SERIES: Exodus: Moses, God’s Man for the Hour
Ancient Commandments for Modern Living
SPEAKER: Michael P. Andrus
Note: There is a full series on the Ten Commandments on the website, which expands greatly on this sermon.
Introduction: I grew up in evangelical churches all my life, then attended Bible college and seminary for eight years, but it wasn’t until about ten years ago that I realized a rather startling fact: I had never in my entire life heard a sermon on the Ten Commandments! In trying to understand the reason for that strange omission, I concluded that it had a lot to do with the dispensational background of the churches and schools I attended, a background that tended on the one hand to preach grace to the exclusion of law, but, on the other hand, focused somewhat more on human commandments about smoking and drinking and dancing than on God’s commandments in Exodus 20. I decided right then I would preach a series of messages on the Ten Commandments, which I did, to my own great benefit.
Today I am going to try something almost impossible, namely, to preach a sermon on the entire Decalogue, as the Ten Commandments are known. But please note that this is just an introduction. In the not-too-distant future I plan to return to Exodus 20 and examine each of these ten great moral principles in a separate message.
Since the Ten Commandments were written nearly fifteen centuries before Christ, can they possibly still have relevance for people about to enter the twenty-first century after Christ? In answering that question, we must remember they were written by the very finger of God and on tablets of stone, signifying their importance and their timelessness. The only other time we read of Deity writing anything is when Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground in the presence of the woman taken in adultery and her accusers (John 8). I can’t prove it, but I’m personally convinced that He wrote the same thing His Father wrote in stone on Mount Sinai 1500 years earlier—the Ten Commandments. You will recall that after writing on the ground Jesus stood up and said, “He who is without sin, let him cast the first stone.” As her accusers compared their own lives with what was written on the ground, every last one of them found an excuse to leave without another word.
Why is it important for us today to pay attention to the Ten Commandments?
There are probably many reasons, but I would like to mention just two, one relating to man and the other to God. When we take an honest look at our world, we find that …
There is an ethical vacuum in government, business, schools, churches, homes, and the lives of individuals. I don’t need to recite the evidence for you because if you read the papers or listen to the news at all, it’s obvious. A young man in our church recently spent several months working on a congressional committee in Washington, D.C. He reported there is currently a bill before Congress that would make it a felony to destroy a certain kind of turtle egg because it belongs to an endangered species and the egg represents a potential life. Yet some of the same Congressmen sponsoring that bill are strongly pro-choice on abortion. This is not just an inconsistent ethic—this is morality turned on its head. It’s perfectly alright to murder a human baby but a crime to destroy a turtle egg!
Another example in the religious category appeared in the National & International Religion Reportdated Oct. 8, 1990. A Gallup poll that month showed that a record 74% of adults 18 and older say they have made a commitment to Jesus Christ, and 33% say they have been born again, but another survey the same month found little difference in the behavior of born-again Christians before and after their conversion experiences. Indeed, the study found that behavior in each of three major categories—use of illegal drugs, driving while intoxicated, and marital infidelity—actually deteriorated after the born-again experience for many people. For example, 4% said they had driven while intoxicated before being born-again, while 12% had done so after their conversion experience; illegal drugs: 5% before, 9% after; illicit sex: 2% before, 5% after. Don Otis of High Adventure Ministries comments:
“We’ve reached a point in our Christianity where there is little or no distinction (I think he meant “relationship”) between what we say and what we do. Accountability is lacking, confrontation is lacking, and we are ‘marketing’ salvation in such a way that discipleship is simply not occurring.”
This ethical crisis in our society, and even among Christians, demands a return to the basic moral law of God. God also demands it.
The Ten Commandments play a dominant role in God’s Word, both Old and New Testaments. The entire Decalogue is found not only in Exodus 20, but also in Deut. 5. In addition, the word “commandment(s)” is found over 300 times in the Bible and as many as half of those references are to the Ten Commandments. Listen to these statements from just one Psalm (119):
“Do not let me wander from Thy commandments.”
“Do not hide Thy commandments from me.”
“I shall run the way of Thy commandments.”
“Make me walk in the path of Thy commandments.”
“I shall delight in Thy commandments.”
“I shall lift up my hands to Thy commandments.”
“I believe in Thy commandments.”
“All Thy commandments are faithful.”
“Thy commandments make me wiser than my enemies.”
“I love Thy commandments above gold.”
“I longed for Thy commandments.”
“Thy commandments are my delight.”
“All Thy commandments are truth.”
“All Thy commandments are righteousness.”
