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The Ten Commandments

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Exodus 20:1-17


I was talking to Terrance Edwards the other day and we were talking about some of the calls which have been made on those who hit quarterbacks. He was saying that when Cleo Lemon was hit and chipped a tooth it was a fair hit because he was out of the pocket and the rules indicate that when a quarterback starts running he is considered a running back and can be tackled accordingly. On the other hand, when Buck Pierce was hit the player who hit him was ejected from the game because he was in the pocket and received a helmet to helmet hit. The rules of the game balance fair play and enjoyable play. There are special rules for quarterbacks because they are vulnerable and so need to be protected. The rules are there to make for a better game.

            Last year there was an item in the news about people who had received a fine while speeding through a construction zone. The problem was that there were no workers present and there was no danger to anyone if a person drove the normal speed limit. In this case the rules seemed to be unfair and many people did not have to pay their fines because the law agreed with their point of view.

            Every once in a while you hear a comment that red light cameras are just a cash grab. My response to that comment is: if you speed or run a red light you deserve a ticket. I know because I have gotten two and although I didn’t like it, I also know that I deserved them.

            Rules and laws are something we live with, but how do we respond to those laws? Do we resent them? Do we obey them? Do we understand how they are intended to make life better? What about the laws God has given us?

            In Exodus 20:1-17, God has given us the Ten Commandments. This is not the only place where God speaks about His laws. Earlier in the service we read Psalm 19 which talks about the value of the law. In Matthew 5:17-20 we learn that Jesus came to fulfill the law, not to abolish it and Romans 6 encourages us to count ourselves dead to sin and to disobedience.

            Because of these perspectives, we learn from Scripture that God’s law has value and because some of these scriptures come from the New Testament, we learn that His law has value even to us today. So this morning, let’s read Exodus 20:1-17 and examine the Ten Commandments.

I.                   The Pretext for Lawgiving

Before we look at some of the specific laws which God has given, I think it would be important for us to think about why they were given, who gave them and what they are all about.

A.                 Who God Is

There is a sign on Kroeker Street, which is the street on the north side of Rosenort. It says, “construction vechils only.” Because it is misspelled and obviously put there not by the government or the municipal council, but by some contractor who does not want people in the way of his equipment, it is a little hard to take seriously. The wish should be respected, but it does not come across as a law because it lacks authority. The source of a law is important.

The Ten Commandments come from God and this concept is powerfully present in the opening verse and a half where we read, “And God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God.”

            There are two words for God used in these verses. The word “God” usually translates the name of God, “Elohim.” This name speaks about God who is the creator, the God of power and majesty. The word “Lord” usually translates the name of God, “Yahweh” which is the name God used to introduce Himself to Moses in the beginning of Exodus. It communicates that God is the one who makes a covenant with His people.

            Because God uses both of these names it adds great power to who is the source of these laws. God, who is the sovereign of all the earth and who has an interest in the creatures He has made is the one who has given these laws. There is no greater source of authority than the God who has given these laws and therefore we need to listen to them with a heart of obedience.

B.                 What God Has Done

But authority in itself is not the only reason to obey laws.

Moammar Gadhafi is the dictator in Libya. He has authority and seems to be able to hold on to power by his authority, but many in his country do not accept it because he does not seem to care about the people in his nation. His authority arises out of power and wealth and many are tired of his dictatorial ways and the rest of the world has agreed with that and has decided to support the rebels.

God has authority to give these laws, but there is something else we see in these verses which helps us understand why it is good to obey these laws. The rest of verse 2 says, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.”

            That phrase tells us that the God who has authority to give laws is also filled with grace and compassion. The exodus from Egypt in which God delivered the people of Israel was an amazing thing. It was done in response to the suffering of the people. It was done because God had promised that He would do so. So we learn that God cares about His people and that He keeps the promises he has made to them. When God delivered them out of Egypt, He also did so in order to establish a relationship with them. All of these things speak of the grace and compassion of God.

God took the initiative to care for Israel and because He did so Israel knew that He had their best interest in mind. Out of this background of grace the motivation to obey the commands is a response not only to authority, but also a response to goodness. We serve this same God and that is why we must obey these laws.

C.                 The Nature of the Laws

There are several other things about the Ten Commandments which are worthy of note.

As God was establishing a relationship with Israel, the giving of the Ten Commandments was the beginning of that relationship. If you have read Exodus, Leviticus or Numbers you know that there are all kind of laws given to Israel in these books. The laws that were given fall into two basic categories. One is the laws which are conditional. They would go something like this, “If such and such happens, then you should do this.” One example is Exodus 21:2 where we read, "“If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything."

