Modern medicine has produced lots of incredible things. Not only can we treat many diseases, but we can actually see inside our own bodies. Things like X-rays and MRI scans can show us when things are wrong on the inside, giving remarkable pictures of what’s going on ‘under the bonnet’, so that we can diagnose and treat illness. But these things can only do so much. An X-ray can show you a broken bone, but it won’t be able to treat it. Nobody has ever looked at their MRI scan and been instantly well again! You need surgeons and nurses and doctors and healing time to get better. There’s a difference between diagnosis and treatment. And I hope that as we look at the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 we’ll see that they were always intended to show us our greatest problem. Like an X-ray, they can’t fix us, but they do show what’s wrong.
So let’s take a look at the passage:
And God spoke all these words:
“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
“You shall have no other gods before Me.
“You shall not make for yourself an idol 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, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate Me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love Me and keep My commandments.
“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 labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but He rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
“Honour your father and mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.
“You shall not murder.
“You shall not commit adultery.
“You shall not steal.
“You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour.
“You shall not covet your neighbour’s house. You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.”
Israel as a nation was in slavery in Egypt. God freed them from this slavery to lead them into a land that He had promised to their ancestor Abraham. At this point in the book of Exodus, God has just freed Israel from slavery and has led them from Egypt to a place called Mount Sinai in the middle of the desert of the Sinai Peninsula. If you look at the previous chapter, you’ll see that God came to the mountain in a dense cloud so that he could speak to the people of Israel and to Moses their leader. So, the people of Israel are gathered around the bottom of the mountain and God’s manifest presence has descended on the top of the mountain in the form of a cloud with smoke and thunder and an earthquake. And then God speaks the commands we have just read directly to the people. The “Ten Commandments”, as we know them, are right at the beginning of the Old Testament covenant between God and Israel, His people.
So what is this covenant? A covenant is a binding agreement between two people which brings them together in some sort of relationship. The way the Old Testament covenant was given is in a similar form to other covenants around at the time which were treaties between a conquering overlord or ruling state and the conquered people. In these treaties the overlord agreed to benefit the people with his protection and care as long as they obeyed the rules of the treaty.
In a similar way to these treaties, before He gives the rules of the covenant God establishes the giver of the covenant – Himself – and the relationship between Him and the people, as we can see in verse two here: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” If you notice, God is putting the covenant entirely in the context of His grace, because He identifies their relationship as Him being the one who saved them from slavery. The rest of the covenant, including other clauses such as rules and punishments, is covered in the rest of Exodus, and in the books of Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
Our passage this afternoon is right at the beginning of the covenant. It is where God establishes how the relationship between Him and His people is going to work. If you notice, the tone of this passage is very much along the lines of “I am your God, and this is how you will live as My people.” These commands were not meant to be restrictive, but to give freedom.
After all that background, let’s have a look at the commands God gives.
The commands given here are listed in an order of decreasing importance, from the relationship of people to God, to the relationship of people to each other. God starts by addressing the relationship between His people and Himself. He says “You shall have no other gods before Me.” in verse 3. The worship of God alone is at the heart of this covenant relationship.
God then moves from who His people worship to how they worship, or really how not to worship. He says that they aren’t to make any idols, any visual representations of Him based on anything in the world. And this means that their understanding of who God is can’t be distorted by any picture that they would make of Him. The only thing they have to go on is what He has revealed about Himself to them. And later on in Exodus 34 He revealed Himself to Moses as “… the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.” The reason God gave for not having idols is that He is a jealous God. He is jealous in that anything which is made to rival the glory and honour that He deserves, such as idols, will invoke His passion for His own character and glory.
God’s passion for His glory shows in the next command – don’t misuse God’s name. You see, God’s name is about more than just the word itself. His name carries His reputation; it includes His very Person. God’s name is not to be used lightly!
The command about the Sabbath is about right worship. Later on in Exodus, the Sabbath is described as a sign of the covenant relationship between God and Israel. Therefore, anyone not observing the Sabbath was showing contempt for the covenant, and so the relationship they had with God.
The next set of commands, in verses 12-17, are about right relationships with other people, whether it is by honouring parents, or not murdering, stealing, lying, committing adultery, or jealously wishing you had something that someone else has.
So that’s a quick overview of the Ten Commandments. Let’s now think about what this means for us now.
God’s covenant with His people as established in the Old Testament was thousands of years ago, so what does this Old Testament law mean for us today?
