Setting the Table

Exodus 19:1-25

June 17, 2012 | Brian Bill

[Thunder, Lightning and Trumpet]

“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.  The Lord descended to the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses to the top of the mountain.  

So Moses went up and the Lord said to him, ‘Go down and warn the people so they do not force their way through to see the Lord and many of them perish.  Even the priests, who approach the Lord, must consecrate themselves, or the Lord will break out against them.’ Moses said to the Lord, ‘The people cannot come up Mount Sinai, because you yourself warned us, ‘Put limits around the mountain and set it apart as holy.’  The Lord replied, ‘Go down and bring Aaron up with you.  But the priests and the people must not force their way through to come up to the Lord, or he will break out against them.’  So Moses went down to the people and told them. 

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.  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.  

When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, ‘Speak to us yourself and we will listen.  But do not have God speak to us or we will die.’  Moses said to the people, ‘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.’”  (Exodus 19:16-20:20)

I wanted to begin our series called, “Stone Tablets in a Wireless World” with some visual and auditory help in order to help us capture in a small way what it must have been like for God’s people to be at the foot of Mount Sinai.  After being enslaved for 400 years in Egypt, the Israelites were set free and traveled in the desert for three months.  After three days of preparation where they were told to wash and keep away from the mountain and abstain from intimacy, everyone in the camp “trembled.”   I looked this word up.  It means to shudder with terror and to quake.  The next time it’s used it says that the whole mountain “trembled violently.”  After the commandments are given, the people “trembled with fear.”

The trumpet blast, which was the sound of a shofar, was “exceedingly loud” and it grew “louder and louder.”  Along with thunder and lightning and a thick cloud representing God’s Shekinah glory, there was smoke rising up as if from a bellowing furnace.  We read twice that if the people don’t follow what God says, He will “break out against them.”  The people were petrified.  The last time God had manifested himself like that was in Genesis 19:28 when He destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.

Most of us are way too casual with God and we don’t take His commands or His commission seriously enough. 

Brothers and sisters in Christ, it is a serious matter to approach the Almighty.  We cannot and must not be irreverent or bored or passive or come to Him on our own terms.  Most of us are way too casual with God and we don’t take His commands or His commission seriously enough.  One of the take-homes from our time in Israel is that we were reminded that God is big and mighty and marvelous and holy and to be feared.  

Before you think that is just how people in the Old Testament were to worship God, let me remind you of a passage in the New Testament from 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.’” 

God is about to speak to us through His Word…and He wants our full attention.

Let’s pray.

I’ve never been very good at setting the table.  My mom was a Home Economics teacher and taught me how to do it but I always did it wrong…on purpose.  I figured if I didn’t get it right I’d get out of having to do it all the time.  That’s continued to today.  I don’t set the table very often but when I do I just throw the plates on and slide the silverware to the side. Napkins get dropped somewhere near the setting.  Everything’s chaotic…but it keeps me from having to do it too much.  It’s worked well (I’ve done the same with laundry).  Beth often stops me when she sees me trying to be helpful and the girls can always tell if she didn’t get to me in time.

In the sermon today I want to set the table for our study of the two stone tablets called the Ten Commandments.  But I don’t want to be sloppy about it.  I want to carefully lay some things out, putting the utensils in the right place so you can dig into a fabulous meal over the next 11 weeks. 

On this Father’s Day, we can see these commands as God’s household rules, as standards that our Heavenly Father has set for those of us in his family.  And as earthly fathers we need to teach them to our families.  Dads, see these commandments as your father’s day card today.

In their book The Day America Told the Truth, James Patterson and Peter Kim wrote these words over twenty years ago: 

“God is alive and very well. But right now in America, fewer people are listening to what God has to say than ever before. Ninety percent of the people we questioned said that they truly believe in God.  It would be the logical conclusion then to think that God is a meaningful factor in today’s America.  But we reached a different conclusion when we dug deeper with our questions.

“…When we asked how people make up their minds on issues of right and wrong, we found that they simply do not turn to God or religion to help them decide about seminal or moral issues of the day.  For most people, religion plays virtually no role in shaping their opinions on a long list of important public questions.  Most people do not even know their church’s position on the important issues.  That, perhaps, is the true measure of America indifference to the teachings of organized religion: We don’t follow what our church says because we’re not interested enough to find out what its saying.

“”Americans are making up their own laws…Only 13 percent of us believe in all of the Ten Commandments.  There is absolutely no moral consensus at all…everyone is making up their own personal moral codes – their own Ten Commandments.”  

They go on to list what they call the “real ten commandments.”  

  • 74% will steal from those who won’t miss it
  • 64% will lie as long as no one gets hurt
  • 7% of the respondents say they would kill a stranger for $10 million.

We’ve moved from what is right and what is wrong to “if it feels good, do it.”  Isaiah 5:20: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil.”  The very last verse of the Book of Judges summarizes the situation in our society today: “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.”  We’ve thrown away the king and His commands to our own detriment.

