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Jesus said that the Law could be summed up as loving the Lord your God with all your heart and to loving your neighbor as yourself. The final five commandments are succinct commandments regarding how to love our neighbors. We love our neighbors by not sinning against them.

Murder (20:13)

The sixth commandment prohibits murder. It is important to define this word to some extent because it is frequently misunderstood what is being condemned. The KJV and ASV read to “not kill” which was not helpful because the Hebrew word used does not merely mean the taking of human life. There are at least eight different Hebrew words for killing and this word in Exodus 20:13 is not one of them. This Hebrew word refers to the premeditated or accidental taking of the life of another human being. It includes any unauthorized killing. This command taught Israel about the sanctity of all human life. The value of life and the meaning of the blood is a fundamental principle in the scriptures. This sixth commandment covers abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, and assisted suicide. Numbers 35 gives a great explanation of the types of killing that was deserving of death and which were not. Even unintentional death is covered under this command, but it had a different punishment than premeditated murder.

This commandment, however, did not forbid capital punishment as some try to declare. Just read a little further in Exodus and we will see that God was not saying that life should never be taken as punishment for crimes.

Whoever strikes a man so that he dies shall be put to death. But if he did not lie in wait for him, but God let him fall into his hand, then I will appoint for you a place to which he may flee. But if a man willfully attacks another to kill him by cunning, you shall take him from my altar, that he may die. Whoever strikes his father or his mother shall be put to death. Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death. Whoever curses his father or his mother shall be put to death. (Exodus 21:12–17 ESV)

The apostle Paul confirms this idea in the New Testament in Romans 13:4. In speaking about the governing authorities, he said, “But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4 ESV). To press this further, God condemned those who would let the evildoers not suffer capital punishment for their crimes.

Moreover, you shall accept no ransom for the life of a murderer, who is guilty of death, but he shall be put to death. (Numbers 35:31 ESV)

There is also a distinction regarding war. God directed Israel to go into battle against many nations and to kill the inhabitants of those cities and nations. This also causes some people difficulty but God explained that this was a matter of justice for the wickedness done in those nations (cf. Genesis 15:16; Leviticus 18:24-25). The idea of justifiable war is seen in Genesis 14 when some kings gathered fought against the cities of the plains. You may recall that they took all of the possessions and provisions of those cities (Genesis 14:11), while also capturing Lot. Abram goes to battle against those kings, is victorious, and is blessed by God through Melchizedek. We see a picture of protecting the innocent as a justifiable means for taking a life.

This principle is seen even more clearly in the Law of Moses. “If a thief is found breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there shall be no bloodguilt for him” (Exodus 22:2 ESV). Self-defense and the protection of others is a justifiable use of force and would not be considered breaking the sixth commandment.

However, this word is not used regarding animals in the scriptures. Humans have a unique value in God’s sight, as they were made in the image of God. Humans may eat animals and sacrifice animals (cf. Genesis 9:3-6) and are commanded to do so in the Law of Moses. But no one is allowed to take the life of a human. It is important we assert this because we see the loss of this understanding in our society. Recently there was a child that fell into a gorilla enclosure. The amount of outrage regarding killing the gorilla to save the child was absolutely shocking and abhorrent. Human life is greater than animal life and we should recognize that the decision to save the child at all and any costs to animals is right. We must never lower the value of human life to equal the life of the animals.

Adultery (20:14)

The punishment for adultery was also severe and reveals to us the seriousness of this sin before God.

If a man is found lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman. So you shall purge the evil from Israel. (Deuteronomy 22:22 ESV)

Being caught in adultery carried the death penalty with it. No sexual relations are to be had with any married person but one’s own spouse. It is interesting to me that the death penalty was a common punishment in ancient Near East culture for committing adultery. Even Greek and Roman law had this penalty. We are to respect the holiness of marriage. How far away our culture has moved from this principle of respecting marriage. This command calls for the married to have a commitment to personal purity.

Steal (20:15)

We love our neighbors by not stealing from them. In the scriptures, this commandment would be violated by taking goods or people. The taking of a person like in the slave trade era would be condemned by this commandment. Also included in this commandment would be cheating another person. This would be a problem when merchants would try to cheat buyers with weighted scales. Stealing comes from a heart problem which is a lack of contentment.

But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. (1 Timothy 6:6–7 ESV)

It is a simple command. Do not take what is not yours. We have a culture that is being created to hate what others have and that we should have what others have. In fact, it will be suggested that we are justified to take what someone else has because he does not deserve it or has too much of whatever it is. But it does not matter what someone has, we are not allowed to take it from someone else.

