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10. The Grumbling of Men and the Grace of God (Exodus 17:1-7)


Several years ago I watched a movie which featured Malcolm Muggeridge. Standing beside the family plot in an English cemetery, this elderly Christian statesman spoke as one who would soon join those of his family who had died. I will never forget the way he contrasted his youthful dreads and desires with those of his old age. He said that those things which he felt were most desirable in his youth he now saw to be of relatively little importance, while those things which he dreaded in his youth had proven to be the richest experiences of his life.

I believe that Muggeridge is right. Those things which we think are most important often prove to be otherwise, while those things which appear to be undesirable, even painful, often prove most precious and profitable. Our text is an excellent example. The Israelites viewed the lack of water at Rephidim as a disaster and an indication that God had abandoned them to die in the desert. They questioned whether God was with them or not. In reality, God was with them in a way that was beyond their comprehension, a way that would be revealed centuries later by the apostle Paul. What first appeared to be an indication of God’s absence proved to be one of the most dramatic illustrations of God’s presence, provision, and protection. Let us listen carefully to the words of this text, for they offer encouragement to every saint who has ever questioned the presence of God in a time of personal crisis.

Massah and Meribah: Water From the Rock

Leaving the Desert of Sin where God’s miraculous provision of manna had commenced (cf. chapter 16), the Israelites went from place to place, as the Lord directed them. It is significant to note that God was in no hurry to bring the Israelites into the land of Canaan. While Israel’s later “wilderness wanderings” were the result of their sin at Kadesh-barnea (cf. Numbers 13-14), the wanderings here are designed to serve as Israel’s “boot camp” experiences. The events of chapter 17 occur while Israel is camped at Rephidim,173 where there was no water for the Israelites or their cattle.

It is important to note that it was God who led Israel to Rephidim where there was no water. The Israelites traveled, we are told, “from place to place as the Lord commanded” (emphasis mine). While the cloud is not specifically referred to in our text, we have previously been told that God always led Israel by means of the pillar of cloud (in daytime) and of light (at night, cf. 13:21-22). While the Israelites are without water, it is apparent that it is God’s will for this to be their dilemma.

Israel’s response to the lack of water is no mere repetition of their previous actions,174 however. Described here is an even greater transgression than we have seen previously. The Israelites should have learned to trust God to supply their needs, based upon His previous provision of water at Marah (15:22-26) and quail and manna in the wilderness of Sin (chapter 16). Furthermore, the Israelites did far more than just grumble, as they had previously done. Before this, the Israelites had grumbled against Moses and Aaron (15:24; 16:2, 7-8), but now they are quarreling175 with Moses and about to stone him (17:4). Before, the Israelites asked Moses what they were to drink (15:24), but now they are demanding that Moses give them water to drink. Since Moses had been able to miraculously sweeten the waters at Marah and to produce quail and manna, the people appear to be demanding that he perform another miracle for them. It is as though he must prove he has God’s authority to lead them by producing water miraculously.

It is bad enough that the Israelites argued with Moses and demanded that Moses provide them with water, but the text informs us that they were also challenging God here as well. Moses accused the people of “putting God to the test” in their quarreling with him (17:2). Since Moses’ authority is due to his divine appointment (chapters 3 and 4), to quarrel with Moses is ultimately to dispute with God. The issue, however, is not only whether Moses had the right to continue to lead this people, but whether God was among His people. The challenge of the Israelites was, “Is the Lord among us or not?” Imagine this question being asked as the pillar of cloud, in which God was present and by which He revealed His glory and led them to this place, hovered in their sight. Moses’ rebuke (that the people were putting God to the test) fell on deaf ears. They began to rehearse their memories of the “good old days” in Egypt, contrasted with their miseries and near-certain death in the desert (17:3). Unable to dissuade the people, Moses could only cry out to the Lord for help (17:4).

God’s answer was that Moses should walk on ahead of the people. Among other things this indicated that Moses was making no retreat. It also reminded the congregation of Israelites that Moses was their leader, because when water was provided from the rock the people had to follow Moses to get to it. Some of the elders were taken along by Moses to witness, it would seem, this new miracle. (Did Israel’s hardness of heart prevent them from this privilege?) As commanded, Moses took along his staff—the same one with which he had struck the Nile (17:5). The Lord promised Moses that He would be standing before Him at the176 rock at Horeb.177 Moses was to strike the rock, causing water to flow from it. When Moses did this, water came forth in abundance, providing for the needs of the Israelites. He named the place Massah (test) and Meribah (quarrel), an epitaph which the Israelites would gladly have stricken from their history.

There are many scholars who would attempt to interpret this miraculous provision of water as a merely natural phenomenon. For example, there are those who suggest that there was a vein of water near the surface of the rock and that Moses just happened to hit this rock in the right place, so as to “uncap” the supply. This sounds more like the television description of how Jeb Clampett (of the Beverly Hillbillies) accidentally discovered oil on his place—a shot fired from his rifle accidentally released oil hidden underground.178

The Meaning of Massah and Meribah

The incident at Massah and Meribah179 is seminal in two very different ways. The events of this chapter are developed into two major themes in the Scriptures. First, Massah and Meribah becomes an epitaph of the hardness of the Israelites’ hearts (and not just that first generation) as well as for the Gentiles. Second, Massah and Meribah is an evidence of the grace of God and of His presence and provision for His people. We shall explore both of these themes and their relationship to each other.

Massah and Meribah: The Hardness of Man’s Heart

This incident is far more than a mere occurrence of corporate “temporary insanity,” as the contemporary excuse for sin is so often labeled. The Israelites were not just momentarily “out of sorts.” Unfortunately, this incident is typical of Israel’s stubbornness. Moses informed them that it was typical of their stubbornness and rebellion against God:

Understand, then, that it is not because of your righteousness that the Lord your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people. Remember this and never forget how you provoked the Lord your God to anger in the desert. From the day you left Egypt until you arrived here, you have been rebellious against the Lord. At Horeb you aroused the Lord’s wrath so that he was angry enough to destroy you (Deut. 9:6-8, cf. v. 24; Heb. 3:10).

The grumbling of the Israelites in the wilderness was therefore a persistent problem, not a rare and infrequent one. Furthermore, the sin of this first generation of Israelites was almost identically reproduced by the second generation of Israelites, some years later (cf. Num. 20:1-13). The problem of grumbling is one that is common to every generation, in every age. Thus, we find the events of Massah and Meribah frequently referred to in the Old Testament.180 “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day at Massah in the desert, where your fathers tested and tried me, though they had seen what I did” (Ps. 95:7b-9). The New Testament picks up “Massah and Meribah,” making this incident a lesson for contemporary Christians as well (cf. Heb. 3 and 4; 1 Cor. 10:1-13). We must therefore conclude that the problems which underlie Massah and Meribah are universal. Let us seek then to explore the nature of the Israelites’ sin here as well as the solution which God has for this sin.

(1) Israel’s actions at Massah and Meribah constituted testing181 God (Exod. 17:2,7; Deut. 6:16; Ps. 106:14). Israel’s lack of water was by divine design, for God was testing the Israelites by their response to adversity: “I tested you at the waters of Meribah” (Ps. 81:7; cf. Deut. 8:2,16). It was good for God to test the Israelites, for it revealed the sinful condition of their hearts. It surfaced their willfulness and waywardness and revealed that God was always blessing them on the basis of His grace, not their works. God has every right to test His creatures, and His tests are always for our good (Deut. 8:16).

On the other hand, no creature has the right to “put God to the test.” To do so is to demand that God prove Himself in a way that we dictate. God had proven Himself more than sufficiently in the miracles of the exodus. Israel did not lack evidence; they only lacked faith. If God were among them, then let Him prove it by giving them water, then and there. How arrogant! How inappropriate! How sinful! The creature demands that the Creator jump through his hoops.

(2) Israel’s demand that God prove His presence among them betrayed their lack of faith in Him. The Scriptures indicate that Israel’s actions at Massah and Meribah betray hearts which are hardened and unbelieving: “Do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day at Massah in the desert, where your fathers tested and tried me, though they had seen what I did” (Ps. 95:8-9). They did not believe His promise. They grumbled in their tents and did not obey the Lord (Ps. 106:24b-25; cf. Heb. 3:12, 19). “Like their fathers they were disloyal and faithless, and unreliable as a faulty bow” (Ps. 78:57).

Satan challenged our Lord to prove that He was the Son of God by jumping off the pinnacle of the temple, but our Lord rebuked him with a reference to the evil committed by the Israelites in putting God to the test at Massah and Meribah (Matt. 4:5-7). Satan had no right to challenge the Son of God to act in a such a way, for this would suggest that God is so unreliable He must be proven. The Jewish religious leaders persistently challenged Jesus to prove Himself by giving them a sign (cf. Matt. 12:38), a challenge which He refused to take up (cf. Matt. 12:39ff.).

When we demand that someone prove themselves to us we reveal our lack of trust in them. For example, the United States and Russia frequently attempt to come to some kind of nuclear arms agreement. The Russians persist at attempting to negotiate an agreement which has no “on sight inspections.” The United States insists that such “tests” be a part of the agreement. The reason for this insistence is simple—we don’t trust the Russians. Demanding that God prove Himself to us betrays our lack of trust in Him. It is not He who is untrustworthy; it is us. When we demand that Russia give proof of their integrity, we are wise. When we demand such proof from God, we are fools.

A beautiful illustration of the kind of trust in God which does not “put God to the test” is found in Daniel 3. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to bow in worship to Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image, even when threatened with being thrown into a blazing furnace. When they spoke to the king, they said: “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up” (Dan. 3:17-18).

Faith trusts in God, even when the result appears to be fatal.182 The Israelites should have learned by now that God had promised to deliver them, not to destroy them, and that He had always protected them and provided for their needs, no matter how bleak things looked. And yet when they ran out of water, they doubt the presence of God and demand a miracle so that God may prove Himself to them once again.

(3) Israel’s actions at Massah and Meribah reveal their lack of patience. God would not have allowed His people to die of thirst, as they accused. Had they but waited, God would have provided for them. Their lack of faith was manifested in their impatience: “But they soon forgot what he had done and did not wait for his counsel. In the desert they gave in to their craving; in the wasteland they put God to the test” (Ps. 106:14). In every instance where Israel lacked either food or water, Israel acted prematurely. God would have provided for His people’s needs in His own time, but this was too late so far as the Israelites were concerned. Unbelief is often hasty; faith is patient and endures.

(4) Israel’s response at Massah and Meribah were acts of disobedience. The first instance of thirst at Marah (Exod. 15:22-26) was an occasion for God to test His people (15:25), as well as to teach them: “If you listen carefully to the voice of the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord who heals you” (Exod. 15:26).

When Israel tested God at Massah and Meribah, God viewed their actions as disobedience: “But they put God to the test and rebelled against the Most High; they did not keep his statutes” (Ps. 78:56). “They grumbled in their tents and did not obey the Lord” (Ps. 106:24; cf. Heb. 3:16,18; 4:6,11). The question we must answer here is, “Just what command of God did the Israelites disobey at Massah and Meribah?” The only commandments given so far have been general (15:26) and those which specifically related to the harvesting and use of manna in chapter 16. I find the key to be in the first verse of chapter 17: “The whole Israelite community set out from the Desert of sin, traveling from place to place as the Lord commanded” (emphasis mine). The guidance which God gave the Israelites was by command our text informs us. When Israel resisted Moses and insisted that he had led them into the wilderness to die of thirst, they rebelled against the guidance of God, and thus they disobeyed His command. In the previous lesson, I likened grumbling to disobedience. Now, in the light of God’s commentary on this chapter, I must say that it is disobedience.

(5) At Massah and Meribah, Israel doubted God’s presence among them. It is an incredible thing that Israel could doubt God’s presence and power among them (17:7). God had evidenced His presence and power so many times in their very recent past—in the plagues, in their passing through the Red Sea, and in His provision of food and water. Moreover, God’s presence was manifested in the cloud (cf. 13:21-22; 16:11). Nevertheless, the absence of water causes the Israelites to suspect the absence of God.

Massah and Meribah: A Picture of God’s Presence and Power

The amazing thing about the incident at Massah and Meribah is that God graciously provided His grumbling people with water in abundance, through the rock at Horeb. In spite of the great sin of the people in disputing with Moses and in putting God to the test, they were abundantly provided for. Because of this, the rock at Massah and Meribah quickly became a symbol of God’s presence and power among His people. It is little wonder that the Lord is worshipped as Israel’s “rock” in the “song of Moses”: “I will proclaim the name of the Lord. Oh, praise the greatness of our God! He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just” (Deut. 32:3-4a; cf. also vv. 13,15,18). Psalm 95 begins, “Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation” (Ps. 95:1).

The rock of Massah and Meribah became the symbol of God’s presence with His people. From this time onward, the “rock” becomes a frequently employed term to refer to God’s faithfulness in providing for His people: “He opened the rock, and water gushed out; like a river it flowed in the desert. For he remembered his holy promise given to his servant Abraham” (Ps. 105:41-42). “But you would be fed with the finest of wheat; with honey from the Rock I would satisfy you” (Ps. 81:16).

The “rock” of Exodus 17 is therefore employed as a symbol of Israel’s hope for the future, because it symbolized God’s faithfulness to His people in the past when He promises to be faithful in the future: “They did not thirst when he led them through the deserts; he made water flow for them from the rock; he split the rock and water gushed out” (Isa. 48:21).

While the Old Testament saint came to view God as their “rock,” there was yet unfathomed meaning to this symbol which is revealed by the apostle Paul after the coming of Christ. Paul’s words are both profound and perplexing when he writes, “They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ” (1 Cor. 10:3-4).

The Jews had a legend concerning the “rock” which tumbled along behind the Israelites in the wilderness, and some scholars seem to think that Paul somehow adopted it or modified it. The key to understanding Paul’s meaning when he speaks of Christ as the rock which followed Israel is the term “spiritual,” found three times in these two verses.

Paul could be spiritualizing the rock, using the term “spiritual” so that he can liken the experience of the Israelites to that of the Corinthians. Both had their baptisms (Israel in the cloud and in the sea, and unto Moses; the Corinthians in the baptismal waters, and unto Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 1:13-17; 12:12). Both also had their “spiritual food”—the Israelites had their bread and water; the Corinthians their bread and wine. Other explanations of this text have also been offered.183

In what sense then is our Lord to be identified with the rock in the wilderness? I do not believe that we should go so far as to say that our Lord actually manifested Himself to Israel as a rock. The Lord told Moses, “I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb” (Exod. 17:6).

There is a world of difference between our Lord standing by that rock and being that rock. Nevertheless, our Lord was closely associated with the rock, as Paul suggests. This helps to explain why God saw Moses’ act of striking the rock in Numbers 20 as such a serious sin, so serious that it kept Moses and Aaron from entering the promised land with the second generation of Israelites.

For our purposes, it is not necessary to struggle over the precise meaning of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 10. What we do need to understand is that Paul informs us that God was present with the Israelites in the person of His Son. Although the Israelites believed that the absence of water in the wilderness was sufficient evidence for them to conclude that God had abandoned them, Paul tells us that Christ Himself was present with them.

Here is the irony of the passage. At the very time when the Israelites are inclined to doubt (or at least dispute) the presence of God, the text informs us that God was very present, and the New Testament goes so far as to tell us that Christ was present as well. Was God among them? More so than they could have dreamed!

The great wonder is how Israel’s perception that God was absent could be so far from reality. How could the Israelites question God’s presence among them when it is so obvious that He was present? I would like to suggest that the reasons why Israel doubted God’s presence and demanded His provisions are the very same causes of doubt among contemporary Christians. The issue is this: “What are the evidences of God’s presence and power whether in days gone by or today?” The answers which are commonly believed reveal the shallowness of our biblical and doctrinal understanding.

What are the evidences of God’s presence and power we look for in the life of a person whom we believe to be godly? I would suggest that we, like the Jewish religious leaders of old, tend to look primarily at external appearances—success, popularity, a life free from struggles, suffering and sorrow. It is no wonder that our church leaders are so often chosen from the upper echelons of the socio-economic strata.

What are the evidences of God’s presence and power which we look for in a church? Most often, we look at the size of the church, its staff, and its budget.184 If there is a mood of excitement and we go away feeling turned on and having our needs met, we think that God is present in that church. Apart from the Jerusalem church in the early chapters of Acts, how many churches do you find in the New Testament which square with your standards for a “spirit filled” church?

This is why we find it very difficult to believe that God is present when things are not going well. We find it hard to believe that God would lead His people or His church into times and circumstances of difficulty. But when we think this way, we are no different from the Israelites. We doubt God’s presence and power whenever the going begins to get tough. We fail to understand the necessity and importance of the school of discipline through which God puts all of His children (even including His Son, cf. Heb. 5:7-10).

Here is where the two major themes of our text converge, giving us a principle by which we can face the adversities of life with faith, rather than with fear, and by which we can trust God, rather than test Him: GOD OFTEN REVEALS HIS PRESENCE THROUGH CIRCUMSTANCES IN WHICH HE APPEARS TO BE ABSENT. This principle is a reflection of the two principle themes of our text: (1) that the Israelites doubted God’s presence and demanded proof of it; and (2) that God was far more present with Israel at Massah and Meribah than the Israelites ever knew. This leads me to generalize God’s dealings with His people by pointing out that God uses those times in which we suppose He is absent to show us how real and present He is.

How can we be assured of God’s presence with us? Let me briefly outline some of the assurances Christians have of the presence of God in their midst, especially in times of adversity:

(1) Our Lord’s name assures us of His presence among us. When our Lord Jesus Christ came to the earth as a babe in a manger, we are told the meaning of His name: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”—which means ‘God with us’” (Matthew 1:22-23, emphasis mine). The very name of our Lord, “Immanuel,” assures us that God is with us in the person of Christ, just as Paul says He was present with Israel at Massah and Meribah.

(2) Our Lord came to the earth, not to be with those who were at ease, but to minister to those who were afflicted. When our Lord was questioned about His contact with “sinners” He replied, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). And when the Lord Jesus presented Himself at the outset of His ministry, He revealed Himself as the fulfillment of this prophetic passage: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19, citing Isaiah 61:1, 2).

(3) God sovereignly controls every detail of our lives. Thus, we are where God wants us to be, even when we are in danger or distress. We read in Exodus 17:1 that Israel was “traveling from place to place as the Lord commanded” (emphasis mine). In the place to which He leads us, God will be with us.

(4) God uses situations of adversity to draw us closer to Him. We are informed that Israel’s adversity was designed by God for their good:

“He led you through the vast and dreadful desert, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock. He gave you manna to eat in the desert, something your fathers had never known, to humble and to test you so that in the end it might go well with you” (Deut. 8:15-16).

Thus, the difficulties which come into our lives are under God’s sovereign control, designed to produce (in the final analysis) that which is good for us. Adversity is therefore not an argument for God’s absence but for His presence with His people (cf. Hebrews 12:1-13). Thus the psalmist can say,

Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word. You are good, and what you do is good; teach me your decrees (Psalm 119:67-68).

It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees (Ps. 119:71).

(5) God promises His children that He is always with them and that He will never forsake them.

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I will be with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:19-20).

Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you: never will I forsake you” (Heb. 13:5).

(6) God’s Spirit has been given to witness to His presence within and to intercede for us, especially in times of adversity.

For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. … In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will (Rom. 8:15-17, 26-27).

I would like to suggest that while we do not look forward to those times of adversity and testing (God testing us, that is), these are often the times when God becomes most present and most precious to us. A great deal of divine discipleship is worked out in the quiet and lonely solitude of our own wilderness situations, when we perceive that apart from divine intervention and provision, we would perish.

All too often we think of discipleship in “warm, fuzzy” terms, rather than in “wilderness” terms. We like to think of discipleship as intimate fellowship and sharing with other Christians, and so, in part, it is. But to be very candid with you, most of the men whom God “discipled” learned obedience in the lonely “wilderness” experiences of life. So it was for Abraham, for Jacob, for Joseph, for David, and the apostle Paul, to mention but a few.

Discipleship is the process of being disciplined, so that we are learners and followers of Christ. Generally speaking, we come to our greatest levels of trust and of faith when God pulls out all else on which we rely and leaves us only with Himself. Discipleship is not a comfortable process. And thus we should expect difficulties to come our way, and at the very same time, expect our Lord to be as near (or nearer) than He has ever been.

Is it possible that you are in a kind of wilderness, my friend, even as you read the words of this chapter? Then I would suggest that God may have purposed this so that you could come to know Him, in a much more intimate way than you have previously known Him. Perhaps you have never yet come to know Christ as your personal Savior. God may have pulled out all the props of your life, as He did with Israel, so that you could come to the point where you have no one but a gracious and loving God in whom to trust—first for your salvation—and then for your sanctification (your growth in His grace).

If you are a Christian and you have entered into a wilderness experience, I urge you to trust and obey God, to look for Him in a way that you have not yet known Him. Just as God meant Massah and Meribah for Israel’s good, He means your wilderness experience to be for your good as well. Ask God to reveal Himself to you in a new and fresh way, and He will do it.

173 “Rephidim has been identified with two places. The first is Wadi Feiran which leads up to Mount Sinai. Others have identified it with Wadi Refayid. This latter suggestion seems desirable because the name is similar to the biblical name and it is within several hours’ reach of the wilderness of Sin.” John J. Davis, Moses and the Gods of Egypt (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1971), p. 184.

174 “This is the second of three accounts of murmuring caused by thirst (cf. 15:22-27; Num. 20:1-3): Marah-Massah, Massah-Meribah, and Meribah-Kadesh. … In the first account (15:22-27) Yahweh provides Israel with a law or statute by which to test its faithfulness toward him. This account features the spirit of rebellion in the people. The third account (Num. 20:1-13 …) cites Moses’ own lack of faith.” J. Edgar Park, “Exodus,” The Interpreter’s Bible (New York and Nashville: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1952), I, p. 957.

175 “This verb [quarreled] is the key word of the passage, explaining why the name ‘Meribah’ (‘argument’ or ‘strife’) is used for the place afterwards.” R. Alan Cole, Exodus: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973), p. 134.

“The faultfinding with Moses … has the nature of a legal argument. The people challenged Moses to justify his leadership by providing water; rather, they insist their thirst denies the validity of his position. The contention, says Moses, is tantamount to putting the Lord to the proof (cf. 16:7-8). The Hebrew verb … means ‘to test,’ ‘to see’ (or ‘to doubt’) whether one will act in a certain way. It does not imply provoking one to act in a certain way, as the English verb tempt (KJV) now does.” Interpreter’s Bible, I, p. 958.

176 The definite article (the) implies that there is a particular rock referred to here, not just any rock: “The reference is, it seems, to a particular rock on Mount Horeb. It is so interpreted by Josephus (Antiquities III. l. 7) … In I Cor. 10:4, Paul reveals his knowledge of this legend and seems to take it seriously, ‘The supernatural Rock which followed them.’” Interpreter’s Bible, I, p. 959.

177 There is no concensus as to the meaning of “Horeb” or where it was located. For a discussion of this matter cf. W. H. Gispen, Exodus, trans. by Ed van der Maas (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982), pp. 166-167.

178 “The only reasonable explanation for this event is that God again intervened miraculously. It is not sufficient to argue that Moses struck a rock accidently and due to the closeness of the water to the surface discovered the answer to his problem.” Davis, p. 185.

179 In the Old Testament and the New (e.g. Psalm 95 and Hebrews 3 and 4) the “Massah and Meribah” include a broader reference than just Exodus 17. Also included would be the later incident in Numbers 20:1-13, which involved the second generation of Israelites.

180 Some of the references to the events or imagery of Massah and Meribah are: Num. 20:1-13; Deut. 6:16-17; 8:15; 32:4, 13, 15, 18; 33:8; Neh. 9:15; Psa. 78:15-16, 35, 56; 81:7, 16; 95; 105:41; 106:7, 13-14, 25, 29, 32; 114:8; Isa. 48:21; 1 Cor. 10:1-13; Heb. 3 and 4.

181 “Testing as used here means to invoke the Lord’s power, not in faith, but with challenge and irreverance, which is precisely what Israel was doing. It was an expression of discontent rather than a prayer.” Gispen, p. 165.

182 Notice, for example, how often death is referred to either directly or by inference in Hebrews 11.

183 Often in 1 Corinthians, the term “spiritual” refers to that which is produced by the Holy Spirit. Spiritual gifts, for example, are the gifts which the Spirit gives. So, too, the spiritual food and drink of the Israelites was the water and manna which God provided, as the “spiritual rock” is likened to our Lord, who miraculously accompanied His people.

184 Gordon MacDonald has recently written, “We assume that the larger the church, the greater its heavenly blessing. The more information about the Bible a person possesses, we think, the closer he must be to God. Because we tend to think like this, there is the temptation to give imbalanced attention to our public worlds at the expense of the private. More programs, more meetings, more learning experiences, more relationships, more busyness; until it all becomes so heavy at the surface of life that the whole thing trembles on the verge of collapse.” Gordon MacDonald, Ordering Your Private World (New York: Oliver Nelson, 1984), p. 16. I highly recommend this excellent book for your reading.

11. The Tyranny of the Urgent (Exodus 18)


There is a term which is more and more frequently employed in Christian circles, which depicts a problem that has become widespread among evangelicals—even epidemic. The term is burnout. Burnout happens frequently to Christian leaders, who strive to meet impossible expectations and demands, the achievement of which will show him to be both spiritual and successful (these two evaluations are too frequently found together these days). Failure to accomplish these expectations and demands is believed to prove one a sluggard, unspiritually minded, or a failure. Burnout occurs when, in sheer exhaustion and frustration, one looses all hope of meeting the standard which is imposed on them (either by one’s self, others, or both), and simply gives up. By my definition at least, burnout does not lead to reevaluating and restructuring one’s ministry, but to cessation of ministry.

Burnout is certainly not just a phenomenon found among Christian leaders, or just among Christians for that matter. Burnout is probably a significant factor in what is now referred to as the “mid-life crisis.” In spite of diligent effort and much sacrifice, individuals discover, to their dismay and depression, that their pursuit has been, in the words of the wise man of Ecclesiastes, vanity.

The burnout of which I am speaking is that which plagues Christians, whether leaders or laymen (I dislike both labels, but I use them here anyway). It is not the squeezing out of things spiritual by things secular (so called). It is the smothering of the fundamental spiritual essentials by the sheer volume of the plethora of non-essential activities and “ministries” which we foolishly strive to maintain.

In his excellent book entitled, Ordering Your Private World, Gordon MacDonald likens the burnout phenomenon to sinkholes.186 When underground streams dry up, the surface soil begins to sink to fill in the void. Whatever is placed on or near the surface of the ground caves in, to fill that void. MacDonald likens the soul, the “private world” of a person to those underground streams. We often divert so much of our attention and energy to our ministries and outward activities that we fail to attend to the needs of our souls. Eventually, MacDonald explains, the pressure of those activities, combined with the inner void of our lives, produces a sinkhole—burnout.

Moses was dangerously close to burning himself out when his father-in-law came to his rescue. What appears on the surface to be the insignificant visit of a relative is a really a divine provision to deliver Moses, not from the wrath of Pharaoh, nor from the attack of the Egyptian army, but from himself. As Jethro himself put it, Moses was wearing himself and the Israelites out (18:18). Thanks to the common sense of a wise father-in-law, Moses was delivered from his own destruction, the burnout which resulted from a distorted perception and a too-demanding ministry.

I must pause here to point out that Moses illustrates and typifies a problem which has become widespread and even epidemic in evangelical circles in America, but that Moses’ problem is typical of only a segment of evangelicalism. For some who will read this message, your problem is not burnout, not burning your candle at both ends, but not having ever been lit. There are many overworked Christians who need to learn the lesson which Jethro taught Moses, but the reason why some Christians are overtaxed is because others are lazy and inactive. If you are uncommitted, uninvolved and sluggardly in your Christian service, I exhort you not to try to use this text as a pretext for your inaction. God is not pleased with this kind of abuse of His word. If you are of the sluggardly disposition, I urge you to turn to the wisdom which the Book of Proverbs has for you, or to those texts in the Bible which speak of our need for commitment and obedience.

The structure of this chapter is simple and straightforward. The text divides evenly into two portions: verses 1-12, which I summarize by the title: “Jethro’s Arrival”; and verses 13-27, which depict “Jethro’s Advice.” The two portions are very much related. Initially, I viewed the first 12 verses as a kind of formality, a setting of the scene. The more I have studied the text, however, I have come to see that the first half of the chapter reveals several symptoms of a serious problem in Moses’ life, which prompted not only the “arrival” of Jethro at the Israelites’ camp, but also his “advice.” Let us listen well to the sage words of this Midianite, who has much to teach us about managing our lives and our ministries. For those who are predisposed to business and over-involvement, they can spare us from the deadly disease of burnout.

Jethro’s Arrival

The first section (verses 1-12) breaks evenly into two divisions. Verses 1-6 might be titled “focus on the family.” They reveal the occasion for the arrival of Jethro. Verse 1 informs us of the basis for Jethro’s decision to visit Moses, while verses 2-6 tell us the purpose of that visit. The second division, verses 7-12, focus on the faith of Jethro. They depict the outcome of Jethro’s arrival: (1) Moses’ reports of God’s good hand on the Israelites; and, (2) Jethro’s response to God’s goodness to Israel—rejoicing, proclaiming God’s greatness, and worshipping Him with Moses and the elders of Israel.

It is difficult for me to envision how Jethro gathered information about the well-being of Moses, but the text tells us that he had been well-informed. The text tells us “he heard everything God had done for Moses and for his people …” (v. 1). Perhaps Jethro made a point to invite travelers, even caravans, to share a meal with him or to spend the night in his tent, enabling him to learn of events in Egypt. Today, Jethro would have devoured the daily newspaper, and watched every newscast with interest. He would have tuned in to “Radio Egypt” on his short wave radio. And, by the way, Zipporah and Moses’ two sons probably gleaned a considerable amount of this information, for they must have had great interest in the welfare of Moses, as husband and father.

The point of the passage, however, is not how Jethro learned of Moses’ well-being, but of what he learned. Jethro had learned that God had protected Moses, and that He had delivered the Israelites out of Egypt. He obviously learned (or would learn) the location of the Israelites, which would not have been nearly as far away as Egypt had been.

Jethro had learned enough to conclude that circumstances were such that Moses and his family should be reunited. Verses 2-6 indicate the purpose of Jethro’s visit to Moses—to reunite Zipporah (his daughter, Moses’ wife), Gershom and Eliezer (his grandsons, Moses’ sons) and Moses.

We are not told precisely when nor why Moses and his family were separated. In chapter 4, Moses requested, somewhat deceptively, that he be given leave to return to Egypt with his family (v. 18). There was an unpleasant event with Zipporah, related to the circumcision of Moses’ son, which nearly cost Moses his life (4:24-26). Some have concluded that Zipporah, in anger, returned to her father at this time, but our text tells us that Moses “sent her away.”187 We can at least conjecture that Moses sent his family back to Jethro at a time when Moses feared for their safety. Perhaps, too, he felt that the pressures of confronting Pharaoh and of leading Israel were too great to have the additional responsibilities of a husband and father.

From the information which Jethro had gathered, he concluded that the reasons for the separation of Moses and his family were now safely set aside. The purpose of Jethro’s visit to Moses was quite clearly to reunite Moses with his family. There may have been some frustrations, even some irritations, with having to support and raise Moses’ children, and to care for his wife. Maybe Jethro eagerly awaited good news about the Israelites so that he could have a little peace and quiet around the home. The text, however, never suggests anything but the purest of motives for Jethro’s actions. Here, as later in the chapter, he acts out of wisdom, compassion, and concern for Moses’ best interest. This was truly a magnanimous act, especially after the deceptive explanation Moses had given for his return to Egypt (Exod. 4:18).188

The arrival of Jethro, accompanied by Zipporah, Gershom and Eliezer, was apparently a pleasant surprise for Moses.189 While I would have expected Moses to pay much more attention to his wife and children, Moses is reported to have gone to meet Jethro, kissed him, and then went into Jethro’s tent190 with him. Where in the world were Zipporah and the children? Probably, they were there as well, but given the culture of that day, this is simply how things were done. Remember, too, that Jethro was a very prominent man,191 deserving of a formal reception.

Inside the tent, Moses and Jethro went through the formalities of the reception of an honored guest in an eastern culture. Moses brought Jethro up to date with a detailed report of how the hand of God had delivered the Israelites and devastated the Egyptians (v. 8).

Jethro’s response, described in verses 9-12, seems to be much more than just oriental courtesy. While there is some difference of opinion on the matter,192 it seems that Jethro here professes a personal faith in the God of Israel, which he had not had previously. First, Jethro rejoiced with Moses, praising God for His grace manifested toward Israel, as evidenced by Moses’ report (vss. 9-10). Second, Jethro seems to acknowledge, for the first time, the superiority of God over all other “gods,” which one would suppose included his own previously worshipped pagan gods.193 Jethro’s faith is demonstrated in his offering of sacrifices to God, and in the sacrificial meal, which Jethro, Moses, and all the elders of Israel shared (v. 12).

Having briefly considered the arrival of Jethro and Moses’ family and the affirmation of Jethro’s faith, I am left with a nagging question: Why was it that Jethro had to initiate the reunion of Moses and his family? Put differently, Why didn’t Moses send for his wife and sons, rather than to have Jethro show up with them unexpectedly?

My question arises out of an uneasy feeling, based upon several observations from verses 1-12:

(1) Moses seems to have sent his wife and sons back to Jethro without previously informing him of this, just as Jethro seems to return them to Moses in the same way.

(2) Moses’ motivation in sending his children back may be questionable, especially in the light of the names he gave his sons. What reasons can we suppose would be justifiable for Moses sending his wife and sons back to Midian, to be raised by a pagan (at that point in time)? Moses named his first son Gershom, which our text tells us is based upon the fact that Moses was (or, more likely) had become an alien. If Moses felt “alienated,” how could he alienate his family by sending them away from himself, and from the nation Israel. Moses felt the pangs of his separation from “his people” and yet he sent his wife and sons away from him. That appears to be inconsistent. So, too, if Moses could name his second son Eliezer, based upon his own deliverance from the sword of Pharaoh (v. 4), why then could he not trust God to deliver his family from the dangers of Egypt and from the sword of Pharaoh. And if Moses could tell the Israelites to trust God daily for food and water, why then could he not trust God to provide for his family’s needs? There seems to be an inconsistency here.

(3) Moses was remarkably slow to send for his family, when one would have expected him to be eager to have them near him. As I read the first verse of chapter 18, the question which seems to be paramount in the minds of Moses’ family (especially Jethro’s) is: “How’s Moses?” As the passage continues for us, and as time went on for Moses’ family, the question changed from “How’s Moses?” to “Where’s Moses?” It is not at the initiative of Moses that he is reunited with his family, but at the initiative of Jethro, who surprises Moses with a visit. Moses was not that far from his family, but he seems almost to have forgotten them.194

There is a tendency among Christians to minimize the failings of a man like Moses in this situation, even to attribute faith and trust to him, rather than doubt and failure. The assumption is that the saints who are described in the Bible always tend to do the right thing for the right reasons. One example of this is the explanation of Moses’ actions here in such a way as to focus on Moses’ piety:

The absence of his wife and children cause us to have an even deeper respect for his maturity and spiritual insight during Israel’s most troubled moments. No hint is given in the biblical text of personal discomfort or dissatisfaction with this situation. He apparently had placed his wife and children in the hands of the Lord and concluded that in God’s time they would be reunited. Therefore, for Moses this was a happy occasion not only because of Israel’s victory over Amalek but because of the renewed fellowship with his wife and family.195

I call this tendency to assume the best of biblical characters the “pious bias.” It seeks to elevate biblical characters to a level far above our own performance and far above what we would expect, knowing man’s nature. In contrast to this, I tend to interpret Moses’ actions according to what I call the “sinner syndrome.” Thus, it is not Moses’ virtues which are extolled in this chapter, but his vices. Now here is a man (Moses) whom I can identify with, a man with flaws like mine. These flaws are keenly observed by Jethro, whose advice in verses 13-27 is based upon his observation of Moses’ unconscious blunders both with regard to his family (vss. 1-12) and to his function as Israel’s leader (vss. 13-27). Let us press on, then, to see how the events of verses 1-12 serve as a clue to the failures which Jethro seeks to remedy by his counsel.

