Imagine you wrote your own Ten Commandments. And you stick them up in a place where you're going to see them every morning before you head out the house. And if you have kids, you put them up somewhere your kids are going to see them every day. What would your Ten Commandments be?
Or what about if we think about our society as a whole? What would society's Ten Commandments be? Maybe One. Be True to Yourself. Two. Try your best. Three. Look after your body. Four. Make your own rules…
In fact, the very idea of 'commandments' feels a bit out of date. For most of us in the West, our default setting is that freedom is good, and any sort of restriction is bad. And the idea of having Ten Commandments can feel like a restriction. So are they some sort of detailed prescription from God to kill our joy?
I think all of us recognize that in various settings boundaries can be good. When we tell children that they're not allowed to ride their bike unless they've got their helmet and lights on, it's because we love them, and we know what's best for them. If you try to play football without clear rules or clear boundaries at the edge of the pitch it just descends into chaos and arguments. But add a few lines, a few laws, and you can take great pleasure in playing the game.
And I want to put to you this morning that God's word brings freedom! When we reject it we end up uncertain of who we are. And we end up uncertain of how best to live. But when we embrace the boundaries, the laws, that our loving creator has given us, we find perfect freedom…
Here's what we read in the book of James:
"But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it - not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it - they will be blessed in what they do."
God's law is perfect. It brings freedom. We'll be blessed as we look intently at it and follow it. So let's dive in and look at the Ten Commandments. This passage from James said that if we look intently at God's law, and continue in it, and do it, we'll be blessed in what we do. And we could very easily mis-read that as saying that we are saved by keeping God's commands. And right at the start, to avoid any confusion, I want you to hear what Paul says to the Galatians. He starts chapter 3 of Galatians saying:
"O foolish Galatians!"
And then the next verse:
"Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit (i.e. become a Christian, get saved) by works of the law or by hearing with faith?"
He's saying - which was it? Keeping God's commandments? Or having faith in Jesus? And then Paul sums up by saying:
"Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for 'The righteous shall live by faith'."
Righteous means "right with God". And we're made right with God through faith in Jesus alone. And so the question we've got to ask is 'why do we have the Ten Commandments?' And were they only relevant for people back then before Jesus? Or are they still relevant for Christians today?
And the first thing to say is that
1. The Ten Commandments are Foundational
We'll come to the reasons why… but first, let's set the scene and get back into where we're up to in Exodus. In Exodus 19.9, God tells Moses that all the Israelites are going to hear God speak - not just Moses this time. And we read in Exodus 19.11, that on the third day, God is going to come down on Mt Sinai in the sight of all the people.
And so imagine the scene, all the people are gathered before Mt Sinai, waiting with bated breath for God to descend and come to speak to them. They've had to purify themselves ready for this big day. They know that God is so holy that if they even so much as touch the edge of the mountain, they will die because of their sinfulness.
We're told that there was thunder and lighting and a thick cloud, there was fire and sound of a trumpet. And the whole mountain trembled, as did the people as they stood waiting. And then, Exodus 20.1, we read:
"And God spoke all these words, saying, 'I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.'"
And he gives them the Ten Commandments.
The first thing God makes clear here is that he has already rescued them. Remember what Ken hammered home to us a couple of weeks ago – we don't obey God to be rescued, we obey him because he has rescued us and made us his people. God's rescue comes before God's rule.
The second thing we note here is that:
- God Spoke All These Words
Back at the start I said that many today feel uncertain of who they are, or uncertain of how best to live. And the great news here is that we can have clarity! There is a God. He has spoken. God spoke these words. And later on God writes them on stone tablets too. They're eternal and they don't go out of date.
The Ten Commandments are foundational to all God's law. It was only these Ten Commandments that God spoke directly to the people. Only these ten that he wrote on stone tablets. And when the New Testament talks about how we are to live as Christians, it upholds all of these commandments. (Although the Sabbath is fulfilled in Jesus in some ways. And we're going to be looking at that in more detail later on in Exodus).
But in Romans 13 Paul looks to the Ten Commandments to give a summary of what it means to be a Christian living in obedience to God. And when Jesus wants to give a summary of what it means to live a righteous life to the rich, young ruler, he goes straight to the 10 Commandments. They are foundational laws, like a constitution.
We all agree that there are foundational physical laws, don't we? Like gravity. Imagine a child wanting to jump off a cliff because they think they can fly. And you say, 'No! There's a law called gravity and you'll fall!'. And they say, 'I don't believe in gravity!' That would be incredibly foolish and sad wouldn't it? You're not trying to spoil their fun. You tell them because it's true and you love them.
And here God, our creator, gives us the laws of the universe. They're true and they're what's best for us. He loves us. And to ignore them is foolish and sad. They give us reassuring clarity so that we don't need to live in uncertainty.
And rules tell us something about the people who make them don't they? If a family have a rule that everyone has to be in for a family dinner 3 times a week, then it suggests that they value family and spending time together.
And even more so in God's case, because he's unchanging. And so, these commandments tell us about God. They're foundational because
- They Flow From Who God Is
And so, God says do not lie because he's the God of truth. And he says don't commit adultery because he's a faithful God. And he says 'have no other God's before me' because he is the only true God and he's the only God who won't fail us. And because these commands flow from God's character, when we reject them, we're rejecting him. If we reject them, we're saying, 'I don't care what you say, I don't think you know what's best for me. I don't care about you'. Sin isn't about just not ticking the right boxes, it's about our attitude to God. It's like rejecting a loving parent or spouse and turning our backs on them.
