Kevin DeYoung / Sep 11, 2016 / Exodus 20:1-2
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Sermon Summary / Transcript
The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever; the rules of the LORD are true, and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover, by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward. Psalm 19:7-11
Our prayer is that the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts would be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and redeemer. In Jesus’ name, amen.
It’s our practice (on Sunday mornings in particular) to move through books of the Bible, verse by verse and chapter by chapter. We’ve been in Exodus for several months now. This morning, we come to the first two verses of Exodus 20, which serve to introduce our next few months of sermons on the Ten Commandments.
And God spoke all these words, saying, “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
This introduces one of the most famous sections in all of the Bible—indeed, of religious literature in all the world: the Ten Commandments. Actually, they’re not given that title anywhere in this chapter. If anything, they’re called “the Ten Words”. Sometimes, you hear them referred to as “the Decalogue”—“déka” being the Greek word for “ten”, and “lógos” for “words”. These are the Ten Words that God gave to the Israelites, but they’re also clearly commands, so there’s no problem with calling them the Ten Commandments.
The problem that people have is not with what they’re called, but (if we’re honest) with what they contain. It’s the very heart of human rebellion. We would rather not have God tell us what we can or cannot do.
There was an article on the CNN website back in December 2014. Here’s how it started:
What if, instead of climbing Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments from God, Moses had turned to the Israelites and asked: “Hey, what do you guys think we should do?”
Considering the Hebrews’ bad behavior in the Bible, what with the coveting of neighbors’ wives and murdering their own brothers, that might have been a disastrous idea.
But in our own more enlightened age, we’re perfectly capable of crowdsourcing our own commandments—or, at least, that’s what a new project would have us believe.
Lex Bayer, an executive at AirBnB, and John Figdor, a humanist chaplain at Stanford University, delivered their own 10 “non-commandments” in a book they co-wrote: “Atheist Heart, Humanist Mind.” Daniel Burke — “Behold, atheists’ new Ten Commandments”
It goes on to say that these two authors—as a publicity stunt, I’d imagine—tried to crowdsource ten “non-commandments”. They offered $10,000 to any would-be Moseses, receiving 2,800 submissions from people all around the world who came up with their own non-commandments. Then they appointed a panel of 13 judges to select the 10 winners. So here are the ten non-commandments of our age:
- Be open-minded and be willing to alter your beliefs with new evidence.
- Strive to understand what is most likely to be true, not to believe what you wish to be true.
- The scientific method is the most reliable way of understanding the natural world.
- Every person has the right to control of their body.
- God is not necessary to be a good person or to live a full and meaningful life.
- Be mindful of the consequences of all your actions and recognize that you must take responsibility for them.
- Treat others as you would want them to treat you, and can reasonably expect them to want to be treated. Think about their perspective.
- We have the responsibility to consider others, including future generations.
- There is no one right way to live.
- Leave the world a better place than you found it.
That sounds about right—not with respect to the Ten Commandments, but in terms of how many people (maybe even some of us) think of their moral obligations. This captures the default moral code of a lot of people.
Yet I would hope (perhaps naively) that, after a few moments’ reflection on these non-commandments, we would see that they’re filled with some stunning contradictions. They say that you don’t need God to be a good person or have any of these commandments—yet they have a summary of the Golden Rule in there, which comes from Jesus in Matthew 7:12: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”
They talk about the scientific method. Let me just give you a little history about Francis Bacon’s scientific method. The popularity of it, especially in North America, is in large part due to Scottish Presbyterians, who found it to be a very convenient way to make observations about God’s created world.
Even more so, these non-commandments are logically indefensible. They’re presumably called “non-commandments” because “commandments” sounds so commandment-ish. Yet they’re all commands! We live, paradoxically, in an age where many will say, “Yes, I am a moral relativist. Morality is what you perceive for yourself”—and yet they will rebuke others like the strictest fundamentalist. We may be quite free and liberal as a culture when it comes to sex, but we’ve become very fundamentalist over food or the environment. There may have been words that you used to not be able to say, which are now fine—but then there are all sorts of other words which are deemed derogatory or offensive that you can’t say.
And, as some of you have already noticed, how does the second to last commandment make any sense in light of the other nine? “There is no one right way to live.” “Okay, you have control over your body. Leave the world a better place. Take responsibility. Use the scientific method. But, eh, you know, whatever.” I know the contest was a publicity stunt for the book, but the authors seemed to believe that it’s good to develop your moral code by simply taking the temperature of those around you.
