The Lord has delivered his people from their captivity in Egypt; and he’s brought them safely through the Red Sea; and he’s provided for them in the wilderness; and he’s protected them from their enemies; and he’s brought them to Mount Sinai. And he’s brought them to Mount Sinai in order to meet with them and to make a covenant with them. And that covenant is summarised in Exodus 19 where the Lord said to the people:
If you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. And you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
And the people responded and said:
We will do everything the Lord has said.
That’s a summary of the covenant; and in the following chapters, the Lord elaborates on the terms of the covenant and he reveals to his covenant people the things he wants them to do and the laws he wants them to keep.
And I’ve explained before how this covenant which God made with his people at Mount Sinai is just another version or administration of the one covenant of grace in which the Lord promises to deliver his people from their sin and misery by his Son, Jesus Christ.
Do you remember? All the covenants in the Old Testament are related to the one covenant of grace. So, there was God’s promise in Genesis 3 that someone who was descended from Eve will come and crush the head of the serpent. He was referring to the Lord Jesus, who was coming into the world to destroy the Devil and his works. There was God’s promise to Noah in Genesis 9 that he would never again destroy the world with a flood. So, instead of destroying the world, the Lord was going to preserve and keep the world, so that, when the time was right, the Saviour could be born. There was God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12 that all nations of the world will be blessed through one of Abraham’s descendants. Again, he was referring to the Lord Jesus who came into the world to bless us by giving us the forgiveness of sins and by giving us his Holy Spirit. There was God’s promise to David in 2 Samuel 7 that one of David’s sons will reign for ever. He was referring to the Lord Jesus, our Great King, who now rules for ever and for ever from his throne in heaven.
And then there’s this promise, or this covenant, which the Lord made with the Israelites at Mount Sinai. And in this covenant, he revealed to his people that there were laws for them to keep; but there was also sacrifices for them to offer, sacrifices which were signs to teach them about the Lord Jesus who was coming into the world. And the Lord Jesus was coming into the world to offer himself as the once-for-all, perfect sacrifice to pay for our sins in full.
So, all of the Old Testament promises, or covenants, are related in different ways to the one covenant of grace and to God’s promise to deliver his people from our sin and misery by his Son. And as we turn to Exodus 20 and to the Ten Commandments, we need to remember that. We need to remember that — while this chapter contains laws for us to keep — nevertheless in the background there’s God’s gracious promise to give his people everlasting life by his Son. And that point — about the priority of God’s grace — is reinforced by what we read in verses 1 and 2 of Exodus 20, because verses 1 and 2 of Exodus 20 speak to us of God’s grace to the Israelites.
Verses 1 and 2
So, look with me at verses 1 and 2:
And God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
There it is: God’s grace; his kindness to his people, because he’s the one who saw their misery when they were slaves in Egypt; and he heard their cries when they were suffering under the Egyptians; and having seen their misery and having heard their cries, he sent them Moses to lead them out of Egypt and away from their captivity. And so, before the Lord reveals what he wants his people to do for him, he reminds them of what he has already done for them. And so, obeying him and doing his will should not be a burden to them, because the one who calls them to obey him is the one who loved them and saved them from their misery and who is leading them to the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey, a land like the Garden of Eden.
And, of course, as we’ve seen, by delivering the Israelites from their captivity in Egypt, the Lord was revealing how he delivers his people in every age from our sin and misery by his Son Jesus Christ. We’re born in bondage to sin and Satan, but God the Father sent his Son into the world to do all things necessary in order to accomplish our salvation, so that we can be delivered, through faith, from our sin and misery. So, by his death on the cross, God’s Son has paid for our sins in full and has released us from the condemnation we deserve. And by sending his Spirit into our lives, he has freed us from Satan’s tyranny over us; and he’s brought us into his own kingdom of grace. And so, just as the Lord was able to say to the Israelites, ‘I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery’, he’s able to say to us, ‘I am the Lord your God who brought you out of your bondage to sin and Satan.’
And here’s the thing: just as the Lord expected the Israelites to obey him, so he now expects us to obey him. But keeping his commandments is not a burden for us, because we love him and we’re grateful to him for all that he has done for us; and we’re able to display our gratitude to him by keeping his commandments.
