V. Sinai and the Ten Commandments (Exodus 19:1–20:21)


V. Sinai and the Ten Commandments (19:1–20:21)

19:1-4 Three months after the exodus from Egypt, Israel arrived at the mountain in the Sinai Wilderness where God had first appeared to Moses (19:1-2). The Lord had promised Moses that Israel would worship him at this very spot (3:12).

19:5-6 On the mountaintop Moses was commanded to tell the people of Israel, If you will carefully listen to me and keep my covenant, you will be my own possession out of all the peoples (19:5). The Lord, then, was about to enter into a covenant with Israel as a whole. A biblical covenant is a spiritually created bond. For example, marriage between a husband and wife is a covenant. God intended to enter a binding relationship with Israel—making them his “own possession.” If they kept the covenant stipulations, the end result would be their blessing: “Observe the words of this covenant and follow them, so that you will succeed in everything you do” (Deut 29:9).

God is a King with an agenda. His goal is that his kingdom will be manifested in history through the lives of those who submit to his rule and thus experience his authority and blessing. The kingdom agenda, then, is the visible manifestation of the comprehensive rule of God over every area of life. Covenants are the instrument through which God’s kingdom operates. If Israel would operate under the covering of his covenant, they would be his kingdom of priests and his holy nation (19:6), experiencing the benefits and privileges that his kingdom offers.

As recorded in Old Testament history, however, the sinful people of Israel would repeatedly break God’s covenant and forfeit his blessings. Only God’s Son Jesus Christ, born in human flesh, descended from the Israelite people, perfectly kept the laws of the covenant and offered himself as an atoning sacrifice for sinners. By the shedding of his own blood, he established a new covenant. All those who trust in Christ’s sacrifice receive full atonement for sins, are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and have fellowship with God. As members of the new covenant, Christians now have the capacity to obey God, so that they may experience his authority and deliverance in their daily circumstances.

19:7-15 Moses presented to the elders of the people what God had said, and all the people agreed to enter into a covenant with him (19:7-8). So the Lord commanded the people to observe three-days of purification to prepare and consecrate themselves (19:10-11). Then they were to observe boundaries around the mountain. Anyone—animal or human—who touched the mountain of God’s presence would be put to death (19:12-13). These regulations were meant to help reveal to Israel how special and holy this event was to be.

19:16-25 When God revealed his presence on the mountain, all the people in the camp shuddered. With his arrival there was thunder and lightning, a dark cloud, and a deafening trumpet sound (19:16). Moses went up the mountain to speak with God and then descended to bring God’s words to the people (19:20-21). The people were to remain at the mountain’s base (19:21-25). Just as God’s presence had made the ground holy when Moses first encountered him (3:5), so now the mountain was holy for the same reason. All of this was a vivid reminder of the glory of God and of the great chasm that exists between a holy God and sinful people.

20:1-2 The centerpiece of God’s covenant with Israel was what we call the Ten Commandments. They reflect and reveal God’s righteousness. They present the minimum standards of righteousness that God set for his people—I say minimum standards because Jesus showed that the sin problem people face is not limited to external sins but even warps internal attitudes (see Matt 5:21-30). If God’s people were to please him, they had to keep his commands.

The Ten Commandments also have a restraining purpose because humans are fallen creatures who need some basic legal guidelines if they are to function in steady consideration of one another. Since people have a propensity to do whatever suits them in the moment, God’s commandments establish boundaries to restrain evil. Thus, following the commandments gives people protection from themselves and from one another. Laws promote order in society and prevent chaos.

The commandments also have a redemptive purpose. Contrary to popular opinion, you can’t get to heaven by obeying the Ten Commandments because you can’t keep them perfectly all the time. But as Paul says, the law shows us that we are sinners (see Rom 7:7-13) in the same way that a mirror can show you what’s wrong with your hair. The law was designed to show you that you can’t satisfy God’s perfect standards and that you need a Savior (see Gal 3:19-24).

In the preamble to the Ten Commandments, God established his identity and his relationship to Israel: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the place of slavery (20:2). Israel, then, was about to enter a covenant relationship with the God of heaven and earth because of what he had done for them. This is a principle that is still at work in the New Testament era. Under the new covenant, Christ died so that those who trust him might “no longer live for themselves, but for the one who died for them and was raised” (2 Cor 5:15). The believer’s motivation for obeying God’s laws, then, is not to earn salvation (we can’t). Rather, we obey because we want to please the One who delivered us from hell and judgment.

20:3 Do not have other gods besides me. This rule means you are to treat no other person, place, or thing in your life like God. He is not to be your chief God; he is to be your only God. Sometimes business contracts have exclusivity clauses. Such a clause requires that the persons entering the agreement engage in an exclusive relationship with each other—having no competing loyalties and no competing contractual obligations that could in any way hinder their own partnership. The first commandment is an exclusivity clause. The Lord alone is to be God in your life.

