The best way I think to understand The Ten Commandments is to look at them from the perspective given by the New Testament. And Galatians 5:4-5 is a good place to start to get this perspective. There the Apostle Paul writes: “But when the FULLNESS OF TIME came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order that He might redeem those who were under the Law that we might receive adoption as sons.” Now I want you to focus in on that phrase, “…THE FULLNESS OF TIME …” In these four words I believe God used Paul to remind us that before Jesus would come into the world-which was God’s plan from the very beginning of time-before Jesus could come, something had to happen to sinful humanity to get us to the point where we could understand His coming. We had learn Who God is and who we are so that mankind could come to that level of maturity that would allow us to comprehend God’s love as expressed in sending Jesus. Think of humanity as a green “apple.” Well Jesus came into the world when we were red or “ripe.” He was born at the first possible moment that we could understand His coming.
Well this “ripening” process began with the scriptures recorded in Exodus 20. You see, Christianity did not come into the world without ROOTS and FOUNDATIONS. Remember in Matthew 5:17 Jesus said, “I am not come to destroy the law — but to FULFILL it.” In other words Jesus came to show the law’s true purpose. And the law that Jesus came to fulfill began with these ten basic principles for life.
So one purpose of the Ten Commandments was to prepare mankind for Jesus’ coming. In Galatians 3:24 Paul writes, “Therefore, the law has become OUR TUTOR to lead us to Christ, that we may be justified by faith.” You know…in the Greek-speaking world of Paul’s day, there was a type of household servant called the paidagogos. This person was in charge of the child’s moral welfare; it was his duty to oversee the child’s character development. One of a paidagogos’ responsibilities was to take the child to school each day. He was not the child’s teacher, but he was responsible to see that the child was, in fact, under the teacher’s care. And in this New Testament text, Paul borrows this picture from his culture and says in effect, that the law has the same function. It is our “tutor” our “paidagogos.” So, the commandments in the Bible are designed not only to say, “Do this,” and “Don’t do that,” but to lead us to the person of God Himself. For as we attempt to obey God’s law we see both God’s holy perfection and our sin.
The law sheds a powerful light on our sinful state and leads us to realize how far we fall short.
Like a paidagogos the law leads us to “school” where we see our need for Christ.
Now, I want us to note a few other things about The Ten Commandments:
1. First of all, scanning through all 17 verses…all 10 laws…reveals that they fall into two sections.
The first four laws guide us in the way we relate to God…the way we revere, respect, and love Him. Glance at Exodus 20:1-17 and you’ll see what I mean: LAW #1 – God and God alone is God. LAW #2 – It is wrong to worship anything material as God. LAW #3 – God’s day is to be cherished and honored. LAW #4 – God’s name is not to be used recklessly.
And then the second section…the last six commandments….deal with how we are to treat each other…how we are to love, and respect each other. LAW #5 – Father and mother are to be honored. LAW #6 – Human life is sacred. LAW #7 – Sexual purity and fidelity is demanded. LAW #8 – The rights of property are to be observed. LAW #9 – False and slanderous speaking about others is condemned. LAW #10 – The desire to possess that which is not ours is branded as wrong.
Jesus was once asked which from this list was the greatest commandment. Do you remember His reply? In Matthew 22 He said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself……All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” So Jesus taught that our relationship with God and our relationships with our fellow man are intertwined. We can’t love and respect God properly if we don’t love and respect each other and we can’t love and respect each other properly if we don’t also love and respect God. Without the horizontal aspect of a proper relationship with our fellow man our religion…our faith…..would become a selfish impractical thing in which we are concerned with our own soul and our own vision of God and nothing more. And without the vertical principle of loving God we wouldn’t value each other enough we wouldn’t see ourselves as special creations of God. People would be looked at as things and not as persons. The Ten Commandments then teach us that we need both a proper horizontal relationship with each other and a proper vertical relationship with God. The next time you see the intersecting beams of Calvary’s cross let it remind you of this truth: We need to practice both LOVE FOR GOD and LOVE FOR OUR FELLOW MAN. You can’t have one without the other…Do you remember the words of I John 4:7-8 : “…everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know god, because God is love.”
2. The second thing we notice about these ten commands is that they are mostly written in the negative.
With the exception of the 4th and 5th commandments, they are all stated as “Thou shalt NOT” and even the 4th command which deals with the Sabbath…is largely expressed in the negative.
