The first five books of the Bible, commonly called the Pentateuch or Torah, are not merely the opening act of God’s revelation to humanity nor should we read them simply as a historical account of our faith’s roots. Instead, alongside the rest of the Old Testament, we affirm these writings to be the presently applicable and authoritative Word of God. We read them together with the books of the New Testament in order to hear the almighty Creator speak. We do not, as many practically believe even if not consciously, keep them in our Bibles as a sort of honoring or remembering of Christianity’s history.
We do, of course, read the Old Testament through the lens of the New. Jesus, the embodied Word of God, taught that the Scriptures bore witness about Him (John 5:39). As God the Son, Christ declared Himself to be the primary subject of God’s revealed Word to humanity. The Old and New Testaments, therefore, form one cohesive Book. Both testify that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of David, the Serpent-Crusher, who came into the world to free God’s people from the slavery of sin. Both must also be understood in light of the other. Detach the New from the Old, and the gospel becomes detached from both its foundation and context, increasing the risk of subtle, but deadly, perversions. Divorce the Old from the New, and we are left with all shadow but no substance, glimpses of the good news are found but the mystery remains cloaked in secrecy.
The laws and commandments of God are no different. By themselves, they stand incomplete, as the Old Testament is without the New. Yet the New Testament cannot be properly understood without them. After all, Jesus explicitly stated that He did not “come to abolish the Law or Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17). In Jesus, the Old Testament along with its various commands are made complete. This is no less true of the Ten Commandments.
To understand the significance of the Ten Commandments, we must understand their context. In Genesis, God called Abraham to become the father of a nation whose God would be the LORD. Through the grace of God’s providence, the LORD led Abraham’s descendants into the land of Egypt, where his great-grandson Joseph was reigning as second-in-command over all the land. Genesis concludes with the people of Abraham, the Israelites, multiplying greatly in Egypt. Exodus, however, takes a dark turn as we are told that after Joseph’s death a new Pharaoh rose to the throne who viewed the Israelites as a threat to his kingdom. God’s people, therefore, became the Egyptian’s slaves. Yet God had not abandoned the lineage of Abraham. Through Moses the prophet, the LORD led Israel out of Egypt through the working of many signs and wonders.
After leaving the land Egypt, the Israelites set up camp in the Sinai wilderness; there God called Moses to ascend the mountain and receive His words, saying,
Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel. (Exodus 19:3–6)
God rescued the Israelites from slavery in order to make them His treasured possession, a kingdom of priest, and a holy nation. They were saved by God so that they could then live as God’s people. But they were also rescued to become a kingdom of priests. Priests, after all, were called to stand as mediators between God and His people. The LORD did not lay claim only over the nation of Israel but rather the entire earth. He chose Israel as a holy nation in order to also make them “a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6).
After declaring His purpose for their deliverance from that very mountain, God gave to His people the Ten Commandments. Although the LORD gave many more laws and commands to the Israelites, these ten were especially significant, which is testified by God speaking them directly to the people rather than through Moses and by their being etched into stone and kept in the Ark. They received this special treatment because the Ten Commandments serve as a succinct summary of God’s expectations for His people. In many ways, the remainder of the laws served to provide specific application and explanation to these ten. Furthermore, God carefully notes that obedience to His commands will result in blessing, while disobedience will be met with a curse.
Thus, whenever we speak about God’s law and about how He expects His people to act, we can turn to the Ten Commandments. They served as a sort of constitution for what life among the community of God’s holy nation was meant to be. The beauty of this vision only requires a moment’s imagination to grasp. We would rightly call that place a utopia where people served the LORD with all their heart, soul, and might, where they exalted His name instead of their own, where they worked hard for six days but rested in God and one another on the seventh day, where parents and the family unit were held in honor, where life was sacred, where spouses were always faithful in both body and heart, where falsehood was unthinkable, and where everyone rejoiced in the possessions of others as much as they did their own. Such a place would rightly be called heavenly. Indeed, obedience to the Ten Commandments is heavenly because in heaven all submit perfectly to God’s will. On the other hand, the breaking of these laws both leads to hell itself and to a hellish existence here. Sin, after all, is lawlessness, and a lawless society is a dystopic society.
Through obeying God’s law, Israel was meant to display a savor and aroma of heaven to the rest of the nations on earth. The Old Testament narratives, however, tell account after account of the Israelites falling into disobedience, of their constant failures to measure up to God’s standard. Indeed, the New Testament writers confirm that such obedience is utterly impossible. No one can fulfill the Ten Commandments perfectly, constantly, and genuinely. As Moses, the giver of the law, died before entering the Promised Land, so too will all perish who attempt to enter eternal life through their own obedience.
What then is the purpose of the Ten Commandments today? Do they serve no other purpose other than to heap condemnation upon our heads as we continue to disobey them? For those who hope to reach heaven by means of obedience to the law, they do indeed serve as their condemnation. However, hundreds of years before Moses died without setting foot in Canaan, Abraham entered the Promised Land, and he did so by faith. Like Abraham, we are breakers of God’s law and have no sufficiency in and of ourselves to rightfully dwell with God. Instead, also like Abraham, we place our faith in the work of another. Abraham’s faith was simply that God would save him, although he knew not how. For us, however, the mystery of the good news has been revealed. We know that Jesus has “redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). Through the substitutionary atonement of Christ, the righteousness of His sinless obedience is imputed upon us, while our curse of death was placed upon Him. We, therefore, enter communion with God not because of our own works but because of our faith in the work of Jesus on our behalf. This is the good news, the gospel.
Under the banner of this gospel, God is still forming a people for Himself, a kingdom of priests, His Church. Composed of both Jew and Gentile and having no earthly territory, these saints of God are saved from slavery of sin for the same purpose that God rescued Israel from Egypt: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). We too are a light for the nations, especially as we go forth to make disciples of them.
As the people of God, we look upon the Ten Commandments not as abolished but rather as fulfilled in Christ. Jesus summarized the essence of God’s commands down to these words: “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. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37–40). Love God and love others. Obedience to these two commands results in obedience to the entire law of God. Jesus still teaches us to walk in obedience. Indeed, our faith in the work of Jesus does not negate our obedience but emboldens it. Now that we no longer have dread of the law’s consequences, Christ has freed us to see the beauty of obeying. In Him, we now see that God’s commandments are the rules of a loving Father for our joy and flourishment rather than viewing them as the arbitrary confinements of a megalomaniacal God. We see them as the path of wisdom, the road which God Himself has paved for us.
For Christians, God’s laws have many purposes, but throughout our study of the Ten Commandments, we will focus upon three.
First, they convict us of sin. They clarify what God has forbidden us to do and bring conviction whenever we disobey. Conviction is drastically different from the condemnation that the law brings apart from Christ. Condemnation leads to despair; conviction leads us to repentance.
Second, they teach us how to obey. The Scriptures repeatedly call us to devote ourselves to good works. We find in the Ten Commandments a guideline for what constitutes a good work.
Third, they reveal to us the character of God. God’s laws are not arbitrary; instead, they flow from His very nature. Thus, by studying the laws, we also find glimpses of the Lawgiver.
Each sermon, therefore, will revolve around these three functions of the law, although not necessarily always in that order.
May our meditations upon the Ten Commandments lead to a deeper understanding of our sinfulness and need for Christ our Savior.
May the LORD empower us by His Spirit to walk in obedience to them so that as we love Him and love one another the world will know that we are Christ’s disciples.
And may we better know and love God our Father as we study the goodness of His commands.