Notice that this is the first commandment. You can’t get this one wrong and expect to proceed to the other nine with success. A baseball player might hit an inside-the-park homerun, getting around every base before the other team can throw him out. But if he actually missed tagging first base, it doesn’t matter if he touched second, third, and home. He’s still out. If there is ever anything in your life other than God that you look to or depend on as your source of well-being, satisfaction, or deliverance, then you are serving another god. Get commandment one wrong, and you’ll fail at obeying all the rest.

Notice too that there is an implicit promise in the first commandment. Though you are not to have any other gods besides him, you are to have him. False gods can do nothing. But the Lord is self-existing, all-powerful, all knowing, and full of grace and mercy to help weak and unworthy sinners. He alone is able to save from hell, deliver from crises, and bless with his kingdom promises. Why would you rather serve anyone or anything else?

20:4-6 Do not make an idol for yourself (20:4). The previous commandment told us not to have other gods (20:3). This one warns against approaching the true God in the wrong way. Making an idol is attempting to create a visible representation of the invisible God. Any such attempt will always misrepresent him. No matter how beautiful the picture we might create to represent him is, it’s no substitute for reality.

If we look to an idol, we are looking to something other than God. Idols, no matter the physical form they take, can never connect heaven with earth. They can never offer aid. All they do, in fact, is arouse God’s jealousy: I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, he says (20:5). However, jealousy in God is not sinful. Think of it as the righteous and loving jealousy of a husband who is zealous for the faithfulness of his wife and wants to keep her and their marriage from harm.

In his indictment of idolatry in Romans 1, Paul mentions images of birds and animals. And with that in mind, we might assume we have no idolatry problems if we don’t worship creatures or bow to statues. But importantly, the first idol in Paul’s list is “mortal man” (Rom 1:23). This is a warning that should you start thinking of a person as your primary source of blessings and contentment, you have made that person an idol.

Not all idols, however, are physical. Elsewhere, Paul mentions several sinful desires—sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desire, and greed—and calls these things “idolatry” (Col 3:5). Gratifying such things frequently becomes the ruling influence in a person’s life. A person who seeks to satisfy one of those desires, in fact, often will do and sacrifice anything to serve his idol.

There is only one legitimate representation of God and therefore only one legitimate means of accessing him. I’m talking about the Word who became flesh, the God-Man (see John 1:1-2, 14). “[Jesus Christ] is the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15)—the only true representation of God. Jesus told his disciples, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. . . . The one who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:6, 9). We cannot approach God through an idol, but through Jesus Christ alone.

20:7 Do not misuse the name of the Lord your God. In the Bible, a person’s name is a reflection of who he is; it speaks of his character and reputation. God is rightly concerned about the glory of his name. He does not want it defamed or abused, but valued and honored. We are not to use his name casually or carelessly, but seriously and reverently. Too often, however, we use frivolous phrases like, “Thank God,” or, “I swear to God.” At its core, this kind of flippancy is treating God’s name insignificantly; it is saying that he is insignificant.

Think about it this way. Forgery is the unauthorized use of someone’s name. If you sign someone else’s name to a document in order to obtain something, you have illegally used that individual’s name—their identity. So if you say, “God told me to do this,” you’d better be sure he did. Otherwise, you’re forging God’s name to drive your own agenda. Most people are zealous to protect their reputations. Imagine how the righteous God of the universe feels about the way his name is used.

We are to honor the Lord’s name as holy (see Matt 6:9). How? By exalting his name (see Ps 34:3)—by praising him and declaring to the world who he is and what he has done: “Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name” (Ps 29:2). Give God his due; he deserves the best you have to offer. Live all of life “in the name of the Lord,” seeking to honor him in everything (1 Sam 17:45). If you “wear” his name as you ought, you will live a life of righteousness, honor, and love.

Finally, honor Jesus, for God has given him “the name that is above every name” (Phil 2:9). We are to confess the name of Jesus and submit to him as Lord. When we honor God’s Son, we honor God’s name.

20:8-11 Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy (20:8; see 31:12-17). The Sabbath day concept is predicated on what God did at creation. He made the world in six days; then he rested on the seventh (20:11). Clearly, the all-powerful God didn’t “rest” because he was tired. Rather, he rested so that he could enjoy what he had done: “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good indeed” (Gen 1:31). Likewise, after six days of work, we are also called to rest and enjoy the fruit of our labor. This is a valuable means of helping ourselves to avoid becoming so busy and preoccupied that we forget what God has done too.

God also made the Sabbath so that his people would be reminded of his sovereignty. The seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord (20:10). He is in charge; we live under his rule. He is the One who brought order out of chaos (Gen 1:1-2).

