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The Ten Commandments

Date: Oct. 17, 2021

Author: Dan Bockenfeld

Exodus 20:1-21

Key Verse: Exodus 20:1

And God spoke all these words:

When the United States was founded, the individual States operated more like individual countries. The governmental document, the Articles of the Confederation, set up a very weak central government. There was only one branch the Congress of the Confederation, and it was allowed to perform many national duties, like conduct war and regulate currency. However, the Articles limited how Congress could enforce anything on the States. The Confederation could conduct war, but they couldn’t request soldiers from the States or even request money to keep the government going. It was evident that something stronger was needed if the nation was to survive. In May 1787, the Constitutional Convention opened with members from all the States, except Rhode Island, who did not want a strong central government. Throughout the summer, the delegates debated all the issues regarding a central government. They spelled out a government that would be strong, but one that would not be overly powerful. There would be three independent branches of the federal government, the legislative, judicial, and executive branches. Each branch would have the power to check and balance each other branch, so that no one branch would become too powerful. This document that laid out the framework of the government was called the Constitution. It was finished in September 1787 and needed nine of the 13 states to ratify it to become law. The first States ratified it in December 1787, and by June 1788, the ninth state ratified it, making it law. The Constitutional government would then start on March 1789 with George Washington as the first president. In February 1790, the Supreme Court held its first session and all three branches of government were operational. Finally, in May 1790, the last of the 13 states Rhode Island ratified the Constitution. The Constitution formed the most basic laws for the structure of the fledgling government. Even though the Constitution was basic, it was also the most powerful. It wasn’t the complete law, but it provided a framework to which the any other additional laws would always measure. If a law was deemed unconstitutional, then the law was no longer valid. Likewise, the nation of Israel was just starting out. They, too, needed a foundational document that would supersede any other laws, forming the basic structure of the nation.

In the last passage, God sought to establish a covenant with this people, the people of Israel. The Lord told the people, that if they obeyed him and kept his covenant, then he would make them a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. At this point in time, there were not a nation or a kingdom, let alone one that was holy or set apart. They were wandering around the desert, making their way to a new home. They weren’t organized and only had a very basic form of government. Moses and his appointees settled disputes and that was about it. They needed something to define the basic tenets of their soon-to-be nation. The beginning of the covenant is just such a document. Our passage today begins, “And God spoke all these words:” (1) It is important to remember that from the very beginning, the nation of Israel was to be defined by God. Whereas the US Constitution was put together by a group of 55 men, Israel’s defining document was put together by God and given to Moses. People could think that Moses and the elders of Israel created the document and said that it was from God. However, we see it in this passage, right here at the first verse, that God spoke all these words to the Israelites. They heard it directly from him.

The passage continues, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” (2) Here, the Lord identifies himself as the God of Israel and the one who brought them out of Egypt, out of the land of their slavery and into freedom. He wasn’t some distant God, but one who helped them in their lives. He is the one who brought them to this place. He is the one, to whom they have pledged themselves. This verse reminds me of the beginning of the Constitution, the preamble, which states, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” The preamble to the Constitution defines who wrote it and its purpose. Likewise, verse 2 is like a preamble to the Ten Commandment, letting us know where they come from and giving us context: the Israelites were going from being slaves to a self-governing nation.

After the second verse, we get into the meat of the passage. This passage is commonly known as the Ten Commandments. The common thought is that these ten commandments are commands, that they are laws we are intended to keep. Some of them seem to be of that sort, but they are more than that. The nature of these ten laws is not merely regulations to follow, but they are foundational, even constitutional. That is why I keep referring to the US Constitution. There is some correlation to these ten commandments and the Constitution. This is especially noticeable when you realize that there aren’t many details in how to put them into practice. The specifics would be determined by lower regulatory laws that would roll back up to the greater, but more basic, commandment. Each of Israel’s other laws would have to adhere to the foundation set by the commandment. Jesus even argued with the teachers of the law in his time about this. They held to their tradition more than God’s law. It appears that Jesus thought these ten commandments as foundational.