Jethro’s Advice

The next morning, Moses and the people of Israel began their daily routine. The people who sought to know God’s will from Moses began to line up at the designated place, perhaps just outside Moses’ tent. With a nation composed of nearly 2,000,000 people (600,000 men, cf. 12:37), one can imagine that the line was long, and that it began to queue up very early in the morning. Moses, we are told, seated himself, sitting as Israel’s sole judge (vss. 13, 14). The people came to him with all those matters which needed a decision, instruction, or counsel. The people looked to Moses alone for a word from God for guidance in their lives. At the end of the day, the long line of waiting Israelites was still there. The people were weary from standing all day, and so was Moses (vss. 14, 18). Jethro was able to quickly identify the problem to which, it seems, Moses was oblivious.

Jethro was baffled by the inefficiency of what had taken place during the day. Perhaps around the dinner table that evening, Jethro began to inquire about Moses’ rational for administering justice (judging) as he was doing. It is apparent from Jethro’s questioning that he did not agree with the way Moses was handling things. Even from the way his questions are phrased in writing, you can imagine the tone of voice with which he asked. (Fathers-in-law, you know, can do this better than others. It all starts with a question like, “Why are you a good enough man to be my daughter’s husband?”)

I believe that Moses was completely caught off guard by Jethro’s disapproval. Moses was so covered up by his work, so desperately trying keep his head above water that he didn’t have time to reflect on what he was doing. Jethro, on the other hand, had already suspected a problem for some time. Moses had not only sent his family home for him to care for, but he had apparently had little contact with them, and he had delayed in reuniting with his family. That morning, Jethro began to see the piece fall into place. Moses had not sent for his family because he did not have time to care for them—even to think of them.

The response of Moses reveals his distorted perception, which was the root problem. While Jethro quickly sized up the situation, Moses wasn’t thinking very clearly about what he was doing. His response reveals several misconceptions regarding his role as a leader. Consider them with me for a moment.

(1) Moses believed that every request for his help made the matter his responsibility. When asked why Moses handled matters as he did, Moses responded, in effect, “I am doing this because the people have asked me to.” I believe that Moses was a kind, caring, and compassionate man. I believe that the Israelites felt this way as well. No wonder they wanted to take their problems to Moses. Moses found it hard to refuse to help anyone who asked for it. He simply fell into the trap of assuming that every need which he became aware of was his responsibility to meet. If you have not learned so already, you will discover that we will always be aware of far more needs than we can personally meet. Moses was running himself ragged because he had not yet come to grips with his error.

(2) Moses seemed to assume that because people came to him personally for help it was his responsibility to help them personally. In answer to Jethro’s question, Moses explained that he judged the people from dawn to dusk because they came to him for help. Moses assumed that when there was a need, it was his personal obligation to meet it. In effect, Moses was not really leading at all, for he was unwilling to refuse any appointments, or to involve others in meeting the needs of the Israelites. Whoever wanted to speak with Moses (and was willing to wait in line to do so) could speak with him.

(3) Moses wrongly reasoned that because his task was to lead the entire nation, he must do so by dealing with people one at a time. It did not seem to occur to Moses that he not only could but must handle his task on a larger scale, dealing with groups, rather than individuals. Rather than to teach a class of 100 (which would have been a small class in that setting), Moses was teaching the same thing 100 times to 100 people.

(4) Moses seems to have assumed that no one else was able to do what he was doing. Moses told Jethro that the people came to him “to seek God’s will” (v. 15). It seems as though this placed the needs of the people in a category for which only Moses was able to give an answer.196

(5) Moses seems to have lost sight of his unique gifts and calling. God had not called Moses to do everything, but to do some things. Moses was given responsibility to lead the nation Israel as a whole, and thus his task was very different from that of others, who could deal with people on a personal, intimate, one-on-one basis.

I believe that we can distill several important principles of leadership from the words of Jethro, which were addressed to Moses. Let us give them careful consideration. These principles and their practical implementation provide the solution to Moses’ problems.

(1) To be a leader one must be in control. Here, I am referring to the fact that Moses should be in control of his ministry and his time, not so much that he should be in control of Israel. Moses was not in control of his ministry. As Israel’s leader, Moses should have had control of his time, but it is obvious that he did not. From morning till night, Moses was captive to the crowds who wanted his guidance. To put the matter in contemporary terms, the higher the level of a corporate executive, the more difficult it becomes to obtain an appointment with that leader. Our text implies that Moses was not turning down any appointments. Jethro urged Moses to exercise leadership by getting in control of his time, and of the ways in which he would lead the people.

(2) To be an effective Christian leader, one must balance the principle of servanthood with that of stewardship. While it is possible that Moses’ motives were not entirely pure (whose are?), I am willing to believe that Moses’ primary motivation for ministering as he did was that he genuinely cared for the Israelites and wanted to serve them. Moses, we are told, was known for his meekness (Numbers 12:3). Therefore, I assume that it was a genuine servant’s heart which motivated the ministry which caused Jethro to marvel at its inefficiency.

Every leader is to be a servant, but we are to be the Lord’s servant, doing His will, not the servants of men, fulfilling their every expectation and desire. As the Lord’s servants, we can have only one master (Matthew 6:24), to whom we shall have to give account of our stewardship (cf. Matthew 25:14-40; 1 Corinthians 3:10-15; 4:1-5). God will hold us responsible for how we have used those things which He has given us. If we strive to please men, we will most frequently fail to please God and to do those things which He has given us to do. Thus, in our attitudes, we must be servants at heart, but we dare not allow others to dictate or to determine how our stewardship shall be managed.

To put this matter in different words, Moses was to be a servant, but he was to serve by leading. As such, he must take charge, he must determine his calling, he must establish priorities, and he must stick to them, even when others would seek to modify his ministry. Moses was to serve the Israelites, but he must do so in the way which God had called him to serve. Servanthood is thus an essential attitude for the Christian leader, but that leader’s actions must be determined by other factors.

(3) Leadership is shepherding and shepherding involves a flock. Moses was dealing with the Israelites individually, but Jethro advocated dealing with them collectively (cf. vss. 19-20). It is a good goal for a leader to desire to know all the people he leads personally, but it is quite honestly an impossible goal when the group gets very large. Surely we cannot fault Moses for failing to “know” each of the nearly 2 million Israelites intimately. Moses told the Israelites that their great number was the reason for his taking the action recommended by Jethro: “And I spoke to you at that time, saying, ‘I am not able to bear the burden of you alone. The Lord your God has multiplied you, and behold, you are this day as the stars of heaven for multitude’” (Deut. 1:9-10).

There are reasons why we have come to expect our leaders to know us intimately, even though this is impossible. One reason is that we have not carefully interpreted or applied the shepherd imagery of the Bible. When shepherding is described as a function of human leaders, they are spoken of as shepherds of a flock, not shepherds of an individual sheep (cf. Psalm 77:20; 78:52; 80:1; Isaiah 63:11-14).

Another reason is that we have failed to distinguish between the shepherding of the flock by men from the shepherding of our Lord. When our Lord is the shepherd, however, then we find the relationship described is much more personal and intimate (cf. Psalm 23; John 10), as well it can be, for our Lord does not have the human limitations of earthly shepherds.

Another error, in my opinion, is that we have tended to restrict the task of shepherding to elders alone. As I understand the concept of the church as a body, I see that it is the work of the church to minister to itself. We are all priests, not just a select few (1 Peter 2:5). Elders are instructed to shepherd the flock of God (1 Peter 5:1), but this does not mean that they do all the shepherding. It means, I believe, that they are responsible to see to it that the flock of God is shepherded. The leadership of the local church involves more than just elders. Thus, the writer to the Hebrews avoids equating church leadership with elders alone (cf. Hebrews. 13:7, 17).

This explains why shepherds are spoken of in the plural, rather than in the singular (starting with Moses and Aaron—Psalm 77:20, and then on with the plurality of elders/shepherds in the New Testament (cf. Acts 20:17 Philippians 1:1; 1 Peter 5:1-2). The work of shepherding is beyond any one man’s ability to accomplish.

When Moses attempted to settle disputes, he was dealing with the Israelites on an individual basis. When he taught the people the principles and precepts of God, he could do so to large groups, thus functioning more as a shepherd.

(4) Because leadership requires a plurality of leaders, it also requires leaders to be managers. Moses was unable to manage his ministry because he failed to see that his ministry required management. One of the essential functions of leadership is management. Moses was dealing with nearly 2 million people, but he was trying to do so all by himself. He failed to see the need for management—the ability to make use of others in meeting the needs of the Israelites. The New Testament speaks frequently of the management function of church leaders. Thus the terms “manage,” “be in charge of,” and “overseer” are frequently used with reference to church leadership. Moses had forgotten that leadership involves management.

(5) Leadership involves both public and private obligations, neither of which can be sacrificed entirely for the other. Moses had become so entangled in his public duties (judging the Israelites) that he had unwittingly been neglecting himself and his family. He was, according to Jethro, “wearing himself out” (v. 18). Furthermore, Moses had seemingly forgotten his family. Who knows how long they would have been left with Jethro, had this wise man not taken the initiative to reunite Moses’ family?

There is a delicate balance which must be maintained between public and private responsibilities. Moses had allowed his sense of public duty to overshadow his sense of personal responsibility. A leader is one who is to manage his family well, as a prerequisite to his assuming a leadership role in the church (cf. 1 Timothy 3:4, 12). There are those (myself included, at times) who use their public duties as an excuse to avoid their private obligations. There are very pious-sounding ways to do this, but the essence is that we often shirk the things we wish to avoid by conjuring up a “lion in the road” (cf. Prov. 26:13)197 which provides us a compelling reason for our inaction. The scribes and Pharisees had this skill fine-tuned (cf. Mark 7:9-12). Paul therefore found it necessary to underscore the importance of meeting our family responsibilities (1 Timothy 5:8).

It should quickly be added that some pay so much attention to their personal affairs as to exclude their public obligations. The “cares of the world” can crowd out what might be called “kingdom concerns” (cf. Mark 4:19). Concerns with one’s family can hinder one from his commitment to follow Christ (cf. Luke 9:57-62; 1 Corinthians 7:32-35). In my opinion, there is a tendency among some Christians today to become far too introverted, using their responsibilities to their family to excuse their lack of attention to penetrating the world as “salt” and “light.”

Paul’s advice to Timothy is applicable to every Christian, for it underscores the need to attend to one’s personal responsibilities as well as one’s public duties: “Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things; for as you do this you will insure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you” (1 Timothy 4:16, NASB).

Attending to one’s own “inner man” is vital, not only because we must maintain our own walk with the Lord, but also because we can quickly use up our spiritual reserves in ministering to others. Paul’s exhortation to Timothy reminds us of the importance for each of us to attend to our own spiritual nurture, as well as that of others. Gordon MacDonald’s work, Ordering Your Private World, is devoted to the disciplines of this important personal ministry. I strongly recommend that you read and apply MacDonald’s advice.

(6) Leadership must deal with problems, but must guard against becoming consumed with them. Moses had gravitated into the role as Israel’s “problem-solver.” As I look at the biblical text more carefully, it seems that Moses was primarily consumed with arbitrating disputes.198 He had become more of a referee than anything else. His role was almost entirely prescriptive (problem-solving), rather than preventative (problem prevention). Jethro’s advice was that Moses rearrange his time so that priority was given to teaching the people God’s principles and precepts, thus preventing the problems, and prescribing guidelines for solving problems when they arose.

In my opinion, when we become absorbed in problem-solving, we often are so busy that we lose our sense of direction. Moses seems to have been taken totally by surprise by Jethro’s response. Moses appears to have been completely ignorant of his own failure, or of the fact that the Israelites’ needs were not being properly met. I believe that this is because he was too involved in the details of ministry and not involved enough in directing ministry.

Jethro’s Advice and Contemporary Christianity

There is one way in which all of us have been directly affected by the advice which Jethro gave Moses centuries ago. I did not think of it, but a friend of mine did, and he shared it with me as we were discussing this text. He pointed out that Jethro’s advice was probably directly related to the writing of the Pentateuch by Moses. Moses wrote the first five books of the Old Testament—the Pentateuch. This is a great literary work, not to mention its status as divine revelation. The writing of the Pentateuch was Moses’ implementation of Jethro’s counsel: “Teach them the decrees and laws, and show them the way to live and the duties they are to perform” (Exodus 18:20).

The way Moses was consumed by his duties as judge, he would never had the time to write the very chapter which we have studied, and from which we can learn so much. How directly we have benefited from Jethro’s counsel to Moses. Millions have been blessed because of the change which Jethro’s visit brought about in the life of Moses.

No doubt many of my readers are feeling rather comfortable as they consider this passage of Scripture. In the first place, it is a text which may seem irrelevant to New Testament Christians because of its antiquity. Second, this is a text which deals with leadership, and thus those who are not official leaders in the church may feel exempted from any of the implications of the text, even if they are relevant. I want to suggest that this conclusion is wrong. Let us explore the reasons why Jethro’s advice is as relevant to every Christian today as it was to Moses centuries ago. I will seek to show the relevance of Jethro’s advice by establishing three principles below.

(1) The principles and practice advocated by Jethro are those which we can find applied by the church in the New Testament. The parallels between Exodus chapter 18 (including its implementation in Deuteronomy 1:9-18) and Acts 6 are uncanny. Both the Old and New Testament incidents stemmed from problems which were the result of rapid growth, large numbers of people, and too few leaders. Both events required the leadership to expand, and for those on the highest level of leadership to devote themselves to their primary calling, and to delegate the other ministries to highly qualified men. Jethro’s advice was that Moses appoint others to deal with the problems which arose, and for him to devote himself to intercession for the people (v. 19) and instruction (v. 20). The same practice can be seen in the New Testament. The apostles were made aware of the discrimination that was taking place in the feeding of the widows, but they quickly delegated the solution of this problem to others, rather than to become distracted from their primary responsibilities of prayer and the ministry of the word (Acts 6:1-6).199

Acts chapter 6 is an example of how the early church applied the administrative principles of Exodus 18 and Deuteronomy chapter 1. As a matter of fact, the more I study the incident in Acts, the more inclined I am to conclude that the apostles found the precedent for their decision from these Old Testament texts. If the apostles and the early church could find the solution to their dilemma in Exodus chapter 18, why should we not apply the text to our church as well?

(2) The principles which Jethro recommended to Moses are those which we find individual leaders in the New Testament applying to their ministries. As we read the New Testament, we find that the great leaders of those days regulated their ministries in a way that was consistent with the advice Jethro gave Moses.

We may not think that our Lord could be used as an example here when we come upon certain verses in the New Testament which describe an incredibly heavy demand on the time and energy of our Lord. For example, we read: “And He came home, and the multitude gathered again, to such an extent that they could not even eat a meal. And when His own people heard of this, they went out to take custody of Him; for they were saying, ‘He has lost His senses’” (Mark 3:20-21, NASB).

Before we look at the ways in which our Lord was an example for leaders, let us bring to mind the ways in which our Lord was unique as a leader. First, He was God incarnate. Second, He was a man who had no wife or children. Third, He knew that his days were numbered, that He was destined to die on the cross of Calvary after a short ministry. In other words, our Lord was able to “burn the candle at both ends” and thus to press his body to its limits of hunger and fatigue because He was not pacing Himself for a long period of earthly ministry. Jesus was running a 100 yard dash, and thus He put His all into the little distance He ran. We are running a cross country race, and we must therefore pace ourselves differently.

Nevertheless, our Lord exercised His leadership in a way that illustrates many of the principles Moses was taught by his father-in-law. Our Lord did not purpose to minister alone. Instead, He called 12 disciples to follow Him, and these He trained to carry on without Him. In turn, they would also make other disciples. While our Lord was constantly busy, He never forgot His priorities. Even though He was constantly needed as a healer, He restricted His healing so that His principle task of proclaiming the gospel could be fulfilled (cf. Mark 1:32-39).

While our Lord ministered to the masses, He frequently withdrew for times of privacy with His Father. His public ministry was interspersed with times of private fellowship with God (cf. Matthew 4:12; 12:15; 14:13; 15:21; Luke 9:10; 22:41; John 6:16). It was at these times that critical decisions were made. Thus, our Lord always had a keen sense of His calling and purpose. He could not be deterred from it by Satan, by circumstances, or even by the wrong advice of well-meaning disciples. Our Lord always knew what it was He was sent to do, and He never wavered in His sense of direction.

I believe that a study of the life of Paul would demonstrate the same kind of leadership.200 In both cases there were constant pressures and problems. I do not believe that the efforts of contemporary Christians to live life at a slower pace are often realistic. I do believe, however, that there is a need for an inner calm, a keen sense of direction, and a clear set of priorities which govern our decisions as to what tasks we will undertake when there are more demands on our time than we can possibly meet. I believe that in those times when life is unavoidably frantic we ought to have a clear sense of our calling and that we should minister with an inner calm that facilitates our ministry. We should be like a doctor who is called to the hospital at a time of disaster. Though there may be dozens of patients dying, he can only deal with them in an orderly way. As he operates on each one, he must do so with an inner calm and confidence. If he were to panic, he could only do great harm. If he remains calm, he can be of great help, but only within his limitations. I see this kind of inner calm in our Lord and in the apostle Paul, even in times of great demand, or of great stress.

(3) The principles which Moses learned from Jethro are applicable to every Christian, whether he is a leader or not. The principles which we have learned from Jethro are leadership principles. Whether or not we are leaders in the church, most of us have some leadership responsibilities. Men have leadership responsibilities in marriage. Mothers have leadership responsibilities in the home. Older Christian women have a leadership role with the younger women. Many have leadership roles on the job or in the community. In whatever task we have a leadership role, the principles we find in Exodus 18 are applicable.

Beyond this, the principles which are found in our text apply to every Christian, for we all are stewards of the time, gifts, and opportunities which God has given us. In other words, we must take the leadership in our own lives, which involves managing those things of which God has made us stewards. In many ways, our judgment at the Bema seat of Christ (1 Corinthians 3:12-15) will be an assessment by our Lord of our stewardship. Frequently in the gospels there is a portrayal of God’s stewards giving account to Him for their stewardship (cf. Matthew 25:14-30). If we would be good stewards, we must be good managers, of our time, of our talents and abilities, and of our God-given opportunities.

Practically speaking, good management is necessary for our spiritual survival in a culture which is seemingly confined to the “fast track.” For some Christians, there is a need to get control of our ministries, so that they can be more effective and so that they do not defeat us in the fulfillment of our personal and private responsibilities. Some of our ministries are in such disarray that our private worlds are crumbling. For others, there is a desperate need to get control of our private and personal lives so that we can fulfill the public ministries which God has given us. There are countless Christians whose ministries are non-existent because they are squeezed out by other pressures. In either case, we need to get in control of our lives and of our ministries.

Management ability is not innate, but is learned. Good leaders are not born, they are made. Moses was called to lead the Israelites, but even with years of education in Egypt and in practical experience, Moses had a lot to learn. This should encourage those of us who feel that administration is not our forte. Let us learn from Moses that we can learn to become better managers, better administrators, better leaders.

As we conclude, let us consider several initial steps which may get us started on our way to becoming better leaders and managers.

(1) Find a Jethro. Those whose ministries are out of control may, like Moses, not even be aware of their difficulties. God gave Moses a Jethro to point out his problems. Fortunately, God has given me a Jethro, a dear Christian friend and brother, who points out the disorder in my life, and who lovingly exhorts me to get in control. If you do not have such a friend, get one.

(2) Prayerfully determine those things which should be under your control but are not, and ask God to enable you to do so.

(3) Determine the gifts of which God has made you a steward, and plan how you will best utilize them for God’s kingdom.

(4) Establish goals for your life, and form a plan as to how you will, by God’s grace, reach them. God may very well sovereignly intervene to change these plans, but better to have a plan to be changed than to have no plan at all.

(5) Establish a plan for both your private world and for your public ministry, and determine not to neglect either.

(6) Determine the priorities which will govern those things you will do and those which you will turn down. Of all the things you could do, seek to identify and to achieve those which you should do.

(7) Seek to differentiate between the crises of your life and the calling of your life, and then minimize the former and maximize the latter.

(8) Determine to facilitate the ministry of others, especially by encouraging and equipping them to do what they do best. In other words, begin to function as a Jethro to the many Moseses around you.

(9) Desire to grow in both faith and humility. Faith is required to trust God to enable you to do what He has called you to do. Faith is also required to enable you to leave what you should not do to others. Humility will keep you from self-trust, and will prevent you from taking credit for what God has accomplished. It will also enable you to resist the ego-flattering suggestion that only you are the solution to a particular problem.

185 I might as well confess that after I decided on the title “The Tyranny of the Urgent” for this chapter, I was tempted to change the title of the messages on chapters 16 and 17 to be: “The Tyranny of the Urges.”

186 Gordon MacDonald, Ordering Your Private World (New York: Oliver Nelson, 1984), pp. 13-18.

187 While this expression (“send her away”) can be used as a technical term for divorce, it is obviously used in its neutral sense here. Gispen informs us of Calvin’s explanation: “Calvin believed that Moses took Zipporah and her two sons with him to Egypt, but that he had allowed them to visit Jethro during the wilderness journey; Jethro then brought them back to Moses. The expression ‘after sending her away’ argues against this view, but it also contradicts the idea that Zipporah voluntarily left in anger to return to her father after the circumcision of her son. Moses had sent them away, and Jethro wanted to return them to Moses, now that the situation for Moses and Israel seemed to be more hopeful than Zipporah might have anticipated.” W. H. Gispen, Exodus, trans. by Ed van der Maas (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982), p. 173.

188 Jethro had good reason to be upset with Moses. He did not tell him of the call of God, nor of the real purpose of his return to Egypt, which would have endangered his daugher and grandchildren. Neither does it seem that he asked Jethro’s permission to send his family back to the land of Midian. To top matters off, Moses seemed to be in no hurry to call for his family, once the dangers of Egypt were a thing of the past.

189 The impression I gain from the text is that Jethro did not send word to Moses of his arrival until he was almost to the camp of Israel. Moses, therefore, would have been taken largely by surprise by the arrival of his family. Further explanation will reveal why.

190 On initial reading, one would tend to conclude that Moses took Jethro into his tent, in the Israelite camp, but the text tells us that Moses had gone out to meet Jethro. It was there, it would seem, that Moses kissed Jethro, and then entered into Jethro’s tent, to share what God had done for Israel. It is no wonder then, that it is not until the next day, when Moses is entertaining Jethro at his own tent that the administrative and ministerial nightmare is spotted by Jethro. One can learn a lot by a visit to the home of another.

191 Jethro is identified in verse 1 as “the priest of Midian.” This seems to signal the fact that he was not just a priest, but one of the most prominent (if not the most prominent) leaders. A similar situation can be found in John chapter 3, where Nicodemus is called “the teacher of Israel” (v. 10, cf. v. 1). Cole, observes: “The whole scene is typical of eastern courtesy. Both men are now great chiefs in their own right, and behave accordingly.” R. Alan Cole, Exodus: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1973), p. 138.

192 Cole writes: “This may not be true monotheism (the belief that there is only one god), but it certainly leads to monolatry (the worship of one god to the exclusion of others) as a logical sequence. … Was Jethro ‘caught up’ into the worship of YHWH, a ‘new convert,’ as doubtless others were later? Or had he already known and worshipped YHWH previously? Jethro’s own words here seem to favour the view that YHWH was a new god, as far as he was concerned.” Cole, p. 139.

193 Davis reminds us that, “Jethro must be considered unique, for it is clear from Scripture that the Midianites generally were idolaters (cf. Num. 25:17-18; 31:16).” John J. Davis, Moses and the Gods of Egypt (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1971), p. 188.

194 It occurred to me that Jethro may have been inspired to reunite Moses with his family because he became aware of the fact that Moses was now heading toward Canaan without his family. After the exodus of Israel from Egypt, Moses kept getting closer and closer to Midian and to his family. All during this time, the hopes of Moses’ family of being reunited with him were rising. If reports now placed Moses at locations which were growing more distant, one can see how Jethro would have been motivated to seek Moses out and to renite him and his family. Jethro could have feared that Moses would actually lead Israel into the promised land without taking his family along. Moses might have rationalized that this would be the “safest” thing to do. All of this is conjecture, but it is within the realm of possibility.

195 Davis, p. 187.

196 I believe that Davis is wrong when he concludes that Moses was wrongly involving himself here with civil disputes and judgments, rather than spiritual matters. He writes, “Apparently a good deal of Moses’ time was devoted to civil problems judging from the language of verse 13. … As Jethro sized up the situation he rightly concluded that Moses could not exercise effective leadership if he were constantly bogged down with civil matters.” Davis, p. 188.

Cole differs, and rightly so in my opinion, when he writes, “To see the anecdote as a separation of ‘sacred’ cases judged by Moses, and ‘civic’ cases judged by elders, seems mistaken: all justice was sacred to Israel. The administration of justice, of whatever kind, is here set in the context of sacrifice and sacred meal. The distinction is therefore not between sacred and secular but between difficult and simple matters, those already covered by tradition and revelation as against those requiring a fresh word from God, mediated through His agent, Moses.” Cole, p. 140.

197 The sluggard’s “lion in the road” is not (as I first supposed) a weakly fabricated excuse, which is easily seen through (there were lions in Israel in those days), but a compelling excuse. If there was a lion in the road, who in their right mind would go outside? Thus, the sluggard’s mind is always searching for compelling reasons for inaction.

198 The fact that Moses was occupied with the task of settling disputes is seen in Exodus 18:16 and Deuteronomy 1:12.

199 It is not coincidental that both Moses and the apostles were to give priority to intercession (prayer) and instruction (ministry of the word).

200 Cf. especially 2 Corinthians, chapters 4-7, where Paul’s ability to endure under opposition and adversity is the result of his sense of direction and calling, and from the inner strength which comes from the renewal and growth of the inner man.

12. The Preamble to Israel’s Constitution (Exodus 19)


There is a contemporary Christian song which has become popular recently, which goes something like this: “take another lap around Mt. Sinai …” This, of course, refers to the wandering of the Israelites in the wilderness, due to their disobedience. If we were to relate the lyrics of that song to Exodus chapter 19, it would go something like this: “take another lap up Mt. Sinai,” and it would be addressed to Moses, not the Israelites.

When I read Exodus chapter 19, I have a somewhat silly picture which plays in my mind. It is the picture of a profusely sweating Moses, huffing and puffing his way up and down Mt. Sinai. (I have to confess that in my mental movie, Moses is wearing a jogging suit and tennis shoes, not the flowing robes which we read about in the Bible.) Four times in the chapter Moses ascends and descends that mountain. Now I realize that Mt. Sinai is no Mt. Everest, but nevertheless it must have caused Moses to feel every one of his 80 plus years. As much as my mental picture causes me to smile as I read this chapter, there are other impressions which are far more important, and much more deliberately designed.

The 19th chapter of Exodus serves as a preamble to the commandments given by God to Israel through Moses in the following chapter. It informs us as to the purpose of the commandments, as well as to the perspective we should have toward them. There are many opinions as to how the Christian of today should relate to these commandments. Some would suggest that the Law is really a curse, and not a source of blessing. Some would tell us that the Law has absolutely no relevance or application to the Christian, since we are “not under Law, but under grace” (Romans 6:14). I suggest to you that our text in Exodus chapter 19 strongly implies that the commandments which are about to be given through Moses are to be taken seriously by every believer, in every age.

This chapter divides into three major sections. In verses 1-6 we have the preface to the chapter, highlighted by the words of God to Israel, spoken to Moses in verses 4-6. Verses 7-15 constitute the second division, which pertains to the preparations required of the Israelites before God’s appearance to them on Mt. Sinai. The third section is made up of verses 16-25, which describe the appearance of God in splendor and majesty on Mt. Sinai. All of this is to set the scene for the deliverance of the Ten Commandments in chapter 20.

I am convinced that we will not appreciate the significance of the commandments in chapter 20 apart from a careful consideration of the “preamble” which is recorded in chapter 19. Our application of the Law will directly flow from our attitude toward the Law, and the purpose of chapter 19 is to shape our attitude toward the laws which follow.

God’s Purpose for the Decalogue

Verses 4-6 are the heart of the section, and some would go so far as to say they are the heart of the Old Testament revelation of God pertaining to His covenant with Israel. The first three verses set the stage for the pronouncement which God is about to make. Perhaps it is the third month “to the very day” (v. 1, cf. Exod. 12:41) that Israel is said to have arrived in the wilderness of Sinai. It may be that the Holy Spirit is reminding us by these words that Israel was right on schedule. They were precisely where God wanted them, when God wanted them there. It was here that the reunion of Moses’ family took place (Exodus 18:5). It was here that Israel would remain for 11 months (cf. Numbers 10:11).

Apparently it was not necessary for God to summon Moses. Verse three implies that Moses went up the mountain without any overt prompting from God. This may very well be due to the fact that it was here, on Mt. Horeb (which seems to by synonymous with Mt. Sinai) that Moses first encountered God (cf. Exodus 3 and 4). At the burning bush, God promised Moses that the nation would come to worship Him “at this mountain” (Exodus 3:12). Thus, Moses seemed to know that he was to ascend the mountain to speak with God.

From the mountain, God spoke some of the most significant words found in the Old Testament,201 words which Moses was to proclaim to the Israelites (vss. 3, 6b): “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself. Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6a).

These words convey several important truths:

(1) Israel’s history is proof of God’s faithfulness to His covenant, for He distinguished the Israelites from the Egyptians, delivering them and making them the special object of His care. In verse 4 God reminds the Israelites of the contrast between their fate at God’s hand at the exodus and that of the Egyptians. God brought about Israel’s deliverance, while at the same time He destroyed the Egyptians.

God uses a beautiful image here, that of the eagle’s care for its offspring. In the Book of Deuteronomy Moses explains the image more fully: “Like an eagle that stirs up its nest, That hovers over its young, He spread His wings and caught them, He carried them on His pinions” (Deuteronomy 32:11). While there were times when God seemed (to the Israelites) to have abandoned His people, in reality, God, like the mother eagle, was simply stirring up the nest, forcing the Israelites to “try their wings.” When Israel thought she was about to perish, God swooped beneath her, bearing her up. What a beautiful picture of the loving and compassionate care of God for His people. Israel’s past proved that God had dealt graciously with her, while at the same time He destroyed the Egyptians.

(2) Israel’s deliverance was for the purpose of being brought to God, so that the nation could be His prized possession and to serve Him as a priestly nation. In the Abrahamic Covenant, God promised Abraham that Israel would become great as a nation, the special object of His blessing. The blessing of Israel was also meant to be a source of blessing to all nations (Genesis 12:2). While this would ultimately be fulfilled by the coming of Messiah, there was also a more immediate application. God purposed to bless the nations by establishing Israel, His Servant, as a mediatorial people, who would be a “light to the Gentiles,” sharing with the nations the way of entering into fellowship with God.

(3) In order to maintain this privileged status, Israel must keep God’s covenant (as defined by the Law). Israel’s calling was to a position of both privilege and of responsibility. To whom much is given, much is required. Thus, in order to enjoy fellowship with God and to serve Him as His representative to the nations, Israel must reflect His holiness and purity. Israel was thus given the commandments, so that Israel would be distinct from the nations and God-like, so that they could fulfill their priestly calling.

Preparations for the Appearance of God

Moses conveyed the words which God had spoken to him on the mountain to the people (v. 7).202 Unanimously, the people responded, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do!” (v. 8) It is noteworthy that the Israelites agreed to do all that God commanded in principle, rather than in particular. That is, the Law has not yet been given. To this point, God has only indicated that the people must keep their covenant by obeying the laws which He is about to set down. This indicates to us the eagerness with which the Israelites anticipated the Law, as well as the implicit trust they had in the character of God, so that they could commit themselves to obedience without knowing what it is that they would obey.

Moses returned to the top of the mountain to convey the words of the people to God.203 Before he was able to speak, however, God revealed to Moses that He would appear to Moses in a thick cloud. The purpose for this appearance is not what we would have expected: “Behold, I shall come to you in a thick cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you, and may also believe in you forever” (v. 9). God was going to speak with Moses as Israel watched and listened, so that his leadership would be evident to the people. In light of later (not to mention earlier) events, when Moses’ authority would be challenged, God purposes to clearly establish Moses’ position and authority publicly. His appearance to Moses will accomplish this purpose.

Verses 10-15 outline the steps which the Israelites must take in order to purify and prepare themselves for the appearance of God on the third day. During the two day interval, a number of things were to be done:

(1) Boundaries were to be set, barring both man and beast from coming in contact with the mountain (vss. 12-14). Any man or beast which touched the mountain was to die. Death was not to come from the hand of God, but from the hand of the Israelites (vss. 12-13). Execution must occur in such a way that no one would touch the executed person (v. 13).

(2) The people were to consecrate themselves by washing their garments (vss. 10, 14).

(3) The people were to abstain from sexual intimacy prior to God’s visitation on Mt. Sinai (v. 15). There was, of course, nothing evil or defiling about normal marital sexual relations, but, as the Law would later spell out, there was a ceremonial uncleanness. Thus, until God’s visitation sexual abstinence was required.

What is it that makes violating the boundaries God has set such a serious matter? Why would God demand that anyone who touches the mountain be put to death? Usually we think of “capital punishment” as the penalty for a grievous sin, such as murder or adultery. Why would execution be required here, however? Is this not unduly severe? And why would God require the person to be killed by the Israelites? Why would he not be stricken dead by God?

The text does not provide us with the answers to these questions directly, but I would like to make several suggestions, which would help to explain the severity of this offense of overstepping the barriers which were set up at the base of the mountain.

(1) We must acknowledge that the offense of violating the boundaries is an offense of the highest order, and thus worthy of the same punishment as a murderer would receive. The severity of the penalty is our clue to the seriousness of the violation. The violation here is one that must be most serious, if not in our eyes, it is at least so to God.

(2) The sin which is punishable by death appears to be that of irreverence. The barriers which were constructed at the foot of the mountain made it impossible for one to inadvertently wander onto the mountain. The reason stated for pressing past these barriers is that of gazing (v. 21)—we would say “gawking.” In other words, it was curiosity which would have motivated people to draw too close to the mountain.

To press past the barriers which were constructed to satisfy one’s curiosity would be to demonstrate an attitude of irreverence. It is this irreverence which God finds such a serious sin. If you are not inclined to agree with me as to the seriousness of irreverence, let me remind you that it was irreverence which resulted in Uzzah being struck dead, even though his intentions (to keep the ark from falling from the ox cart) were well-meaning (2 Samuel 6:6-7). It was also Moses’ irreverence (in the striking of the rock) which kept him from entering into the promised land (Numbers 20:12).

