God rescued his people Israel from slavery in Egypt and now expects in response that the Israelites should live his way. In the same way, God rescued us, his people, from slavery to sin and now expects in response that we live his way – with the help of his spirit.
Today we look at the Ten Commandments. It’s one of the most famous parts of the Bible. The Ten Commandments have formed the basis of all law in Western Society.
If people know anything about the Christian religion they know that God gave Ten Commandments, and yet, strangely enough, I think the Ten Commandments are amongst the most misunderstood part of the Christian faith.
My friend Rick works at a church and was interviewing a couple who wanted their child baptized. He said to them, ‘Well, tell me about you and God.’
The man said, ‘Well I don’t really go in for that religious and God stuff – I just keep the Ten Commandments.’
And before Rick could reply, the guy’s partner looked across at him and said, ‘Really! What are they?’ And IF looks could kill THEN she would have died. There was a long pause and he said, ‘I can think of three – hear no evil, see no evil, do no evil.’
But the sentiment, I just keep the Ten Commandments -even Christians have adopted that idea. Christians often think, ‘Yes I am Christian – saved by grace – but I have to keep the Ten Commandments.’
Q. How do the Ten Commandments fit into my framework of understanding?
A. I dunno!
Q. And what about that keep the Sabbath day stuff -and images and idols?
A. I dunno.
And in order to understand them … we need to put them in their context.
The context of the Ten Commandments
We are going to put the commandments into Biblical context – then historical context.
First, Biblical context;
God brought Israel out of Egypt. God therefore has expectations. Exodus 19:1-8
‘In the third month, on the same day of the month that the Israelites had left the land of Egypt, they entered the Wilderness of Sinai.’
After they departed from Rephidim, they entered the Wilderness of Sinai and camped in the wilderness, and Israel camped there in front of the mountain.
3 Moses went up the mountain to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain: “This is what you must say to the house of Jacob, and explain to the Israelites: 4 ‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me.’
There are three things that are said here about what the Lord had done for Israel.
First, the Lord took on Egypt, and beat Egypt, and freed them from slavery.
Second, the Lord carried Israel on eagles’ wings. It’s a metaphor – but it’s a good one. The Lord has done it all for them:
The Lord opened the Red Sea.
The Lord has provided the bread.
The Lord has provided the meat.
The Lord has provided the water.
It’s eagles wings!
Thirdly, God has brought Israel to himself. They were over there in Egypt. God has brought them all the way here to Sinai – the place he first spoke to Moses, and now he is speaking to them.
Now, having done that for you, says God, I have an expectation of you:
Exodus 19, sentence 5
5 Now if you will listen to me and carefully keep my covenant,’
IF you do that… THEN three things will happen:
1. You will be mine.
‘You will be my own possession out of all the peoples, although all the earth is mine,’
‘You will be special’, says Yahweh, ‘My treasured possession.’
2. You will be a kingdom of priests and you will be my kingdom of priests.’
You will be royal, you will rulers, and you will be mediators between the world and me.
3. You will be a holy nation.
You will be my kingdom of priests and my holy nation.
Back in Genesis 12, God promised to make Abraham into a great nation.
Now here is that group to whom he gave the promise, but this time they are to be designated holy. ‘Holy’ means different -set apart – special.
Now, just note this that we have a situation where God says ‘IF’ followed by ‘THEN.’ This is the first time we have seen this in the Bible. When God made promises to Abraham, he just said, ‘I am going to do it for you Abraham. This blessing will make you a great nation, and a blessing to all the earth.
But, now – I think it has been implicit before – but now it is explicit – there is an expectation of a particular behaviour from God’s people. God has rescued them – they are in a real sense his – and he has expectations of them. The Ten Commandments will go on to spell out the expectations that God has for his people.
Secondly, there is another context though through which we should look at the Ten Commandments. It is an historical one.
At the time of this interaction between God and Israel, in the wider society at that time, around 14-hundred BC, there were other international treaties called the Suzerain Vassal Treaties.
