"The Law From God"
(Delivered Sunday, May 25, 2003 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotes are taken from the New King James Version.)
Over the past several weeks, we've been laying a biblical foundation for our understanding of the Ten Commandments. And it may seem that, so far, we've been looking at every other passage BUT the one containing the commandments! Well, today we will begin to study the Ten Commandments themselves from the Scripture passage in which God first revealed them.
I'd like to start us off by reading the commandments in their entirety. Please give reverent attention to my reading of these majestic words from God; and may God Himself bless these words to us as we do so.
And God spoke all these words, saying,
As we begin our study of these words together, let's give special attention this morning to the first two verses of this passage. There, we find what is considered to be the "prologue" or "introductory words" to God's whole presentation of His commandments. There's good reason to believe that they are a part of the first commandment. In Psalm 81, God says, "Hear, O My people, and I will admonish you! O Israel, if you will listen to Me! There shall be no foreign god among you; nor shall you worship any foreign god" (Psalm 81:8-9); and there, He is repeating His first commandment. But He then goes on to speak in words very similar to the prologue; "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt ..." (v. 10). And so, I believe that the prologue and the first commandment clearly go together as a unit. The first commandment is really a key commandment that sets the tone for all the others; and so, the prologue of the first commandment truly is the prologue for all the commandments.
Typically, folks tend to pass by these words and jump right in to the commandments themselves. But though they are a part of the first commandment, I believe it would be a mistake not to stop and give them separate attention. These first two verses contain the very words of God Himself - words by Himself about Himself as the divine Lawgiver. They teach us much about the commandments themselves; because we can only understand these laws as we first take the time to understand the Lawgiver. As we do so, we learn from these introductory words that the law of God is good, because the God who gives it is Himself good.
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God was purposeful in including this prologue in the presentation of His commandments. His doing so has clearly marked-out the Ten Commandments as words from the almighty Creator Himself, and has distinguished them from the commandments and religious prescriptions of mere men.
Man is, by nature, a religious creature - but he is a fallen creature as well. And as a fallen creature, he is always trying to make up rules and regulations to make himself righteous and worthy before God. This is not acceptable to God, though. God's own people, the Jews, did this often; and He says, "These people draw near with their mouths and honor Me with their lips, but have removed their hearts far from Me, and their fear toward Me is taught by the commandment of men" (Isaiah 29:13-14). In fact, Jesus once rebuked the Jews, saying, "Thus you have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition" (Matthew 15:6).
The Jews of old were giving great weight to the "commandments of men"; and in the process, they were transgressing the commandments of God. Many people do the same today. This prologue is important then, because it clearly distinguishes for us the commandments that are from God. We are not absolutely obligated to the moral codes of men; but we are all absolutely obligated to the moral code of God. And we are obligated to the laws of men only in as much as they are not in conflict with the law of God. The prologue establishes for us which is which.
The prologue distinguishes the commandments from God in another way as well. All other moral codes were developed by men who cannot see into the hearts of those who obey them. All that men can ever observe with any certainly is outward conduct. Perhaps to some very limited and very imperfect degree, they can discern motives or detect attitudes; but for the most part, those among men who prescribe a moral law to men cannot see into the heart-condition of men who obey them. All then that the moral codes and commandments of men can do is concentrate on actions.
But because the Lawgiver who has given us the Ten Commandments is God Himself, He can see into our hearts perfectly. He knows not only our actions with respect to His law, but can completely discern the attitudes of our hearts, and the motivations of our actions. He thoroughly sees not only what we do, but also how we do it, and why we do it. "And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account" (Heb. 4:13).
I wonder if you've ever considered Jesus' Sermon on The Mount in the light of this. Jesus said, "For I say t you, unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:20). And many people mistakenly think that Jesus then introduced a whole new set of moral laws in His sermon that was distinct from the law that the Pharisees held to. But this isn't the case at all. Jesus insisted that not one jot or tittle of the law would pass away (v. 18) - just as the Pharisees would, no doubt, have insistent. But then, what Jesus did was show that this same law of God is as much concerned with what goes on in our hearts as with what goes on in our actions.
He said, for example, "You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder', and whoever murders will be in danger of judgment'" - and there, of course, He was quoting the sixth commandment. Most of us like that commandment; because most of us can always brag that we haven't murdered someone. But few of us can admit that we haven't at times wanted to murder someone; and Jesus shows us that the commandment was against the attitude as much as the action: "But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, 'Raca!' [that is, "Empty head!"] shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, 'You fool!' shall be in danger of hell fire" (vv. 21-22). He made the "murderer" in attitude as guilty before God as the murder in action! We may not have committed the actual 'act' of murder; but we can clearly see that God's law convicts us of having committed the 'attitude' of murder many times.