But why was it irreverent to touch the mountain? The answer to this question is clearly given in our text. The mountain was to be constituted a “holy mountain” due to the fact that God would manifest Himself to Moses and to the Israelites there. Thus, just as the ground around the burning bush was holy (Exod. 3:5), so the mountain was holy as well. This is the reason why the mountain was to be “consecrated” by placing boundaries around it (v. 23).

If irreverence is such a serious sin, it is surely one about which we should be most sensitive. And yet, I find few (including myself) who are conscious of this evil, let alone sensitive to it in their own personal relationship with God, or in their worship.

(3) Irreverence is the byproduct of an inadequate sense of the holiness of God. The Israelites did not, as yet, have an adequate grasp of the holiness of God. The manifestation of God on Mt. Sinai was a spectacular demonstration of God’s power and majesty. His coming necessitated preparatory consecration, and it also motivated continual consecration, as men could see themselves in the light of His glory and grace. The purpose of this passage is intended, I believe, to serve as an antidote to irreverence. Let us therefore consider the final section of the chapter, which highlights the majesty and holiness of God.

The Manifestation of God on the Mountain

Don Curtis, one of my friends with whom I have studied this text, shared with me that he has come to view chapter 19 something like a wedding ceremony. First, there is the engagement, the announcement of the purpose of a man and woman to be married and to enter into a new and wonderful relationship. Then, before the wedding ceremony, there is a period both of preparation (making plans, perhaps making the wedding dress, showers, etc.) and of anticipation. Traditionally, the groom does not see the bride before the ceremony, heightening the sense of expectation. Then, there is the ceremony, a time of beauty and joyous celebration.

Don’s suggestion caught my attention, for this is very much what we see in this passage. The first section (vss. 1-6) contains God’s announcement: His purpose to have a unique relationship with Israel, set apart from every other nation. The second section (vss. 7-15) describes the preparations which were required for the appearance of God to come. And now, in this final section, we are overwhelmed with the splendor and the majesty of God as He manifests Himself to Israel on the mountain. Here is the grand finale, the manifestation of God in all of His majesty, purity, and power.

The sights and sounds are impossible to fully comprehend, and not easily brought to our conscious minds as we read the chapter. But let us use our imaginations for a moment and try to recreate in our minds what it must have been like to have been standing at the base of that mountain as God descended upon it.

On the morning of the third day, you are already tingling with the sense of expectation your two days of preparations have produced. While still in your tent, thunder and lightning commence (v. 16). A thick cloud encompasses the mountain. Then, the piercing blast of a trumpet fills the air. Along with all the other Israelites, you begin to tremble, with excitement, but mainly with fear.

At the command of Moses, you gather with the whole congregation of the Israelites at the base of the mountain (v. 17). As you look on, the Lord descends upon the mountain in fire, with smoke billowing from the mountain (v. 18). Suddenly, the whole mountain quakes violently. The trumpet begins to sound again, each time getting louder and louder (v. 19). Moses speaks and God responds with thunder. It would seem that all of the forces of nature have been summoned to salute their Creator, as He manifests Himself to His people on Mt. Sinai.204 If the sight of the burning bush was awesome to Moses, what impact must this scene have had on the Israelites? Other portions of Scripture205 signal the fact that this made a great impression on the people of God.

Moses alone was summoned to the top of the mountain to meet God (v. 20). He was told to go back down to the people and to warn them not to draw too near to the mountain to gaze at the spectacular scene which was taking place (v. 21). The priests,206 too, were to consecrate themselves, lest they be smitten of God (v. 22). When Moses descended this time, he was to return with Aaron (v. 24). Their leadership was thereby confirmed.

The Problem With Our Passage

If we grasp the mood of Exodus 19 as one of glory and splendor, then we must come to the conclusion that the way the giving of the Law is portrayed here is in contrast to the way we look at the Law from the perspective of the New Testament. The problem we face is this: the giving of the Law was not the tragic imposition of a horrible system upon a reluctant nation, but rather the glorious giving of the Law by God to His people, in an occasion marked by splendor and the glory of God. The problem with acknowledging this fact is that it seems to fly in the face of the New Testament, which, we believe, speaks disparagingly of the Law, and describes its coming more in terms of a curse than a blessing. In the New Testament we do find texts which seem to disdain the Law:

But if the ministry of death, in letters engraved in stones, came with glory, so that the sons of Israel could not look intently at the face of Moses because of the glory of his face, fading as it was, how shall the ministry of the Spirit fail to be even more with glory? (2 Cor. 3:7-8).

For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed is every one who does not abide by all things written in the book of the Law, to perform them.” Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, “The righteous man shall life by faith.” However, the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, “He who practices them shall live by them” (Gal. 3:10-12).

But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how is it that you turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again? You observe days and months and seasons and years. I fear for you, that perhaps I have labored over you in vain (Gal. 4:9-11).

But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law (Gal. 5:18).

For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under Law, but under grace (Rom. 6:14).

Our problem, then, is to attempt to reconcile the positive perspective of the Law which we find in the Old Testament with the negative connotations it has in the New. Our approach will be to gain a broader grasp of the Law, as it was viewed in both the Old and the New Testaments. We will begin by considering the Law as a corporate entity, defining the relationship between God and the nation Israel, and then as a private source of revelation and inspiration to the individual Old Testament saint. From here, we will move on to the New Testament perspective of the Law as indicated by our Lord’s attitudes and actions, and those of the apostles.

The Law was Israel’s corporate covenant with God and her constitution as a nation. Repeatedly, the Law which God gave Israel through Moses was referred to as a covenant (Exod. 19:5; 24:7-8; 34:10, 27-28; Deut. 4:23; 5:2). The three principle covenants of the Old Testament were the Abrahamic covenant (Gen. 12:1-3), the Davidic covenant (2 Samuel 7:11-16; 1 Chronicles 17:10-14), and the Mosaic (or Sinaitic) covenant. The Mosaic covenant is different from the other two covenants.207 This was a covenant which was provisional, and which was to be replaced by a “new covenant” which would be an eternal covenant:208

“Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “But this covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My Law within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. And they shall not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the Lord, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more” (Jeremiah 31:31-34; cf. also Isaiah 55:3; 61:8; Ezekiel 37:26).

The Law contained not only the regulations of God, but also the account of God’s mercy and grace in saving and keeping His people. Each generation was to teach the next generation the goodness of God, and each new generation was to ratify the covenant for itself:

For He established a testimony in Jacob, And appointed a Law in Israel, Which He commanded our fathers, That they should teach them to their children; That the generation to come might know, even the children yet to be born. That they should put their confidence in God, And not forget the works of God, But keep His commandments (Ps. 78:5-7).

Thus, the second generation of Israelites was reminded of God’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt, and of God’s care and protection up to the time of their entrance into the promised land (Deuteronomy 1-4; also the account of the exodus, as recorded in the Book of Exodus). It was necessary for this new generation to ratify the covenant for themselves (Deuteronomy 5). Later, when the Law was misplaced and then discovered, that generation also ratified the Law (2 Chronicles 34:14ff.). The Israelites who returned to Jerusalem upon their return from captivity heard the Law and accepted the covenant for themselves (Nehemiah 8 and 9; cf. especially 9:38).

The Mosaic covenant was never given as a means of earning righteousness by Law-keeping. The covenant was given to the Israelites after God had delivered them from Egypt. The Law could not be kept, except by God’s grace, and provisions were made (the sacrificial system) for men when they would fail to abide by the Law. The new covenant was promised because the Mosaic covenant could not be kept by Israel (Jeremiah 31:31-34). Whenever Israel failed with regard to the Law, it was not just a matter of violating the Law in some minute particular, but it was a result of unbelief: “Therefore the Lord heard and was full of wrath, And a fire was kindled against Jacob, And anger also mounted against Israel; Because they did not believe in God, Nor trust in His salvation” (Ps. 78:21-22; cf. also, vss. 32-33, 37).

The proper interpretation and application of the Law can best be determined by a study of the Old Testament prophets, whose task it was to call Israel to obedience to the Law. These prophets persisted in fighting a legalistic interpretation and application of the Law. They always sought to focus upon the essence of the Law, rather than upon mere particulars of its expression:

For I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice, And in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. But like Adam they have transgressed the covenant; There they have dealt treacherously against Me (Hosea 6:6-7).

With what shall I come to the Lord And bow myself before the God on high? Shall I come to Him with burnt offerings, With yearling calves? Does the Lord take delight in thousands of rams, In ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I present my first-born for my rebellious acts, The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you But to do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:6-8).

The Law (in its broadest form—the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible) was intended to serve as a record of God’s faithfulness to His promises and to His people. The ten commandments, along with the rest of the laws of God, was given to serve as the covenant between God and His people, and as their national constitution, by which the nation would be guided and governed.

The Law was also God’s personal revelation to individual saints. In addition to the public, corporate role of the Law as Israel’s (collective) covenant and constitution, the Law also had a private role to play in the life of the Old Testament saint. This role of the Law is readily seen in the Psalms. We shall focus our attention on two specific psalms, Psalms 19 and 119. Notice the crucial role the Law has in the life of the individual saint, as reflected by the psalmist in Psalm 19:

The Law of the Lord is perfect, restoring 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 fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; The judgments of the Lord are true; they are righteous altogether. They are more desirable than gold, yes, than much fine gold; Sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover, by them Thy servant is warned; In keeping them there is great reward (Psalm 19:7-11).

Let me suggest some of the specific ways which the Law applied to the individual saint:

(1) The Law was seen as a source of personal edification, through which God spoke personally to the individual saint: Restoring his soul (19:7); Making the simple wise (19:7); Rejoicing his heart (19:8); Enlightening his eyes (19:8); Providing guidance (119:105); Reviving him (119:154); Convicting him of sin (119:80, 126, 133; Ps. 19:11-14).

(2) The Law was a revelation of God’s character (Ps. 119:138, 156).

(3) The Law was a promise of future salvation (Ps. 119:166, 174). The psalmists never view the Law as the standard they must keep in order to be saved. In fact, they viewed salvation as something which the Law anticipated, but did not produce itself. Thus, the psalms look forward to a future salvation, one which the Law itself will not bring about.

(4) The Law was a consolation to the sufferer, but it was not viewed as a means by which one could earn blessings or avoid adversity (cf. Ps. 119:67, 71, 75). Rather than seeing the Law as the means to keep him from suffering, the psalmist saw suffering as God’s means of bringing him to the Law.

(5) From the Law the psalmist learned that he could neither understand nor apply this revelation, apart from God’s grace (Ps. 119:68, 73, 124-125, 144, 169). The psalmist understood that the Law required God’s grace to understand and to apply.

(6) The Law was simple, yet profound. It would not be grasped quickly and easily, but only through study, prayer, and meditation (Ps. 119:114, 123, 147).

New Testament Perspectives of the Law

There is great continuity between the New Testament and the Old in terms of their perspectives of the Law. We will focus our attention on two dimensions of the New Testament perspective of the Law: that of our Lord, and that of the apostles (primarily Paul).

Our Lord and the Law. Some think that our Lord disdained and disregarded the Law, based upon a misunderstanding of two events. When our Lord was confronted with the self-righteously indignant scribes and Pharisees, who demanded that Jesus stone the woman caught in the act of adultery (John 8:2-11), Jesus refused to do so. This is taken by some to mean that He refused to comply with the Old Testament Law. Note, however, that Jesus did not forbid them from stoning her, only that those who were without sin should do so (thus exposing their hypocrisy). But our Lord was without sin, why then did He not stone her? The reason is not that Jesus came to set aside the Law, but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17). This He would do by living up to all of its demands, which proved Him to be sinless and also qualified Him to die for the sins of men, thus bearing the penalty which the Law pronounces on all men. This woman who was guilty of adultery would not be stoned by our Lord because He had come to die in her place. The requirement of the Law for her sin (and that of all men) would soon be met on the cross of Calvary.

The second source of misunderstanding is the misconception of our Lord’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. The frequent expression, “You have heard … but I say” is not our Lord’s overturning of the Law. He did not mean, “The Law formerly taught … but I now teach.” Instead, He is correcting the wrong interpretation of the Law, as believed and proclaimed by the scribes and Pharisees. “You have heard” therefore refers to the pharisaic interpretation of the Law. “But I say” indicates our Lord’s interpretation of the Law, indeed, that interpretation which God had always intended men to understand.

When you compare the Lord’s interpretation of the Law in the Sermon on the Mount with that of the Old Testament prophets, you find them to be virtually identical. Both the prophets of old and the Lord focused upon the essence of the Law, both in motivation and application, while the legalistic scribes and Pharisees “majored on the minors,” the details of the Law.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the Law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are things you should have done without neglecting the others. You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel! Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence” (Matthew 23:23-25).

One need only compare these words with Micah 6:6-8, and then to note how Jesus reiterated the words of Hosea 6:6 (Matthew 9:13; 12:7) to see that there was no discrepancy between His interpretation of the Law and that of the Old Testament prophets.

As I have reflected on our Lord’s teaching on the Law of the Old Testament, I believe it is safe to say that our Lord placed much more emphasis on the private or individual use of the Law than He did on the corporate function of the Law, as Israel’s covenant and constitution. This is consistent with the fact that this dimension of the Law is soon to be set aside, replaced by the new covenant. The private use of the Law, that is, the individual use of the Law as demonstrated in Psalms 19 and 119, would continue on, and thus would be that function our Lord would emphasize.

Most importantly, however, our Lord’s coming to earth and His sacrificial death on Calvary was the fulfillment of the Old Testament promise of a new covenant. Thus, our Lord instituted the “Lord’s table” as a commemoration of the “new covenant” which was accomplished through His shed blood: “And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood’” (Luke 22:20; cf. 1 Corinthians 11:25). Our Lord did not disdain the Law, but He affirmed it, affirming its demands, fulfilling them completely, and then dying on behalf of all those who could not meet its requirements. If the Law were evil our Lord would not have complied with it, taught it, and died in accordance with its demands.

The apostles’ attitude toward the Law. No apostle is more outspoken about the Law than Paul. Because of his negative statements about the Law, we often fail to overlook his favorable comments. It is Paul who spoke of the glory with which the Law was first given: “But if the ministry of death, in letters engraved on stones, came with glory, so that the sons of Israel could not look intently at the face of Moses because of the glory of his face, fading as it was, how shall the ministry of the Spirit fail to be even more with glory?” (2 Corinthians 3:7-8).

Paul also defended the Law as that which was “Holy,” “righteous,” “good,” and “spiritual” (Romans 7:12, 14). At the first reading of 1 Timothy chapter 1, one might conclude that the Law was good, but only with regard to those who are evil (cf. 1 Timothy 1:8-10). A more careful reading informs us that Paul not only included himself as one of those “evil” people who needed the Law in the past (v. 13), but that he still considered himself as “chief of sinners” (v. 15). Thus, Paul saw the Law as applicable to himself, even as a saint.

What, then, are we to say of those texts which seem to condemn the Law as something which is evil (at worst) and worthless (at best)? First, we must see that Paul speaks demeaningly of the Law (the old covenant) only in contrast209 to the new covenant which was implemented by the death of our Lord. Thus, in 2 Corinthians chapter 3 Paul contrasts the glory attending the giving of the Law with the greater glory associated with the ministry of the Spirit. This is not a contrast between what is evil and what is good, but rather between what was good and that which is far better. The Law is therefore viewed by the apostles as that which was prophetic—it foreshadowed the better things to come (Colossians 2:16-17; Hebrews 10:1), and that which was provisional and preparatory (Galatians 3 and 4).

When Paul speaks absolutely disparagingly of “the Law” it is not of the Law as given by God and properly interpreted and applied, but the Law as interpreted and applied by the Judaizers, who sought to pervert the Law into a system of works-oriented righteousness. It is vitally important to approach each passage which deals with the Law in the light of its context. In Romans chapter 7, for example, the context is living the Christian life. Paul is showing that the flesh is incapable of resisting the power of sin and thus of producing righteousness. The problem is not the Law, for it is “holy, righteous, and good” (7:12). The problem is the flesh, which is weak (vss. 18-24). The solution to the problem is not to do away with the requirements of the Law, but to fulfill the Law by walking in the Spirit. Those who walk in the Spirit fulfill the requirement of the Law (Romans 8:4).

In the Book of Galatians, Paul is fighting the false doctrine of the Judaizers, who insist that men are saved by submitting themselves to the Mosaic covenant, as signified by circumcision. This is nothing less than heresy, and must be adamantly rejected. The “Law” to which Paul refers in Galatians is thus the “Law” as interpreted and applied by the legalizers. Thus, Paul can write, “And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by Law; you have fallen from grace” (Galatians 5:3-4). In this context “Law” refers to the legalistic doctrine of the Judaizers.

In order to refute the false teaching of the Judaizers concerning the Law, Paul finds it necessary to teach the proper perspective of the Law. When Paul interprets the Old Testament Law, he does so in a way that is completely consistent with the Old Testament prophets and our Lord. The Law, writes Paul, was provisional and preparatory, and was superseded by the new covenant. The Law (as given by God) was not bad, it was good—but the new covenant is far better. With this conclusion the writer to the Hebrews agrees (Hebrews 8:1-13; 10:1-18). The verdict of Christ and of the apostles is unanimous, and consistent with the viewpoint of Moses and the prophets.


We can say with conviction that the giving of the Law as described in the Book of Exodus was a glorious occasion. The Law was a gracious provision of God for the nation Israel, albeit a temporary one. The new covenant would be far better, but the old covenant was a necessary prerequisite and preparation. What, then, are the practical outworkings of our text? These can best be seen in the light of the differences between the old covenant and the new.

The old covenant was introduced in a blaze of glory. All Israel beheld the manifestation of the glory and power of God as He descended upon the mountain. There was an immediate sense of the holiness of God which gripped the entire congregation of Israel. It was not so difficult for the Israelites to appreciate the distance which God kept between Himself and the people. Indeed, the people urged Moses to intercede and to mediate between them and God, fearing to be near Him (cf. Exodus 20:18-20; Deuteronomy 5:22-27). Whether due to the boundaries established at God’s orders, or to the fear of the Israelites of God, the people kept their distance.

The new covenant was introduced quite differently. The old covenant was commenced with a public appearance of God to Israel, displaying to all His majesty and might. A select few enjoyed intimate contact with God (namely Moses, Aaron, and the elders, cf. Exodus 24:9-18). The new covenant was introduced by the appearance of the Lord Jesus Christ to Israel. His coming was quite the opposite. He came as the child of poor parents, who could not even find suitable housing, so that the child was born in a cattle trough. His glory was manifested to a very few. At His birth and in His early life, a few humble people were given a glimpse of His majesty and power. Later, at His baptism and transfiguration, only a select few were privileged to witness His glory. Rather than the barriers which kept men away from God, on threat of death, the multitudes pressed upon on the Lord and touched Him.

Thus, in the first covenant God’s majesty and might were manifested to all, but a select few could draw near. In the new covenant, all who wished could draw near, but only a few beheld His majesty. The first manifestation of God on Mount Sinai portrayed the marvelous truth of the holiness of God, and the separation which that demands. The second manifestation of our Lord (on Mount Calvary) revealed the marvelous grace of God, by which He drew near to men and by which we may draw near to Him. How careful we must be to keep both the holiness and the grace of God in perspective. There are some that stress the grace of God to the point of diminishing the truth of His holiness, and of our need for purity. There are others (not many) who so emphasize the holiness of God that men despair of ever having intimate fellowship with Him. The coming of our Lord makes it possible for men to have intimate fellowship with the same God who was manifested on Mt. Sinai.

The message of the gospel is evident in what we see here. The barriers which were, of necessity, constructed to keep men from God at the giving of the old covenant have all been taken away by the institution of the new covenant. The veil which kept men from the presence of God has been severed. The barrier of our sins has been torn down. This is because the holiness which the Law requires has been fulfilled by the Lord Jesus Christ, just as the penalty of death which the Law pronounces on every sinner has been born by the same Savior, on the cross of Calvary.

Let all those who would point to the gentle Jesus, who refused to cast the first stone at the woman caught in adultery, comforted by His refusal to condemn her, be reminded that He is the same God who was so holy that men dreaded even to approach Him, let alone offend Him on Mt. Sinai. Let them also be warned that this same Lord will, one final time, manifest Himself to men on a mountain, in the same splendor and awesome power that God appeared on Mt. Sinai:

And in that day His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, which is in front of Jerusalem on the east; and the Mount of Olives will be split in its middle from east to west by a very large valley, so that half of the mountain will move toward the north and the other half toward the south. And you will flee by the valley of My mountains, for the valley of the mountains will reach to Azel; yes, you will flee just as you fled before the earthquake in the days of Uzziah king of Judah. Then the Lord, my God, will come, and all the holy ones with Him! (Zechariah 14:4-5).

In that day, those who have trusted in God will rejoice in the presence of God, but His enemies will flee. The God who has drawn near in Jesus Christ will return in splendor and glory, to reward the righteous and to render judgment on the wicked. Let us rejoice in the holiness and in the grace of God. Let us look forward to His appearance because we belong to Him. And let us, like Israel, prepare for His appearance by the purification which He requires, and which His Spirit accomplishes.

A final word on the application of the Law to the lives of Christians today. Surely we can see that the standard of the Law is still valid, as indicated in Romans 8:4. Also, we should be cautioned about trying to apply those aspects of the Law which have been done away with by the new covenant. We should not attempt to apply the Law to our nation and our government (as a covenant and a constitution) in the way Israel was commanded to do. Nevertheless, we are now the kingdom of priests, having been given that holy task which Israel was given and failed to fulfill. We should therefore understand that the standards for God’s kingdom of priests would be the same. The means of reaching this standard is not that of human effort at Law-keeping. It never was, and it never will be. We can never fully meet this standard, but in Christ it has been met. We can never achieve it in this life, but since Christ lives in us, we can expect evidences of righteousness because He is at work in us to will and to do His good pleasure.

The personal application of the Law, as seen in Psalms 19 and 119 is still valid and necessary for the Christian today. We should therefore come to a love of God’s Law and a delight in it that approaches that of the saints of old. Let us learn to love God’s Law and to see its beauty, because it is holy, righteous, and good, and because it has been fulfilled in Christ.

201 Gispen cites others to show the importance of the revelation contained in verses 4-6: “These words were spoken out of unfathomable love, which have been considered the center and theme of the entire Pentateuch (e.g., by Rupprecht, a conservative German Old Testament scholar, and Dillmann, who calls vv. 3-6 ‘the classic pronouncement of the Old Testament concerning the nature and purpose of the theocratic covenant’).” Gispen, p. 180.

202 This was done by means of the elders (v. 7). Due to the size of the nation, the elders would be told the message by Moses, and they would then convey it to the rest of the nation.

203 The mediatorial role of Moses is evident here, for God surely did not need to be told what the people had said. Notice that in verse 8 Moses returned to convey the words of the people to God, but that were reported as spoken by Moses in verse 9b. Before Moses spoke, God informed him of His appearance in a thick cloud, an appearance which would reveal the majesty and splendor of God (v. 9a).

204 The manifestation of the majesty of God on Mt. Sinai serves, I believe, as a commentary on these words of our Lord, spoken in response to the rebuke of the Pharisees for receiving the praise of the people as He entered Jerusalem: “I tell you, if these become silent, the stones will cry out!” (Luke 19:40). Nature responds to the presence of God, even when men are ignorant of it.

205 Cf., for example, Deut. 4:10-15; 5:2-6; Psalm 18:8-16.

206 We might be caught by surprise to see priests referred to here, since the priesthood had not yet been established. Let it suffice to say that many of the things formally established by the Law given at Sinai were already existent in some form already. Sacrifice, for example, predated the inauguration of the sacrificial system of the Law. Sabbath rest (cf. Exodus 16:22-30) predated the commandment to observe the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8-11).

207 “… most Old Testament scholars link the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants on royal grant types of treaties. … But the Sinaitic covenant is placed on a different footing even though it shares much of the same substance with the Abrahamic and Davidic promises. It is not modeled on royal grant treaties, but on a vassal treaty form.” Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward Old Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1983), p. 76.

208 Cf. Ezekiel 16:60; 37:26; Isaiah 55:3; 59:21.

209 In summary form, here are some of the contrasts between the old and the new covenants: Mosaic Covenant: (1) Provisional; (2) Partial (a shadow); (3) Taken advantage of by Law (Rom. 7); (4) Prophetic/prototype; (5) Good; (6) Written on Stone; (7) Conditional; (8) Condemnation. New covenant: (1) Permanent; (2) Complete; (3) Nullifies the condemnation of Law; (4) Final, fulfilment; (5) Best; (6) Written on hearts; (7) Unconditional; (8) Justification.

13. An Overview of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17)


We know that “all Scripture is profitable” (2 Timothy 3:16). We should also know that some portions of Scripture are more crucial than others. Some texts of Scripture serve as a key to the understanding of other Scripture. For example, the parable of the soils (Matthew 13:1-23; Mark 4:1-25) is a significant clue to understanding the teaching of our Lord. It is a key to grasping the reason for His use of parables (Mark 4:13). It was also the key to understanding the differing responses of men to the message of our Lord.

The Decalogue210 (the Ten Commandments) is one of the keys to understanding the Old Testament. Cole writes: “… the ‘ten words’ are at once the beginning and the heart of the Mosaic revelation. Around the ‘ten words’ it is possible to group most of the provisions of the ‘book of the covenant’ in chapters 21-23, and around the book of the covenant in turn to group the rest of the Torah.”211

While all do not agree on this point, I believe that Cole is right in his conclusion that the Ten Commandments are an introductory summary of the Law,212 the central core of the more lengthy Law of Moses which will follow in the Pentateuch. The essence of the Law is outlined for us first, and then the more detailed documentation of the Law will follow.

I am opposed in principle to the “red letter” editions of the Bible because they imply that the words of Jesus are somehow more inspired than those of the apostles and prophets. Nevertheless, I will remind you that verse 1 of chapter 20 begins by informing us that these commandments were not indirectly given to the Israelites, but were spoken by God directly: “Then God spoke all these words, saying …” (Exodus 20:1). We thus have one of the few “red letter” statements of the Old Testament before us. Surely we must sense that something significant has been spoken, to which we should give heed.

In following lessons, we will look at each of the commandments in detail, but in this lesson we will attempt to gain an appreciation for the Ten Commandments as a whole. They are, after all, a unit, and must be understood individually in relationship to the whole. We will therefore seek to get an overall impression of the commandments as a whole in preparation for our more exacting study of the Law in its parts.

The Structure of the Decalogue

I suppose that most of us have a mental picture of the Ten Commandments, with five of them engraved into each of the two stone tablets. Actually, there is a great difference of opinion on this particular matter.213 Also, there are a number of differences over the numbering of the commandments.214 Our attention, however, will be directed toward the overall structure of the commandments.

It has been noted that there are really only three positive statements made in verses 2-17, while the remaining statements are negative—prohibitions. This has led some to view the commandments as having a three-fold division.215 Seen in this way, the commandments can be outlined in this way: Israel’s Worship (vss. 2-7); Israel’s Work (vss. 8-11); and Israel’s Walk (vss. 12-17). This is the general outline which will be assumed in our study of the commandments.

The Characteristics of the Commandments

As we consider the Ten Commandments as a whole, there are a number of characteristics which are noteworthy.

(1) The content of the commandments is not really new. Kaiser points out that while the commandments are formally given as God’s Law here, the Book of Genesis reveals the fact that these formalized laws were already followed, or assumed as a moral standard:

In spite of its marvelous succinctness, economy of words, and comprehensive vision, it must not be thought that the Decalogue was inaugurated and promulgated at Sinai for the first time. All Ten Commandments had been part of the Law of God previously written on hearts instead of stone, for all ten appear, in one way or another, in Genesis. They are:

    The first, Genesis 35:2: ‘Get rid of the foreign gods.’
    The second, Genesis 31:39: Laban to Jacob: ‘But why did you steal my gods?’
    The third, Genesis 24:3: ‘I want you to swear by the Lord.’
    The fourth, Genesis 2:3: ‘God blessed the seventh day and made it holy.’
    The fifth, Genesis 27:41: ‘The days of mourning my father are near.’
    The sixth, Genesis 4:9: ‘Where is your brother Abel?’
    The seventh, Genesis 39:9: ‘How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?’
    The eighth, Genesis 44:4-7: ‘Why have you stolen my silver cup?’
    The ninth, Genesis 39:17: ‘[Joseph] came to me to make sport of me … but … he ran. …’
    The tenth, Genesis 12:18; 20:3: ‘You are as good as dead because of the woman you have taken; she is a married woman.’

Of course, not every one of these illustrations are equally clear, for the text does not pause to moralize on the narratives, but each would appear to add to the orders of creation already given in the first chapters of Genesis.216

(2) The Decalogue is in the form of the suzerainty-vassal treaties of that day in the ancient Near East. Archeologists have discovered that there were certain literary forms by which treaties were made between the king and his subjects. Comparing the Decalogue with these Near Eastern treaties reveals that the same suzerainty-vassal treaty form was employed in the covenant which God gave Israel.

… God reveals Himself precisely in those moral commandments. To Israel, the ‘book of the covenant’ is a definition of the terms under which God, as a great monarch, accepts Israel as His subjects under a ‘suzerainty treaty’ … The ‘great king’ stated his identity, outlined what he had done for his prospective vassal, promised future protection and, on the grounds and basis of this, demanded exclusive loyalty and laid down certain obligations for his subjects. Often lists of curses and blessings are appended: these too are familiar from the Old Testament.217

(3) The Decalogue, while similar in form to other Near Eastern treaties, is strikingly different in its content. It has been observed that there are similarities between the Law of Moses and other Near Eastern treaties, such as the Code of Hammurabi. The two covenants are decidedly different in that the Mosaic covenant is based upon religious belief, while the Code of Hammurabi (and others) is not:

The main similarity lies in their form, e.g., in the use of the formula ‘if someone … then. …’ The discovery of the Code of Hammurabi has reinstated the previously mentioned ‘Book of the Covenant’ … and the Decalogue as being of Mosaic origin. … But the Code of Hammurabi stands on a lower level than the Decalogue, if only because the former does not forbid covetousness (cf. 20:17). H. T. Obbink says: The entire code of Hammurabi does not contain a single religious idea, not even in the laws concerning temple prostitutes and magic’ (Inleiding tot den Bijbel, p. 27). The purpose is not to inculcate godliness, but rather to regulate social relationships. And Israel’s laws are, according to Wildeboer, more imbued with a spirit of mercy. But we must not forget that Hammurabi’s code was intended to be a legal rather than a religious document.218

The Decalogue is religious in nature, beginning with stipulations related to Israel’s relationship to her God, the God who delivered her from her bondage in Egypt. Every stipulation from beginning to end, is based upon Israel’s relationship to her God. The codes of other Near Eastern covenants is thoroughly secular.

(4) The Decalogue is, in one sense, intensely personal.

It [the Law] was, first of all, intensely personal. God spoke from heaven so all the people could hear his voice (Deut. 4:32-34: ‘Has any other people heard the voice of god speaking out of fire, as you have, and lived?’). The ultimate motivation for doing the Law was to be like the Lord—in holiness (Lev. 20:26) and action (Deut. 10:17-19; 14:1-2; 16:18-20). The covenant aims to establish a personal relationship, not a code of conduct in the abstract.219

Students of the Decalogue have observed that the “you” in the commandments is not plural, but singular. The mood, likewise, is that of exhortation. Each individual is therefore urged to enter into the joy of service (of being a holy priesthood) by adopting this covenant and by obeying the laws which are contained therein.

(5) The Decalogue is a not only a constitution, it is God’s standard for Israel’s culture. As I was studying the commandments, it suddenly occurred to me that God was prescribing, to a large degree, the culture of the nation Israel. We evaluate men by their character (or at least we should). But what is the measure of a nation? I submit to you that a people can, to a large degree, be judged by their culture. While some aspects of a culture are amoral, many are not. By giving Israel the Decalogue, God was prescribing the moral base for their culture.

Remember that Israel had just emerged from the Egyptian culture. As a persecuted minority, the Egyptian culture, to which the Israelites had been exposed for 400 years, was perhaps easier to shrug off when they left that land. On the other hand, the Canaanite culture was surely not one which was to be adopted by God’s people. Thus, God gave the Law to Israel to dictate not only individual conduct, but to establish a corporate code of behavior, a new culture, if you would.

The significance of this can hardly be overemphasized. When God saved Israel, He did so as a nation. The nation is composed of individuals, with its corporate witness equal to the sum total of the godliness of every Israelite. From New Testament times, God has saved individuals, but He has made them a part of a corporate body, His church. While there is much room for cultural differences in the church (cf. Acts 15), there are some dimensions of one’s culture which must be set aside because they are inconsistent with Christian morality. There is a sense in which the church corporately establishes its own culture. This may be one reason why John R. W. Stott entitled his exposition of the Sermon on the Mount, Christian Counter-Culture.220

(6) The commandments are predominantly negative. It doesn’t take long for the reader to observe that there are more no’s and do not’s in the Decalogue than there are positive statements. While this cannot be denied, I would suggest that the overall tone of the text is positive, nevertheless. I come to this conclusion on the basis of several factors.

The main reason why we focus on the negatives here in the Decalogue is because we have a negative attitude toward the Law. Those of us who believe that we are “not under Law, but under grace” (Romans 6:15), need not seek to give the new covenant its proper place by trying to make the old covenant look bad. The biblical stance, as I have previously proposed, is that the old covenant was good, while the new covenant is better.

I am reminded of R. C. Sproul’s comments about the grace which is evident in the Old Testament Law:

We cannot deny that the New Testament seems to reduce the number of capital offenses. By comparison the Old Testament seems radically severe. What we fail to remember, however, is that the Old Testament list represents a massive reduction in capital crimes from the original list. The Old Testament code represents a bending over backwards of divine patience and forbearance. The Old Testament Law is one of astonishing grace.

Astonishing grace? I will say it again. The Old Testament list of capital crimes represents a massive reduction of the original list. It is an astonishing measure of grace. The Old Testament record is chiefly a record of the grace of God.221

As Sproul will go on to say, originally the standard was, “The soul that sins shall die.” Adam and Eve had the death penalty pronounced upon them because of their partaking of a forbidden fruit. That was not murder, rape, or kidnapping; it was disobedience to a simple command of God. In our society, it would hardly rate as a misdemeanor, let alone be considered a felony, worthy of the death sentence. The Law, then, greatly reduced the number of offenses which were punishable by death. Once again, we find that the Law had a very positive dimension.

Every prohibition (negatives) is the outworking of an initial positive statement (of which there are three). As we have seen above, the Decalogue can be viewed as having three positive statements, each of which is followed by corresponding prohibition. While we are inclined to focus on the fact that there are more negatives than positives, let us remember that the negatives are all the logical consequence of an initial positive statement.

The laws of physics tell us that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. The same is true in the moral and spiritual realm. For every positive there are corresponding negatives. If we are to shine as lights in this dark world we must avoid the evil deeds of darkness. If we are to be pure and holy, we must avoid that which is unclean. The emphasis should be on the positive, not on the negative. Negatives are only necessary in order to produce positive results.

One may wonder why it would not have been possible for God to have made more positive statements than negative ones. The answer is simple: when the number of positives greatly exceeds the number of negatives, it is simpler to name the negatives. As counted, there are something like nine negative commands, but this is a very few negatives when you think about it, especially when compared to the number of positive things which constitute obedience to the commandments.

