August 11, 2019

Exodus 20:1-2: Introduction to the Ten Commandments

Preacher: Josh Tancordo Series: The Ten Commandments Scripture: Exodus 20:1–2

Exodus 20:1-2: Introduction to the Ten Commandments

Please turn with me in your Bibles to Exodus 20. If you’re using one of the Bibles we provide, that’s on page 49. The sermon this morning is the first of a series of sermons going through the Ten Commandments one by one. And today we’ll be doing something of an introduction to the Ten Commandments. But before we jump into that, let’s pray. [Prayer]

The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes…the rules of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.”

My soul is consumed with longing for your rules at all times…Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it…Behold, I long for your precepts; in your righteousness give me life!...I will also speak of your testimonies before kings and shall not be put to shame, for I find my delight in your commandments, which I love. I will lift up my hands toward your commandments, which I love, and I will meditate on your statutes…Your statutes have been my songs in the house of my sojourning…At midnight I rise to praise you, because of your righteous rules…The law of your mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces…Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day…How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!...I open my mouth and pant, because I long for your commandments…I hate and abhor falsehood, but I love your law…My soul keeps your testimonies; I love them exceedingly…My tongue will sing of your word, for all your commandments are right.

These verses from Psalm 19 and Psalm 119 are talking not about the Bible in general but about the law in particular—the law that God gave to Israel through Moses. This law, summarized in the Ten Commandments, is the source of incomparable joy for the authors of these two psalms. Both of the authors consider God’s law to be more valuable than gold and sweeter also than honey. Let me ask you something: does that surprise you? Does it surprise you that they would describe rules and regulations and commandments that way? 

Let’s be honest. When most of us think about rules, our natural reaction is usually isn’t very positive. We usually bristle at the thought of being commanded to act in a certain way. We typically view such directives as inherently oppressive and restrictive. So when we open our Bibles and discover all of these commandments and things we’re supposed to do and not do, we’re often tempted to view those commandments with a lot of suspicion and perhaps even disdain. It can sometimes feel like God’s commandments aren’t a source of joy, like we see in the psalms, but rather obstacles to joy. We might picture it as though we’re at this party and we’re having a great time with our friends and everything’s so enjoyable, but then God comes in and basically says, “Alright everyone, party’s over. Here are all of these commands I want you to follow.” That’s how people feel many times. That’s the way probably a significant majority of people in our society view God’s law. 

But interestingly, that’s not at all the way the authors of Psalm 19 and 119 and many other biblical authors felt. They felt quite the opposite, in fact. So why do you think that is? How do you think these writers could take such delight in God’s rules and regulations and commandments? That’s the question I hope to answer through this series of sermons on the Ten Commandments in general and through this introductory sermon in particular. And my prayer is that through these sermons, we would not only understand why these biblical authors delighted in God’s commands but that we also would come to delight in God’s law ourselves. That’s my goal—to change the way we think about the Ten Commandments so that we delight in them and love them and regard them as more valuable than gold and sweeter also than honey. 

Yet in order to do that, there are certain things we have to understand about the commandments and certain misconceptions we have to clear up. And perhaps the most critical thing for us to understand is the story behind the commandments—the narrative context in which they’re given. You see, the Ten Commandments didn’t appear in a historical vacuum. There’s a story behind them. And this story is referenced in the two verses that serve as the prelude to the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments themselves are given in Exodus 20:3-17, but in order to understand verses 3-17, you have to understand verses 1-2 and what verses 1-2 tell us about the story behind the commandments. So look what it says—verses 1-2 of Exodus 20: 1 And God spoke all these words, saying, 2 “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. So…God’s people—the Israelites—were at one time enslaved in Egypt. The Egyptians had enslaved them and were mistreating them and making their lives miserable. Yet God saw their wretched condition and had mercy on them and rescued them. He used Moses to bring them out of the nation of Egypt. Then, after God rescued them, he gave them the Ten Commandments that are recorded here in Exodus 20. So don’t miss the order of those events. First the rescue from Egypt, then the Ten Commandments. First grace, then the command to obey. Notice that God didn’t come to the Israelites while they were slaves in Egypt and tell them, “Alright guys, here’s the plan. I’ve got these Ten Commandments for you, and I want you get these right. And I’m going to come back to you in five years, and if you’ve cleaned up your lives and have managed to keep these commandments, then I’ll let you get out of Egypt.”  That’s not what happened, right? God didn’t say, “Here’s the law. Now, keep it in order to experience my grace.” He said, “Here’s my grace. Now let that grace lead you to keep the law.”

So here’s what that means for you and me. Before we even think about keeping the Ten Commandments, we first have to experience God’s grace. We need salvation. You see, just like the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt for a period of time, the Bible teaches that we’re enslaved by sin. It says that sin rules our lives to such an extent that there’s no way we can ever break free of our sinful desires through our own strength. Not only that, but our sins have caused us to be under God’s sentence of condemnation. They deserve and even demand God’s judgment. That’s the bad news, but here’s the good news. Just like God was merciful to the Israelites, he’s also been merciful to us. He sent his own Son Jesus to come to this earth as a human being and die on the cross for our sins. Jesus suffered the judgment our sins deserved as he died on the cross and acted as our substitute. Then after that, he resurrected from the dead as a decisive display of his victory. And he now offers forgiveness and rescue and freedom to everyone who puts their trust in him. So that’s what we need to do before we even think about keeping the Ten Commandments. We need to stop trying to make ourselves acceptable in God’s sight through our own efforts and instead put our trust in Jesus and experience God’s saving grace. 