In fact, there are 176 verses in Psalm 119, and all but 6 mention the commandments, decrees, or laws of God. But this emphasis is not limited to just the Old Testament. Nine of the Ten Commandments, as we mentioned last Sunday, are specifically repeated in the New Testament, with only the requirement to worship on Saturday being rescinded. Jesus took the Ten Commandments seriously and unconditionally. In His meeting with the rich young ruler in Matt. 19:18-19, He quoted them as the basic instruction for the way of eternal life. He submitted to the Decalogue when He contrasted God’s commandments to the traditions of the elders. And a large part of His Sermon on the Mount is a commentary on the Ten Commandments.
The conclusion I would draw, then, is that since the world is in an ethical crisis, and since God has revealed His answer to that crisis in no uncertain terms, we need to pay attention! We may have advanced scientifically, medically, economically, militarily, and in many other ways since Moses’ day, but we haven’t advanced one iota morally. The second question I would like to ask is …
Why did God give the Ten Commandments?
They are the foundation for life in community. When you buy a piece of computer software it always comes with a manual (at least it used to). I confess that I hate manuals, in part because they always seem to be written by some computer nerd technician who can’t express himself in plain English. So, I generally just insert the disc and try to figure it out, usually wasting more time than it would take to just read the manual. A great many people are like me when it comes to living in community, as God created us to do. He has written a manual, but they try to figure it out on their own. The really foolish thing about it is that God’s basic moral manual is written in plain English. Well, originally in plain Hebrew, but the point is that in any language the Ten Commandments are plain and simple—no one who reads them can plead ignorance or ambiguity. We may not like what we read, but we can’t help but understand what they say about the difference between right and wrong.
Whenever any of the Ten Commandments are violated, the result is deterioration of family life, corruption of national life, and chaos in social life.
They are divine road signs to the good life, and they cannot be violated with impunity. Some people have the notion that the Ten Commandments are the principal tool of a Divine Spoilsport to make sure we don’t enjoy life too much. They are, in fact, the exact opposite. They are road signs to the good life. I’m convinced that the extent to which any person—believer, atheist, agnostic, or pagan—observes and obeys these commandments determines in large part the degree to which that person lives a happy, healthy, fulfilling, and productive life. They are immutable laws of the universe which simply cannot be violated with impunity. As someone has said, “You really cannot break the Ten Commandments; you can only be broken by them.”
Now a third reason why God gave this great moral code is that …
We have an enormous tendency to distort the ethic of love. Both the OT and the NT teach that man must love God with every part and fiber of his being, and that he must also love his neighbor as himself. Why didn’t God just give us the principle of love and spare us all these laws? Many liberal theologians suggest that Jesus did just that. They allege that He reduced the Ten Commandments to the ethic of love. They appeal to the introduction to the Parable of the Good Samaritan, as found in Luke 10:25:
“On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he asked, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ ‘What is written in the Law?’ he replied. ‘How do you read it?’ The man answered: ‘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, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ ‘You have answered correctly,’ Jesus replied. ‘Do this and you will live.'”
Yet this is the same Jesus who a few chapters later in Luke 18 confronted the rich young ruler and started to quote the Ten Commandments to him. The only conclusion I can draw is that there is indeed an ethic of love, but because God knows our tendency to rationalize our behavior and convince ourselves that even sinful things are motivated by love, He not only tells us to love but through His commandments He defines what the loving thing is. And it is never loving to commit adultery or lye or steal or covet.
Well, we’ve looked so far at why the Ten Commandments are important today and why God bothered to give us a concise, specific moral code. Thirdly, I want to ask…,
What is the nature of the Ten Commandments?
They are timeless, universal, and intuitive moral principles. They are as relevant and practical today as the day they were written. They apply equally well to the Middle East or the Western Hemisphere, to industrial nations or Third World Countries, to rich executives or common laborers, to men or women, to adults or children, to leaders or followers, to clergy or laity. And I happen to believe they are intuitively known by mankind. Romans 2:14ff makes it clear they are written upon the hearts of every human being at birth, and only those people who have been tampered with by Satanic influence or a long pattern of sinful behavior dare to claim that their consciences are not affected when they break these laws.
They are descriptive more than prescriptive. By this I mean that the actions condemned in the Ten Commandments are not wrong because the Decalogue forbids them; rather the Decalogue forbids them because they are inherently wrong. God is here describing for us the basic moral fabric of the universe which He established from the very beginning. Just as the law of gravity describes the physical nature of this universe, and any “breaking” of that law produces physical chaos, so the Ten Commandments describe the moral nature of the universe, and any breaking of that law produces spiritual and social chaos.
