Elon, North Carolina
Today, we begin a new series on the Ten Commandments. It is not possible to exaggerate the importance of the Ten Commandments. They are the greatest moral code of all time. They are foundational to society. They are foundational to morality. Exodus 20 is one of the most important chapters in the Bible.
Exodus 20 gives us God’s top ten list of sins. We have many top ten lists. The FBI has a top ten list of fugitives. David Letterman had his top ten lists. This is God’s top ten list and it is a list of sins. We often speak of “the seven deadly sins.” This is God’s list of the ten deadly sins. Someone called this “ten stupid things we do.”
It is a chapter that is very relevant in the day in which we live. The Ten Commandments are very much needed today. They are needed for three reasons. One, we live in a day of MORAL CORRUPTION or decay. We live in a society which has for years disregarded the basic moral principles of the Ten Commandments.
It has put our country at risk. About one-third of the population currently has an STD, according to the CDC. The US has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the entire industrialized world. Gay marriage is legal. Abortion is legal. We have the highest abortion rate in the western world. Without question, we live in a day or moral corruption.
We also live in a day of MORAL CONFUSION. When you reject God, you no longer have absolute standards of right and wrong. Everything is relative. It is taught in the schools. The result is that we end up without a society without a moral compass. People live like they did in the Book of Judges. Everyone does what is right in his or her eyes. Some, even in the church, seem to have no idea what sin is. This chapter has something to say to the church.
It has something to say to America. We have more people who do not seem to have a conscience. They do all kinds of bad things and don’t feel guilty one bit. We have gotten to the point where we cannot even distinguish between a man and a woman. One school district in North Carolina recently told its teachers not to call students “boys and girls”.
The Ten Commandments remind us that there are some moral absolutes. There certain things, like murder, that are always wrong in ever culture, in every nation and in every period of time. If you do not believe in moral absolutes, then you cannot say that rape is wrong. You could not say that child abuse or racism is wrong. You could not say that genocide is wrong, because there would be no objective standard of right and wrong.
Finally, we live in a day of BIBLICAL ILLITERACY. How many of the Ten Commandments can you name? The average person on the street cannot name too many of them. We know that from all kinds of Gallop Polls. Jay Leno once asked his audience if anyone could name any of the Ten Commandments and there was dead silence. Finally someone blurted out “God helps those who help themselves?”
You might expect the world to be ignorant of the Ten Commandments. They are unbelievers. The problem is that many in the church are just as ignorant about what Scripture teaches as many in the world. When I was working on one of my master’s degrees in graduate school, one of my OT professors admitted in class that he could not even name the Ten Commandments. I was shocked to hear this. This was in a secular university but my professor knew Hebrew and taught it. In fact, he had a Ph.D. in OT and he still did not know the Ten Commandments.
Sometimes we hear people say that none of this applies to Christians because they are under the New Covenant. The NT says that we are not under the Law. Romans says that we are not under law but under grace. It says that Christ abolished the Law. Is this true? Yes. He said that Jesus abolished the law (Ephesians 2:15; Colossians 2:15).
However, even if we are not under the Old Covenant today, lying is still wrong. Stealing is still wrong. Adultery is still wrong. Murder is still wrong. Idolatry is still wrong. God’s moral nature has not changed. In fact, nine of the Ten Commandments are repeated in the NT.
We want to begin a series on the Ten Commandments today, the most famous law code in history. I want to start with an overview of the Ten Commandments. We want to look at the big picture. For the next ten weeks, we will look at them individually. Let’s start with some basic characteristics.
Characteristics of the Ten Commandments
1.The Ten Commandments come from God.
These were not the commandments of Moses but the commandments of God. It is not just the Law of Moses but the Law of God. You say, “Well the whole Bible came from God. All of it is inspired.” That is true but the Ten Commandments are different.
The rest of the Bible is inspired by God. The Ten Commandments were not just inspired by God, they were DICTATED by God. Paul did not write the Book of Romans by divine dictation. It was inspired by God but it was not dictated. The Ten Commandments were dictated by God. They were SPOKEN AUDIBLY to two million people in a loud voice from the top of a mountain.
None of the other law was spoken audibly. They were the only words of Scripture which God spoke audibly, not counting the words of Jesus. They were not only spoken audibly but chiseled into stone by the finger of God. Moses did not write the Ten Commandments. God did and He wrote it on stone. 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).
2. The Ten Commandments are commandments
These are commandments. These were not suggestions or some recommendations. God didn’t say, “If you would like to obey these rules, you can. It would be a really good idea”. 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. They are called in Hebrew mizvot. The singular word in Hebrew for commandment is mitzvah (as in bar mitzvah). God did not free the Jews from slavery so they could do whatever they wanted to do. He gave them some rules to follow.
Many people do not like to be told what to do. We do not like to be commanded. When God gives us a command, He is not like a mean parent giving out harsh rules to children. As James MacDonald said, “When God says, ‘Don’t,’ He means ‘Don’t hurt yourself.’”
