The Ten Commandments
Course: 52 Major Stories of the Bible
Lecture: The Ten Commandments
This is the eighth story of the 52 major events of the Bible and today we are looking at another story about Moses, the story of Moses and the giving of the Law, both the Ten Commandments, also called the Decalogue, and also the laws that follow. We are in Exodus Chapter 20. God entered into a covenantal relationship with Abraham and within the context of that relationship, within the context of that covenant, God made certain promises to Abraham. He promised that he would have descendants, land, and that God would bless the world through his descendants. In Exodus 6:7, we looked at the summary of that covenant where God says, “I will be their God and they will be My people.” It is one of my favorite passages in the Old Testament. It is the clearest summary of what the covenant is all about, that God will be their God and they will be His people. There are two halves to that covenantal statement. On the one half, God is saying, “I will be their God.” In other words, God is committing Himself to do whatever is required to be their God. Last week we saw that meant that he sent the plagues and drew the descendants of Israel out of Egypt and is bringing them to a new land. He is doing His half of the covenant. There is also the half of the covenant, “they shall be My people.” As you move out of Exodus 14 and the story of the crossing of the Red Sea, the children of Israel are moving into the wilderness area to the east of Egypt, to the south of the Promised Land, and we start seeing quickly that there is a conditional element in the covenant. Now, God is going to keep his promises no matter what. That is not conditional. Abraham responded in faith and God bound Himself unconditionally to be their God. Yet as you read through the chapters leading up to Exodus 20, you see that there is a conditional element. If an individual is going to receive the promise of the covenant, if an individual is going to be part of the covenantal community and receive the blessing of being in the covenant, that person must be obedient. There are several places that we could go, but please look at Exodus 19, starting at verse 2. It says, “They set out from Rephidim and came into the wilderness of Sinai and they camped in the wilderness. There Israel encamped before the mountain while Moses went up to God. And the Lord called to him out of the mountain saying, ‘Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob and tell the people of Israel, ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself. Now therefore, 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. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” It is a marvelous passage, isn’t it, where God says, “I am doing My part of the covenant. I have brought you out of Egypt, I have born you up on eagles’ wings. Because of what I have done, therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice, then you shall be My treasured possession.” There is a conditional element if you and I are to receive, if the children of Israel, any individual, is to receive the blessings of the covenant. And frankly, this should not come as a surprise because there has been a conditional element from the very beginning in Genesis, have you noticed that? Back in the garden with Adam and Eve, they were put in this paradise, but they were given one commandment they had to follow. “Don’t eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, because on the day that you do that, you will die.” In other words, God gave Adam and Eve the opportunity to obey Him, and therefore, the opportunity to disobey Him. He gave Adam and Eve the opportunity to be blessed, but He also gave the opportunity to be cursed. This conditional element in terms of the receiving of God’s blessing has been there from day one. If you looked at all the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, there was always a conditional element. They were all called to respond in faithful obedience if they were to receive the blessings of the covenant. There is no stronger story than the story of Abraham being asked to offer his son Isaac, a gruesome story in one sense, but perhaps one of the strongest stories in the Old Testament that God requires faithful obedience of His people. So it should be of no surprise as we have been going through Genesis and now Exodus to understand this conditional element. God’s commitment to the covenant is unconditional. He will do what He has said He will do. He walked between the slain animals in Genesis 15 alone. He has committed Himself, but if any individual is to receive the blessings of the covenant, if any individual is to be part of the covenantal community, and this includes Isaac, and this includes Jacob, and this includes the children of Israel, and it includes you and me. If we are to be part of the covenantal community and receive the blessings of that covenant, then we are given the opportunity to obey and be blessed, or to sin and be cursed. That is the context of Exodus Chapter 20, which is the story of the giving of the Law, the giving of the Ten Commandments. The word “Decalogue” is kind of a fancy word, but it is the Ten Commandments. Let’s look at Exodus Chapter 20. It starts at verse 1, “And God spoke all these words, saying, ‘I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt and out of the house of slavery.’” Remember that the word “LORD” in all caps it is the translation of God’s name in the burning bush, which is Yahweh. I will switch Yahweh in periodically because it gets the meaning of the passage across a little clearer. What is God saying at the very beginning? He is saying, “I, Yahweh, am your God. The gods of Egypt are not your God. The gods of Canaan and the Promised Land are not your God. I, Yahweh, am your God, your only God.” The significance of this declaration in verse 2 simply cannot be overestimated because this is one of, if not the central affirmation in all of the Old Testament, and actually in all of the New Testament as well. It is a fundamental principal that God is giving to His children that “I, Yahweh, am your God.” Period, end of discussion. Everything else is commentary. The Ten Commandments are simply God’s way of helping Moses and the Israelites understand the implications of this central affirmation that “I, Yahweh, am your God.” I want you to remember that the main idea of Exodus 20, God’s claim to uniqueness, God’s claim to sovereignty, “I am your God and there’s no one else besides Me.”