Friends, there is such a thing as right and wrong and it’s found in the Ten Commandments.  Abortion is not just a harmless choice; it’s a violation of the sixth commandment: “You shall not murder.”  Marriage is between a husband and wife for life, no matter what our president says or what the current politically-correct view happens to be.

The Ten Commandments have influenced our country and the laws of other nations more than any other document.  James Madison, our fourth president, made this comment about the Commandments: “We stake the future of this country on our ability to govern ourselves under the principles of the Ten Commandments.”

Current polls show 80% of Americans claim to believe in the Ten Commandments but very few can name even four of them.  Even fewer consider keeping them.

In one of his “Jaywalking” segments, Jay Leno once went out into the streets and asked people to name just one of the Ten Commandments.  Person after person was stumped by the question and then one answered timidly, “God helps those who help themselves?”

One of our purposes in this summer series is to quote the commandments in their correct order.  I came across a simple way to learn them by using our fingers and our hands.  Let’s just look at the first five today…

1: Hold up one pointer finger – point to the sky (one God)

2: Hold up two pointer fingers – have one bow before the other (no idols)

3: Hold up three fingers – place over mouth (don’t take God’s name in vain)

4: Hold up four fingers – place on cheek as if to nap (Sabbath rest)

5: Hold up five fingers – place hand over heart (honor parents)

I recognize that just quoting the commandments does not mean that we’re any closer to keeping them.  But we must first know them before we can grow in our understanding of them.  That reminds me of a cartoon I came across.  Moses is holding the Ten Commandments and his face is beaming.  “Hey, these are great,” he says enthusiastically.  “From now on, nobody will have trouble distinguishing right from wrong.”

As we set the table today, let’s listen to what the Scriptures say about these commands:

  • These are living words; not a dead document.  Acts 7:38: “He [Moses] was in the assembly in the desert, with the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our fathers; and he received living words to pass on to us.”
  • They are not negative; they are given for our good.  Deuteronomy 10:12-13: “And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good?”  The commandments reveal God’s kindness.  One pastor calls them the ten(DER) commandments.
  • They are not just good life principles; they are our life.  Deuteronomy 32:46-47: “Take to heart all the words I have solemnly declared to you this day, so that you may command your children to obey carefully all the words of this law.  They are not just idle words for you — they are your life.”


Let me share some observations that will help our understanding.

  1. The Bible calls them two tables of the law.  In the first five, the phrase “The Lord your God” appears but not in the second five.  The first four commandments deal with loving God; the final six with loving others.  It was common practice to have two copies; one for the treaty-giver and another set for the recipient.  The recipient was to keep the copy in a sacred place, so Moses put them in the Ark of the Covenant.
  2. The commands deal with our hearts, our words, and our actions.
  3. These are absolute commands, not “if/then” statements.
  4. They are directed to individuals, not to a group.
  5. They are spoken and written directly by God.
  6. They are listed twice – once in Exodus 20 and the other in Deuteronomy 5.

Avoid Two Extremes

As we set the table, let’s avoid two extremes.  

  1. Legalism.  One pastor put it this way: “Nineteen hundred years ago there was a religious group of people who kept all the Ten Commandments, paid a faithful tithe, was most faithful in every detail of religious life…and they murdered Christ!”
  2. Licentiousness.  This word is commonly associated with sexual immorality but at its core it means, “Unrestrained by law; ignoring legal restraint.”

Don’t use the Commandments as a way to get to heaven or to judge others nor should we just ignore them.

Interpretation Principles

Here’s a common question about the 10 Commandments – “Are the commandments binding for Christians in the culture in which we live?”  I like the answer Ted Koppel gave in his now famous commencement address at Duke University: “What Moses brought down from Mount Sinai were not the Ten Suggestions…they are commandments.  Are, not were.”

I have been really helped in this regard by Philip Ryken’s book called, “Written in Stone.”  If there’s one resource you’re going to read on the 10 Commandments, I recommend this one.  He points out that New Testament seems to set aside the Old Testament law.  Here’s just one example from Romans 6:14“You are not under law but under grace.”  On the other hand, there are verses that indicate that the Law will never go away.  Jesus said in Luke 16:17“It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law.”

One reason the New Testament talks about the law in several different ways is because there are several different kinds of law – the civil, the ceremonial and the moral.  These were all given in the Old Testament, and sometimes interspersed together but we must carefully distinguish between them in order to make sense of the law…and ultimately of the gospel.  

  • Civil Law.  These laws governed Israel as a nation under God and included guidelines for waging war, land use, regulations for debt, etc.
  • Ceremonial Law.  Here we read of regulations for religious festivals (Exodus 23) and for worship at the tabernacle and temple.  It included laws for clean and unclean foods, instructions for ritual purity, guidelines for priests, and a lot of instructions for offering sacrifices.
  • Moral Law.  Summarized in the 10 Commandments, the moral law represents the righteous and eternal standard for our relationship with God and others.

I’m not going to take a lot of time to unpack this today so suffice it to say that the civil and ceremonial laws are no longer in effect because all these regulations pointed ahead to Jesus Christ and have been fulfilled by Him.  We see this in Colossians 2:17“These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.”  Hebrews 10:1“The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming – not the realities themselves.  For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship.”