 The other kinds of laws are absolute laws. The Ten Commandments are of the second kind. What that tells us is that they are just plain right. In fact with the Ten Commandments, they are perceived as so right that most cultures have at least some of these laws. Every culture in the world recognizes the evil of murder, lying and stealing and has laws about these things, recognizing that they are not good. As absolute laws that come from God, they are to be obeyed.

The Ten Commandments can be naturally divided into two parts. As we read them we notice that the first four have to do with our relationship with God. The last six have to do with our relationship to other people. It is interesting that Jesus divided the law into the same two parts. Jesus was asked in Matthew 22:36, "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” In Matthew 22:37-39, Jesus replied: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.” So we could look at the Ten Commandments as a practical expression of what Jesus calls us to obey as the greatest commandment. Once again we have reason why we ought to obey them.

            Eight of the commandments are negative and only two – those related to Sabbath keeping and those related to honoring parents – are positive. If we could read them in Hebrew, that structure would come out even more clearly because each of the negative commands begins with the word which is translated “not.” So, for example, “You shall not murder” would be directly translated “not you shall murder.” The negatives are so stated because it is easier to state a direct prohibition, but as we obey the negative, we are also to keep in mind that there is a positive way of obeying these commands behind each prohibition. Kaiser says, “When an evil is forbidden in one of the commandments, its opposite good must be understood as being encouraged.”

II.               The Ten Commandments

When I told someone this week that I was going to be preaching on the Ten Commandments, their comment was, “all ten?” It is true that there is a lot of material here and it would be difficult to cover all the commandments in one message. So naturally we will not be covering them comprehensively. The message I hope I am able to to communicate today is the importance of these commandments and why we need to listen to and obey God in these matters. But let us at least look at these laws and take note of some thoughts regarding the actual commandments.

A.                 Relating to God

In Canada, who is the top person? Is it the Prime Minister? What about the Governor General or the queen? What about parliament? What about the electorate? Who has final authority? In some sense each of these does. There is no such confusion about the one who has given these Commandments. There is only one God and He is the Lord of all. Therefore, because of who God is, our response to Him must also be exclusive and appropriate to one who deserves such honor. The first four commandments deal with such ideas.

The first commandment says, “You shall have no other gods before me.” In order to understand this we need to understand what a god is. A god is someone above you, someone to depend on, someone to ask help from and someone so great he is worthy of worship.

Israel lived in the context of a polytheistic world. The nations around them had many gods. These nations believed that gods were territorial and so if they conquered a new territory, they found out which gods had been worshipped there and added them to the list of gods they worshipped. Worshipping many gods was not only possible, it was necessary because they wanted to make sure that they were in a good relationship to whoever the local god happened to be. God’s people were not to do that because they were to understand that there is only one God who is creator of heaven and earth. Cole says, “…because of Yahweh’s nature and because of what Yahweh has done, He will not share His worship with another…”

How does this command apply today in our society? There are some cultures in which this command is still directly applicable, but what about in North America? This commandment was given to Israel to help them recognize that there were not multiple gods, but only one God and He alone should be worshipped. We live in a culture that has rejected the one God and replaced Him with no gods. For our day, the command might be put in another way. Rather than the negative “no other gods” we today need to be reminded to worship the One True God who has created everything. Taken in that way, the commandment still speaks to our world today.

The second commandment does not simply extend the first commandment. It is not simply saying; “don’t make images of the gods you are not supposed to worship.” Rather, it instructs God’s people not to make an image of God. To tell them not to make images of the gods would be redundant, but to tell them not to make images of God would be adding another important commandment. And, in fact, they were tempted to make images of God. It is very likely that is what happened shortly after these commands were given. When Moses went up the mountain to receive further instructions the people provoked Aaron into making them an idol. When we read the story we find that the golden calf which Aaron made was given to the people as an image of God who had brought them out of Egypt.

The problem with making an image of God is that it diminishes God. God is not like any image we can imagine, as the text says, in heaven above, on the earth or in the waters. God is invisible and immortal and there is nothing we can use to represent His likeness.

            Some people use this verse to reject art and photography, but if we look at the verse carefully, we can see that it does not refer to that at all. The images which are not to be constructed are those which would be worshipped. Israel included artistic pieces when they built the temple and so we know that art and photography are not prohibited in this command.

            Once again this commandment encourages us to recognize the transcendence and glory of God. He is, as the text says, a jealous God. We should not think of God’s jealousy with the negative idea of the envy which may happen between people. Rather we need to recognize that He is so unique and so above us that anything we do to make Him less would diminish our understanding of God. God must be recognized and honored for who He is.