First Four Commandments - Focus on God
I obviously do not have the time to go through the commandments in any detail, so I will summarize them. Someday I want to preach through them slowly, but that will be a couple years away most likely. How do the Ten Commandments start to unpack this central affirmation that Yahweh is their God?
The first four of the Ten Commandments are focused on how you and I relate to God. If God is our God and no one else is our God, how does that impact how we relate to him? So we start with the first commandment in Exodus 23. Number One: “You shall have no other gods before Me.” God demands, Yahweh demands absolute preeminence. Yahweh demands sole allegiance. God will brook no rivals; He will not compete with anyone or anything. That is the first of the commandments, “You shall have no other gods before Me.”
The second commandment is in verse 4-6. By the way, there is a very famous faux pas in bible translation called ‘’The Evil Bible’’. They left some of the “nots” out of the Ten Commandments. The second commandment, verse 4, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above or that is in the earth beneath or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them.” Why? “For I, Yahweh, your God, am a jealous God visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children of the third and the fourth generation of those who hate Me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love Me and keep My commandments.” The second commandment is a prohibition against making images of God and then worshipping those images. In other words, there is no place for gods at a secondary level. Now, this is revolutionary if you know your ancient history. There were always hundreds of gods in almost all religions. So, like in Egypt, there were gods up at the top like Ra, Osisus, and Osirus and then there were lots of others smaller gods. In the land the children of Israel were going to, there were the gods of Baal and Asher at the top, but there were other gods as well. The second commandment is that you do not make an image of any god, and you do not worship any of those images. The commandment is saying that you cannot make an image of Yahweh and worship it, nor can you have second level gods. Verse 5 has introduces an interesting concept, has it not? Probably you and I will respond to this somewhat differently depending upon our background, but God introduces the idea that “I am a jealous God, that I am not willing to share you with any other god, with any other carved image at all.” Now, jealousy can be a good thing. There are ways for you and for me that jealousy can be a good thing. I will not share my wife with you. I am jealous of her. She is mine as I am hers, and I have no intention of sharing her, not in the intimacy of marriage, not in affections. I am not going to share Robin with you; she is mine as I am hers. Now, she has lots of friends, lots of contacts, she does pretty much whatever she wants, and I am thankful for that. But I am not going to share her with you, not in the deep sense, not in an intimate sense, not at the level of affections and love. I will not share her, and she will not share me. And that is a good thing, right? Yes, human jealousy is normally bad. And normally when husbands are classified are jealous, it is because they have their wives locked up in some room and do not let them out and all the bad things connected with that. Usually jealousy is a bad thing, but, when it comes to God’s divine jealousy, it is always a good thing because it is a God thing. And frankly, I do not want God to share me with the gods of this world. I do not want God to be content with just pieces of my heart. I do not want God to be content with me worshipping Him and a whole barrage of secondary gods. I do not want that. I am tickled to death that my God is a jealous God, and He wants every piece of me. That is a good thing and why the second commandment is that God is not willing to share us with any of the other gods in this world. We are not to make images of any gods, and we are not to worship them is the second commandment.