Archaeologists have found some from the Hittite Empire Sources. The Hittites were in central Asian Minor, and they controlled a vast area.
And what happened was that big countries that invaded little countries would make treaties with the little countries – and they had a standard form.
There were six elements:
I. First of all there was a preamble in which the principle party identified themselves. E.g. The Hittite king.
II. Secondly, there was a review of the way the king had related to the little country that it had just occupied. E.g. ‘You were in lots of trouble economically, and we came and rescued you by kicking your teeth in.’
III. Then there was a general statement of how the relationship was to continue.
IV. Then there were specific stipulations – exact requirements.
V. The gods of both nations were called as witnesses.
VI. Then blessings and curses were pronounced. E.g. If you pay your taxes in full – then we will leave you alone. If you don’t pay your taxes in full – then we will come and beat you up again.
There are similarities between the structure of the Suzerain Vassal treaty of the Hivites and this section of the book of Exodus.
Let’s look at Exodus chapter 20, sentence 1:
‘And God spoke all these words: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery”.’
The relationship is established.
2’I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the place of slavery.’
Everything that is about to be said, hangs on that. God rescued them. They are in a very real sense his. Understand this … the commandments that are given, are given in the context of grace – God’s free gift. God didn’t have to rescue them – God chose to. Then because he has rescued them – he asks them to live his way. We must never take the Ten Commandments out of the context of grace.
The Old Testament God is not a god of works. You do these commandments – then I will accept you.
That’s not God.
It’s the same God in both testaments. The God of the Old Testament is the god of the New Testament. You must never ever take the Ten Commandments – out of the context of God’s gracious rescue to of his people Israel.
It’s so clear in the Bible. God rescued them. God bore them on eagles’ wings.
God arranged their itinerary to bring them to himself, and in that context God says – this is what I want you to do.
Many translations of the Ten Commandments leave out the reminder of God’s grace in bringing the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt at the beginning of the passage.
Even the Anglican prayer book (1978 Australian Edition) has it wrong.
So our response to the Commandments must rightly be set in the context of God’s grace. In the New Testament God’s expectation that we would obey him is set in the context of his generosity to us. We were rebels – he was generous – he forgave – and in response there’s an expectation of obedience.
Then there are ten words – Ten Commandments – ten expectations. They come in the second person singular – YOU. It’s a direct address to every individual in all of Israel.
They are unqualified.
They are unmediated – it is God -the Lord speaking.
They are absolute.
They are primary.
They are prescriptive.
They are permanent
There is no direct social context. There is no fine. There is no punishment.
What you should do – is THIS. What you should NOT do – is THAT.
The New Testament application (Matthew 5:17-20)
But how do they apply to us? We need to remember that there is a sense that they are fulfilled by Christ. Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount,
17 “Don’t assume that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. 18 For I assure you: Until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all things are accomplished. 19. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches people to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
But Jesus makes the claim to fulfill the commandments. Jesus is the one who keeps the commandments perfectly. But Jesus clearly isn’t abolishing the commandments – he moves the focus of the commandments from the external – right to the very heart of each commandment.
Lets work through the commandments – and the New Testament teaching on the subject at the same time.
They are amazingly relevant and if you lookdown the list, you will see the areas of modern life that I think they touch on.
I. Atheism and belief in God: No other gods (Exodus 20:1-3; 1 Corinthians 8:4-6)
‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the place of slavery. Do not have other gods besides me.’
There is an expectation that the Lord’s people will have no other Gods but him. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 8, teaches the Corinthians exactly the same point:
‘About eating food offered to idols, then, we know that “an idol is nothing in the world,” and that “there is no God but one.” 5 For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth—as there are many “gods” and many “lords” – 6 yet for us there is one God, the Father. All things are from Him, and we exist for Him and there is one Lord, Jesus Christ. All things are through Him, and we exist through Him.’
In our society people worship money, consumption, weird self help systems, technology, health, drugs, sex, alcohol, travel, work or pleasure. In our society we say you can do whatever you want – as long as it doesn’t involve killing maiming, upsetting or ripping off others.