            In the warning that comes with this commandment, we see the holiness of God, in that violations of His law will be punished, but we also see the mercy of God who loves to show grace to those who love Him. May we be among those who honor His holiness and love Him!

The third commandment calls us to honor the name of God. The name of God is closely connected to the nature of God. To speak His name is to reflect on His character and nature. Kaiser says, “The “name” (šēm) of God stands for so much more than the mere pronouncing of his title of address. It includes (1) his nature, being, and very person (Ps 20:1; Luke 24:47; John 1:12; cf. Rev 3:4 [Gk.]), (2) his teaching or doctrine (Ps 22:22; John 17:6, 26), and (3) his moral and ethical teaching (Mic 4:5)”

To speak His name dishonorably is to dishonor God and to make light of his weighty attributes, His glory. Positively stated, when we speak of God, we must always remember who He is.

            The Jews were so concerned about this commandment that they would not ever speak the name of God, “Yahweh.” Even to this day, when they read Scripture and the word “Yahweh” appears, they say “Adonai.” That is one extreme, whereas we live in a society which represents the other extreme. People constantly use the name of God in vain by using it as an oath. That is probably the most significant way in which we can avoid breaking this command today, by not using God’s name in a flippant way. If in our hearts we love and honor God, we will not use His name in vain. Instead, we will speak of God in praise, prayer, invocation and thanksgiving.

The fourth command has to do with the Sabbath. I have at one time preached a whole message on Sabbath keeping and so won’t repeat it today. I believe the primary points we derive from this command, which are still relevant to us today is that because God is worthy, somewhere in our life we need a day of rest and a day in which we dedicate ourselves to worshipping God.

These are the main practical matters when it comes to loving God with all our heart. May we obey Him and honor Him by keeping these commandments.

B.                 Relating to Others

The final six commandments have to do with how we treat others. They are some of the main practical matters of what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

To honor our parents is to recognize that those who brought us into the world and who raised us are worthy of respect. It is a dangerous thing we have done in our youth oriented culture today where being aware of current culture and being forward looking marginalizes those who are older including parents. How many people dismiss their parents because they “just don’t get it?” When respect of parents falls away, it has a negative impact on all of society.

Not murdering speaks to the sanctity of human life. Jesus raises the bar on murder when he warns that even hating is already a violation of the command. As followers of God we must be very careful to obey the heart of this command as Jesus has taught us.

Not committing adultery speaks to the protection of the marriage relationship. Jesus tells us that it is not only the act of adultery, but adulterous thoughts which already break relationship with our spouse. For disciples of Jesus this command must be obeyed first in our mind and our heart. If it is obeyed there, then the actual act of adultery is not likely to happen.

Not stealing encourages honoring the property of others because if we do not, it also destroys both human relationships and the economic system.

Not bearing false witness speaks about a court situation in which we are asked to testify for or against our neighbor. It is tempting to change the truth and either defend the guilty or accuse the innocent. In both cases it would be bearing false witness. We have summarized this commandment to mean, “Do not lie.” The New Testament tells us in Colossians 3:9 that truth telling is an application of this command. The question we need to ask ourselves is, “Am I living my life so that when I speak people know that they can count on my word?”

Not coveting is also a protection of human relationships. Of all the commands, this one is the only one which speaks specifically about what is happening in our heart. Contentment, gratitude and generosity are the attitudes which will help us form mental habits that will prevent us from desiring what belongs to others.


Have you ever been tempted to disobey one of these commands because it just wasn’t convenient to obey it? For example, you know it is wrong to lie, but you also believe that if you lie it will save a lot of trouble.

There is great danger in disobedience. When we disobey, we dishonor God because we imply, by our disobedience, that God’s word isn’t worth keeping. We dishonor others because we imply that we are more important than they are. We dishonor ourselves because we demonstrate a lack of integrity.

As those who follow Jesus, we are called to obedience. These are commands and so we must obey them. It isn’t always easy to understand what obedience means, but we must begin with a fundamental commitment to obedience.

There are times when all of us disobey these. Thankfully, the grace of God offers forgiveness. Through the blood of Jesus on the cross, all our disobedience to God’s law is covered. But this same forgiveness also calls us to a life of following God. By the power of God’s Spirit we are called to learn what obedience means and to obey.

So the question is, do you obey these laws? Do you obey not only the letter of the law, but also the intent of the law as Jesus has taught us to do? At the core of this discussion is our view of God. If we recognize Him as sovereign and accept His authority over our lives and if we desire to please and obey Him more than anything, then obedience becomes much easier. Let us daily choose to say yes to God as we say yes to His commands.

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