The third commandment is in verse 7, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for Yahweh will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.” You see, if Yahweh is my only God then I do not want to trivialize Him. I do not want to treat Him with disrespect. I want to give Him glory; I do not want to take glory away from Him. That is what the third commandment is all about. It talks about taking His name in vain and that is not just swearing. To take God’s name in vain is to take His character in vain. It is to take something that is holy and pure and separate and to treat it as something that is common and vain and profane. The commandment is to not trivialize God. It is to not de-glorify God. It is to not degrade God. If Yahweh is my only God, then I am called to behave in such a way that I only bring glory to His name, that I only bring glory to His character, and to His person, and to his reputation. When we say, “In every thing we do and say, may it bring glory to You,” it is the positive affirmation of the third commandment.
Fourth commandment is found in verses 8-11, “Remember the Sabbath day” (the last day of the week), “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you or your son, or your daughter, your male servant or your female servant, or your livestock or the sojourner who is within your gates.” Do you want to know why? Well, here is why. “For in six days Yahweh made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them, and then He rested the seventh day. And therefore, Yahweh blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” The fourth commandment is the commandment as to how we are to relate to God in our worship. The fourth commandment says that God established a pattern in creation, a pattern of work and then rest, a time of rest for our bodies that gives us time to focus on worshipping Him. That pattern was established in creation and the fourth commandment says that we must follow that pattern in creation. So those are the first four of the Ten Commandments. They are the first four ways in which the affirmation that Yahweh is my God, how that reflects itself in how I relate to Him.
Commandments Five Through Ten - Focus on People
Commandments five through ten shift their focus a bit and ask the question, “If Yahweh is my God, if He is my only God, then how does that affect how I relate to other people?” That is the basic point of commandments five through ten. The first of those focus on people closest to us, our family.
The fifth commandment is in verse 12, “Honor your father and your mother that your days may be long in the land, that the Lord your God is giving you.” The fifth commandment is not saying they gave you birth and therefore do what they tell you to do. The fifth commandment is that Yahweh is your God and therefore His command is for you to honor your mother and your father.
Commandments Six Through Nine
Commandments six through nine all deal with taking things from your neighbor. I did not come up with this commentary; this is in all the books I read. If Yahweh is our God, then we will not take another person’s life. “You shall not kill.” If Yahweh is your God, you will not take another man’s or another woman’s spouse. “You shall not commit adultery.” If Yahweh is your God, you will not take another person’s property. “You shall not steal.” and if Yahweh is your God, you will not take another person’s reputation and possibly their freedom. “You shall not commit false witness.” You shall not lie about them in a court of law.
And then the tenth commandment, “Thou shall not covet.” In other words, not wanting what belongs to other people. It is a little different from commandments two through nine, but it is very much like commandment one because the tenth commandment deals with the heart. Specifically, the tenth commandment relates to the heart attitude that will lead to not breaking the previous commandments. In other words, verse 17, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife or his male servant or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.” In other words, the heart that does not covet does not kill. The heart that does not covet does not commit adultery. The heart that does not covet does not steal. And the heart that does not covet will not lie. So those are the Ten Commandments, the center of Old Testament Law. Probably the quickest I have ever gone through them in my life.
Does This Matter Today?
