I was very blessed to grow up with great Bible teachers as a child. One of my all-time favorite teacher’s name is Mike. I guess I was in his Sunday school class as a 4th or 5th grader though I am not sure. Mike was very creative, among other things, and I remember that each week, as we traveled through the major stories of the Bible, he would bring into the class an object pertaining to the week’s lesson that he would hang on the room’s wall after teaching each week. I can remember a few. He had brought in a rib of an animal when he taught us about God creating Eve from one of Adam’s ribs, and I believe he also had a bag of dirt for that same lesson since God created Adam from the dust of the ground. For Genesis 3, Mike brought in a fake apple to represent the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Later on, when I started teaching children and students, I reached out to him and asked if I could borrow his cat-of-nine-tails and crown of thorns, among other items, to teach my group at the time about the passion of Christ. Along with these object lessons that made a lasting impression upon me as a young believer and as a teacher of God’s Word was the Sunday morning that Mike brought in two large, gray, jagged, flat stones with the ten commandments written in black sharpie on their surfaces.
In this small wood-paneled room, I remember my first encounter – that I can recall – with the ten commandments. I can’t recall all the details of the one or many lessons surrounding the ten commandments twenty-eight years later, but I know without a doubt God used them to lay a foundation for how I would relate to Him and others as a young boy moving forward. Over two decades later, even in preparation for writing this week’s post, I am still discovering more and more about these instructions that God gave the people of Israel at the foot of Mount Sinai. However, anything new that I might have learned or will discover in the future doesn’t eclipse the primary reason the LORD gave these words to Israel almost 3,500 years ago. Yahweh gave the Decalogue (a fancy name for the ten commandments meaning a set of rules with binding authority) to the newly freed slave nation to show how they were to relate to Him and others with Him as their God.
The LORD has delivered Israel from Egypt through His power displayed in each of the ten plagues that proved Himself as the one true God against the gods of Egypt. He had remained faithful to the promises He made to Abraham concerning his descendants. At the end of the four-hundred-year period, God disciplined the nation that had enslaved Abraham’s descendants and delivered them. Before God makes good on the promise of land, He brings the Israelites to the base of Mount Sinai. Two months after their exodus from Egypt, God reveals Himself to them further and provides guidance on how to relate to Him as their covenant God and to one another as people of the covenant nation.
Then Moses climbed the mountain to appear before God. The Lord called to him from the mountain and said, “Give these instructions to the family of Jacob; announce it to the descendants of Israel: 4 ‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians. You know how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now if you will obey me and keep my covenant, you will be my own special treasure from among all the peoples on earth; for all the earth belongs to me. 6 And you will be my kingdom of priests, my holy nation.’ This is the message you must give to the people of Israel.”
God reveals Himself as their God (v 4). He is keeping His unconditional end of the covenant that He made with Abraham in Genesis. However, if the people of Israel want to enjoy the blessings that come with being part of Yahweh’s covenant community they must obey Him. Biblically, obedience is proof of our trusting God (Isaiah 26:8) and our love for Him (John 14:15; 1 John 5:2-3). Here we see the terms of the covenant spelled out, obedience brings blessing and disobedience brings cursing. If they will obey the terms of the treaty that are spelled out in Exodus 20 and following, they will be a people seperated to Him and for Him and thus able to receive His continued blessing as His special treasure. The first half of Exodus (Chapters 1-19) tells us of Israel’s miraclous rescue from slavery in Egypt and their arrival to Mount Sinai fulfilling God’s promise to Moses (Exodus 3:12). The second half of the book introduces the formal agreement between God and His people known as the Sinai Covenant (Chapters 20 – 40). This all provides us the context of Exodus 20:1-17.
The ten commandments, as they are traditionally called in 20:1-17 are a part of the larger covenant God makes with Israel. While the covenant guidelines begin in 20:1, they do not conclude until Leviticus 27:34. The following verses found in our focus passage for the week containing the covenant stipulations are patterned after “suzerainty treaties.” Suzerainty treaties are where a conqueror made a treaty with the conquered, which he “benefited” them with his care and protection as long as they abided by the expectations of the treaty. 20:1 tells us that God communicated to the people of Israel Himself, audibly, and not through Moses, as He further revealed Himself to them and entered into a covenant with them as a nation. Exodus 20:2 is the preamble portion of the treaty. The preamble identifies the giver (the Lord your God) and the recipients (the ones rescued from Egypt) of the covenant.