But that is not what God is saying here. God is saying we must put him first.
And there is a challenge for us today – in the light of his grace – to ask ourselves – What’s our idol that we have put in front of serving Yahweh who rescued us?
And the challenge is to get rid of whatever it is!
II Images (Chapter 20:4-6; John 5:21; Acts 17:29-30; Romans 1:22-23)
4 Do not make an idol for yourself, whether in the shape of anything in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth. 5 You must not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the fathers’ sin, to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, 6 but showing faithful love to a thousand generations of those who love Me and keep My commands.’
It is very clear. There are to be no idols, no images of God. The New Testament teaching is just the same – no making images of the divine:
Acts 17:‘Being God’s offspring then, we shouldn’t think that the divine nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image fashioned by human art and imagination.’
Nowadays the whole technology of replicating/reproducing is what we do best and most. But God has been clear – he does not want us to make statutes of him.
I was shocked again on holidays. Cathie and I went on a heritage tour of Armidale, and we walked together through the Roman Catholic Cathedral.
And quite honestly, the corporate sin in that building over decades was shocking – as images/statues had been erected for people to worship – to bow down to. It corporately, systematically modeled disobedience to God.
III Swearing oaths: The Lord’s name. (Exodus Chapter 20:7; Matthew 5:33-37; James 3:9-10)
This is Commandment Three
Exodus. 20:7 “
‘Do not misuse the name of the Lord your God, because the Lord will not leave anyone unpunished who misuses His name.’
I think this is an injunction against swearing in anger – by the name of God or Jesus – or swearing an oath:
‘By Jesus I will do this.’
One could also misuse God’s name by trivializing his name – by poking fun at God. I don’t mind movies, jokes, cartoons that poke fun at Christians/Church/Church leaders, but I do object – and I think we all should to things/movies/jokes – where God is satirized, where God is mocked. (I don’t mind mocking me and I don’t mind mocking Christians). But all comedy has a victim – and I don’t want to make God the victim of my comedy.
As Jesus is divine, then we should NOT be part of satirizing Jesus. I was in year 9 when the movie the Life or Brian came out. And I have had lots of opportunities to watch it, but have chosen not to. I don’t say this to boast.
I just put it out there – that the little I have read of the movie – has it mocking Jesus and his crucifixion, and I don’t want to be involved in mocking God.
IV Work life balance: Rest (Exodus Chapter 20:8-11; Hebrews 4:9-11)
8 Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy: 9 you are to labor six days and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. You must not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the foreigner who is within your gates. 11 For the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything in them in six days; then He rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and declared it holy.
God encourages his people to rest – because it took him six days to make the world, and one to rest. If the creator works six and rests one, then the creature of the creator should work six and rest one.
A guy I know is young and fit and healthy. He works every single day.
There’s nothing each week to remind him that he is heading for something.
There is something right about living for the weekend. There’s something wrong about it as well. If you live for the weekend, you are saying that there is more to life than work. The person who lives for work is somehow unbalanced! There is more to life than work – there’s rest with God.
Now, some Christians have sadly changed God’s command, which was to have a rest, to celebrate what God is giving you. Christians have changed
Thou shalt not work on Saturday.
Thou shalt not play on Sunday.
I don’t know how that wowser idea was introduced, but it’s wrong! There’s nothing wrong and everything right about having fun on God’s rest day. So let me preach explicitly in favour of enjoying yourself, and having fun especially on Sunday!
V. Family Breakdown: Honour your parents (Exodus chapter 20:12; Ephesians 6:1-3; Colossians 3:20)
Commandment five says:
‘Honor your father and your mother so that you may have a long life in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.’
It is always right that we honour our parents. If we honour our parents, the promise to Israel is long life in God’s land. The promise to us is the New Testament equivalent of eternal life.
Let me pick it up … as the New Testament does in Ephesians 6:
‘Children, obey your parents as you would the Lord, because this is right. 2 Honor your father and mother, which is the first commandment with a promise, 3 so that it may go well with you and that you may have a long life in the land.’
