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The Ten Commandments
“And God spake all these words, saying, I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. … Ye shall not make with me gods of silver, neither shall ye make unto you gods of gold. An altar of earth thou shalt make unto me, and shalt sacrifice thereon thy burnt offerings, and thy peace offerings, thy sheep, and thine oxen: in all places where I record my name I will come unto thee, and I will bless thee. And if thou wilt make me an altar of stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stone: for if thou lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it. Neither shalt thou go up by steps unto mine altar, that thy nakedness be not discovered thereon.” (Exodus 20:1-26)
When we read the 20th chapter of Exodus, we are standing at the foot of Mt. Sinai. Moses declares, “The LORD came from Sinai, and rose up from Seir unto them; he shined forth from mount Paran, and he came with ten thousands of saints: from his right hand went a fiery law for them” (Deuteronomy 33:2). But Sinai is all darkness, until Zion’s Sun of Righteousness rises upon it. Then, the darkness melts before the rising Sun. The angry roars are hushed by the sound of grace. The terrors of darkness are dispersed by the Light of Life. And the quaking is settled by the Prince of Peace, as we are made to see that Sinai opens the way to Zion and its blissful slopes of mercy, love, and grace.
How vast and infinitely important God’s righteous law is! It was delivered with such awful solemnity on Mt. Sinai that all the children of Israel were filled with fear, as they stood before the quaking mountain. That fact alone should fill our hearts with constantly increasing joy, praise, and thanks-giving for the unspeakable gift of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, our precious, blessed, holy, law-fulfilling, law-satisfying Surety! He answered all the demands of Sinai’s law for us; and, answering those demands, he is declared to be “the end of the law for righteousness to everyone that believeth” (Romans 10:4).
With every renewed view of our blessed Savior, who has, with his own blood, redeemed us from the curse of the law, let us renew our praises to the God of all grace. With every renewed conviction of sin, as we remember our iniquities, transgressions, and sins, let us lift our hearts with renewed gratitude and adoration to our ever gracious, Triune Jehovah.
Blessed Spirit of God, by the sweet influences of your grace in our hearts, teach us to cherish the redemption that is ours in Christ Jesus, and to cherish our Redeemer. In great love for our souls, he stood forth as our Surety in old eternity. He undertook our cause. By his doing and dying as our Substitute, the Son of God obtained eternal redemption for us. By his blood and righteousness, we now draw nigh to God and are “accepted in the Beloved.” Blessed be God, the boundary which kept Israel from approaching God and kept God from approaching Israel, is now removed. And we are come to Jesus, the Mediator of the new covenant, and to his precious blood of sprinkling. Drawing nigh to God, in this new and living way, we arrive at the fountain head of mercies, the throne of God and the Lamb, the throne of grace, and obtain the mercy and grace we need.
God Identifies Himself
Before giving his law, the Lord God identifies himself, and identifies himself by the salvation he has performed (vv. 1-2).
“And God spake all these words, saying, I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”
Who was it that brought Israel to the foot of Mt. Sinai? Who has the right to lay such claims upon us as are given in these Ten Commandments? It is God, the Supreme One, Elohim, your Creator. It is the Lord thy God, our covenant God, God in covenant with us. It is the Lord, Jehovah, the self-existent, eternal God of all redemption, salvation, and grace. It is the Triune God, our omnipotent Savior, “which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”
It is the God of everlasting grace who speaks from Sinai. His mercy looked upon Israel’s enslavement in Egypt and protected them. He burst their bonds and crushed their cruel foes. He fed them morning after morning with bread from heaven. He sent streams gushing from the smitten rock to quench their thirst. And now he brings them to Sinai. Sinai will be a platform upon which God will show his Christ to chosen sinners.
The children of Israel heard a voice speaking to them from heaven. Who was it that spoke? The voice was that of their Redeemer and ours, Christ Jesus. The Holy Spirit tells us that the Angel, the Messenger, of the eternal covenant, communed with Moses on the mount. If it is Christ who speaks, the message will be full of tender love and rich mercy. He says, as he introduces himself, “Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles’ wings, and brought you unto myself” (Exodus 19:4).
Surely, he did not bear them on eagle’s wings out of Egypt, just to crush them with woe upon Sinai! No! The sound of thunder upon the mount and the flashes of lightning shooting from heaven announce fresh rain from heaven, new revelations of grace. Special preparation must be made. The sin-soiled people must be purified, ere they draw nigh to God.
That is what everything spoken at Sinai declares. We must be purged of all sin, purified from all iniquity, and cleansed of all guilt, before we can come to God or God can come to us. So, when the Lord God speaks from Sinai’s fiery mount, with his very first word, before he gives his ten commandments, he identifies himself as God our Savior. — “I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” Redemption is our Savior’s claim upon our hearts and lives (1 Corinthians 6:19-20; Psalm 116:16-17).
Understand this, first and foremost. — The hand that holds the glittering sword of law and justice and shakes it over a terrified world of guilty sinners, declaring, “the soul that sinneth it shall die,” is the hand of our crucified Christ. The reason for the giving of the law was to make sinners, like you and me, know our need of him.