When standing on another mountain, Jesus put it like this in Matthew 5:17-18: “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.  I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”  In Romans 3:31, the Apostle Paul asks and answers the question: “Do we then overthrow the law?  By no means!  On the contrary, we uphold the law.”

“As believers in Jesus Christ, do we still need to keep God’s law?  Yes.  The moral law expresses God’s perfect and righteous will for our lives.  So Jesus commands us to keep it, not as a way of getting right with God, but as a way of pleasing the God who has made us right with Him.”

The prophet Jeremiah in 31:33 says that one day God would put his law in our hearts.  Because of faith in Jesus Christ, we now have the power and the desire to do what God wants us to do: “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.  I will be their God, and they will be my people.”  Someone put it like this: “The 10 Commandments show us the need for justification and give a path for sanctification.” God’s love enables us to embrace God’s law.

Application of the Law

1 Timothy 1:8 says, “We know that the law is good if one uses it properly.”  God has more than one purpose for the 10 Commandments.  Here are two big reasons why I think God gave us His law.

  • To reveal His glory and character.  Deuteronomy 5:24“The Lord our God has shown us His glory and His majesty…”
  • To mark Israel as His chosen people.  Psalm 147:19-20“He has revealed his word to Jacob, his laws and decrees to Israel.  He has done this for no other nation; they do not know his laws.”

Ryken writes that the law teaches God’s redeemed people how to live for God’s glory, it restrains sin in society and it shows sinners their need of a Savior.  Or, we could say it like this.  The law is a…

  • Map.  It guides our conduct.  God’s law teaches us how to live like God wants us to. Psalm 119:92: “If your law had not been my delight, I would have perished in my affliction.”
  • Muzzle.  It keeps us from doing wrong.  According to Romans 13, as a deterrent, the law can keep depravity in check.  The threat of penalty can be a preventative.  That’s why when a nation moves away from God’s moral laws, trouble always follows.  After the giving of the Law, we read these words 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.”
  • Mirror.  It shows us our sin.  Romans 7:7: “Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law.  For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, ‘Do not covet.’”
  • Master.  It brings bondage because it’s impossible to keep.  Galatians 3:10: “All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.’”  The Law convicts and it condemns.
  • Mentor.  The commands are not like rungs on a ladder one must climb to get to heaven.  Instead, the law points us to Christ.  Galatians 3:24: “So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith.”  I think that one of the most important uses of the 10 Commandments is to show sinners their need for the Savior.  I like what John Calvin wrote: “Moses had no other intention than to invite all men to go straight to Christ.”  By the way, it is essential to preach the law in order to reach the lost.  People must know they are sinners before they will seek out the Savior (more about this at the end of the series).

Let me make a couple other points…

  • They are to be passed on to the next generation.  Deuteronomy 6:20-24: “When your son asks you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the testimonies and statutes and the rules that the Lord our God commanded you?’ then you shall say to your son…and the Lord brought us out…and the Lord commanded us to do all these statutes…”  Earlier in this same chapter, parents are told to impress these instructions on their children.
  • The 10 Commandments can be reduced to two commandments.  The students use four letters to help them remember – LGLO – “Love God, Love Others.”  Jesus summarized all the statutes in Matthew 22:37-40: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”  
no matter how hard you try to keep them you will inevitably fall short

The Ten Commandments are important and should be followed.   However, no matter how hard you try to keep them you will inevitably fall short.  The more you try to not covet, the stronger the temptation becomes to want more.  The more you try to not lie, the more you find yourself exaggerating.  

The commandments are important but they are impossible to keep.  The Bible puts it this way in 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.”

One of the purposes of God’s Commands is to show 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.

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” (James 2:10).  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.  We’re all guilty of breaking God’s commands.  There’s no one who can say that they’ve kept them all every day of their lives.  If you do that, then you’re breaking the 9th Commandment about lying!  That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.  It just means that as you try, you will see how far you come short.  

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.  In other words, we need to put our faith in the impeccable one — Jesus Christ.  Impeccable means without sin or compromise.  Jesus Christ is the only person who has ever lived a perfect life and perfectly followed the law.

A mirror can show you that you’re dirty but it can’t clean you up.   Donald Grey Barnhouse once said, “When you look in a mirror and find that your face is dirty, you do not then reach to take the mirror off the wall and attempt to rub it on your face as a cleansing agent.” The Law was not given to remedy sin but to reveal it.

In order to come to God, one needs a mediator.  God chose Moses in the Old Testament on a temporary basis.  But now, He has sent His Son down so that we can go up.  1 Timothy 2:5 says, “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.”  Jesus kept the whole law on our behalf.  And then on the cross he suffered the penalty we deserve for not keeping God’s law.  

We read these words in Revelation 4:5, reminiscent of what happened on Mount Sinai as Jesus is worshipped in all His glory: “From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder.”  

Let’s worship Him right now in song.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?