God the Lawgiver

February 12, 2006 | Brian Bill

As we come to Exodus 19-20 we come face-to-face with God’s standards for behavior in what has come to be known as the 10 Commandments.  God’s people experienced the Passover several weeks earlier and then walked across the Red Sea on dry ground as they made their exodus from Egypt.  They’ve been discouraged in the desert and were quick to complain and grumble, even though they received ample food and water.  Ready to run back to Egypt at every sign of distress, this rag tag group of fugitives are about to have a defining moment that will mark them for generations.  We’ll talk more about the lessons they learned from wandering in the wilderness next Sunday.  Let’s study a map for a geographical perspective.

Look at Exodus 19:1-2: “In the third month after the Israelites left Egypt – on the very day – they came to the Desert of Sinai…and Israel camped there in the desert in front of the mountain.”  Jewish tradition holds that the phrase “on the very day” refers to the institution of Pentecost, which took place 50 days after Passover and celebrated the giving of the Law.  God is a God of precision, for we read in Exodus 12:41 that it was “At the end of the 430 years, to the very day, all the Lord’s divisions left Egypt.”  When God declares that the day is right, it is right.  They were not in bondage one day more.  When God promises, He always comes through at just the right time.  As has been said, God is rarely early but He is never late.  

God’s people will end up spending 11 months camped out in front of Mount Sinai and the record of these experiences continues through the rest of Exodus, all of Leviticus, and the first part of the Book of Numbers.  In addition, much of this material is restated in Deuteronomy.  Later on, Israel will wander in the desert for 38 years or so but there is a lot more attention given to these eleven months because so much of it has to do with the giving of God’s Law.  It is on this same mountain that Moses encountered the burning bush and where he had received this promise from Exodus 3:12: “I will be with you.  And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.” 

Exodus 19 has been called one of the most important chapters in the Bible because it sets the stage for the 10 Commandments that follow in Exodus 20.  I want you to notice in Exodus 19:4 that grace is the context for the commandments: “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.”  God is a God of grace, whether you’re reading the Old Testament or the New.  Notice that His covenant with His people is framed with His unmerited favor.  They did not deserve it or earn it because God did all the work.  He brought them out of Egypt and told them to stand and watch what He would do.  This is a beautiful picture of how a mother eagle would shove her little ones out of the nest and then swoop down and catch them on her wings before they hit the ground.  Israel has been riding on God’s back and they are rescued by His grace and mercy, not by their own merit.  This is important to remember when we come to the Law.

In verses 5-6, God describes His intention and vision for their future with three unforgettable phrases:

  • “You will be my treasured possession.”  They would have a unique relationship with God, unlike any other nation.
  • “You’ll be for me a kingdom of priests.”  A priest stands between God and humans, serving as a mediator.
  • “You’ll be a holy nation.” The word “holy” means set apart and different.
They were blessed in order to be a blessing, though they didn’t often function this way

Israel was to be a testimony to other nations.  They were blessed in order to be a blessing, though they didn’t often function this way.  In verse 8 we see that like so many of us, they overestimated their ability to obey while underestimating God’s expectations when they declared: “We will do everything the Lord has said.”  They probably should have waited to hear what God was going to demand before they made this statement because they failed to appreciate the horrors in their own hearts and they failed to acknowledge God’s holiness.   

God then told them to take three days to get themselves ready to meet with Him in verse 11: “On that day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people.”   It’s been pointed out that whenever you hear the phrase “three days” in the Bible, get ready because God is about to do something really big.  Joshua tells the people to take three days to prepare to enter the Promised Land, Nehemiah surveyed Jerusalem for three days, and of course, Jesus was buried for three days before being raised from the dead.  God’s people were to be consecrated and they had to wash their clothes and abstain from intimacy in their marriages.  Some limits were placed around the mountain and they were prohibited from even touching it.