As parents we need to teach our children to honour and obey us. Our children will learn to honour us, partly by our modeling of the way we relate to our own parents, and partly by the way we relate to our own parents behind their backs.
Do a little audit: What do you say in the hearing of your kids, about your parents, behind the backs of your parents? Your children are learning from your modeling.
And do another little audit: How are you going at teaching your children to honour and obey you?
When you tell your kid to come here, and he ignores you, you are teaching him that it doesn’t matter if he obeys you or not, unless you are prepared to follow through with some sort of discipline.
You have reinforced in his mind that it doesn’t matter if he obeys/honour s you – and derivatively you have taught him that it doesn’t matter if he treats God’s unqualified, unmediated, absolute, primary, prescriptive, permanent commandments as optional!
As adults, we are also to continue to be about bringing honour to our parents.
To be someone who goes around running down your parents is wrong!
I don’t think though this passage means that it is necessary or appropriate for us to be taking our parents’ direction on every life issue as a married person who has left their home.
You will bring honour to your parents- by demonstrating to the world that they have done a good job in parenting you – in that they have trained a man or woman to act independently of them. I think there is something ‘dishonoring to parents’ about the 35-45 year old man who is unable to make any decision without consulting Mum.
VI. Murder (Exodus Chapter 20:13; Matthew 5:21-22; 15:19)
Commandment six: Do not murder.
The principle that’s taught back in Exodus about murder is very clear. The Old Testament makes it clear that if for selfish, willful reasons you murder someone, cut short his life, make his wife a widow and his children fatherless, then you deserve to die yourself. That has been taught from as far back as Genesis 9:
‘Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed’.
However, it is important to note that the commandment:
‘Do not murder,’
is different from
‘Do not kill’.
In the New Testament in Romans 13, when the apostle speaks of the judge as God’s minister in using the sword, there is an indication that it is right/permitted for the state to put to death those who deserve death.
Now it is of course possible to mitigate justice with mercy – but the first thing is to look at what the crime deserves. (Have a look at Broughton Knox’s paper on that.)
Now, when Jesus teaches on this he says, “You have heard that it was said do not murder, but I say do not hate.”
He gets to the heart of the issue of murder – which is hate.
I suspect quite a few of us could think of people – who if we were being honest – we might say we ‘hated’ – and that is something that needs our attention.
VII. Marriage and Sexuality: Adultery & faithfulness (Exodus Chapter 20:14; Matthew 5:27-30; 15:19)
Commandment number seven:
Do not commit adultery.
Jesus’ application is:
Matt. 5:27 27 “You have heard that it was said, do not commit adultery. 28 But I tell you, everyone who looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to go into hell!
Jesus is not just interested in keeping the letter of the law. He is interested in getting to the very heart of it, and that is to not look at a woman lustfully!
This is such a struggle – and so important.
VIII. Stealing, western wealth and global poverty: Generosity (Exodus Chapter 20:15; Ephesians 4:28; Matthew 15:19)
The next one, Commandment eight is: Do not steal.
The New Testament application is the same:
‘ The thief must no longer steal. Instead, he must do honest work with his own hands, so that he has something to share with anyone in need.’
What is being commended here is honest work with our hands – so we have something to share!
We westerners, we wealthy westerners – need to hear the concern for the poor – around here and around the world.
IX. The backdrop to every story on A Current Affair: lying (Exodus Chapter 20:16; Luke 3:14; 18:20; Ephesians 4:25)
‘Do not give false testimony against your neighbor.’
There is similar teaching in the New Testament:
Ephesians 4:25 ‘ Since you put away lying, speak the truth, each one to his neighbor, because we are members of one another.’
X. The darkness of human hearts: coveting (Exodus Chapter 20:17; Luke 12:15; Romans 7:7-12)
Commandment Ten. ‘ Do not covet your neighbor’s house. Do not covet your neighbor’s wife, his male or female slave, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.’
And Jesus says in Luke 12:
‘He then told them, “Watch out and be on guard against all greed because one’s life is not in the abundance of his possessions.”’