The author of Hebrews, writing to Christians, reminds us that “a Sabbath rest remains for God’s people” (Heb 4:9). But the early Christians did not gather for worship on the Jewish Sabbath—Saturday, the official seventh day of the week. They gathered for worship on Sunday, the first day of the week, because it was on that day that Jesus was raised from the dead. He is “Lord of the Sabbath” (Matt 12:8), and he promises rest for his weary people (see Matt 11:28). Though we in the New Testament era are not tied down to keeping a specific Sabbath day (see Col 2:16), there remains a principle of Sabbath rest for the people of God. We willingly “enter” that rest by faith, trusting God and living obediently in accordance with our faith (see Heb 3:18–4:3, 11).

20:12 Honor your father and your mother. The family is the foundational unit of society. Parents have the responsibility to raise their children to know the Lord and to follow him. Children have the responsibility to honor their parents, willingly receiving wisdom and instruction from them. The parent-child relationship, in fact, represents a chain of command: God the Father is in charge; we, his children, are not. When you disregard the order of the family relationship, you bring harm to yourself.

To “honor” your parents means to respect and value them. How this is done will depend on a child’s stage in life. Young children and teenagers living under their parents’ authority are to obey them in all things (unless doing so dishonors God). Even Jesus obeyed his parents (see Luke 2:51). But adult children, too, who are no longer in their parents’ home or under their authority still owe their parents honor. This might show up in the form of spending time with them, praising their merits, and providing physical or financial assistance (see 1 Tim 5:8, 16). Even children whose parents have neglected, abandoned, or abused them are called to honor them spiritually by praying for them and forgiving them, “just as God also forgave . . . in Christ” (Eph 4:32).

The apostle Paul says this “is the first commandment with a promise” (Eph 6:2-3), a blessing from God: so that you may have a long life in the land. If you honor your father and mother, then, God promises his special care in your life—he can bring heavenly realities into your earthly history.

20:13 Do not murder. This commandment doesn’t forbid all killing. God authorized Israel to go to war against their enemies. Scripture also authorizes self-defense (see Exod 22:2-3) and capital punishment by governing authorities (see Gen 9:6; Rom 13:1-4). It specifically prohibits murder—any unauthorized killing of an individual, whether or not its premeditated. This includes the taking of one’s own life in suicide. Abortion is also prohibited by this commandment, because the Bible makes clear that an unborn baby is a person, not mere tissue (see Exod 21:22-24; Ps 139:13-16; Jer 1:5; Luke 1:41-44).

The reason murder is forbidden is because all humans are uniquely made in the image of God (see Gen 1:26-27; 9:6). At creation, humans were set apart to reflect God like no other creatures on earth could do. Therefore, a murderous attack against a human being is an attack against the Creator.

If you have never murdered, though, it doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. Jesus explained that keeping this commandment is actually a minimum standard. To express or harbor unrighteous anger toward another person is not just sin—it is murder committed in the heart (see Matt 5:21-22). Moreover, even cursing someone is an attack on the image of God, which all human beings share (see Jas 3:9). In putting this high standard into practice, it helps to remember that “Human anger does not accomplish God’s righteousness” (Jas 1:20). Instead, we must “leave room for God’s wrath, because it is written, ‘Vengeance belongs to me; I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Rom 12:19).

20:14 Do not commit adultery. Sexual gratification has become our culture’s drug of choice. It is even used as the chief means of selling a product. As a result of this perversion of sexuality, a good gift of God is routinely cheapened and defiled. God created sex as a wonderful blessing to be shared by a husband and wife within the boundaries of a marriage covenant. Sex was intended to inaugurate and renew that covenant, that “one flesh” union (see Gen 2:24). Adultery—that is, sexual intercourse involving at least one married person—is a defiling of that covenant bond. Think of sex like a fire, with marriage serving as a living room fireplace. If you allow sex to blaze outside of its intended boundary, you just might burn down your own home. In any case, you will unleash destruction.

Those who have sex according to their own personal parameters—whether that includes committing adultery or engaging in fornication or homosexuality—will experience God’s judgment (see Rom 1:24-32; Heb 13:4). That’s because sexual sin is primarily a sin against God (see Gen 39:9). But understand that sexual immorality defiles humans like no other sin can: “The person who is sexually immoral sins against his own body” (1 Cor 6:18). A Christian’s body, Scripture teaches, is the temple of the Holy Spirit. It also reminds us, “You are not your own” (1 Cor 6:19). God calls us to holiness, because he is holy. So instead of indulging in sexual immorality, we are to pursue sanctification (see 1 Thess 4:3). Believers are to become more and more like Jesus.

