The following is my manuscript from Sunday’s sermon from Exodus. The manuscript can be found as a PDF here. The audio can be downloaded here. “God Gives His Law” (Ex. 20:1-2) | Kevin P. Larson | 11.18.12
It’s common to hear about lawsuits over the display of the Ten Commandments in our schools or courtrooms. Sometimes it’s atheist groups trying to take them down. Sometimes it’s Christian groups fighting to keep them up. But I’m convinced that, if we try to do this, we move away from Jesus, and we push those around us away, as well. There is much confusion in how we understand and apply the Ten Commandments in our culture. That sort of thing only increases that. Today I hope to bring some clarity to this. What is the point of the Ten Commandments for us today? We’ll dive into that in just a minute, but first, some introductory points by way of review.
First, remember who is speaking in chapter 19. It says, in verse 1, “God spoke all these words.” This is the God who reveals Himself in thunder and lightning and clouds and fire in the chapter previous. He is the holy, awesome Lord who tells His people to approach Him carefully. He is speaking. His people are to listen.
Second, notice how He introduces the Ten Commandments in verse 2. “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” These coming words are couched in grace. Our tendency is to turn these commands into ways to earn God’s love, but this verse makes that insane. God saves. His people then follow Him and obey.
Third, remember what is happening here as God speaks to Moses on this mountain. These commands are given as part of a covenant, an agreement between two parties. The two make promises to each other, usually with an oath. Back then, it was generally between a king and one of His subjects, a landowner or lower ruler under Him. The lesser promised the greater His obedience. That’s what’s happening here. The King is laying out what they’re supposed to do. The people are called to agree to do it. They covenant with the Lord.
Here’s the big idea I want us to consider this morning. What’s the purpose of the Ten Commandments for us today? The Father gives us these commands so we can see our sin, run to His Son, and rely on His Spirit. Let’s pray.
The Lord Gives Us Principles
This morning, I’ll move from principles to a problem to a person to a promise. First, the Lord gives us principles here. We normally call them commandments, but the headings in the original text, as well as Exodus 34:28, call them just the “Ten Words.” More on that in a second, but these “words” are principles for life. They’re absolute commands that aren’t tied to specific situations. That comes in the next section, in chapters 21-23. Exodus calls that section “The Judgments,” where those principles are applied to everyday life. There are fines and punishments for wrongdoing. The little details are given. But here we have the big principles. The first four deal with our relationship with God. The final six deal with our relationship with others. We’ll take one at a time this winter in Karis.
These principles are rooted in the character of God. He is devoted to His glory above everything. He is about life, not death. He is faithful to His spouse. He always tells the truth. And these principles are meant to be reflected in the lives of His people. As Israel is to live as God’s son, they are also to resemble their Father. With this covenant, the Lord is forging a new nation, a people who will look and act like Him. Interestingly, calling these commands “words” is meant to pull the original reader back to creation. In the creation story at the beginning of Genesis, the words “He said” are found precisely ten times. God made the heavens and earth with His powerful word. God is creating a new people by His word. And those Israelites are meant to be just as dependent upon His words as the stars and seas and trees and birds were. And, These words are again not just meant for Israel.
These principles are meant to draw the nations to God. Remember? Back in chapter 19, the Lord calls His people to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” They are, as His priests, to pull the nations toward God. They are as a holy nation, or as His saints, to look different and attractive to those that surround them. How would they do this? They’d live out these “Ten Words” and the “Judgments” that follow. They’d give a picture to the world of life lived in God’s kingdom. Here we have in the Ten Commandments the pathway to life as it was intended.
The Principles Create A Problem
That, however, creates a problem. They couldn’t, and we can’t, keep these principles. Turn with me to Luke 18. Let’s read verses 18-23.
18 And a ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 19 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 20 You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother. ’” 21 And he said, “All these I have kept from my youth.” 22 When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 23 But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich.
What does this rich, young ruler do? He looks at the commandments and thinks, “I’m doing pretty well. I haven’t killed anyone or robbed any banks. I’m cool.” But how does Jesus respond? He puts the spotlight on his heart. He shows the guy that he’s violating the first commandment. What’s that? “You shall have no other gods before me.” He was trusting in His money, not God. All of us are constantly putting other things in the first place in our lives - people, stuff, hobbies, and work. We worship idols instead of the Lord. We can’t get past the first commandment without stumbling.
But maybe we’re not doing as well as we think with the others. Turn over with me to Matthew 5. We see the Pharisees as the bad guys. In that day, they were the holy men. They were known for being exemplary in keeping God’s word. Look at verse 20. Jesus says, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” This would have been scary for the people listening to Jesus. Exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees? How? What? Jesus explains. Look at verses 21-22.
21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment. ’ 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool! ’ will be liable to the hell of fire.