Now, why would God do this? Why so many “NOTS?” Well, look at the context. God has just called the people of Israel out of slavery.
So, they were far from being a nation. At this point, they were a mob of disorganized disorder and they needed order. They needed “NOTS!” Remember God was molding them….ripening them….maturing them…into a nation of priests to tell the world of His love. Any parent knows that one of the first words you teach your toddler is “NO”. They head for the electrical outlet or the hot stove and you say, “No! Don’t touch that!” Well at this point, the people of Israel were in the infant stage….they needed limitations…like all human infants they were prone to sin and they needed to learn their “NO-NO’s”…their “NOT’s”. They had spent hundreds of years living with a nation that worshiped many Gods…so they had to NOT do that anymore! They had spent generations among a pagan nation that did not respect human life…humans were property to be bought and sold so they had to learn NOT to think of people in that way. These commands of God DO have a stern quality about them but when you are warning a child not to go down a path which will lead to them being hurt or killed, you can’t get too stern!
While on vacation several summers ago we drove along Bear Tooth Pass for several hours. And we came to one stop where the road had been built right on the ridge of these mountains. On each side of the road were sheer drop-offs.
Now, what if you were on this path and came to one of these overlooks along this crest of the mountains and as soon as you decide to stop your three year old throws open his door, hops out and starts running excitedly toward the edge as fast as his chubby little legs will carry him.
Now, is this a time to whisper sweetly? Is this a time to be positive and say, “You are running great son! Wonderful form!”
NO! This would be one of those times when, as a parent, your heart would leap in your chest as you SHOUT as loud as you can, “STOP! RIGHT NOW!” or “THOU SHALT NOT RUN IN THAT DIRECTION!!!” In Ezekiel 33:11 God says, “As surely as I live . . .I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die O house of Israel?” Doesn’t that sound like a loving parent exclaiming, “Stop! Stop! Turn back! Don’t go that way! There is sorrow ahead! There is death around the corner! Come back to Me?” You see, the fact that these ten laws are so full of negatives is yet one more indication of God’s tender love for us…His tender care. They are indeed ten(der) commandments.
3. And then….a third thing we should note is that the 10 Commandments are much MORE than a body of detailed rules and regulations.
They don’t give us detailed rules for certain specific situations. They are far greater in scope than that, for they are actual principles to apply to every situation in life, even in the almost 21st century. These 17 verses are God’s divine standards which form the foundation for any moral society. You know some people say the Ten Commandments are out of date. Some time ago TED TURNER said as much and modestly offered to replace the Ten Commandments with his own version, which he called the “Ten Voluntary Initiatives.” And Mr. Turner is representative of many in our society who feel that God’s laws are now out of date…that we’ve outgrown them….and they are no longer necessary. But the truth of the matter is we have NOT outgrown…we have not out-distanced the Ten Commandments. In fact, we haven’t even caught up with them yet. You see, the Bible says the Ten Commandments were not only engraved on tablets of stone that would eventually crumble into dust. Romans 2:15 says, “…the requirements of the law are written on our hearts, our consciences bearing witness…” This means that deep down inside each human being even today…thousands of years after Moses met God on Mt. Sinai…..even today there is this inborn knowledge in all people that the Ten Commandments are true. They are not obsolete…they are absolute!
Turn now to Exodus 20 and read the first commandment. It’s found in verses 1-3: And God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, Who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.
Now notice the phrase in verse 2, “Who brought you out of Egypt.” These were a people who had been redeemed by God…freed by God…rescued from slavery by God. But God didn’t want them to be just a redeemed people….He also wanted them to be a righteous people so He gave them these laws and principles for righteous living. And the first step toward being a righteous people would have to be their belief in the ONE GOD…their worship of ONE GOD. You see God was forming a covenant relationship with them much like the relationship that is between husband and wife.
Do you married people remember your wedding ceremony? It probably contained some form of this phrase: “I take thee _ to be my wedded wife or husband…to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, and FORSAKING ALL OTHERS to cleave only to thee..as long as we both shall live.” Marital vows are a pledge to a lifetime of faithfulness….a lifetime of exclusiveness.
No man or woman in their right mind would allow the spouse to strike a bargain before the marriage by saying, “I’ll spend most of my time with you, but I want to enjoy intimate relationships with other people some of the time.”__ No…marriage represents a firm, exclusive commitment to each other by both husband and wife.