In verses 1 and 2, the Lord God identifies himself. Second, in verses 3-17, he gives us the Ten Commandments. These Ten Commandments were written upon two tables of stone by the finger of God. On the first table, we have the first four commandments, revealing our duty to God. On the second table, the Lord God wrote out six commandments revealing our duty to one another, man’s duty to man. Let’s look at these Ten Commandments, just briefly.
1. “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (v. 3).
Here the Lord God demands that we reverence him alone as God, that we serve him with a perfect heart and a willing mind (1 Chronicles 28:9). Martin Luther wrote, “In this first commandment the keeping of all the other nine is commanded.” We must worship the Triune God alone as God. And worship him in faith, hope, and love. This commandment is a prohibition of idolatry, of will worship, of mixing the worship of God and the worship of idols. But our Lord Jesus gives us the best commentary upon his words in Matthew 22:37-38, where he tells us plainly what this great commandment of the law is.
“Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment.”
2. “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image” (vv. 4-6).
“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven 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: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.”
This second commandment is a strict prohibition of idolatrous religious images, icons, relics, etc. Not only are we to acknowledge none as God, except God, we are never to have or make use of religious symbols in the worship of God (Images of Angels, Crosses, Pictures of Christ, etc (Isaiah 40:18; Deuteronomy 4:15).
Included in this is the requirement that we love and obey our God, worshipping him with the heart, in spirit and in truth.
3. “Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain” (v. 7).
In this day of religious blasphemy, when men and women are taught that God is nothing and can do nothing without them, the profaning of God’s name is as common as breathing. Sadly, it is all too common among those who truly reverence and worship him. But by careless speech, arising from a failure to make the reverence of God a matter of thoughtful, deliberate choice, true believers often take God’s name in vain, joking about God and heavenly things and using God’s name, or substitutes for it, as by-words.
“Holy and reverend is his name” (Psalm 111:9). Let us reverence and sanctify his name in thought, and word, and deed. Any use of God’s name without the intention of exalting and honoring his name is taking the name of the Lord our God in vain. Let us take care never to do so.
4. “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy” (vv. 8-11).
“Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.”
This fourth commandment, like the first three, remember, has to do with our duty toward God. It stands here as the last commandment relating to our relationship with and reverence for God. Yet, our Lord Jesus declares, “The sabbath was made for man” (Mark 2:27). Standing as it does between the two tables of the law, at the end of the first and the beginning of the second, it might be best to understand it as the hinge upon which both our duty to God and our duty to man hang. I will come back to that shortly. For now, let me simply and dogmatically declare that there is nothing written in the Bible and nothing required of man that is more important than this fourth commandment. Perhaps that is the reason Satan has raised so much confusion about it.
5. “Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee” (v. 12).
This fifth commandment is called by the Apostle Paul “the first commandment with promise” (Ephesians 6:2). God promises length of days to those who honor their parents, to those who honor authority, which is no more and no less than honoring God.
6. “Thou shalt not kill” (v. 13).
Again, I refer to the words of our Lord Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel as the best commentary there is upon the sixth commandment.
“Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca (“Raca” means worthless one.), shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.” (Matthew 5:21-22)
God himself makes inquisition for blood (Psalm 9:12; Genesis 4:8-12, 23-24). For one man to take another man’s life, or disdain another as a worthless thing, is for man to assume the place of God to himself.
7. “Thou shalt not commit adultery” (v. 14).
This seventh commandment refers not merely to the sexual infidelity of married people, but to all sexual evil, having its roots in the sensual lusts of our hearts.
“Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27-28)
John Trapp, commenting on this seventh commandment, made this tremendously perceptive observation: “Adultery only is named; because bestiality, sodomy, and other uncleannesses, though more heinous, yet they do not directly fight against the purity of posterity and human society, which the law mainly respects.”
8. “Thou shalt not steal” (v. 15).
Stealing is taking, by any method, that which is not your own. It is fraud and cheating, as well as open theft. Any disrespect of private property as private property is stealing (Ephesians 4:28; 1 Thessalonians 4:6).
9. “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour” (v. 16).
Do not bear false witness, and do not hear it (Deuteronomy 19:16-20). Gossip and slander would die very quickly if there were no ears anxious to hear and tongues anxious to bear them. If you love the lie, you are as guilty as if you had made it (Revelation 22:15).
10. “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is thy neighbour’s” (v. 17).
This tenth commandment points to the root of evil in the desire of the heart. It shows us that by thinking as well as by doing evil, we break the law of God. When Paul saw that this (like all the commandments of the law) was something altogether inward and spiritual, sin revived and the law slew him (Romans 7:9), shutting him up Christ.
With these ten words of law, with these Ten Commandments, the Lord God said, “Walk before me and be thou perfect…Be ye holy for I am holy…Love me perfectly, with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself.” God demands perfection. He will not and cannot accept anything except perfection, perfect righteousness and perfect holiness. (Galatians 3:10-12, 24; Psalms 1, 15, 24).