Let me attempt to illustrate the positive dimension of negative commandments by drawing your attention to the vows a husband takes in the marriage ceremony. The husband to be will promise that he will “forsake all others” and take this one woman as his wife. The husband could say to himself, “I cannot live with Betty as my wife … I cannot live with Sarah as my wife … I cannot live with Paula as my wife …” On and on the husband could go. In this mode of thinking, the husband could think of millions of women with whom he could not live as husband and wife. But he does not think this way. Instead, the husband who has just taken his vow to forsake all others goes his way rejoicing in this one positive truth, which overrides all others: “I can take Betty Lou (or whatever his one wife’s name is) as my wife—Hallelujah!” It is not the number of no’s compared to the number of yes’s, but the value of the yes that matters most. In this light, the few negatives of the Ten Commandments are far outweighed by the positive blessing of having fellowship with God and taking part in being a priestly nation, which manifests God to men.

In order to keep the commandments to a concise summary statement, God found it easier to list the few prohibitions (negatives) than to attempt to enumerate every positive freedom under the Law. When God placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, He could have walked about the garden with them saying, “This, Adam and Eve,222 is a Jonathan apple tree. You may eat of its fruit.” “This is a MacIntosh apple tree, of which you can eat as well.” “And this is an Alberta peach tree. You may eat its peaches. …” This could have gone on for a long time. Finally, God could then have said, “Now as for this one tree, you cannot eat of its fruit, lest you die.” This method would have emphasized the freedom which they had in the garden, but it would have made the Book of Genesis a whole lot longer. And so, for the sake of brevity, God simply said, “You may freely eat of the fruit of every tree of the garden, but of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat, lest you die” (my paraphrase of Genesis 2:16-17).

Satan attempted to take that one prohibition and to create in the minds of Adam and Eve the suspicion that God was really negative and restrictive, rather than generous and gracious. And so it can be with the Law as well. Satan would like nothing better than to underscore the negatives of the Law so that we would lose sight of the positive contribution of the Law. Thus, we find the teaching of negatives a part of the satanic strategy of deception, in the hope of getting men’s attention off of God’s grace (cf. 1 Timothy 4:1-5).

The Decalogue is positive because our Lord said so. When asked to summarize the essence of the Law our Lord responded, “‘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 foremost commandment. And a second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40).

In Exodus 20 God expressed the essence of the Old Testament Law in ten principle statements. Here, our Lord summarized the Law even more concisely, expressing its essence in two statements.

If we were asked to capture the essence of the Law in but one word, based upon the response of our Lord in Matthew chapter 22, what would that one word be? Without a doubt, that word would have to be love. The Law can be summarized in this simple way: Love (1) God; and (2) your neighbor.

Now, is love a positive or a negative concept? Primarily, it is a positive concept. Secondarily, it is a negative one. The reason is that love is exclusive, we love someone or something over something else. Thus, love is positive, but it has negative implications. This is precisely the way we should view the Law. It is essentially and fundamentally positive, although this positive dimension has negative implications.

Finally, the Decalogue is positive because God purposed that the demands of the Decalogue would be fulfilled by one Israelite—the Messiah—not the nation as a whole.

In Exodus chapter 19 we learned that the giving of the Law was directly related to Israel’s calling to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (v. 6). Israel was called of God for a specific purpose: to manifest God to the world by being a “kingdom of priests,” and a “light to the Gentiles” (cf. Isaiah 42:6; 60:1-3). In order to do this Israel must keep the Law of God, not in order to be saved, but in order to manifest the character of God. If Israel was to represent God they must be like God. The Law defined how God’s holiness would be manifested in the lives of men and women. When the Israelites failed to obey God’s Law they also failed to manifest their God to the nations.

This did not come as a surprise to God, however. God never had any delusions that Israel would ever live up to the standard set by the Law. After the Law was given (for the second time) in Deuteronomy, God said, “‘Oh that they had such a heart in them, that they would fear Me, and keep all My commandments always, that it may be well with them and with their sons forever!’” (Deuteronomy 5:29).

Later on, when the people pledged to follow God and to obey His Law under the leadership of Joshua, Joshua responded,

“You will not be able to serve the Lord, for He is a holy God. He is a jealous God; He will not forgive your transgression of your sins. If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then He will turn and do you harm and consume you after He has done good to you.” And the people said to Joshua, “No, but we will serve the Lord.” And Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen for yourselves the Lord, to serve Him” (Joshua 24:19-22).

The history of Israel is the account of how one generation after another failed to live up to her high calling and according to the standard of the Law. We learn from the New Testament that God knew Israel would fail and thus planned to fulfill His promise to Abraham another way. Thus, we read,

Brethren, I speak in terms of human relations: even though it is only a man’s covenant, yet when it has been ratified, no one sets it aside or adds conditions to it. Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as referring to many, but rather to one, “And to your seed,” that is Christ. What I am saying is this: the Law, which came four hundred and thirty years later, does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise. For if the inheritance is based on Law, it is no longer based on a promise; but God has granted it to Abraham by means of a promise (Galatians 3:15-18).

This is not the time for a full exposition of this text. Notice, however, how Paul stresses that the promise of God given in the Abrahamic covenant looks forward to its fulfillment by one person (seed, singular), rather than by a group (seeds, plural). Paul underscores that God never expected Israel to be a blessing to the Gentiles as a nation, by her fulfillment of the Mosaic covenant. Instead, God purposed to fulfill the Abrahamic covenant through one person, the seed, Israel’s Messiah. So it was that the promise to Abraham would be fulfilled. So, too, through Messiah, Israel’s high calling would be fulfilled.

We see this evidenced in the Old Testament Scriptures. There is a mysterious blending or converging (at least in Old Testament times) of Israel’s corporate identity and her identity with Messiah. Let me point out a couple of examples of how Israel’s corporate destiny was realized through the one seed, Messiah. Israel was to be “a light to the Gentiles,” and yet in those passages which speak of this function we gain the definite impression that somehow this function is the task of a single person. Note the blending of the individual and the collective in these passages:

The people who walk in darkness Will see a great light; Those who live in a dark land, The light will shine on them (Isaiah 9:2; cf. Matt. 4:12-16).

“I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I will also hold you by the hand and watch over you, And I will appoint you as a covenant to the people, As a light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6; cf. Luke 2:32; cf. also Isaiah 51:4).

And if you give yourself to the hungry, And satisfy the desire of the afflicted, Then your light will rise in darkness, And your gloom will become like midday (Isaiah 58:10).

“Arise, shine; for you light has come, And the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness will cover the earth, And deep darkness the peoples; But the Lord will rise upon you, And His glory will appear upon you. And nations will come to your light, And kings to the brightness of your rising. Lift up your eyes round about, and see; They all gather together, they come to you. Your sons will come from afar, And your daughters will be carried in the arms. Then you will see and be radiant, And your heart will thrill and rejoice; Because the abundance of the sea will be turned to you, The wealth of the nations will come to you” (Isaiah 60:1-5).

At one time, the “light to the Gentiles” is Israel itself, and yet the Messiah is the one who is seen as the “light to the Gentiles.” This is especially clear in the quotation of these texts from Isaiah in the gospels, referring to our Lord’s coming.

The same merging of Israel’s calling and destiny with that of her Messiah is seen in the references to “the servant” of the Lord in Isaiah:

“But you, Israel, My servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, Descendent of Abraham My friend” (Isaiah 41:8).

“Behold, My Servant, whom I uphold; My chosen one in whom My soul delights. I have put My Spirit upon Him; He will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry out or raise His voice, Nor make His voice heard in the street. A bruised reed He will not break, And a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish; He will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not be disheartened or crushed, Until He has established justice in the earth; And the coastlands will wait expectantly for His Law” (Isaiah 42:1-4).

Once one recognizes the interchange between the corporate (Israel) and the singular (Messiah) sense in which “servant” is used in servant portion of Isaiah, you can understand why it is difficult, at times, to discern which of the two senses is most prominent. For example, in my edition of the NASB, the text is rendered this way:

Behold, My servant will prosper, He will be high and lifted up, and greatly exalted. Just as many were astonished at you, My people, So His appearance was marred more than any man, And His form more than the sons of men (Isaiah 52:13-14).

The expression “My people,” is italicized in the text, indicating that it has been supplied by the translators to enhance the sense of the literal text. Later editions have deleted this expression. Some evangelical scholars were greatly distressed because the translators suggested that the plight of the nation Israel was the cause of many being astonished. They rightly insist that the entire portion of this passage (52:13—53:12) is referring to the suffering Servant, Israel’s Messiah, not the nation itself. But when you see how Israel (God’s servant) was inseparably identified with Messiah (God’s Servant), the reason for the difficulty is obvious, even if the translators were wrong in their rendering of the text.

In the Gospels we have various other clues to the way in which our Lord, the Messiah, retraced, as it were, the steps of the Israel, only in a way that perfectly fulfilled God’s precepts and purposes, thus achieving for Israel what she, as a nation, failed to accomplish. Israel spent forty years in the desert, but when there was no food or water, the people grumbled. Our Lord spent forty days in the wilderness, going without food and yet perfectly obeying God, in the midst of intense satanic temptation. And when our Lord responded to Satan’s temptations, He did so from the passage in Deuteronomy chapter 8, which spoke of God’s purposes in Israel’s testings. Thus we should not be surprised when we read in the gospel of Matthew: “And he arose and took the Child and His mother by night, and departed for Egypt; and was there until the death of Herod, that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, ‘Out of Egypt did I call My Son’” (Matthew 2:14-15).

This is a citation from the prophecy of Hosea, which is a reference to the exodus of the nation Israel: “When Israel was a youth I loved him, And out of Egypt I called My son” (Hosea 11:1). The corporate calling of Israel out of Egypt is now seen as a prophecy or prototype of the calling of Messiah from Egypt. The New Testament writers therefore saw the merging of Israel’s corporate identity and her identity with the one “seed” of Abraham, Messiah.

The important thing to see is that Israel’s failure to keep the Law was dealt with by Messiah’s perfect obedience of the Law. The death penalty which the Law pronounced on Law-breakers was executed on Israel’s Messiah. The righteousness which the Law required was the righteousness of Messiah. The task of revealing God to men was fully carried out by Messiah.

This is why the Law is such good news. The higher the standard of the Law, the more impossible it was for Israelites to keep it. But, when they failed, the greater the accomplishment of Messiah, who did keep it, to the letter. The blessing which God promised to Israel and to the nations in the Abrahamic covenant was not the blessing which came from man’s Law-keeping, but the blessing which came from Messiah, the perfect Law-keeper and Law-fulfiller. The blessings which Israel seeks are those which can be experienced by being in Messiah, by faith. The blessings which the Gentiles are promised are those which are offered to those who, by faith, are “in Christ” (Messiah). The good news of the gospel is that the penalty which the Law prescribed has been carried out on Messiah, who died in the sinner’s place. The blessings which are promised to the righteous are also those which come to all who are “in Christ,” and who can therefore share in His righteousness.

The Law is a positive blessing, not because Israel was able to keep it, or that we can either, but that Christ has fulfilled it, and offers all who trust in Him the blessings He has won. My prayer is that you can rejoice in the demands of the Law, knowing that these have been met, and that you are “in Him” who met them.

210 “In 34:28 and Deuteronomy 4:13; 10:4 it is called literally ‘the ten words’ (translated ‘Ten Commandments’), and hence the name ‘Decalogue’ (from the Greek deka = ‘ten’ and logos = ‘word’), which was apparently used first by Clemens of Alexandria, and is appropriate.” W. H. Gispen, Exodus, trans. by Ed van der Maas (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982), p. 185.

211 R. Alan Cole, Exodus: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1973), p. 149.

212 There are other such summaries, as Kaiser points out: “This penchant for reducing a maze of details into a limited set of principles is not limited to the two accounts of the Decalogue in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. There are at least seven other summaries to which the Jewish community have regularly pointed. These are: the eleven principles of Psalm 15 (cf. Ps. 24:3-6); the six commands of Isaiah 33:15; the three commands of Micah 6:8; the two commands of Isaiah 56:1; and the one command of Amos 5:4; Habakkuk 2:4; and Leviticus 19:2.” Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. Toward Old Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1983), p. 81.

213 “There is no agreement as to whether each of the two tablets contained five commandments (Philo, Josephus, Irenaeus, etc), or one four and the other six (Calvin), or one three and the other seven (Augustine). Today some are of the opinion that each of the two tablets contained all ten commandments …” Gispen, pp. 187-188.

214 “The laws are not numbered, however; therefore Roman Catholic and Lutheran communions make but one what Reformed and Greek Orthodox call the first two. In order to keep the number ten, the reformed and Greek Orthodox must divide the tenth commandment into two, making the first sentence of the tenth commandment number nine and the rest number ten.” Kaiser, p. 82. Cf. also, Cole, p. 152.

215 “There are only three positive statements in verses 2-17 of Exodus 20—all without a finite verb. … John J. Owens has suggested that these three clauses might serve as the basis for dividing up the Decalogue into three sections and govern the other seven commands. In fact, in Deuteronomy 5:6-21, the commands are connected (unlike Exodus 20:2-17) by the conjunction … (‘and’) that suggests that they are all governed by the fifth commandment. If adopted, the phrases might be rendered: (1) I being the Lord your God … [therefore observe commandments one to three]; (2) Remembering the Sabbath day … [therefore do vv. 9-11]; and (3) Honoring your father and mother … [therefore observe commandments six to ten]. It would seem appropriate, therefore, to use this outline for discussing the Decalogue: (1) Right Relations With God (vv. 2-7), (2) Right Relations With Work (vv. 8-11), and (3) Right Relations With Society (vv. 12-17).” Kaiser, p. 84.

216 Kaiser, pp. 81-82. Gispen seems to agree, when he writes, “… the archaeological discoveries support the thesis that the Ten Commandments are a restatement and clarification of the innate moral Law with which man was created (cf. Rom. 2:14-15).” Gispen, p. 186.

217 Cole, pp. 150, 153. Referring to Exodus 20:2, Cole writes, “Our new understanding of the process of covenant making in early Western Asia … has shown conclusively that such a self-proclamation is an integral part of any covenant making. Although Mendenhall’s evidence is largely from Hittite sources, no doubt the Hittites are simply reproducing what was the wider pattern throughout the whole area” (p. 153). Cole goes on to indicate that while the form is strikingly similar to the ancient Hittite suzerainty treaties, this does not mean that the content is diluted or diminished in any way, comparing the similarities in style to that of Paul’s letters with the contemporary Greek format of his day (p. 153).

218 Gispen, p. 186.

219 Kaiser, p. 77.

220 John R. W. Stott, Christian Counter-Culture (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1978).

221 R. C. Sproul, The Holiness of God (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1985), p. 148.

222 Just to keep the record straight, God seems to have given the command regarding the forbidden fruit only to Adam, since Eve had not yet been created. It would appear that it was Adam’s responsibility to communicate this command to her.

14. Israel’s Worship (Exodus 20:1-7)


The importance of the first three of the ten commandments cannot be overestimated. Our Lord’s summation of them is given in the gospels:

And one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And He said to him, “‘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 foremost commandment” (Matthew 22:35-38).

If the first and foremost commandment of the Law is to love God, and loving God is explained more fully in the first three commandments, we are dealing with the very essence of the Law in this lesson. We can say, then, that our study is crucial because the test deals with man’s number one priority—his worship of God.

Because the worship of God is primary, false worship is one of the greatest evils man can practice. Idolatry is a serious problem, and not just for the Israelite of Old Testament times. The final sentence of John’s first epistle (1 John 5:21) is a warning against idolatry. Idolatry is dangerous because it involves the worship of demons (1 Cor. 10:20; cf. Deut. 32:17), and because we can do it thinking that we are actually worshipping God (cf. Exod. 32:1-6; 1 Kings 12:28-30).

One of the finest books written in recent years is Loving God, written by Chuck Colson. In the introduction to this book, Colson describes his attempt to learn from other Christians what it means to love God:

The greatest commandment of all, Jesus said, is “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” I’d memorized those words but had never really thought about what they meant in practical terms; that is, how to fulfill that command. I wondered if others felt the same way. So I asked a number of more experienced Christians how they loved God.

… The cumulative effect of my survey convinced me that most of us, as professing Christians, do not really know how to love God. Not only have we not given thought to what the greatest commandment means in our day-to-day existence, we have not obeyed it.223

This reveals another reason why our text is so important. Not only is loving God our highest priority, but it is one which is poorly understood, so far as its implementation. Most thoughtful Christians may be able to tell you that loving God is the most important duty of man, but they struggle with the very practical matter of how such love is expressed.

There is another reason why our text is so important to Christians living in 20th century America. The warnings we find in Exodus (and indeed the entire Old Testament) regarding the worship of other gods and idols seems totally irrelevant. We feel as safe in listening to these words as Christians sometimes do listening to an evangelist preach the message of the gospel—that, we think, doesn’t apply to us any more.

Such a conclusion would be hasty and ill-founded, as has been pointed out by those who have thought more carefully on these things. Consider, for example, these words from the pen of Herbert Schlossberg: “But anyone with a hierarchy of values has placed something at its apex, and whatever that is is the god he serves. The Old and New Testaments call such gods idols and provide sufficient reason for affirming that the systems that give them allegiance are religions.”224

Idolatry in its larger meaning is properly understood as any substitution of what is created for the creator. People may worship nature, money, mankind, power, history, or social and political systems instead of the God who created them all. The New Testament writers, in particular, recognized that the relationship need not be explicitly one of cultic worship; a man can place anyone or anything at the top of his pyramid of values, and that is ultimately what he serves. The ultimacy of that service profoundly affects the way he lives. When the society around him also turns away from God to idols, it is an idolatrous society and therefore is heading for destruction.225

Western society, in turning away from Christian faith, has turned to other things. This process is commonly called secularization, but that conveys only the negative aspect. The word connotes the turning away from the worship of God while ignoring the fact that something is turned to in its place. Even atheists are usually idolatrous, as Niebuhr said, because they elevate some “principle of coherence” to the central meaning of life and this is what then provides the focus of significance for that life. Niebuhr’s principle of coherence corresponds to what we referred to earlier as the apex of the hierarchy of values. All such principles that substitute for God exemplify the biblical concept of idol. The bulk of this book is an exploration of the forms these idols take in late twentieth-century America. … Our argument, then, is that idolatry and its associated concepts provide a better framework for us to understand our own society than do any of the alternatives.226

Dave Hunt and T. A. McMahon, in their recent book, The Seduction of Christianity, have a chapter entitled, “Christianized Idolatry?”227 One could go on and on with the evidences that our society has become idolatrous, but this we shall see more clearly as we proceed with this lesson.

Some Crucial Definitions

The prohibitions which we are about to study require an understanding of the meaning of God, “gods,” and “idols.” These terms seem so common that we might not think a definition of each is required. I have concluded that it is only when these terms are defined that we can understand the meaning of the three commandments we are about to study.

GODS: When the Bible speaks of “gods” there are several characteristics common to virtually all. It is these characteristics which enable us to define “gods” somewhat generically.

First, “gods” are the object of man’s worship and service. “Gods,” then, have a certain authority and claim over men, which men acknowledge by their worship and service. The strength of this claim over men is seen by the price which men are willing to pay in order to worship their gods. In some instances pagans actually offer their children as sacrifices to the gods. The value attributed to the gods is therefore extremely high in many instances.

Second, “gods” are superhuman beings, possessing powers much greater than men. The powers which the gods possess are restricted to certain aspects of life. A given god may have control over fertility, while another over the rains or agricultural productivity, and yet another over war (as when Goliath cursed David in the name of his gods (1 Samuel 17:43). Most gods operate within certain geographical boundaries (often, the boundaries of a nation or empire, cf. Judges 10:6; 2 Kings 17:27-31; 18:33-35). In the Old Testament we find “mountain gods” distinguished from “plain gods” (1 Kings 14:23, 28).

The gods are worshipped for very pragmatic reasons. Almost never are the gods worshipped for their intrinsic beauty or goodness, but for what they control. Hostile, capricious gods are worshipped to appease their anger and to avert the outpouring of their wrath. Others are worshipped largely due to the powers which they possess and the benefits which they produce. In other words, the gods are viewed by their subjects as means to a desired end. It is no wonder that the worship of false gods is called harlotry in the Bible. The relationship between men and the gods is closely akin to prostitution. A price is paid and a service is rendered, but there is certainly no love between the two parties.

Third, “gods” are seldom worshipped alone, but in plurality. Pagan worship almost always involves a plurality of gods. More than one god is assumed. Thus, the Philistines assumed that Israel was delivered from the Egyptians by her gods (plural, 1 Samuel 4:8), rather than by her God (singular). There is a rather obvious reason for the pagan need of plural gods. Since each god is limited in its power and function, a different god must be served and worshipped for each desired end. A war god must be worshipped for military might; a fertility god was believed to produce offspring; etc. And so the pagan was always inclined to be on the lookout for a new god, who would produce even further benefits (cf. Acts 17:23). Even today, a polytheistic (serving many gods) people will often gladly add another “god” to their pantheon of gods. After all, what can it hurt?

Fourth, the “gods” of the pagan religions are man-made. A few years ago, any manufactured goods which were stamped “made in Japan” were considered a cheap imitation in comparison to American made goods. I tend to think of the gods of pagan worship as having the stamp “man-made” on them, for they are the creation of man, shaped in his image, defined according to man’s preferences and desires.

In India, it is not surprising to find that the gods of the peoples of the tribal areas are cobra, monkey, or tiger gods. In these interior areas you do not expect to find primitive tribesmen worshipping a shark god, for example. (You will not be surprised to find a sea-going people worshipping a shark god, however.) The gods which men worship are thus those which reflect their hopes and their fears. A brief review of the gods of ancient Egypt would show the same tendency.

The Bible rightly reveals the fact that the gods of people are the product of their imaginations and the creation of their hands (Isaiah 2:8; 17:8; 37:19). The gods of the heathen conform to their desires. False gods and idols are chosen in place of the true God, and this by a choice to worship the god of their choice, as the first chapter of Romans clearly teaches us.

IDOLS: Since the gods are man-made, it is no surprise that false worship almost always employs idols. While there are a number of terms used in reference to idols,228 there are certain common characteristics which all idols possess.

First, an idol is used as a representation of a particular god. This idol is almost always made by men, most often bearing the image of some part of creation. This might be an inanimate object (the sun, stars, a rock), or it might be a living creature (a bull, a fish, a snake). The idol does not necessarily represent the god itself, but may depict or symbolize some attribute or characteristic of the god. For example, the bull might symbolically represent the strength of a god. Idols are misused, most often to represent pagan gods (Isaiah 42:17), but at other times they are actually used to represent the one true God (Exod. 32:1, 4, 8; 1 Kings 12:28).

Second, idols are often viewed as being the locus of the presence and power of a particular god. While an idol may initially be conceived of only as a representation of a god, it can often become viewed as the god itself. For all the gods of the peoples are idols, “But the Lord made the heavens” (1 Chronicles 16:26; Psalm 96:5). Thus, wherever the idol is, the god is thought to be present. In this case the idol becomes more than a means of worshipping a god, it becomes the object of worship—the god itself (cf. Isaiah 42:17). Not only does the idol become the locus of the presence of the god, but also of the power of the god. The idol becomes the means of unleashing the magical powers of the god. Through its presence and proper (magical) manipulations the idol is believed to be able to produce a desired result. The idol functions as a kind of “rabbit’s foot.” This can true of the idol of a false god as well as of an “idol” of the true God. Thus, the Ark of the Covenant was taken to war as an almost magical instrument, which could assure the Israelites of military victory (1 Samuel 4:3; cf. 2 Kings 18:4).

GOD: The God of Israel can best be viewed here in contrast to the “gods” of the heathen.

“First, while the “gods” of the heathen are many (plural), there is only one God of Israel. While pagan religions are almost always polytheistic (many gods), Israel’s religion was monotheistic (one God). God would not share His glory with any other. The Book of Genesis has already informed us that God is the Creator of the universe. Exodus proclaims God as the Creator of Israel. There is therefore no other god than the one true God of Israel. Israel’s confession therefore was, “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone” (Deuteronomy 6:4).229

Second, while the gods of heathendom are limited in their power and in their sphere of activity or influence, God is omnipotent, and is in control over every aspect of life. This is precisely why Israel needed but to trust in God alone, while the pagans found it necessary to serve many gods. Because God is in control of every aspect of the life of His people, no other god is needed in addition to Him.230

Third, while the “gods” seem to need to be prompted to act, the God of Israel is an initiator. It was God who called Abraham and made a covenant with him. It was likewise God who acted to free Israel from her bondage in Egypt. God even took the initiative in giving Israel His Law. Israel’s task was to respond to God’s commands and initiatives. The pagans had to prompt their lifeless, powerless, no-gods to act.

Fourth, while the nature of pagan gods is creature-like and can thus be represented by physical forms (idols), the nature of the God of Israel is essentially spiritual, so that He cannot be represented by any earthly or heavenly form. When God appeared to Israel on the mountain, He did not take a given form, and He could not be represented by any form.

“Then the Lord spoke to you from the midst of the fire; you heard the sound of words, but you saw no form—only a voice. … So watch yourselves carefully, since you did not see any form on the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb from the midst of the fire, lest you act corruptly and make a graven image for yourselves in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the sky, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water below the earth” (Deuteronomy 4:12, 15-18).

Beyond this, God is the essence of perfection, so that nothing man-made can ever do justice in reflecting or symbolizing God’s perfection. Creation as a whole reflects God’s power and divine nature (cf. Romans 1:20), but the created is always inferior to the creator. God revealed Himself to men through His word (e.g. the Law), through His people (Exodus 19:6), and through His actions (e.g. the exodus from Egypt, and the majestic scene on Mt. Sinai), but His final and complete revelation of Himself would be in the person of His Son (John 1:1-18; Hebrews 1:1-4). The absence of visual images speaks volumes as to the greatness of our God. The ark, hovered over by the cherubim, was empty. Nothing other than the Son of God could fully and finally reveal God to men.

Fifth, while the pagan gods were worshipped for what they were thought to be able to do, God is to be worshipped for who He is. Pagan worship was pragmatic, true worship views God as the great Reward, not just as a rewarder. Satan could not conceive of any explanation for Job’s worship other than that God blessed this man so greatly (Job 1:8-12). God afflicted Job, taking away these blessings, to show Satan than He is worthy of man’s worship, even when He sends adversity into the lives of His people. Many of the Psalms are the praises of men who are deep in adversity, and yet who persist in praising God as the One who is always worthy of worship.

Understanding the essential characteristics of the “gods” of the heathen, their representation by means of idols, and the great chasm between these and the God of Israel, will help us to understand the first three commandments, in which these differences are to be practically applied.

Preface to the Ten Commandments

Verses 1 and 2 serve as a preface or introduction to all of the ten commandments, but they have a special relationship to the first three, which are the focus of our study in this lesson. Verse 1 informs us that God not only engraved the commandments on stone, but that He spoke these words in Israel’s hearing. These commands, God wants us to know, came directly from God.231 Their inspiration and authority are thus beyond question, indisputably so to that generation of Israelites which heard them spoken.

Verse 2 distinguishes the God of the Israelites from all of the gods which are about to be forbidden. God’s actions in history on Israel’s behalf are the basis for all that He is about to command. God first reminds Israel that He is the God who has acted in history, altering the course of world history in order to fulfill His promise to Abraham and the patriarchs, and to deliver Israel from her bondage in Egypt. No other gods control history. They, in the words of the prophets, are carried by men, they do not carry men. Second, God acted in history for Israel’s specific benefit and blessing. God delivered Israel, and made them His own people.

The words of this verse remind the Israelites that God has singled them out, distinguishing them from all other peoples on the face of the earth. They will thus be called upon in the following commandments to respond to God’s exclusive relationship with them by worshipping Him exclusively, without any other gods. It is no wonder that the marriage relationship is used metaphorically of the relationship between God and His chosen people, Israel. In both, there is a relationship which excludes others. The freedom which God had given the Israelites was the freedom to serve Him (cf. Exodus 4:23). The demands of that service are now to be defined in the commandments. These words also remind us that Israel’s service was to be motivated by gratitude for what God had done.

The First Commandment
(Exodus 20:3)

“You shall have no other gods before Me.” With these words God is commanding an exclusive relationship between Himself and His people.232 The command instructs Israel that God will not allow His people to have any gods in addition to Himself. The statement is simple and forthright, but what did it mean to the Israelites? Why would the Israelites have been tempted to have other gods? What is this prohibition seeking to prevent? Our introductory definition of God and “gods” will provide us with a clue to the answers to these questions. There are three principle reasons why the Israelites were given this first commandment:

First, Israel’s history demonstrates their tendency toward false worship. The Israelites frequently sought to serve other gods in addition to Yahweh, who is speaking in our text. Rachel stole her father’s household gods when they fled from his house (Genesis 31:19). Israel lived 400 years in Egypt, a nation which had many gods, and the Israelites continued to attempt to worship them (cf. Joshua 24:14; 1 Samuel 8:8). It was for her rejection of God that Israel was sent into captivity (Ezekiel 20).

Second, to have other gods is always to forsake God (cf. Joshua 24:15-16, 20; 1 Samuel 8:8). To my knowledge Israel never meant to reject God altogether by having other gods, but simply to add other gods to those which they would worship. The Old Testament consistently indicates that having any other god or gods always constitutes the forsaking of God. The relationship of the Israelites to her God is like that of a man’s relationship to his wife—it is an exclusive relationship which allows for no others. Thus, turning to other gods is called harlotry and adultery in the Bible.

Third, having other gods is evidence of one’s lack of faith in God. Here is the reason why having other gods constitutes forsaking God. I believe it is significant that God forbade the worship of other gods, not of another god. This commandment assumes that multiple gods will be worshipped, not just one. The reason goes back to the pagan theology, which viewed each god as having power over a particular (but restricted) area. To “cover all the bases” one would have to serve many gods. Thus, once one came to doubt God’s sovereignty, the addition of other gods would be necessary to assure the worshipper of being provided for and protected by his gods. God is thus forsaken when other gods are served, for we have failed to find Him sufficient and trustworthy if other gods are required to make us feel secure. This commandment therefore suggests that once we cease to trust God for every area of our life, we have ceased trusting Him altogether, and have turned to other “gods.”

Why would Israel be tempted to serve other gods, in addition to the One true God? First, because of the social pressure to do so. Normal social intercourse with the Canaanites would revolve around pagan deities. Meals and feasts were a part of pagan worship and heathen sacrifices. It is no wonder that God commanded that the Israelites exterminate the Canaanites and forbade the Israelites to engage in social (let alone sexual) intercourse with them. This would tempt them to engage in forbidden worship activities.

The Second Commandment

“You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments” (Exodus 20:4-6).

The first and second commandments are similar in that both deal with the matter of Israel’s worship. They are distinct in that the first commandment has restrictions pertaining to the object of worship (God alone), while the second has restrictions regarding the means of worship. The second commandment prohibits worship by means of “visual aids,” more commonly known as idols.233

Since we have already looked at the characteristics of idols, let us settle on a very simple working definition of an idol: an idol is a symbolic representation of a god, as determined by man, which often represents the presence and available power of the god it symbolizes. There are several important reasons for this prohibition of idolatry.

First, an idol is contrary to the nature of God. God is invisible. He revealed Himself to the Israelites without any form (Deuteronomy 4:12-19). Therefore, physical forms are inconsistent with the nature of God, and cannot be used to represent Him.

Second, idols are demeaning to God, since there is no created thing which can do justice to the perfections of the Creator and Sustainer of the universe.

Third, idols are contrary to the nature of faith. In the Bible, faith is belief in that which is not seen: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).234

Our Lord gently rebuked Thomas for not believing the testimony of His resurrection apart from visual proof, and pronounced blessing on those who would believed on Him without seeing Him (John 20:29). This is not to say that there is no visible evidence for God’s existence and character. In Romans chapter 1 Paul teaches that those who have turned to idols are those who have first seen the witnesses to God’s divinity and power through His creation (Romans 1:20).

Fourth, idols are contrary to God’s goal for worship, which is to worship Him in the person of His Son. In His conversation with the “woman at the well” Jesus gently focused her attention away from special places of worship, to the person whom all must worship in spirit and truth (John 4:20-24, esp. v. 24). God deliberately forbade the use of imperfect representations of Himself, having purposed ultimately to reveal Himself in the Lord Jesus Christ. The ultimate goal of history, I believe, is that all men will fall in worship before the Son (cf. Philippians 2:9-11).

The consequences for violating the second commandment are severe: “… visiting the iniquity of the father on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me” (Exodus 20:5). We may wonder why this is so. Consider the following facts:

(1) The nature of the penalty is proportional to the seriousness of the offense. If the consequences of idolatry are serious, then we must also conclude that the offense is a serious sin.

(2) The punishment described is an outworking of the principle of imputation. We have been constituted sinners by virtue of being Adam’s offspring (Romans 5:12-21). Levi, through Abraham, gave an offering to Melchizedek, and acknowledged this man’s priesthood to be greater than his own (Hebrews 7:1-10). The principle of imputation means that children share in the acts of their fathers. As applied to idolatry, this sin is passed on from father to son. The consequences of the sin of idolatry flow through the principle of imputation.

(3) This warning spells out the dire consequences which the sin of idolatry can bring on future generations. I am told that “acid rain” is devastating forests in Europe, and that even if air pollution were stopped instantaneously and completely the devastating results of past pollution will continue to destroy forests for 50 years. In a similar way, the Israelites are to understand what great harm they can bring on their descendants by neglecting to obey the second commandment.

(4) I believe that the specific reference in this warning is to Israel’s captivity, as the result of her idolatry. There are many passages which link Israel’s captivity to her idolatry and false worship.

Then the Lord said to me, “A conspiracy has been found among the men of Judah and among the inhabitants of Jerusalem. They have turned back to the iniquities of their ancestors who refused to hear My words, and they have gone after other gods to serve them; the house of Israel and the house of Judah have broken My covenant which I made with their fathers.” Therefore thus says the Lord, “Behold I am bringing disaster on them which they will not be able to escape; though they will cry to Me, yet I will not listen to them. Then the cities of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem will go and cry to the gods to whom they burn incense, but they surely will not save them in the time of their disaster” (Jeremiah 11:9-12, emphasis mine; cf. also Deuteronomy 28:32, 41).

“Now it will come about when you tell this people all these words that they will say to you, ‘For what reason has the Lord declared all this great calamity against us? And what is our iniquity, or what is our sin which we have committed against the Lord our God?’ Then you are to say to them, ‘It is because your forefathers have forsaken Me,’ declares the Lord, ‘and have followed other gods and served them and bowed down to them; but Me they have forsaken and have not kept My Law. You too have done evil, even more than your forefathers; for behold, you are each one walking according to the stubbornness of his own evil heart, without listening to Me. So I will hurl you out of this land into the land which you have not known, neither you nor your fathers; and there you will serve other gods day and night, for I shall grant you no favor’” (Jeremiah 16:10-13, emphasis mine).

“But if you turn away to forsake My statutes and My commandments which I have set before you and shall go and serve other gods and worship them, then I will uproot you from My land which I have given you, and this house which I have consecrated for My name I will cast out of My sight, and I will make you a proverb and a byword among all peoples” (2 Chronicles 7:19-20).

We know that Judah’s captivity in Babylon was 70 years (Jeremiah 25:11-12). Assuming that a generation is approximately 20 years, the consequences of Israel’s idolatry would last for 3 to 4 generations. The evidence seems, then, to favor the conclusion that the specific penalty in mind in verse 5 of Exodus chapter 20 is that of the Babylonian captivity.

(5) The good news is that God overturns the curse of the second commandment of the Mosaic Covenant by the promise of the new covenant. The prophet Jeremiah foretells of the coming of the new covenant, at which time the principle of imputation (with regard to the sins of the fathers) will be set aside:

“And it will come about that as I have watched over them to pluck up, to break down, to overthrow, to destroy, and to bring disaster, so I will watch over them to build and to plant,” declares the Lord.