Probably, most of us know the Ten Commandments. The real question is, do they matter? After all, it is the Old Testament, right? It is old, it is hard to read and understand, and it is from a long time ago. It is not really relevant. I mean, the only thing that is really important is the New Testament, right? Somebody stop me, please! Don’t let me do this! I wonder how many of us treat it that way? Do the Ten Commandments, does the Old Testament matter? Well, Jesus had a few things to say on that issue. In Matthew 5:17-18, near the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets.” (That is the Jewish way of referring to the Old Testament.) “I have not come to abolish them, but to fulfill them. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot will pass from the Law until all is accomplished, until all is fulfilled.” Yes, it does matter. The first four-fifths of this book matters. Not the slightest little pen stroke on a Hebrew character (that is what the dot is referring to) is going to pass away until it has all been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Yes, it does matter. In Mark 12, Jesus is in a debate with some of the Jewish leaders and stumping them. One of the scribes notices that Jesus is doing a pretty good job and so he tries to stick Him with a hard question. Mark Chapter 12:28 and following, “And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another and seeing that He, Jesus, answered them well, asks Him, ‘Which commandment is the most important of all?’” Now, you need to understand that that was kind of the “in” theological question of the day. “There are ten commandments, which one is really the most important?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” And even though they asked for one commandment, He says, “You can’t say the first without the second. The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.” This is a tremendously important passage in the New Testament as we seek to understand the relevance of the Old Testament, especially the Old Testament Decalogue, because Jesus is quoting two Old Testament passages that summarize of all the Ten Commandments. So He is affirming the significance of the commandments, but He is also boiling it down into two commandments. If we just understand and we follow these two commandments, then we will in essence be obeying the Ten Commandments. So I want to spend a little bit of time here on what Jesus is saying.
He quotes two Old Testament passages to summarize the Ten Commandments. The first is Deuteronomy 6:4. It is called the Shamaz and is repeated daily by even modern Jews. “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and all your mind, and all your strength. Deuteronomy 6:4 is affirmed by Jesus as the summary of the first four commandments. Let me say that again. Duet. 6:4 is Jesus’ summary of the first four commandments. If you love God you will not make Him compete with the lesser gods of this world because you cannot love God and money, can you? You cannot love God and fame. You cannot love God and luxury. Jesus says you have to choose. You cannot love God and man, and you cannot serve both. You have to choose. And if Yahweh is my God, if Yahweh is your God, then He brooks no rivals. He will not compete with even the lesser gods of this world, whether they are wealth, or fame, or fortune, or lack of pain, or any of those things that this world celebrates. If you love God you will not make Him compete with those gods. If we love God, you and I will do nothing to diminish His glory. If we love God, we cannot treat him as something that is normal, something that is every day, something that is profane, which is what profane means, common, normal, everyday, as opposed to that which is holy. If we love God, then you and I in everything we say and in everything we do, it will be the spirit-enabled desire to please Him and to bring glory to Him. That is the opposite of taking His name in vain. So if we love God, we will do nothing to diminish His glory, we will not take His name in vain. If you love God, you will show it and I will show it, by making the Sabbath different from the other days of the week. Let me say parenthetically and I cannot go into the Christian Sabbath. I do not care what day they put at the beginning of our calendars. The Sabbath was the final day of the workweek. Because the resurrection was on Sunday, the Christian Church shifted things and Sunday becomes the final day of the week, and I do not see any theological inconsistency with calling Sunday the Sabbath. That is just an academic sidebar, but I had to say it. If you and I love God we will show it by making the last day of the workweek, Sabbath, our Sunday, different. Now, let’s be honest here. We are not fooling people for the most part. Most of evangelicalism believes in the nine commandments, do they not? Most evangelicals believe in nine commandments and the minute you start talking about the fourth commandment, the minute you start talking about Sabbath, man they are going to take the label “Legalist,” stamp it on your chest, and run screaming from your presence. Legalism says that all God wants is external obedience, forget the heart. Yes, legalism has abused the Sabbath. There have been Pharisees in ancient times and there are Pharisees now today. So there is all this baggage going through some of your minds. It certainly went through my mind. But my mother taught me to count correctly. There are Ten Commandments. And the Sabbath commandment is not some irrelevant part of some old book that somehow is irrelevant to me today. The Sabbath commandment is part of the very fabric of creation. This is not Old Testament Law that we can somehow ignore. The Sabbath did not start in Exodus 20. The Sabbath started in Genesis 2, and I would have made the point that creation does not end with Adam and Eve if I had had more time in my Genesis sermons. But, Adam and Eve are not the culmination of creation. The culmination of creation is in Genesis 2 when God rested from His work. He instituted a seven-day pattern and insists creation rests as he rests. This is written into the very fabric of creation that there is to be a cyclical rest. Let me say it another way. In the words of Deuteronomy 6:4, if I love God, I want to worship Him, right? If Yahweh is my God then I want to worship Him, I have to worship Him. That is what that affirmation in verse 2 is all about. He is my God; He is not my buddy. He is my God and worthy of my worship. He demands my worship and His way of calling you and me to worship is to take the final day of the week off to rest from our labors and worship Him. I know there are people who will respond, “Well, I don’t need to do that. I have other ways of worshipping Him.” Oh, I’m sorry. I don’t remember God asking you. God said, “I have established a cycle in creation, a cycle that involves rest, to give your bodies rest and to give you time to focus and worship Me. That’s what I expect from you.”