This commandment, too, however, is meant as a minimum standard. Jesus upped the ante: “Everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt 5:28). Thus, lustful thoughts and engaging in voyeurism by viewing pornography are all condemned. Jesus’s remedy to indulging in such sins, in fact, is to cut off the hand and gouge out the eye that constantly leads you into those traps (see Matt 5:29-30). Obviously, he wasn’t teaching self-mutilation because, once again, lust is a matter of the heart. Rather, he uses hyperbole to instruct us to take drastic, decisive measures to avoid sexual sin before it’s too late. Nonetheless, to those who have fallen into these traps, Jesus offers forgiveness and hope: “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin anymore” (John 8:11).

20:15 Do not steal. To steal is to take what belongs to someone else without the right or permission to do so. We typically think of stealing in terms of pocketing money or making off with possessions, but theft can take a variety of forms: kidnapping, plagiarism, accepting praise or credit that should have gone to another, not paying taxes, accepting a paycheck without earning it, and even withholding wages count. Theft also happens when we rob God by not contributing tithes (see Mal 3:8-10).

Ultimately, everything belongs to the Lord (see Ps 24:1). He grants ownership and stewardship rights to individuals. Stealing is a rejection of this fact. It’s also a sign of discontentment regarding what God has provided. If you fail to see God as your source, you’ll be tempted to steal, essentially proclaiming that you are your own source.

Even career thieves, however, can be forgiven. To one repentant thief, Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). The ex-thief is not only commanded to “no longer steal” but also “to do honest work with his own hands, so that he has something to share” (Eph 4:28). When Zacchaeus repented, he returned what he had stolen with interest and gave to the poor as well (see Luke 19:8). Such passages are a reminder that rather than being self-interested, we are to be motivated by love of neighbor so that we can provide for those who are in need. God blesses you, in fact, so that you can bless others.

20:16 Do not give false testimony against your neighbor. The old childhood rhyme about “sticks and stones” being unable to do harm is wrong. Words do hurt. Proverbs 18:21 says, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” James 3:8 says that the tongue is “a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” Many people have been emotionally scarred or have had their reputations damaged by careless or intentionally harmful words. Lies and slanderous accusations can even end a life.

On rare occasions a lie might be justified. God blessed the Hebrew midwives when they lied to Pharaoh (1:15-21). They were motivated by fear of the Lord, refused to be accomplices to murder, and knew that Pharaoh didn’t deserve the truth. But the lie this commandment confronts is “bearing false testimony” against another person—whether damaging a reputation through gossip, causing them material loss, or saying something untrue that results in a death. In short, it’s an intentional attempt to hurt someone through falsehood. Such actions imitate the devil who is “a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). Christians, by contrast, are to “[put] away lying” and “[speak] the truth in love” (Eph 4:15). Our words are to build others up rather than tear them down (see Eph 4:29).

20:17 Do not covet. Coveting is a passionate longing to possess something that is not yours. Advertisers spend an inordinate amount of time trying to make us dissatisfied with our lives, so that they can make us covetous enough to spend money on their products. A covetous person is materialistic. He considers the physical more important than the spiritual and assumes that his life consists in “the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). He is thus never satisfied. He fails to trust God to provide for him and assumes God is holding out on him.

The antidote for covetousness is contentment. Contentment begins with trusting that God is good and that he withholds nothing good “from those who live with integrity” (Ps 84:11). When you truly believe God’s promise that he “will never leave you or abandon you,” then you are able to be satisfied with what you have (see Heb 13:5).

20:18-20 After God concluded the Ten Commandments, the people were terrified. There was thunder and lightning, the blaring of a trumpet, and smoke. So the people stood at a distance, where they may have felt a certain degree of safety (20:18). The voice of God was frightening to them. That’s why they wanted to hear from Moses and not directly from God (20:19). Moses’s response sounds like doubletalk: Don’t be afraid, for God has come to test you, so that you will fear him and will not sin (20:20). How can he tell them, “Don’t be afraid,” and “Fear,” at the same time?

We must understand what it means to “fear God.” It does not mean to be scared of him. It means being so gripped by his greatness that we hold him in the highest esteem. To fear God is to respect him and take him seriously. The concept, in fact, is similar to how we ought to think of electricity. We’re not to be so scared of electricity that we’re unwilling to plug anything in. But neither should we go around sticking screwdrivers into outlets. Electricity is awesome and beneficial, but it must be treated with respect.

God wanted to test the people, so that they would fear him and not sin. Similarly, God tests you because he wants you to worship him by choice, not simply by mandate. He wants you to say “no” to sin and “yes” to him because you have a healthy fear of him.

20:21 The people remained standing at a distance. This tells us that the people were driven by the wrong kind of fear. If they had feared God rightly, their perspective would have drawn them to him. But since they were afraid of God, their wrong perspective only served to drive them away from him. In this I see a deep truth. When we come close to God, he will confront our sins and our idols. And that can be scary if we want to hang onto them. The people had already complained about wanting to return to Egypt (14:12; 16:3), so they kept their distance because they didn’t want the Lord confronting their evil desires. If you are keeping God at an arm’s length, it’s time to ask why.