writings of history to remind us about slavery, manstealing, and wars of conquest. In regard to wars of conquest, of which Mrs. White says this commandment applies, I believe there are preludes that lead us into accepting wars of conquest. One of those avenues that leads us into wars of conquest is competitive sports.
When you have on your spiritual glasses, the spirit that surrounds competitive sports is the same spirit that generates wars of conquest. It is the spirit of the strong prevailing over the weak; this is the spirit of competition. This is the spirit of any type of conquest over another. Consider the names of certain groups that are contesting with other groups. There are names such as the Warriors, the Raiders, the Trojans, and on and on the list goes. These names hearken back to these wars of conquest. A certain mentality is developed through these kinds of things.
The Law of God is very comprehensive, because it is spiritual. A study of the Bible reveals that the ownership of material goods is not really ownership at all; it is really stewardship. We may own a piece of property; we may have a title deed to a piece of property, but, in reality, it is only secondary ownership. God is really the Owner. He is, as the Bible says, the “possessor of heaven and earth.” Genesis 14:22.
God declares that “all the earth is mine.” Exodus 19:5. And the Psalmist says, “The earth [is] the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.” Psalm 24:1. All belongs to God, so, in reality, man is only a tenant, or a steward, with a definite obligation to the real Owner. Most of the world does not recognize that God owns everything, that they are just tenants or stewards.
Once you realize, for instance, that although you may have title to a car, that car really does not belong to you, it belongs to God, it lessens the sting when someone comes along and pilfers it and takes some of your goods.
Another aspect of this commandment that says, “Thou shalt not steal,” is given in Malachi 3:6: “For I [am] the Lord, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed.” Are you glad that God’s purposes for you have never changed? Are you thankful that His purpose is that you will be in the kingdom of heaven, and that is the reason you are not consumed?
“Even from the days of your fathers ye are gone away from mine ordinances, and have not kept [them]. Return unto me, and I will return unto you, saith the Lord of hosts. But ye said, Wherein shall we return?” Verse 7. How are we going to come back to God? We do not even think that we have been away from Him! The question comes back, “Will a man rob God? Yet ye have robbed me. But ye say, Wherein have we robbed thee? In tithes and offerings. Ye [are] cursed with a curse: for ye have robbed me, [even] this whole nation.” Verses 8, 9.
One of the greatest violations that man can ever perpetrate, as far as this commandment is concerned, is when he begins to take things from God that do not belong to him.
I have often found it interesting when people say, “I pay my tithe.” No, you do not pay your tithe. What you really do is return to God that which belongs to Him. You have just been given stewardship over it. You do become a thief when you take God’s material and appropriate it for yourself. If it were possible to list by degrees the violation of this commandment, being a robber of God would be at the top of the list.
There are responsibilities that we have to our fellow man because we recognize this commandment that God has given to us. Stealing is taking property from another, over which he has been given the stewardship of God. In doing this, there indeed is a violation between one person and another, but do you realize that there is even a greater violation involved in this commandment than just taking someone else’s property? It goes far beyond that into the realm of the spiritual.
If you take something that does not belong to you, you are taking something that God has placed into the stewardship of another person. In doing this, you effectually are saying that God does not know what He is doing, that you really know more about the stewardship of God than God knows, because He gave that property to the wrong person when He should have given it to you. In reality, you put yourself in the place of God when you steal something from someone else.
When such things happen, a whole series of events are set in motion. You do not really understand it unless you see it from God’s perspective. This is why the impact of what James says becomes so dynamic: “If you have broken one, you have broken them all.”
There are only three ways in which we can come into possession of anything: (1) by a gift, (2) by labor, working for it, and (3) by stealing it. The first two are legal and right—when you receive a gift, when you labor and purchase possessions—but the last one is wrong, and it is considered sin.
Another aspect that applies to this commandment is a form that is so popular today that most people do not see anything wrong with it. Many Christians, including many Seventh-day Adventists, find themselves engaged in this activity. It encompasses betting, lotteries, or any other type of con games. Seventh-day Adventists and other Christians get involved with this because people are always wanting to get something for nothing, never realizing that such forms of acquisition come under the prohibition of this commandment and, as such, are forms of theft. Literally billions and billions of dollars are acquired in this way each year. A Christian has to be so careful that he or she does not get caught up in it.
As one writer put it: Gambling stands in about the same relation to stealing as dueling does to murder. Just because a man is willing to risk his life in an encounter does not make it right for him to take another man’s life. Nor does the fact that a man is willing to risk his own property in a game of chance make it right for him to take another man’s property without the equivalent in payment. There is nothing considerate or brotherly in a gambling transaction. Men gamble simply as a result of their feverish desire for quick and easy gain, at any cost, even their own souls.
In her statement, Ellen White addressed another aspect of theft that forbids what is called “overreaching in trade.” Everybody likes a bargain, and I am no exception. I like a bargain too. But we do overstep our bounds when we beat someone down on their price by haggling over some article of merchandise.
Proverbs 20:14 talks about this issue: “[It is] naught, [it is] naught, saith the buyer: but when he is gone his way, then he boasteth.” In other words, it is worth nothing. “That piece of junk,” the buyer insists, “is not worth a red cent.”
In other words, someone learns about an item that is for sale, but when he talks to the owner about it, he runs it down. He tells how bad it is, outlines all the faults that it has, and then offers a low price.
Not everybody who puts an ad in the paper for something to sell has a lot of money in the bank. The item for sale may not be just something extra they want to get rid of. Usually, people, when they put an ad in the paper, are pressed to the wall. They need to raise some funds, and they need every dollar they can get out of the item for sale. When you come along and begin to haggle and try to beat them down on their price, if they are in a pinch, they may sell the item for the lowered price because they need the money. But do you know what takes place in a situation like this? You have just stolen someone else’s stewardship from them.
