One of the most important lessons we learn in life is the difference between personal beings and impersonal objects. All too often, we get into trouble when we think of other people as objects to be used much like we use our other possessions. There are some things that we value more than others. But people must always be given a higher priority than our stuff.
We heard this debate carry out recently, during the early days of this coronavirus crisis. Some people worry about the economic consequences of a lockdown. Others suggest that we ought to prioritize people over money. I’ll admit that was my position during the first few weeks. I think it is based upon a proper biblical view of life over stuff. Just think of all the warnings of the corrupting influence of money.
However, as things have progressed, we are beginning to see that the debate is not so much about people vs money, but the physical health of some people vs the physical and emotional health of other people. Now, it would seem, the unintended consequences of our unprecedented reaction are proving to be worse than the virus. And that debate has only gotten louder and more obnoxious over time.
I really don’t intend to get into that today. I’m not here to explain which threat is worse at this point in time. I do, however, want to reiterate the priority of people. Or, more accurately, the priority of treating people with the dignity and respect they deserve.
A Personal God Gave The Ten Commandments
When we simply view people as objects to use, or even as obstacles impeding our movement, we tend to lose sight of their value. No one wants to be treated as a statistic. I imagine those in power find it hard not to treat their constituents as numbers. Politicians do not have personal relationships with most of us. How could they really understand the impact of all their decisions?
Thankfully, that is not the case with God. As we consider the prologue to the Ten Commandments today we will see that God starts by reminding His people of His relationship with them. These commands do not come from an angry dictator establishing his authority over us. They come from a Divine and Benevolent God who loves us and has rescued us.
And God spoke all these words, saying,
2 “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.Exodus 20:1-2
I. A Sovereign God Spoke the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1)
We begin from a very basic but important starting point. The Ten Commandments were spoken by God directly to Moses and the people of Israel. To understand this it will be important to consider the context by summarizing the previous chapter. We should also pause to consider the way in which he spoke them. They were given a particular format that is reiterated several times in the Old and New Testaments.
The Powerful Presence of God on Mount Sinai
God came down upon Mount Sinai to meet with Moses (Exodus 19:16-25). His appearance is reflected with thunder, lightning, clouds, fire, smoke, and trumpet blasts. The sight caused the Israelites to tremble, even as the mountain itself trembled. Moses brought the people to the foot of the mountain. As he spoke to God over the increasing sound of the trumpets, God responded through the loud thunder so that all could hear.
God called Moses to the top of the mountain only to tell him to go back down. That had me wondering how tall this mountain was. If tradition is correct, the mountain that is believed to be Mount Sinai stands 7,497’ tall. It would take roughly two hours to ascend and an hour to descend. Depending on how long he was at the top of the mountain, this would have taken half the day.
God sent him back down in order to warn the people not to try to break through the foot of the mountain to catch a glimpse of God. They would certainly perish if they attempted to do so. The priests were to be consecrated, so he commanded Moses to bring up Aaron on his return trip.
This is the context in which God is now speaking to Moses. The display and power that is represented by his presence demand reverence. The people were to respect God’s sovereignty. Before any of the commands were given, there was fearful anticipation among the crowd. What Moses was about to receive was meant to be taken with all seriousness.
The Format of the Ten Commandments
Now, before getting to the prologue, we need to understand the format in which they were spoken. God would ultimately write these commandments upon two stone tablets (Deuteronomy 4:13). It is typically understood that the first tablet would have included the prologue and the first four commands. These teach us about our duty to God. The second tablet contained the other six commandments regarding our duty to man (WLC Q.98).
This makes sense when we consider the way in which the law is summarized elsewhere in Scripture. Deuteronomy 6:5 speaks of our love for God, which would describe the first four commandments. Leviticus 19:18 refers to our love for neighbor which is outlined in commandments five through ten.
How the New Testament Summarizes the Ten Commandments
Jesus confirmed this summary of the law in several places (Luke 10:25–28; Mark 12:28–34; Matthew 19:19; 22:37-40).
And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”Mark 12:28-31
The scribe asked for the greatest command and Jesus responded by giving him two commands which served as a summary of all Ten Commandments. We could summarize these two commands even further following the Apostle Paul.
Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.Romans 13:8
What he means is that our love for one another reveals that we also love God properly. The first four commands dealing with our love for God are the foundation for the last six commands dealing with our love for neighbor.
As we attend to the wishes of those we love in the human family, so we attend to the law of the Lord out of love for the Lord of the law.J.I. Packer, Keeping The Ten Commandments
How Men Often Minimize the Ten Commandments
Since God gave the moral law in such a way that the people knew his power they were not given the freedom to manipulate the format. They could not simply take the moral law as general suggestions. People typically respond to the commandments by pointing out how impossible they are to keep. I mentioned last week (What Is the Use of the Ten Commandments?) how that is the purpose of the first use of the law.
But instead of this realization leading people to Christ, their first instinct is to reduce the law down to something more manageable. Instead of hearing them say, “I know that I have lied and stolen in the past, so how can I make it up to God,” it is more common to hear, “Of course I lie and steal. Everyone does. It is not like I robbed a bank at gunpoint.”
They tend to minimize their guilt by comparing their crimes against God to greater crimes. In other words, they are not as bad as other people, which means they must be good. But that is not how it works.
Others will minimize the law by pointing out the many exceptions to the rule. We are not supposed to kill, but what about a soldier in war? We are not supposed to lie, but what about Rahab? We are supposed to honor our mother and father, but what if they command something unreasonable or unjust? These are tricky situations that we will explore as we come to them.
