Finally we arrive at what many would consider the heart of the book of Exodus, the Ten Commandments. Certainly the Ten Commandments are an important part of the book but to focus on the laws of God as more important than anything else in the book is to miss the point. Ultimately having laws to follow is not very helpful without knowing how to actually do so.
The modern equivalent would be to hand someone a cake pan, some sugar, flour, and eggs and ask them to make a cake. Now there are some who can make a cake without instructions if they are given all the ingredients, but only because they’ve made a cake before and remember the steps. Odds are that you’re not going to figure out how to make the cake on your own just by guessing how the ingredients go together.
And then of course if I just gave ingredients, even skilled cake makers would ask “what kind of cake do you want?” “How big of a cake do you need?” In short, having the ingredients isn’t enough to make the cake, you need some more information to achieve the result that you want.
This is the Ten Commandments. They are the ingredients to a righteous life. Having these ingredients in one’s life will make one righteous. The problem is that just knowing right from wrong doesn’t make it possible to live righteously.
So we need to consider this as we look at the Ten Commandments. They are absolutely important to us and they even serve as a cornerstone to our modern laws. But despite their importance, just knowing them does not make it any easier to actually follow them. In fact, sometimes knowing the law makes it harder to follow.
For instance, I know that the speed limit in 40 mph. But when I’m in a hurry and everyone else is going above the speed limit there is a great temptation to exceed that speed limit. My options are to obey the law and be bothered by going so slow or to exceed the speed limit and worry about being pulled over. (The fear of being pulled over takes the place of one’s conscience in this instance because most people’s conscience doesn’t seem to be bothered by speeding.)
On the other hand, if I have no clue what the speed limit is I can keep up with the speed of the rest of traffic, therefore not being annoyed about having to go so slowly. And because I’m unaware of what the speed limit is, I don’t have a fear of being pulled over because as far as I know I’m not breaking the speed limit.
Of course the Ten Commandments are not just arbitrary rules to make us feel guilty about breaking them. Just like the speed limit, they are designed for our safety and not to take the fun out of life.
There are a couple of ways that we can approach the Ten Commandments. The most obvious way would be to take a week on each one. But we aren’t going to do that. First of all, I don’t want to spend our next two and a half months on them. Secondly, as I just stated the importance of them, I don’t want to overemphasize their importance compared to the rest of the book.
For our purposes today we’re going to break the Ten Commandments down into two parts. I tried to go over all ten in one week but just couldn’t do it and do the chapter any justice.
So why did I break it into two parts and how did I arrive at that conclusion? Jesus actually gives us the answer to this. In Matthew 22:34-40, Jesus is challenged as to the greatest commandment.
34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[b] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[c] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
The Jewish leaders loved to sit around and debate and this debate was one that they discussed a lot. We don’t have debates quite like this but we do still rank sins. For instance, we would mostly agree that a murderer is a worse person than a thief. By that reasoning, we could say that do not murder is a greater commandment than do not steal.
The Jewish leaders would sit around debate this as well as all of their other made up laws. By asking Jesus what the greatest commandment was, they sought to trap Him. Because they didn’t agree on the answer, if Jesus gave an answer, He would have to give an answer that some would disagree with.
Jesus responds to their challenge and does them one better. He gives them the greatest command as well as the second greatest command. These two can easily be summed up as love God, love others. Now if we look at the Ten Commandments in light of what Jesus said, we should realize that Jesus just said that all commands are important.
The Ten Commandments break down into two sections, love for God and love for others. The first four commands concern our love for God. The last six commands concern our love for others. Let’s start by looking at the first four.
1 And God spoke all these words:
2 “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
3 “You shall have no other gods before[a] me.
4 “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
7 “You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.
8 “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. 11 For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
We can say that God gets pretty much right to the point. The first two commandments might sound a bit redundant but they are not. God starts out by reminding the Israelites who He is. He is the one who rescued them from Egypt and who defeated the Egyptian gods. Because of that, they are to revere Him above all else.
The second commandment is similar. Not only are the Israelites to hold God above everything else, they are not supposed to worship other gods at all. This second commandment builds upon and explains the first one. This may not make a lot of sense to us today but it would have made perfect sense to the Israelites.