Most of us are way too casual with God.  John Piper points out that in the church today “man the creature is big and God the Creator is small.”  As evangelicals we talk a lot about God as friend but sometimes forget that He is a consuming fire.  It behooves us to recapture reverence for God.  Listen to Hebrews 12:28-29: “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our ‘God is a consuming fire.’”  Ortberg suggests some ideas to help us get ready to worship when we come on Sunday mornings: Go to bed early on Saturday so you are rested for Sunday morning; get up early and pray and read your Bible and arrive early enough to be able to greet people.  And then come into the auditorium with a sense of expectancy.  Permit me to make an observation and make a recommendation.  We don’t really have a reverent atmosphere here before the service begins.  When you come into this room, take some time to say “hi” to a few people but then find your chair, open your Bible to the passage we will be studying together, and then pray that God would prepare you to meet with Him.  You might want to meditate on the verse we print in the bulletin each week.

It was A.W. Tozer who said: “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us…and the most important fact about any man is not what he at any given time may say or do, but what he in his deep heart conceives God to be like…The heaviest obligation upon the Christian church today is to purify and elevate her concept of God until it is once more worthy of Him…the gravest question before the church is always God himself.”

Before God delivered the Decalogue, known as the Ten Commandments, He wanted to make sure that His followers feared Him.  They needed to have their view of the Almighty elevated.  

Listen to Exodus 19:16-19: “On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast.  Everyone in the camp trembled.  Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain.  Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the LORD descended on it in fire.  The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, the whole mountain trembled violently, and the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder.  Then Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him.”  

And then the 10 Commandments are given in chapter 20: “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.  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. 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, but showing love to a thousand [ generations] of those who love me and keep my commandments.  You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name. Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.  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 manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates.  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. Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.  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 manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”

In this cosmic pyrotechnic display, thunder and lightning represent the awesomeness of God.  The thick cloud is God’s Shekinah glory.  The whole mountain trembled under the weight of the Almighty.  Incidentally, these images reappear in the Book of Revelation.  The smoke reminds us that God is a consuming fire and the trumpets were the sound of a ram’s horn, or Shofar.  There were at least three common trumpet sounds:

  • A long single blast.  The long blast from the Shofar is the sound of the King’s coming coronation (Psalm 98:6).
  • Three short, wail-like blasts.  These blasts are said to mimic the sobbing cry of a heart that is yearning to connect with its Creator.
  • Ten quick blasts in short succession.  Like an alarm clock that arouses us from our spiritual slumber, these sounds bring clarity, alertness and focus.  

In a similar way, the 10 Commandments are ten short blasts that are designed to get our attention and to wake us up.  What God is about to say is of epic importance.  They are very straightforward and unmistakable; they’re easy to understand but hard to obey.  According to a recent Gallup Poll, 85% of Americans believe that the 10 Commandments are binding today, but only 15% could name even 5 of them.  I find it helpful to divide them into two parts.  The first four teach us about love for God; the last six teach us about love for others.  1-4 are vertical; 5-10 horizontal.  1-4 contain doctrine; while 5-10 provide the basis for duty.  The first four challenge us to have reverence for God; the last six remind us to respect others.

Ted Koppel, in a commencement address at Duke University several years ago, made a surprisingly strong statement about their importance: “Our society finds truth too strong a medicine to digest undiluted.  In its purest form, truth is not a polite tap on the shoulder; it is a howling reproach.  What Moses brought down from Mount Sinai were not the 10 Suggestions; they are Commandments.  Are, not were.  The sheer beauty of the Commandments is that they codify in a handful of words acceptable human behavior, not just for then or now, but for all time.”

1. It is Important to Keep the Commandments. 

These are not simple suggestions; they are weighty expectations.  As you glance at this list, it may seem that they are too negative.  I heard about a newspaper editor who told one of his reporters to go out and rewrite the 10 Commandments.  After a few minutes, the reporter came back with one word scratched in huge letters on a piece of paper:  “Don’t!”  And, even though 8 of the 10 are worded negatively it’s for a good reason.  Remember that they were given to protect and enrich our lives and serve as the foundation of all civilized cultures.

The 10 Commandments were given…

  • To reveal God’s glory and holiness (1 Peter 1:15)
  • To reveal the sinfulness of man (Galatians 3:19)
  • To reveal the standard for godly living (Psalm 24:3-5)
  • To separate Israel from the nations (Exodus 31:13)
  • To reveal Jesus Christ (Hebrews 10:1)

These commands have never been repealed as stated clearly by Jesus Christ in Matthew 5:17: “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.”  The word “fulfill” means to carry out.  Instead of dismissing the commandments, Jesus taught that we can break them not only with our actions, but with our words and thoughts.

