The Ten Words

Afew years ago, Stephen Colbert, American political satirist, comedian, and television host, interviewed a congressman about various issues. This particular Congressman cosponsored a bill to place the Ten Commandments in the House of Representatives and the Senate. He also sponsored a bill to place the Ten Commandments in courthouses in a historical setting. Colbert, in his witty way, went along with the discussion, and then he asked, “What are the commandments?”

We must see our idols for what they are: they are stupid! After seeing this, we must crush them in repentance and turn to the living God instead. Idols will not satisfy. Only God will satisfy the human heart. We need to properly assess created things. Enjoy creation, steward creation, but worship the Creator!

What attribute of God comes to mind in the first command? Consider the command stated positively: “I shall be your only God.” What does this teach? It teaches that our God is a jealous God. He will not share His glory with another.

This commandment warns us against having the wrong object of worship and against worshiping the wrong way. Carved images were manmade objects for worship. These idols have no comparison to the true God. They are impersonal and powerless—deaf, dumb, and dead.

Sadly, Israel would fail in this commandment really soon. Think of what the psalmist said: “At Horeb they made a calf and worshiped the cast metal image. They exchanged their glory for the image of a grasseating ox. They forgot God their Savior” (Ps 106:19-21).

Once again, in this second command, God’s jealousy and supremacy is highlighted (Exod 20:5). Later God said, “You are never to bow down to another god because Yahweh, being jealous by nature, is a jealous God” (34:14; emphasis added).

God promised to show “faithful love to a thousand generations of those who love Me and keep My commands” (v. 6; cf. 34:6-7). This is the first mention of loving God. It had been implied already in the exodus story, but it is explicit here. Loving God is foundational for everything else. Everything is a spillover of the heart.

To understand this commandment, it helps to see it in its parts. First, the focus is on “the name of the Lord your God” (v. 7). This does not simply mean the name, “Lord” or “Yahweh.” Rather, it has to do with all that is connected to that name. The focus is on God’s essence. God is to be highly valued. He is worthy of the highest honor. This is understood in the fact that God names Himself. We all were given names, whether we like them or not. Only God names Himself, revealing His supreme authority, dominion, and power.

Understand what it means to “take” His name in vain. It does not mean to simply speak God’s name; it means to carry or bear God’s name. People who have publicly declared themselves to be followers of God are to exalt God’s reputation by living in a way that honors Him.

This command also has the idea of not taking God’s name falsely or using it meaninglessly. This might happen in corporate worship, as people mouth songs without actually thinking about God. As Christians, we bear His name (Acts 4:12; Rom 10:13; 1 John 5:13). In this way, His reputation is attached to us; as a result, we ought to live for Him and His glory.

Notice that this commandment is based out of creation (v. 11). It describes how God made the heavens and the earth and then rested on the seventh day. This Sabbath commandment is found in Deuteronomy 5:12-15 as well. In Deuteronomy the commandment is modeled after God’s provision in bringing the Israelites out of Egypt. So in Exodus it is related to God’s model of rest in creation, and in Deuteronomy it is related to redemption. God’s people are therefore called to remember God, the Creator and Redeemer, on the Sabbath.

While there are a number of views on what it means to keep the Sabbath today, it seems that the focus is on rest, remembering, and worship. God said, “Remember the Sabbath day.” This calls us to think back to creation, as pointed out in verse 11, and to remember redemption, as pointed out in Deuteronomy 5. God’s people are to remember God’s creating and redeeming work and God’s rest. Further, the Sabbath ultimately points us to a final resting day, which is affirmed in the New Testament (Heb 4:9-10).

Some are very strict in insisting that this happen on the seventh day of the week. However, I do not think the moral demand is on the seventh day of the week. I think the responsibility that is laid on us is to follow the biblical pattern of working six days and resting and worshiping one day.

When Paul wrote to the Colossians he said, “Therefore, don’t let anyone judge you in regard to food and drink or in the matter of a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of what was to come; the substance is the Messiah” (Col 2:16-17). These verses, along with Romans 14:5-6 and Galatians 4:10-11, also demonstrate that Paul seemed to lay aside the seventh-day Sabbath with all the Jewish ceremonies as shadows. But I do not think Paul intended to abandon the principle of the Sabbath. What seems to have happened is that the early church chose the first day of the week as their day for rest and worship. After the resurrection, the Jewish Sabbath almost disappeared; the seventh-day Sabbath is never mentioned except as to be tolerated by Jewish Christians (Rom 14:5).