Here’s what it says elsewhere in the article:
Bayer said humans are hardwired for compassion, and the scientific method and wisdom of crowds—or the tribes that gather online each day—will weed out bad ideas. In other words, this is an open-ended, and hopefully progressive, process, he said.
I don’t know what internet they’re looking at, but I have not found it to be a place that’s trustworthy for weeding out bad ideas. In fact, they had to appoint a committee of 13 judges to pick from among the more sober reflections. We simply don’t live in an age (nor has there ever been one) where taking the temperature of people’s own moral code will yield a very good response.
Going to the internet to help solve your problems is among the worst of ideas. I don’t know if you read this story earlier in the spring. The British government was developing a $287MM polar research vessel, and they thought it would be good publicity to have an internet vote by British citizens to choose the name of this new polar research vessel. The agency in charge of the contest suggested to the internet crowds that they look at names like Shackleton (the famous explorer), Endeavor, or Falcon. But the people’s overwhelming, runaway choice for this state of the art research vessel—the winner of the internet vote—was “Boaty McBoatFace”. That’s a very British sense of humor, I think. In the end, the agency decided not to go with the clear winner, but picked the fourth place winner, naming the boat after Sir David Attenborough. That’s just a lesson about crowdsourcing your best ideas.
Over the next few months, we’re going to move one by one through the Ten Commandments. This morning will be just a little different, though. I want to lay down some important groundwork for studying the Ten Commandments. In particular, I have two questions: why should we study the Ten Commandments? and why should we obey them? I’ll give you five reasons for each, so you’re getting ten words before the Ten Words. And when we get to the second question, we’ll come right back to the text that has been read.
Five Reasons to Study the Ten Commandments
Reason 1: General Ignorance
First, many (if not most) people are simply ignorant of the Ten Commandments. This is true in our churches, and certainly everywhere else outside the church. Most churches don’t recite or read them anymore. Many churches don’t instruct their children in them. It would probably be embarrassing for both children and adults if we randomly picked someone to come up here and give us the Ten Commandments. Most people in our society certainly don’t know them.
There was a study conducted in 2007. 80% of respondents in this country knew that two all-beef patties were among the ingredients in a Big Mac. Only 60% could identify “Thou shalt not kill” as one of the Ten Commandments—and that’s one of the more obvious ones! This is shocking. 35% of the respondents to this poll could name all six of the Brady kids from the Brady Bunch. I didn’t even watch that show. I don’t know what old people they’re interviewing here. 25% could name all 7 ingredients of the Big Mac, but only 14% could list the Ten Commandments.
It’s no exaggeration to say that these ten rules have been the most influential law code ever given. Whether you think they’re right or not, simply out of an interest in world history—especially Western history—you should not be ignorant of them. If you go to Washington D.C., one of the sculpted figures on the promenade overlooking the roof of the U.S. Supreme Court building is Moses with the Ten Commandments right in the middle of a number of lawgivers.
Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ Deuteronomy 4:6
That has proven to be true. The commandments given to the nation of Israel, as recorded in the Scriptures, have become known all throughout the world, yet we’re often ignorant of them.
Reason 2: Historical Instruction
The church has historically put the Ten Commandments at the center of its instruction, especially for children and new believers. For centuries, instruction from a catechism—teaching people the fundamentals of the faith—was based on three things. You can see them all across Christian traditions: the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments. When people asked, “How do we do discipleship? How do we teach our kids about the Bible? What do they need to know about Christianity?”, the answers usually revolved around those three things.
Now, could all of that become rote, very boring, and lifeless? Of course it could. But it’s instructive for us. In the Heidelburg Catechism, 11 of the 52 Lord’s Days are on the Ten Commandments. In the Westminster Shorter Catechism, out of 107 questions, 42 are about the Ten Commandments. Even if you look at the catechism of the Catholic Church, out of 750 pages, 120 are about the Ten Commandments. Across Christian traditions, there has been a historic emphasis on the Ten Commandments.