#1: No Other gods.  God is not just to be the first among several but the only One we pledge our allegiance to.  If this first commandment received the respect it demands, we would do pretty well with the other nine.

#2: No Idols.  In our culture today, we have many “American Idols.”  Money, pleasure, work, possessions, people and pride are right up at the top.  We are to fix our eyes on God alone and not erect any images that take His place.

#3: No Swearing.  This is more than just avoiding profanity but includes not misusing God’s name in any way.  To take His name in vain means using His name in a common way.  We are to hold the majesty of His name as inviolably sacred.  This means we are not to use His name with contempt or irreverently or needlessly.

#4: Keep the Sabbath.  We must resist the urge to work all the time and take time to rest and reflect, just like God did after He finished His work of creation.

#5: Honor Parents.  To honor your parents means to give them the place of superiority and esteem in your life.  This command is broken with much frequency today and is a sign that we are living in the last days (2 Timothy 3:1-2).

#6: No Murder.  Because life is sacred and God is sovereign over it, God alone has the right to say when it will end.

#7: No Adultery.  The marriage relationship is between one man and one woman and is to be monogamous and sex outside of marriage is always wrong.

#8: No Stealing.  We are not to take anything belonging to someone else.  

#9: No Lying.  We need to be truthful in our speech, which includes not slandering or gossiping about people.

#10: No Coveting.  This commandment is different in that it condemns not an action but an attitude; not a deed, but a desire.  Contentment is not having everything you want; contentment is wanting everything that you already have.

Jesus summed up the 10 Commandments this way in Matthew 22:37-40: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the first and the greatest commandment.” Loving God covers the first four commandments and loving others summarizes the last six: “And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”  With His incredible answer, Jesus takes the entire Bible and sums it up by saying that we are to love God and love others.  

2. It is Impossible to Keep the Commandments. 

While it’s important to keep the commandments, you will inevitably fall short.  The Law of Moses was given to a redeemed people, not to redeem a people.  The more you try to not covet, the stronger the temptation becomes to want more.  In fact, the 10th Commandment wipes us all out because it is especially designed to show us our sinfulness.  The more you try to not lie, the more you find yourself exaggerating.  

While God gave the 10 Commandments for us to follow and obey, He also knows that it’s impossible to keep all of them consistently.  The Westminster Shorter Catechism states: “No mere man, sine the fall, is able, in this life, perfectly to keep the commandments of God; but doth daily break them, in thought, word, and deed.”  James 1:22-25 says that the Law is like a mirror.  It reflects back to us how we’re doing and tells us what we’re really like.  When we compare ourselves against God’s standards, we inevitably fall short.  We don’t do what we know is true and we end up doing what we don’t want to do.  

We’re all in the same canoe according to Romans 3:20“Therefore, no one will be declared righteous in His sight by observing the Law; rather through the Law we become conscious of sin.”  God says that we can’t be declared right with Him by keeping the 10 Commandments.  It doesn’t work that way.  One of the purposes of God’s Commands is to show us that we fall short of His holy standards.  We miss the mark of His perfection.  Even if we keep some of them some of the time, or even most of them most of the time, it’s still not enough.  On top of that, Acts 15:10 says that the Law is like a yoke that brings bondage.  

God turns up the heat a little more in James 2:10: “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.”  That means that it’s not enough to just try to live up to God’s standards.  God says that if you mess up once — just one time, you’re guilty of breaking the entire law.  Let’s all admit something this morning — we’re guilty of breaking God’s commands.  There’s no one in this room who can say that they’ve kept them all every day of their lives.  If you make this claim, then you’re breaking the 9th Commandment about lying!

We get a picture of human depravity and our inclination toward idolatry by remembering what God’s people did in Exodus 32:1: “When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, ‘Come, make us gods who will go before us.  As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.’”  Their impatience led them into idolatry.  That’s a good reminder for us.  I wonder how many times we sin simply because we are tired of waiting and so we take things into our own hands.  Unbelievably, it was Aaron who led the people to worship a golden calf, which was the symbol for one of Egypt’s gods.  This idolatry led to immorality, which is the point of Romans 1.  When Aaron is confronted by Moses, he blames the people and then offers this lame excuse in verse 24: “…Then they gave me the gold, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!”  

