The Ten Commandments
20:1 And God spoke all these words, saying,
2 “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
3 “You shall have no other gods before1 me.
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. 5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing steadfast love to thousands2 of those who love me and keep my commandments.
7 “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.
8 “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep 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, 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. 11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
12 “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.
13 “You shall not murder.3
14 “You shall not commit adultery.
15 “You shall not steal.
16 “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
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.”
18 Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid4 and trembled, and they stood far off 19 and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” 20 Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.” 21 The people stood far off, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.
Laws About Altars
22 And the LORD said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the people of Israel: ‘You have seen for yourselves that I have talked with you from heaven. 23 You shall not make gods of silver to be with me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold. 24 An altar of earth you shall make for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen. In every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you. 25 If you make me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stones, for if you wield your tool on it you profane it. 26 And you shall not go up by steps to my altar, that your nakedness be not exposed on it.’
The law is a mirror that exposes the hidden sins of our lives. Properly understood, it will convict us of our need for a savior and bring us to Christ. And when the Holy Spirit lives in us, the law is no longer a list of impossible demands, but a description of new possibilities.
It must have been a strange feeling for Moses to return to the place where God had spoken to him out of the burning bush. On his first visit, he was surrounded by a flock of sheep. Now he was surrounded by two million people. God had been faithful and the seemingly impossible had happened. In one of the greatest miracles in the Old Testament, God parted the waters of the Red Sea. He delivered His people from Egypt and brought them to Mount Sinai where they set up camp.
Barriers or “limits” were set up as a kind of exclusion zone at the base of the mountain that was “wrapped in smoke because the LORD had descended on it in fire” (Exodus 19:18). The whole mountain trembled violently, and the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder. God was coming down to give His laws to the people.
A New Expression Of God’s Grace
The law of God was never a ladder for unsaved people to climb up to heaven. It was always a pattern of life for God’s people who had been saved from judgment by the blood of the Lamb. That’s why the Ten Commandments begin with God reminding His people, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (20:2).
God was not saying, “I’m giving you these commandments, so that by keeping them you may become My people.” He was saying, “I am giving you these commandments because you have become My people already.” The message of the law to us today is not that we must keep God’s laws in order to be saved. The law tells us how God’s people ought to live, and for this reason it speaks to us today.
A Glimpse Of The Glory Of God
The Ten Commandments are not an arbitrary set of rules. They are a direct reflection of the character of God.
In the New Testament, sin is defined as falling short of the glory of God, and as breaking the law (Rom. 3:23; 1 John 3:4). Putting these two together, we may reasonably conclude that the law is an expression of God’s glory.
Why should you not commit adultery? Because God is faithful. Why should you not steal? Because God is trustworthy. Why should you not lie? Because God is truth. Why should you not covet? Because God is at peace and content in Himself.
When God said, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3), it was because He is the only God. There is no one else like Him. And when God commanded that we rest on one day of the week, it was because he rested from His work on the seventh day.
God was speaking to His own people at Mount Sinai, telling them, “You are My people; your lives must be modeled on who I am, and this is what a godly life looks like.”
The Greatest Battle Of Your Heart
The Ten Commandments also identify the greatest struggles of human experience. The first four address our struggle to love God, and the last six our struggle to love others.
In the first commandment, God said, “You shall have no other gods before me.” We don’t find it easy to let God be first in our lives. In the second commandment, God said, “You shall not make for yourself an idol.” We struggle to worship God as He is and prefer to imagine God as we would like Him to be.
When God said, “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain,” He was saying, “You will be tempted to use My name to support your prejudices and express your frustrations.” And when He said, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy,” He was telling us that we would have a battle over giving Him our time.
When God said, “Honor your father and your mother,” He identified our difficulty in submitting to authority. And when He said, “You shall not murder,” God addressed the anger and resentment that lie at the root of all violence (Matt. 5:21–22).
In the seventh commandment, “You shall not commit adultery,” God tells us that we will face a battle for sexual purity that includes keeping our minds and hearts clean (Matt. 5:27-28).
Then, there is a battle for integrity: “You shall not steal”; and a battle for honesty: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” There will be circumstances in which you will be inclined to exaggerate a story, misrepresent the way things are, or simply to tell a shameless lie.
