Whenever the Lord rescued the Israelites from Egypt, he led them to Mount Sinai, where he entered into a covenant with them in which he promised to treat them as his treasured possession and they promised to do all that the Lord commanded them to do.
Today’s reading took place around forty years later, when the new generation of Israelites — who were about to cross the River Jordan to enter the Promised Land — gathered together to listen to Moses and to renew the covenant which the Lord made with their parents at Mount Sinai. At the heart of the covenant are the Ten Commandments, which are listed here in Deuteronomy 5, just as they were listed in Exodus 20. These Ten Commandments summarise God’s moral law. The Lord had other laws for his people to keep: there were ceremonial laws about the sacrifices they were to offer to deal with their sin and guilt at that time; and they were civil laws to govern them as a nation at that time. And Moses will go over those laws in the chapters which follow.
But today, we’re looking at Deuteronomy 5 and the giving of the Ten Commandments, God’s moral law, which all people at all times are under obligation to obey. And all people at all times are under obligation to obey these commandments, because these commandments have been given to us by our Creator who has determined what will be and who has determined how we are to live our lives before him every day.
As we turn to study these commandments, there are a number of things to bear in mind.
First of all, we need to remember the priority of grace over law.
Remember what we were thinking about last week and how this Mosaic covenant, or this covenant of law, and all the other covenants which we read about the Old Testament are related in one way or another to the covenant of grace. In the covenant of grace, God promises to deliver his people from their sin and misery by Jesus Christ, his Son, who is the Great Redeemer, who died for sins and who was raised to give his people eternal life. Through faith in him, sinners are pardoned by God; and accepted as righteous in God’s sight; and they receive the free gift of eternal life.
It’s called the covenant of grace, because we don’t deserve any of these good things from God, nor can we earn or merit either forgiveness or the right to eternal life. Instead we receive God’s good gifts by faith in Christ and not by works.
That’s God’s covenant of grace. And all the covenants or promises which we read about in the Old Testament are related to it in one way or another. So, there was the promise announced to Adam and Eve of a Redeemer who was coming; and that Redeemer is Jesus Christ, God’s Son. Then there was the promise to Noah that God will preserve the world, so that in due course the Redeemer could come. There was the promise to Abraham that all the nations will be blessed through Abraham’s offspring. And when he referred to Abraham’s offspring, the Lord was referring to Jesus Christ, who, according to his humanity, was descended from Abraham and who blesses his people with forgiveness and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Then there was the promise to David of a coming King who will rule for ever; and that king is Jesus Christ, who now rules in heaven as King of kings and Lord of lords.
And then there’s this covenant, the Mosaic covenant or the covenant of law. And in this covenant of law, the Lord revealed to his people that there were laws for them to keep. But in this covenant, he also revealed to them that there were sacrifices for them to offer. And all of those sacrifices were signs to teach them about the one, true and perfect sacrifice which the Redeemer would offer to God for the complete forgiveness of all our sins.
And so, before we start thinking about God’s law, and the commandments which we’re to keep, we’re to remember the priority of grace. Before we think of our obligation to keep the commandments, we should remember and give thanks to God for his grace, his kindness, to sinners; and his willingness to pardon our sins and to give eternal life to all who trust in his Son. And indeed, the way we show our gratitude to God is by striving to keep these commandments. We demonstrate our gratitude, we make clear our thankfulness to God, by seeking to do his will and to keep his commandments.
So, remember that threefold pattern I’ve mentioned before: guilt, grace, gratitude. First there’s our guilt, our sin, and how we deserve to be condemned by God as lawbreakers. Then there’s God’s grace, his kindness to us in Christ Jesus, sending his Son to save us from the penalty we deserve for our sins. And then there’s our gratitude; and we show our gratitude by seeking to obey the Lord and to please him in all we say and do.
And, of course, the priority of grace over law is enshrined in the commandments themselves, because the commandments begin in verse 6 with a reminder to the people of Israel of how the Lord their God brought them out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. So, the one who called them to obey him is the one who saved them from their slavery. Obeying him should not be a burden or a chore, because he had been so good to them, giving them life and liberty in the Promised Land. And the one who calls us to obey him is the one who saves us from our sin and misery and who promises us eternal life in the glory to come. Obeying him should not be a burden to us, but a joy and a delight, because he’s been so good to us.