We worship on the Lord’s Day (first day of the week), following the early church (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor 16:2). In so doing, we recognize the resurrection. Already by the first century, Ignatius wrote that Christians “no longer observe the Sabbath, but direct their lives toward the Lord’s Day in which our lives are refreshed by him and his death” (Ryken,128Exodus, 597). Begg says, “Just as the deliverance from Egypt was at the heart of the Mosaic Sabbath, so the redemption accomplished through Jesus Christ is remembered on the Lord’s Day” (Begg, Pathway, 106). He adds,

You need a Sabbath. It is rooted in creation and redemption. Some may argue over the day, but no one should argue over the principle. The Sabbath is God’s gift to us. It benefits us to keep it, and it helps us anticipate the final rest to come.

Next notice that verse 9 says, “You are to labor six days and do all your work.” Remember also that God created us to work! If you work hard during the week, you should be able to take a Sabbath. Your body and heart and mind will need it as well. Work hard to the glory of God, and enjoy the worship on the Lord’s Day.

What do we learn about God here? He is a working and resting God. He is creator God. He is sovereign God. He is eternal God. He is the redeeming God.

God commands each person to honor his or her father and mother. The word for “honor” implies acknowledging the “weight” of something. In this context, it implies that people give the proper “weight” or “respect” to their parents’ position. The opposite of this would be to despise or scorn one’s parents. One who did this was in danger of being put to death (Lev 20:9), in some cases by stoning (Deut 21:18-21). Thus, respect for parents, and for authority figures in general, should be taken seriously.

What do we learn about God here? We learn of His authority. We also learn about His provision. The clause on the end of the commandment provides a motivation for keeping the commandment—to live long in the land given by God. This reveals the generosity of God. As fathers, we should also seek to imitate our God, who is the perfect Father.

This commandment is expressed with one of eight words in Hebrew for killing someone or something. It includes intentional, premeditated killing as well as accidental killing. This word for “murder” in Hebrew is specific to “putting to death improperly, for selfish reasons rather than with authorization” (Stuart, Exodus, 462). With this in mind, one is not to kill unlawfully. Stuart says, “No Israelite acting on his own could decide that he had the right to end someone’s life” (ibid.). God is showing us that life is sacred!

What do we learn about God? We should not murder because God alone gives life (Deut 32:39) and people are made in His image. Jesus deepened it by saying that anger was like murder (Matt 5:22). James also said we should not curse people because people are made in God’s image (Jas 3:9).

This commandment addresses sexual purity. The purpose of the commandment is to promote, positively, the purity of the heart, especially in regard to the marriage relationship. The commandment specifically addresses adultery, or marital infidelity. As Jesus told us, everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Matt 5:27-28). Again, the underlying principle is a pure heart.

What does this command teach us about God? It reminds us of God’s faithfulness and holiness. God is holy and He commands His people to be holy (1 Pet 1:15-16). God expects His people to faithfully follow His word in regard to relationships. Another note: God is not trying to spoil your fun. Inside the covenant of marriage there is great enjoyment and intimacy in a one-flesh union. God’s commandments are for your good as well as the good of others.

This commandment deals with taking that which does not belong to you. This can manifest itself in a number of ways. This even goes back to the beginning when man sought to take what did not belong to him—the fruit from the tree in the garden of Eden. The opposite of this is to remember what God has graciously given us. Rather than stealing, we should have thankful hearts that rejoice in what God has provided for130 us. We should be good stewards with what God has given us. Otherwise, we may be more tempted to steal and commit sin against our Lord. We must remember that what we have is not our own, but it is the Lord’s; as He has given freely, so we too should give freely.

God is our provider. Because God gives His people everything they need, we do not steal. Paul tells Timothy that the rich must not “set their hope on the uncertainty of wealth, but on God, who richly provides us with all things to enjoy” (1 Tim 6:17).

Traditionally, a lot of people summarize this command by saying, “You shall not lie.” While this does provide a good summary, the language used here points to some other important aspects of this commandment. It is directly connected to the idea of legal testimony and the witness. Rather than providing false testimony, the individual should give truthful and honest testimony. This idea, however, is not limited to the courtroom, for nothing extends outside “the courtroom of God.” All will be held accountable for their words.