The Commandments Point to Our Need for Grace

And here’s what’s interesting: the commandments were actually meant to point to our need for this grace. That’s one function of the commandments. By the way, if you’re taking notes, I’m going to give you two functions of the commandments this morning. And that’s the first one. The commandments point to our need for grace. In Romans 3:20, the Apostle Paul writes, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” “Works of the law” there refers to trying to earn God’s favor or make ourselves acceptable in God’s sight through our efforts to keep the law. And Paul says that “by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” In other words, God didn’t give us the law so we could keep it and thereby earn a place in heaven. Rather, he gave us the law in order to help us have “knowledge of sin”—so that we’d come to grasp our sinfulness as we inevitably fail to keep the law. 

Several weeks ago, my two boys were helping me unload the groceries from the car. We were taking the groceries out of the car and bringing them into the house. And one of the boys was determined to bring in the case of bottled water by himself. Yet I was pretty sure he wasn’t strong enough to do it. I would’ve been quite impressed if he had picked that thing up on his own. But I could tell that he was determined to bring it in. So rather than trying to convince him that he couldn’t do it, I just let him try. And sure enough, after trying very valiantly for about ten seconds, he gave up and took in something else instead. And that’s one of the ways God intends for the commandments to function as well. He gave them not so that we could obtain his favor by keeping them but rather so that through our inevitable failure to keep them we would be brought to our knees and grasp our sinfulness and realize that we’ve got to look to Jesus for rescue. That’s the sense in which the commandments point to our need for grace.

The commandments function as a mirror, showing us the truth about ourselves. And that truth isn’t always pretty. Sometimes, you look into a mirror and see that your hair’s all messed up or that you’ve got something stuck in your teeth. So you don’t always like what you see in a mirror—yet the mirror never lies. And in the same way, God’s commandments function as a mirror that shows us the truth about ourselves and the ways in which we’re not what God wants us to be. The commandments are designed to humble us and tear down our self-righteousness and crush our self-sufficiency and lead us to the brink of despair…so that we’ll reach out for the grace and rescue God offers us in the gospel. So here’s my question for you today: have you ever experienced that? Have you ever come to that place of despair where you saw the depth of your sin and knew that there was no way you could ever fix yourself? And did you then let that realization lead you to cry out to Jesus for rescue? That’s the only way anyone can be saved. 

You see, the commandments can’t rescue you any more than a mirror can get the dirt off your face. The mirror can’t do anything to help you with the dirt on your face except show you that the dirt’s there. You need water to get the dirt off. Likewise, the mirror of God’s commandments shows us the dirt and stain of sin so that we can wash it off with the water of the gospel. I heard a short poem not too long ago that I think describes these realities pretty well. Here’s what it says: “Run, John, run, the law commands But gives us neither feet nor hands, Far better news the gospel brings: It bids us fly and gives us wings.” You see, the law tells us to do certain things without giving us the corresponding power to do them. But the gospel, on the other hand, is good news—because it tells us we can not just run but fly to God and gives us the wings to do so. 

Now before we move on, I’d like to briefly address anyone here who doesn’t feel crushed by the commandments. Maybe you think that, even without Jesus, you’re doing a pretty good job of living the way God says to live. That was the attitude of a man in Matthew 19 who comes to Jesus and claims that he’s kept all the commandments. So, how does Jesus respond? Well, he basically helps this young man see that he actually hasn’t kept the commandments nearly as well as he thinks he has. And that’s always the case. Whenever someone thinks that they’ve kept the commandments, they are, without exception, self-deceived. You see, the commandments are directed not only toward our behavior but also—and even more importantly—toward our heart. That means you can break a commandment in your heart even if you don’t ever do it outwardly. We see this in Matthew 5:28, where Jesus states, “Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” So if you’ve ever lusted, you’ve broken the seventh commandment of not committing adultery. Also 1 John 3:15 tell us, “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer.” So if you’ve ever hated someone, you’ve broken the sixth commandment against murder. And every one of the commandments is like that. Each one addresses not only our behavior but also our heart. So as you can see, nobody is able to keep the commandments perfectly. It’s impossible. So if we’re honest with ourselves, the commandments will always point us to our need for the grace found in Jesus. 