And everything – everything in our culture – is teaching us to look at our neighbors’ houses, their cars, their clothes, their food, their bodies, their fitness and be jealous.
You look better than I do. You look wealthier than I do. You dress better than I do. You eat better than I do.
Jesus says – watch out, be on your guard against all greed!
The ten words of Chapter 20 are followed by the ‘ordinances’. These are mediated – they are presented by Moses, not God. These are derivative. These are contextual, these are pragmatic – they are tailored suit the emerging needs of the new society. These are the application of the ten principles to specific contexts. These are establishing the boundaries of the relationship.
These not called commandments.
What is Israel’s response?
Exodus. 24:3 ‘Moses came and told the people all the commands of the Lord and all the ordinances. Then all the people responded with a single voice, “We will do everything that the Lord has commanded.”’
But it isn’t long before Israel fails to keep their side of the covenant. We will see the first spectacular incident of that in Exodus 32. In fact, the rest of the Old Testament story is essentially a catalogue of Israel’s failure to meet the Lord’s expectations.
It is clear that a new thing – a new covenant – is required – that the Exodus one will not be adequate. In Jeremiah 31, there is a promise of something more:
Jeremiah 31:31 “Look, the days are coming”—this is the Lord’s declaration “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. 32 This one will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant they broke even though I had married them” —the Lord’s declaration. 33 “Instead, this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days”—the Lord’s declaration. “I will put my teaching within them and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34. No longer will one teach his neighbor or his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know me, from the least to the greatest of them”—this is the Lord’s declaration. “For I will forgive their wrongdoing and never again remember their sin.”
God is talking about a day when he will give the people his Spirit.
Paul then can write to the Corinthians at a later time, that they, the people he has led to Christ, are:
(2 Corinthians. 3:3) ‘It is clear that you are Christ’s letter, produced by us, not written with ink but with the Spirit of the living God —not on stone tablets but on tablets that are hearts of flesh.’
These people, the Corinthians, are letters from Christ, written by the Spirit of God. They themselves, the Corinthian Christians, have been so profoundly changed by the Spirit of God, that they are letters from Jesus – representing Jesus – commending Jesus.
That wasn’t Israel. You couldn’t say that of Israel, but you can say that of people whom the Spirit of God has changed. You can say it of the Christians of Corinth.
You can say it of us!
We see another description of the New Testament people of God in 1 Peter 2:9-10;
‘But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his possession, so that you may proclaim the praises of the One who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.’
It is a clear allusion back to Exodus 19-20. Just as Israel were God’s possession among the nations, a kingdom of priests, a holy nation, so we are described here as a chosen people, royal priesthood and a holy nation.
Just as the expectation of them was that they might keep the Old Covenant, so the expectation of us is that we might:
‘Proclaim the praises of the One who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.’
Why should we do this? Well, ‘Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.’
Therefore, how should we live?
11. ‘Dear friends, I urge you as strangers and temporary residents to abstain from fleshly desires that war against you. 12. Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that in a case where they speak against you as those who do what is evil, they will, by observing your good works, glorify God on the day of visitation.’
So, what is the significance of the Ten Commandments for us?
Well firstly – they tell us something about the character of God. Our God is like this … our God expects this…
And they are commandments, given to his people by our God – in the context of relationship/covenant relationship. He has rescued us – we are his people – now these are his expectations.
Secondly the Ten Commandments are perfectly fulfilled in Christ. Jesus did these things. Jesus perfectly kept all these commandments. This is the kind of person Jesus was.
The Ten Commandments – are relevant to a world – which isn’t yet Christian.
If you are not yet Christian, then these words from God give a pointer to the nature of the holy life that Yahweh would expect of you if you are saved by him.
And now, after salvation, these commands teach God’s people how to live. They had it on stone. Now, God has written it on our very hearts. – by his spirit.
They said that they would keep the commandments – and failed. We need to ask God to so fill us with his spirit that we would, with the help of his spirit – actually follow him and keep them!