From this command we recognize God’s attribute of truthfulness. It is impossible for God to lie (Titus 1:2).

This commandment highlights the twisted desires of mankind and the sin of discontentment. Instead of having a thankful heart, the coveter desires what others have. Notice also that this commandment is about the inward nature of the law. Covetousness is about the heart. It is about desire. It may or may not lead to an act, but even if there is no act, it is still wrong because our desire should be on the God who made us and redeemed us. Covetousness, then, involves breaking the first commandment.

Jesus said, “Watch out and be on guard against all greed because one’s life is not in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). In Hebrews 13:5 we read about the need to live free from the love of money. Do not trust in your wealth. Do not have excessive anxiety about wealth. Do not be devoted to wealth.

This command teaches us about God’s faithfulness, goodness, and provision. We need not worry about provisions or desire other people’s stuff, for our Father knows our needs (Matt 6:25-34) and satisfies our deepest longings.

131Therefore, understand the commands and see how God has poured Himself into them. They reflect His holy character. The commandments are not just a list of rules; they are a reflection of God. How awesome it is that we have a God who has given us His Word! The psalmist reflects on God’s law saying, “How I love Your instruction! It is my meditation all day long” (Ps 119:97).

Some argue that the Ten Words speak of the “moral law,” not the “civil law” or “ceremonial law.” Some contend that the civil laws are useful, and both the ceremonial and the civil law contain some of God’s moral law, but what is reconfirmed in the New Testament is God’s moral law. The moral law is still binding on us, they say. While I understand this argument and affirm some clear discontinuity between these laws and the new covenant, I think one should be careful in pressing this three-part categorization too much. We should remember that these laws are mixed together “not only in the Judgments or ordinances [Exod 21-23] but in the Ten Words as well (the Sabbath may be properly classified as ceremonial)” (Gentry and Wellum, Kingdom, 355). Gentry and Wellum seem to point us in a good direction when they say, “What we can say to represent the teaching of Scripture is that the righteousness of God codified, enshrined, and encapsulated in the old covenant has not changed, and that this same righteousness is now codified and enshrined in the new” (ibid.).

Indeed, the righteous character of God continued to receive emphasis in the New Testament as the writers spoke of the nature of God and as they touched on the Ten Words. Authors often named the Ten Words in outline form (see Matt 15:19-20; Luke 18:20; Rom 13:8-10) and also separately (see John 14:6; 5:23; 1 John 5:21; Col 3:23; Matt 12:8; Heb 4:9; Eph 6:1-2; Matt 5:21-22, 27-30; Eph 4:28; Col 3:9; Luke 12:15), reconfirming the same righteousness put forward in Exodus. All of these commands show us how to live righteously, but we realize that we have failed miserably; thankfully, the Righteous One lived them out perfectly for us and then died in our place. This good news leads us to the final concept.

At the end of the giving of the Ten Words, the people stood in fear and trembling (vv. 18-21). They had a sense of awe toward God. We know132 that they also failed repeatedly. Even their mediator, Moses, would fail. However, there is a greater mediator who did not fail—the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Ten Words point us to the Savior. Christ was “born under the law, to redeem those under the law” (Gal 4:4-5). He fulfilled the law in every respect (Matt 5:17-18). He paid the penalty of the law and bore the curse of the law on the cross (Gal 3:10-14; Col 2:13-14). We cannot keep God’s law perfectly. We need another to do this for us. The law drives us to Jesus for forgiveness and a new heart, and the Spirit then empowers for obedience. While in this life we cannot keep the law perfectly and are always in need of grace, we are never crushed by the law because there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:1). Because the weight has been lifted, we are able to delight in God’s law. We do not see His commandments as burdensome (1 John 5:3).

Therefore, our hope and power does not come from our law keeping but from His law keeping. He lived the life we could not live (keeping the law) then died the death we should have died (for our law breaking). That is why we love Jesus.

Praise Jesus Christ, the One who saves those who cannot keep God’s holy law.

My non-Christian friend, did you read the Ten Words and ask, “How can I be saved when I cannot keep God’s law?” There is only one way: Jesus. Look to Him and believe. Receive His perfect righteousness by faith alone. He is your hope. Look to the One who kept these commands perfectly and then died for those who broke them. Christian friend, rejoice that you have a Savior who lived for you and died for you. And by the power of the Spirit, as a new creation, live out these commands to the glory of our great and awesome God.

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