Jesus speaks boldly here. He quotes their commandments, saying, “You’ve heard this, BUT I SAY TO YOU.” What authority! He is saying He’s a new Moses. But He’s also God Himself. And what He does here is take their conception of the law and go deeper. You’re not OK if you just succeed in not killing someone! You break the commandment by simply getting angry. Look at verses 27-28.
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery. ’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
What’s his point here? You don’t keep the commandment by simply not sleeping with your neighbor’s wife. You keep it by turning your head and stopping the fantasizing when she walks by. So, what does Christ mean when He talks about surpassing the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees? He is calling us beyond external, false righteousness to what is true and of the heart.
Several years ago, I read an article from the UK talking about a new recommendation of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority of their education system. What was their recommendation? Students write their own tests and grade them, too. Wouldn’t that be great? Isn’t that what we want, as well? We determine what’s expected of us from God. We then say how we measure up. But when we do that, we always prop ourselves up and dumb down His law. He writes the test. He grades it. We all have a problem. We break these principles. All of us. The fundamental purpose of the Ten Commandments, as well as all of God’s law here in the Old Testament, is to show us we can’t keep it. We can’t.
Romans 3:20 says, “Through the law comes knowledge of sin.” This law of Moses is meant to be a mirror we hold up, look in, and see what we’re really like. We’re sinners who deserve judgment before a holy God. We have a problem. But the law doesn’t just show us our sin, it even incites us to sin. We’ve all seen those signs at the zoo that say, “Don’t feed the animals.” Now, if that sign wouldn’t have been there, we might have fed them and not known it was bad, right? The sign gives us knowledge. But doesn’t it also result in temptation? It makes you want to feed them, right? If you say, “Son, don’t jump on the bed,” he then desperately wants to jump on it. It happens with adults, too. We know that the sign is there so we don’t get our arm bitten off. We know that it’s probably there to protect the animals, too. But we want to do it. It must be fun, right?! I think that’s what Romans 5:20 means when it says, “The law came in to increase the trespass.” Look with me at Romans 7:7-8.
7 What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” 8 But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead.
The law shows us our sin, it incites us to sin, and it ends up enslaving us in sin. The Ten Commandments, which were good and theoretically could have provided life, due to human sin and God’s plan, simply couldn’t. As verse 10 says, “The very commandment that promised life proved death to me.” The Father gives us these commands so we can see our sin. These principles then pose a problem. That is then meant to point us to a person and a promise.
The Problem Points to a Person
But what do we do? We try harder. We think, “I’ll be a better person. I’ll please God even more.” But that just doesn’t work. Donald Grey Barnhouse illustrated it like this. We look into the mirror of the law, and we see we have a dirty face. But we don’t take the mirror off the wall and try to scrub our faces with it. That wouldn’t work. It would even hurt! The mirror is meant to drive us to the water. That will cleanse us. The water is Jesus Christ. The Ten Commandments, and all of God’s law, are meant to show us our need for a Savior and drive us to Him. Jesus is the point of it all. The problem points to a person - and that person is not us.
Look back with me at Matthew 5 again, in verses 17-20.
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Pharisees accuse Jesus of teaching something other than God’s word. Christ says, “Nope. It all points to me.” That’s what he means when He says that He came to “fulfill” it. Everything taught in the “Law or the Prophets” - the whole Old Testament - is fulfilled in Christ’s person and ministry. That means the law isn’t binding upon the one who trusts in Christ. Romans 10:4 says: “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” The end! He is the law’s goal. God put it there to let us see our need for sin and move us toward a Savior. Now it’s done.
Now many have tried to divide the law up into three categories: the civil law, the ceremonial law, and the moral law. Civil law refers to the regulations we’ll see here in Exodus about how Israel as a nation under God was to live for Him. Because Christ has a new people, His church, people say it’s no longer binding on us. Sure. Ceremonial law refers to the sacrificial system, as well as all the other prescriptions for worship. Because Jesus died and rose again, we no longer sacrifice animals. That no longer is our responsibility. No more temples, either. I agree. The moral law, though, refers to the Ten Commandments. Some argue that these words are still binding on us, that they’re eternal laws. But I don’t think that holds up. Here’s a main reason why: the Sabbath. We’ll talk about this more in a few weeks, but look with me at Colossians 2:16-17.
16 Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.
Catch that? Don’t let someone try to make you keep the Sabbath! This massively important commandment God gave His people is no longer something we must keep. Look at Romans 14:5-6.
5 One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.
Do we still rest? You’ll have to come back for that sermon. But hear now what this is saying. Paul is clearly talking about the Sabbath. We’re no longer bound to keep it. Christ has fulfilled the entire law, and that includes even these Ten Commandments. Now, you might ask, “So we can murder and steal and commit adultery?” No! All of those prohibitions are clearly carried over into the New Testament - just not the Sabbath. In the New Testament, Paul talks about this idea of the “law of Christ” that now constrains Him. He talks elsewhere about how the whole law is summed up in one word: love. That’s what we’re called to - deep love of God in the heart that leads to love for others. If we experience that, we’ll find ourselves living in line with these commandments. This doesn’t get us off the hook. This deepens our responsibility. It doesn’t remove it.