Love Your Neighbor
So that is the Deuteronomy 6:4, “You shall love the Lord your God” and how that summarizes the first four commandments. The second verse that Jesus quotes in Mark 12 is Leviticus of all places, Leviticus 19:18 which says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And this is pretty straightforward, isn’t it, because you can see how Leviticus 19:18 is the summary of Commandments 5-10. If you love your neighbor, you are going to start at home and honor your parents. If you love your neighbor, you are not going to murder them. If you love your neighbor, you are not going to take his wife. If you love your neighbor, you are not going to take his property. If you love your neighbor, you are not going to take his reputation or his freedom. If you love your neighbor, you will not covet because covetousness is the opposite of love. Paul tells the Romans in Chapter 13:9 the commandments. “You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet,” and then Paul adds, “And any other commandment, are summed up in this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Yes, the Ten Commandments are just as true today as they were thousands of years ago. They are summarized by Jesus in Mark 12, in the command of Deuteronomy 6:4 to love God, and in the commandment of Leviticus 19 to love your neighbor. If we love God, if we love our neighbors, then Yahweh is my God. That is what my God expects of me and you. Now, there are two extremes that people go to on this issue and I need to mention them in closing. There is the extreme of legalism, where external obedience is the only thing that God requires. Forget the heart, forget motives, all that really matters is that I go through the external steps and somehow that is all that God requires. Forget that without faith it is impossible to please God. (There are thousands of other verses that I could quote on that.) But it is the idea that the external obedience, that the Law is everything. The story of the rich young ruler just occurred to me. Jesus says, “You know the commandments.” The Ruler replies, “I have kept them from my birth.” Jesus does not disagree with him. He says, “Go and sell everything you have and come be my disciple.” Jesus was pointing out that he knew that Yahweh was not this young man’s God. His wealth was his god. But it was not an external thing; it was an internal thing. It was his heart. He loved his money but able to externally keep the laws. That was not the most important thing to Jesus. What was most important was the man’s heart and he was in servitude to his wealth. So to those who think, “Well, all I have to do is go through the motions. Got to go to church once in awhile, maybe give a little once in awhile, not kick the dog once in awhile”, you have taken a legalist approach. They say externals are the only necessity, but Jesus says, “No, no. Go sell everything you have. Have a heart that’s sold out to me, that’s completely and totally committed to Me and to My kingdom.” If external obedience was what the Ten Commandments were really all about, you could not summarize them with love. If the commandments were only external, then love would not be the appropriate or an adequate summation of the Law. But because loving God and loving your neighbor is the summation of the Law, then the commandments really have to do with what is inside. They have to do with our hearts. Romans 12 says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” That it starts in your heart, it starts in your head and then it flows from the inside out. Legalism is wrong because it starts at the wrong end of the spectrum. The Ten Commandments start in the heart. And after all, most of you know the story in Matthew 5 where Jesus says that you have broken the sixth commandment if you hate your brother. If you lust after a woman, you have broken the seventh commandment. The Law starts in the heart, it starts with a renewal of our minds and our commitment not to covet, our commitment not to hate, our commitment not to lust, our commitment to put Jesus on the throne of our lives, and that works out in external obedience. So legalism is one of the wrong extremes. All it does is put a heavy burden on your shoulders that you cannot possibly keep. There is also the extreme that thinks obedience is unnecessary. Instead of having the attention