Introduction to the Ten Commandments

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Exodus 20:1-17

INTRODUCTION: We are starting a new series today called “The Ten Commandments for Today.” The Ten Commandments are a key part of the whole Bible, and yet so few people really understand what they are all about. Probably the biggest misconception people have is thinking that keeping the Ten Commandments will get you into heaven. Guess what? They won’t! Surprised? We will talk about that in a little bit. Today, I just want to give a general introduction to the Ten Commandments so that we can understand them in context before we begin applying them to today.

Exodus 20:1-17 – 1 And God spoke all these words: 2 “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. 3 “You shall have no other gods before me. 4 “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing love to a thousand [generations] of those who love me and keep my commandments. 7 “You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name. 8 “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. 11 For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. 12 “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you. 13 “You shall not murder. 14 “You shall not commit adultery. 15 “You shall not steal. 16 “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor. 17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” (NIV)

Author and theologian J. I. Packer compares the Ten Commandments to the maker’s handbook for a car. A car is a complicated piece of machinery, and the maker’s handbook tells you how to take care of your car properly so that you can get the most out of it. The Ten Commandments are God’s maker’s handbook for human beings. They tell us how we are supposed to live, and if we actually lived according to the Ten Commandments, the world would be a far better place. In fact if everyone in the world kept even just one of the Ten Commandments, the quality of life on our planet would improve remarkably.

But the sad reality is that although God has given us these ten all important commands, we do not live according to them. We rebel against God’s good design, and so we live in a world of sin and hurt and frustration.

This morning I want to answer four questions about the Ten Commandments: 1) What’s the fuss? 2) What’s the need? 3) What’s the context? 4) What’s the purpose? And then we will close with some general observations.

I. What’s the fuss?

First of all, let’s answer the question: “What’s the fuss?” The Ten Commandments have influenced our world and the laws of the nations more than any other document in history. They have been a positive good wherever nations have enforced them and people have followed them. Whenever nations and peoples have disregarded them, it has only meant moral and societal decay. So, why then is there so much fuss about the Ten Commandments today?

    A. The secular fuss – separation of church and state

First of all, there is the secular fuss in our nation. Citing separation of church and state, certain groups and individuals have advocated for the removal of the Ten Commandments from public places such as schools and court houses. The most famous example of this was the case of Judge Roy Moore in Alabama a number of years ago. Much of this is based on a misunderstanding of separation of church and state that seeks to remove all religious conversation from the public square.

    B. The religious fuss – separation of law and grace

Then there is the religious fuss over the Ten Commandments. This focuses on the separation of law and grace. Those who separate law from grace try to base acceptance with God on living by the Ten Commandments. Those who separate grace from law say that there is no longer any need for the Ten Commandments, that they are outdated, because we are no longer under law but under grace.

Although we must separate law and grace as different ways of approaching God for acceptance, we must understand that God designed law and grace to work together. The law drives us to Jesus through whom we receive grace from God. Then having received grace, we seek to follow God’s law out of love for him. The Puritan writer Thomas Watson put it this way, “Though a Christian is not under the condemning power of the law, yet he is under its commanding power.”

Jesus said, “If you love me, you will obey what I command.” (John 14:15) How do you show your love for God and Christ? By doing what God tells you. Just because we are under grace does not mean we can ignore God’s law. But only under grace may we actually begin to experience victory in keeping God’s law.

II. What’s the need?

Next, let’s answer the question, “What’s the need?” Why do we need to study the Ten Commandments today? Let me give you three good reasons why we particularly need to study the Ten Commandments in our day and time.

    A. We live in an age of lawlessness

First of all, we live in an age of lawlessness. Most people no longer honor and respect God. As a result, many no longer respect authority of any kind, whether government, parents, church leaders or educators. We need to study the Ten Commandments to learn once again what God requires of us as human beings living under his authority.

    B. We live in an age of pluralism

Secondly, we live in an age of pluralism. Most people no longer believe in absolute truth. Instead they believe: “All truth is relative. All religions are equally valid. Every one has a right to develop his own personal moral code. It doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you don’t hurt anyone — especially me!” And so life becomes like a football game with no rules and no boundaries. Society is running aimless and confused because people no longer believe that there are moral absolutes.

    C. We live in an age of spiritual ignorance

And then thirdly, we live in an age of spiritual ignorance. Most people today trivialize sin. They have little understanding of God’s holiness and little understanding of their own sinfulness. I read somewhere that only 17% of Americans define sin in relation to God at all. For a country with a large church-going population, that’s a sad commentary on the teaching in our nation’s churches.

A lot of people will tell you that they live by the Ten Commandments, but they couldn’t even list them for you! And unless they’ve also read the Sermon on the Mount, they have no idea what the commandments really require of them. That is part of what we will be looking at over the next number of weeks in this series.

III. What’s the context?

Our third question is, “What’s the context?” In other words, what was the historical background to the actual giving of the Ten Commandments?