Introduction to Commandments
And so, we come to the commandments themselves in verses 3 to 17. And by way of introduction to the commandments, let me remind you that the Ten Commandments can be divided into two parts. Commandments 1 to 4 contain our duty to God to love him with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. Commandments 5 to 10 contain our duty to our neighbours to love them as ourselves. So, remember when the Lord Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was? And he answered that the greatest commandment is to love the Lord; and the second greatest commandment, he said, is to love your neighbour as yourself. And then he added:
All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.
And he was able to say that about them, because those two commandments — to love the Lord and to love our neighbour — summarise all that the Law and the Prophets taught the people to do.
And the second thing to say by way of introduction is to remind you that each of the Ten Commandments represents a category or a class of laws. In modern societies, laws have to be very specific. So, if you want to forbid a certain action, you need to create a law which mentions that specific action. And, of course, if you’re that way inclined, and if you have a lawyer or accountant who is that way inclined, you can perhaps find a legal loophole which means you can get away with something that doesn’t seem right, because whoever created these very specific and detailed laws left a hole in the law which you were able to find.
In modern societies, laws have to be very specific. But in ancient societies, laws were more general and it was up to the judge to take these general laws and apply them to specific cases. So, the laws provided general principles which needed to be applied. And that’s what we have in the Ten Commandments: these are ten general rules which cover a multitude of sins we’re to avoid and which cover a multitude of duties we’re to perform. For instance: take the sixth commandment, forbidding murder. That commandment not only forbids murder, but it also forbids every other action which harms another person’s life. So, you mustn’t murder anyone; but you mustn’t wound anyone; and you mustn’t strike another person; nor should you insult them with your words. Do you see? All kinds of sins are forbidden by this one commandment because each commandment represents a category or a class of related laws.
Commandments 1 to 4
Having said those two things by way of introduction, let’s look at these commandments. And we’ll only look at them briefly, because we studied them in more detail a few years ago when we went through the Shorter Catechism together. And so, let’s take the first and the second commandments together:
You shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself an image 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….
Both of these commandments are about worshipping the Lord. The first commandment forbids us from worshipping any other god apart from the Lord. The second commandment forbids us from using idols and image when we worship the Lord. So, the first one is about who we should worship; the second one is about how we should worship him. Since the Lord God had rescued the Israelites from Egypt, how ungrateful they would be to turn away from him and to begin to worship another god. And since he has rescued us from our sin and misery, how ungrateful we would be to turn away from him and to begin to worship another god. And the problem with using an idol or an image when we worship the Lord is that very soon our love for the Lord will be transferred to the image, so that the image will become a rival to the Lord. That’s why the Lord refers to his jealousy in the second commandment: just as a loving husband will be concerned if his wife becomes devoted to another man, so the Lord God will be concerned if his people become devoted to an idol or an image. So, we’re to worship the Lord only; and we’re not to use idols or images when we worship him.
Before moving on, let me say two further things about the second commandment. First of all, when the Lord goes on in verses 5 and 6 to speak about punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, he means that he will punish those children who repeat the sins of their fathers. In other words, children who sin can’t blame their parents for their sins; they can’t say:
It’s not fair that God punishes me for something my parents taught me to do.
You can’t say that, because the Lord holds us personally responsible for the sins we commit. Nevertheless, the Lord is also gracious and kind; and as soon as he speaks about punishing the guilty, he goes on immediately in the second commandment to speak of his willingness to display his love to those who love him and seek to walk in his ways.
Secondly, since these commandments represent a class of laws, we believe that the second commandment not only forbids the use of idols and images, but it forbids us from worshipping the Lord in any way that he has not commanded. How should we worship the Lord? One person says: By doing this. Another person says: By doing this. A third person says: By doing this. But no; the proper question to ask is this:
What has the Lord revealed in his word about how we should worship him?
And the proper answer is this:
Whatever he has commanded, we will do.
And if he hasn’t commanded it, we will not do it. Instead of thinking we know best, we ought to humble ourselves and look to the Scriptures to see how the Lord wants us to worship him.
