No other document has had such a great influence on Western culture than the Ten Commandments. Many rulers and nations established their legal system based on the biblical laws that included the Ten Commandments, including our own nation. John Adams wrote, “As much as I love, esteem, and admire the Greeks, I believe the Hebrews have done more to enlighten and civilize the world. Moses did more than all of their legislators and philosophers.” In 1929 the White Plains (NY) Reporter observed, “No man in more than two thousand years has been able to improve upon the Ten Commandments as the rule of life.” Harvard Law School Professor Alan M. Dershowitz said, “The Ten Commandments are clearly a precursor to all Western Law, including American Law.”
The Ten Commandments were fundamental to all the laws of the scriptures. In many ways, the Ten Commandments and the laws given in the next three chapters of Exodus functions as the Constitution functions in the United States. The Ten Commandments do not contain all of God’s law and do not give us all we need to know about God, but are a wonderful starting point for us to discover God and what he wants from us. Without an understanding of the Ten Commandments we cannot understand the call of God through the prophets, the basis of Jesus’ teaching when Jesus is on the earth, or the framework by which the apostles are operating under the new covenant. Further, as we study the Ten Commandments we will consider what is the place of these commandments in Christian lives. I will set forward before we begin that these Ten Commandments are critical in the life of the Christian today.
The Nature of the Ten Commandments
It would be useful for us to consider the nature of the Ten Commandments. Ancient law codes and systems do not work like our present law system, though our law system used to be much more like the ancient law codes. Modern societies have opted for exhaustive law codes. The idea is that every action that needs to be regulated or prohibited must be specifically mentioned in a separate law. This is why our federal and state law codes now run for thousands and thousands of pages. But ancient laws did not work like this. The law code was a model and was not considered exhaustive. The law codes gave guiding principles rather than a complete description of all things regulated. The ancient people were expected to extrapolate from what the sampling of laws did say and apply to the current circumstance. There was no concept of loopholes or technicalities. When a crime was committed, they reasoned their way from whatever the most nearly applicable law specified to a decision on how to administer proper justice in the case before them.
I hope you can see why knowing this is extremely useful. People will come along and say that the law in the scriptures only gave the law regard a man, so it does not apply to women. That is not how ancient laws worked. Any attempt to narrowly define a law is a violation of the very concept of the giving of the law altogether. God did not give laws, nor did any other ancient law code, with the goal of naming every sin, violation, or crime. Anything remotely close fit into the sphere of that law. So approaching the scriptures with a mentality of looking for a loophole is not going to find justification before God on the day of judgment. Sexual immorality is sexual immorality and anything close to it is included. Anything in the ballpark of adultery is adultery. Anything close to the concept of stealing is stealing. We have a sense of this in the New Testament when the apostle Paul, in listing the works of the flesh, does not give an exhaustive list but simply concludes, “and things like these” (Galatians 5:21).
The Setting of the Ten Commandments
Understanding the setting of the Ten Commandments is important to understanding the character of God. God does not appear to Israel and give these laws. Sometimes people seem to have this inaccurate understanding of God’s law. The book of Exodus opens with the Hebrew people enslaved to the Egyptians. Through mighty miracles God delivers his people from slavery, provides for them in the wilderness, and leads them to the mountain in Sinai. Exodus 19:3 tells us that Moses went up to God on the mountain. There the Lord tells Moses to get the people ready for his arrival (19:11-14). God is coming to his people. When God comes, there were thunders, lightnings, a very loud trumpet blast, and a thick cloud on the mountain (19:16). Listen to this: “Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain.” Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the Lord descended on it in fire (19:18) and the trumpet sound grew louder and louder (19:19). Prepare to meet your God. What will be the first words God will say? Where will God begin as he has come so the people can meet him?
This helps us consider that the Ten Commandments are not simply God telling the people what they must do. Rather, God is telling the people what they need to know about God. This is their opportunity to know who God is. The Ten Commandments are not merely rules but the constitution of Israel that reveal the nature and character of God. God has come to meet his people. This is the setting for the Ten Commandments.