Reason 3: Centrality to Mosaic Ethics
The Ten Commandments are central to the ethics of the Mosaic covenant. When you see the word LORD in small-caps in the Old Testament, that’s the Hebrew word “YHWH,” the covenant name of God. If you look in your Bibles, you’ll see that YHWH is speaking these words directly to the people. There’s a change here. He’s no longer saying, “Moses, go down and give this message to them.” Uniquely, in the Ten Commandments God is speaking to Moses, but in the hearing of all the people. He’s speaking “all these words” (verse 1) directly to them.
That’s why, at the end of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:19), “[They] said to Moses, ’You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die. We’ve had enough of this God speaking to us directly.’” They were so afraid.
It shows something of the strategic and unique importance of the Ten Commandments. Even the language in verse 2—”I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”—is a deliberate echo of God’s call to Abraham in Genesis 15, where he says, “I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans…” At these great epochal moments in redemptive history—first with Abraham, and now with Moses and the people at the foot of Mount Sinai—God says, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of this strange land to be your God and give you this word.”
Some people—even Old Testament scholars!—will say, “Well, there are all sorts of commandments. We’ve set them apart as the Ten Commandments, but they’re all just a part of God’s statutes. They’re not unique in any way.” This doesn’t do justice to the role that they served in ancient Israel. The tablets of the law were placed inside the Ark of the Covenant. Deuteronomy 5 reminds the people that God spoke to them face-to-face here at the mountain. He gave them these laws in the midst of smoke and fire.
There are going to be many more laws. The ancient Jews counted them at 613 laws, and here are the first 10. Yes, there are many more to come, but the Ten Commandments are the founding principles, followed by a large body of case law. You can think of the Ten Commandments as the Constitution, and what follows are the regulatory statutes. The Commandments are actually fairly broad, and it would take the work of the Spirit and many judges to make adjudications for them to be applied in thousands of situations.
Turn the page and look at Exodus 21. Notice the heads of the paragraphs. Notice the kind of language that is used. Verse 7: “When.” Verse 12: “Whoever.” Verse 15: “Whoever.” Verse 16: “Whoever.” Verse 18: “When.” Verse 20: “When.” Verse 22: “When.” Look at Exodus 22: “If.” Verse 5: “If.” Verse 6: “If.” You have this sort of language over and over in these statutes that follow, because these are the regulatory statutes. This is a sort of case law. “We have the Ten Commandments. Now let’s try to flesh this out. Whenever somebody does this, what does it look like? If this happens, then what sort of law comes into place?” They’re central to the ethics of the Mosaic covenant.
Reason 4: Centrality to New Testament Ethics
The Ten Commandments are central to the ethics of the New Testament. I hope you have your Bibles open. I want to quickly take you to a few different passages. Turn to Mark 10:17. This is part of the story where the rich young man comes to Jesus and asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus says to him, “You know the commandments.” Then he starts listing the second table of the law—the commandments that relate to our neighbors: “Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.” When Jesus has to give a convenient summary of our duties to one another, he starts quoting the Ten Commandments.
If you know anything about this story, you know just how ingenious he is. The one commandment from the second table that he doesn’t mention is the tenth one: “You shall not covet.” That’s where the man is really getting tripped up. He can say, “Yes, I think I have kept all of the commandments.” “Well, let’s get at the tenth one. What is your attitude toward your money?” So Jesus quotes the Ten Commandments.
Go over to Romans 13:8. When the Apostle Paul wants to give a summary of what it means to be a Christian living in obedience to God, he says,
Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Romans 13:8-9
There he says, much like Jesus did, that the commandments are the way that we love one another. When we truly love one another, that’s how we fulfill the commandments. But the point is that even here, when Paul wants to give an example of what it means to show this kind of love, he starts listing the Ten Commandments.
Let me give you one other. Flip to 1 Timothy 1:8: “Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane…” Do you see what he’s going to do here? He starts listing the second table of the law—those commandments that tell us how to treat one another. “…or those who strike their fathers and mothers [a violation of the fifth commandment], for murderers [a violation of the sixth commandment], the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality [many violations of the seventh commandment], enslavers [those who steal—a violation of the eighth commandment] liars, perjurers [violations of the ninth commandment], and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.”
So again we see that when Jesus or the apostle Paul needs a convenient way to give ethical instruction to people in the New Testament, they often go back to the Ten Commandments.