But let’s move on to the third and fourth commandments which are about how we speak about the Lord and when we should worship him:
You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.
Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God.
The third commandment forbids us from dishonouring the Lord by the things we say. And that means we’ll want to take care that everything we say about him is true. And it also means we’ll want to take care that we speak of him with reverence. And the fourth commandment teaches us that the Lord has given us six days for work and recreation, but one day in seven is to be set aside for the Lord and for his worship. The Israelites, of course, set aside the seventh day of the week for worship, because the seventh day was the day the Lord rested from his work of creating the world. Christians set aside the first day of the week, because the first day was the day the Lord was raised from the dead. The Jewish Sabbath marked the end of creation; the Christian Sabbath marks the beginning of the new creation. And whenever we rest from our work and being to worship the Lord, we’re reminded that he has promised his people an eternal rest; and one day, we’ll enter that rest and we’ll worship him for ever and ever in glory.
Commandments 5 to 10
Commandments one to four contain our duty to the Lord: we’re to worship him alone; we’re not to use idols or images to worship him; we’re not to misuse his name; and we’re to set aside one day in seven to worship him. Commandments six to ten contain our duty to our neighbours. So, we’re to honour our parents and whoever else the Lord has placed over us: the teacher in school and the lecturer in college; the supervisor at work; the government and everyone who represents the government; and the elders in our church. Since the Lord has placed these people over us, it is our duty to honour them by submitting to them cheerfully. And added to this commandment is a reason:
so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.
The Lord was about to give the Israelites the Promised Land to live in. And he warned them that if they refused to honour their parents and other leaders he will come against them and send them into exile. However, the Apostle Paul repeated this reason in Ephesians 6 in order to teach us that — so long as it serves God’s glory and our good — the Lord will give long life to those who obey this command.
The sixth commandment forbids us from murdering anyone, including ourselves; but as I’ve said, it also forbids us from harming another person’s life in any way, whether physically with our actions or by hurting and insulting them with our words. And instead of hurting people, we should seek to help them and to do whatever we can to preserve their life.
The seventh commandment forbids us from committing adultery, but every other sexual sin is also forbidden by this commandment. Instead of spoiling marriages, we should seek to strengthen them; and instead of giving way to impure thoughts and actions, we should seek to be pure.
The eighth commandment forbids us from stealing whatever belongs to another person. And instead of stealing from people, we should be prepared to give what we have in order to help others.
The ninth commandment forbids us from giving false testimony. And so, we’re to think about appearing as a witness in a court, where our testimony is to be true and not false. But in everyday life, we mustn’t say anything which will ruin another person’s reputation. And so, think how easily we gossip and spread rumours; or how frequently we make the faults of others a topic of casual conversation. All of this is forbidden by the ninth commandment.
And the tenth commandment forbids coveting, which is that desire for what belongs to someone else. So, instead of being content with what we have, we always want more and more and more for ourselves. And this is a vitally important commandment: not only because of what if forbids, but because it shows us that the Lord is not only concerned with what we say and do, but he’s concerned about what we think and about what’s in our heart. Whereas the other commandments refer to actions and speech — murder, adultery, theft, lying — this one is about the desires of the heart. And so, not only do our actions need to be right, and not only do our words need to be right, but our heart needs to be right. And the problem is: our hearts are not right. Our hearts are full of sinful thoughts and desires and inclinations. And that leads me to my next point, which is about the purpose of the law. What’s the law for?
The Purpose of the Law
The law has several purposes. First of all, it reveals to us God’s will. By giving the Israelites his law, the Lord was revealing not only to them, but to all, how he wants us to live. He’s showing us here what is the right way to live and what is the wrong way to live; what is good and what is evil. So, if we ever want to know what’s right or what’s good or what the Lord requires from us, we’re able to turn to Exodus 20, because in these Ten Commandments the Lord has made known his will for how he wants us to live.
Secondly, the law shows us that we’re sinners. It convicts us. When we compare our life and the things we do to God’s commandments and his will for us, we see that we have fallen short of doing his will and we have broken his commandments. We have fallen short, because we haven’t loved the Lord with all our our heart and soul and mind and strength and we haven’t loved our neighbour as ourselves. And when we realise that we’re sinners, then we realise that we deserve to be condemned by the Lord as a law-breaker. And so, the law shows us we’re sinners who deserve to be condemned.