I Am The Lord (20:1-2)
You might notice that verse 1 does not say these are the Ten Commandments. This will be called the Ten Commandments later in Exodus 34:28 and called this title again in Deuteronomy 4:13. For now, they are just the words of God. Please keep the setting in your mind for verse 1 begins, “And God spoke all these words, saying…” In the scene of the mountain burning, with thunderings and lightnings, God speaks these words.
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” God begins in the framework of grace. God begins with Israel’s liberation. God defines himself as the one who rescued his people from Egypt. This fulfilled God’s promise to their fathers as seen in Exodus 3:8 where God said he has come to deliver his people. God saved these people for himself (Exodus 19:4). This is the basis for everything that God is going to say. The basis is, “I SAVED YOU!” This is the framework of grace. God comes to them and his first words are, I am the Lord your God who saved you. I saved you. You have been set free. The apostle Paul makes this the basis of his argument in Galatians 5:13 that we have been set free to love and to serve. Please notice that grace and law belong together. God’s love drives our obedience. These Ten Commandments become the gateway to life. Notice that God does not say that this is the payback the people must make or some kind of debt that is owed. The point is very simple. God is worthy of our obedience because by his grace he saved us. Every law that God gives is a plank in the fence to keep us safe from running into the street. The law is our protection.
God Alone (20:3)
With this framework of grace, God makes his first declaration. “You shall have no other gods before me.” To have no other gods before the Lord is that there are no other gods in his face or in his presence. The idea is that God is ever-present and sees our infidelity of idolatry. Israel was to be exclusive to God because he saved them. He was to be their one and only God. God had shown himself and proved himself by destroying the Egyptian gods through the plagues. So this is the beginning of God’s covenant plea. God is beginning to make his people a holy nation and a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:6). Being God’s holy people means your allegiance is to one God. He is to be our one and only God. This is a unique aspect of God’s law code when compared to the law codes of the world. No other ancient law code has been found that prohibits the worship of other gods. But when it comes to God, it is all or nothing. This is the same message Jesus declared to the church at Ephesus in Revelation 2 when he said that they had lost their first love. God does not share. God cannot be second. Nor can God be first but with our others gods still in our back pocket that we occasionally serve and cherish. There are to be no other gods in his presence.
So how do we know if we have other gods in his presence? We can ask ourselves what do we love and what do you trust. When we ask what do we love we are asking ourselves what we desire, think about, get excited about, and spend our money on. These are the things that reveal our potential other gods that we serve before the Lord. We look at our desires and our efforts to see if God alone is our desire, what we set our mind on, and get excited about, or if there are other things instead of God alone. Second, we ask ourselves what do we trust. What do you look to in times of trouble? When things are hard, where do we turn? The temptation is to turn to addiction, family, friends, or even self when trouble strikes as our refuge. We trust in these things to help us rather than turning to the Lord who saved us.
The First Commandment and the Christian
The parallel to the Mount of Transfiguration is important to observe (Mark 9:7). Remember that Jesus takes with him Peter, James, and John and they go up the mountain, just like Moses went up Mount Sinai. We saw in Exodus that after going up on the mountain and preparing for the people to meet God, God spoke these words, the Ten Commandments. Consider this, when Jesus and these three apostles go up on the mountain, God said this: “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” This is all that the Father said on that mountain. The Law of God can now be summed up in this declaration: listen to Jesus, the Son of God. This is why Peter in 2 Peter 1:16-21 uses the transfiguration as the argument for why the apostles have the prophetic word that must be listened to by the whole world. The apostles have received the Holy Spirit sent from the Son to them and their words are the covenant Jesus has made with them. The writer of Hebrews opens his sermon by saying that God spoke at many times and in many ways but has now spoken through his Son (Hebrews 1:1-3), who is the final word of the Lord.
We know from the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets but to fulfill them (Matthew 5:17-20). Jesus summed up this first part of the Ten Commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment” (Matthew 22:37–38 ESV). Loving the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind means living God alone. No idol competition can exist before him. Have you made something more important than God himself? Are you pursuing things in life rather than a full, devoted, and zealous pursuit of your God? You shall have no other gods before me.