Introduction to the Ten Commandments

The Giving of the Ten Commandments

Shortly after bringing the nation of Israel out of their slavery in Egypt and through the Red Sea without getting them wet, God led the nation into the wilderness of Sinai in Arabian Peninsula. They numbered roughly 2 million, a sea of people and their animals as far as the eye could see. There at Mt. Sinai through Moses God said to the people in essence, “Let’s make a deal (called a covenant). I’ll give you a Law and as you follow it you will be My nation among all the nations of the earth, and you’ll be a holy nation and kingdom of priests. You will be the light of the world and like a bridge between Me and the other nations. ” And the people said, “Yes, let’s make that deal! We will be obedient to your law.”

So then God, through Moses, arranged a meeting between Himself and the people. Moses was given two days to make all the preparations. Moses told all the people to get themselves cleaned up spiritually and physically. He set boundary markers all around the foot of mountain and warned the people that they were not to even touch the border of the mountain. “If anyone, even an animal, touches the boarder of the mountain they will be either stoned to death or shot through with arrows.”

On the morning of the day  they were to meet with God Mt. Sinai was enveloped in fire, thick smoke, constant flashes of lightening and quaking violently. The sounds of thunder and loud trumpet were blaring. It was evident that they were in the presence of the Almighty, and their hearts were about to thump out of the chests, I’m sure. And Moses warned the people one more time not to cross the boundaries set around the mountain lest God break forth against them.

That brings us to Exodus 20. As this nation trembles before the awesome manifestation of God’s presence, God’s voice comes out of heaven to them. God first introduced Himself. Exodus 20:2, He said, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” So He identifies Himself for them as the one who heard their cries and their prayers when they were slaves in Egypt, the one who had compassion on them, the one to whom they owe their new freedom. And He is the one who proved His power over every so-called god of Egypt with the plagues that He brought upon that land. He is the one who turned the great waters of the Nile into blood, and who brought the frogs and gnats and flies like you have never seen frogs and gnats and flies before. He is the one that brought the fatal sickness on the livestock in the fields. He is the one that brought the boils on man and beast. He is the one that brought the unprecedented hail and lightening storm. He is the one that brought the locusts so thick you could not see the ground. He is the one that veiled sun and every light in every Egyptian home for 3 days. He is the one who took the life of every firstborn Egyptian in one night. He is the one who parted the sea and destroyed Pharaoh’s army. He is the one who flew in a quail dinner for them and who has provided them with the manna every morning. He is the one who turned a rock into a giant drinking fountain. He is the one who enabled them defeat the Amalekites in war. You remember when Moses’ arms were up they would prevail over the Amalekites in the battle, and when Moses’ shoulders grew weary and he let his arms sag, the Amalekites would then get the upper hand in the battle. God was in total control of the battle. He is the one who rules heaven and earth and the kingdoms of men. He is the Almighty who holds us and everything in the palm of His hand.

Then after identifying Himself, God spoke to the people ten commandments, ten laws that would serve as the core of what He would require of them in the covenant they were making. The first four have to do specifically with how they will relate with Him. The first four are duties toward God (no other gods before Him, no images even of God, which would be bad pictures of Him, careful use of His name, and observance of the Sabbath day). The remaining six have to do with how they will relate with other people. They are duties toward your neighbor. (honoring parents, not killing, not committing adultery, not stealing, not bearing false witness, and not coveting anything that belongs to your neighbor).

After the 10th commandment, the people pleaded with Moses that they not have to hear anymore of the voice of God. The scene they were beholding on the mountain and the voice of God was terrifying to them. And they knew of no other people who had heard the voice of God and lived to tell about it (Deut 5:26). That also made them nervous. So they asked Moses to be their mediator, to hear God for them and then tell them what He said. Moses agreed and explained to the people that God came to them in this powerful way to instill in them a healthy fear of sinning (Ex 20:20). Then the people went back to their camp and Moses drew near to the presence of God to receive the rest of God’s word for the people.