Finally, we struggle over contentment. That’s why God wrote the tenth commandment: “You shall not covet.” Seeing what others have can easily arouse a feeling that we should have it too.
These are the battles of our lives, are they not? They’re the great struggles that we all face. The law is like a light shining into our souls, and when we look at what God says to us, we have to admit that He is speaking directly to the primary battles of our hearts.
An X-ray Of The Soul
I remember a visit to the dentist that I’d been putting off for a long time, mainly because I had no pain. The experience was not encouraging.
My dentist took some x-rays and then held them up to the light. “Mmmm…Oh dear! … Nasty. There’s a lot of decay underneath these fillings,” he said.
“But I have no pain,” I insisted. He didn’t seem impressed. “You’re going to need some pretty major work,” he said, “and the sooner, the better.”
Many people go through life with no sense of pain over their spiritual condition. They make the false assumption that things are well with them and that, having lived generally respectable lives, they are in good spiritual shape. But God’s law is like an x-ray to the soul. It shows us that we are people who find it difficult to let God be God, and that it is natural for us to love ourselves more than other people.
The first reason you need Jesus Christ is not that you’ll have a richer, fuller, and more satisfying life. It is that you are a sinner by nature and by practice. The x-ray of God’s law shows it.
The law is a good thing, just as x-rays are good, even if they bring us bad news. I didn’t like the news at the dentist, but I was grateful to know about the problem before it got worse. If you don’t know there’s a problem, you won’t pursue the remedy.
The law is like a teacher to bring us to Christ, and when you learn what the law teaches, you will come to Him (Gal. 3:24). If the law has not yet brought you to Christ, you have missed its greatest purpose. That was the point of Jesus’ statement to the Pharisees: “You search the Scriptures… yet you refuse to come to me” (John 5:39-40). They were busy studying the law, but they missed the whole point, which was to show them their need for Christ.
Laying Track For The Train
The Old Testament story makes it clear that God’s people were not able to keep His law. The law tells us what to do, but it doesn’t give us the power to do it.
Later in the Bible story, God promised a new covenant in which He would not only tell us what to do, but give us the power to move in that direction: “I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ez. 36:27).
God’s law is like track for the train. The track gives direction, but the train will not go anywhere unless there is power in the engine. It is the special work of the Holy Spirit to give God’s people power to move in the direction that is laid out for us in God’s law.
Turning Commands Into Promises
There’s a great story about a man serving time in prison because he was a thief.1 Stealing was his way of life, until the long arm of the law caught up with him. During his time in prison, he heard the good news of Jesus Christ and was wonderfully converted.
When the time came for his release, the man knew that he would face a great struggle. Most of his old friends were thieves, and it would not be easy for him to break the pattern of his old way of life.
On the first Sunday of his new freedom, he slipped into a church building. The Ten Commandments were inscribed on a plaque at the front, and his eyes were immediately drawn to the words of the command that seemed to condemn him: “You shall not steal.”
That’s the last thing that I need, he thought to himself. I know my weakness. I know my failure, and I know the battle I’m going to have.
As the service progressed, he kept looking at the plaque. And as he reread the words, they seemed to take on a new meaning. Previously he had read these words in the tone of a condemning command: “You shall not steal!” But now it seemed that God was speaking these same words to him as a liberating promise: “You shall not steal!” The man was a new person in Christ, and God was promising that the Holy Spirit would make it possible for him to overcome his old way of life.
When you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit will come and reside in you. His power will make the difference between a struggle in which you are destined for defeat, and a battle in which you will have ultimate victory. The law tells you how God wants you to live. Christ makes that life possible.
1. I heard the story from my friend Charles Price, and am grateful for his permission to use it. See Charles Price, Matthew (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus, 1998), 88.
- How do the Ten Commandments begin? Why were they given? What is the message of the law to us today?
- Are the Ten Commandments time bound? Do we need new commandments for today? Why or why not?
- If things are going well for you, and you feel you’re living a generally respectable life, is it safe to ignore the Ten Commandments? Why or why not?
- How would a person know if he or she has missed the purpose of God’s law?
- How is the law like train tracks? What else does the law need in order to accomplish the work God that intends for it to do in a person’s life?