And God calls us to have a similar exclusive allegiance to Him. Later on in the Commandments God says He is a JEALOUS God. God refuses to share the glory and the worship that is due Him with anyone or anything else. We were created to have an intimate, exclusive walk with GOD AND GOD ALONE. And it was important for the Hebrew people to get this straight from the “get go” because this principle conflicted with the different views of deity held by the world of their day. The first view was POLYTHEISM…or….a belief in many gods. The Egyptians were polytheistic. They believed in a god of the sun and a god of the moon an a god of the sea and a god of the grocery story….etc. Their world was crammed-full of gods and goddesses competing for the gifts and the worship of men and women.
The second philosophy of deity was known as HENOTHEISM. Those who held this view would accept one god as their god and would worship no other. But they also believed that other nations had other gods. A god was “god” only in one territory. It was sort of like it is in professional sports….this area…this territory….is COWBOY territory…and a great distance north and east of here is REDSKINS territory. And you know….even today we are somewhat henothistic.
We say we worship God. We claim that He is Lord over ALL our lives. But if we were honest we would have to admit that there are “territories” of our lives over which we do not give Him control. Think about it. Is there any “territory” in your life that is “off limits” to God? Well in the giving of this first command God was leading the Hebrew people beyond polytheism and henotheism to monotheism….which of course is the realization that there is not simply one God for each nation, but that there is only one God for all the earth….and He is everywhere!
Psalm 139 expresses this truth when it says, “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from Thy presence? If I ascend to the heaven, Thou art there; if I make my bed in Sheol, behold, Thou art there. If I take the wings of the dawn and if I dwell in the remotest part of the sea, even there Thy hand will lead me. And Thy right hand will lay hold of me.” The Psalmist here is saying there is no place that God is not….no territory that He does not cover.
Now I want to point out three other things about this first commandment… First, of all ten commands, it may just be the toughest one to keep.
Now in all likelihood we who live in Amarillo, Texas, or wherever you might be reading this, won’t be asked to give our lives because of our commitment to put God first. Like Dietrich Bonheoffer, the theologian and pastor during WWII who refused to put Hitler on the throne and steadfastly kept God #1-and because of this was hung in a German prison…or like Cassie Bernall, the teen at Littleton, Colorado, who said, “Yes, I believe in God” and then paid for God’s priority in her life with a bullet through her head. Or like the tens of thousands of Christians around the world today who suffer because of their obedience to this law. Obeying this first commandment doesn’t usually involve this kind of persecution…but I think we still struggle to obey it. It is still difficult-even here-for us to keep God #1 in our lives. And…I say this from personal experience. You see, as I consider all the tasks I perform each week, whether it be sending letters to our guests or counseling or visiting in the hospital or preparing to preach.
When I think of all these tasks and compare them to obeying this first commandment, I would have to say that keeping God first in my life is the most difficult thing I do. It is so easy to let pride in godly tasks push God off of the throne of my life. And I think most Christians struggle with their obedience to this law. Maintaining a close, personal, growing relationship with Jesus Christ IS tough.
It is a daily battle. But as Ron Mehl says, “Our number one task as believers is to make sure that nothing — no “god,” person, object, task, duty, or pleasure-comes before God in our priorities, in our plans, and in our affection.” And Christians have always floundered in this area. Scripture says that the believers who made up the church in Ephesus worked extremely hard, stayed doctrinally sound, and patiently endured suffering in the Lord’s name. Yet, in spite of this, Jesus said they were “this close” to losing their light and their witness in the world. Why? Look at Revelation 2:4 . It says this was true because they had “left their FIRST love.” You see we can get so busy doing the Lord’s work that we don’t spend time with the Lord. We can actually come to worship godly activity and in so doing dethrone God Himself.
God wants to be FIRST in our lives. He pursues an exclusive love relationship with us. Perhaps this first command was on King Solomon’s mind when he wrote in Proverbs 3:5-6, “Trust in the Lord with ALL your heart and lean not on your own understanding: in ALL YOUR WAYS acknowledge Him, and he will make your paths straight.” Now the phrase “all your ways” means in every thing we do….EVERYTHING! And the word “acknowledge” infers a relationship in which we put God first.
So, I think a good paraphrase of these words might be: “In everything you do-in your marriage, in your parenting, in the way you do your job, in the way you figure your taxes, in the way you drive your car on I-40, in the things you do for pleasure….IN EVERYTHING, PUT GOD FIRST, and He will direct you and crown your efforts with success.” So, I think this commandment IS the hardest to obey….But you know….
