Elon, North Carolina
The Ten Commandments are one of my favorite topics. Today, I want to look at the Ten Commandments and try to put them in a little perspective. Let me start with this question. How are the Ten Commandments unique? There is something special about the Ten Commandments. They are different from everything else in the Bible.
The rest of the Bible is inspired by God. The Ten Commandments were not just inspired by God, they were DICTATED by God. God spoke these words to the entire nation AUDIBLY in a very LOUD VOICE from the top of Mount Sinai. It had to be a loud voice because God was at the top of the mountain speaking and everyone else was at the bottom of the mountain and they could all hear him.
Six hundred years later, the prophet Elijah was on this very same mountain. The Queen Jezebel threatened to kill him and he ran away and ended up on Mount Horeb (which was the same thing as Mount Sinai). You can read about that in I Kings 19. God spoke to Elijah through “a still small voice” but in Exodus 20 God spoke to the nation in a loud voice. Not only did God audibly speak all of these words, He wrote them down with his finger on a clay tablet. The Ten Commandments are the only message to man that God wrote with his own hand. The rest of the Bible was inspired but it was written by human authors (Paul, John, Luke, Matthew).
The giving of the Ten Commandments involved a theophany. What exactly is a theophany? A theophany is an appearance of God to people. It is not just when an angel appears to people, it is when God Himself appears to people. When a theophany takes place, there are visible signs of it. What were the signs in Exodus and Deuteronomy? (cf. Exodus 20:1, 18-21; Deuteronomy 5:23-27). The signs were thick darkness, thunder, lightening, fire, smoke, earthquake, and a loud voice. When people saw these things, what was their reaction? They were terrified. The whole mountain shook. They moved back.
They did not say how cool it was to meet God on a mountain and to hear his voice. They did not say, “Let’s have this again next year. Let’s make it an annual event and invite everyone.” When God appeared to the nation on Mount Sinai, the people were literally scared to death. They thought that they were going to die. It was an awesome display of God’s glory and power.
Every worship leader gets in front of the church and prays for God to show us His glory. It sounds real spiritual. These people saw God’s glory and it terrified them. They thought they were going to die. In fact, they were so afraid, they asked Moses to talk to God and write it down instead of having God talk directly to them. “Go near and listen to all that the Lord our God says. Then tell us whatever the Lord our God tells you. We will listen and obey” (Deuteronomy 5:27).
They were to have the same respect and the same reaction to the Bible as they had if God spoke out loud because it was the same message. That is the way we should treat the Bible today. The problem is that most of us do not really believe or act as if this book is inspired. God said that they had the right response. “I have heard what this people said to you. Everything they said was good. Oh, that their hearts would be inclined to fear me and keep all my commands always, so that it might go well with them and their children forever” (Deuteronomy 5:28-29). That raises a very interesting question.
Many preachers warn against the dangers of worshiping the Bible. There is even a term for this. It is called bibliolatry. Is it a real danger? Is it wrong? It is actually true that we are to worship God, not the Bible. It is possible to know the Bible and to not know God. However, the problem is that this is a complete straw man argument. No one actually worships the Bible. No one prays to the Bible. No church actually does this.
The problem in the church today is not that people have to high a view of the Bible. The problem is that people have too low a view of the Bible. There are many who think that the Bible is full of errors and myths. Many, even within the church, think that the Bible contains scientific and historical errors. Whole denominations of professing Christians hold to this viewpoint.
God led the Jews out of Egypt at Passover. They left Egypt and miraculously crossed the Red Sea and escaped Pharaoh’s armies. Three months later, God appeared to the nation and made a covenant with them. It is called the Mosaic Covenant or Sinaitic Covenant. Israel is the only country God made a covenant with. He did not make a covenant with America or with France or Germany. Remember God said to the Jews “You only have I known of all the families of the earth” (Amos 3:2) in a covenant relationship.
God had already made a covenant with Abraham. That was a covenant with a person. It was an unconditional covenant. Now He makes a covenant with the whole nation and this was a conditional covenant (Exodus 19:4-8). At Sinai, we have a theophany. In Exodus 3, God appeared to Moses and spoke to him through a burning bush. In Exodus 20, God appeared to the whole nation and spoke to them through a burning mountain. The whole mountain was on fire. Out of the fire and darkness, God spoke the Ten Commandments.
Let’s read Exodus 20:1-17 one more time. What do we know about the Ten Commandments? Let me quickly give you six observations about these commandments.
1. They are not optional.
These were not suggestions. They were commandments (Heb mizvot). The singular word in Hebrew for commandment is mitzvah (as in bar mitzvah) These are not “ten suggestions for a better life” or “ten ways that might work for you” or “ten habits of highly spiritual people”. They are commands and they are NOT optional. God didn’t say, “If you would like to obey these rules, you can. It would be a really good idea”. They are commands. As I said, last week, eight of the commands involved a penalty of death for disobedience. The only two that did not were the command against stealing (the penalty was restitution) and against coveting (which was a sin, not a crime)
2. There are no exceptions.
Idolatry is always wrong. It is always wrong to worship another god. It is always wrong to commit adultery. It is always wrong to steal. It is wrong when the rich steal. It is wrong when the poor steal. It is wrong when the government steals. Murder is always wrong. Killing is not always wrong. Murder and killing are not the same thing. If some fool breaks into your house at night and you kill him, it is not murder. You were allowed to do that in the OT.