Eight of the Ten are negative, but each has both a positive and negative aspect. This is an important point for those who see the Ten Commandments as a kind of cosmic killjoy. While most are stated negatively, each has inherent in it a positive action to follow. For example, the command to “not bear false witness” includes the implicit requirement to “be honest,” and the command to not misuse the name of the Lord God entails the requirement to always give honor and praise to His name. Of course, the positive ones also have a negative aspect. “Honor your father and your mother” demands that we not be rebellious or show them disrespect.
They fall into two sections: reverence for God (1-4) and respect for humans (5-10). When Jesus approved the summary of the commandments of God as “love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength and your neighbor as yourself,” I believe He was making a reference to the two parts of the Law. The first four commandments speak of our relationship and obligations to almighty God. The other six deal with our relationships with one another.
Now I have twenty minutes left to talk about the Ten Commandments themselves. That averages two minutes each. What can I say in that amount of time that will be of benefit? Not much unless I get at it. I am going to use a formulation of the Commandments written for children in a form they can easily memorize. Perhaps even mom and dad can profit from it.
You shall have no gods but Me,
Before no idol bend the knee.
Do not take God’s name in vain,
Dare not the Sabbath to profane.
Give both your parents honor due,
Take heed that you no murder do.
Keep your mind and body pure,
Steal not even if you’re poor.
Tell the truth about another,
Do not covet of your neighbor.
Ten Commandments for today
You shall have no gods but Me. The importance of the first commandment is well illustrated by a story from church history. Cardinal Thomas Wolsey was one of the best-known churchmen and statesmen of 16th century England, as you may recall from the great movie, “A Man for All Seasons.” Once the archbishop of Canterbury, he later became Lord Chancellor under King Henry VIII. Wolsey sacrificed everything for that public office, for he loved the honor it brought, but to no avail. He was replaced by the fickle Henry in favor of another more youthful man and was later arrested for high treason, dying ignominiously of natural causes while on his way to London to be executed. In his disappointment and disillusionment, Shakespeare has him cry out, “Oh, Cromwell, Cromwell, had I but served my God with half the zeal I served my king, He would not in mine old age have left me naked to mine enemies.”
Charles Colson, who once said, “I would walk over my own grandmother for Richard Nixon,” also learned the danger of giving anyone the loyalty and allegiance that belongs only to God. Fortunately, he learned it in time to repent and change the course of his life. The First Commandment, friends, forbids us to worship any other gods or to allow anything else to have top priority in our lives.
Before no idol bend the knee. There is a paradox about idol worship as presented in the Bible. In the first place, an idol is an object of absolute scorn, and the biblical author heaps ridicule on those who worship physical objects of any kind since they can hear nothing, see nothing, and do nothing. Yet at the same time the Scriptures warn strongly of the danger of idolatry to the worshiper, since Satan uses idols to trap the unwary.
But not only does the Second Commandment prohibit the worship of false gods; it also prohibits even the worship of the one true God by images. “Images,” writes J.I. Packer, “dishonor God for they obscure His glory…. Images mislead us for they convey false ideas about God.”[i] For example, Aaron, by making an image of God in the form of a bull-calf, led the Israelites to think of Him as a Being who could be worshiped acceptably by frenzied debauchery. I believe the Second Commandment even forbids the creation of unbiblical mental images of God, as for example “the heavenly traffic cop” or “the old man upstairs.”
Do not take God’s name in vain. This Commandment is the most frequently misunderstood one. Most people take it as simply a prohibition against profanity, i.e., using God’s name to express unholy anger. And certainly, that is forbidden in Scripture. But profanity is not the point of the Third Commandment; the principal point is misusing the name of God in oaths and promises. In the ancient world, as in the modern, dishonesty was so common that people resorted to oath-taking. Often God’s name was invoked as some sort of “proof” that the oath would not be broken. But the invocation soon became a habit without substance and men would say, “God strike me dead if I’m lying,” and then they would lie. In fact, it is a known characteristic of psychopathic liars that the more they lie, the more they will also assert that what they are saying is “gospel truth.”