Then God gave the people all these instructions:
2 “I am the Lord your God, who rescued you from the land of Egypt, the place of your slavery.
Nothing in chapter 20 is described as a “commandment,” “law,” or the like. This translation detail might shock you as it did me upon learning that the Hebrew term translated as “instructions” in the NLT is “words.” These are the words that God gave to the people of Israel (Deuteronomy 5:6-21). We can be sure that even though these words recorded for us in Exodus 20 and delivered to that generation at the foot of Mount Sinai are not referred to as commands, God still expected His people to obey them. By following His words, they would act in ways that were basic to His covenant. These Ten Words carry more significance than routine laws. These expectations, traditionally and conveniently known as the ten commandments, are more like a national constitution than the contents of a section of codified law. These were to the Israelites like the Constitution of the United States is to us today. The following hundreds of laws in Exodus and Leviticus (Exodus 21:1) show how these covenant stipulations are to be regulated in daily life, much like individual laws today deal with particulars flowing from our Constitutional guidelines. Let’s now look at these words of Yawheh to His covenant people.
“You must not have any other god but me.
After demonstrating His greatness over the gods of Egypt and rescuing the Israelites to be a people for Himself, He males it known to them that He will not compete with anyone or anything for their devotion. It was He that delivered them so they should have no other gods except Him. He was not to be one of many gods nor was He to simply be at the top of a deific hierarchy of beings. Relational purity was what He called His people to as they left the polytheistic religion of Egypt and as they were about to encounter the gods of the Canannites. He calls us to this same relational purity with Himself today. This relational purity is the product of pure theology for these generations past and for us today and are summed up beautifully by Moses in Deuteronomy 6:4.
“Listen, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.“
“You must not make for yourself an idol of any kind or an image of anything in the heavens or on the earth or in the sea. 5 You must not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection for any other gods. I lay the sins of the parents upon their children; the entire family is affected—even children in the third and fourth generations of those who reject me. 6 But I lavish unfailing love for a thousand generations on those who love me and obey my commands.
In these verses, God forbids His people from making the resemblance of anything out of anything to be used as an object of worship. In Isaiah 44:6-20, the LORD exposes the foolishness of worshipping idols for He alone is God. He is a jealous God who will not share His glory with another (Joshua 24:19; Isaiah 42:8, 48:11). The LORD is also jealous over His people, which is a good thing. God’s jealousy is a good thing because it is always a God thing. As the only God who has rescued us from our sin, brought us into covenant relationship with Him through Jesus, and who will do life with us until He takes us to be with Him, He alone is worthy of our worship (20:1).
Quickly, the latter part of verses five and six does not mean that God will punish an innocent generation for the sins of the preceding generation (Deuteronomy 24:16) but will punish the present generation if they do the same sins they learned from their parents. It’s also important to remember that even if one generation tries to break a cycle from a previous generation and follow the LORD, they might still suffer or experience difficult circumstances as a natural result of their parents’ sins. While God promises not to let rebellious generations go unpunished, He also promises not to withhold His love from those who love Him supremely.
You must not misuse the name of the Lord your God. The Lord will not let you go unpunished if you misuse his name.
While this word does tell us not to use God’s name distastefully, it encompasses more than simply not using God’s name as a cuss word or flippantly. In ancient times a person’s name was a reflection of a person’s character. God’s name includes all of who He is, a sum of His attributes. God is love, merciful, gracious, true, faithful, holy, righteous, and jealous, among other things. We take His name in vain when we misrepresent Him to others in our speech or actions to others. We are to reflect His name, Him, to those around us in such a way that it brings honor to His person, character, and reputation. May we pray that God would help us imitate Him in everything we do as His dear children (Ephesians 5:1).
Remember to observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. 9 You have six days each week for your ordinary work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath day of rest dedicated to the Lord your God. On that day no one in your household may do any work. This includes you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, your livestock, and any foreigners living among you. 11 For in six days the Lord made the heavens, the earth, the sea, and everything in them; but on the seventh day he rested. That is why the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and set it apart as holy.
Throughout this commandment is a emphasis on “stopping” and “keeping it holy.” Clearly, the purpose of the Sabbath cannot be limited either to a break from work once a week or to the setting aside of one day a week to focus on godliness. Rather both are to be done on every Sabbath.