The first of the commandments is, “You shall have no other gods before me.” (3). This first commandment is the foundation of the foundation. It clearly states that Israel is to have no other Gods. It is translated here as “before me”, but there is a footnote that says, “besides me”. If you hold only to the “before” then you might think that the Lord is the greatest of all the gods, which means there are more that they could worship. Israel lived in Egypt for over four hundred years, where there was much polytheism. The Egyptians worshiped a pantheon of God. Prior to the exodus, the Lord showed his supremacy to all the Egyptian gods. Each of the plagues affected a different god, ending with Pharoah himself. But this commandment makes clear is that the Lord is not only the greatest of gods, but he is also the only God. To be his nation, a holy nation, Israel must realize that there is no other god, but the Lord. If there is one God, then there are only his rules to follow. To be set apart, Israel must be different in how and who they worship.

The second commandment is a little longer, but let’s start with the first verse in it, “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.” (4) Here, the Lord is telling the Israelites to not make an image. Which means to not make idols. Again, Egypt worshiped many gods and each of them was represented by an idol or statue. At first, the idols were probably just a representation of the god, but they eventually became the god in the people’s eyes. The idol and the god became synonymous. This is something that happens with people. We tend to attribute truth to a proxy and treat objects and animals like people. We refer to companies and organizations as we would people, like the Bears should be doing such and such. The Lord knows our need to anthropomorphize and realizes how dangerous it is for us to do so with idols. If he is the only God, then there is no need for an idol of another, but the Lord also doesn’t want any idols of him. He knows that, eventually, the idol will take his place in our hearts.

The second commandment doesn’t stop there. The commandment continues, “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 parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (5-6) When you read this, it seems like God is punishing innocent children for the sins of their offending parents. This is not exactly what the commandment is saying. Later in the law, the Bible says, “Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sin” (Deuteronomy 24:16) God is not one to contradict himself, so the meaning here must be different than what is seems a first blush. Because the nature of idolatry, it was very common for children to learn from their parents. The sin of idolatry started with parents could easily be passed down to their children. What the Lord is saying here is that if generation after generation commits the same sin, he will punish each generation accordingly and not blame it on the previous generation. The same holds on the flip side. When those who love God teach their children to love God, the Lord will show his love to each generation. Again, this is different than other nations where, many times, children would be punished because of their parents’ transgressions.

The third commandment is shown in verse 7, “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.” It’s kind of hard to grasp what it means to misuse the name of the Lord. It is not necessarily when someone says, “Oh my God!” or says, “Jesus Christ!” in exasperation. Rather, it is more likely regarding swearing an oath, like, “I will keep my promise or God will strike me down.” This tests God and not your truthfulness. Even Peter swore to God that he did not know Jesus, after Jesus’ arrest. This commandment sets Israel apart because it shows respect for God’s name and puts him in charge of things and not the people.

The fourth commandment is next, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” (8) The Israelites were to keep one day holy, set apart from the rest. The commandment continues, “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 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 male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns.” (9-10) The Sabbath was to be made holy by being a day of rest. In Egypt, they had no rest because they were slaves, but now that they are free, the were to keep working for six days and take a day of rest. Now, the day of rest was not merely a day to relax. No one in the nation was allowed to work, but the people were also to make the day holy. The Sabbath was to be a day of worship to the Lord. It was to be a day where the nation could focus on God. They weren’t to be distracted by the ways of the world, but they would have an opportunity to focus on the Lord. The Lord gave an example of this, as the passage shows, “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.” (11)

After the fourth commandment, the focus shifts. Whereas the first four commandments were related to the Israelites relationship with the Lord, the remaining six deal with interpersonal relationships. The passage continues, “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.” (12) Parents and children have a relationship that is like that of God and his people. So this first interpersonal commandment is a bridge from the previous commandments. Children were to honor their parents as they honored God. This means obeying their parents, but it also means taking care of their parents as they age. The people weren’t supposed to abandon their parents but help them into old age. This is alluded to in the commandment. You honor your parents so that you can live long in the land. You honor your parents, and your children will honor you.

I’m going to take the final five commandments together, not to lessen their impact, but to better explain them. They state, “You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” (13-17) These five commandments seem a bit more straightforward. The Israelites were not to be selfish. They weren’t supposed to put their own wants and desires above others. They had to honor and respect their neighbors. These commandments help set up the most basic rules for a society to not collapse. As soon as there is murder or theft, especially without consequence, society can quickly devolve into chaos. The Lord is a God of order. He created order out of chaos and his people must be set apart by living according to his principles.