Jesus famously said (Matthew 23), “I can summarize these Ten Commandments into just two commandments: love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself,” which were actually among the other commandments in the Old Testament. So one way to summarize the 613 commandments is with the Ten Commandments. Then Jesus said, “I can summarize those Ten Commandments into just two: love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said (Matthew 5), “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”
As we go through this series, we will find that the Law drives us to our knees, shows us our sin, and leads us to the cross. We need forgiveness. None of us keep these commands perfectly. At the same time, for those who have been forgiven and who do know Christ, we see in both the Old and New Testament that the Ten Commandments are to be a guideline that, even now, we use to learn God’s will.
Reason 5: The Law is Good
Here’s the fifth reason for studying the Ten Commandments: the law is good. Romans 7:12: “…the commandment is holy and righteous and good.” The law is good if one uses it lawfully. C.S. Lewis famously commented on how the Psalmist could say that he delights in the law of the Lord. Lewis says, “That’s strange. You delight in all sorts of things—God, his promises, his word, or his grace—but who says, ‘I love laws!’? Well, the Psalmist does. It’s like arriving on solid ground after a shortcut gone awry through the mud and the mire, as you’re messy, squishy, and stinky, fumbling your way through life. Then you hit something solid: law.
We scarcely ever think, “How much better life would be if everyone kept the Ten Commandments.” If you say, “I don’t like commandments. I don’t like God telling me what to do”—listen. If everyone kept the Ten Commandments, we wouldn’t need copyright laws, patent laws, or intellectual property rights. You wouldn’t need locks on your home or credit fraud protection. We wouldn’t have to spend any money in the defense budget. You wouldn’t need courts, contracts, or prisons. Can you imagine what life would be like if people obeyed the Ten Commandments? The law is good.
Five Reasons to Obey the Ten Commandments
Turn back to Exodus 20. We’re going to briefly see five reasons for why we should obey the Ten Commandments. We should obey them because of who we are, who God is in himself, who he is to us, where we are and what he has done.
Reason 1: Who We Are
Now we have to go back to the previous chapter. God comes to meet Moses and the Israelites at Mount Sinai. He says (Exodus 19:6): “…and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” He says that even before giving the Ten Commandments. He says, “Look, you are a people who have been set apart.” And even now, as Christians, the same commandment applies. In fact, Peter’s epistle uses the exact same language to describe Christians. We too are a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. There is a right way to be patriotic about your country. All of that can be a good thing. But as important as it is to belong to an earthly country, there is a more important country that we belong to as Christians: a heavenly country, a holy nation that unites all of us who truly follow God and know Christ.
If we are to be this holy nation, then we have to be a people set apart. We must be prepared to stand alone, look different, act differently, and have a set of commandments that the world scoffs at, thinking that they can come up with better commandments on their own. But we are a holy nation and a royal priesthood. That’s often not what we actually look like. That’s not what the church is on a lot of days. But it is who God has called us to be. It is who we are on our best days. We want to be who we are. That’s the first reason for obeying the Ten Commandments.
Reason 2: Who God is in Himself
“And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the LORD…” That’s the prologue to the Ten Commandments, and it’s extremely important. This is the divine name that had been revealed to Moses when he said, “God, you’re speaking to me out of the burning bush, telling me to go back and set the people free—but I don’t even know who you are. What name should I say? Who are you?” And he said, “I am that I am. I am the LORD. I am the sovereign, self-existent, self-sufficient, almighty Creator God.” That’s what he means when he says, “I am the LORD.”
This is a real watershed for each of us. You have to decide, “Is there a God?” No, you don’t get to decide if there is a God. He is God whether we think he is or not. But in your own heart and head, you have to decide: “Is there a God?” If there is a God and he is anything like the God who is revealed to us in the Scriptures, then it would be extremely presumptuous, foolish, and (by all accounts) dangerous for us to simply crowdsource our own ethical code.
The law is an expression of the lawgiver’s heart and character. We must think about that before we say, “I hate laws. I hate these commandments in the Bible.” The commandments are an expression of God’s character. This is what he is like. This is what he wants from his people. They say something about his honor, worth, and majesty—what matters to him. We can’t disdain the law without also having a disrespect for the lawgiver in our hearts. So we obey the Ten Commandments because of who he is in himself.
Reason 3: Who God is to Us
“I am the LORD your God” Go back to Exodus 19: “You!” (speaking of Israel). Now the New Testament says of those who belong to Christ, “You are his treasured possession.” This is not a God who is absolute power—raw and unbridled authority—a capricious tyrant. He is a personal God, and he is for us. It would be frightening to the point of death to simply say, “I am the Lord,” but then he says, “your God. For you. I am your God. You are my people. I’m your father. Why wouldn’t you want to listen to your loving Heavenly Father?”