Another very famous example is the commandment against adultery. "You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not commit adultery'" [here citing the seventh commandment]. More people around us are guilty of breaking this commandment than, perhaps, of committing the act of murder; but still many of us can remain smug and think ourselves obedient if we haven't been physically unfaithful to our spouses. But again, Jesus shows us that the true spirit of this commandment is concerned with more than just outward obedience: "But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (vv. 27-28). This makes all of us guilty of breaking this commandment in attitude, if not in action.
And again, this prologue serves, in part, to point this out to us. It clearly marks the Ten Commandments as the commandments of God - and that makes them far deeper and more profound than any set of commandments from men. Man looks only on the outward appearance; but God looks into our hearts. His commandments are as much concerned with our inner obedience as with our outward obedience. Perhaps we could even say that God is MORE concerned with our inner obedience; because, as Jesus has said, "What comes out of a man, that defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, and evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a man" (Mark 7:20-23).
In studying these commandments together, may the all-seeing God who gave them grow increasingly to see in us the kind of inner obedience that shows itself in the outward obedience!
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So then, what about this prologue? What does it teach us about the commandments? The first thing we see that it teaches us about the commandments is that ...
1. THEIR AUTHORITY IS TOTAL.
The prologue begins with these words, "And God spoke all these words, saying ..."; and here, we see that these commandments were not the commandments of men, but the very commandments spoken by God. God is their divine source; and so they are authoritative.
We can see this in three ways. We see it first in the 'source' of the commandments: the commandments were of God. They Bible expressly says that they came directly from Him.
We shouldn't sentimentalize this, by the way. The occasion of these commandments coming from God was one of unspeakable terror to the people of Israel. The Bible tells us that, as the people were congregated around the base of Mount Sinai, God commanded, three days in advance, that they wash their clothes and consecrate themselves. And God commanded that boundaries be set up around the mountain; because if anyone were to touch its base, they were to be immediately put to death. And then, they were to await the sound of a long trumpet blast and then come near.
And the Bible tells us,
Then it came to pass on the third day, in the morning, that there were thunderings and lightninngs, and a thick cloud on the mountain; and the sound of the trumpet was very loud, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled. And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was completely in smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire. Its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked greatly. And when the blast of the trumpet sounded long and became louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him by voice. Then the LORD came down upon Mount Sinai, on the top of the mountain, and Moses went up. And the LORD said to Moses, "Go down and warn the people, lest they break through to gaze at the LORD, and many of them perish. Also let the priests who come near the LORD consecrate themselves, lest the LORD break out against them" (Ex. 19:16-22).
When God came down to give His law, it was the most terrifying, most utterly dreadful thing that people had ever experienced. You get a further sense of this by what you read after the commandments were given:
Now all the people witnessed the thunderings, the lightning flashes, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled and stood afar off. Then they said to Moses, "You speak with us and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die." And Moses said to the people, "Do not fear; for God has come to test you, and that His fear may be before you, so that you may not sin." So the people stood afar off, but Moses drew near the thick darkness where God was (Ex. 20:18- 21).
The Bible tells us that "so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, 'I am exceedingly afraid and trembling'" (Heb. 12:21). So let's not minimize this event in our minds. The act of God coming down to give His law was an unspeakably awesome event. We are often a little casual with our use of the word "awesome", but this event truly was awesome - dreadfully so! What great authority it communicates to us when it says that "God spoke all these things"!
We also see the authority of the commandments in the 'manner' in which God gave them. We're told that God "spoke" them. The commandments were not simply a human effort to express what people THOUGHT God wanted. The commandments were not the mere summation of people's religious sensitivities. Rather God Himself clearly communicated - clearly uttered - what He wanted. Think of it! - God, the almighty Creator, spoke in the hearing of people; and these commandments are what He said.
There are some who argue with this. "How can God, who has no physical form, speak?" they say. But personally, I have no trouble believing that the almighty God who created the property of sound, and who made man's mouth and ear, can certainly speak and make Himself heard if He so wished. Besides; however some may argue with the idea, we're clearly told that people heard Him. Moses later said, "The LORD did not make this covenant with our fathers, but with us, those who are here today, all of us who are alive. The LORD talked with you face to face on the mountain from the midst of the fire. I stood between the LORD and you at that time, to declare to you the word of the LORD; for you were afraid of the fire, and you did not go up the mountain. He said: 'I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage'" (Deut. 5:3-6). We may not know how God did this; but clearly, He spoke and was heard!