The Third Commandment forbids using the Lord’s name to make a promise you don’t keep. But it is also a prohibition against the use of God’s name for various silly and even evil ends. God’s name is used that way by politicians, atheists, and by the U.S. mint. People invoke it to support racism, sexism, and heresy. And the very worst use of God’s name may be lip service. There are a lot of people who take upon themselves the name of the Lord, (“Christian” means a follower of Christ) but are completely unwilling to live as He commands. Jesus said, “Not everyone that says unto Me, Lord, Lord, shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven; but he that does the will of My Father which is in heaven.” (Matt. 7:21)
Dare not the Sabbath to profane. This commandment is unique in that it’s the only one not specifically repeated in the NT. For Israel the facts were clear: from Friday sundown until Saturday sundown they were to do no physical work of any kind, but they were to worship and rest. In the NT Christians are set free from the requirement to observe the seventh day, but they are not set free from the requirement to worship and rest weekly. You see, the Sabbath was not instituted at Sinai, but rather goes all the way back to creation week when God Himself rested after working six days.
During the French Revolution I understand an attempt was made to put workers on a ten-day cycle, but the effort was abandoned when productivity fell dramatically. I read this week about some American explorers who were on a Safari in the African wilderness. On Sunday, when breakfast was finished, the African guides went over and sat under a tree. The Americans shouted, “Come on, let’s get ready and go!” One of the guides replied, “We don’t go today. We rest today to let our souls catch up with our bodies.” We also need to let our spirits catch up with God.
By the way, don’t forget to notice the positive aspect of this commandment: “Six days shalt thou labor.” The proliferation of leisure time is not necessarily a healthy change in our society. If a person has a five-day or four-day workweek, he should find another job of some kind for the extra day or two—perhaps volunteer work if he doesn’t need more money. People were made to work hard six days and rest hard on the seventh.
Give both your parents honor due. That honor, by the way, is not the same as the honor due God. The Scriptures make it plain that our first allegiance is to God, and should a parent require us to do something forbidden by God, it is better “to obey God rather than man.” But rarely does that dilemma face children today. Instead, what we find is that children are obeying their peers or themselves rather than their parents, and this is a very serious matter to God. One writer said,
“The world is passing through troublous times. The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient of all restraint. They talk as if they knew everything, and what passes for wisdom with us is foolishness with them. As for the girls, they are forward, immodest, and unladylike in speech, behavior and dress.”[ii]
Do you know who wrote that? Peter the Hermit in 1274 A.D. The more things change the more they remain the same.
The Apostle Paul in Ephesians 6 notes that this is the first commandment with a promise, namely “that it may be well with you, and that you may live long on the earth.” I don’t know any healthy, sane person that wouldn’t like to live long on the earth, but I know many who are apparently ignorant of one of the primary ways to make it happen—respect and honor your parents.
Take heed that you no murder do. Please note a very important point here: the sixth commandment is not a commandment not to kill but rather a commandment not to murder. This same Mosaic Law later made provision for the killing of animals and even the judicial killing of certain criminals. But what was forbidden was the taking of innocent human life. Our society, of course, has gotten that completely backwards. Millions of people want to ban capital punishment of the guilty while advocating the killing of the innocent, through abortion and euthanasia.
The sixth Commandment clearly forbids the private and unjustified erasure of one’s enemies, but it also speaks against aggressive warfare. Murder is not less immoral just because it is performed by soldiers rather than civilians. I am not speaking of just warfare, nor do I have the time to present a rationale for determining when a war is just; all I am saying is that aggressors in war violate this commandment.
I further believe the Sixth Commandment forbids suicide, a view being challenged strongly by a new bestseller called Final Exit, by Daryl Humphry. It also forbids even accidental killing when caused by neglect and irresponsibility. The person who kills another while driving under the influence of alcohol would be guilty of breaking the Sixth Commandment according to Exodus 21:29, as would those in the past who knowingly built deathtrap cars or manufactured flammable children’s clothes or used lead paint on children’s toys because it covered better. Finally, it is a prohibition against hate and anger. Clarence Darrow once said, “I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with a lot of glee.” First John 3:15 says, “Whoever hates his brother is a murderer.”
Keep your mind and body pure. The seventh commandment reads, “You shall not commit adultery.” A seminary professor observed, “About 50% of all human misery is caused by the violation of the 7th Commandment.” That may be an understatement, but you wouldn’t get that notion from watching TV or the movies. In fact, you get the impression that about 90% of all human enjoyment and happiness is the result of adultery and fornication. Who are we going to believe—God or Hollywood? The fact is adultery destroys human character, it destroys the family, it destroys society, and it brings guilt upon a person’s conscience, which in turn creates all kinds of mental, emotional, and even physical problems. The person who claims to feel no guilt from adultery is by that very fact indicating how dehumanized he has become and how far he is from God.