“In those days they will not say again, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, And the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ But every one will die for his own iniquity; each man who eats the sour grapes, his teeth will be set on edge. Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My Law within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. And they shall not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the Lord, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more” (Jeremiah 31:28-34).

The principle of imputation is not just set aside (with regard to the consequences of sin), it is applied positively so that as the sins of the fathers constituted the children sinners, now the righteousness of Jesus Christ will constitute all who are in Him, by faith, righteous. No wonder Jeremiah’s prophecy can promise that God will remember Israel’s sins no more!

The Third Commandment

“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain” (Exodus 20:7).

If the first commandment dealt with the object of our worship, and the second the means of our worship, the third commandment deals with our verbal worship of God.235 In order to determine the meaning of this commandment we must first understand the meaning of two things: first, the concept of the “name of the Lord,” and second, the meaning of the term “vain.” Both are explained by Kaiser: “What then is involved in the ‘name’ of God? His name includes: (1) his nature, being, and very person (Ps. 20:1; Luke 24:47; John 1:12; cf. Rev. 3:4), (2) his teaching and doctrines (Ps. 22:22; John 17:6, 26), and (3) his ethical directions and morals (Mic. 4:5).”236

The ‘vain’ or ‘empty purposes’ to which God’s name may be put are: (1) to confirm something that is false and untrue, (2) to fill in the gaps in our speeches or prayers, (3) to express mild surprise, and (4) to use that name when no clear goal, purpose, or reason for its use is in mind, whether it be in prayer, in a religious context, or absent-mindedly invoked as table grace when no real heart, thankfulness, or purpose is involved. When God’s name is used lightly, what will we do in times of great distress? Proverbs 18:10 says “the name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous run to it and are safe.”237

Contrary to the popular conception of this commandment, much more than foul-mouthed profanity is prohibited. Since God’s name is directly linked with His character, to misuse His name adversely reflects on His character. To illustrate this in an extreme way, think of what it would suggest if many Americans were to name their dogs “Reagan” or “Ronald.” The very common use of this name would surely detract from the dignity of the president of the United States and of his office. So, too, the too-common use of God’s name would demean His character.

The Israelites of old were so careful to avoid violating this command that they refused to even pronounce the sacred name of God. Many today have gone to the opposite extreme. They seem to feel that the more often they refer to God, the more love for Him they demonstrate and the more spiritual they must be for doing so. Thus, the Lord’s name is constantly being spoken in everyday conversation. No doubt this is viewed as a witness to their faith, providing a possible opportunity to talk with unsaved friends or neighbors about the Lord. But if we get to the point where the Lord’s name proceeds from our mouth without being prompted by our minds and our spirit, then it becomes vain and empty talk, of such a kind as to defame the character of God. This danger is summed up: “… the Third Commandment … forbids the cheap and easy use of the divine name to cover up poverty of real thought and feeling.” 238

I have summarized this commandment as a prohibition of “divine name-dropping.” It is the use which men make of God’s name to sanctify their conversation, to add a little holiness or piety to their common, everyday existence. The danger is that in overly associating God with that which is common, it tends to profane the name and the character of the God who is the opposite of common, who is utterly different, set apart, and holy. We often give God credit (which really may be the blame) for our decisions and actions. We say, “the Lord led me to do this or that,” “God told me that this was the right decision.” What we may really mean is, “I decided to do this, and I have assumed it to be God’s will too.” But if our decision was a foolish one, God then becomes the author of that bad decision, which is far from a testimony to His majesty and might. Let us then take care about the way in which we make use of God’s name in our conversation.239


We know that these commandments were given to the nation Israel, and thus we expect that there must be some distinctions drawn between the way they were to be applied by the Israelites and between the way they should be applied today. Let me begin by pointing out one critical difference and one significant similarity between the Old Testament applications and those which relate to contemporary Christianity.

The critical difference between our Old Testament text and the New Testament is that God has now revealed Himself to men in human form, in the person of Jesus Christ. Note the contrast, then, between these two passages, one from the Old Testament, the other from the New:

“Then the Lord spoke to you from the midst of the fire; you heard the sound of words, but you saw no form—only a voice. … So watch yourselves carefully, since you did not see any form on the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb from the midst of the fire, lest you act corruptly and make a graven image …” (Deuteronomy 4:12, 15-16a).

God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power (Hebrews 1:1-3a).

The difference is that in God’s revelation of Himself to Israel in the Old Testament He took on no physical form, but in His revelation of Himself to Israel in the New Testament, He took on Himself the form of a man (cf. also Philippians 2:6-8), and as a perfect God-man perfectly manifested the invisible God to men. The prohibition of idolatry in the Old Testament was but a preparation for the perfect revelation of God in Christ in the New.

One of my fellow-elders told me that his son was asked by a Sunday School teacher to draw a picture of God. The young lad was absolutely correct in turning in a blank piece of paper, for God cannot be seen and thus cannot be drawn. In the New Testament sense, we could draw a picture of God by drawing a picture of Christ. Of course we have no pictures of our Lord and so the result is the same. The difference between a blank sheet of paper and a perfect picture does, however, illustrate the difference between the Old Testament prohibition of idols and the New Testament revelation of Christ as the image of God.

I must say to you, my reader friend, whoever you are, that there is only one way for you to worship God today, and that is by worshipping Him in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ. Those who would attempt to worship God in any other way will forsake the One true God, and the only way of salvation. If you would worship God you must worship Christ, not as one who was like God, but as the One who is very God, and who died in your place, and was raised from the dead, so that you might be saved in Him.

The striking similarity between the Old Testament commands pertaining to worship and the New Testament teaching of worship is this: they both are based solely on faith. So often we hear that the Law was a matter of works, and that salvation is a matter of faith. But the only way that one could keep the commandments was by faith. Obedience to the Law required faith. To worship God alone was to find Him wholly trustworthy, wholly able to provide for and to protect His people. To worship God without images was to believe in God’s word alone, apart from visual props. In both the Old Testament and the New, obedience is only possible on the basis of faith. Some things never change. Faith is one of those things.

The real issue, then, between false gods and the one true God is this: who do we trust? To find God alone trustworthy leads to worshipping and serving Him only. To find God inadequate and untrustworthy is to turn to other “gods” which will do those things we think God cannot do. The question for our day is this: “In whom or in what do we really trust” for our salvation, for our security, and for our daily needs?” If the answer to this question is anything, anyone, but God, we have identified a false god.

In many instances, we are trusting more in our money than we are in our God. As long as we have a nest egg in the bank we feel secure. When there is no money we worry and fret, we do everything possible to create a savings account. The evil here is not in having money, but in trusting in money, rather than in God (1 Timothy 6:17). It is possible to serve money rather than God (Matthew 6:24).

In American culture at this moment I fear that the number one “god” in which we trust is the “god of our inner, hidden, abilities.” In a word the “god” of contemporary culture is the “god” of self. Gloria Steineim has boldly stated, “By the year 2000 we will, I hope, raise our children to believe in human potential, not God. …240 For others, our trust is in our education, or in our position, or in technology. In whatever we place our trust besides God we are serving a false god. We cannot trust in God and money, in God and science, but only in God alone, for God will not share His glory with anything else.

Our culture has its idols as well as its “gods.” An idol is the symbol which indicates the presence and the power of a particular god (whether it be the true God or a false “god”). An idol tells us, in effect, God is here. Some make idols of men, who would wrongly accept the obedience and adoration of men (cf. Matthew 23:1-12). When these people are around us we feel closer to God, or that He is closer to us. Another idol is success. Given the prosperity teaching which is so popular among Christians today, prosperity is viewed as the evidence of God’s blessings and thus of His presence in the life of the one so prospered. No wonder so many people are striving so hard to succeed and to prosper. They want to have the outward evidences of godliness. A final idol in the Christian church is “spirituality”—those outward evidences which are interpreted as evidence of greater godliness. In the pursuit of spirituality men seek to be regarded as spiritual more than they seek God. This, too, is idolatry.

Another idol, as J. I. Packer241 has well indicated, is the idolatry of a sloppy or distorted theology. Theology gives us “word pictures” as it were of God. To the degree that our theology is inaccurate, we have distorted God by definition. Whether, therefore, our idolatry is by wooden symbols (a wooden idol) or word symbols (wrong theology), it is idolatry none the less, with all of the consequences which accompany it.

Taken as a whole, the first three commandments convey a most important message: the priority of our relationship with God and of our worship. The fact that the first three commandments deal with our relationship with God tells us that this is our highest priority. Our estimation of God’s greatness is proportional to the measure of our faith. The measure of our estimate of God’s greatness is also proportional to the quality and quantity of our worship. The measure of our faith is the basis for our obedience. Let us learn from these commandments to seek to fathom the greatness of our God and thus to live in the light of Who He is.

To worship one God is to have one supreme loyalty in one’s life which all one’s instincts and passions and vagaries obey. So that, like Luther, one can stand before other principalities and powers of the outer and inner world and refuse to bow to them, saying humbly and definitely, ‘I can do no other,’ i.e., ‘I obey one greater than all of you.’242

223 Charles W. Colson, Loving God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), pp. 15-16.

224 Herbert Schlossberg, Idols for Destruction (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1983), p. 5.

225 Ibid, p. 6.

226 Ibid, pp. 6-7.

227 Dave Hunt and T. A. McMahon, The Seduction of Christianity (Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House Publishers, 1985), pp. 149-169.

228 “There are fourteen Hebrew words for idols or images, but … ‘idol’ (v. 3) probably refers to ‘gods of silver or gods of gold’ (Exod. 20:23) as well as images carved from stone, wood, and those that later are made from metal.” Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward Old Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1983), p. 86.

229 This is the translation which my former professor and present fellow-elder and friend, Don Glenn, has suggested. Given the context of the heathen worship of a plurality of gods, I think this is the best translation.

230 Because of this fact, I favor the word “besides” rather than “before” in the rendering of verse 3: “You shall have no other gods besides Me” (emphasis mine). I now understand better why the books of Genesis and Exodus go into such great detail in matters such as the creation of the world and God’s dealings in Israel’s history. It is to underscore His infinite power and His concern with every detail of the lives of His people. In Deuteronomy, God’s promises of His future blessings on Israel are also very specific, covering every area of life, those for which pagans looked to many gods to care for. In the portrayal of the life of Christ in the gospels we also see our Lord’s power evidenced in a great diversity of areas, once again showing that He is all that we ever need, and that we need not place our trust elsewhere for any area of our life.

231 “In Hebrew, words is deliberately connected with the verb spoke with which the verse begins. The whole stress is that these commandments are words of revelation from God … It has well been said that the commandments are God’s nature expressed in terms of moral imperatives: and it is significant that God chose to reveal Himself so, rather than in terms of philosophical propositions.” R. Alan Cole, Exodus: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1973), pp. 151-152.

232 “This slightly unusual phrase seems also to be used of taking a second wife while the first is still alive. Such a use, of breach of an exclusive personal relationship, would help to explain the meaning here.” Ibid, p. 153.

233 “The Hebrew word …, which stands back of graven image, comes from the root meaning ‘to carve.’ Strictly and originally the word means a sculptured object. But it also became a general term for image, whether graven or molten (Isa. 30:22; 40:19; 44:10; Jer. 10:14). When used of a molten image it is always with the signification of idol …” J. Coert Rylaarsdam and J. Edgar Park, “The Book of Exodus,” The Interpreter’s Bible (New York: Abingdon, 1952), vol. 1, p. 981.

“The Hebrew word for ‘carved image’ is pesel (from the root pasal meaning to carve wood or stone. A pesel therefore is a figure made of wood or stone) sometimes a representation of Jehovah as in Judges 17:3ff.; whereas, other times it was used for figures of heathen gods (II Kings 21:7).” John J. Davis, Moses and the Gods of Egypt (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1971), p. 201.

There were symbols in Israel’s worship, such as the ark or the covenant, the tabernacle, and the bronze serpent, but these were not to be viewed as representing the nature of God or of being the locus of God’s presence and power. At times, Israel abused these symbols in pagan-like fashion (cf. 1 Samuel 4:3; 2 Kings 18:4).

234 As one reads through the 11th chapter of Hebrews, there is continual emphasis on that which is not seen, but which God has spoken.

235 Kaiser, p. 87.

236 Ibid, p. 88.

237 Ibid.

238 Interpreter’s Bible, I, p. 983.

239 Since time will not permit a more complete discussion of this third commandment, I suggest you consider these additional comments on this text: “The third commandment covers all occasions on which the name of the Lord is used, and includes e.g., perjury (cf. Lev. 19:12), swearing, etc. Konig translates Deuteronomy 5:11 ‘with inner insincerity.’ ‘Any pronouncing of the Divine name without heartfelt sincerity is thus prohibited.’ The name is spiritual in nature; even in the absence of images, the name that the Lord has revealed as His makes it possible to have communion with Him, to name Him. That name must be used in a holy manner (cf. the first petition of the Lord’s prayer), that is, it must be kept far from that which is sinful, frivolous, or vain. ‘Name’ has a profound meaning: the revelation of that which can be known of God. … The Lord Himself guards the holiness of His name, as is indicated by the threat that accompanies this commandment.” W. H. Gispen, Exodus, trans. by Ed van der Maas (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982), p. 193.

“In later Judaism, this covered any careless or irreverent use of the name YHWH. It was pronounced only once a year by the high priest, when giving the blessing on the great day of atonement (Lv. 19:27). Originally the commandment seems to have referred to swearing a lying oath in YHWH’s name (Lv. 19:12). This seems to be the true meaning of the Hebrew. To bless or curse in the name of YHWH was permissible under the Law (Dt. 11:26); it was virtually a proclamation of His revealed will and purpose to different categories of men. To swear by His name was also allowed then, although forbidden by Christ (Mt. 5:34). Indeed, to swear by His name (and not by the name of another god) was the sign of worshipping Him (Je. 4:2) and was laudable.” Cole, p. 157.

“A deeper reason for the prohibition may be seen in the fact that God is the one living reality to Israel. That is why His name is involved in oaths, usually in the formula ‘as surely as YHWH lives’ (2 Sa. 2:27). To use such a phrase, and then to fail to perform the oath, is to call into question the reality of God’s very existence.” Ibid.

240 Gloria Steinem, “Saturday Review of Literature,” March 1973, as cited by Hunt and McMahon, p. 31.

241 J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1973), pp. 38-44.

242 Interpreter’s Bible, p. 981.

15. The Meaning of the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8-11)


As I sat at breakfast with a friend this week, discussing this message, I told Don that I could not conceive of a way to teach on the Sabbath in less than two lessons. He confessed to me that he was wondering how I would “fill up” one message with the subject. The reason why so much time is required is that there are so many other texts in the Scripture which deal with the Sabbath. To illustrate how much material there is to cover beyond the Old Testament texts, in one of the books recently published on the Sabbath243 the one chapter dealing with the Sabbath in the Old Testament has about 20 pages, including numerous footnotes. There are ten additional chapters, containing over 350 additional pages. Thus, if we are to understand the Sabbath, we must consider more than its Old Testament texts. If you look up the terms “Sabbath,” “Sabbaths,” and “rest” in a concordance you will find the reason for a more extended study of this subject.

There is another reason why the Sabbath is a subject worthy of our thorough investigation: the Sabbath is one of the most important commandments of the ten. It is a part of those commandments related to our relationship with and our worship of God. It is also the commandment chosen to be the “sign” of the entire Mosaic Covenant (Exodus 31:13). A violation of this commandment is to result in the death penalty (Exodus 31:14).

Last, learning the meaning of the Sabbath will provide us with a most valuable lesson in how to study, interpret, and apply the Scriptures. The difference between education and indoctrination is the difference between a process and a product. Indoctrination gives you the product—what you should think—but it does not convey the process—how to think. Given this distinction, most sermons would have to be called indoctrination, not education. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with indoctrination, other than the fact that without education, those who are taught will always be dependent upon the teacher, who must tell them what to think.

In my sermons I have always sought to combine indoctrination and education. I attempt to communicate the process by which I have arrived at my product so that sooner or later you will discover, to your delight, that you have gained a fair bit of information, but that you have also learned how to study the Bible on your own. One of the greatest rewards I ever receive as a teacher is to see my listeners become students of the Word, so that they see for themselves whether or not my conclusions are rooted in the text of Scripture.

The most difficult portion of Scripture to study for most Christians is the Old Testament. Not only do we find the culture of the Ancient Near East foreign and the events unrelated to us, but when we do discover a biblical principle we are not sure that it applies to the New Testament saint, and if so, how.

The Fourth Commandment provides us with an excellent opportunity to sharpen our interpretive skills. The commandment is found early in the Pentateuch (the five books of the Bible written by Moses, the first five books of the Bible). Two related texts come before Exodus 20:8-11, but there are many Sabbath passages in the rest of the Old Testament and in the New. Because this passage comes so early in the Bible, we are able to learn how the later Old Testament writers interpreted and applied the Sabbath teaching of the Fourth Commandment. We then can turn to the New Testament, to see how the Pharisees misinterpreted and applied this commandment, and how our Lord corrected them. Finally, we can find the interpretation of the Sabbath as provided us by the teaching of the apostles and the Book of Hebrews. We have the privilege to look over the shoulder of the prophets, apostles, and even our Lord, to learn from them the way to interpret and apply the Old Testament Scriptures. This, my reader friend, is a rare privilege, which should make better Bible students of all of us.

And lest you think that all of my comments above are but a preparation for the study of an irrelevant text (where we learn a method, but get no message), I can assure you that the Fourth Commandment is related to more than the question of whether or not the State of Texas should repeal its “Blue Laws.” Surrounding the subject of the Sabbath are many differences of opinion, some of the strongest opinions are held by those who are Christians. There is one denomination (which some call a cult), the Seventh Day Adventists, who have chosen to hang their hat on this commandment as one of the touchstones of the faith. The principles we will discover from our study of the Sabbath will take us to where “the rubber meets the road.”

In this lesson, then, we will focus on the meaning of the Sabbath to the Old Testament saint. We will study the major Sabbath texts in the Law (the Pentateuch) and the Prophets (the rest of the Old Testament). We will then isolate several principles from these passages and explore their practical implications for each of us. In the next lesson we will turn to the New Testament, where we will first consider the twisted view of the Fourth Commandment held by the scribes and Pharisees, who were ready to stone our Lord as a Sabbath-breaker. We will consider our Lord’s defense of His actions and learn the correct interpretation and application of the Sabbath. Then, we will study the meaning of the Sabbath as taught by the apostles through their epistles. Finally we will attempt to determine the meaning and application of the Sabbath for the New Testament Christian.

The Sabbath in the Pentateuch

Our study has been one of the birth of the nation Israel, as depicted in the Book of Exodus. There are two crucial passages which we must first consider, for they not only precede the Fourth Commandment, they actually lay the foundation for it, on which foundation the commandment is based. We shall first consider the “Sabbath rest” of God in Genesis 2:1-3 and then the “Sabbath rest” of Israel related to the gathering of the manna in Exodus 16:22-30.

Thus, the heavens and the earth were completed, and all their hosts. And by the seventh day God completed His work which He had done; and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made (Gen. 2:1-3).

The principle contribution of this text is to establish a precedent on which future Sabbath commandments will be based. The precedent is one that God Himself established with regard to the seventh creation day. The work of creation had been completed on the sixth day. On the seventh day, God rested because He had finished the work of creation. He then blessed and sanctified this day because it was on this day that He rested. This text draws together three separate, but related, events:

  • God finished His work of creating the universe.
  • God rested on the seventh day because His creation work was finished.
  • God blessed and sanctified the seventh day because on it He rested.

The important thing to notice is this: no commandment is made in this text. The seventh day is not even called the Sabbath. But the seventh day is differentiated and set apart (sanctified) from the other six creation days. It is assigned a special significance (blessing) by God, based on the fact that it was the day on which God rested. All subsequent commands to keep the Sabbath assume that this sanctity of the seventh day has already been established (here, at creation) by God. Thus, the Israelites are not commanded to sanctify the Sabbath, but to conduct themselves in such a way as not to profane it (Exodus 31:14; Isaiah 56:2), because it has already been declared holy. The declaration of its sanctity is found in Genesis chapter 2:1-3. God’s act of resting and then of sanctifying the seventh day is the basis for all subsequent commands related to the Sabbath. Israel was to treat the seventh day as holy because God had done so, and had declared it so. This brief statement in Genesis is pregnant with future meaning, as further study will reveal.

Exodus 16:22-30:

Now it came about on the sixth day they gathered twice as much bread, two omers for each one. When all the leaders of the congregation came and told Moses, then he said to them, “This is what the Lord meant: Tomorrow is a Sabbath observance, a holy Sabbath to the LORD. Bake what you will bake and boil what you will boil, and all that is left over put aside to be kept until morning.” So they put it aside until morning, as Moses had ordered, and it did not become foul, nor was there any worm in it. And Moses said, “Eat it today, for today is a Sabbath to the LORD; today you will not find it in the field. Six days you shall gather it, but on the seventh day, the Sabbath, there will be none.” And it came about on the seventh day that some of the people went out to gather, but they found none. Then the LORD said to Moses, “How long do you refuse to keep My commandments and My instructions? See, the LORD has given you the Sabbath, therefore He gives you bread for two days on the sixth day. Remain every man in his place; let no man go out of his place on the seventh day.” So they rested on the seventh day (Exod. 16:22-30).

This text makes several significant contributions to the developing doctrine of the Sabbath. First, it is the first occurrence of the term “Sabbath”244 in the Bible. Second, it is the first time in the Bible that Israel is commanded to observe a Sabbath practice of any kind. Here, the practice is specifically related to resting from the work of gathering manna. Third, manna was not to be gathered on the seventh day because it was a “Sabbath to the Lord” (vss. 23, 26). In the context, I believe we see that it was first a “Sabbath to the Lord,” and secondarily a “Sabbath for the Israelites.” God did two things differently to set this Sabbath aside as something distinct, something sanctified. (1) God caused manna not to fall on the Sabbath (v. 27). (2) God kept the double portion of manna gathered on the sixth day from rotting, as it did on all other days (cp. vss. 20, 24).

There are two additional features of this “Sabbath instruction” in the light of Israel’s past. The first is that this command not to gather manna was a very gracious and positive gift from God. Moses told the Israelites that God had given them the Sabbath (v. 29). There were few if any days off in Egypt for slaves. The gift of one day off a week was indeed intended to be a blessing, to be gratefully received. The second feature of the Sabbath was that it established a seven-day week. We might assume that this is always the way men have divided time, but research has shown that the Egyptians followed a ten day week.245 Thus, God was reordering Israel’s conception of time.

In the light of the giving of the Ten Commandments in Exodus chapter 20, the “Sabbath instructions” of Exodus 16 are preparatory for what will soon follow. God told the Israelites to keep a form of Sabbath observance several weeks before it was laid down as one of the Ten Commandments (and one with a death penalty attached). Once again, God’s dealings here are preparing His people for the future.246

Exodus 20:8-11:

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” (Exodus 20:8-11).

This text is the basis of this lesson. This series of messages is focused on a study of the Book of Exodus. We have looked at Genesis 2 and Exodus 16 as preparation for our passage. We will study later texts as well, to see how they explain and expand on this commandment. This passage in Exodus 20 is the first proclamation of the Fourth Commandment, as a part of the entire Ten Commandments. It will be reiterated, in a somewhat different form in Deuteronomy chapter 5. The commandment to observe the Sabbath which is given here builds upon the two texts which we have previously considered. Let us see how this commandment builds upon the previous revelation.247

There are six important features of this passage which I wish to point out here:

(1) This commandment looks back for its basis. The first word of this commandment is “remember.”248 “Remember” points back, first to the rest of our Lord on the seventh day, the day which He sanctified and blessed in Genesis chapter 2. Second, we are reminded of the “Sabbath commandment” given Israel in Exodus chapter 16, which forbade the gathering of manna on the Sabbath. The two previous texts are thus viewed as foundational for the Fourth Commandment, as specified in Exodus 20.

(2) The Fourth Commandment is not just a requirement to “keep the Sabbath,” but more than this is the instruction to “keep the Sabbath holy” (cf. Exodus 16:23; 20:8). The Sabbath day is commemorated as a holy day, one designated such by the Lord (Genesis 2:1-3) and declared to be such in Exodus 16:23. Keeping the Sabbath involves much more than abstinence from labor, it requires the acknowledgment of the sacredness, the sanctity, of this day because of God’s deeds and declaration.

(3) The Fourth Commandment instructs each Israelite to plan and to finish his week’s work by the Sabbath. The reason why men do not wish to stop what they are doing is most often that they have not finished. The Fourth Commandment deals with this problem by instructing the Israelites to plan to be finished by the end of the sixth day, and to see to it that they do finish.

(4) The commandment here is broadened from the command given in Exodus chapter 16. In that passage, God specifically prohibited the Israelites from gathering manna on the seventh day of the week. Now, all labor is prohibited. This command is now so general it will require further clarification. We are thus prepared for the next revelation God will give the Israelites. Also, the number of those prohibited to work is significantly increased to include the Israelites’ servants and their beasts. Not only was rest guaranteed for all, but this would constitute a nation-wide shut down, which would make it more difficult for any who might be tempted to overlook this commandment.

(5) This commandment is not given in isolation, but it is given in relationship, in concert with the other nine. We cannot understand this command in isolation, apart from its relationship to the other commandments. We shall wait until our next passage to consider the relationship of the Fourth Commandment to the commandments as a whole. Here, I wish to point out the relationship of the Fourth Commandment to the preceding three, those which bear upon Israel’s relationship to her God. I believe that the Fourth Commandment makes a significant contribution to the Israel’s (true) worship of God.

(6) This commandment in verse 11 we are reminded that the Lord “made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them.” Previously in the Commandments, God had forbidden the worship of other gods and the use of idols and images. Specifically, God said, “You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth” (Exodus 20:4). We find that the Israelites would be tempted to make images of those things which God created, either in the heavens above, on the earth, or in the sea. After they were forbidden to fashion any images in the form of any creatures in these three spheres, God then refers to the fact that He rested after having finished creating everything in the heavens above, on the earth, and in the sea (Exodus 20:11). Is there any significance to the repetition of these three spheres? I believe so. I believe that God is teaching a very important lesson about worship: ISRAEL WOULD BE WRONG TO TRY TO WORSHIP GOD BY IMITATING HIS CREATURES (MAKING IDOLS), BUT THEY WERE TO WORSHIP GOD BY IMITATING HIS ACTIONS AFTER CREATION—BY RESTING AS HE DID.

To summarize this matter concisely we might say that Israel could not worship with idols, but was to worship by being idle. Here is a crucial difference between false worship and the true. We are wrong to worship God by making imitation gods; we are right in imitating God in His response to having finished His creation. God is worshipped as we imitate His actions and character, not as we serve the things He created.

Exodus 31:12-18:

And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “But as for you, speak to the sons of Israel, saying, ‘You shall surely observe My Sabbaths; for this is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you. Therefore you are to observe the Sabbath, for it is holy to you. Everyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his people. For six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there is a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to the LORD; whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall surely be put to death. So the sons of Israel shall observe the Sabbath, to celebrate the Sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant.’ It is a sign between Me and the sons of Israel forever; for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, but on the seventh day He ceased from labor, and was refreshed.” And when He had finished speaking with him upon Mount Sinai, He gave Moses the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written by the finger of God (Exodus 31:12-18).

Several new dimensions to the Sabbath commandment are given in this text:

(1) This passage refers to the Sabbaths as “MY” Sabbaths (v. 13). The Sabbaths which Israel are to observe are the Lord’s. This is undoubtedly related to the Sabbath rest of God after creation, referred to once again in verse 17.

(2) The observance of the Sabbath is extended in time, so that it becomes a permanent one (throughout your generations, v. 13) for Israel.

(3) The observance of the Sabbath is declared to be the sign of the Mosaic Covenant between God and His chosen people Israel. The obligation is restricted to Israelites (“It is a sign between Me and you,” v. 13; “It is holy to you,” v. 14). The fact that this commandment comes virtually at the middle of the commandments, bridging Israel’s obligation to God with her duties to men, conforms to the pattern of the treaties of the Ancient Near East. Note that the reiteration of the Fourth Commandment is God’s final word at the giving of the Mosaic Covenant on Mt. Sinai.

(4) The importance of obeying this commandment is emphatically stressed. Since Sabbath observance is the sign of the covenant, observing the Sabbath was the Israelites’ pledge to keep the whole Law. To break this commandment was to reject all of the Law. Consequently, obedience to this commandment was vitally important. The urgency of obedience is stressed by the word “surely” (“You shall surely observe My Sabbaths”) in verse 13. It is even more urgent in the light of the death penalty which is prescribed for violation of the Sabbath, twice stated (vss. 14, 15).

(5) The Sabbath is said to be profaned by any who work on this sacred day. Are we to say that work is profane? In the sense that work is common, everyday, the answer is clearly yes. What is common or profane is not necessarily evil (after all, God worked 6 days to create the heavens and the earth), but neither is it holy in the sense of being special. That which is holy is set apart, distinct, put to different use. Thus, God distinguished the seventh day by resting, as opposed to working. Israel must do likewise, so that what happened on the Sabbath was to be different, somehow, from what happened on any other day.

(6) The purpose of Israel’s Sabbath observance was to teach them about sanctification—namely their sanctification. God said that Israel was to observe the Sabbath perpetually, “that you might know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you” (v. 13). Just as God had set the seventh day apart from the other six at creation, so He had set Israel apart by His divine calling and their deliverance at the Exodus. The godly Israelite, who wished to observe the Sabbath with his whole heart, would meditate on what God intended him to do in order to keep the Sabbath as a holy day. In so doing, he would also be learning much about what it meant for him to keep himself holy as well. The keeping of the Sabbath thus became an object lesson in sanctification.

The Sabbath in Other Pentateuchal Passages

These four passages provide us with the most extensive teaching on the Sabbath. There are several other passages to which we shall briefly refer, pointing out the unique contribution of each to the Sabbath theology.

Exodus 34:21: Adds “in plowing time and in harvest you shall cease to work”—thus more specifically applying Sabbath instruction to new conditions in land.

Exodus 35:2-3: No fire can be kindled on the Sabbath in Israelite homes. While alluded to in Exodus 16, it is clearly prohibited here. This prevented the women from becoming absorbed in preparation of “hot” meals. In effect, this clarification meant “cold cuts” for dinner on the Sabbath.

Leviticus 23:3: Leviticus provides the Israelites with instruction concerning their worship which included the Sabbath. The various religious Sabbath celebrations for which Israel will gather (convocation) include:

(1) A convocation each Sabbath (23:3).

(2) A celebration of the Passover (23:4-8).

(3) A convocation on the seventh month, including a celebration of the day of atonement and the Feast of Booths (23:23-38).

Leviticus 25 and 26: In Leviticus 25, God adds the requirement that the land must have its Sabbath rests, just as the people and their animals do. On every seventh year, the land must not be worked, as in the other six years.

Every 50 years (7 X 7) there was to be a year of jubilee (25:8-17). The land was again to lie fallow. Property was to be restored to its original owner. Since the land belonged to God, He had every right to require this (25:23).

Failure to give the land its Sabbath rests would lead to Israel’s dispersion and captivity, at which time the land would get its rest (26:32-35).

Numbers 28:9-10: Here, the Sabbath day sacrifice (two male lambs) is prescribed.

Deuteronomy 5:12-15:

‘Observe the Sabbath day to keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant or your ox or your donkey or any of your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you, so that your male and your female servant may rest as well as you. And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out of there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to observe the Sabbath day’ (Deut. 5:12-15).

Essentially, this passage is a reiteration of the Ten Commandments, spoken by Moses in the light of Israel’s upcoming entrance into the land of Canaan. There are, however, a few differences between this text and that of Exodus 20:8-11. These are:

(1) This time, the commandment begins with the word “observe” rather than “remember.”

(2) “Ox” and “ass” are added to those animals which cannot be worked on the Sabbath.

(3) The statement, “that your manservant and your maidservant may rest as well as you,” is added.

(4) The basis for observing the Sabbath is different. In Exodus, the basis for the Sabbath was the creation-rest of God. In Deuteronomy, it is Israel’s slavery and release from Egypt in Deuteronomy. In Exodus, the focus is on creation, while in Deuteronomy it is redemption. In the first giving of the Fourth Commandment, Israel is instructed to imitate God in His rest; in the second, Israel is to imitate God in His redemption, in His compassion on the oppressed. Thus, just as they were given rest from their slavery, so the Israelites must give their slaves rest.249

The Sabbath in the Prophets

The rest of the Old Testament (which I am referring to as the “prophets”) has some important insight for us regarding the observance of the Sabbath.

Psalm 92: Psalm 92, subtitled “A Psalm, a Song for the Sabbath Day,” is one which we often sing. At this time we will only point out that this psalm is suggestive of the kinds of worship activities which are appropriate on the Sabbath day.

Isaiah 56:1-8: In Isaiah chapter 56, the prophet dwells on the blessings which will come to those who keep the Sabbath, “in spirit and in truth” (we might paraphrase). Several new emphases can be found here in regard to the Sabbath:

(1) Sabbath-keeping is no mere external ritual, it must be accompanied by righteousness and justice.

(2) Blessings are promised to two specific groups, who may have been considered ineligible. The foreigner (vss. 3, 6-8) and the eunuch (vss. 3-5) who keep the Sabbath are promised those blessings most significant and encouraging to them. The eunuch will not need to bear children to carry on their name for God will give them an everlasting name (vss. 4-5). The foreigner will no longer be an outsider, but will be joined with God and with His people (vss. 6-8). How great a comfort Gentiles find here.

Isaiah 58:13-14: It would seem that Sabbath-keeping had become tedious and mundane for many of the Israelites. Instead of using the Sabbath as a day of worship, selfish pleasures were pursued. God here promises blessing to those who delight in Him and who forsake the pursuit of pleasure on the Sabbath for the pursuit of God.

Jeremiah 17:21-27: Through the prophet Jeremiah, God speaks of the abuses of the Sabbath, especially as it relates to the city of Jerusalem. Commercial enterprise was being carried on during the Sabbath. Specifically, goods were being transported into and out of the city. The Fourth Commandment is thus applied specifically to the city and to commerce. God promises to bless Jerusalem as a city if the people keep the Sabbath, but to destroy the city if they refuse. We know that Jerusalem will fall and go into captivity from the entire prophecy of Jeremiah. Israel’s refusal to keep the Sabbath (and thus to cast aside her covenant with God) was a substantial part of the reason for her captivity.

Ezekiel 20:12-26; 22:8, 16, 26: Ezekiel’s prophecy in chapters 20 and 22 simply reiterates and reinforces God’s warning that the neglect of God’s covenant and Israel’s failure to keep the Sabbath would result in her judgment and captivity.

Nehemiah 10:28-31; 13:15-22: Nehemiah was one of the Post-exilic writers. The Book of Nehemiah reflects the commitment of Nehemiah and of the godly Israelites who returned to the promised land to observe the Law of God and specifically to keep the Sabbath.

Principles and Practical Implications

We have briefly surveyed the principle texts of the Old Testament which teach the Israelites how and why they should keep the Sabbath holy. Let us now sum up what we have learned, as well as explore some of the principles underlying this instruction and their implications for us.