….it is also one of the most beneficial to us.
Since God is the boss of our lives….since our lives and everything in them are HIS responsibility…since we are HIS concern…that means the “buck” stops there. And since it does then it pretty much makes worry and anxiety obsolete. As Psalm 56:3 says, “In the day when I am afraid, I will have confidence in THEE.” – not ME. Ron Mehl, whose book on the ten(der) commandments inspired me to do this series, suffers from Leukemia. He writes, “Many people ask me how I’ve dealt with years of this illness — years of hanging by a rope over the edge of a cliff.
My answer might be that it’s not so bad when you know Who is holding the rope! I’ve settled into a sense of confidence that my time is in the Lord’s hands…..you see I know that my life really is HIS responsibility.” When we put GOD first then, like Pastor Mehl, we come to experience firsthand the truth of I Peter 5:7 .
We learn that we can, “Throw the whole weight of our anxieties on Him, for we are HIS personal concern.” You see, God asks us to make Him the first in our lives because we are first in His! So obeying this commandment gives us a lot less to worry about in life. We can sleep a lot better at night! In Matthew 6 Jesus said, “Don’t worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear….your Heavenly Father knows that you need these things. Seek FIRST His kingdom and His righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well.” You know worry is actually a sort of “red light” on the dashboards of our lives informing us that we are not putting God first.
So when you find yourself wringing your hands this week. remember that worry means we have taken back our lives from God’s omnipotent, all-loving care! Instead get on your knees and take your situation to the Boss. As the George Beverly Shea used to sing, “take your burden to the Lord and leave it there.” I want to say one more thing about this commandment. And here it is: when you come down to it….
It is foolish NOT to put God first.
As, Psalm 14:1 says, “The fool says in his heart, there is no God.” Considering all that God has done for us and all that He has promised to DO for us…it IS foolish to deny Him first place in our lives. He has loved us enough to give us His only Son to be our much-needed Redeemer! Why not give Him first place in our lives! Mehl tells the story of an eight-year-old boy who sat in class one day , taking a test. He became so nervous about the test and getting it done within the time limit, that he lost control and suddenly wet his pants. His face turned beet red as he looked down and saw a little puddle there beneath him. He wondered, “What am I going to do? I’m so ashamed! People will see! I’ll be the laughing stock of the school!” About this time he looked up and saw his teacher motioning him to come to her desk and he worried all the more for if he stood up people would be sure to notice his accident.
Well at that moment one of his classmates, a little girl, was coming down the aisle from behind him, carrying a large fish-bowl full of water.
When she got up alongside him, she suddenly lurched to one side and spilled the entire contents all over him and then dropped the bowl which shattered with a loud crash…and now covered by fish-tank water, the boy sat there thinking, “Thank God! Thank God! There is a God in heaven!” And he was so thankful that this little girl had done this that he was about to smile at her in gratitude when he remembered that little boys don’t even like little girls.
So instead he frowned at her and said, “What is wrong with you, you clumsy clod? Can’t you watch where you are going?!” Then, as the class laughed at the girl, the teacher took the boy (now covered by dignity) to the gym class to get him some dry clothes to wear. At lunchtime that day no one would sit with the little girl. Her friends avoided her at recess. It was clear that she had been elected the klutz of the day. When the day ended and the boy was on his way home, he saw this little girl walking by herself along the fence. He began to remember all that had happened that day and on an impulse he sheepishly walked over to her and said, “You know, I’ve been thinking about what happened today. That wasn’t an accident was it? You did that on purpose.”
And she replied, “Yes I did do it on purpose. I saw what had happened to you.”
You know we have a Redeemer Who, by dying on Calvary’s cross took our shame upon Himself. By shedding His precious blood, Jesus covered us. He washed away our sins. God saw our hopeless situation and provided a way for us to be rescued.
So, why should I ever want to put anyone or anything in front of Him? Why in the world would anyone want to tolerate any other “gods” in his life?
Why serve lesser “lords?” How could I NOT put Him first? So today, why not commit to give Him first place in YOUR heart and life? If you, dear reader, have never committed your life to Jesus….why not do so now? Ask Him to forgive your sin. Give Him the controls….the responsibility for every part of your life. Let’s all commit right now to make His will first. It could be that you feel that God’s will is to join the Church.