This line of thinking can lead to continued and more obvious compromise. “I know that I am not to commit adultery, but what if my girlfriend was in an abusive home and she has nowhere to live?” “I know I’m not supposed to steal, but what if I am taking from the rich and giving to the poor?”
The Delusions of Situationism
Situationism is worldliness, not only because it opens the door so obviously to wayward self-indulgence, but also because it aims to squeeze Christian morality into the fashionable “permissive” mold of decadent western secularism, which rejects the restrictions of all external authority and is sure that we are wise and good enough to see what is really best just by looking. But by biblical standards this is one of many delusions born of the satanic, God-defying pride with which we fallen creatures are all infected.J.I. Packer, Keeping the Ten Commandments
We should be very careful about thinking that exceptions to the law excuse our disobedience. Pointing out one possible exception does not mean we can turn the command into a general rule of thumb. Nor do positive outcomes ever justify wicked means. That is not how they were given, nor is it how they were interpreted throughout Scripture and throughout church history.
A sovereign God is able to command whatever he wills. We are not privileged to adjust them down to whatever standards we want. That does mean that we are prone to fail. We will never keep the standards perfectly.
That is why we can never forget that…
II. A Gracious God Gave the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:2)
We cannot fail to include the prologue when applying the moral law. This is what clearly reveals the gracious nature of the Mosaic Covenant. There will be consequences for disobedience, but the gift of redemption is where we begin. This implies both an inability to keep the moral law, as well as an ongoing obligation to keep it.
A Gracious Revelation
What makes this revelation gracious is the fact that it is given by a personal God who has already shown his steadfast love and covenant faithfulness to his people.
It would be frightening to the point of death if God thundered from the heavens, “I am the Lord!” But the divine self-disclosure doesn’t stop there. He goes on to add, “… your God.” He is on our side. He is our Father. He gives us commands for our good.Kevin DeYoung, The Ten Commandments
God had already delivered them out of slavery. They have complained about their circumstances in the wilderness, but God continued to provide for them. Now he is graciously going to establish a covenant with them through Moses.
It is important to recognize the gracious component of this covenant. In the covenant of works that God made with Adam, He not only required obedience, but he also promised life and “endued him with power and ability to keep it” (WCF 19.1). At Sinai God renewed this “perfect law of righteousness” with Moses (WCF 19.2).
In one sense, it was kind and gracious of God to give the Ten Commandments. He could have left them with nothing but their conscience to identify various categories of sin. By creating man in His image, God already gave them the ability to know right from wrong. Cain knew it was wrong to murder his brother Abel even though the sixth commandment (“You shall not murder”) had not been formally revealed. Cain had a conscience, and God punished him for disobeying that conscience.
The Ten Commandments provide concrete examples of how we offend God. The moral law reveals our sin (Romans 7:7). However, knowing the moral commands does not cause us to obey them, it establishes our guilt as covenant breakers (Romans 3:19).
God’s Covenantal Love
The consequences of disobedience were immediately felt in their generation. They would deal with disease and famine. In fact, Moses’ generation would not be allowed to enter into the Promised Land. And the ongoing disobedience of future generations would cause them to experience military defeat and exile.
The Israelites’ covenant unfaithfulness would have devastating consequences, yet, God would keep showing His steadfast love to them. He would remain covenantally faithful (Deuteronomy 7:9). In order to preserve His own name, He would draw them back to Himself and reestablish his commitment to them, not because of anything they had done.
God would remind them of His covenant faithfulness before delineating the Ten Commandments. One of the gravest theological errors is to reverse the order. If you begin with the commands and end with the reward, then you have created a works-based salvation. But God begins with his rescue. Their love—expressed through their obedience—is only possible because it is a grateful response to His initiating love.
Before getting to Sinai you must remember the Exodus. In fact, that is how Moses instructs the parents to teach the law to their children. They were to begin by teaching them about how the Lord brought them out of Egypt by a mighty hand with signs and wonders (Deuteronomy 6:20-23).
The Covenant of Grace
On Mount Sinai, God was honoring the covenant he had made with Abraham. Compare the similar language:
Gen. 15:7 I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans.
Ex. 20:2 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.
This was a renewal of the covenant of grace. It was a covenant to provide people, land, and numerous blessings (Genesis 13). Ultimately, it was also a covenant in which God took upon Himself the stipulations of obedience and the consequences of disobedience (Genesis 15). Abraham had a duty to obey, but God was acknowledging from the start that Abraham would fail. Instead of requiring the blood of Abraham, he paid the price of our disobedience with the righteous blood of His Son, Jesus Christ.
The fact that the Mosaic Covenant was established by a gracious God does not imply that obedience to the Ten Commandments was possible. Knowledge of the law does not provide the ability to obey it. It provides the recognition of our inability to keep it. This brings us to our need for Christ who took the curse of our disobedience on the cross.
So we have seen how a Sovereign God spoke the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1) and a gracious God gave the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:2). But, the gracious work of Christ upon the cross, and the ongoing enabling of the Spirit in a believer actually serves to strengthen our obligation to obey the moral law (WCF 19.5, 7).
The moral law remains binding, but now that it’s curse has been lifted and the Holy Spirit has been granted we can obey from a heart filled with gratitude.
We are justified, not because of our obedience to the law, but in order that we may become obedient to God’s law.Reformation Study Bible
Give what you command, and command what you will.Augustine, Confessions
A gracious God is willing to give whatever he commands. Through the grace that is found by faith in Christ, sin no longer has dominion over you (Romans 6:14).
The Ten Commandments reflect the character of our God who promises to give what he requires.