Well, since the covenant in the Old Testament was given, the most important thing that has happened is Jesus, God’s Son, coming to earth. He didn’t come to scrap the old covenant, though. In Matthew 5:17-18 He said “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets [that’s the Old Testament covenant]; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”
Not only did Jesus support the Old Testament covenant, He also explained it further. At the time, the Pharisees and teachers of the Law were teaching God’s commands, but many only addressed the outward obedience of them. Jesus said that the Old Testament Law was based on the command to “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” [Deuteronomy 6, Jesus quotes in Matthew 22] And that isn’t done by just acting out the commands. God’s commands require more than what we do. So, Jesus said that commands like “You shall not murder” were not carried out by merely not killing anyone, but that the kind of sinful anger that causes someone to use bitter words is by nature murder, and breaking that command [see Matthew 5:22]. He also unpacked the command forbidding adultery in a similar way: “… I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” [Matthew 5:27]. Jesus also described the absolute perfection required by God’s holy standard: “… I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” [Matthew 5:20].
This is a high standard! The Ten Commandments not only cover what we do, but how we think and feel as well.
I don’t know how you feel at this point. When I was studying this, I was very convicted of my own failure to follow these commands. I know that I have broken all of them! And the fact is that we have not kept these commands. We are unholy people, unable to stick to God’s high standard.
Yet the sense of hopelessness that we get from taking a long, hard look at ourselves compared to God’s standard is exactly what the Old Testament Law is there for. Romans 3:20 says that nobody will be declared righteous by the Law, because we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s standard. There is no way in which we can perfectly keep the Law, because the Law is there to show us our own sin. It is a diagnosis of sin, not a treatment. And the diagnosis is grim.
We have a problem more persistent than cancer and deadlier than HIV. So if sin is our disease, how can we be cured? This is where the most incredible piece of theology we know comes in – you see, Jesus fulfilled the Law, meeting its perfect standard. He took upon Himself the punishment that we deserve for our lawlessness, and died the death that we should have. God declared Jesus righteous, and brought Him back to life. So, God’s Commands were kept by Jesus, and He took our punishment for us. Not only did He do this, but Jesus gave us His righteousness – His perfect record! The Law is there to lead us to Jesus, so that we trust in Him to give us His perfect record, and so get His righteousness by faith. So when God sees us, He does not see our own failed attempt at keeping His commands. Instead He looks through Christ and it looks like we’ve kept the Law perfectly.
This is GREAT news! It means that although the old rules still stand, we don’t have to be able to obey the Ten Commandments in order to have a right relationship with God. It’s ok when we do wrong; failing to meet God’s standard doesn’t mean that we can’t know Him. All we need to do is believe in Jesus and trust Him, and then He gives us His clean record as our own. This is a great and wonderful thing! God doesn’t count our dirty records against us. We no longer have to listen to the temptation to despair because of our imperfection, because we know that God looks at us and sees Jesus’ righteousness.
This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t obey God, though. In fact, what God has done for us in setting us free from our own imperfect record should make us want to follow His ways as a response. These commands still paint a picture of what it looks like to be God’s people, and so we should still follow them. But we don’t have to return to our hopelessness when we do go wrong, because we know that God will forgive us. We shouldn’t try to rely on our own record to be right with God, because we know that there’s no way in which we meet God’s standard. So instead, we need to rely on God Himself and His promise of righteousness by trusting in Him.
We need to change. Can you see it? We can’t possibly be good enough ourselves. We need Jesus; we need to trust in His saving work, we need to come to Him and ask for our salvation by His perfect record replacing ours. We need to come to Him on our knees, knowing full well that not just our actions but our very hearts need to change – and a great promise that God gives us is that He will give us His Holy Spirit to empower us to do right and to change our broken nature.
So we’ve seen the beginning of God’s covenant with His people Israel in the Old Testament. We’ve seen that God set an outline for how His people should behave, and also how we fall hopelessly short of His high standards. The Ten Commandments were supposed to show us our sinfulness, like an X-ray shows a broken bone, so that we look to God’s way of saving us from our sin. And that salvation is found in Jesus, the Saviour that God promised for thousands of years throughout the Old Testament; the Son of God, who lived as one of us and fulfilled the Law that we could never completely follow ourselves. He took our punishment, and has given His own righteousness to those who put their trust in Him. How incredible! How magnificent is this display of God’s grace and love; granting us mercy whilst fulfilling His justice! And we should worship God with all we are because He has saved us, humbling ourselves and relying fully on our amazing Saviour for all we need.