Other people point out that the Bible says the law was ministered through angels; and indeed it does. Acts 7:53 has Stephen telling the Jews how they have resisted God; "who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it." The writer of Hebrews calls the law "the word spoken through angels" (Heb. 2:2). Just how angels may have been involved is not clear. Perhaps they were in reverent attendance at this event; standing at attention as it were, and being sure to minister every word to those who heard. But all this underscores the tremendous authority of God's commandments themselves - that God Himself spoke them; with even His holy angels in reverent participation. What a scene! What authority!
We finally see the authority of the commandments in terms of the 'content': God spoke "all these words". Moses didn't merely copy down the gist of what God said; but each word - each syllable, as it were - had the full authority of God. The Bible tells us that Moses "was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water. And He wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments" (Ex. 34:27-28). The "He" who wrote them is God Himself. Earlier, God commanded Moses, "Cut two tablets of stone like the first ones, and I will write on these tablets the words that were on the first tablet which you broke" (v. 1). Moses told the people that God commanded that those second tablets be placed in the Ark of the Covenant:
So I made an ark of acacia wood, hewed two tablets of stone like the first, and went up the mountain, having the two tablets in my hand. And He wrote on the tablets according to the first writing, the Ten Commandments, which the LORD had spoken to you in the mountain from the midst of the fire in the day of the assembly; and the LORD gave them to me. Then I turned and came down from the mountain, and put the tablets in the ark which I had made; and there they are, just as the LORD commanded me" (Deut. 10:3-5).
How sacred those stone tablets were! They were written upon by God Himself! They contained the specific words He spoke on the mountain in the hearing of the people. No other document that has ever rested upon the earth had more authority! They were from God! God spoke them! And He spoke every word of them! "And God spoke all these words ..." What authority they have!!
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All this being true, how should we respond to the immeasurable authority of God's commandments? First, of course, we should never add to them or subtract from them. We should never seek to change them in any way, or misinterpret them so as to suit our wishes. Jesus said, "For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled" (Matthew 5:18). Moses, speaking in the authority of God, says, "Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it" (Deut. 12:32).
Second, we should take the utmost care that we do not lose sight of God's authoritative commandments or fail to keep them before us. Moses told the people, "Only take heed to yourself, and diligently keep yourself, lest you forget the things your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. And teach them to your children and grandchildren ..." (Deut. 4:9). We live in a culture that has wilfully forgotten what it should have remembered; and has neglected to preserve what it should have passed on! And as Christians living in such a culture, one of the greatest dangers we face is that of going with the flow - "forgetting" God's commandments, and departing from them. Because of their great authority, we must be diligent to keep ahold of them and faithfully pass them on to the next generation.
And third, we should above all else carefully obey them. Moses said, "Observe and obey all these words which I command you, that it may go well with you and your children after you forever, when you do what is good and right in the sight of the LORD your God" (Deut. 12:28). As God told Joshua, Moses' successor, "This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success" (Josh. 1:8). As it says in Nehemiah, God has given His people "just ordinances and true laws, good statutes and commandments" (Neh. 9:13). May we, by God's help, keep them.
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The prologue teaches us of the dreadful, terrifying authority of God's commandments. But it also teaches us that ...
2. THEIR GIVER IS GRACIOUS.
You'll notice that, in your Bible, it reads, "I am the LORD" - with LORD in all capital letters. This is the translator's way of letting you know that this not the ordinary Hebrew word for "Lord". This is a very special name. It the most sacred word in all the Hebrew language. It is the name "Yahweh" - the covenant name of God.
When God first called Moses from the burning bush, He told him to go and announce that He was about to deliver the Jewish people from their slavery in Egypt, Moses said, "Indeed, when I come to the children of Israel and say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they say to me, 'What is His name?' what shall I say to them?" (Ex. 3:13). This was a good question. The Jewish people had been in bondage for four-hundred years in a land that was given over to the worship of false gods. How would Moses distinguish this God to His people? God answered, "I AM WHO I AM." And He said, "Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, "I AM has sent me to you" (v. 14).
Biblical scholars tell us that the meaning of this phrase is "The One who is" - that is, the absolute and unchanging, self-existent One. It's a name by which God promises to His people to always be everything they ever need Him to be. With the utmost reverence, I observe that His name is not, "I WAS", or "I WILL BE"; but "I AM."