Like many other ancient covenants had some sort of sign to remind the people of the covenant lest they forget about it. The Sabbath functioned as a sign for the Mosaic or Sinai covenant. The Sabbath provided a regular reminder weekly for everyone as they stopped working and devoted themselves to worship and by doing so demonstrated their keeping of the covenant.
The word “sabbath” comes from a common Hebrew word meaning “stopping, stoppage, or cessation.” The sabbath is the day in which one stops their regular work and breaks from their daily routine for the sake of focusing on God more so than at other times during the week. The Jews observed the weekly Sabbath on Saturdays. After Jesus resurrected on a Sunday morning, the Church designated Sunday as the weekly Sabbath as a way to remind believers of this New Covenant we enjoy because of Jesus’ finished work on the cross and resurrection.
I often find myself wanting Chic-fil-a on Sundays after church more than any other time during the week, and transparently, because of my selfishness, I get a little annoyed that they aren’t open so that I can satisfy my craving. Before you judge, the Spirit quickly convicts me of my selfishness. He then graciously leads me to thank the Lord that Chic-fil-a honors the Lord by keeping the Sabbath holy and allowing their employees to worship Christ if they so desire on Sundays. This same idea was to be observed by the original hearers as well in verse ten. Those who had servants or employees were to allow them time off on the Sabbath to worship and seek the LORD at a heightened level than their usual routine would have allowed them.
Yet, just like today, some tasks needed to be accomplished despite it being the weekly Sabbath. The animals needed to be fed, crises addressed, and priests would still need to offer sacrifices. Within our culture today, you may find yourself working on Sundays not necessarily because you want but out of necessity. If you work on Sundays, select a day you have off and use that as a day to break away from your workday routines to rest and seek the LORD. Some of our larger churches today provide worship gatherings and small groups more than just on Sunday mornings. If you’re fortunate to have one near you, gather with other believers on your weekly Sabbath to grow in your faith and worship. The idea for the Israelites at the foot of Sinai and us today is to do everything possible to stop everything possible to provide a day for all who desire to receive a day of rest for spiritual emphasis, including growth and service. God never meant for us to have one lazy day a week; instead, it is to have one day a week where we focus on doing His will – to worship, learn, study, serve, care, and strengthen our spirits.
When we set aside a day per week to focus on the LORD and our spiritual nourishment, we are being obedient to God’s commands. When we sabbath, we imitate our Heavenly Father (Genesis 2:1-4) and trust Him to provide for seven days’ worth of needs with only six days of our attention on meeting those seven days’ worth of necessities.
We stop this week here at the end of the fourth word or commandment for the sake of our attention spans. Commandment four is a natural place to break for this biblical story of the ten commandments because the first four words show how we lovingly relate to God, and the last six tell us how we love others like ourselves. When the lawyer asked Jesus what the most important commandment was, He replied with the following words from Mark 12:29-30:
“The most important commandment is this: ‘Listen, O Israel! The Lord our God is the one and only Lord. 30 And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’
When Jesus tells us to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, He is saying that we are to love God above all else. When we love God supremely, He is the center of our lives, and nothing competes for our affection towards Him. When our love for Him is second to no one or no thing, we desire to bring honor to His name in all that we do, and we will keep the Sabbath as we act upon our desire to be with God’s people on the Lord’s day as we seek rest and spiritual nourishment.
1 John 5:3 says that if we love God, we will keep His commands and that His commands are not a burden for us to keep. Like Paul in Romans 7, I desire to do what is right because I love God. Yet, I still fail to love God supremely, as evidenced each time I choose to love myself instead of God by sinning and, therefore, not keeping God’s commands. My inability to love God faithfully and supremely lets me know that I am a sinner in need of rescuing (Galatians 3:24). I am incredibly grateful that Jesus kept all of God’s law perfectly (1 John 3:5). Through his flawless obedience to the Father’s will and His death in my place I am justified before God because of my faith in Jesus. God credits Jesus’ perfect obedience or righteousness to us, and because of the gracious act, we stand before God just as if we have never sinned or just as if we have always obeyed. With this new legal standing before God, we stand ready to receive all the blessings that come from being part of His covenant people!
Want to know more about how you can stand before God guiltless despite being guilty of breaking His law? Click the picture below!
As we look at the remaining commandments next week, we will see how we can practically love others like ourselves (Mark 12:31); I hope you will join me once again as we study God’s Word.