(1) The Principle of Progressive Revelation. The progressively unfolding teaching on the Sabbath in the Bible is an excellent illustration of the principle of progressive revelation. Essentially, the principle of progressive revelation recognizes that God reveals important doctrines and concepts gradually and sequentially. Major lines of biblical truth (e.g. doctrine, prophecy) are first revealed in broad, general terms, and then filled in with more and more detail. Thus, we would expect that the great doctrines of the Bible would likely occur first in the Old Testament (very often in the Pentateuch), would then be clarified by the Old Testament prophets, interpreted by our Lord, and then finally explained and applied by the New Testament writers. The revelation of truth in the Bible is thus like the blooming of a beautiful flower. First the seed is planted, the plant grows, the flower appears as a bud and finally is seen in full bloom.

The implications of this principle are simple, yet vitally important. If we are to study a particular doctrine in the Bible we must do so consistently with the principle of progressive revelation. We should being at the beginning and study its development to the very end of the New Testament. In order to do this one should make good use of topical Bibles, marginal references in their Bibles, and a complete concordance.

The cultists and false teachers often do great violence to the principle of progressive revelation. They often find their “revelations” in one or a few obscure texts. They hop about the Bible in random fashion to justify their preconceived ideas. They then assign a very high level of importance to their unique (offbeat) interpretation. The principle of progressive revelation should help us to spot such scriptural charlatans. Any important doctrine should be frequently mentioned in Scripture. The development of that doctrine should be clearly evident as one works through the Scriptures from beginning to end. The truth will not be obscure, missed by most (we all want to know something which the less enlightened have missed), but evident to many Christians, throughout the ages of church history.

Let me briefly review what we have learned about the Sabbath from the Old Testament, to show how carefully Sabbath instruction has been given:

Genesis 2:1-3

Sabbath established by deeds and decree of God.

Exodus 16:22-30

Sabbath first commanded. Applied by God to the Israelites in the wilderness, related to the gathering of manna.

Exodus 20:8-11

Sabbath first given as the Fourth Commandment. Application broadened to all work, and to all in Israel, including servants and animals.

Exodus 31:12-18

Sabbath specifically identified as Israel’s sign of the Mosaic Covenant, with death penalty prescribed for violators.

Leviticus and Numbers

Sabbath rest to include the land. Religious celebrations and sacrifice given more detail.


The Fourth Commandment reiterated, but now with emphasis on God’s redemption and Israel’s responsibility toward slaves.

Psalm 92

Description of the kinds of worship appropriate on the Sabbath.

(Jeremiah and Ezekiel)

Israel’s errors in understanding and carrying out the Sabbath exposed (pursuit of own pleasure; ritual without mercy, justice, and Ezekiel righteousness). Blessings promised those who keep Sabbath in spirit and in truth; judgment (captivity) if Sabbath is continually profaned.

Post-exilic books (Nehemiah):

Emphasis on care given to keep the Sabbath.

(2) True religion requires the imitation of God. Idolatry seeks to create imitations of God, by creating man-made idols which represent and reflect God to men. True religion seeks to imitate God by being like Him and by obeying His commands. Israel was set apart by God to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). She was to manifest God to men by being like God in holy conduct, outlined by the Law which God gave at Mt. Sinai. God is made known to men when God’s character and conduct are reflected in and through men.

This principle is true today. Christ came to the earth to reveal God to men in His earthly body. Now that He has ascended to heaven, it is the church which is the manifestation of Christ to the world. We are His body. Just like Israel, we who constitute the church are called to be “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that we may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called us out of darkness into light” (cf. 1 Peter 2:9). Just as God commanded Israel to be holy because He is holy, so He has given this same command to the church (1 Peter 1:16).

Some would tell us that in this age of grace the Christian need not concern himself with commandment-keeping. I would remind you that just as keeping the commandments guided the Israelites as to how they were to live in a God-like way, so God’s commandments (as clarified and reiterated in the New Testament) inform us about living lives which imitate God’s character and conduct. Our Lord’s final words to His disciples in John 14 and 15 had much to say about keeping His commandments (cf. John 14:15; 15:10).

Keeping God’s commandments reveals God to men in a different way. When we keep God’s commandments it often creates situations in which God is able to manifest His power and provision for His people in a magnificent way. Let me illustrate this truth in a couple of ways. First, suppose that you were an Israelite, and that the weather forecast was for a hailstorm, which would arrive on the first day of the week. Your crops had not been fully harvested and the sixth day of the week was just drawing to a close. To obey the commandment to keep the Sabbath day holy would require you not to harvest your crops, knowing full well that the hailstorm might destroy them before you could finish the harvest. All of your pagan neighbors would be watching, I can assure you. They would watch to see the measure of your faith in God to protect your crops and to provide for you. They would also watch to see what your God would do. By obeying this commandment a situation is created in which God can prove Himself to be God.

The same is also true for the New Testament saint who faithfully lives in accordance with God’s word. I once heard a professor say that any businessman who attempted to live by the Sermon on the Mount would go broke doing so. Humanly speaking this may be true. Spiritually speaking, this affords a wonderful opportunity for God’s people to demonstrate their faith, and for God to demonstrate His faithfulness. I have heard similar statements related to our ecclesiology (the biblical principles of running the church). I believe that God gives us commands which test our faith and which give the opportunity for Him to demonstrate His faithfulness.

(3) The relationship between time and godliness: It takes time to be holy. The relationship between the first three commandments and the fourth is becoming increasingly clear. The first three commandments impress upon the saint the necessity, indeed the priority, of worship. The fourth commandment insures the time which is required for worship. When viewed together these commandments inform us that it takes time to be holy. The fourth commandment prohibits preoccupation with the normal activity of work so that men may worship God.

Think through the Old Testament passages which we have studied in this lesson for a moment. There are two related subjects: work (or the absence of it) and worship. The initial teaching on the Sabbath focuses on the absence of normal labor on the seventh day. Eventually the Scriptures begin to develop principles and a structure for Israel’s worship. The two things are directly related: Israel’s cessation of normal work was to facilitate her worship.

I have to smile to myself at this point. If many of the electronic preachers of our day had a voice in the choice of topics to be addressed in the Ten Commandments, one high priority topic would surely be money (some might make most of the commandments money-oriented). While money is dealt with somewhat, I find that time is given a higher order of priority. That is because it is easier to worship God in the absence of money (blessed are the poor) than it is in the absence of time. Isn’t it interesting that some attempt to substitute their money for their time?

I am now better able to understand a statement in the Book of Exodus which has always puzzled me: “‘Let My son go, that he may serve Me’” (Exodus 4:23; cf. 5:1, 3).

What is it, I have long wondered, which made Israel’s freedom essential to her worship? Now I better understand, in the light of the Fourth Commandment. Slaves have no time of their own. The Israelites did not have the necessary time to worship God and to serve Him. In order for them to serve God it was necessary for them to have sufficient freedom to do so. Bondage with regard to time is thus a hindrance to worship.

If this is true (as I believe it is) think of how successful Satan has been in hindering the worship of Christians in 20th century America. We are workaholics, and, in addition, worn out by the time demands of our day. It is no wonder that the quality of our worship is so shoddy. We must have free time to worship, and we must plan our week so that we finish in time to have that time. It does take time to be holy.

Yet we live in a day when everything is supposed to be done quickly and efficiently. We eat fast foods, drive in the fast lane. And thus, when we come to church, we want our worship pre-digested, pre-planned, and quickly served up so we can get on to other (better?) things. God save us from those time eaters which cause us to abbreviate our worship.

One more thing on the subject of time. We seem to think that our priorities are always in direct proportion to our time. The Old Testament teaching on the Sabbath destroys this as a myth, in my opinion. We suppose that those who are the most spiritual spend the most time in “spiritual” activities. Thus, full-time ministry is placed on the highest level, on a kind of spiritual pedestal. Let me remind you that while the seventh day was set apart as a holy day, it constituted only one-seventh of the week’s time. God labored on six days and rested on but one. Experience and Scripture join together to point out that what is most important does not always take the most time.

243 D. A. Carson, ed., From Sabbath to Lord’s Day: A Biblical, Historical, and Theological Investigation (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1982).

244 Some have attempted to discern the meaning of the term “Sabbath” by exploring its etymology (root meaning and development). Frankly, this has brought about many differing opinions, none of which has very compelling evidence. Thus, Dressler seems to conclude that etymology will not be of much profit, as can be seen from his summary of the conclusions of various scholars. Harold H. P. Dressler, “The Sabbath in the Old Testament,” From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, pp. 23-24. The Scripture itself best explains the meaning of “Sabbath.”

245 “Their sojourn in Egypt had taught them the ten-day ‘week.’” Ibid, p. 24. Dressler quotes here from Richard Parker, “The Calendars and Chronology,” Legacy of Egypt (Oxford: University Press, 1971), p. 17.

246 “Thus, viewed within the chronological scheme of the narrative, a few months before the actual commandment of the Sabbath (i.e., in the Decalogue), the people of Israel were trained in the keeping of the Sabbath as a day in which there was no need to do the daily chore since the Lord had provided for them a rest.” From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, p. 24.

247 It is probably worth mentioning that Moses undoubtedly wrote much of the Pentateuch at the same time. Thus, while the events of the preceding Book of Genesis and the earlier portions of Exodus may have been separated by some considerable period of time, their time of writing was quite confined in time. The point is that what God inspired and directed Moses to write was intended to buttress and undergird Israel’s actions, as prescribed in the Law.

248 The first statement of the Fourth Commandment in Exodus 20 begins with the words, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” The restatement of this command in Deuteronomy chapter 5 begins, “Observe the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” The change from “remember” to “observe” may be significant and worth further study, but that goes beyond the scope of this message.

249 This is a bit of an aside, but I think we should keep this text in mind whenever (or if we ever) we glibly state that the Bible sanctions slavery. There are many kinds of slavery, and the kind of slavery which God tolerates are vastly superior to the kind we most often observe. For some “freemen” in our world, God’s kind of slavery would be a step up.

16. The Sabbath Controversy in the Gospels


There are few things I enjoy more than watching a master craftsman at his trade. I delight at watching a football player like Bill Bates on a safety blitz, or like Ed Jones sacking the opposing quarterback. I love to watch John Maurer skillfully fashioning a piece of wood, a master musician playing his instrument, or an artist catching the essence of a segment of life. One my great joys this past week has been to closely observe the skillfulness of our Lord in His handling of the Old Testament Scriptures. Our study this week of the “Sabbath controversy” in the Gospels will enable each of us to look on with amazement at the ease and skill with which our Lord handles the Old Testament text.

In our lesson last week, we saw how the Sabbath was established in principle in the second chapter of the Book of Genesis, when God rested on the seventh day, having finished the work of creation. Because of this, God blessed the Sabbath and sanctified it—set it apart. It is not until Exodus chapter 16 that the seventh day was divinely prescribed as a day of resting from the harvesting of manna. In chapter 20 of Exodus the Sabbath became the focus of the Fourth Commandment. Keeping this day holy required that the Israelites finish their week’s work by the end of the sixth day, so that the seventh could be a day in which men abstained from the normal occupations of the other six. In Exodus chapter 31, the keeping of the Sabbath was declared to be a sign of the Mosaic Covenant, with the death penalty prescribed for any violator of this commandment.

Throughout the rest of the Old Testament further clarification was given regarding the keeping of this commandment. Sabbath rest was further defined in terms of changing conditions. Even the land was to have its rest every seventh year. Further, the emphasis shifts from a cessation of normal activities to the ways in which the Israelite should worship God on the Sabbath. The prophets pointed out abuses of the Sabbath and urged the Israelites to keep the Sabbath “in spirit and truth.” The nation was warned that persistent disregard of the sanctity of the Sabbath would lead to the judgment of being thrust from the land and sent into captivity.

We have seen throughout the Old Testament an ongoing clarification and expansion of the Sabbath commandment. During the 400 “silent years” between the two testaments a great deal of attention was given to the interpretation of the Law (in general) and of the Sabbath (in particular). The detail to which the inspired writers went was nothing compared to the embellishments performed on the Sabbath commandment by the Jewish scholars and religious leaders, the scribes and Pharisees. We would not be correct to conclude that all of these efforts to clarify the Law are silly and senseless. While the method of interpretation may be wrong, not to mention the conclusions reached, there was ample motivation for probing the obligation of the individual Israelite to the Fourth Commandment. During the Maccabbean Period (a century or so prior to the coming of Christ) a 1,000 Jews had been slaughtered because they were attacked on the Sabbath and would not break the Sabbath to defend themselves. Little wonder, then, that Jewish scholars sought to clarify the Sabbath commandment.

A large body of teaching regarding the interpretation of the Sabbath thus began to emerge before and after the coming of Christ. These interpretations were first preserved and passed on as oral traditions and then later put into writing. In the third century A. D. a written compilation of the oral traditions of the scribes was completed, which was known as the Mishnah. It contained 63 tractates on various subjects of the Law, requiring about 800 pages in English.250 Later Judaism set itself to the task of interpreting these interpretations. These commentaries on the Mishnah are called Talmuds. “Of the Jerusalem Talmud there are 12 printed volumes; and of the Babylonian Talmud there are 60 printed volumes.”251

The Law lays it down that the Sabbath Day is to be kept holy, and that on it no work is to be done. That is a great principle. But these Jewish legalists had a passion for definition. So they asked: What is work? All kinds of things were classified as work. For instance, to carry a burden on the Sabbath Day is to work. But next a burden has to be defined. So the Scribal Law lays it down that a burden is “food equal in weight to a dried fig, enough wine for mixing in a goblet, milk enough for one swallow, honey enough to put upon a wound, oil enough to anoint a small member, water enough to moisten an eye-salve, paper enough to write a customs house notice upon, ink enough to write two letters of the alphabet, reed enough to make a pen”—and so on endlessly. So they spent endless hours arguing whether a man could or could not lift a lamp from one place to another on the Sabbath, whether a tailor committed a sin if he went out with a needle in his robe, whether a woman might wear a brooch or false hair, even if a man might go out on the Sabbath with artificial teeth or an artificial limb, if a man might lift his child on the Sabbath Day. These things to them were the essence of religion. Their religion was a legalism of petty rules and regulations.252

We can hardly be surprised to find a head-on collision between the scribes and Pharisees and our Lord over the issue of the Sabbath. The gospel writers record numerous occasions when the Jewish religious leaders clashed with Jesus over the interpretation of the Sabbath. Almost always this resulted from an incident in which are Lord “violated the Sabbath” according to the legalistic teachings and interpretations of the scribes and Pharisees. Such incidents are helpful to us in our study of the Sabbath, for they allow us to see some of the ways in which the Bible was wrongly interpreted, as well as the true interpretation of the Sabbath as given by our Lord. Let us learn from the errors of the Jewish religious leaders, and especially from the divine interpretation of the Sabbath by our Lord.

Our method in this message will be to consider a few of the key “Sabbath texts” in the gospels, and to attempt to learn how the legalistic interpretation of the scribes and Pharisees was in error. Further, we will compare and contrast the wrong interpretation with the correct interpretation of our Lord. Then, at the end of the lesson we will try to summarize our Lord’s teaching on the Sabbath, and to seek to discover some pertinent principles which are relevant to our lives as Christians. In the next (and final) lesson on the Sabbath we will see how the apostles interpreted the Sabbath and how the New Testament church sought to apply the Sabbath in a new dispensation. For now, let us turn to the gospels of the New Testament to see how our Lord’s view of the Sabbath differed from that of religious leaders of His day.

Matthew 12:1-14

A seemingly innocent act on the part of our Lord’s disciples precipitated an incident in which the Pharisees challenged the Lord Jesus to defend or denounce His disciples: “At that time Jesus went on the Sabbath through the grain fields, and His disciples became hungry and began to pick the heads of grain and eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to Him, ‘Behold, Your disciples do what is not lawful to do on a Sabbath’” (Matthew 12:1-2).

Let us begin by gaining a sense of the context, gaining an overview of the passage. These verses describe two separate incidents: (1) the protest of the Pharisees that Jesus’ disciples violated the Sabbath by gathering grain and eating it as they walked through the fields; and (2) the issue raised by the synagogue leaders,253 knowing Jesus was about to heal the man with the withered hand. The Savior meets Jewish objections in the first instance by citing two incidents in the Old Testament where people were vindicated for technically breaking the Sabbath: David, when he took the sacred shewbread and shared it with his men, and the Old Testament priests, who regularly violate the Sabbath by working at their priestly jobs on this day.

Undaunted by the challenge of the Pharisees, our Lord catches His opponents completely off guard by referring to an Old Testament text which remarkably paralleled this situation: “But He said to them, ‘Have you not read what David did, when he became hungry, he and his companions; how he entered the house of God, and they ate the consecrated bread, which was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those with him, but for the priests alone?’” (Matthew 12:3-4).

Before looking at the response of our Lord, let us make several important observations about what is happening here that is foundational to an accurate interpretation of this text.

(1) Our Lord was not being accused of wrongdoing here. The issue here is the “harvesting” and “threshing” of grain by our Lord’s disciples. Jesus was being challenged to either condemn the deeds of His disciples or to condone them, thereby opposing the authority and the interpretation of the Pharisees.

(2) While the Torah (the Law of Moses) nowhere condemns such an act, the Halakah (the Jewish collection of interpretations) did.

(3) Amazingly, Jesus granted the assumption that the actions of His disciples was “work” and thus a breaking of the Sabbath.

These three facts provided the Lord with a golden opportunity to avoid the issue of the Sabbath, and to concentrate only on the technical questions involved. Often, Jesus did avoid “creating a scene,” whether it be that of performing a miracle publicly, or that of inciting a dispute prematurely between Himself and His adversaries. Here, Jesus could have referred His critics to His disciples, since He had not gathered any heads of grain for Himself, nor had He eaten any. He could have pointed to the fact that the Torah nowhere called such a minimal effort work, and that this was only the fallacious conclusion of some misguided, knit-picking scholars. Instead, Jesus chose to let these technical matters go by the boards. He wanted to discuss the interpretation of the Sabbath and His activities which could be construed to be a breaking of the Fourth Commandment. Here is a matter Jesus did want to discuss, and He sidestepped every peripheral issue to get to the heart of the matter.

Bearing these things in mind, notice how skillfully our Lord answered the challenge of the Pharisees. Knowing full well that He would not change the Pharisees’ minds about the disciples’ actions being viewed as work, Jesus allowed the allegation of Sabbath-breaking to go unchallenged (even though wrong). Our Lord then turned His critics’ attention to an Old Testament event which beautifully paralleled His own situation in critical points. He points to the time when David was fleeing from Saul, accompanied by a few men, and when David and his hungry men took consecrated bread from Ahimelech the priest and ate it (cf. 1 Samuel 21:1-9). Note the common denominators of both incidents, which make the Old Testament case a precedent for our Lord’s actions, along with His followers.

(1) David and the Lord both had followers with them, who participated in their “Sabbath-breaking”.254

(2) Food was eaten to alleviate hunger. Hunger prompted Jesus’ disciples to pluck the grain, just as it necessitated David and his men eating the sacred bread.

(3) Something which was sanctified, set apart for a special use, was profaned by being put to a common use. In David’s case, sanctified bread, set apart for use only by the priests’ was eaten. The Lord’s disciples, too, profaned the Sabbath (which was sanctified) by gathering grain, which was common labor.

(4) There were considerations which justified actions that normally would have been condemned as Law-breaking.

We can see that the similarities in these two situations are similar enough so that the justification for David’s actions (and, of course, his men) might also vindicate our Lord’s disciples from the charge of Law-breaking. Let us pay close attention to the argument which our Lord puts forward here, for it is a master-stroke.

First, our Lord assumes that the actions of David and his men are acceptable to the Judaism of His day,255 and thus, to His adversaries. Nobody wanted to accuse David of wrong-doing here. Second, if this is so, then the Pharisees granted exceptions to the Law. Third, if Law-breaking was allowed in some cases, it must be to some higher reason or consideration. What, then, are the reasons for which David could be acquitted, and for which our Lord and His disciples could be as well?

1 Samuel 21, David did not specifically ask for any of the sacred bread, that is all that was at hand. Ahimelech volunteered to give David some of this bread so long as his men had not been defiled. I think that there were three reasons why Ahimelech gave this bread without reservation: (1) Ahimelech did not find the Law so rigid as to prohibit meeting the needs of men under such special circumstances. (2) He believed that David had come from the king. (3) He believed that David had been sent on an important assignment by the king. These considerations led the priest to the conclusion that the prohibition of the Law could be set aside in the case of David and his men. Note well that Ahimelech did not cast aside his obligation to preserve the sanctity of the bread. He did insist that David’s men must be free from defilement. One must assume that if this condition were not met, the bread would not have been given these men. The sanctified bread was not profaned in the process.

Ahimelech had some good reasons for giving David and his men bread. Nevertheless, these were probably not the same reasons the Jewish scholars and teachers had for justifying this act of David. My opinion is that they focused on who David was. Since David was God’s anointed, Israel’s next king, it was right for he and his men to eat the consecrated bread and thus to save their lives. Their motto might have been, “better fed than dead.” David’s men could well eat the consecrated bread because of whom it was they followed. The implications for Jesus’ followers should not have passed them by. Luke, in his account of the same event, adds this statement of our Lord, which presses home the point: “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” (Luke 6:5).0 If for David’s sake (and thus Israel’s) the Law could be temporarily and technically violated, how much more for the sake of his Lord?

These are all good reasons, and may very well be implied in our Lord’s words to the Pharisees. I think, however, that there was one simple reason which our Lord sought to emphasize above all others—David and his men should have been fed the sacred bread because they were hungry and this was the only food available. The hunger factor is clearly stated by our Lord (Matthew 12:1, 3). Certain things were sanctified, set apart by God, to teach the Israelites about sanctification, not to cause them hardship and suffering. Thus, when Law-keeping would endanger David’s life or the lives of his men, the practice of the Law could be modified (not ignored altogether) to meet the needs of men.

Mark presses this point in his account of the same incident when he records this statement of our Lord: “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). If the Sabbath was made for man’s benefit and not man for the benefit of the Sabbath, then when a particular Sabbath practice posed a hardship on man, it may legitimately, in some exceptional cases, be set aside.1 How beautifully Jesus turned the tables on His adversaries. It was not He who was unbiblical, they were out of step with the Scriptures.

If the Pharisees thought they had Jesus at a disadvantage in the matter of His disciples’ actions in the grain fields, they were wrong. After the first argument in verses 3 and 4, the Pharisees’ heads must have been spinning, but rather to stop here, suggesting He had but one text in support of His thesis, Jesus struck a second blow, providing yet another precedent for His actions from the Old Testament Scriptures in verses 5-8:

“Or have you not read in the Law, that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple break the Sabbath, and are innocent? But I say to you, that something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, ‘I DESIRE COMPASSION, AND NOT A SACRIFICE,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:5-8).

Not only was David vindicated in the Scriptures and by the Pharisees for partaking of the consecrated bread, along with his followers, the priests who ministered in the temple on the Sabbath were justified in “breaking the Sabbath Law” as well. The argument in verse 5 is meticulous. It is not the greatness of the priests which justified their violation of the Fourth Commandment—it was the greatness of the temple, the greatness of the cause or the work in which the were engaged. No Jew needed to be convinced of the greatness of the temple, and thus temple service was a readily accepted justification for the priests working on the Sabbath.

These two cases which our Lord has cited might be used as precedents for His own actions and attitude toward the Sabbath, but He is not content to leave the matter at that. Jesus is no mere equal to David and to the priests, to be covered by the precedent they have set. He is their superior, their Sovereign. Thus, in the closing words of this argument, the Lord Jesus uses this occasion to boldly claim His deity, which not only allows Him to technically violate the Sabbath, it gives Him the freedom to set it aside altogether if He pleases.

As great as the temple might be to the Pharisee, our Lord claims to be “greater than the temple” (v. 6). By claiming as well to be “Lord of the Sabbath” He is also claiming to be greater than David, or any other man. Why was Jesus justified in doing what He did? Because He who is God can do as He pleases. If God established the Sabbath, and man was commanded to imitate Him in resting on the seventh day, then Jesus, as God, can do away with it, working on it if He pleases, and commanding others to do likewise. God can declare the Sabbath and He can disregard it, too.

Verse 7 strikes at the heart of the problem of His adversaries: they have focused on the mechanical, ritualistic, aspects of the Sabbath, and in so doing they have failed to meet its essence, which is mercy and compassion. They have lingered long over the letter of the Law, but they have missed its spirit.

When Jesus cites the words of the prophet Hosea, “I desire compassion, and not a sacrifice” (6:6),2 He wields a double-edged sword. In the first place, He stresses the overriding principle of compassion. For David to have fed his men the consecrated bread may have been a technical violation of the Law, but it was an act of compassion, thus complying with the spirit of that Law. The same can be said for the disciples’ eating the grain on that Sabbath day. Second, the context of this quotation serves as a veiled rebuke to the Pharisees, for in Hosea legalism is condemned, and that condemnation is often directed against the leaders of the nation Israel (cf. Hosea 5:1-2; 6:9).

The Healing of the Withered Hand
(Matthew 12:9-14)

And departing from there, He went into their synagogue. And behold, there was a man with a withered hand. And they questioned Him, saying, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”—in order that they might accuse Him. And He said to them, “What man shall there be among you, who shall have one sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will he not take hold of it, and lift it out? Of how much more value then is a man than a sheep! So then, it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:9-14).

The situation is quite different here. It is not the actions of the Lord’s disciples which are at issue, but the anticipated healing of the man with the withered hand. The wickedness of the opponents of our Lord is clearly demonstrated in this text. Jesus departed from the previous debate over the Sabbath and, on the Sabbath, enters the synagogue, apparently the one which His opponents from the last encounter normally attended. This is signaled by the designation “their synagogue” in verse 9.

While we are not told all of the details, it seems relatively clear that Jesus saw the man as he entered the synagogue. That man, if he knew who Jesus was, would have petitioned Him to heal him. Jesus must have stopped at the man’s request and the Pharisees knew that a healing was about to take place. They seized this opportunity to raise a question about the legitimacy of healing on the Sabbath. They did this knowing that Jesus would thus have to take a stand on the Sabbath and also would perform the healing, thus deliberately violating the Law as they interpreted it. Jesus was, in their minds, going to end up “between a rock and a hard place.”

The only “hard place” was that in which our Lord’s adversaries would find themselves by the time His argument was concluded. Jesus took a totally different tack in defending His actions here. He answered their question with one of His own. Here, He did not focus on Himself, nor on the Old Testament Scriptures, but on His adversaries and on His ailing friend nearby. He exposes their hypocrisy by comparing what they justified in themselves with what they condemned in Jesus.

Jesus wished to point out the glaring inconsistency of the Pharisees by showing their double standard in interpreting and applying the Law: one set of standards for themselves; another when judging Him. When it came to a mishap endangering one of their own animals, they had no qualms in “laboring” (thus breaking their interpretation of the Sabbath Law) to rescue it from danger (v. 11). If they valued their cattle so much that they would risk violating the Sabbath, could Jesus be wrong in placing a higher value on an ailing man by healing him on the Sabbath?

The Sabbath Commandment was not to be misinterpreted so as to deprive one of the ability to do good to another in need. The compassion in which the Lord delighted in principle (Hosea 6:6), was the compassion which needed to be applied in particular on this Sabbath day—and was, when Jesus commanded that the man stretch out his hand, so as to be healed (v. 13). While good men would have rejoiced (and some surely did), the adversaries of our Lord went out, counseling together as to how to do away with Him (v. 14). Thus, the Law, if given for man’s good, does not command us to do evil by neglecting to do good to those in need.

John 5:1-18

Now there is in Jerusalem by the sheep gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew Bethesda, having five porticoes. … And a certain man was there, who had been thirty-eight years in his sickness. When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he had already been a long time in that condition He said to him, “Do you wish to get well?” The sick man answered Him, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, but while I am coming, another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Arise, take up your pallet, and walk.” And immediately the man became well, and took up his pallet and began to walk. Now it was the Sabbath on that day. Therefore the Jews were saying to him who was cured, “It is the Sabbath, and it is not permissible for you to carry your pallet.” But he answered them, “He who made me well was the one who said to me, ‘Take up your pallet and walk.’” They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your pallet, and walk’?” But he who was healed did not know who it was; for Jesus had slipped away while there was a crowd in that place. Afterward Jesus found him in the temple, and said to him, “Behold, you have become well; do not sin any more, so that nothing worse may befall you.” The man went away, and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. And for this reason the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because He was doing these things on the Sabbath. But He answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I Myself am working.” For this cause therefore the Jews were seeking all the more to kill Him, because He not only was breaking the Sabbath, but also was calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God” (John 5:2, 5-18).

Time will not permit a thorough study of this text, but we will focus our attention on the highlights of the passage as they relate to the Sabbath controversy. Our Lord not only commanded the man to rise up (thus, to be healed), but also to carry his pallet, his bed (thus, technically violating the Jewish interpretation of the Sabbath Law). Initially, the Jews challenged the healed man for violation of the Sabbath. The man was undaunted, believing that anyone who had the power to heal him also had the authority to tell him to carry his bed. Jesus had silently slipped away from the scene, so that the man had not discovered His name.

Later, Jesus found the man, urging him to sin no more, lest greater evil befall him. It was at this time that the man learned his healer’s name was Jesus, and so he reported this to the Jews. This resulted in the Jews turning their wrath toward the Lord Jesus, persecuting Him for His Sabbath violation. Our Lord’s one sentence response is one of the most profound statements in the gospels: “My Father is working until now, and I Myself am working” (John 5:17). This bold statement indicates a significant change in God’s dealings with Israel, a change so dramatic that it required a response which appeared to be a violation of the Old Testament Law, particularly the Fourth Commandment. Let us consider the nature of this change.

(1) Jesus claimed that the Father is no longer resting, but is at work, even on the Sabbath. The Sabbath rest of God, described in Genesis 2:1-3, was the result of His having finished the work of creation. The work which God was then undertaking in the coming of Christ was the work of redemption. There is thus a change of program, from that of creation (completed) to that of redemption (in process). If Jesus was right (and He surely was) God was also a Sabbath-breaker, when viewed according to the former standard of the Fourth Commandment as interpreted by the Jews. David’s men could break the Law by eating consecrated bread because their leader did. Jesus’ followers could “harvest” grain on the Sabbath, if it was right for their leader to do so. And now, Jesus Himself can break the Sabbath because God the Father was doing it.

(2) The keeping of the Sabbath was a sign of the Mosaic Covenant, but this sign was to be set aside, along with the covenant, due to the new covenant which Christ would institute by His redemptive work on the cross.

(3) While obedience to God was once manifested by imitating God in ceasing from labor, obedience to God now required the imitation of God in labor. Since God was at work up to and including that very moment (which was on the Sabbath), imitating God required working on the Sabbath as well.

(4) Jesus here not only identified Himself with God, He identified Himself as God. This is evident from the reaction of the Jews to Jesus’ words:

For this cause therefore the Jews were seeking all the more to kill Him, because He not only was breaking the Sabbath, but also was calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God (John 5:18).

John 7:21-24

Jesus answered and said to them, “I did one deed, and you all marvel. On this account Moses has given you circumcision (not because it is from Moses, but from the fathers); and on the Sabbath you circumcise a man. If a man receives circumcision on the Sabbath that the Law of Moses may not be broken, are you angry with Me because I made an entire man well on the Sabbath? Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment” (John 7:21-24).

The debate which began in John chapter 5 was not finished, and so the charge of a “violation of the Sabbath” which was leveled against the Lord Jesus there is picked up again in chapter 7. Verses 21 and 23 of chapter 7 point back to the healing of the man at the pool of Bethesda. Jesus gives one further response in verses 22 and 23 which provides yet another argument in His defense with regard to the charge of breaking the Sabbath by the healing of this man.

When the keeping of the Sabbath is to be practiced according to the interpretation of the Pharisees, there was yet another group of Sabbath-breakers which they must reckon with: those parents who circumcised their sons on the Sabbath. From the legalistic point of view of the Pharisees, it was possible for two of God’s commandments to conflict with each other. The Law of Moses required that a new son must be circumcised on his 8th day (Lev. 12:3). If this day happened to fall on the Sabbath, the Jews who condemned Jesus for healing on this day would themselves circumcise their sons on the same day, and without any sense of guilt. Our Lord’s accusers were once again found to be hypocritical, and superficial in their concept of true obedience.

On the surface, circumcising a son on the Sabbath was an infraction of the letter of the Sabbath Law. In reality, circumcising on the Sabbath was keeping the Sabbath in terms of the spirit of the Law. Righteous judgment must look deeper than just at the outward appearance of an act. The Pharisees were being hypocritical, for they judged Jesus according to a different standard than that by which they judged their own actions.


Our Lord’s commentary on the Fourth Commandment is of great importance and relevance to contemporary Christians. Let us explore some of the implications of His teaching on the Sabbath as we conclude this lesson.

The first lesson which we should learn from the Sabbath controversy in the gospels is that the central and foundational issue underlying the controversy is not Jesus’ interpretation, but Jesus’ identity. The Jews sought to put Jesus to death as a result of His defense. The reason was not only because those who opposed Him were put to shame, but because the Sabbath controversy was but further proof that Jesus was God incarnate.

When you read through the gospels carefully, you will discover that at the outset of His ministry Jesus performed miracles on the Sabbath, but that they were not challenged.3 What caused the change? What made the “violation of the Sabbath” such a heated issue? The answer is this: Jesus had clearly claimed to be God incarnate. The Sabbath controversy was therefore the attempt to prove Jesus a Law-breaker, thus proving that such a “sinner” could not be God: “Therefore some of the Pharisees were saying, ‘This man is not from God, because He does not keep the Sabbath.’ But others were saying, ‘How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?’ And there was a division among them” (John 9:16).

The Gospel of Mark illustrates the sequence of events which led to the Sabbath controversy. In 1:21-28 Jesus cast an unclean spirit from a man in a synagogue in Capernaum on the Sabbath, yet there was no objection raised, only praise. In chapter 2 Jesus first forgave the sins of the paralytic who had been lowered through the roof of the house where Jesus was speaking. The scribes reasoned that only God could forgive sins, and thus that Jesus was making the claim to be God. Thus, in the closing verses of chapter 2 the Sabbath controversy is commenced. The Sabbath issue was but a symptom problem, an attempt to prove Jesus to be a sinner, and not the Son of God. This debate, like countless other debates throughout church history, was not a search for truth but an attempt to squelch the truth.

The identity of Jesus as the Son of God was the heart of the Sabbath issue. Jesus could work on the Sabbath because He was the Son of God (John 5:16-17), One greater than the temple (Matthew 12:6), and greater than David—Lord of the Sabbath (Matthew 12:8). Since God the Father was the Sabbath maker, Jesus, as God, can not only break the Sabbath, He can abolish it altogether. As God, Jesus could work on the Sabbath, and more than this, He could offer men true rest, a rest far superior to the Old Testament Sabbath rest, and surely far better than any rest which the Pharisees had to offer. It is no accident that these verses immediately precede the great Sabbath debate in Matthew’s gospel: “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you shall find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My load is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

There is only one true rest, my friend, and that is the rest which Jesus Christ gives, the rest of forgiveness of sins, the rest of ceasing from striving to be holy, and of being found holy in Him. I pray that this rest is yours.

Second, we learn that the fundamental difference between the interpretation of Jesus and that of the Pharisees was the difference between the precepts of Scripture and the principles of Scripture. If we are to understand the difference between a precept and a principle, we must first define each of these terms and then differentiate between them.



An example of a precept is: “You cannot go to the store with Sally today.” A principle would be: “I don’t like you spending time with Sally, so don’t associate with her.” In the precept, a specific action is prohibited. In the principle, a general course of action is prescribed.