You see, the commandments aren't impersonal.
- They Are Personal
Most of us don't really like laws, do we? When we see a sign saying KEEP OFF THE GOLF COURSE, we instinctively want to go and have a little pootle over it… maybe even set up a picnic in a bunker?! Or maybe that's just me?!
But when laws are personal, we don't mind do we? When we go to a friend's house and they say please stay out of that corner of the garden, I've just planted some seeds there… or please stay out of that room – we've got a damp problem and we're worried the ceiling might come down… then you don't mind listening! And if you ignore them, it shows a total lack of regards for them.
And God's commands aren't just some impersonal rules. They're given to us by our living God – who created us and loves us. And if we love him, we'll want to obey him.
But God's commands are not just to tell us how to live better, or to give us a code of ethics. I guess that's how a lot of people think about the Ten Commandments today.
No, the Bible is about God's plan of salvation. And whenever we look at anything in the Bible, we need to think – how does this fit into God's plan of salvation? How do the Ten Commandments fit into God's plan? What's their purpose?
2. Their Purpose
And let me give you three 'Ss' that I heard from someone else, which I think helpfully sum up their purpose.
1) They show us our Sin
This is Martin Luther. He was famous for being a key figure in the Reformation in the 1500s. I'm sure many of you have heard of him. Now I know for some people, as soon as you hear mention of a figure from history you just go to sleep. But stick with me!
Because Luther tried incredibly hard to live by God's law. He was totally convinced that it was by living a righteous life that he would get into heaven. But when he was 21, he was on his way to university and he had to battle his way through a horrendous thunderstorm, with lightning striking nearby. And it scared him - it made him think about death - and it made him question whether he was righteous. And he did not feel confident.
And so, he said 'I will become a monk!' He sold all his possessions and entered the monastic life. He plunged into prayer, fasting, and frugal practices - going without sleep so that he could do even more. He later commented, 'If anyone could have earned heaven by the life of a monk, it was I.' He was top of the class in monk school.
But the harder he tried, the more he looked at God's law, the more he realized that he would never deserve salvation.
Lots of people today think that they can be friends with God, or get into heaven, by living a good life. But the law shows up our sin.
Jesus showed us that it's not even about just living by the letter of the law, but the spirit of the law. God wants purity of heart – so he doesn't just want us not to commit adultery, he wants us not to look lustfully. He doesn't just want us not to steal, he wants us not to covet what others have. Those things are in his character, but deep down we reject him. Our hearts are far from him. We cannot be right with God on the basis of our own goodness.
And realising that, is exactly where we need to be. It's exactly where we need to be, if we're to see that we desperately need a saviour.
Because the second purpose of the law is to:
2) They show us our need for a Saviour
The law was never meant to save. It wasn't like God provided the law, people failed to keep it, and so as a back-up plan, he had to send Jesus. No, the Israelites had already been rescued before they were given the law, and we have been provided with a rescue.
We rejected the law, but Jesus lived it out perfectly for us. He kept God's commands. And then he paid the price, so that we could have our sins forgiven, and be given his righteousness, and become part of God's family.
God is just, and there is a penalty for breaking the law. But Jesus paid that penalty on the cross, so that we didn't have to.
Later in life, Luther came to realise that fantastic news for himself. Here's what he wrote:
"I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through the gates that had been flung open."
"From that moment, the whole face of scripture appeared to me in a different light."
Luther realised that the gates of paradise had been flung open to sinners who put their trust in Jesus. And that God's plan of salvation was the whole story of Scripture.
Maybe as those commandments were read out in our reading earlier, you felt crushed and guilty, like Luther? You know you've failed to live up to them. And the great news is, we don't need to despair. The way to respond is to say sorry to God. And thank you to Jesus. And he welcomes us into his family.
So the final question is this – in light of all that Jesus has done for us, how should we live as part of God's family? And that's the final purpose of the Ten Commandments:
3) They show us God's Standards
When the Israelites received the Ten Commandments, God was saying 'this is how I want you to live as my people, this is what's best for you'. These are my standards. And as we saw earlier from the New Testament, just as God's character hasn't changed, his standards haven't changed either.
And the more we understand what God has done for us and love him, the more we'll trust that his ways are good and perfect and want to obey him. Listen to this from the book of 1 John:
"By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome." (1 John 5:3)
We love others, and we love God, by keeping his commandments. But none of us love God as we should. And the great news is that he doesn't just leave us to it. He gives us his Spirit to help us grow in our love for God – and in our love for his commands.
So to come back to what we said at the start. Our culture tells us that freedom and happiness are found in trying to find God within ourselves. Find out who we are. And to strive for perfection.
But we'll never be true to ourselves unless we look intently at God's perfect law and at Jesus. So that instead of living a lie, we see ourselves as we really are - more sinful than we ever imagined, and yet more loved than we could ever believe.
There is great joy and freedom in knowing that we can be completely honest about who we are, and yet also know that we are truly valued and loved by God our Father. And the Ten Commandments are not kill-joys. They give us a huge amount of freedom. They're broad principles to shape God's people and keep us free.
Maybe this morning you're grudgingly trying to be good enough for God – trying to keep the law like Luther. You don't love God. Or maybe you're trying to live by your own rules – trying to find freedom by making yourself God. Or most likely, you do both of those things at different times.
And either way, we need to fix our eyes on Jesus. And say sorry and say thank you Jesus, please help me to love you and therefore to love your commands. Help me to trust your ways, and to live them out. And as we seek to follow Jesus, we'll be true to our design. We truly find freedom. And we're true to ourselves.