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Exodus 20:1-21-Part 1-The Ten Commandments and the Purpose of the Law

A lawyer tested Jesus by asking Him, which is the greatest commandment in the law? Jesus responded that the greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind and that the second is like it, you shall love your neighbour as yourself and summarised that on those two commandments hang all the law and the prophets (Matthew 22:34-40).

Commentators throughout the centuries have noted that Jesus was quoting the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:5) and Leviticus 19:18 regarding loving God and one’s neighbour and that the former relates to the first four of the Ten Commandments and the remaining six of the Ten Commandments relate to loving our neighbour. Furthermore Romans 13:8-10 demonstrates the above and that love is the fulfilment of the law. This also demonstrates the consistency of the Scriptures and perfect character of the Lord.

The Ten Commandments show us what a holy God is like and is committed to and what pleases Him. It also reveals something of how we should live in obedience to Him not simply by avoiding the breaking of His laws but by willingly and full heartedly serving Him and others in the way He has shown us.

Rabbi Sacks observed that the Ten Commandments are simple and easy to memorise, hence they can be remembered and recited.[i] Wiersbe noted that they are part of the covenant that God made with His special people (Exodus 6:1-8; 19:5-8) and that in the Abrahamic covenant the Lord gave the Jewish people their title deed to the Promised Land (Gen 12:3; 13:14-18) but Israel’s possession and enjoyment of that land related to their obedience regarding the Mosaic covenant.[ii]

These laws are imperative to regulate a functional and moral society. If you remove them the result is inevitable chaos. We often speak of our Judeo-Christian heritage and consider the Ten Commandments to be the backbone of that. Our legal system is based around the Ten Commandments and the Magna Carta. Interestingly King John tried to live ‘above’ the law by doing whatever was in his interests but not that of England.

The first important point we discover in this passage is that God spoke all these words (Exodus 20:1) which means that the commandments are authoritative. Previously and also later, Moses’ authority would be challenged and he would be vindicated. Moses was an exceptional prophet though the decalogue was spoken by God and written by God.

We are then reminded that the Lord brought the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery. Some have an aversion to rules and commandments since they consider them restrictive of their desired freedom. Hence it is noticeable that the above statement immediately precedes the giving of the Ten Commandments. Seeking absolute freedom is foolhardy and is akin to jumping out of a plane without a parachute since the parachute is deemed restrictive! As already noted without laws and commandments society would soon dissolve into anarchy. Good laws are therefore of great benefit to society and more importantly are for the glory of God.

The purpose of the law

What is the purpose of the law? The purpose of the law is to reveal our sinfulness. What is sin? When someone sins they practice lawlessness because sin is lawlessness (1 John 3:4). The law is like a mirror which shows us exactly how we have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory and His perfect standards. Without the law how would anyone have the knowledge of what sin is?

When we look at the Ten Commandments we see immediately and clearly how we have broken God’s laws and stand guilty before Him. We need only examine our conduct in brutal honesty to determine whether we have all kept God’s commandments perfectly. When someone soberly and genuinely examines the Ten Commandments, it quickly emerges that they are law breakers. Scripture reveals that we have all broken God’s law and that the penalty or wages of sin is death, but the gift of Messiah Yeshua our Lord is eternal life (Romans 6:23).

Some will compare themselves with others and will conclude that they are better than most other people or that they are average and that God’s judgment is only for those who have committed major offenses. However, the important point is that whoever is guilty of breaking one point is guilty and accountable for all of it (James 2:10). It is akin to breaking a link in a chain since when one link is broken the whole chain is broken.

The diagnosis

In other words the law helps us to diagnose our sinfulness and our desperate need for God’s redemption and to have our sin forgiven and to be in right relationship with a holy God. Ray Comfort often asks people four questions to demonstrate the reality of that. These are questions which you can also ask yourself.

Firstly, do you consider yourself a good person? Many of us consider ourselves to be ‘good’ in a relative sense probably in view of how we perceive ourselves compared with others. However Matthew 19:17 tells us that only God is good and He said to the rich young ruler that if he wanted to enter into life he needed to keep God’s commandments. Like all of us he was a law breaker and could never keep God’s commandments neither perfectly nor in entirety.

Secondly, have you kept the Ten Commandments? Who has loved the Lord their God with all their heart, soul and mind perfectly including every thought, word and deed? Or conversely who has never broken one of God’s commandments?

Thirdly, if you were judged by the Ten Commandments would you be innocent or guilty? Psalm 53:3 informs us that “There is none who does good, no, not one”.

Fourthly, do you think you will go to heaven or hell? Some at this point argue that they will go to heaven because they think they are a ‘good person’ and will forget that the Bible shows through God’s word that none of us are good and that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).

The law is like a mirror and a tutor pointing us to Messiah

The law is like a mirror which shows us exactly how we have sinned when we examine His commandments and see how we have broken them. The law is also like a tutor which brings us to Messiah (Galatians 3:24 ). The law shows our need for Him to atone for our sin and reconcile us to God. Unlike us, the Lord Jesus was perfect and sinless and lived a perfect life that we could never live. Blood is needed for atonement (Leviticus 17:11) and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin (Hebrews 9:22). Through His sacrifice He has made atonement for sin and He requires everyone to repent and trust in Him. When someone trusts in the Lord they are no longer trusting in their ability to try to be good, but are trusting in Him alone by faith in what He has done and the provision He had made.

[i] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks Essays on Ethics A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible (Maggid, 2016; Jerusalem), p104-105

[ii] Warren W. Wiersbe The Wiersbe Bible Commentary The Complete Old Testament (David C. Cook, 2007; Colorado Springs), p181