Our children love rules, not because of their restrictiveness, but because of the ease with which we can overcome them. In the case of the precept “You cannot go to the store with Sally today,” our children can spend time with Sally, just so long as they don’t go to the store. They can even go to the store with her, so long as it is not today. Precepts direct our actions in particular; principles guide our conduct in general.

The difference between the Pharisees and Jesus was the difference between viewing the Old Testament only as precepts and understanding it as teaching principles which guide men’s lives in the application of its precepts, and when there are no precepts which apply to our specific predicament. To the Pharisees, the essence of the Fourth Commandment was this precept: Thou shalt not work. To the Lord Jesus, the essence of this commandment was this principle: Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. One could cease from work on the Sabbath (as the Pharisees did) without keeping the Sabbath holy. Contrarily, Jesus (and others, such as the temple priests) could also observe the Sabbath as a holy day by working on it. The Pharisees were so committed to the precept of not working that they neglected—indeed violated—the principle of keeping the Sabbath holy.

The Sermon on the Mount provides us with another example of how our Lord’s method of interpreting the (Old Testament) Scriptures differed from that of the scribes and Pharisees. The Pharisaical method of interpreting the Old Testament commandments looked at them only as precepts, specific rules for specific situations. Where the Old Testament was to general, they added particulars, thus the volumes of Jewish commentaries on the commentaries of the Law.

The Lord did not set aside any of the Old Testament precepts, but He did press beyond the precept to the underlying principle. Thus, the Pharisee could think of himself as a Law-keeper if he did not kill anyone and did not commit adultery. Jesus sought to show these legalists that they did not go far enough. To the Lord Jesus, anger was murder and lust was adultery, in principle, and thus was sin to be avoided.

Please do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that we should seek to find only the principles of the Bible and forget the precepts. I am saying that we can only properly understand and keep the precepts of the Bible by following the principles of the Bible. Both principle and precept are necessary, but the former takes precedence over the latter.

In distinguishing precepts from principles we are not engaging in mere scholastic calisthenics. This is a very practical necessity for every Christian. Allow me to show you the practicality of differentiating between precepts and principles in two ways. The first has to do with the interpretation and application of the Bible, both of the Old Testament and the New. The second has to do with the vital link between Christian ethics and biblical principles, as well as that between Christian legalism and biblical precept (without biblical principle).

When we come to the interpretation and application of the Old Testament Scriptures, we must do so on the premise that, “All Scripture [specifically the Old Testament is in view here] is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16).

How can we apply the precepts of the Old Testament when they are given to a different people (the Jews), in a different dispensation, and with a culture and lifestyle that is foreign to our own? The answer: by determining the principle underlying the precept. Sometimes that principle is readily evident (as in the case with the Sabbath). At other times, the principle is hidden within the precept. That is why meditation is necessary to understand God’s Law.

On the surface, nothing could seem more irrelevant to the North Dallas Christian than the commandment, “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing” (Deuteronomy 25:4). As a precept, this commandment would only relate to us if we owned oxen and raised grain. As a precept, therefore, this commandment is irrelevant to today’s Christian. As a principle-conveying commandment, it has tremendous implications. The ox and the grain are incidental, illustrative of the principle that the one who works ought to benefit from his labor. Paul therefore appeals to this passage when he claims the right to be supported by those to whom he ministers (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:1-14).

Another Old Testament commandment reads: “You are not to boil a kid in the milk of its mother” (Exodus 23:19; 34:26; Deuteronomy 14:21). The fact that this command is found three times should suggest it has something important to teach us. Since you and I do not raise (or eat) goats, this command has no relevance to us as a precept. The principle underlying it is most relevant to us, as I will attempt to show.

Now no Jew was to feel guilty about drinking goat’s milk. Neither was it wrong to eat a young kid; even when boiled in the milk of another goat. But when a kid was boiled in the milk of its mother, that was going too far. This is because there is a special relationship between the “kid” and its “mother,” the relationship between mother and child (offspring). The milk is the God-given provision of the mother to sustain and strengthen its offspring. To boil a kid in its mother’s milk is to be insensitive to the relationship of mother, milk, and offspring. The milk which was divinely intended to preserve and promote the life of the kid is being used to destroy that kid (at least from the point of view of the mother goat). How insensitive.

To use that which was designed to preserve life for the purpose of destroying it was forbidden. Every pregnant woman who is considering an abortion should give careful thought to the principle behind this precept about goats, kids, and milk. The uterus of the woman is a place of safety, a means of protecting the child and promoting life and growth, and yet some women go to the abortionist and have them invade their womb and slaughter their child in that place of sanctity and safety. How cruel! How insensitive! How closely this act, in principle, comes to willfully rebelling against God’s commandment.

The distinction between precept and principle is also necessary when we attempt to interpret and apply the teachings of the New Testament to our lives today. The differences between the New Testament world and our own are many, and often we must interpret and apply the precepts of the New Testament in the light of the principle underlying them. For example, this frequently repeated precept is one which few Christians keep: “Greet one another with a holy kiss” (Romans 16:16; 1 Corinthians 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:26; 1 Peter 5:14).

Why do we not do this when it is commanded so often, by so many New Testament writers? Unfortunately we may not obey this precept only out of ignorance or apathy. In studying the history of the church we find that there is a better explanation for the reticence of the church to follow this precept to the letter. Unbelievers often misunderstood what was taking place in the agape or “love feast” of the church (communion). They could only think of this in terms of the sexual indulgence common in heathen orgies. The biblical principle “avoid all appearance of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:22) was thus applied and thus the church chose to abstain from the practice of greeting one another with a holy kiss. The principle underlying this precept can be understood to be something like this: “visibly express your love for one another.” Since the principle of showing affection for one another can be practiced by other means (e. g. a handshake), Christians have felt no guilt about abstaining from “holy kissing,” especially in our western culture. Once again, distinguishing principle from precept can be of great importance to those who truly wish to be obedient to God in spirit and in truth.

Distinguishing between precept and principle will greatly assist us in avoiding that evil toward which conservative evangelicals are pre-disposed: legalism. Legalism is that tendency to strictly observe the rules, but to forget the reasons, to keep the letter of the Law, but not the spirit of it. Legalism is often related to literalism. While we should take the message of the Bible literally, the principle of a particular commandment may extend beyond the literal words. For example, literalism may view the commandment, “Don’t muzzle the ox …” as applying only to oxen and oxen owners. The principle presses us beyond the literal words without suggesting that they should be ignored. It means that taking God’s word seriously means going beyond the literal words to the principle. Legalism is simply literalism gone bad.

In thinking about my understanding and application of the New Testament, in a number of cases it has been my belief that a “New Testament church” is one which follows the precepts of the apostles and the practices of the churches. By and large this is still true. But my study of the Lord’s interpretation of the Old Testament has cautioned me about priding myself in conforming to the precepts and practices of the New Testament without giving serious thought to its principles. For example, the Scriptures have some very specific statements (precepts) about the role of women in the church. I believe that these must be taken seriously. But it is also possible (perhaps not probable, but possible) that following a particular practice found in the New Testament may violate the principle which underlies it.

Let’s take the troublesome New Testament teaching on women’s head coverings in 1 Corinthians chapter 11. Some churches feel (with great sincerity and conviction) that women should have their heads covered in church. Others are not sure this passage requires head covering at all. The principle underlying the precept (whatever it may be) is clear in the text—it is the principle of headship (of the Father over the Son, of Christ over the church, of the man over the woman cf. v. 3). It is conceivable that the imitation of the practice of the Corinthian church could, in our day and time, actually violate the principle which their practice applied. Thus, a legalistic imitation and repetition of New Testament church practices could, in some situations, be a violation of New Testament principles. Particular practices must therefore always be observed in the light of biblical principle, not on the basis of tradition alone.

To those who resist this thought as heresy, let me warn you that the Pharisees resisted the thought that working on the Sabbath could be the godly thing to do. To those who would love to find in my suggestion an excuse to set aside every New Testament practice which is either bothersome or culturally offensive, let me remind you that exceptions to biblical precepts (Old Testament or New) are few and far between, and based on solid, soul-searching, agonizing, principle-oriented study. The desire to preserve tradition as well as the desire to abolish it, should be critically evaluated.

Finally, while biblical precepts (positive and negative) provide us with the outside parameters for our conduct, biblical principles are the basis for the ethics which must guide us where precepts cannot.4 The legalist wants to believe that life is guided by only two factors: WHAT IS COMMANDED, WHAT IS CONDEMNED. The legalist thinks that all of life can be lived with a kind of code book in hand. In any given situation there must be a specific rule (precept) which tells him what to do or what not to do. There is a broad black line between what one can do and what one cannot. Whenever there is no rule for a given situation, a new rule is made. Thus, the legalism of the Pharisees, and the endless rules and regulations of Judaism.

Christian conduct is not always legislated, but is guided by three essential factors: WHAT IS COMMANDED, ETHICS, WHAT IS CONDEMNED. What I must do. What I should do. What I must not do.

We all have difficulty doing those things we know to be right, and avoiding the things we know to be wrong. Paul’s agony in Romans 7 is familiar to every Christian. But there is another agony which Christians must face: the agony of knowing what is the right thing to do when there is no rule, no precept to tell us what we should do.

Those many things which are neither commanded nor condemned (which included Christian liberties—cf. 1 Corinthians 8-10; Romans 14) fall into the broad category which many would call ethics. Precepts tell us what we must do or not do; principles guide us in discerning what we should do. Principles are therefore absolutely essential to the development of personal Christian ethics.

Many of the most agonizing issues Christians face today are ethical issues. These include: (1) birth control, (2) belonging to a labor union, (3) going on strike, (4) nuclear weapons and their use, (5) going to war/pacifism, (6) capital punishment. In my opinion these and many other questions are ethical issues, which can only be settled on the basis of principle and by the establishment of strong personal convictions (which means, incidentally, that other Christians may come to different convictions). If we learn from our Lord and other biblical writers how to distinguish biblical precepts from biblical principles we shall have the raw materials necessary for developing a system of personal ethics.

May God enable us to apply the lessons which we have learned from our Lord, by His grace and to His glory.

250 William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1963), I, p. 126.

251 Ibid.

252 Ibid, pp. 124-125.

253 The reader will note that the objectors are not precisely identified. Note, however, that Matthew tells us that Jesus went into “their synagogue” (v. 9), and that “they” (v. 10) questioned. In the light of this and of the overall Sabbath debate in the gospels, I think my suggestion that these were the Jewish leaders has some substance.

254 Some may feel that David and his men are not guilty of Sabbath-breaking, but, more generally, Law-breaking. In His own words, Jesus spoke of David’s actions as “not lawful” (v. 4). From the passage in 1 Samuel 21 and the stipulations governing the consecrated bread in Leviticus 24:5-9 it is possible to infer that the particular day David arrived at Nob may have been the Sabbath. In the first place, the Sabbath was the day when the fresh bread replaced the old (Leviticus 24:8). Thus, the priest would have some available to give David. Secondly, in 1 Samuel 21:5 David uses a “much more” argument to show that “today” his men would be even more certain to be undefiled by contact with a woman.

255 This is indeed interesting, for the account of David’s actions in 1 Samuel reveals some rather dubious deeds, including lying to the priest about the true reason for his appearance and request. If the Jews could see fit to justify David’s actions, in spite of some of his questionable actions, how could they possibly fail to approve of our Lord’s deeds?

0 Luke cites our Lord’s words, “For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath,” after His first defense, while Matthew saves it until the second. The problem (if any existed) is solved by the fact that Luke wants us to see that this statement was underlying our Lord’s whole defense, not just one part of it. Thus, it is introduced in Luke, “And He was saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath’” (Luke 6:5). This was thus an on-going, repeated thrust of our Lord’s teaching in this confrontation.

1 I realize that this statement opens a virtual “Pandora’s box” and yet it can hardly be denied that this is what happened in David’s case, cited here by our Lord. Fallen man will of course want to consider an inconvenience a cause for setting God’s commands aside and this is not acceptable. Nevertheless, the fact that God’s laws have exceptions (as in the case of David) means that some circumstances do justify a modification of the application of the Law. This will be even clearer later on in this study.

2 To fail to grasp the spirit of the Law is thus to fail to know God as He is, for the Law is the expression of God’s character. Thus, the error of the Pharisees was a distortion of the character and attributes of God. Thus, the second line of Hosea 6:6 reads: “And in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”

3 Carson argues that the real issue with our Lord was not the fact that He worked on the Sabbath: “The fact that Jesus does not suffer public outrage for His exorcism [Mark 1:21-28; Luke 4:31-37] cannot escape notice; perhaps no Pharisees were present, and he could have opposed Jesus’ Sabbath practices (cf. Luke 13:10-17). In what immediately follows, Jesus performs another miracle, one of healing (Mark 1:29-31, Luke 4:[3]8-39), and again there is no adverse reaction, although it may be argued that the miracle occurred in the privacy of a home.

“The absence of opposition may, however, have a more comprehensive explanation. Up to this point Jesus has been scrupulous as far as the Torah is concerned, and has not clashed even with the Sabbath regulation of the Halakah. The Halakah was designed to put a fence around Torah while still leaving the people free to perform necessary tasks and (in the majority view) acts of mercy. It is doubtful that any consideration was given in the early stages to the legitimacy of Sabbath miracles, since the regulations dealt with work on the Sabbath. If the Halakic comments about healing were intended to govern medical practitioners and the ministrations of relatives and the like, it is hard to see how Jesus committed any offense at all. It appears, then, that Jesus’ Sabbath practices were not reviled by anyone at first, until oppostion began to mount and Jesus Himself was reviled. At that point, the Sabbath legislation was used against Him, and attacks against Him were rationalized on the basis of the Halakah.” D. A. Carson, “Jesus and the Sabbath in the Four Gospels,” From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, D. A. Carson, ed. (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1982), p. 59.

4 The connection between ethics and principles is one that has been pointed out by R. C. Sproul: “Ethics is a normative science, searching for the principal foundations [principles] that prescribe obligations or ‘oughtness.’ It is concerned primarily with the imperative and with the philosophical premises upon which imperatives [precepts] are based.” R. C. Sproul, Ethics and the Christian (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1983), pp. 9-10 (comments in brackets mine).

Related Topics: Gospels

17. The Sabbath in Apostolic Preaching and Practice


When I was growing up my parents owned and operated a small summer resort. Occasionally, there were Christian friends who came to visit and stay with us, and one friend in particular was a minister. When he and his family came and stayed over on a Sunday, I can still remember being puzzled at the fact that his children, who were my age, were restricted from doing many of the “fun” things which were permissible the rest of the week. The motive of this man was undoubtedly pure, but as a child, it still did not make sense to me. I hoped that his conception of the Sabbath was not God’s conception of heaven.

In the light of my study of the Sabbath I find that my childish quandary about our friends and their Sabbath observance was not as childish as I first thought. One of the common misconceptions currently held among Christians is that our observance of Sunday as the “Lord’s day” is the Christian Sabbath, the Sabbath day of the Old Testament saint, revised and tailored to meet the need for Christian worship. A careful study of the Sabbath in the teaching and practice of the apostolic, New Testament, church will prove otherwise. Our final study of the Sabbath will not only reveal what the Sabbath is not, but what it is and how we should understand and apply the Old Testament Sabbath today.

In our first two lessons on the Sabbath we have studied its institution in the Old Testament and its interpretation in the teaching and practice of our Lord. We found that the Sabbath has its roots in Genesis chapter 2, on the seventh day of creation when God rested, after completing His work of creation. The Book of Exodus builds on this foundation, first commanding a Sabbath rest in regard to harvesting the manna in the wilderness (chapter 16), then instituting the Sabbath as the Fourth Commandment, given by God from Mt. Sinai (chapter 20). Finally, the keeping of the Sabbath is declared to be the sign of the Mosaic Covenant, with the death penalty declared for any violators of this commandment (chapter 31).

The nature of the Sabbath rest is outlined in more detail throughout the rest of the Pentateuch. Rest is extended to the days when Israel will possess the land. Even the land is to have its rest every seventh year. The Israelites’ cattle and their slaves are also exempted from labor on the Sabbath. Not only was there further clarification as to the kinds of work prohibited, and the workers exempted, there was also greater detail provided as to worship which should be conducted on the Sabbath. The prophets sought to promote the observance of the Sabbath in the spirit of the Law, not just in the letter, promising blessings to those who kept the Sabbath and warning of the captivity which would result from continued disregard of it.

Our Lord’s interpretation of the Sabbath is given great emphasis in the gospels, thanks to the controversy precipitated by the scribes and Pharisees. The real issue was not what Jesus did, or even what He taught pertaining to the Sabbath, but Who He claimed to be in relationship to the Sabbath. In Luke chapter 4, verses 16-21, Jesus read from the Book of Isaiah, chapter 61. The passage initially seems to have no reference to the Sabbath, but some of the terms of this passage are linked to the Old Testament passages on the year of Jubilee, as sabbatical celebration.

In Matthew chapter 11, verses 25-30 our Lord offered men “rest” in Him, an obvious “Sabbath” illusion, with the added claim to be the source of the rest. These verses immediately precede the “Sabbath controversy” of chapter 12. In chapter 12 Jesus boldly identified Himself with God, and indeed, as God, by claiming to be greater than David, greater than the priests, and greater than the temple. He claimed to be the Lord of the Sabbath,5 thus having the authority not only to interpret the Sabbath Law, but even to set it aside altogether. Although our Lord never violated the Torah with regard to the Sabbath, He implied that He would bring about a significant change in this matter.

The final outworkings of our Lord’s coming with regard to the Sabbath were only hinted at in the gospels, due to the fact that our Lord’s work of redemption was still future. The full and final meaning of the Sabbath could only be understood in the light of His cross. Thus, it is the apostles who are privileged to give the final word on the Sabbath. They are the “court of last resort,” whose verdict on the Sabbath we must accept and apply.

The purpose of this lesson is to pursue the meaning of the Sabbath for the New Testament saint. We will attempt to do this by looking first at the practice of the apostles, and of the New Testament churches, as seen primarily in the Book of Acts, but also in some of the epistles. We will then consider the teaching of the apostles regarding the Sabbath. Finally, we will focus on the apostolic teaching of the Sabbath as it applies to the lives of New Testament saints, as it applies to you and me. I believe that we may find new and surprising insights here. We will, once again, gain further insight into the way in which we should interpret and apply the Old Testament to our lives as well. Let us seek to study the Sabbath with open hearts and minds to the truth of God, and to determine to apply what the Spirit of God convinces us is truth.

The Sabbath and the
Practice of the New Testament Church

There is a sparsity of information on the Sabbath practices of saints in the New Testament. Our first surprise comes here, at the sparsity of emphasis or information on the practice of the church with regard to the Sabbath. This lack of detail provided in the biblical text has led to a wide range of interpretations, mostly all inferential. In and of itself, this vagueness is informative. Surely, since the Old Testament went into great detail about the Sabbath and its observance, and since the New is surprisingly silent, the issue must not be all that important. Sabbath keeping should have been given more emphasis if it were a crucial matter for the New Testament saint.

This sparsity of information also signals us to the fact that the issue of keeping the Sabbath must not have been a major controversy in the church, even between Jewish and Gentile Christians, as was, for example, the controversies over circumcision or abstinence from certain foods:

Eight times we hear in Acts of what happened on the seventh day Sabbath, but only once of the day that supposedly eclipsed it in importance, and that single reference concerns a church outside Palestine and tells us virtually nothing about the day. Luke’s description of the church at Jerusalem speaks of the apostles’ teaching, the Lord’s Supper, fellowship of goods, temple worship, the growth of the church in numbers, the miracles that were worked, the praying that was done, and even of the joy that was experienced (2:42-47), but in all this there is not the barest hint of the inauguration of observance of Sunday! If we are to believe Beckwith [that the Old Testament Sabbath was converted to Sunday worship in the New Testament], the most distinctive and highly controversial feature of the earliest church’s practice has simply been totally ignored.6

A variety of practices related to the Sabbath are described in the New Testament. When the New Testament does inform us of the way in which people conducted themselves regarding the Sabbath, we find a variety of responses.

(1) At least initially, the Jewish Christians continued to worship in the temple and in their synagogues, as they had always done (cf. Acts 3:1).7 It may well be that as time went on the Jewish Christians attended the temple or the synagogue on the Sabbath in order to evangelize their unsaved Jewish brethren. This was surely the case with Paul in many instances.

(2) The Gentile proselytes, the “God-fearers,” who continued to worship on the Sabbath must have done so out of habit, more than out of a sense of necessity (as opposed to worshipping on Sunday).8

(3) While the evidence is sparse, it would seem that the Gentile Christians worshipped on Sunday, and not on the Sabbath (cf. Acts 20:7-12; 1 Corinthians 16:2; Revelation 1:10).

(4) In the post-apostolic period of the church (second century) there was little emphasis on Sabbath keeping. This is significant in the light of the emphasis at that period of time on the importance of the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments, of which the Fourth Commandment was a part, and, indeed, the covenant of which Sabbath keeping was the sign.9

All of this indicates to us that there was no uniform, clearly established practice of observing Sabbath worship in the New Testament. While many Jews did so freely, they did not have to do so compulsorily. Thus, it would seem as though Paul could change his pattern (timing) of worship as a matter of expediency:

For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. And to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law, though not being myself under the Law, that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without Law, as without Law, though not being without the Law of God but under the Law of Christ, that I might win those who are without Law (1 Corinthians 9:19-21).10

The Sabbath and
the Teaching of the Apostles

There were several factors which precipitated the need for teaching on the relationship of the New Testament saint to the Law in general and to the Sabbath commandment in particular.

First, the death of Christ brought about a radical departure from Judaism, which had to be clarified. Paul’s experience illustrates this. As an unbeliever, Paul was considered “blameless under the Law,” and yet he was hopelessly lost, his righteousness was a good as dung, and he was a persecutor of Christ (Philippians 3:1-7).

Second, the offer of the gospel to the Gentiles and the large influx of Gentile Christians precipitated serious problems which required an apostolic solution. Peter’s vision and his consequent commission to preach to those gathered at the house of Cornelius (Acts 10) resulted in his being “called on the carpet” to explain his actions (Acts 11). Even when the Jewish Christians agreed that “God had granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18), they were still reluctant to act on this truth (cf. Acts 11:19).

Third, false teachers came along who sought to distort the gospel and to deceive the saints. Since their heresies often were related to the Old Testament Law, apostolic teaching was necessary. We will briefly survey how these three factors and others led to apostolic clarification and instruction which relates to the Sabbath.

(1) The immaturity of the infant Jewish church necessitated apostolic clarification on the role the Old Testament Law was to play in the lives of the New Testament saint. An excellent illustration of this problem can be seen in the matter of the Old Testament food laws, which declared certain foods unclean (cf. Leviticus 11; Deuteronomy 14). Judaism had interpreted and extended these laws in such a way as to prohibit a Jew from eating with a Gentile. In His teaching, our Lord had already paved the way for setting aside these laws: “And He said to them, ‘Are you too so uncomprehending? Do you not see that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him; because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?’ (Thus He declared all foods clean.)” (Mark 7:18-19).

The implications of this change were not readily seen, even by the disciples of our Lord, and the application of this change was not easy either. Thus we read in the 10th chapter of Acts that it took a vision from God to convince Peter than he should go to the house of a Gentile and preach the gospel. And when word reached the Jewish church leaders in Jerusalem, Peter had to convince them that he had done the right thing. Even when they agreed that God was doing a new thing, the Jewish Christians were not quick to act on this new truth (cf. Acts 11:17-19). Later on, Peter, under pressure from his Jewish brethren, buckled under pressure and withdrew from eating with the Gentile Christians (Galatians 2:11-21).

The setting aside of the Old Testament food laws was but a preview of other questions related to the application of the Old Testament Law to New Testament Christians. Only as time passed did the apostles come to understand the change which occurred as a result of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. The Old Testament Law was given to the Israelites, in order to distinguish this nation from all other nations (cf. Exodus 19:4-6). The Law thus placed barriers between the people of God and the other nations. With the coming of Christ and the new covenant, God broke down the barriers between Israel and the Gentiles, making one people, one church. Thus, those laws which separated Jew from Gentile had to be put aside:

Therefore remember, that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called “Uncircumcision” by the so-called “Circumcision,” which is performed in the flesh by human hands—remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity (Ephesians 2:11-16; cf. Colossians 3:11).

The Law, which forbade (or a least restricted) fellowship with the Gentiles had to be set aside, for with the new covenant came a whole new dispensation, a whole new order, one which tore down distinctions and barriers between Israel and the nations and which united all saints into one body—the church. Since it was not Judaism that saved men, Gentiles did not have to become Jewish proselytes, nor did they need to keep the Law. They did, however, have to make certain concessions for the sake of unity and harmony with their Jewish brethren. The Jerusalem Council outlined these concessions (Acts 15).

(2) Whether or not one kept the Sabbath became an issue which created tensions between the strong and the weak. As time went one, more and more Gentiles were converted. The fact that there were Jewish Christians who continued to observe the Law11 and Gentile Christians who did not created certain problems.12 The stronger Christians were those who understood and exercised their Christian liberties, while other weaker Christians were not so inclined. Some of the “strong/weak” issues related to the Old Testament Law, and thus the dividing line was drawn between Jewish and Gentile Christians. Paul found it necessary, on a couple of occasions, to lay down guidelines of conduct for the “strong” and the “weak,” so that harmony, unity, and fellowship could be insured (cf. Romans 14 and 15; 1 Corinthians 8-10). The bottom line of these guidelines was that no man should defile himself by doing what he doubted to be right, that the strong and the weak should both act on personal convictions, and not seek to impose these on others. The strong should always refrain from the exercise of a liberty which might cause a weaker brother to stumble.

In the Book of Romans the observance of days was one of the “strong/weak” issues Paul specifically addressed:

One man regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Let each man be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God (Romans 14:5-6).13

Thus in the context of the stronger and the weaker brothers, and in the realm of personal convictions, each is free to observe a certain day as he sees fit before God. Surely, as this regards the keeping of the Sabbath day, there is neither the necessity to observe the Sabbath, nor condemnation for doing so. It is a matter of liberty.

(3) False teaching arose, blending Hellenistic philosophy, speculation, and the Jewish laws. In the Gentile churches mentioned in the New Testament, there was a form of false teaching which had a Jewish flavor, but was a blending of Hellenistic philosophy and Old Testament Law. Thus we read warnings like this: “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8).14

Initially, this warning seems to have nothing to do with Judaism, but this observation would be inaccurate, for several reasons. In the first place, the expression “elementary principles of the world” is used elsewhere with reference to the Old Testament Law (cf. v. 20; Galatians 4:9). Furthermore, the broader context of the second chapter of Colossians is clearly dealing with the Old Testament Law. The circumcision mentioned in verse 11 is in contrast with the physical circumcision of the Old Testament. Verses 14 and 20-23 deal with the Old Testament Law or perversions of it. Thus, a kind of blend of error is addressed in this chapter, some of which is derived from the Old Testament and distorted by philosophy, speculation, and asceticism.

Paul’s “Pastoral Epistles” abound with references to this kind of error and its dangers:

As I urged you upon my departure for Macedonia, remain on at Ephesus, in order that you may instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrines, nor to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies, which give rise to mere speculation rather than furthering the administration of God which is by faith. … For some men, straying from these things, have turned aside to fruitless discussion, wanting to be teachers of the Law, even though they do not understand either what they are saying or the matters about which they make confident assertions (1 Timothy 1:3-4, 6-7).

For there are many rebellious men, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision, who must be silenced because they are upsetting whole families, teaching things they should not teach, for the sake of sordid gain (Titus 1:10-11; cf. also 1 Timothy 4:1-3, 6; 6:3-5, 20-21; 2 Timothy 2:14-18, 23-26; 4:3-4; Titus 3:9-11).

The warnings against the teachings of such men are numerous, but included are instructions directly involving Sabbath observance: “Therefore let no one act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day” (Colossians 2:16).

This instruction implies that observing the Sabbath (or other Jewish holy days) would not be wrong. This is a matter of Christian liberty. What is forbidden is not the observance (or non-observance) of the Sabbath, but allowing another (principally the false teachers or one of their followers) to stand as our judge in the keeping of this day. Since the observance of the Sabbath is a matter of freedom, no one should dare to be a judge of another in this matter. Here, no one should allow another to become his judge in this matter. Freedom in this area is thus insured, and the authority of the false teachers is cut out from under them.

(4) The heresy of the Judaizers. During the days of our Lord’s earthly ministry the scribes and Pharisees vehemently resisted the Lord Jesus Christ for what He taught, but mainly for what He claimed. Righteousness according to the scribes and Pharisees was a works righteousness, attained by Law-keeping. The conflict between Jesus and these legalists led to the cross of Calvary. After Christ’s resurrection and ascension the Jews persisted at resisting grace. Unbelieving Jews resented the worship of “fulfilled Jews” in their temple and synagogues. They followed Paul about, seeking to thwart his teaching and even to kill him. Some of these legalists were converted, or at least professed to be saved, and entered the church, attacking it from the inside, seeking to make Law-keeping the means for attaining righteousness. This is the heresy which Paul countered in the Book of Galatians. Paul viewed this teaching as heresy, as a “different gospel” (Galatians 1:6), pronouncing a curse on any who would teach thus (1:8, 9). The essence of this teaching was that a Gentile could only be saved by converting to Judaism (as signified by circumcision) and by the keeping of the Old Testament Law. A part of this Law-keeping would be the observance of the Sabbath: “You observe days and months and seasons and years. I fear for you, that perhaps I have labored over you in vain” (Galatians 4:10-11).

The Judaizers insisted that salvation in Christ could only be attained by conversion to the Old Testament doctrines and practices of Judaism. Of course this involved the keeping of the ceremonial days of worship. It was one thing for men like Paul to observe the Jewish rituals and religious holy days (cf. Acts 18:18; 20:16; 21:17-26), for Paul viewed them in terms of their fulfillment in Christ. The legalists, however, saw them as something which the Law required in addition to the work of Christ (cf. Galatians 3:1-3). Thus, to practice the Law with this mindset was to forsake Christ and to fall from grace (Galatians 5:1-4). It is no wonder that the “observance of day” was so strongly attacked by Paul in the context of this heresy.

In the teaching of the apostles, the observance of much of the Old Testament Law was a matter of personal choice, of Christian liberty. No one should feel guilty about continuing most of their observances, for this was the common practice of Paul and the other (Jewish) apostles. On the other hand, no one needed to do so as a requirement of the Law, or as something imposed on them by others (who thus served as their judges in the matter). When such practice was related to “strong” or “weak” Christians, Christian love should prevail. When Law-keeping was a necessity for salvation and sanctification, it was heresy which had to be avoided at all cost.

Is Sunday, the Lord’s Day, a New Testament Sabbath?

It would seem, then, that both according to apostolic practice and preaching, the keeping of the Sabbath was purely a matter of preference and personal choice. Some, however, have insisted that the “Lord’s Day” of the New Testament (Revelation 1:10), along with the church meeting on the “first day of the week” (cf. Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:2), are the New Testament “Sabbath,” which Christians are obligated to observe.15 This conclusion is one which contradicts too much evidence. Because this view is so commonly held today among Christians, I will take a moment to defend my conclusion that this view is incorrect.

(1) Our Lord strongly implied in His teaching that there was to be a dramatic change with regard to the observance of the Sabbath as a result of His coming. Our Lord not only vindicated Himself with regard to His practice on the Sabbath, but suggested a decisive change was at hand. He was the One who was working because His Father was at work (John 5:17). He was the One who was greater than David, greater than the priests, greater than the temple—the Lord of the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1-8). As Lord of the Sabbath, our Lord could not only technically violate the Sabbath, He could change it altogether. To merely transform Sabbath worship to Sunday worship would not do justice to the change we are led to expect from our Lord’s words.

(2) The old covenant and the Law of the Old Testament are no longer binding on the New Testament saint. The Sabbath commandment is a part of the Old Testament Law which New Testament saints are no longer under. There are two different answers to this objection. The first is that the Sabbath is a “creation ordinance,” established at the outset of creation, before the giving of the Law. The Scripture contradicts this conclusion, however. At creation (Genesis 2:1-3) we are only told that God rested and that He blessed and sanctified the seventh day. No command is given to keep the Sabbath until the time that the Law was given at Sinai (Exodus 16, 20, 31, etc.). Second, there are efforts to differentiate God’s “moral Law”16 (which includes the Ten Commandments) from the “civil” and “ceremonial” Law of the Old Testament. As many have observed, however, these distinctions between “moral,” “civil,” and “ceremonial” Law are arbitrary and highly questionable.

(3) There is really no way in which the Fourth Commandment can be modified so as to make it fit the “Lord’s Day” worship of the New Testament and yet retain the Sabbath distinctives. There is no emphasis on “rest” in the church’s Sunday worship. There is no equating the creation rest of God on the seventh day with the first day worship of the church which may well be related to the resurrection of our Lord. The Sabbath of the Old Testament and the “Lord’s Day” of the New Testament are just too different. It is amazing that if such a transition from Sabbath to Sunday were to be taught in the New Testament the connection between the two would be so obscure in the New Testament. Far from stressing the continuity between Sabbath and Lord’s Day, the New Testament seems to emphasize the contrast between the two. The compulsory Sabbath of the Old Testament (with its death penalty) is a contradiction to the liberty of choosing and observing of days in the New (cf. Romans 14:5; Galatians 4:10; Colossians 2:16).

The Significance of the
Sabbath to the New Testament Saint

If the necessity of keeping the Fourth Commandment is a thing of the past, and is but a matter of Christian liberty, what is the relevance of the Sabbath to the contemporary Christian? Is this but one of the antiques of the Scriptures, something which belongs in a museum, but not to be used any longer? Quite the contrary. There are two texts of Scripture which inform us of the role of the Sabbath for the New Testament saint. Let us briefly consider these texts.

Colossians 2:16-17

Therefore let no one act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day—things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ (emphasis mine).

We have already learned from this text that Sabbath observance is a matter of Christian liberty, and thus we must not allow others to judge us on whether or not we observe the Sabbath. But in the 17th verse Paul goes on to inform us of the role which the Sabbath played: it was a shadow of that which is to come. Notice Paul’s tenses here. He did not say, “The Sabbath was a shadow of that which was to come,” he said, “The Sabbath was a shadow of that which is to come.” In other words, the Sabbath was given as a type, a prophecy of the future. That which was prophesied (as it were) has not yet come, for it is still viewed as future. The Sabbath is called a “mere shadow,” not because it was insignificant, but because its significance pales in the light of our Lord’s coming. He, indeed, is the substance, the basis for what is yet to come. The Sabbath is a “mere shadow” because it points to what is yet to come; the Lord Jesus is the substance of what is to come because it is He who has procured what is to come.

The same principle, that the Sabbath is a shadow of what is to come, is taught in the Book of Hebrews: “For the Law, since it has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things, can never by the same sacrifices year by year, which they offer continually, make perfect those who draw near” (Hebrews 10:1).

Hebrews 3 and 4

It is the Book of Hebrews which expounds the meaning of the Old Testament Sabbath for the New Testament saint in chapters 3 and 4. The message of these two chapters is beyond the scope of this message, nevertheless we will attempt to catch the essence of the argument of these two chapters as it develops and concludes the doctrine of the Sabbath in the Scriptures.

In chapter 3 the writer is exhorting his readers to be faithful, even as our Lord (vss. 2, 6) and Moses (vss. 2, 5) were. This requires faith (as opposed to unbelief) and obedience (as opposed to disobedience). The danger which the Christian must be on guard against is that of unbelief. Israel is used as an example of the hardness of heart which the Christian is to avoid. In their day of trial in the wilderness, the Israelites failed to believe God, so they put Him to the test (vss. 7-11). The consequence of this generation’s hardness of heart was that they were not permitted to “enter into God’s rest” (v. 10).