Moses broke the stone tablets because the people had already broken the commands that were written on them.  Interestingly, many commentators suggest that all of the 10 Commandments were written on each tablet.  One of the tablets was for the Israelites; the other for God, indicating that that they were in covenant together.  When Moses smashed them, he was showing that they had broken covenant with God.  Moses then calls out those who are still committed and then goes back up the mountain to serve as mediator so that God would not wipe them all out.  By the way, it was years later under the leadership of King Jeroboam, that the worship of golden calves was reestablished.  This became a great stumbling block to Israel (1 Kings 12:28-31).

3. It is Imperative to Follow the Impeccable One. 

Since the 10 Commandments are important and at the same time impossible to keep, God wants us to follow the one individual in history who kept every one of them completely.  Impeccable means without sin or compromise. Galatians 3:23-24 says that we were “held prisoners by the law.”  This same law was given to “lead us to Christ.”

Jesus Christ is the only person who has ever lived a perfect life.  In the 33 years He was on earth, He never once broke one of God’s laws…

Jesus never put any god before His Father.

Jesus never materially or mentally constructed an idol.

Jesus never misused the Father’s name.

Jesus kept the Sabbath day holy.

Jesus always honored his father and mother.

Jesus never indulged in a murderous, hateful thought.

Jesus never engaged in mental or physical adultery.

Jesus never stole, or had a larcenous thought.

Jesus never lied.

Jesus never coveted anything.

We can’t keep the commandments, but He did.  And so we need to put our faith in Him.    When Jesus died on the cross, the last words He said were, “It is finished.”  That means that He has paid the price.  He has shouldered all of our sins, our moral failures, and our inability to keep the 10 Commandments.  He has paid our debt in full.  Jesus paid for our crimes against a holy God.  Someone has to pay for our sins.  Because God is just a punishment and a sentence must be served.  Here’s the choice: either we pay the price and face a holy God on judgment day or we choose to trust the impeccable Jesus Christ.

Chuck Colson, a former felon from the Watergate era, realized first hand that someone must pay for his sins.  After some serious soul-searching, Colson put his faith in Jesus Christ.  He tells the story of visiting a prison in Brazil several years ago where Christian values were followed and the 10 Commandments were taught to the inmates.  The prison walls were even decorated with Bible verses.

The prison has an astonishing record.  Its recidivism rate is 4% compared to 75% in the rest of Brazil and the United States.  Colson wonders how this is possible: I saw the answer when an inmate escorted me to the notorious punishment cell once used for torture.  Today, he told me, that block houses only a single inmate.  As we reached the end of the long concrete corridor and he put the key into the lock, he paused and asked, “Are you sure you want to go in.”  “Of course,” I replied patiently.  “I’ve been in isolation cells all over the world.”  Slowly he swung open the massive door, and I saw the prisoner in that punishment cell.  There on a beautifully carved cross was the prisoner named Jesus: “He’s doing time for all the rest of us,” my guide said softly.

When Jesus died on the cross, he did time for all of us

When Jesus died on the cross, he did time for all of us.  He paid the price.  He took the rap.  He served our sentence.  And, he has become the bridge for us to have a relationship with God.  

Most of us think that in order to please God we have to Do something, or Not do something.  You might think religion is just a list of do’s and don’ts.  When Jesus died on the cross for your sins, another word comes to mind.  That word is not spelled D-O or even D-O-N-T; it’s spelled D-O-N-E.  Jesus paid the price for us.  We no longer have to get all caught up in “Doing” and “Don’ting.” Instead, we need to transfer our trust to Jesus, and put our complete and total faith in Him.

Let me close with four action steps.

  1. Receive Jesus Christ as your personal Savior right now.
  2. Memorize the 10 Commandments.
  3. Determine to live them out.
  4. Learn to fear God. Do you want to stop sinning so much?  Would you like to see growth in your life?  The best way to stop sinning is to start fearing God more than you do right now.  Moses said it this way right after spelling out the Commandments in Exodus 20:20: “Do not be afraid.  God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.”  

One day your name will be called and I hope you don’t try to hide under the table.  If you’re a born again believer your prize will not be earthly pleasure but the promise of eternal life.  Will you raise your hand right now if that’s what you want?

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?