The Importance of the Ten Commandments in the OT

There are some portions of Scripture that are weightier, that deserve more attention than others. “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness,” said Paul. But some portions have even greater importance. That’s what Jesus told the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23:23, when He said, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.” See, there are minors and there are majors in the word of God. All are important, none should be neglected, but some should be emphasized.

These ten commandments are certainly one of those prominent weightier sections of Scripture. And there are several indicators of that:

  • They form, as far as we know, the only discourse that God ever spoke from heaven directly to a multitude of people.
  • God Himself engraved these ten commandments on stone tablets (Ex 31:18). And after Moses threw them down in anger at the sight to the people worshiping a golden calf and they shattered on the rocks, God had Moses cut out two new stone tablets and God engraved the ten commandments again (Ex 34:1; Deut 10:4).
  • Those stone tablets were kept inside the ark of the covenant in the Most Holy Place of the tabernacle, while all other sacred writings were kept beside the ark, not in it (Deut 31:24-26).
  • Also, these ten commandments were given twice, once in the narrative of the events at Mt. Sinai in Exodus 20 and again when Moses recalls those events the next generation in Deuteronomy 5.
  • And these commands are repeatedly reinforced by the prophets of God all throughout the history of OT Israel.

Apparently, there was something of primary importance to these ten commandments.

But how about for today? How important are these commandments for us today? Well, let’s first understand that…

We are not under the Law that God gave the ancient Israelites.

These ten commandments were part of what the Scriptures call the Law of Moses. And that Law as a whole is no longer binding on men and women today. It has been made void.

The prophets of old indicated that the covenant God made with them with its law would be replaced. Jeremiah for instance in Jeremiah 31:31-32 said, “‘Behold, days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,’ declares the Lord.” So Jeremiah said God is going to make a new covenant with His people, not like the covenant he made with their fathers at Sinai. The Hebrew writer in the NT, in Hebrews 8, quotes that very passage from Jeremiah about God declaring that He will make a new and different covenant. And in Hebrews 8:13 he makes this comment about it: “When He said [that is when God said through the prophet Jeremiah], ‘A new covenant,’ He has made the first obsolete. But whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear.” In other words when God said “I will make a new covenant,” it implied that the one presently in a effect  is not the ideal; it is going to come to an end and be replaced by a better one.

The old covenant with its law was made void at the death of Christ, where the blood of the new covenant was shed. Many passages teach that truth. Just a few so you can see it for yourself. We’ll notice one in Galatians, one in Ephesians and one in Colossians.

Galatians 3:24-25, “Therefore the Law [which is clearly the Law of Moses if you read the whole chapter] has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come [or literally “Now that the faith has come” (“Now that the Christian faith has come”)] we are no longer under a tutor.” Do you hear that? We are no longer under a tutor, and he just said the Law of Moses was a tutor. So we are not under the Law of Moses today. It is no longer binding on people.

Ephesians 2:14-15, “For He Himself [Jesus] is our peace, who made both groups [Jews and Gentiles] into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace.” So he’s talking about how Jesus has united Jews and Gentiles together in a peaceful relationship. One of the things He has done is abolish the Law that functioned as a dividing wall and that was causing Jew/Gentile enmity. That law has to be the Law God gave the Israelites at Mt. Sinai, (a Law which included the ten commandments). Like a dividing wall that law caused separation between Jews and Gentiles because it forbid the Jews from intermarrying with the Gentiles, forbid them to eat things the Gentiles ate, had them conduct themselves in many ways differently than the Gentiles. And that law led to enmity between the two, because the Jews felt like they were superior to the Gentiles since God chose to give the Law to them and not to the Gentiles. They felt like it meant they were better than the Gentiles. And the Gentiles in return despised the Jews for their arrogance. But Paul says one of the things Christ has done to unite Jews and Gentiles is abolish that wall, that enmity, the Law of commandments. And He did it, Paul says, in His flesh, which I think means He did this when His flesh died on the cross. At the death of Christ the OT Law’s authority came to an end. Nobody this side of the cross in history is accountable to that Law.