We dishonor God, as Christians, when we engage in such conduct. There is nothing wrong with asking a person what their price is or if they can take less for the item. But our every action must be above board. It is not necessary to steal openly in order to transgress the law. To buy something for a lower price and sharp trading is just as much stealing as selling something for more than it is worth or by misrepresenting it.
Some of you remember the 1960s. I can remember that time. If you are too young to remember, perhaps you have heard or read about those times. In the early 1960s, the Cold War between two super powers, the United States and Russia, was at its height. It was also a time of the race for outer space between these two nations. The question was, Which one would be first to put a satellite into space, a human being into orbit, or land on the moon?
During the heat of this space race, NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) was faced with a lot of problems. One of the problems they encountered was the need for a ballpoint pen the astronauts could use, one that would write in zero gravity—that condition experienced when the capsules were flying around in that atmosphere.
In typical American fashion, ingenuity prevailed. After a considerable amount of research and development, an astronaut pen was developed at the cost of approximately one million dollars, and, believe me, it worked in outer space! It enjoyed a certain amount of success as a novelty item here on the earth. Interestingly, the Soviet Union was faced with the same problem. They solved the problem also. Their solution? They used a pencil.
This seems a bit like the situation that we face when we consider the eighth commandment! It seems so easy: “Thou shalt not steal,” yet we find that it is tremendously complex in a number of ways.
Complex or Simple
Many times we make things out to be very, very complex. We go through all kinds of effort in an attempt to try to solve the problem, and yet it is very simple. The commandments can be expanded and magnified. That is what Jesus intended to teach when He came.
When we really get serious about our life and its relationship to God, the questions change. Instead of asking, What is the minimum requirement, the least that I can do to be saved, we ask, How much can I do for God? How much am I willing to hear what God says? How far am I willing to go to follow Him?
So, when we really study this commandment and want to hear what God might be saying, we find that there is a lot more to this than just “Thou shalt not steal.” If you really want to get serious about what being a Christian is all about, you begin to see how easily the commandment begins to become complicated.
Time and Energy
Can stolen time and energy cause us to be thieves? Yes, they can. It does not have to be that we rob God or another person. We can rob in many ways other than just taking someone’s possessions. Consider some instances.
In the work place, when we have a job to do, if we are not diligent in our work, giving labor for what we are given, we are stealing, just as surely as though we were putting our hands in the cash box.
It is possible for married people to spend so much time in their own pursuits, in their professions, in their hobbies, in what they want to do, that they, in effect, steal time and attention that rightfully belongs to the spouse. Likewise, people can spend so much time on their jobs, in their hobbies, or even at church, that they, in effect, steal the time and the attention that rightfully belongs to their children.
It is this kind of theft for which many will be held accountable in the judgment. The reason is that the Questioner is going to inquire, “Where is the little flock I gave you?”
Suppose a business owner has a successful business operation. The company is making money. The public likes its product. Then it comes time to decide, as it does ever so often, what to do about employee wage increases. How much should the employees be paid during the coming year? There can be a myriad of answers to this question, but two distinctly different ones are these: (1) pay them what they are worth; after all, they are the ones that help the business to succeed, or (2) pay them as little as possible so more profit stays with the business owners.
When employers pay as little as they can, when they give the minimum amount with which they can get away, they have, in effect, stolen from the employee. And in the process, they have stolen from the family’s well being. They have stolen the education possibilities from that employee’s children. They have stolen that family’s hopes, and, in the process, they have become the loser.
No Bad Trade
The Book of James deals with this issue. The most important question to ask on the job is not, What am I getting paid? The most important question to ask is, What am I becoming here?
At first thought, it can be looked at as a warning, and it is. Do not make a bad trade. Do not trade your soul, your honesty, and your integrity for some material stuff. This concept is also a promise, because when we make the right choice, we advance in the plan that God has for us.
Every time we could take something, and we do not, it does something for us spiritually. This law has much broader application than just the taking of things. It has to do with the heart. We should ask ourselves, How am I relating to all the various issues of life? Am I dealing fairly and squarely in every area of life? Not only in terms of recognizing someone else’s stewardship, but also questioning whether or not I am giving the proper time in the work place—not only as an employee, but as an employer. Am I recognizing my responsibilities in my family and in my home? Am I recognizing my responsibilities in the community?
I Owe, I Owe
What about owing a bill? Many people owe bills, and the promise is always there, “I am going to pay it. I have it in the back of my mind. I am going to pay the bill. I will pay the bill.” But it never happens.
What about just paying bills on time? Perhaps a bill comes due the first of the month, but I do not get it paid until the end of the month. Does this commandment apply to this situation? It most certainly does. Why? Because in not paying a bill on time, funds are withheld from the treasury of the person or business collecting the money. That money could either be invested or gaining interest, but you have taken from their resource.
Christians are under the obligation of the Law of God to pay their bills on time. God will hold us accountable for those things.
Away With It
Whenever we do wrong, whenever we think we have gotten away with something, whenever we think that no one has seen us, mark it down. Someone is keeping record—not only of the act itself but also of the thoughts and the intents of the heart.
As we continue this series on the Ten Commandments, we will come to one that deals with the thoughts and the intents of the heart. God’s Law is very comprehensive. God’s Law is very complete. I hope that your interest has been sparked to study the Law of God from a different perspective and in more depth than you have in the past.
Each one of us is either becoming more like Jesus or more like the devil, and that end result ultimately rests with how we relate to the Law of God.
A retired minister of the gospel, Pastor Mike Baugher may be contacted by e-mail at: email@example.com.