It wasn’t just the surface level either. It wasn’t just about not murdering, not committing adultery, or not stealing. There was a spirit to these commandments. Jesus helped explain this in the Sermon on the Mount. He mentioned that it wasn’t just not murdering someone, but also not harboring hatred against someone. The hatred was like murdering someone in you heart. The same goes for adultery. Having lustful thoughts about someone was no different than committing adultery in your heart. Just because you didn’t act, doesn’t exclude you from breaking the commandment. The Lord is concerned with more than just our actions. He sees people’s hearts and thoughts, and those must be clear as well. The rest of world had laws based on actions, but not on the hearts of people. God’s people were to be holy and held to a higher standard. Their hearts were just as important as their actions. Even now, there are people who seem to think that they broke the law if they succeeded in their attempt. These people posit that they didn’t do anything wrong because nothing happened. They can’t be arrested for murder if they didn’t actually murder someone, but they did attempt it. We do have laws for attempted murder, too.

These ten commandments create a foundation to why God’s people are supposed to be different from the rest of the world. The commandments represent what God values. To love God, we must be willing to follow in his ways and value what he values. We must look at these ten commandments and see them as foundational and aspirational. Everything that we do should be measured up to the Ten Commandments, not just in the letter, but also in the spirit of the law. When we do that, we will see that we constantly fall short of the perfection that is spelled out. If there is ever a time where we put something before God, we have failed the commandments. If we were ever angry at someone or desired something that someone else had, we have failed the commandments. If we idolize something, then we have failed the commandments.

The law, even in the Ten Commandments, is meant to show us the perfection of God’s values and help us see where we fall short. We were never meant to live up to it, but it still should be foundational to our beliefs. Although it may condemn us for failing, we must not abandon it, but find a way to be redeemed. Jesus was the only one who was able to keep the law. He is the author, the one speaking here and only he could keep all the commandments all the time. Jesus is also the only one that can redeem us and fill in those gaps for us. The punishment for our sins, our transgressions against the commandments, is death, but Jesus took the punishment for us on the cross and said that his goodness is our goodness. Because of him, we no longer fall short. His goodness fills in our imperfections. All those little things that keep us from being perfect are filled in by Christ. We can fulfill the law and be what God values.

But more than covering over our sins, Jesus begins to change us so that we start to fulfill the law. Jesus has the power to change us and bring us closer and closer to perfection. When we live our lives of faith, we begin to asymptotically approach the perfection of Jesus. So, everything that we do needs to be measured to Jesus and these ten commandments. They are our Constitution of faith, and they show us that we need to be better than the rest of the world. Jesus boiled them down to two simple sections. We need to love God and love people. The world doesn’t do either of those, but if we profess to believe in God and love God, then we need follow his Constitution. We need to love God and love people. Jesus said, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching.” (John 14:23) To love God means to obey him. It means seeking to understand who he is and what he values. He wants us to know that he is the only God and wants for us not to give in to our habits of focusing on what is in front of us. The world only wants us to love ourselves or our small group, but the Lord wants us to love other people outside our circle as well. Each person is God’s creation and is no less important than another. Our world is so politicized right now where if someone doesn’t share your values and beliefs, they must be the enemy and must be destroyed before they destroy you. Civility seems to have no place and love is a four-letter word. As believers, we need to be better than that. We need to have love and compassion for others, especially those who are not like us. They may be lost and in need of a way home.

Being God’s chosen people does not mean that you are better than others. It means being held to a higher standard but knowing that you fall short and knowing how to overcome that shortcoming by being near Jesus. Everything we do needs to be measured to the Ten Commandments. They are foundational to our faith, and, if we profess to believe, then we should make sure that we are following the foundation. The Israelites heard these words straight from the Lord and they were afraid. The felt their sinfulness when God spoke. They thought that they would die, so they asked Moses to be an intermediary. Jesus is our intermediary because, by grace, his blood covers over our sins.

Today, as we go out back into the world, take the time to review these commandments. They are our Constitution, and they teach us so much about what God values. All the other rules and regulations point back to these ten and we must never forget them. We can never fulfill them on our own, but we have Jesus to stand in the gap and fill in the blanks for us. Praise be to God and his Son Jesus Christ.

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