But our hope again isn’t in how well we do what we’re called to do. Our hope is in Jesus. The whole law, including these commandments points to Him. We are sinners. He is a Savior. But He fulfills the law in another sense: He obeys every little bit of it. He never sins. If we trust Him, His obedience is transferred to us. Additionally, His death on the cross pays for our disobedience. We can be cleansed, forgiven, saved. That’s gospel.
A man walks up to heaven’s gates and talks to Peter. The apostle says, “You’ve gotta get 1000 points to get into heaven. What have you done?” The guy freaks out but lists this big resume. Peter says, “All those good things, you did for you. You never really kept God’s law. I’ll give you a point.” The man replies, “Lord, have mercy!” Peter responds, “That’s it! Welcome home!” God’s law is meant to drive us to Jesus for mercy.
I was listening to Cowherd the other day on ESPN radio. He said, “‘Do unto others as you’d have them do to you.’ All the rest of the Bible is just commentary.” There he makes the Bible primarily about what we can do. But God’s word is primarily about what Jesus does. So I’d say to Colin and all of you, “Jesus has done it all. Everything else just points to Him.” The Father gives us these commands so we can see our sin, and run to His Son.
The Problem Points to a Promise
But some of you will still say, “I’m not doing too well at showing love. I get angry all the time. I can’t seem to shake lust.” See, we still have a problem. That problem also points to a promise.
Remember how I said that these commands are a part of a covenant? Specifically, it’s what’s been called the covenant with Moses or the Mosaic covenant. God and His people stand on this mountain and make some promises, but they can’t keep them. We can’t either.
That drives us to the Son. But it also drives us to the Spirit. If you told me right now, “Go over there into the activities center and dunk,” I couldn’t. But if you gave me a gravity suit or maybe a trampoline, yes. In the Old Testament, God’s prophets don’t just point ahead to a Savior. They talk about a power. Look with me at Ezekiel 36:
24 I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. 28 You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.
What’s the promise? A new heart. His Holy Spirit within us. The ability through His strength to do what God calls us to do. This is the New Covenant Jesus came to initiate. It makes the Old, Mosaic covenant obsolete. It doesn’t leave us in despair. It gives us hope. Jeremiah puts it like this.
31 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. 33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
The Lord prophesies about a new nation, a new people, where they’ll all know the Lord. His law will be inside them. If we’re in Christ, if we’re a part of His church, if we’re trusting in Jesus, that’s us. We can love those who are our enemies. We have new hearts. He’s transforming us into His image again. We can honor Him.
But not only can we live for him. We want to live for Him. Tullian Tchividjian tells the story of a young slave girl who finds freedom before the war ends. A man buys her, and as they’re walking away, he says, “You’re free.” She replies, “You mean, I’m free to do whatever I want?”
“Yes,” he says.
“And to say whatever I want to say?”
“And to be whatever I want to be?”
“And even go wherever I want to go?”
“Yes,” he answered with a smile. “You’re free to go wherever you’d like.”
She looked at him intently and replied, “Then I will go with you.”
The Father gives us these commands so we can see our sin, run to His Son, and rely on His Spirit. Let’s follow after Him!
Embracing the Person and Promise
So what’s the problem with posting the Ten Commandments everywhere? Why not fight to put them in schools and courtrooms? Why did I start by saying that it moves us away from Christ and pushes others away, as well? We start thinking that we’re keeping them just fine. We end up arrogant and satisfied.
We forget that they find their fulfillment in Christ. We lose the idea that only He has perfectly kept them. We forget our fundamental problem. We don’t let that problem drive us to the person. We trust in ourselves and not His Spirit of power. We confuse the purpose of those commands.
And that comes across to those around us. We come across as jerks. We reinforce salvation by works. We preach a false gospel. We try to get people without the promised Holy Spirit and apart from Jesus Christ to keep them. I can’t think of many things more damaging than that. Yet if we look at God’s law and see ourselves as guilty, if we see salvation only by the mercy of Christ, we’ll be broken, gracious people. Then people will want to hear from us.
Ted Koppel famously said this: “what Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai were not the Ten Suggestions. They are commandments.” No, these are not Ten Suggestions, Ted. But they’re not Ten Steps, either. Doing them doesn’t make us right with God. God makes us right with Him. He sets us free from our bondage, as He does here for Israel. He swoops under us and rescues us on eagle’s wings. He brings us to freedom and safety through Jesus. Then empowered by His Spirit, and motivated by His great love, we can and want to obey.
Karis family, He has fulfilled these massive principles for us. Let’s admit there is a problem. Let’s run to the person, Jesus. Let’s trust in His promise. And let’s go out and love. Let’s pray.