    A. God’s deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt

The immediate context was God’s deliverance of Israel from slavery to Egypt. We find these events recorded for us in the first fourteen chapters of Exodus. The people of Israel had been enslaved by the Egyptians for four hundred years when God called Moses to lead the people out of Egypt. This was Israel’s Exodus, or departure from Egypt. After a series of plagues God completed the deliverance when he drowned the Egyptian army at the crossing of the Red Sea. This resulted in Israel putting their trust and faith in the Lord. “And when the Israelites saw the great power the LORD displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the LORD and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant.” (Exodus 14:31)

    B. Israel’s arrival at Sinai and time of preparation

Three months later the Israelites arrived at Mount Sinai and made camp. In Exodus 19 we read how God then re-affirmed them as his chosen people and told them to prepare themselves, because on the third day God would descend upon the mountain to speak with them. During the time of preparation leading up to this event God instructed the Israelites to do the following three things. First of all, they were to wash their garments. This symbolized their need for personal holiness. Secondly, they were to set up fencing at the bottom of the mountain to keep the people from going up on the mountain. Anyone, man or animal, who touched the mountain would be put to death. This was a reminder of God’s holiness and sovereignty. Thirdly, they were to have no sexual relations during this time. This was to be a time of serious reflection and preparation.

    C. God’s appearance on Mount Sinai before the people

Then towards the end of Exodus 19 we read of God’s appearance on Mount Sinai before the people. “On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the LORD descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, the whole mountain trembled violently, and the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder. Then Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him.” (Exodus 19:16-19)

The thunder and lightning, the fire and smoke, the earthquake and the loud trumpet blast – these are all signs of God’s authority and power to judge. So this was the ultimate context for the giving of the Ten Commandments. The judge of all the universe had just descended on Mount Sinai in fire, and you had better listen to what he has to say.

IV. What’s the purpose?

And then finally, let’s look at the question, “What’s the purpose?” What was God’s purpose behind giving the Ten Commandments? We talked about law and grace earlier. What is the purpose of the law?

    A. The law was not designed to:

Let’s answer that question by first looking at what the law was not designed to do. There are two common misconceptions about the law that I hope we can lay to rest right here.

First, the law was not designed to bring you into relationship with God. Remember, Israel was already in relationship with God. God had made a covenant with Abraham and his descendants centuries before. God had just delivered them from Egypt as a direct result of that covenant. In chapter 19 God had just re-affirmed that Israel was his chosen people. Look at the opening words of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:1 where God says, “I am the Lord your God . . .” The Ten Commandments are not designed to bring you into relationship with God. Israel was already in relationship with God when he gave them the Ten Commandments.

And secondly, the law was not designed to serve as some type of entrance exam to get into heaven. This is probably the biggest misconception of all about the Ten Commandments. I sometimes ask people, “If you died today and stood before God, and God asked you, ‘Why should I let you into my heaven,’ what would you say?” I get all sorts of answers to that question, but far and away the most common answer is this: “I would say that I’ve been a good person, that I’ve gone to church, that I’ve followed the Ten Commandments.”

No, no, a thousand times no! That is not the purpose for the Ten Commandments. Galatians 2:15-16 says: “We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.” Did you hear that? No one is justified before God by observing the law. Observing the law will not gain you acceptance before God. The law is not designed to be an entrance exam into heaven.

    B. Rather, the law is designed to:

So, if that is not what the Ten Commandments are all about, then what is the purpose of the law? Let me give you three important purposes.

First of all, the law is designed to reveal to us God’s character. Let me read to you from Psalm 19:7-11. “The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul. The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The precepts of the LORD are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the LORD are radiant, giving light to the eyes. The fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever. The ordinances of the LORD are sure and altogether righteous. They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb. By them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.” The law teaches us the beauty, perfection, sweetness and holiness of God’s character. Do you want to know what God is like? Look at the Ten Commandments.

Secondly, the law is designed to restrain human evil. Romans 13 speaks of how governments who enforce the law strike fear into the hearts of those who do wrong. There is a general understanding in the human conscience when we do wrong that there are consequences to be paid. God has built into us this fear of judgment. The Ten Commandments have exerted a great moral influence in society by restraining evil.

And thirdly, the law is designed to convict you of sin and your need for a Savior. Listen to the apostle Paul’s words from Romans 7: “What shall we say, then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, ‘Do not covet.’ But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire. For apart from law, sin is dead . . . Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means! But in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it produced death in me through what was good, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful. We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin.” (Romans 7:7-14)

God has given us his law, but we cannot keep his law. Take a look some time at how many commandments the people of Israel broke while Moses was on the mountain – right after God had told them the Ten Commandments! They broke almost every commandment immediately after receiving them! Knowledge of the law is not enough. Knowing what’s right does not confer power to do what’s right. That’s why, once again, we have doctors who smoke, financial advisors who are in debt, and marriage counselors who are divorced!

So, the law was not given to remedy our sin but to reveal our sin and point us to our need for a savior. John Calvin put it this way. He said: “Thus the law is a kind of mirror. As in a mirror we discover any stains upon our face, so in the Law we behold, first, our impotence; then, in consequence of it, our iniquity; and, finally, the curse, as the consequence of both.” A mirror has the power to show you that you’re dirty, but it has no power to clean you up. And so the law leaves you hanging, helpless, in need of a savior.