“For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them. But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith. And the law is not of faith: but, The man that doeth them shall live in them.” (Galatians 3:10-12)
“Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.” (Galatians 3:24)
A Mediator Wanted
Third, in verses 18 and 19, we are told that as soon as they heard what the Lord God required of them, the children of Israel wanted a mediator, someone to stand before God in their stead. — “And all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking: and when the people saw it, they removed, and stood afar off. And they said unto Moses, Speak thou with us, and we will hear: but let not God speak with us, lest we die.”
Blessed be God, there is one Man, only one, who has fulfilled these commandments of God; and that Man is our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who spoke at Sinai. Read about him in (Psalms 1, 15, and 24, and remember that our Lord Jesus Christ is our Representative man, by whom we are reconciled to God (Romans 5:19).
When he fulfilled the law’s righteousness by his obedience in life and in death, our blessed Mediator and Surety, the Lord Jesus, fulfilled all the law’s righteousness and all the law’s justice, satisfying all the claims of the holy Lord God for his elect. Behold him, now in heaven’s glory, speaking to God for you, and rejoice (1 John 2:1-2; Hebrews 7:22-25; 10:12-14).
What a sweet, blessed picture Moses is here in Exodus 20 of our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom God declares, “I will cause him to draw near, and he shall approach unto me: for who is this that engaged his heart to approach unto me? saith the LORD” (Jeremiah 30:21).
“And Moses said unto the people, Fear not: for God is come to prove you, and that his fear may be before your faces, that ye sin not. And the people stood afar off, and Moses drew near unto the thick darkness where God was.” (Exodus 20:20-21)
Fourth, even as he gives the law at Sinai, the Lord God declares that there is only one way sinners can come to him, and that is by an Altar of his making, our crucified Redeemer (vv. 22-26).
“And the LORD said unto Moses, Thus thou shalt say unto the children of Israel, Ye have seen that I have talked with you from heaven. Ye shall not make with me gods of silver, neither shall ye make unto you gods of gold. An altar of earth thou shalt make unto me, and shalt sacrifice thereon thy burnt offerings, and thy peace offerings, thy sheep, and thine oxen: in all places where I record my name I will come unto thee, and I will bless thee. And if thou wilt make me an altar of stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stone: for if thou lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it. Neither shalt thou go up by steps unto mine altar, that thy nakedness be not discovered thereon.”
Robert Hawker wrote, “Is not this altar of earth intended to show, that as the earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof, and nothing of creature property is to be mixed with it, so salvation is all the Lord’s; nothing of human merit or work composing any part of it?...And doth not the prohibition of lifting up a tool upon the altar, imply that nothing can be offered of ours upon that Altar, (which is Christ himself) that sanctifieth the gift, without polluting it?” Our blessed Redeemer claims the salvation of our souls as his work, and his alone. Anyone who dares to mix any effort of his own with that of Christ, does so upon penalty of everlasting death in hell.
“And I looked, and there was none to help; and I wondered that there was none to uphold: therefore mine own arm brought salvation unto me; and my fury, it upheld me.” (Isaiah 63:5)
Rest Your Way
If God requires perfection and no man can give it, except Christ, and the Lord God forbids us to even try to perform it, how can anyone be saved? — I promised I would come back to the fourth commandment (vv. 6-10). The whole reason the law of the sabbath was given was to show us that the only way to heaven is to rest your way there. To keep the sabbath, you had to quit working, trusting God to provide everything needed, and living entirely upon God’s provision. — Christ is the Sabbath. We keep the sabbath and fulfill the whole law by trusting him, only by trusting him. By faith in Christ, and only by faith in Christ, we keep God’s commandment and establish God’s law (1 John 3:23; Romans 3:31). Christ is our Sabbath (Hebrews 4:9-11). We rest in him. And his rest is glorious (Isaiah 11:10). Finding rest in Christ, we “call the Sabbath a delight” (Isaiah 58:13-14). To all who attempt to keep the law by their works and pretend to observe the sabbath day carnally, the law and the sabbath it requires are irksome duties that only cause pain.
Satan, in his great craftiness and subtlety, has turned the law of the sabbath, the law of rest into a work. Do not fall for his lie. Come to Christ and rest your way to heaven (Matthew 11:28-30).
God give us grace ever to reverence his holy law, and never lose sight of the fact that rather than that one jot or tittle of the law should fail, he gave his own dear Son to be our great, glorious, all-sufficient Surety, to be made sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.
With every remembrance of God’s holy law, with every remembrance of his precepts, with every thought of his commands, let me acknowledge my sin, confess my guilt, and cling to my Savior. Spirit of God, make every word of the law a love token from our God to endear our Redeemer to our hearts. Let me never be found going about to establish my own righteousness, but be found in Christ, who of God is made unto me righteousness, trusting him who is “the end of the law for righteousness to everyone that believeth” (Romans 10:4).