The Seventh Commandment not only forbids unfaithfulness to the marriage vow; it forbids remarriage after an unbiblical divorce. It further forbids spiritual adultery by means of lust, according to Jesus in Matt. 5:27-30. And the NT makes it clear that premarital sex also comes under the same prohibition. We hear a great deal today about consenting adults being free to do what they like, so long as they don’t hurt anyone else. Some Christians are even justifying “sex by anticipation.” This is a situation in which two people claim that they love each other so much, and that they are so certain to marry, that they can anticipate marriage by having sexual intercourse before they are married. We’re not talking here about promiscuity, but simply the anticipation of that which will, as they believe certainly, be someday a right.
But William Barclay writes incisively regarding this view,
“There are two things to be said here. The first is that it would be equally possible to say that they love each other so much that they will not have sexual intercourse until they are totally and irrevocably committed to each other, that the man loves the woman too much to take that which is not yet his to take, and the woman loves the man too much to come to him less than completely, that love has taught them that self-control, self-discipline and self-giving are very closely connected. The second thing is that nothing is certain in this life, and it is not certain that they will marry…. It is not wise to anticipate that which we have neither the right nor the power to anticipate.”[iii]
In all my years of pastoral counseling I have never had a single couple say, “We wish we had had sex before we got married—it sure would have prevented a lot of the problems we’re experiencing.” But I’ve had many, many of them say, “I wish we had waited.”
Steal not even if you’re poor. The Eighth Commandment prohibits stealing, i.e., taking what belongs to someone else. This obviously prohibits felony theft; no one would argue that point. But it also includes misdemeanor theft. It may be meaner to take $100 from a poor man than to take $.50 from a corporation, but both are stealing. It includes cheating on one’s taxes, filing false insurance claims (I read the other day that it takes some people a long time to get over an illness if “compensation” sets in), failing to give a full day’s work for a full day’s pay, telling the clerk at the amusement park your child is younger than he is so he doesn’t have to pay as much, selling something that is not of the quality claimed, cheating on an exam, bringing office supplies home without paying for them, and using company stamps for personal letters.
A shopkeeper was trying to explain business ethics to his son: “Suppose a customer buys something in a hurry. I give him change for ten dollars, but the minute he goes out, I see he’s given me a hundred-dollar bill by mistake. Now here’s the moral question, son: shall I tell my partner?” What a sorry indication of how far we’ve gone down the slippery slope of immoral behavior!
I also believe this Commandment is violated when we incur debts beyond a reasonable probability of payment, for many people have stolen money through bankruptcy court. Malachi 3:8-10 indicates that the Eighth Commandment is also violated when we fail to give our tithes and offerings to God. For some strange reason, many people who would never steal from another human being seem to have no conscience against stealing from God.
Tell the truth about another. While the Ninth Commandment is principally a prohibition against perjury, it is clearly more than that. The term “bearing false witness” in Hebrew can refer to an out-and-out lie or it can refer to that which is deceitful, insincere, and empty. There are many different kinds of lies. Besides the lie of malice, there is the lie of exaggeration, the lie for profit (often told by salesmen), the lie of propaganda, the lie of silence, the half-truth, the lie of flattery, the lie to self, and the lie to God.
Do not covet of your neighbor. The Tenth Commandment is different. Its predecessors deal with specific actions; this one alone forbids a state of mind. It is an ancient acknowledgement that wrong ideas precede wrong actions, and that no matter how pious a man’s outward behavior may be, if he encourages his mind to seethe with greed, he is far down the road to evil actions, for coveting leads to dishonesty and issues in exploitation. To covet something is to desire what one has no right to have or to possess. It is not merely to desire what one does not possess, like health or children or a better job; it is to desire something which one has no right to possess, like someone else’s possessions or status or spouse. The root of it is the false belief that to get what we haven’t got will bring happiness. An ancient philosopher, Epicurus, spoke wisely, “If you want to make a man happy, add not to his possessions, but take away from his desires.” The cure for covetousness is contentment.
Conclusion: An old deacon was embarking upon a trip to the Holy Land, and he told his pastor that he was going to take a side trip to Sinai, walk up to the top of Mount Sinai and recite the Ten Commandments. Said his pastor, “I can tell you something better than that. Stay home and keep them.” Not a bad suggestion. Your very life may depend upon it. Not that a noble effort to keep these Commandments will earn your way to heaven. Heaven is a gift earned by the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. But the one who trusts in Christ and obeys God’s great moral code will live a richer, fuller, longer, and more productive life than is possible any other way.
DATE: August 18, 1991
[i] J. I. Packer, Knowing God, 45-6.
[ii] William Barclay, The Ten Commandments for Today, 59.
[iii] Barclay, 148.