The Commandments Guide Our Lives

However, after we’ve received that grace, there’s also another function of the commandments: the commandments guide our lives. After we receive God’s grace in the gospel, the commandments then guide our lives. And what a blessing it is that we have them! You see, God gave us the commandments because he loves us. And in his love, he wants to show us the best way to live—the way to live that will allow us to flourish the most. Think about this: why do parents give rules to their children? Why do parents tell their children not to play out in the street or not to pet a certain dog? Is it because they don’t want their kids having fun? Obviously, that’s not it. Parents lay out rules for their children out of love. They want their children to be safe and to flourish. That’s the motive behind the rules they give. Likewise with God, he gives us commandments because he loves us. And in his wisdom, he knows what’s best for us far better than we do. Because, so often, we think we know what’s best for us, but we really don’t. Jeremiah 17:9 states, “The heart is deceitful above all things.” “The heart is deceitful above all things.” That means one of the worst ways you can approach life is to be guided by the popular philosophy that says “listen to your heart” or “follow your heart.” That’s actually the last thing you want to do. The heart is deceitful. Thankfully, however, God hasn’t left us in the dark about the best way to live. He’s graciously given us guidance in the form of commandments. And, as Christians, it’s by following these commandments that we flourish the most and enjoy the most happiness. 

That’s why the biblical writers had a view of God’s law that wasn’t negative rather overwhelmingly positive. That’s how the authors of Psalm 19 and Psalm 119 were able to take such joy in the law. They understood that God’s commandments are trustworthy guides to life. I love how David puts it in Psalm 16:11. He says, speaking to God, “You make known to me the path of life.” “You make known to me the path of life.” That, I believe, is a reference to the law. Through the law, God makes known to us the path of life.  Another way biblical authors view the law is in terms of freedom. They understood that God’s law doesn’t keep us from being free but rather is the key to our freedom. We see this even in the New Testament. James 1:25 refers to the law as “the law of liberty.” So in case you thought that the New Testament has a negative view of the law, I’m here to tell you that the New Testament doesn’t have a negative view of the law at all. James 1:25 calls it “the law of liberty”—the law of freedom. Now, the New Testament does teach that we’re not under the law in the same way the Israelites were. The law was indeed directed toward Israel, not the church. However, there are still timeless moral principles we can extract from the law that are relevant for Christians today not because we’re under the law but because those principles express God’s unchanging character. Again, there are timeless moral principles we can extract from the law that are relevant for Christians today not because we’re under the law but because those principles express God’s unchanging character. 

Now, sometimes, it requires bit of thought to extract these timeless principles from the law. For example, when God commands the Israelites not to eat certain foods, it requires thought to extract the timeless principle from that—because Jesus declared all foods clean. But that’s one reason why the Ten Commandments are such a nice part of the law and summary of the law to study—because nine of the Ten Commandments are already given in the form of timeless principles. The only one that isn’t is the fourth commandment about keeping the Sabbath. But the other nine are already stated in a form that’s universally applicable—applicable to all people at all times. 

So understand that the law—and especially the Ten Commandments—are still very relevant for us as Christians. Even as Christians living in New Testament times, these commandments are for us. As Augustine so memorably describes it, “The law was given so that grace might be sought. Grace was given so that the law might be fulfilled.” Again: “The law was given so that grace might be sought. Grace was given so that the law might be fulfilled.” So God wants us to follow the Ten Commandments. 

And these commandments, as we’ve said, show us the path of life. They not only lead us to God’s grace, but in a manner of speaking are actually themselves expressions of God’s grace. Through the commandments, God is graciously showing us the way to live that allows us to flourish. And by the way, that applies not only to people as individuals but also to society as a whole. Imagine what it would be like if everyone kept the Ten Commandments. One author named Kevin DeYoung observes, “If everyone kept the Ten Commandments, we wouldn’t need copyright laws, patent laws, or intellectual property rights. We wouldn’t need locks on our doors or fraud protection. We wouldn’t have to spend money on weapons and defense systems. We wouldn’t need courts, contracts, or prisons.” So our society would be turned upside down if everyone kept the Ten Commandments. Some of the biggest problems we face as a nation would be solved overnight and without spending a dime. So it turns out that by giving us his commandments, God’s actually watching out for us. He’s protecting us from the harmful effects of sin. That’s why, from the very beginning of this sermon series on the Ten Commandments, we should be so grateful for these commandments and recognize how precious they are. 


And of course, ultimately, our motive for following the Ten Commandments isn’t just to avoid unnecessary suffering in our lives—although, as we’ve just said, that is one legitimate motive. Ultimately, however, the driving force behind our adherence to the Ten Commandments should be our love for God. God has shown us unimaginable grace in the gospel, and as recipients of such grace, we should just want to love him. That’s one way you can know that you’ve truly been saved and that you’ve truly received the new heart God gives at conversion. Do you love God? And not just supposedly “love” him because you think he’s going to give you things or do things for you, but do you genuinely love him for who he is? Every true Christian has been given a heart that loves God in that way. And one very important way we express that love is through our obedience. In John 14:15, Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” So the ultimate reason why God’s commandments are so precious and are spoken of in the psalms in such lofty terms—as we saw earlier—is because they show us the way to love God. And if you’re a Christian, that is the greatest desire of your heart and the greatest joy of your life.  

other sermons in this series

Nov 24


Exodus 20:17: You Shall Not Covet

Preacher: Josh Tancordo Scripture: Exodus 20:17 Series: The Ten Commandments

Nov 3


Oct 20


Exodus 20:15: You Shall Not Steal

Preacher: Josh Tancordo Scripture: Exodus 20:15 Series: The Ten Commandments