In a culture that worships many gods, one has to be the best. Even if you have a god of bulls and a god of rain and a god of fertility, those areas are going to overlap. If your crops are withering, is it the god of fertility’s fault for not giving you a great harvest, or is it the god responsible for rain? God says, not only is He above other gods, they are not to worship other gods at all.
Even if you say one god is the top god, how do you show that? What if the worship of one god contradicts with the worship of another god? What if the bull god requires a sacrifice of grain to feed it and the god of the harvest says that it gets all the harvest? God says that there will be no contradictions in worship of Him because He is the only God they are to worship. Worship of any other gods contradicts worship of Him.
Next we have probably the hardest of all the commandments to understand. Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain. Today we pretty much only think of one phrase that we shouldn’t say because it violates this commandment. I find it stupid and ironic that this one phrase gets bleeped out on tv but it is the God part that gets bleeped and not the rest.
On the other hand, the Israelites took this so seriously that they wouldn’t pronounce God’s name for fear of misusing it. So how should we look at this commandment today? For starters, I don’t believe that it means that we are to avoid using one phrase in our repertoire of swears.
Instead, what does it mean to take someone’s name? To take someone’s name means to identify with them. When a wife takes a husband’s name, she is identified with him and his family. If she does something to bring shame, she brings shame to not only herself but her family that she is identified with. Of course this works the same with a man as he would bring shame to the wife as they share the same name.
The Israelites are the children of God. Today, we call ourselves Christians. The Israelites are identified with God and we have identified ourselves with Christ. We have taken the name of God. To take the name of God in vain is to do something that brings shame. It is any action that would cause someone else to say “I can’t believe that they call themselves a Christian and they act like that.” I believe that this is taking the Lord’s name in vain just as much as saying a particular curse word.
The fourth commandment is another controversial one. God told us to rest on the seventh day. Of course we worship on the first day of the week, not the seventh. This is an area of contention for some who insist on continuing to worship on the seventh day. I’ll only say that Christians began worshipping on Sundays very early on as a celebration of Jesus’ resurrection.
More controversial is whether this commandment is even still active today. Jesus butted heads with the Pharisees on this issue as much as anything else. In Matthew 12:1-14 Jesus appears to break the Sabbath at least twice.
1 At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. 2 When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.”
3 He answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4 He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. 5 Or haven’t you read in the Law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple desecrate the day and yet are innocent? 6 I tell you that one[a]greater than the temple is here. 7 If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’[b] you would not have condemned the innocent. 8 For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”
9 Going on from that place, he went into their synagogue, 10 and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”
11 He said to them, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out?12 How much more valuable is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”
13 Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other. 14 But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.
Here’s what I can say about the Sabbath today. The Pharisees took this law too seriously to the detriment of other people. They were hypocrites in the way that they acted about this law. They tried to make up additional laws that declared how far a person could walk before it was considered work. And this was never intended. This was intended as a day of rest but if you spent your day counting how many steps you took to make sure that you didn’t accidentally work, it would be exhausting.
Today, reality is that a lot of Christians are employed at jobs that require them to work on Sundays. This isn’t ideal and if you are looking for a job, I’d encourage you to look for one that doesn’t require work on Sundays. I say this not because I look at this as a matter of sin but simply because if you are working, you can’t worship alongside other Christians and enjoy their fellowship.
As I’ve said before, I work on Sundays. The first half of my day is anything but restful. If I spend the other six days of the week working, I’m going to wear out. If you do have to work on Sundays, take another day of the week and rest. Spend that time focusing on God and renewing not just your strength but also your spiritual vitality.
The first four commandments focus on our love for God. And that’s the way we should think of them as well. These are not orders that we must carry out like they come from a military commander. Instead these are things that we should do because of our love for God.
Not only should we do these things because of our love for God but it will be impossible to keep these commands if we don’t love Him. There will be times that you won’t follow these commands even if you do love God but you won’t put God first in your life if you don’t love Him. If you don’t love the Lord, you’re going to struggle to get out of bed on Sunday mornings – it’s hard enough some days even when you do.
Next week we’ll look at the last six as they pertain to love for others. We’ll see that we can’t truly love others unless we love God first.