And then Colossians 2:16. If you’re familiar with Colossians you know Paul is trying to protect these Christians from some false teaching. The false teaching apparently was that listening and following Christ is good, but not enough. If you really want to be close to God you need more than Christ. And one of the things they were saying is that you also need to also follow the commands of the Law of Moses that Jesus has not commanded. So Paul explains in this letter that Christ is all you need. If you have Christ, you are good to go. And in Colossians 2:16 he says, “Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day.” All those things that he lists there were elements of the Law of Moses. The Law of Moses had regulations about what you could and could not eat and drink. It had food and drink regulations. And it commanded annual festivals like Passover and Pentecost and the Feast of Tabernacles. And it commanded a monthly new moon observance. And it commanded the weekly observance of the Sabbath day. But Paul says no one is to act as your judge in regard to whether you do those things or not. So in other words if anyone quotes to you Exodus 20:8, the 4th of the 10 commandments, “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 of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work,” if they quote that to you and say to you “You need to obey that command if you want to be right with God,” don’t listen to them, they have no right to say that. Or if they say “You need to quit eating bacon and pork chops and catfish and such,” don’t listen to them. Because the Law that commanded those things no longer has authority over people today. As Christians we follow simply Christ. We are under the law of Christ, is how some NT passages put it (I Cor 9:21; Gal 6:2). And many things required of people in the Law of Moses, Christ does not require of us today.

If we’re not under the Law God gave at Sinai, why would the ten commandments be worth our study? Well, first of all because…

Jesus has reinforced all but the Sabbath command. And the reasoning behind the Sabbath command has timeless and helpful principles for us. 

(And we’ll see that as we study in the next few weeks.) Jesus has taught us to love God and love our neighbors, didn’t He? The ten commandments really just elaborate on how to do that. They explain what it means to love God and love your neighbor. Love is not just a funny feeling you carry around. Love does stuff. Love acts in certain ways. What it means to love God is explained in the first four commandments. It means you don’t have any other gods before him. You don’t make any image of God. You honor His name and you honor His day. What does it mean to love your neighbor? The remaining six answer that. It means you don’t sleep with the lady next door… unless she happens to be your wife and lives next door. It means you don’t rip off your boss and steal stuff out of the office. It means you don’t fiddle with your income tax. It means you don’t drive around the neighborhood resenting the fact that your car is the crummiest in the neighborhood and everyone else has a bigger house than you do.

Listen to something Paul said in Romans 13:8-10, “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. For this, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”

So in the ten commandments we have spiritual and moral rules and principles that people of all generations are to live by.

Another reason the commands are important for us is that…

The commandments were not given to burden us and prevent us from enjoying life too much.

That’s what many think they are. They say, “Ugh, the ten commandments. Just bunch of things you can’t do. They’re just enslaving and restricting and make life dull and very unexciting. Why didn’t God just save time and say, ‘Thou shall not have fun!’?”

Of course that’s exactly what Satan has wanted men and women to believe about God’s laws from the beginning. He has always wanted mankind to believe that God is a big cosmic killjoy, that He is like a harsh grouchy old man that’s mad at the world and happy people enjoying themselves just irritates Him and so He’s given laws to just prevent us from having fun. It’s what Satan wanted to convince Eve of in the beginning. He said to her in essence, “Has God really forbidden you this delicious fruit? Oh my. What a shame! You realize, don’t you, Eve, that He knows if you ever tasted from this tree, you’d be like Him in wisdom. God wants to keep you from the really best life you could have. Eve, true freedom means freedom from confining restrictions like these.”