That’s the first thing to bear in mind as we turn to these commandments. The second thing to bear in mind is that each of these commandments represents a category or a class of laws. And so, each of the Ten Commandments contain a multitude of sins we’re to avoid. So, for instance, the sixth commandment, which forbids murder, doesn’t only forbid murder, but it forbids every other action which causes harm to another person. So, as well as forbidding murder, it forbids us from wounding another person or from striking another person. It even forbids us from insulting another person, because that too causes harm to our neighbour’s life. All kinds of sins are forbidden by this one commandment, because each commandment represents a category or a class of related laws.
Another thing to bear in mind is that each commandment includes sins we’re to avoid and duties we’re to keep. So, if you were to take up our church’s Larger or Shorter Catechism and turn to the section where they explain the commandments, you’ll see that for each commandment, the catechisms list not only sins which are forbidden, but duties which we’re to perform. So, take the sixth commandment again which forbids murder. Well, not only does that commandment forbid murder, but it requires us to preserve the life of others and to protect and defend the innocent and to bear patiently and to be ready to be reconciled with those who offend us. Instead of hurting others, we’re to help others.
And perhaps the final thing to bear in mind is that the law is spiritual. In other words, it doesn’t refer only to outward actions, but to inward thoughts. Isn’t that what the Lord Jesus taught us when he explained that the sixth commandment forbidding murder also forbids angry thoughts and desires; and the seventh commandment forbidding adultery also forbids impure thoughts and desires? The Lord knows all things, including our thoughts; he sees all things, including the darkest recesses of our heart. He knows what we’re thinking and he knows what desires lurk in our heart. And his will for us is that our thoughts and desires as well as our words and deeds should be upright.
Commandments 1 to 4
Having said those things, let’s look at these commandments briefly. We’ll 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. 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 the image becomes 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 9 and 10 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. However, the Lord is also gracious and kind; and as soon as he speaks about punishing the guilty, he goes on immediately to speak of his willingness to display his love to those who love him and seek to walk in his ways.
Secondly, since the 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 answer is to say:
We should do only what the Lord has commanded us to do in his word.
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 about how to worship the Lord, 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.
Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. 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. Now, if you compare what we read here with what we read in Exodus 20, you’ll see that the people were given different reasons for keeping the Sabbath Day holy.
In Exodus 20, the reason for working for six days and resting on the seventh day was because the Lord created the world in six days and he rested on the seventh day. So, we ought to follow the pattern set by God. Here in Deuteronomy 5, the reason for working for six days and resting on the seventh day is because once they were slaves in Egypt where they had no rest, but were forced to work continually. Well, the Lord rescued them from that kind of existence. And so, every seventh day, they could stop their work and enjoy a day of rest, remembering that the only reason they can enjoy rest is because of the Lord who had saved them from their slavery. In the same way, God calls us on Sundays to set aside our work — including our school work — and our recreations, so that we can gather for worship and remember that God has promised us eternal rest in the life to come.
The Israelites, of course, set aside Saturday, the last day of the week, as their Sabbath to model the creation week. We now set aside Sunday, the first day of the week, to mark the fact that Christ was raised on a Sunday and it’s because of his resurrection that we can look forward to eternal rest in the life to come where we will gather before him in glory and worship him forever.
Commandments 5 to 10
Those first four commandments contain our duty to the Lord: we’re to worship him alone; we’re to worship him according to his word; we’re not to misuse his name; and we’re to set aside one day in seven to worship him. The last six commandments contain our duty to our neighbour. 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 their marriage, husbands and wives should do everything possible to strengthen their marriage and to love and honour their partner. And instead of giving way to impure thoughts and actions, we should all strive to remain pure by guarding our eyes and our other senses and by keeping good company.
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, if we’re ever called to bear witness in court, our testimony must 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. 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 this commandment shows us what I’ve already mentioned which is 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 specifically 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?
Purpose of the Law
The law is useful because it reveals to us that we’re sinners who have not kept the law of the Lord. Whenever we read the commandments, and understand all that they entail, we cannot help but realise that we have not kept God’s law. The law is a mirror for our souls. So, just as we can look in a mirror in the bathroom and see the blemishes on our face, so we look at God’s law and it shows us our moral blemishes, our sin and our guilt, the shameful things we have said and done and thought. Like a two-edged sword, God’s law cuts us to the heart and convicts us of our transgressions. Like a torch, it exposes our darkest deeds. The Lord uses his law to convict us of our sin and to humble us.