Remember J. I. Packer’s comparison of the Ten Commandments to the maker’s handbook, those rules that tell us how to live? That’s all fine and good, but what if you can’t follow the rules? Ahhh, says, Packer. That’s where the rest of the Bible comes in. God not only gave us the maker’s handbook in the Ten Commandments, but God also gave us the repair manual in the rest of the Bible. And the repair manual points us to Christ. Romans 8:3 says, “For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son.” Galatians 3:24 says, “The law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith.” (Galatians 3:24)

We are not saved by obeying the law, but by trusting Jesus as Savior, God’s Son sent to die for our sins.

General Observations on the Ten Commandments

Finally, let me close with seven general observations on the Ten Commandments:

  1. Notice that the Ten Commandments are absolute commands rather than “if/then” statements. You have other examples of laws in the Bible that are phrased “if/then,” but not the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments demand absolute obedience. It is the difference between the parent saying to the child, “If you don’t go to bed, then …” vs. “Go to bed now!”
  2. Each of the Ten Commandments is directed to the individual rather than the group. The “you” in “You shall not” is the “you” singular, not the “you” plural. This emphasizes the personal, individual nature of the commands.
  3. Notice that the Ten Commandments were spoken and written directly by God. The Ten Commandments were first a spoken revelation, the people heard God’s audible voice, and then a written revelation, carved out in tablets of stone by the “finger” of God. No other portion of Scripture was given so directly by God. The Ten Commandments are unique in this respect to all of God’s revelation.
  4. Some groups number the Ten Commandments in different ways. Most protestant churches number them: 1) no other Gods, 2) no idols, 3) do not misuse God’s name, 4) remember the Sabbath, 5) honor your parents, 6) do not murder, 7) do not commit adultery, 8 ) do not steal, 9) do not bear false witness, 10) do not covet. But other groups number them differently. For example, Jews count the opening statement as a commandment and combine some others. The Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches combine the first two and split the last. It doesn’t matter how you number them. Just make sure you don’t leave any out!
  5. The Bible speaks of the Ten Commandments as the two tables of the law, which refers to the fact that God wrote the original Ten Commandments on two different tablets of stone. The question arises, “What went on which stone?” The Bible doesn’t tell us. There are three main theories:
    • 1-5 and 6-10 > The phrase “Lord your God” appears in the first five commandments but not in the second five.
    • 1-4 and 6-10 > The first four commandments deal with God. The last six deal with fellow human beings.
    • 1-10 and 1-10 > It was common practice in those days when making treaties to have two copies, one for the treaty giver, one for the treaty receiver. The receiver would keep their copy in a sacred place. God didn’t need to keep his copy, so Moses was instructed to keep both tablets in the ark.
  6. Did you know that there are two versions of the Ten Commandments recorded in Scripture? There is the version we will be looking at here in Exodus 20:1-7, and then there is a second version in Deuteronomy 5:6-21. They are the same commandments, but there are some different wordings, and Deuteronomy has some extra words. And so sometimes people wonder, “Which are the real Ten Commandments? Why the different wordings? How could it be written down on the tablets in two different ways?” The answer is this: In Deuteronomy Moses is reminding the people of the Ten Commandments. As he relates each commandment, he also adds some explanation along the way. In other words, Moses is preaching! Which are the real Ten Commandments? Exodus 20. Deuteronomy 5 contains some of Moses’ explanations and exhortations.
  7. A good three-fold rule of interpretation to follow when interpreting the Ten Commandments is this:
    • where any duty is commanded, the contrary sin is forbidden (Example: God commands you to honor your parents. Therefore, anything you do to dishonor parents is forbidden.)
    • where any sin is forbidden, the contrary duty is commanded (Example: God commands against bearing false witness. Therefore truthfulness and honest is commanded.)
    • where any sin is forbidden in the commandment, the internal heart condition leading to the sin is also forbidden (Example: God forbids murder. Therefore hatred in your heart toward another is also forbidden.)

    We will talk more about these in the coming weeks as we interpret the commandments together.

CONCLUSION: One of my favorite missionary stories concerns the Taliabo people of Indonesia. Two missionary families from New Tribes Missions moved in with the tribe to live with them and learn their language. They began teaching them the Scriptures starting with the book of Genesis and working their way forward to Christ and the gospel. After the missionaries taught the people the Ten Commandments, a group of men visited the missionaries at their hut.

We are in big trouble with God. God’s law tells us not to kill, but we have killed other men. God’s law tells us not to steal, but we have stolen. We have broken God’s commandments, but we did not know that God commanded these things. From now on we will keep God’s commandments.

A couple weeks later they returned to the missionaries’ hut.

We are in really big trouble with God. Now we know God’s commandments, but we still break them.

That is why God gave us the Ten Commandments – to show us that we are sinners so that we might come to Christ for salvation. Do you know Christ? Let me encourage you to come to him for salvation today.

© Ray Fowler

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