on the externals they say that obedience is not important at all. I can live any way I want and nothing matters. There is a sickness being preached, and I know of no better description of it than a common phrase that is repeatedly preached, “in order to become a Christian all you need to have is a moment of positive volition.” Have you heard this? They say that all you need is to have a positive thought about Jesus to get a “Get out of Hell free” card. You have one sappy thought about Jesus and then you are safe for all eternity. The preacher of a large church I know proclaimed one Sunday, “If you get up and if you sign the roll book of this particular church, you shall be saved.” That was an interesting idea, but then it got worse. He continued by saying, “The good news of the gospel is that there are two ways you can live your life. You can go out of here and be a good Christian, doing the right things and God will be pleased with that. But the good news of Jesus Christ and the gospel is that if you walk down the aisle, if you sign the roll book, you can go out and live any way you want and you’re still going to get to go to heaven. You’ve had your moment of positive volition.” There is nothing to being a covenantal person. There is nothing to being a member of the covenant. That is the other extreme. Holiness always matters. Always. People who preach that story are going to be standing by the throne of God on the Day of Judgment and they are going to watch their people go by. (I’m hypothesizing.) They will watch their people be sent to hell because they preached an inadequate gospel. Can you imagine what that would feel like? Not me! I want to wash my hands of you before I die, in a good sense, because I am going to proclaim the gospel. Holiness always matters. Exodus 19, verse 5, “If you will indeed obey My voice, if you will keep My covenant, then you shall be My treasured possession.” There are two sides to our covenant, to the covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. There were two sides to the covenant with Moses. There are two sides to the covenant that you and I have with our God. And He is committed to being our God and doing everything that is necessary to be our God, to preserve us, to provide for us, to care for us. There is another side to the covenant, another side to saying, “I will be His people.” The message of the Old Testament and the message of the New Testament is unanimous in that God gives us opportunities to be obedient to Him. He tells us what His will is, He enables us to be obedient to His will and you and I have the joyful task of pleasing our God and Savior, of being obedient to Him and bringing, as Jesus says, glory to His name. “By this My Father is glorified, if you are obedient to his will.” There are two sides to the covenant. My prayer for this sermon has been that you will not run screaming from here if you have legalistic baggage. I have tried to be sensitive to that fact. But when you look at Exodus 20 and the central affirmation of the Bible, Yahweh is our God. What does that mean? It means that we are called to love God and worship him out of a heart of love. We will worship Him alone, we will not take His name in vain, we will honor Him in our worship and the rest. And if we have Yahweh as our God, then we will love their neighbors. We will not steal from them, kill them, or take their possessions. They will honor them. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind and all your strength and then love your neighbor as yourself.” That is our side of this great covenant that God in His grace and His mercy has extended to each one of us.
Let’s pray. Father, we understand that we are not free to do whatever we want, whenever we want, however we want. In the words of Paul, we are either a slave to sin or a slave to God. Father, we rejoice, we who are Your disciples, that we are in servitude to You because the only freedom in this world is to be Your child, to be Your servant, is to be part of Your covenantal people. God, as we stop and reflect, it is amazing to us that You have bound Yourself to us to be our God. Father, may, through the power of Your Spirit, may You enable us to be Your people, to do what is pleasing, and to have the joy inexpressible of being a member of Your covenant. May that be our life, may we love. Amen.