If we are a Christian, we have been redeemed like the Jews have been redeemed. Paul said, “You are bought with a price. Therefore glorify God in your body” (I Corinthians 6:19-20). We like to do whatever we want to do but God has some rules. We think we are better off when we reject what God says but we always end off worse, not better.
Many Christians think they do not have any rules but Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). There are commandments in the NT. Even Jesus had some commandments.
These commandments are divided into two parts. Remember, Jesus said that law can be divided into two parts: love God and love your neighbor as yourself. The Ten Commandments are divided into these two parts. That may be why the Ten Commandments were originally placed on two stone tablets.
The first four deal with our relationship to God. The last six deal with our relationship to people. The first four are religious duties. The last six are moral duties. The first four are vertical commandments. They deal with God’s name, day and the way He is to be worshiped. The last six are horizontal commandments. They deal with our relationship to people.
The phrase “the Lord your God” occurs in each of the first four commandments. The words “your neighbor” are found four times in this section. The longest commandments (third and fourth) are in the section dealing with our relationship to God.
3. The Ten Commandments are moral absolutes.
They are no exceptions. Idolatry is always wrong. Adultery is always wrong. Stealing is always wrong. 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 but killing and murder are two different things. Killing may be justified. Murder is NEVER justified.
There are moral absolutes. There are things that are wrong at all times and in all places. There are no exceptions. I have a book in my library called Exceptions to the Ten Commandments (2004). It is several hundred pages long but all of the pages of the book are blank, because there are no exceptions to the Ten Commandments.
4. The Ten Commandments are mostly negative
Most of them are negative. How many are negative? Eight of the Ten Commandments are negative commands (“thou shalt not”). Eighty percent of them are negative commands or prohibitions. Only two or twenty percent 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. The Ten Commandments are mostly external.
Some of these commandments involve ACTIONS (e.g., murder, adultery, idolatry). Some of them involve WORDS (swearing, bearing false witness). Some of them involve THOUGHTS (coveting). Almost all of them deal with an external act. They deal with something that you can see or hear. Only one of them deals with inner thoughts (tenth one). The first nine were not only sins; they were crimes. The last one was not.
6. The Ten Commandments condemn sinners.
There are some myths about the Ten Commandments that some people have. One of the most common myths that people have is that the Ten Commandments is a ladder to get to heaven. The way to get to heaven is by keeping the Ten Commandments. Many people today believe that but God did not give the Ten Commandments in Genesis. He gave the Ten Commandments in Exodus AFTER He redeemed the Jews out of slavery.
This is very important. The Jews were redeemed BEFORE they were given the Ten Commandments. God redeemed the Jews out of Egypt and then gave them the Ten Commandments. He did not give the Ten Commandments so they could redeem themselves. They were already redeemed. They were already the people of God. The Ten Commandments were given to a redeemed people. The Bible says over and over again that the Law does not save people.
“We know that a person is NOT justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and NOT by the works of the law, because by the works of the law NO ONE will be justified” (Galatians 2:16 NIV)
Paul says it three times in that one verse. You are not saved by keeping the Law. Romans 3:28 says, “For we maintain that a person is justified by faith APART FROM the works of the law” (NIV).
The Law does not save anyone. In fact, it condemns people. “He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (II Corinthians 3:6 NIV). This is not talking about the Bible. It is talking about the Law and specifically it is talking about the Ten Commandments.
How do we know? We know it from the very next verse. II Corinthians 3:7 says, “ Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, transitory though it was” (NIV). The ministry that brought death was on tablets of stone.
Why does it have a ministry of death? Is there something wrong with the Ten Commandments? No. The Bible teaches that the Law is good. Paul said that it is “holy, just and good” (Romans 7:12). King David said “The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul” (Psalm 19:7 NIV). The problem is not with the law. The problem is with us. We are all sinners.
It kills because no one is able to keep it and the punishment for breaking it is death. The punishment for breaking the first commandment was death. The punishment for breaking the fifth, sixth and seventh commandments was death.
Johnny Carson was the host of the Tonight Show (NBC) for thirty years. Jay Leno took over when he retired. Johnny Fallon is the host now. That is what we used to watch before there was cable. 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 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).
There were 613 commands in the Law of Moses. Someone calculated that 365 of these are negative commands (one for every day of the week) and 248 of them are positive commands. It was impossible to keep them all. Who could keep 613 commands?
Galatians 3:10 says, “For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law” (NIV). 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).
The Law not only CONDEMNS people, it CONVICTS people. Romans 3:20 says “Therefore NO ONE will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin” (NIV).
Romans 7:7 says “What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful? Certainly not! Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet” (NIV). One of the purposes of the Law is to reveals our sin. It is like a spiritual mirror. It shows us what we look in the inside.
Some court rooms used to have a display of the Ten Commandments on the wall. In the past few years, some judges have been told that this is unconstitutional. It violates the separation of church and state.
The real problem with having the Ten Commandments on the wall is not legal but moral. It is 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”. 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).