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Gary B. Swanson

now retired, recently served as associate director of the 
General Conference Sabbath School and Personal Ministries Department.

The Disciple’s Top Ten

In September 1985 late-night TV host and humorist David Letterman introduced a feature called “The Top Ten List,” which became a regular fixture of his program till he retired earlier this year, almost three decades later. In each segment, Letterman recited a list of ten items, in reverse countdown order, each punctuated by a drum roll and audience response. The lists addressed satirical and usually humorous topics. Sometimes they referred to current issues or events. Sometimes they specified public figures in the news. At other times they addressed concerns purely from the imagination. Some were strange and some patently absurd:

“Top ten things that almost rhyme with peas” (the very first list)

“Top ten ways to make communism fun again” (1989)

“Top ten good things about being tall (1996)

“Top ten signs you’re talking to a bad phone psychic” (2001)

By the nineties, the concept of a humorous top ten had so caught the imagination of viewers that all the lists broadcast up to that point were published in hardcover as David Letterman’s Book of Top Ten Lists (1995). And this was followed by four or five sequels in print. Furthermore, similar rankings were turning up even in other cultural contexts. Nike, Nissan, and the National Dairy Council adopted the idea in advertising campaigns. As the old saying goes, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”

Head writer Steve O’Donnell, who originally pitched the idea to the staff of the late-night program, found the appearance of top ten lists elsewhere in itself amusing. “It’s just a sad commentary on the state of American culture,” he was quoted in an Associated Press article, “that such gimmickry would catch on.” 1

Even if not truly sad, at least curious. Certainly the idea of a published list was nothing new—even in 1985. But if anything, it has since developed in the media as almost a genre of its own—in TV news programing, magazines and newspapers, internet blogs, radio interviews, supermarket checkout lines. “Top Ten Ways to Save a Marriage,” “Top Ten Reasons to Stay Catholic,” “Top Ten Weight-loss Programs.”

It has been a standard for nearly four thousand years. In fact, even the secular thinker would probably acknowledge the cultural influence of the Ten Commandments.

And except for those that clearly signal that they are intended just for fun (“Top Ten Signs Santa Hates You”), this superficial form of information is becoming more and more accepted as authoritative. Subjectivity and source are often overlooked. What are the criteria, for example, on which the top ten weight-loss programs were rated? And were they ranked by the World Health Organization or the International Association of Ice Cream Distributors and Vendors?

It must be said, of course, that there is nothing inherently wrong with a top-ten list. Even the Adventist Review has had occasion to use it as a concise and eye-catching way of presenting information: “Top Ten Depression Symptoms,”2 “Top Ten Religious News Stories of 2005,”3 “A Parent’s Top Ten.”4

To be sure, there are plenty of similar lists of other numerations. But why, one wonders, does the number “10” seem to be so prevalent in these rankings? Why are there not more 9’s or 11’s?

Mathematicians, numerologists, anthropologists, and scholars of religion offer a great many possible explanations. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch of the imagination to put together “Top Ten Reasons the Number ‘Ten’ Is Significant.” In fact, this has probably already been done many times.

For the Christian, though, the Decalogue must surely come to mind. It has been a standard for nearly four thousand years. In fact, even the secular thinker would probably acknowledge the cultural influence of the Ten Commandments.

The late Christopher Hitchens, an outspoken atheist, was named in 2005 one of the “Top 100 Public Intellectuals” by Foreign Policy and Prospect magazines. (Apparently “Top Ten” would have been too exclusive, but there is still the list—and a multiple of ten.) Hitchen’s book, entitled Arguably, includes an essay under the heading “The New Commandments,” in which he addresses the Ten Commandments and suggests updating modifications for each. One by one, he protests what he asserts to be the irrationality of each of the ten, and advocates a twenty-first-century update that more readily addresses today’s circumstances. For some this may make for stimulating reading, but it never questions the number “10.”

This idea of amendments—of literal changes—to the Ten Commandments, however, is another matter. To anyone in the Judeo-Christian tradition, this idea is at least unsettling and maybe even upsetting. The venerable expression “set in stone,” meaning “final” and “unalterable,” surely has its roots in the stone tablets that Moses delivered directly from God’s hand.

“The Decalogue, the moral law, is spiritual and shows the character of God,” writes Mario Veloso. “It transcends time and place, sharing the permanence of its Author.” 5

Jesus Himself said, “‘Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled’” (Matt. 5:17, 18). 6

For the Christian this seems fairly clear. “‘Till heaven and earth pass away’” is God’s own way of saying that the law “transcends time and place.”

In The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes about this striking statement of Jesus in Matthew 5:18: “We know that Jesus is speaking to his own followers, to men who owe an exclusive allegiance to himself. . . . Discipleship means adherence to Jesus Christ alone, and immediately. But now comes the surprise—the disciples are bound to the Old Testament law.”7

So, even to this day and beyond, the law is “set in stone.” And, though there may be a countless multiplicity of top-ten lists, all of which came out of merely human research, motive, or imagination, this one is truly—eternally—singular.

  1. Reading (Pa.) Eagle, Nov. 2, 1991, p. A12.
  2., accessed August 30, 2015.
  3., accessed August 30, 2015.
  4., accessed August 30, 2015.
  5. Raoul Dederen, ed., Handbook of Seventh-day Adventist Theology (Hagerstown, Md.: Review & Herald Publishing Assn., 2000), p. 457.
  6. Unless otherwise noted, all scriptural references in this article are from the New King James Version of the Bible.
  7. Dietrich Bohoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1961), p. 136.
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