Living Christianity: The Ten Commandments (You Shall Not Steal, Part 1)
July 14, 2020
by Peter Amsterdam
Living Christianity: The Ten Commandments (You Shall Not Steal, Part 1)
(Points for this article were taken from Christian Ethics by Wayne Grudem,1 Christian Ethics: Contemporary Issues and Options by Norman Geisler,2 and Kingdom Ethics by Glen H. Stassen & David P. Gushee.3)
The eighth commandment states, You shall not steal.4 Like the other commandments, this short statement is like the title of a subdirectory which opens up to a number of topics, many of which will be covered in this and upcoming articles. This commandment assumes that God has given human beings ownership of property. Property is any object that belongs to someone. Anything that is legally yours is your property. Property is divided into two types: “real property,” which is land that one owns; and “personal property,” which consists of everything else a person owns.
Of course, all property ultimately belongs to God.
If you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine.5
The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein.6
Every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills.7
While God is the ultimate owner of all that exists, He has called human beings to take dominion over the earth in His name.
“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.”8
We are meant to be stewards as we care for God’s creation, and He has also given us the right to administer and enjoy whatever material possessions He has blessed us with.
In both the Old and New Testaments, we find that believers owned property. The Old Testament story in 1 Kings tells of Naboth, who owned a vineyard which Ahab, the king of Samaria, wanted to purchase.
Ahab said to Naboth, “Give me your vineyard, that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near my house, and I will give you a better vineyard for it; or, if it seems good to you, I will give you its value in money.” But Naboth said to Ahab, “The LORD forbid that I should give you the inheritance of my fathers.”9
We also find that Abraham, the father of the Hebrew people, was quite wealthy as expressed when his servant said,
I am Abraham’s servant. The LORD has greatly blessed my master, and he has become great. He has given him flocks and herds, silver and gold, male servants and female servants, camels and donkeys.10
The Mosaic law had various laws and punishments regarding stealing property that belonged to others, which included paying restitution for damage done to another person’s farm animals or fields.11 It is clear within the Old Testament that a person’s land and their animals belonged to them, and that others were to honor such property rights. Elsewhere in the laws of Moses there were laws regarding property boundaries.
You shall not move your neighbor’s landmark, which the men of old have set, in the inheritance that you will hold in the land that the LORD your God is giving you to possess.12
A landmark was used to designate the boundaries of someone’s land; thus, to move the landmark was to steal a neighbor’s land.
Do not move the ancient landmark that your fathers have set.13
Do not move an ancient landmark or enter the fields of the fatherless.14
In the New Testament, we also find that individuals had ownership of money, possessions, and land. Believers were encouraged to be generous, but there was no disapproval of having possessions. We’re told that the apostle Peter went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying.15 The apostle Paul, along with Luke, departed and came to Caesarea, and we entered the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven, and stayed with him.16
We also read in the book of Acts that believers had “all things in common.”
All who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.17
The full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. … There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.18
These acts of generosity show a beautiful trust in God, a great love for one another, and a large measure of sacrifice.
The act of sharing earthly belongings as documented in the book of Acts was a freewill offering. Not all early believers forsook all their possessions, nor was it mandatory throughout the early church. Throughout the book of Acts we read of a number of believers who owned property: Jason (17:5), Titius Justus (18:7), many Christians in Ephesus (20:20), Philip the evangelist (21:8), Mnason of Cyprus who had a house in Jerusalem (21:16), Priscilla and Aquila (Romans 16:5; 1 Corinthians 16:19), Nympha (Colossians 4:15), Philemon (Philemon 1:2), and other Christians in general to whom John wrote (2 John 10).
In Acts chapter 5, right after the verses about the believers having all things in common, and selling their houses and laying the proceeds at the apostles’ feet, we read the story of Ananias and Sapphira.19 We’re told that they sold a piece of property, but that, with his wife’s knowledge, [Ananias] kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles’ feet.20 The implication is that he claimed that they were giving the full amount of the sale of the property to the apostles, but that he was lying, and they were giving only a portion of the funds from the sale. The apostle Peter said, While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.21 Peter made the point that the property was theirs, and after they sold the property, the money they received from it was theirs. The problem arose when they lied about the proceeds; however, there was nothing wrong with them owning the land or having the proceeds of the sale of the land.
The eighth commandment against stealing applies to us today, as affirmed in the New Testament.
The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal” … and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”22
Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters … nor thieves … will inherit the kingdom of God.23
Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.24
To take someone’s property without permission is theft, and therefore is sin, as the eighth commandment states You shall not steal. It’s important to understand, in addition, that while this commandment protects property and possessions, it is also understood to protect everything which an individual is given stewardship over; thus, it also protects a person’s time, talents, and opportunities (which will be addressed in upcoming articles).
While we may own possessions that are “our” property, the view of Scripture is that we are accountable to God for how we use that property, and we are responsible for our stewardship of it. We are accountable to Him because He is the ultimate owner of all that exists, and is the one who has ultimate authority over it.
No matter what possessions we own, whether many or few, we are responsible to God for our stewardship over them. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus speaks of a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property. To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.25 Upon his return, the man asked each of his servants to give an accounting of the stewardship of the money he had given them. Each was accountable for what they had been given, whether much or little. While the two faithful servants had each received a different amount of money, they were both equally commended for their good stewardship of what they had been given. To both of them the master said, Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.26
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1 Wayne Grudem, Christian Ethics (Wheaton: Crossway, 2018).
2 Norman L. Geisler, Christian Ethics: Contemporary Issues and Options (Baker Academic, 2010).
3 Glen H. Stassen & David P. Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2003).
4 Exodus 20:15.
5 Exodus 19:5.
6 Psalm 24:1.
7 Psalm 50:10.
8 Genesis 1:28–30.
9 1 Kings 21:2–3.
10 Genesis 24:34–35.
11 See Exodus 21:28–36, 22:1–15; Deuteronomy 22:1–4, 23:24–25.
12 Deuteronomy 19:14.
13 Proverbs 22:28.
14 Proverbs 23:10.
15 Acts 12:12.
16 Acts 21:8.
17 Acts 2:44–45.
18 Acts 4:32–35.
19 Acts 5:1–10.
20 Acts 5:2.
21 Acts 5:4.
22 Romans 13:9.
23 1 Corinthians 6:9–10.
24 Ephesians 4:28.
25 Matthew 25:14–15.
26 Matthew 25:21, 23.