But think about something. When God brought the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt and He brought them to Mt. Sinai do you think He wanted to enslave them all over again through giving them a law? If He didn’t want them to be free and happy, why didn’t He just leave them in Egypt? You see, what God was doing with this law was showing them how to live in their new found freedom, and how to live in the way that is absolutely essential if they are going live a life of enjoyment and safety. It was really for their happiness now and forever.

Those of you who have had kids, I suspect you have laid down some laws for them, like “Don’t eat anything that you pick up off the ground or stuck to the underside of a table.” Or I’ve even had to tell my kids, “Don’t eat anything stuck underneath a church pew. Don’t eat it!” Now, are you wanting your children to starve to death? No. You’re wanting your children to be nourished properly and not sick and gross other people out.  You’ve probably told your kids, “Don’t tease each, and definitely don’t hit each other.” Are you hindering the free expression of these kids? No. You want them to have the kind of environment where they are safe, where they may grow up to know loving relationships, and learn to deal with disagreements in a better way. You want what’s best for them.

God is a Father. We are his children. He has given us these commands because He loves us and He knows some things that we don’t.

In Deuteronomy 4:6 Moses explained to the people that if they keep God’s commands, the nations are going to look at them and say, “There goes a wise and understanding people. We should structure our society like theirs because what they do works.”

You read so much in the Proverbs about how to live a wise life, a life of joy and peace, and how to live a foolish life and destroy yourself. He explains the wise ultimately happiest life is when you do things God’s way; when you do things God’s way in your marriage, in raising your kids, with your money, in your business dealing, in your relationships, in handling conflict, do it God’s way and things will turn out best. For instance, people think sexual immorality is the path to pleasure and fulfillment. Solomon explains the path to the adulteress’ house is the path to emptiness, frustration, misery. He says if you take the path to her house you are like an ox going to the slaughter, it’s like a arrow has pierced your liver. You don’t know it yet, but it’s going to cost your life.

I Timothy 4:7-8, Paul told young Timothy, “Discipline or exercise yourself for the purpose of godliness; for bodily exercise is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” You not only miss out on the best of the life to come, but you miss out on the best of this present life when you neglect the commands of God. There will be trials and a measure of persecution when you follow His commands, but it is still the best life to live even now.

So as someone has aptly said, “You don’t so much ‘break the commandments’ as you get broken on them.” When we defy God’s laws it is to our own harm. It’s like the law of gravity. You defy that one, you walk off a building, it’s not going to be in your best interest.

And then just two more reasons real quick why the ten commandments are important to me.

They are a mirror that helps us to see where improvements can be made.

When I study and mediate on the ten commandments and their applications to my life it’s like a mirror and I go, “Ugh, I didn’t know that was on my face.” It shows flaws and imperfections in my heart and life.

If you come into church with something gross hanging out of your nose, wouldn’t you rather I tell you about that than just let you go around and display that for everybody? We should want to know about anything in our hearts and our lives that’s gross to God, so that we can look our best for God, and not model that stuff before other people as though it’s okay.

Jesus taught us to pursue perfection before God. Remember in the sermon on the mount, Matthew 5:48, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Not that we ever will be, but that’s the goal to strive for.

And Romans 3:20 says “Through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.” Through the Law, through the ten commandments, we see where improvements can be made. So it helps us in our pursuit of perfection.

And one more importance of studying the ten commandments is I think…

They will help us love Jesus all the more.

Remember the parable He told to Simon a self-righteous Pharisee? He said, “A moneylender had two debtors: one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they were unable to repay, he graciously forgave them both. So which of them will love him more?” Simon said, “I suppose the one whom he forgave more.” And Jesus said, “You have judged correctly.” The amount of love we have for the Lord corresponds to the amount of debt that we see He forgives us of.

So it’s good for us to see how much sin we have, how much we’ve fallen short. Because then we love the Lord all the more for His forgiveness. A little study, meditation and application of the ten commandments will help us see a little more of the great debt that He’s canceling for us.

– James Williams

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