On the other hand, if you hunted the man down a week later and took him out, that would be murder, intentional premeditated killing. There are no exceptions. I once saw in a bookstore a book which caught my eye. It was entitled Exceptions to the Ten Commandments. When I opened the book, it was filled with several hundred pages that were all blank but blank, because there are no exceptions to the Ten Commandments.
3. They are divided into two parts.
Several of you mentioned this last week. The first four deal with our relationship to God (His name, day and the way He is to be worshiped). The last six deal with our relationship to people. The first four are religious duties (vertical commandments). The last six are moral duties (horizontal commandments). What is the longest of the Ten Commandments? The longer commandments (third and fourth) are in the section dealing with our relationship to God. These commandments are divided into two parts. That may be why the Ten Commandments were originally placed on two stone tablets.
4. Most of them are negative
How many are negative? Eight of the Ten Commandments are negative commands (“thou shalt not”). 80% of them are negative commands or prohibitions. Only two or 20% of them (the fourth and the fifth) are positive commands. Why is it so negative? They are mostly negative because of human nature. The world teaches than people are basically good. The Bible teaches that people are basically bad. We all have a natural tendency to do the very things that are prohibited (lie, steal, kill, commit adultery, etc.). That is why you do not have to teach a child to be bad. You have to teach a child to do good.
5. They involve actions, thoughts and words.
Which commandments involve actions? (e.g., murder, adultery, idolatry). Which commandments involve words? (swearing, bearing false witness). Which commandments involve thoughts (coveting)
6. We have all broken them.
The whole point of the Law was to lead us to Christ. The Jews did not just have ten commandments to follow. They had six hundred more. The Ten Commandments are part of the Law of Moses. There are 613 commandments in the Law of Moses. Some Jewish rabbi once counted all of the commands and came up with the number 613. You can go online and see the list with the verse that goes with it.
These commandments regulated every aspect of your life – what you were allowed to eat (kosher and non-kosher foods – Leviticus 11), what you were allowed to wear (you could not wear clothes made of two different kinds of fabric, i.e., you can’t wear a shirt made of cotton and polyester – Leviticus 19:19), how you cut your beard (Leviticus 19:27), who you could have sex with (Leviticus 18). Tattoos were forbidden (Leviticus 19:28).
Because there were 613 of them, no one could keep them all. One of the purposes of the Law was to show conviction of sin (Romans 3:19-20). Many Jews in Jesus day thought they could be saved by keeping the Law (Luke 10:25-28). This is impossible. If you are going to be saved by works, you would have to keep all 613 commandments all of the time (24 hours a day, 7 days a week). That is why Paul called The Ten Commandment “a ministry of death and condemnation” (II Corinthians 3:6, 7).
The problem with trying to be saved by keeping the Law is that Paul said that if you do not keep all of the Law all of the time, you were under a curse (Galatians 3:10-13). No one could do that. That is why the very point of the Law was to bring people to Christ. Paul said that it was supposed to be a schoolmaster to lead us to Christ (Galatians 3:23-24)
Some of you may not know who Johnny Carson was. He was the host of the Tonight Show for thirty years. Jay Leno took over when he retired. Over forty years ago, Johnny Carson interviewed Billy Graham. Billy Graham started talking about the Ten Commandments. John Carson admitted that he did not know what the Ten Commandment were. Billy Graham said, “you may not know them but you have broken them all”.
The real reason that you cannot have the Ten Commandments in a court room is not because it is religious but because it is so convicting. As George Carlin noted, it would be too hard for a room full of judges, politicians, lawyers and criminals to have to be confronted all day with the words: “thou shalt not steal,” “thou shalt not lie,” “thou shalt not murder,” and “thou shalt not commit adultery”.
Why Study the Ten Commandments?
Paul said that we are no longer under the law but under grace (Romans 6:14). He said that Christ is the end of the law (Romans 10:4). The NT says that Jesus was the end of the law. He said that Jesus abolished the law (Ephesians 2:15; Colossians 2:15). The law was in effect for 1500 years but Jesus abolished it around 33 AD when he died. That raises this question. Is it still relevant today for Christians? They are still relevant today for three reasons.
1) All Scripture is profitable (II Timothy 3:16-17)
Paul said that “ALL Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable” (II Timothy 3:16). We can learn lessons even from the parts of the law that have been abolished. Even if we are not under the law today and even if Christ abolished the law but lying is still wrong. Stealing is still wrong. Adultery is still wrong. Murder is still wrong. Swearing is still wrong today. Worshiping an idol is just as much wrong today as it was then. Nine of the Ten Commandments are repeated in the NT. Paul said that the righteous requirements of the law are to be fulfilled in us (Romans 8:4).
2) We live in a day of moral decline.
We have a high crime rate in America. Murder is rampant. In 2010, a murder took place every half hour in America. Abortion is legal. Adultery is socially accepted. It is glamorized in the movies. As of January 2014, homosexual marriage is legal in seventeen states (California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington), as well as the District of Columbia.
3) We live in an age of biblical illiteracy.
According to a Gallup Poll, 84% of Americans say that they believe in the Ten Commandments but, according to another poll, only 30% of them could name three of them. The average adult on the street could not name the Ten Commandments. The average young person in church could not name them. The average church going adult could not even name them.
I have a master’s degree in religious studies from a secular university. I will never forget what one of my OT professors said. One of my OT professors admitted in class that he could not even name the Ten Commandments. He was a very smart man. He had a Ph.D in OT from Hebrew Union College. He taught Hebrew classes but he could not even name the Ten Commandments. I was shocked. Unfortunately, biblical illiteracy is quite common even in the church all through out the country.