But it humbles us like this in order to lead us to Christ, the only Saviour of the world. Until we grasp our own sinfulness and need of salvation, we will see no reason to trust in Christ. But as soon as we realise that we’re sinners who deserve to be condemned by God because we’re broken his laws, then that’s when we’ll see why we need a Saviour. The proud person who does not recognise their sin does not see their need for salvation. But the one who has been humbled with a sense of their own sin and guilt, whose proud heart has been broken and who now weeps and mourns over their sin, is anxious to know the Saviour and to find in him forgiveness. And so, God has given us his law to humble us and to convict us so that we will turn to Christ for forgiveness.
First the law convicts and humbles us. Then it leads us to Christ. And for those who have turned to Christ and trusted in him, the law becomes for them the rule for their life. They use the law to show them how to live a life that is pleasing to God. The law shows them the will of God and how he wants them to live and they are pleased to follow the law and to do his will.
God had rescued the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt. And now, in Deuteronomy 5, he gave them his commandments to show them how to live as his people. And God has rescued us from our sin and misery and from our slavery to sin and Satan and death. And now he gives us his law to show us how he wants us to live as his people. There are promises of rewards to encourage us. There are threats of punishment to warn us. But since we love the Lord who has saved us by his Son, then not only is it his will for us to keep these commandments, but it’s our will as well. We want to obey him and to do what’s right, because we love him.
Mediator and Spirit
But before we finish, let’s look briefly at verses 22 to 33. There Moses recalled how the Lord wrote the commandments on two stone tablets. People often think this means half the commandments were written on one tablet, and half on the other. But it’s more likely that the Lord gave them two copies of the commandments, the way we make and sign two copies of a contract: one copy for you and one copy for the other party. So, here’s one copy of the covenant for the people and one copy for the Lord.
And Moses recalls how the people at Mount Sinai were terrified whenever they heard the voice of the Lord and saw the fire. And so, the elders of the people came to Moses and said:
This great fire will consume us and we will die if we hear the voice of the Lord our God any longer.
They were afraid that they would die, because the voice of the Lord was so terrifying. And so what did they do? They asked Moses to go near on their behalf and to listen to all that the Lord says; then they wanted Moses to tell them what the Lord had said.
So, let Moses appear before the Lord on their behalf; and then let Moses come and speak to them on God’s behalf. And we read in verse 28 that the Lord agreed to this proposal. So, they were to return to their tents and Moses was to stay with the Lord and receive his commandments which he would then teach to the people.
In other words, Moses was to be their mediator, the one who represented the people before the Lord; and the one who represented the Lord before the people. He would appear before the Lord on behalf of the people to receive his law; and he would appear before the people on behalf of the Lord to teach them God’s decrees.
And in this way, Moses points us to Christ, the true mediator between a holy and awesome God and guilty sinners like us. As our mediator, he came from heaven to teach us God’s law; and also to reveal to the world God’s willingness to deliver his people from their sin and misery by his own death on the cross. And then, after his resurrection, he ascended to heaven, where he stands before God the Father on our behalf. And there, in the presence of the Lord Almighty, he is our advocate with the Father, pleading our cause, stopping whatever charges and accusations the Devil and the law bring against us; answering every complaint by appealing to his blood which covers every one of our sins and which he offered on our behalf.
And so, as our mediator, he came from God to us to make known the law but also to make known God’s salvation. And as our mediator, he went from us to heaven as our advocate with the Father. And so, if you trust in Christ, you can rejoice because there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because he has paid for our sins and he is alive to represent us before the Father.
And the very last thing to say is that in heaven the Lord received from the Father the gift of the Holy Spirit, whom he pours into our hearts to renew our hearts and to incline them to fear God and to keep his commands. Do you see what the Lord said in verse 29?
Oh, that their hearts would be inclined to fear me and keep all my commandments always….
The Lord knew the Israelites would turn from him. He knew the reverence and fear they experienced at Sinai would pass and they would soon disobey him. And so, that’s why in years to come he promised through the prophets to pour out his Spirit on his people to renew their hearts so that they would keep his laws. And after the Lord ascended to heaven, he did what he said he would do: he poured out his Spirit on his people. And so, you should not only look to Christ for forgiveness, but look to him for the help of his Spirit so that you’ll become more and more willing and able to do God’s will here on earth as it’s done in heaven above.