When God was telling Moses all this at the burning bush, He made a promise to him; "I will certainly be with you. And this shall be a sign to you that I have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain" (Ex. 3:12). And now, with all the people delivered out of Egypt, and all the people gathered with Moses at the foot of the mountain - just as God had promised, soon on their way to the land God is giving them, and just as He is about to give His law to them - God introduces Himself with that very same name to them. He says, "I am the LORD" - "I am Yahweh". In other words, the first name God uses to describe Himself to His people, in the giving of His law, is the name by which He promised that He would graciously deliver them from their bondage. What a picture this is of a promise fulfilled!
I also make the observation that this same God says to these people, "I am the LORD your God ..." He makes Himself their God; and claims them as His people. This is a God of great grace. Moses later told the people,
Surely I have taught you statutes and judgments, just as the LORD my God commanded me, that you should act according to them in the land which you go to possess. Therefore be careful to observe them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the people who will hear all these statutes, and say, 'Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.' For what great nation is there that has God so near to it, as the LORD our God is to us, for whatever reason we may call upon Him? And what great nation is there that has such statutes and righteous judgments as are in all this law which I set before you this day? (Deut. 4:5-8).
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This leads us to a third thing this prologue teaches us about the commandments; that ...
3. THEIR APPLICATION IS PERSONAL.
As I examined the original language of this text, I made an interesting discovery. In saying, "I am the LORD your God," God does not speak as we might expect, or as He does elsewhere in the surrounding context. He does use the plural pronoun in saying "your God", but rather the singular. In fact, all throughout the Ten Commandments, God speaks as if to a single listener. It's as if He was saying, "I am the LORD your God - and I'm talking to you, individual man or woman. You - yes, I mean you - shall have no other gods before Me. You - and I'm talking specifically to you - shall not make for yourself a carved image ..." and so on throughout the rest of the commandments.
There's two wonderful things about this. First, in giving His commandments, God lets us know that He is a personal God. He knows us by name. He looks upon us, not merely as a mass of people, but as individuals. He means His law for our personal good.
And second, in giving His commandments, God lets us know that they are to be personally applied. He means for you, dear brother or sister, to not take His name in vain. He means for you, dear brother or sister, to honor His special day. He means for you, dear brother or sister, to honor your father and mother, to not murder or commit adultery or steal or bear false witness. He means for you, dear brother or sister, to not covet what He has given to your neighbor.
As we study these commandments together, we need to remember that they are given by a personal God who calls Himself your God and my God; and who calls us to personally apply His commandments to our lives individually.
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A final thing that this prologue teaches us about the commandments is that ....
4. THEIR CONTEXT IS REDEMPTIVE.
God says, "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage." God did not promise to take them out of their slavery and bondage in Egypt IF they would keep His commandments; but rather first delivered them and brought them out of bondage into freedom - and THEN called them to keep His commandments.
I love what it says in Deuteronomy 7:6-8. After repeating the law to the people, Moses says,
For you are a holy people to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for Himself, a special treasure above all the peoples on the face of the earth. The LORD did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any other people, for you were the least of all peoples; but because the LORD loves you, and because He would keep the oath which He swore to our fathers, the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt (Deut. 7:6-8).
The people didn't deserve God's love. They were not worthy of being called His people, or of being delivered by Him. Why did He love them? Was it because they were great? No. Was it because they were worthy? No. Why? The only reason we're given is that God loved them because He loved them.
And it's then that Moses says,
Therefore know that the LORD your God, He is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and mercy for a thousand generations with those who love Him and keep His commandments; and He repays those who hate Him to their face, to destroy them. He will not be slack with him who hates Him; He will repay him to his face. Therefore you shall keep the commandment, the statutes, and the judgments which I commanded you today, to observe them (vv. 9-11).
Why does God love them? Because He loves them. And why should they keep His commandments now? Because He loved them first. And God's redemptive love toward us is to place us under the same obligation. As Paul wrote,
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So then; as we enter into our study of the specific commandments, let's remember what this prologue is intended to teach us: that these commandments come to us with the utmost authority - that is, from the almighty God, who Himself spoke every word of them. Their authority is dreadful; and they should be handled by us with great reverence, and obeyed with great fear and trembling. Let's remember that we are personally and individually accountable to them.
But let's also remember that the God who gives them is a God of great grace. He is a promise-keeping God; a God who graciously calls Himself 'our God'; a God who redeems unworthy sinners from their bondage and makes them His own people. Though we often fail Him, He will never fail us. And then, let's seek to obey these commandments, through the power of His Holy Spirit, with glad-hearted joy and thankfulness for His saving grace.
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