Reason 4: Where we are
We have been brought “out of the house of slavery.” The Israelites were not in Egypt. And, as the New Testament uses that as a metaphor for sin and bondage to self, we are no longer in Egypt. We are a free people. The Decalogue is not a tool for bossing slaves around. It’s a word to former slaves about how to live in perpetual freedom. The Biblical definition of “freedom” is not “doing whatever you want”. It’s “enjoying the benefits of doing what you should”. We too often think of the law or the Ten Commandments as constraining us—if we have all of these rules, we will be in servitude and bondage, and we won’t be self-actualized and self-realized. But we don’t realize that these commandments are for joy and life. His laws are not burdensome, 1 John says.
You think it’s burdensome to have Ten Commandments? Do you know how many laws there are in the United States of America? It’s a trick question. No one knows! There are 20,000 laws on the books regulating gun ownership. In 2010, an estimated 40,000 new laws were added at various levels throughout the country. The U.S. Code (which is just one accounting of federal laws, not including regulatory statutes) has more than 50 volumes. In 2008, a House committee asked the Congressional Research Service to calculate the number of criminal offenses in federal law. They responded, 5 years later, that they lacked the manpower and resources to answer such a question.
Look, God is not trying to crush us with red tape and regulations. The Ten Commandments are not prison bars, but traffic laws. Maybe there are some anarchists among us who say, “The world would be a better place without any traffic laws. Wouldn’t that be great?” A few of you drive as if that were so! But even if you get impatient when you’re at a red light, try to zoom through the yellow, and turn left as it is a very stale pink—overall, aren’t you glad that there is some semblance of law and order? That people stop and go. That even here at Burcham, where the speed limit is 3 for miles, they’re looking out for kids and schools. When you drive on a switchback on a mountain pass, do you curse the guard rails that keep you from plunging to an untimely death? No, someone put them here at great expense for our good, that we may travel about freely and safely. The Ten Commandments are given for a free people to stay free. We’re not in Egypt anymore.
Reason 5: What He Has Done
Verse 2: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” That happened. The Ten Commandments begin with a recitation of historical fact. Even if you’re not a Christian—even if you think that Christianity is oppressive and the Ten Commandments are bunk—I hope you can at least see that there is a claim. I think that it’s a very good claim, but even if you thought that it was just a claim, these Ten Commandments for our moral code are be based on something that actually happened in history. A people who were a slave people and were set free. They believed it was their God who set them free. They believed that their God then spoke to them and gave them commandments, and that they should be obeyed.
Those claims seem a bit more robust to me than an internet competition. You say, “Well, it’s just circular.” Any time you deal with first principles, it is (to some degree) circular—but not the vicious circle that you find in all self-autonomous systems. We’re at least trying to make factual claims and appeals to some higher authority than our own sense of right and wrong, or the supposed wisdom of crowds. We believe that these came from God himself—not just from a God, but from the God ,who has worked on our behalf.
Note once again that the law is coming after gospel—after the good news of deliverance. He did not come to the people as slaves and say, “I have Ten Commandments. I want you to get these right. I’m going to come back in five years and (if you’ve gotten your life cleaned up) I’ll set you free from Egypt.” That may be what some of you think about Christianity: God has rules, and he said to get these rules right, and he’ll love you and save you. That’s not what happened in the story of the exodus. They were an oppressed slave people, and God said, “I hear your cry. I save you because I love you. When you are saved, free and forgiven, and when you have crossed through the Red Sea and see your whole life in the rear-view mirror, there is a new way to live. I have commandments.”
Salvation is not the reward for obedience. Salvation is the reason for obedience. Jesus does not say, “If you obey my commandments, I will love you.” Instead, in John 13, he washes the feet of the disciples. Then, in John 14, he says, “If you love me (and I loved you first), you will obey my commandments.” All of our doing is only because of what he has first done for us.
Let’s pray. Father in heaven, help us now, as we begin this journey through the Ten Commandments, to feel conviction where we should be convicted, to feel inspired and hopeful by your Spirit, and in all things to be led to Christ, who saved us, loved us, called us, equips us, empowers us, and makes this new life possible. We pray in his name, amen.
Transcription and editing provided by 10:17 Transcription