False Testimony (20:16)

This command prohibits untruthfulness of any kind, particularly in court, which we would call perjury. False accusations, slander, and false testimony are the main ideas condemned in this commandment. Recall that Jesus had false witnesses stand against him during his trial. God’s people speak the truth and are honest.

Covet (20:17)

The final commandment is a command against desire and lust for possessions or people. This commandments shows that God was just as concerned about our hearts as the outward acts. What you desire for can also be sin. We cannot think that we can desire but not act upon those desires and somehow have avoided sin. This brings back to the concept of contentment that we spoke about with the commandment to not steal. Do not desire what others have. Enjoy what you have. Stop comparing yourself with others. Stop being ungrateful for all that God has given for you to have and enjoy in this life.

Conclusion (20:18-21)

It is easy to dismiss the Ten Commandments at this point and miss the conclusion God gives us. Remember that the people are at Mount Sinai and God is speaking each of these commandments to the people while the mountain is smoking and quaking. After hearing these words and seeing these things, please notice that the people do not respond with, “That all sounds good. Let’s keep the commandments.” Listen to what the people say in verses 18-19.

Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” (Exodus 20:18–19 ESV)

The people say that they need a mediator. They request that Moses be their mediator. You speak to us and we will listen. Do not let God speak to us, lest we die. The people’s response is utter doom. Moses tells the people not to fear (20:20) but that the fear of God needs to be in them so that they will not sin. The people understand their position before God and fear God at this moment. They grasp that they will die if this happens again. Notice the result of this moment in verse 21. “The people stood far off.” Moses drew near to where God was, but not the people. The people fear and cannot come near. This is what was supposed to happen at the hearing of the law of God and coming into the presence of God to meet him.

Application Today

There are so many directions that we could take this study in its application for us. We could go to Luke 10:25 where lawyer asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus asks him what is written in the law and the lawyer responds, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27 ESV) Jesus agrees and says, “Do this and you will live.” But notice that the lawyer does not say, “Got it. No problem.” Look at Luke 10:29, “But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?'” This is what the Law was supposed to do. Do God’s law and live. We are supposed to say, “Oh no! I need to mercy of God!” Thus, Jesus tells a parable about a good Samaritan to show what it means to love your neighbor as yourself. God requires us to love others and do good and right by them. We are not called to think about ourselves first, but must do what is in the interests of others first. Now, the problem is that no one has done that. We sin and follow our selfish desires and do not love our neighbor as ourselves. We need a mediator to stand before God because we are sinful and cannot draw near to him.

But I would like to end this lesson by going to Hebrews 12:18-29. Verses 18-21 recall the scene at Sinai that we have just read about in Exodus 20. But the writer of Hebrews says that we have not come to Sinai and the fear that was instilled there but have come to Zion, with Jesus as the mediator of a new covenant. But carefully read the point the writer of Hebrews is making. We are not to take sigh of relief and think that we no longer need to fear the Lord. Rather than contrasting, the writer of Hebrews uses the scene at Sinai to strengthen our intensity before God.

See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. (Hebrews 12:25 ESV)

The reaction of the people being in the presence of God and hearing the law is to continue to be our response today. We are to keep from sinning. They did not escape when they willfully chose to break God’s law and serve themselves. The writer of Hebrews warns us of the same fate if we also choose a life of sin rather than a life of service and obedience to God. This is another motivation given to us to serve the Lord our God.

Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire. (Hebrews 12:28–29 ESV)

After declaring that God is a consuming fire and we must offer acceptable worship with reverence and awe, notice what the next declaration is. “Let brotherly love continue” (Hebrews 13:1). A couple sentence later he says, “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexual immoral and adulterous” (Hebrews 13:4). Then the next sentence is, “Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have” (Hebrews 13:5). We are to love God and love our neighbors just as God called Israel to love God and love their neighbors.

We have come to a glorious new covenant with Jesus as our mediator who has given us all we need for life and godliness. We have come to Mount Zion but we must still respect, honor, and obey the Lord and his commands for he is a consuming fire and we will not escape if we refuse him. May this knowledge cause us to come to the Lord in repentance for falling short of his glorious laws and ways, seeking mercy from our gracious God. Let us then not give up but press on to the goal before us, casting aside those sins and weights that are keeping us from the path of eternity with our Lord. Love your neighbors and bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. (cf. Galatians 6:2)