But thirdly, the law drives us to the Saviour. Having shown us our sin, and how we deserve to be condemned, the law drives us to Christ, because only in Christ can we find the forgiveness of our sins; and only in Christ can we find peace with God. And whoever comes humbly to Christ, confessing their sins and asking for forgiveness, will receive from him pardon for all that they have done wrong; and they’ll receive peace with God for ever; and they’ll receive from him a new heart and the help of the Holy Spirit to be able to keep God’s laws.
And that leads me to the fourth purpose of the law which is that it serves as a rule for life: it shows believers how we ought to live as God’s people in the world. Because we love the Lord who has delivered us, and because we want to display our gratitude to him for all that Christ has done for us, we’ll turn to his law and, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we will endeavour to keep his law and to obey his commandments. And we do this, not because we think this is the way to receive eternal life — as if by our good deeds we’re able to climb up to God. That’s not why we want to keep the law; we don’t want to keep the law in order to earn eternal life, because we now understand that eternal life is the gift of God to all who believe. But having believed, and having received forgiveness from God, we’ll go back to the law and we’ll try to keep it to show our gratitude to God for what he has done for us.
I’ve mentioned before the structure of the Heidelberg Catechism. It’s similar to our Shorter Catechism, but it’s divided into three parts: guilt; grace; gratitude. First of all, there’s our guilt: we’re broken God’s laws and deserve to be punished. Then there’s God’s grace: he graciously sent his Son into the world to accomplish our salvation by his life and death and resurrection. And then there’s gratitude: our gratitude to God for his grace to us; and we display our gratitude by keeping his commandments.
And so, the Israelites received the Ten Commandments after the Lord delivered them from their captivity in Egypt. And they promised in chapter 19 to do everything the Lord commanded, because they were so grateful for what he had done for them. And having delivered us from our sin and misery by his Son, we too want to do everything that he has commanded. And so, the secret to living an obedient life, the secret to conquering sin and to walking in the ways of the Lord is to remember that we deserve to be condemned for ever for breaking God’s commandments; but Jesus Christ took the blame for us; and he suffered the punishment we deserve; so that we might be forgiven. And by remembering all that Christ has suffered for us, we’re stirred up to greater thankfulness which leads to greater obedience.
But there’s one last point before I finish. I’ve said before how, through faith, we’re been raised up with Christ to the heavenly realms. That’s now our true home, and that’s where we now belong, because we’ve become citizens of heaven. And while we go on living on the earth, our life is meant to reflect the glory of heaven.
These Ten Commandments reflect the glory of heaven. You see, in heaven there is only one God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And all who enter heaven will worship him alone. And in heaven, there are no idols and images; and the angels and saints who gather around the throne bow before the Lord and nothing else. And in heaven, nothing profane or unworthy of the Lord is ever spoken, but only what is holy and pure and true. And in heaven, there is perfect peace and rest; and all who enter there will worship the Lord for ever and ever in an eternal Sabbath.
And in heaven, those who have been placed in positions of honour will receive all the respect they deserve. And in heaven, there’s no murder, because everyone who enters heaven will drink from the water of life and will eat from the tree of life so that they will not die, but will live for ever. And in heaven, there’s no adultery, because in heaven love is perfect and it endures for ever. And in heaven, there is no theft, because in heaven God distributes his gifts and rewards as he sees fit, and no one will try to take what the Lord has not given him. And in heaven, there are no false witnesses, because all who enter heaven have been renewed perfectly in the image of the Lord who is perfectly truthful. And in heaven, there is no coveting, because in heaven, all our desires and longings will be for the glory of the Lord, and our desire for earthly things will have passed away.
In heaven, there is only perfection. And as those who belong to heaven, as those who are now citizens of heaven, and who have been raised up with Christ to the heavenly realms, we should live our lives here on the earth in a way that reflects the glory of heaven. And the Lord Jesus Christ, gives us his Spirit to enable us to become more and more willing and able to do God’s will here on earth as it is done in heaven.