The reader is warned about the possibility of having this same hardness of heart (v. 12). The solution is to daily encourage one another (v. 13). The reader can be assured of becoming a partaker of Christ if he holds fast his assurance to the end (v. 14). The danger of unbelief and disobedience is presented as real and imminent. Those whose hearts are hardened may be those who have experienced the grace of God in a mighty way. After all, the writer argues, were not those who were laid low in the wilderness not recipients and participants in all of God’s gifts associated with the exodus (vss. 15-19)?

In chapter 3 the author looked back in time, focusing on Israel’s unbelief and disobedience, and seeking to show that the danger we face is of the same kind Israel did—and failed. In chapter 4 the writer looks forward, focusing on the rest into which the Israelites were not allowed to enter, showing that this rest is the same rest to which the saints still look forward.

The rest into which the first generation of Israelites failed to enter is presented as that future rest into which New Testament saints should strive to enter. The same promise of rest, the writer assures us, still remains (v. 1). Just as this rest is a goal toward which we should strive, it is also one that can be forfeited by unbelief: “Therefore, let us fear lest, while a promise remains of entering His rest, any one of you should seem to have come short of it” (10:1). The reader, like the first generation Israelite of chapter 3, may have heard a word from God, but this good word will not be of any profit, unless it is accepted with faith (v. 2), for faith is the means of entering into God’s rest (v. 3).

The writer to the Hebrews now relates the “rest” which the Israelites failed to obtain, and which we still have as a future hope, to that rest which God established at the conclusion of His creation (vss. 3-5). The rest was something already “finished” as Genesis 2:2 indicates. The failure to enter this rest was thus due only to Israel’s unbelief, not to any other failure (certainly not a lack of preparation on God’s part).

The writer stresses that the Israelites’ rest is the same as that rest to which New Testament saints look forward. He does this by highlighting the word “today” from Psalm 95:7. He reasons that as long as the word “today” is still applicable, so is the promise of rest available. Furthermore, the promised rest which that first generation of Israelites failed to enter was not attained by any Israelite up to David’s day (specifically the time of the writing of Psalm 95). If Joshua had given the Israelites rest, David would not still be speaking of this rest as a future, unfulfilled blessing (vss. 8-9). Once one has entered into God’s promised rest, there is no more need to strive to enter it (v. 10).

Since the promise of rest remains, and since it is forfeited by unbelief and obtained through faith, let the reader strive diligently to enter into this rest, fearful of developing a hardened heart do to unbelief and neglect of the word of God. It is this word which is alive and active and able to judge the motives and intentions of the heart, thus exposing sin which hardens it (vss. 12-14).

Just what is the “rest” which is spoken of? Here, Bible students differ greatly. I believe that the emphasis of these two chapters falls on the future rest, rather than on a present rest. We are to labor to enter into our rest (4:11). I believe that just as our Lord was justified in working on the Sabbath to provide our rest (John 5:17), to rest when that work was complete (cf. Hebrews 10:11-12), so we must now labor to enter into God’s promised rest. Thus, the author is not here stressing a present “faith rest” as some would say.

I believe that that promised rest is the future, full and final rest of our eternal salvation; in a word, our eternal, heavenly rest. Some would protest that this cannot be correct since the Israelites of old failed to enter into salvation. This is precisely the point: they have not, as yet, entered into their rest, but they will. Every Old Testament Israelite (including Moses, remember) did not, at that time, enter into their heavenly rest, for which they hoped and to which they looked forward (cf. Hebrews 11:13-16). They will, however, do so in the future, as Hebrews 11 makes very clear. One important reason why Israel did not enter their rest then was their sin, as Hebrews 3 points out. Another reason is given in chapter 11: “And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised, because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they should not be made perfect” (Hebrews 11:39-40).

The rest to which Old and New Testament saint alike looks forward is the eternal, heavenly, rest of salvation. God chose not to give this rest to the Jew until He could also give it to Gentile saints as well. Thus, the sins of every Old Testament believer were sufficient cause to delay the blessed rest, until the time that Messiah would come to give every believer, Jew or Gentile, that rest.

How powerfully the point of chapters 3 and 4 undergirds the message of the entire epistle to the Hebrews. The Hebrews were tempted to fall back into Old Testament (legalistic) Judaism, due to the pressure and persecution of their Jewish brethren. Yet this Judaism had not enabled one Israelite to enter into the rest which the Sabbath anticipated and foreshadowed. This rest had been accomplished on the cross of Calvary by the Messiah, and these readers were willing to forsake Him and His rest, in order to avoid the persecution of the Jews. The word of God which these readers had heard (and believed) was the word of Christ, the gospel. To fall from this gospel was to have a hardened heart, and to endanger the rest which it alone provided in Christ.

This text in Hebrews draws together the teaching of the entire Bible, Old Testament and New, with regard to the Sabbath. As both Paul (Colossians 2:17) and the writer to the Hebrews (10:1) taught, the Sabbath was given as a shadow, a preview, of God’s rest which is still future. God’s creation rest was an anticipation of man’s rest, but the fall prevented this from taking place immediately. The rest that Israel looked forward to was far greater than just entrance into and possession of the land of Canaan. Her unbelief caused her to forfeit this rest, at least for the time being. That rest was never attained by any Old Testament saint. No wonder our Lord could present Himself as the One through whom Israel would find rest (e.g. Matthew 11:25-30).17

Thus, from the first Sabbath text (Genesis 2:1-3) to the last, there is foreshadowed a rest which is still future, a rest which our Lord Himself has procured and assured, a rest to which we look forward and into which we must strive to enter, by persevering in our faith and obedience.


The first lesson we learn from the Sabbath teaching of the apostles is that Sabbath rest is salvation rest. How ironic, how tragic, that God had created the world and rested, prepared to share this rest with mankind. Instead, man rebelled in the Garden of Eden, and his curse was toil. When God gave the Law to His people, the covenant sign was that of rest. In the final analysis it was not through his own toil that man would be blessed, but by rest.18 This rest, like the “Sabbath rest” of God in Genesis 2:1-3, foreshadowed that rest which believing men and women would someday experience.

When our Lord came to the earth, He came to give men rest, this rest which had been promised for so long. His task was to labor to provide that rest for men. No task was more difficult, no toil more painful, than that “work” which He accomplished on the cross of Calvary. It is the only work which God finds acceptable for eternal salvation. I pray that you have found rest in Christ and in His finished work.

Another lesson to be learned is in the area of biblical interpretation. Surely we have seen in our study of the Sabbath that God does reveal truth progressively, and thus we must study doctrine from Genesis to Revelation. We dare not derive our doctrine from any one text, to the neglect of many others. So, too, we must carefully note the differences created by the cross of Christ. Whether or not you like the term “dispensation” or not, the cross greatly affects matters that were introduced in the Old Testament. To avoid a dispensational perspective is dangerous and careless, avoiding those distinctions made by our Lord and His apostles.

A dispensational approach to the interpretation of Scripture does not force us to cast our Old Testament aside, as though it is no longer useful. It enables us to look at the Old Testament Law, its institutions, its symbols, and its teaching as those things which foreshadow Christ and the fulfillment of the new covenant. How much richer the Old Testament is in the light of the New. Here, I strongly disagree with those who would have us avoid “reading the New Testament into the Old.” This is what the apostles and our Lord often did, and it is good for us as well, so long as we follow the methodology of the inspired writers of the Scriptures.

Finally, while worshipping on the Sabbath is a matter of Christian liberty, and not a matter of necessity (with death penalty and all), we need to conclude that what we have learned about the Sabbath has new relevance to our Sunday worship. As we have previously stated, it does take time to be holy. Planning to finish our work at a fixed time and setting aside the remaining time for worship is a beautiful (but rare) discipline. Just as God established a weekly pattern for commemorating the Mosaic covenant (by Sabbath keeping) in the Old Testament, so I believe He has established a weekly pattern for commemorating the new covenant, by the Lord’s Table (communion). The more we meditate upon the way Israel was set apart by her Sabbath celebration, the more we will gain insight into our own sanctification. While the precept of Sabbath keeping is not in force today, the principles of the Sabbath have much to commend themselves to us in the hectic pace of our world.

5 “In the Old Testament the Sabbath was said to be ‘a Sabbath to the LORD your God’ (Exod. 20:10; Deut. 5:14; cf. Exod. 31:15; 35:2; Lev. 23:3). It belonged to Yahweh, the covenant Lord. Now here is Jesus as the son of man claiming to be the Lord of the Sabbath. Jesus’ claim to authority over the day is not only a claim to equal authority with the Law given by God in which the Sabbath demand was embedded but can be understood as a claim to the same authority over the day as the covenant Lord Himself, a claim to equality with God every bit as strong as the Johannine saying. … If the Sabbath was made for man, and its regulations are to be employed for that end (a principle foreshadowed in the David incident) then it should not be surprising that one with the special status of Son of Man, who has already been shown to possess God’s prerogative and authority to forgive sins (cf. 2:10), should also be Lord of the Sabbath and determine how those who are with Him may act on this day.” “From Sabbath to Lord’s Day: A Biblical and Theological Perspective,” A. T. Lincoln, From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, D. A. Carson, ed. (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1982), p. 363.

6 Max. M. B. Turner, “The Sabbath, Sunday, and the Law in Luke/Acts,” From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, p. 135.

7 “Judaism as a whole considered the Sabbath to be binding on Israel alone. It was not a matter for Gentiles (note its absence from the Noachian laws) and this was sometimes very strongly put.” Ibid, p. 128.

8 “‘God-fearers’ (cf. Acts 13:43; 17:4, 17), and even some Gentiles with remoter connections with Judaism, tended to keep the Sabbath; but here again this commandment, while more commonly followed than many others, was accepted as part of the God-fearer’s general imitation of Judaism, not because it was singled out as a creation ordinance binding even on Gentiles.” Ibid.

9 “The striking thing about the evidence we have from the second century is that it is almost as if the Sabbath commandment were not a part of the Decalogue, because the writers of this period take one attitude towards the Decalogue but a different one towards the Sabbath.” Lincoln, From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, p. 378.

“In the light of their views of the Decalogue one might expect early Christian writers to have treated the Sabbath commandment as eternally binding and to have attempted to argue that it was part of natural Law for all people. This, however, was a much later development in Sabbatarian argumentation and in general the Sabbath discussion of the fathers not only rejects the Sabbath as temporary, treating it along with other Mosaic ceremonial regulations, but also fails to notice the issue raised by the Sabbath commandment being in fact part of that Decalogue they treat as ‘natural Law.’… Ignatius rejected Sabbath keeping, seeing it as having become outmoded together with the whole Jewish religion … and expecting Jewish Christians to be ‘strong’ and take the same approach. This was a common attitude among second-century writers. … Judging in terms of what we have seen of the attitude of the New Testament writers, the majority of second-century writers seem to have been sound in their instinct to treat the Sabbath as a temporary Mosaic institution, …” Ibid, pp. 380, 381.

10 I understand that 1 Corinthians 9 does not specify Sabbath worship as that which Paul could “leave or take,” but surely this is one specific instance of his general principle, as Romans 14:1-6 clearly states.

11 “The earliest Jewish Christians, almost without exception, kept the whole Law and were theologically committed to it.” From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, p. 134.

12 “The needed inner freedom came when the entry of the Gentiles brought the claims of Christ into sharp conflict with those of the Law and led to a new realization of the total subordination of the whole Law to Christ and to His teaching.” Ibid.

13 “On the other hand, we have evidence from both Paul himself and the Book of Acts that Paul continued his own Sabbath keeping. The balance of probability, then, is in favor of the Sabbath being included in the “days” of Romans 14:5. Paul allows that the keeping of such days is purely a matter of individual conscience.” “The Sabbath/Sunday Question and the Law in the Pauline Corpus”, D. R. Lacey, From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, p. 182.

14 “Jewett suggests that Paul’s terminology indicates ‘that the agitators had not made use of the typically Jewish terminology but sought instead to connect the Jewish festivals with ideas and terms generally prevalent in the Hellenistic world. Thus the cultic calendar was presented to the Galatians on a basis which was far from orthodox. But the agitators were not disturbed as long as quick and observable results could be achieved. It was more important to them that the Galatians be circumcised and begin to keep the festivals than that they do so for proper reasons.’” Ibid, p. 180.

I am not sure that I accept Jewett’s conclusions as related to the Book of Galatians, but I do believe that his conclusions fit the false teachers and their teachings as dealt with in Colossians and the Pastoral Epistles.

15 B. B. Warfield holds to this view, and states the matter in strong terms: “I am to speak to you today, not of the usefulness or of the blessedness of the Sabbath, but of its obligation. And I am to speak to you of its obligation, not as that obligation naturally arises out of its usefulness or blessedness, but as it is immediately imposed by God in his Word.” B. B. Warfield, “The Foundations of the Sabbath in the Word of God,” Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield, Ed. by John E. Meeter (Nutley, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1970), p. 308.

16 Warfield, for example, writes, “In thus emancipating his readers from the shadow-ordinances of the Old Dispensation, Paul has no intention whatever, however, of impairing for them the obligations of the moral Law, summarily comprehended in the Ten Commandments.” Ibid, p. 321.

17 When our Lord read from Isaiah 61:1-2 (Luke 4:16-20), the terminology of this text was sabbatical, and thus it would appear that He was, at this point, making another claim to be the source of Sabbath rest. Cf. “Jesus and the Sabbath in the Four Gospels,” D. A. Carson, From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, pp. 71-72.

18 It is noteworthy that in Psalm 127, the blessing of children is described as not the result of toil, but of rest: “It is vain for you to rise up early, To retire late, To eat the bread of painful labors; For He gives to His beloved even in his sleep” (Psalm 127:2).

18. Between Child and Parent - Honoring Father and Mother (Exodus 20:12)


The subject of honoring our parents is one of great import. One reason for its importance is that both the Old and the New Testament Scriptures command us to honor our parents.19 The Fifth Commandment states, “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the Lord your God gives you” (Exodus 20:12). This commandment must be taken seriously, not only because it is a matter of Old Testament revelation, but because the obligation to honor parents is one that is reiterated and reinforced by the New Testament:

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honor your father and mother (which is the first commandment with a promise), that it may be well with you, and that you may live long on the earth (Ephesians 6:1-3).

Thus, honoring our parents is a command, which we dare not ignore. But there is a second reason for carefully studying the Fifth Commandment. Honoring our parents is one of the highest callings and the greatest tasks we face in life. There are two great tasks in life to which most of us are called. The first is the bearing and raising of children, to bring them from the absolute dependence of the womb, to the independence of adolescence, to the maturity of adulthood. The second is the caring for our own parents in their declining years. Often this involves the deterioration of the physical body, and frequently of the mind. The raising of children has its pains, but it usually is accompanied by the joy of seeing our children grow up, become mature and responsible, and independent. The caring for our parents is seldom as rewarding. The culmination of this process is the grave.

Honoring parents confronts the Christian with numerous problems, most of which are the source of great agony, and frequently of much guilt. We may have to decide whether or not to have an elderly parent live in our homes with us, or to place them in a rest home. We may even be called upon to decide whether or not to “pull the plug” on machines that artificially preserve life (or prolong death). We may have to make decisions which our parents disagree with and for which they (or others) may accuse us of being unloving.

With all of these problems related to honoring our parents, one would expect a great deal of help from Christian literature, but this is not so. Much has been written and said to help Christians raise their children. While I have heard a great deal (sometimes, too much) about the responsibility of parents to their children, I have not seen anything definitive on the responsibility of children to their parents. At best, such teaching pertains almost entirely to the obligation of young children to obey their parents. At worst, the teaching on honoring parents is distorted. Some have taught that parental authority should always be exercised, if not in the form of directive statements, in a poorly defined form of “chain of counsel.” Some would have us think that placing a parent in a rest home is an unpardonable sin.

The third reason for a thorough study of the Fifth Commandment is that our culture most often hinders and opposes our efforts to honor our parents. In the culture of the ancient Near East, there was a much higher regard for those in positions of authority (in general) and for parents in particular. Even today, the Chinese, for example, undergird honoring parents through the unbiblical practice of ancestor worship. This is, needless to say, not a practice I would advocate. It does, however, encourage a deep respect for parents and the elderly which is not present in our country.

In America, several factors tend to undermine honoring parents.

(1) There is the impact of technology. In previous generations fathers were often craftsmen, who had learned their trade from their fathers. It took a son years to match his own father in skills, and he would only gradually pass him up. By this time, the father was advanced in years. Fathers died earlier, and did not have the life support systems available in today’s hospitals. Now, a child in elementary school may be learning things that parents never heard of. Who of us, for example, would want to try to explain some of the math our kids are being taught in school? Thus, each new generation quickly surpasses the preceding generation in the knowledge it possesses. There is much temptation for the younger generation to think of its parents as out of date, antiquated in thinking. In a society where knowledge is prized more than wisdom, the older generation is fortunate to be respected, let alone honored, by the younger generation.

(2) Because of the rapid increase of divorce, children are often called upon to honor one parent and to despise the other. Neither parent can seem to tolerate the thought of the former mate having the respect of their child. If this were not bad enough, Freudian Psychology has provided each generation with an excuse to blame all of its problems on its forebearers. Countless expeditions into the parental past has provided many individuals with an expensive excursion into past history in order to pin the blame for their sins on someone else, often one or both parents.

(3) If it is possible to pin the blame for our problems on someone else, it is also easy to pin the responsibility of caring for aging parents on someone else. Perhaps more than any other time in history, we are looking to the government to carry much of the burden families have borne in providing for the needs of their aging parents. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other government programs are viewed as the means for handling our obligation as children to our parents.

(4) Honor is due to more than just parents.20 The New Testament requires the Christian to honor all men (Romans 12:10; 1 Peter 2:17).21 Learning to honor parents is thus a significant step in the direction of honoring others.

The purpose of this message is to explore the meaning of the Fifth Commandment, not only for the Israelite of old, but for the contemporary Christian. We will begin by defining the term “honor” and then discovering how parents in the Old Testament were honored or dishonored by their children. We will next turn to the New Testament, to see from the teaching and practice of our Lord, how parents were to be honored, especially against the backdrop of the disregard of parents by the scribes and Pharisees. Finally, we will see how the Fifth Commandment was modified and applied by the apostle Paul. To conclude our study we will seek to distill the fundamental principles which should govern us in honoring our parents, and in dealing with some of the difficult problems associated with this obligation.

Honoring Parents in the Old Testament

The term “honor” is one that has a kind of archaic ring to it, one that is seldom used in everyday speech. It is therefore necessary for us to come to terms with what is meant by “honor” as it is used in the Bible.22 We will first look at honor in its broader usage, and then narrow its use down to the honoring of parents as commanded in the Old Testament.

(1) Giving honor is personal. In the Bible, only persons are honored, not things. We do not honor paintings or great works of art, or things of value, we honor only people. We would also say that honor is rendered by people to people. More specifically, honor is bestowed by a person to a person. Honor cannot be self-designated, but must come from another: “And no one takes the honor to himself, but receives it when he is called by God, even as Aaron was” (Hebrews 5:4).

(2) Giving honor is preferential. When we honor someone, we distinguish them above someone else. Honoring someone sets them above others. “… give preference to one another in honor” (Romans 12:10). Honoring parents means to think highly of them, in contrast to esteeming them lightly: “Therefore the Lord God of Israel declares, ‘I did indeed say that your house and the house of your father should walk before Me forever’; but now the Lord declares, ‘Far be it from Me—for those who honor Me I will honor, and those who despise Me will be lightly esteemed’” (1 Samuel 2:30).23

(3) Honor is positional. When people are honored in the Bible, they are honored largely because of the position they hold. Those whom we are commanded to honor in the Bible are most often those who hold a certain position of distinction. God is honored because He is the Sovereign God of the Universe. Kings, rulers, elders, and masters are all to be given honor. Parents, too, are to be honored for their position in the family. Thus honor has to do with the position, power, and dignity that a person has above and beyond others.

(4) Giving honor is practical. Honoring another requires more than mere lip service: “Then the Lord said, ‘Because this people draw near with their words And honor Me with their lip service, But they remove their hearts far from Me, And their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote’” (Isaiah 29:13). That honor which God requires of man is an honor which translates into very practical terms, whether it be directed Godward or manward.

(5) Honor is public.24 The act of honoring parents begins with an attitude of respect for them. Thus we read in the Law, “Every one of you shall reverence his mother and his father, and you shall keep My Sabbaths; I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:3). The outflow of the attitude of reverence is the action of honoring, and action which is generally public. Thus, both husband and children are exhorted to give the godly woman praise in a public place:

Her children rise up and bless her; Her husband also, and he praises her, saying: “Many daughters have done nobly, But you excel them all.” Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, But a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised. Give her the product of her hands, And let her works praise her in the gates (Proverbs 31:28-31).

The evidences of a “dishonorable” child were public, and thus the persistently and willfully rebellious child was to be disciplined (executed) in a public ceremony:

“If any man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father or his mother, and when they chastise him, he will not even listen to them, then his father and mother shall seize him, and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gateway of his home town. And they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey us, he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death; so you shall remove the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear of it and fear” (Deut. 21:18-21).25

The central passage on honoring parents is that found in the Ten Commandments:

Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the Lord your God gives you (Exodus 20:12; also Deuteronomy 5:16).

Since this is really the first occurrence of the command to honor parents it would be well to make several observations about the commandment which is given:

(1) The commandment is given to children, specifying their obligation toward their parents. The terms “father” and “mother” are synonymous with “parents,” thus we have spelled out here the obligation of children to honor their parents.

(2) There are no indications here as to the age of the children who are to honor their parents. We would tend to think that this commandment is given to young children regarding their obligation to their parents, but this is not so. Other passages will apply this general command to specific age groups, but this command is deliberately broad in scope.

(3) There is no particular action required here. Children are not told here to do anything in particular to honor their parents. We should assume, and rightly so, that different actions will be required at different times, of different people. We must therefore look elsewhere in Scripture to determine how we are to honor our parents at any given point in time.

The Old Testament Scriptures fill in many of the details as to what constitutes honor and dishonor, with respect to parents. When parents are dishonored, they are cursed (Exodus 21:17; Leviticus 20:9; Proverbs 20:20), or, according to Proverbs, not blessed (30:11). This disregard for parents can result in physically striking them (Exodus 21:15; Proverbs 19:26), and even of robbing them (Proverbs 28:24). The child can dishonor his parents by living a lifestyle which is contradictory to that of his parents and of society, including disobedience, stubbornness, rebelliousness, drunkenness, and gluttony (Deuteronomy 21:18-21).

(4) The Fifth Commandment is the first of the commandments which deal with our obligations to men. The first four commandments have dealt with the Israelite’s obligation to God. This commandment introduces those which specify his duty with respect to men. This commandment pertains only to the obligation between child and parents. It is also a positive command, followed by prohibitions.

(5) The Fifth Commandment is the first commandment which is accompanied with a promise. The promise, as I understand it, is two-fold. First, it is a promise of long life. Second, it is the promise of a long life, lived out in the land of Canaan.26 As it stands, the Fifth Commandment is given specifically to the Israelites, with a promise which pertains to them. The New Testament will adapt and modify this commandment to apply to the Gentile Christians and the church, leaving the commandment in nearly the same form as found here in the Old Testament.

The promise of long life in the land of Canaan is given elsewhere, but it is the reward for keeping all of God’s commandments, not just the Fifth Commandment:

“See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, and death and adversity; in that I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments and His statutes and His judgments, that you may live and multiply, and that the Lord your God may bless you in the land where you are entering to possess it” (Deuteronomy 30:15-16).

Why is obedience to the Fifth Commandment linked with the blessings attached to the keeping of all the commandments? In addition to the fact that one must keep every commandment to keep all commandments, the Fifth Commandment plays a special role with respect to the rest of the commandments. The laws of God are to be conveyed to subsequent generations of Israelites primarily from the parents to their children. Thus, the emphasis of Deuteronomy on the teaching the Law to children. If children are going to listen to their parents and learn to love the Law, they must first respect and honor their teachers—their fathers and mothers. The honoring of parents is thus a prerequisite to the teaching of the Law from one generation to the next.

If children honor their parents they will heed their instruction. If they heed their instruction, they will keep the whole Law of God. If they keep the Law of God they will not do harm to their fellow-Israelites. Viewed negatively, honoring parents causes the child to be inclined to avoid the evils of murder, adultery, theft, false witness, and coveting. Viewed more positively, honoring parents has a high correlation with honoring others and caring for them. This is emphasized in two passages of Proverbs:

There is a kind of man who curses his father, and does not bless his mother. There is a kind who is pure in his own eyes, yet is not washed from his filthiness. There is a kind—oh how lofty are his eyes! And his eyelids are raised in arrogance. There is a kind of man whose teeth are like swords, and his jaw teeth like knives, to devour the afflicted from the earth, and the needy from among men (Proverbs 30:11-14).

The words of King Lemuel, the oracle which his mother taught him. What, O my son? And what, O son of my womb? And what, O son of my vows? Do not give your strength to women, Or your ways to that which destroys kings. It is not for kings, O Lemuel, It is not for kings to drink wine, Or for rulers to desire strong drink. Lest they drink and forget what is decreed, And pervert the rights of all the afflicted. … Open your mouth for the dumb, For the rights of all the unfortunate. Open your mouth, judge righteously, And defend the rights of the afflicted and needy (Prov. 31:1-5, 8-9).

In Proverbs 30:11-14 honoring parents is viewed from the negative point of view. The verses are all a part of one piece, one theme. The section begins by informing us about the dishonorable son, who curses his parents. It concludes by describing his oppression of others, particularly his preying upon those who are weak and afflicted. The son who does not hesitate to curse father or mother, will not hesitate to curse any man. The son who strikes or robs his parents will not find it difficult to oppress others. The son who dishonors parents will mistreat others. One’s treatment of his parents is directly related to his treatment of his fellow man.

In Proverbs 31, the matter is viewed from a positive perspective. In this text, king Lemuel’s mother is giving her son wise instruction. While this teaching is specifically related to the righteous reign of a godly king, it applies more generally as well. If the mother’s instruction is heeded, her son will avoid strong drink and “strange women,” and he will use his power to aid the afflicted. The son who honors his parents, then, will come to the aid of the weak, while the dishonorable son will oppress the afflicted. The Fifth Commandment, then, is very much related to those which follow it.

There is also a relationship between honoring parents and honoring God. Not only does the Fifth Commandment relate to and facilitate the keeping of the last commandments, it also is very much related to the keeping of those commandments pertaining to the worship of God. This is especially apparent in Malachi 1:6: “A son honors his father, and a servant his master. Then if I am a father, where is My honor? And if I am a master, where is My respect? says the Lord of hosts to you, O priests who despise My name. But you say, ‘How have we despised Thy name?’”

Those who would honor God must also honor their parents. Those who honor parents have already begun to honor God. Our earthly fathers are, on the one hand, God’s representatives, instructing and discipling their children in His place. On the other hand, parents serve to illustrate the way in which God is at work in the lives of His children, as a Father. This is seen, for example, in Proverbs chapters 2 and 3, where the father’s care for his child is likened to God’s fatherly care for His children.

Honoring parents was a vitally important obligation, signaled by its inclusion in the Ten Commandments, by the death penalty attached to its flagrant violation, and by the detail which we are given about the evidences of honoring parents or its neglect.27 Honoring parents was fundamental for the passing on of Israel’s faith from one generation to another. It was also important because it enhanced and facilitated the honoring of God (commandments 1-4) and others (commandments 6-10).

The Principle of
Honoring Parents in Our Lord’s teaching

Our Lord’s teaching on the honoring of parents is fairly extensive. This passage provides us with great insight into the command as God intended it, and as the scribes and Pharisees sought to circumvent it:

And the Pharisees and some of the scribes gathered together around Him when they had come from Jerusalem, and had seen that some of His disciples were eating their bread with impure hands, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they carefully wash their hands, thus observing the traditions of the elders; and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they cleanse themselves; and there are many other things which they have received in order to observe, such as the washing of cups and pitchers and copper pots.) And the Pharisees and the scribes asked Him, “Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat their bread with impure hands?” And He said to them, “Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘THIS PEOPLE HONORS ME WITH THEIR LIPS, BUT THEIR HEART IS FAR AWAY FROM ME. BUT IN VAIN DO THEY WORSHIP ME, TEACHING AS DOCTRINES THE PRECEPTS OF MEN.’

“Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.” He was also saying to them, “You nicely set aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition. For Moses said, ‘HONOR YOUR FATHER AND YOUR MOTHER’; and, ‘HE WHO SPEAKS EVIL OF28 FATHER OR MOTHER, LET HIM BE PUT TO DEATH’; but you say, ‘If a man says to his father or his mother, anything of mine you might have been helped by is Corban (that is to say, given to God),’ you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or his mother; thus invalidating the word of God by your tradition which you have handed down; and you do many things such as that” (Mark 7:1-13; cp. Matt. 15:1-9).

There are several important features of this text which we must observe and appreciate before we are able to see its contribution to the subject of honoring parents:

In dealing with the scribes and Pharisees, our Lord links three Old Testament texts, and from them exposes the hypocrisy of His opponents. The Fifth Commandment of Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 is joined with a parallel passage from Exodus 21:17. These are then linked with a citation from Isaiah 29:13. There are four key terms which are the binding force in these passages, which enable the Lord to combine these texts into one response to His questioners: “traditions,” “honor,” “father and mother,” and the terms related to speech (“speaks,” “say,” “lips”).

Of significance to our study is the fact that the Fifth Commandment is applied by our Lord to adult children, regarding their responsibilities to their elderly parents. The principle characters in this incident are the scribes and Pharisees. If in your imagination you conceive of these men as having gray hair and long beards, you are undoubtedly correct. These are not young men, as a rule, but the elders of Jerusalem. Jesus applied the Fifth Commandment to these older men, and condemned them for interfering with those who would care for their aging parents.

The fact that our Lord said, “you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or his mother” (v. 12) is noteworthy. The tradition of pronouncing someone’s goods to be “dedicated to God” is one that was taught by the scribes and Pharisees, one that was imposed on the people, thus prohibiting the people from doing what they apparently wanted to do. It tied up their funds, making them inaccessible for acts of charity at home. And who, do you suppose, had control of this money? The text does not say, but my guess is that it was the Pharisees. The name of this asset holding group might have been something like the “Pharisee’s Investment Corporation.” The point seems to be that the Pharisees, once again, took advantage of the needy, the weak, and the helpless, by keeping children from having control over funds which would help their parents.

In this incident, our Lord taught that men dare not attempt to use “honoring God” (Corban) as an excuse for not honoring their parents. It all sounded so pious, so religious. The money which should have been available to help parents was “devoted to God” with the spoken formula “Corban.” How could anyone fault a child for placing God above parents?

This was a sham, a facade, as Jesus pointed out. This “tradition” of pronouncing something to be “devoted to God” was merely a means of setting aside the Fifth Commandment with pious appearances. True religion does not hurt the helpless, it helps them (cf. James 1:27).

Jesus also taught that “honoring parents” was no excuse for failing to “honor God.” There are those who will go to one extreme, while others go to the opposite extreme. If there were those who used “honoring God” as an excuse for failing to “honor parents” there were those who did just the reverse. Thus, Jesus frequently taught that following Him required putting Him above all others, including fathers and mothers:

And He said to another, “Follow Me.” But he said, “Permit me first to go and bury my father.” But He said to him, “Allow the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim everywhere the kingdom of God.” And another also said, “I will follow You, Lord; but first permit me to say good-bye to those at home.” But Jesus said to him, “No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:59-62).

“Every one therefore who shall confess Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven. Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household. He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who has found his life shall lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake shall find it. He who receives you receives Me, and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me” (Matthew 10:32-40).

Peter began to say to Him, “Behold, we have left everything and followed You.” Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or farms, for My sake and for the gospel’s sake, but that he shall receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the world to come, eternal life. But many who are first, will be last; and the last, first” (Mark 10:28-31).

“If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:26).

No earthly relationship can have higher priority than that of one’s relationship with God. Putting God first means putting Him ahead of family.

The Practice of Our
Lord of Honoring His Parents

Our Lord’s practice with respect to honoring parents serves as a commentary on His teaching.

And when He became twelve, they went up there [to Jerusalem] according to the custom of the Feast; and as they were returning, after spending the full number of days, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. And His parents were unaware of it, but supposed Him to be in the caravan, and went a day’s journey; and they began looking for Him among their relatives and acquaintances. And when they did not find Him, they returned to Jerusalem, looking for Him. And it came about that after three days they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them, and asking them questions. And all who heard Him were amazed at His understanding and His answers. And when they saw Him, they were astonished; and His mother said to Him, “Son, why have You treated us this way? Behold, Your father and I have been anxiously looking for You.” And He said to them, “Why is it that you were looking for Me? Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s house?” And they did not understand this statement which He had made to them. And He went down with them, and came to Nazareth; and He continued in subjection to them; and His mother treasured all these things in her heart (Luke 2:42-51).

I must say that as a parent my first inclination is to identify with the frustration and distress of Mary and Joseph, a frustration which is evident in the text. At first glance, it does look as if it were Jesus who was wrong. Had Jesus not failed to stay with His family and relatives? Instead, He was preoccupied with the Temple and with the religious leaders. At least, one might contend, Jesus could have had the courtesy to tell His parents what He was doing. Jesus appeared to be wrong. How could He have been separated from His family for at least three days, and perhaps more, without doing something about it?

We cannot come to this conclusion for at least two reasons. First, Jesus was God and He never sinned. Thus He could not have sinned here. Second, the Lord’s answer to his mother’s rebuke is, itself, a gentle rebuke directed at them. Mary and Joseph were wrong, here, not Jesus. Let us seek to see why this was so. Jesus’ reply to his parents was, “Why is it that you were looking for Me? Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s house?” If Mary and Joseph had assumed Jesus was with their relatives when they departed, then it was they who were mistaken. Once they had left, what was there for Him to do but remain, and where better than in the Temple? Jesus’ words here were not directed toward the issue of why He had been left, without notice, but as to why it took His parents so long to finally look for Him in the Temple. Why had they looked for Him elsewhere? Did they not know that He would naturally have been drawn to the Temple, His Father’s house? In the absence of His earthly parents, He went to His Father’s house. Where else would they have expected to find Him who was the Son of God than in God’s house?

The final words of this account are especially interesting: “… and He continued in subjection to them …” Matthew, by using the word “continued,” indicates that here, as before, and later, that Jesus was in subjection to Mary and Joseph, His earthly parents. It was their error, not His. He was in subjection to them, but even more so He was intent upon being in His Father’s house.

Still Mary and Joseph did not understand. Nevertheless, Jesus had clearly distinguished between His relationship with His heavenly Father and His earthly parents. This was but a taste of what was yet to come, when Jesus began His earthly ministry.

Years later, apparently after the death of Joseph, another incident took place, which John’s gospel reports, which bears on the honoring of Jesus’ parents. “And when the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to Him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what do I have to do with you? My hour has not yet come.’ His mother said to the servants, ‘Whatever He says to you, do it’” (John 2:3-5). The fact that Jesus deliberately addressed His mother as “woman,” and used the expression, “what do I have to do with you,” indicates that our Lord’s granting her request was based upon His compassion for her as a woman, and not on His obedience to her as His mother. Now that His public ministry had commenced, His mother has no claim on His supernatural power. Roman Catholicism must look much more carefully at this text in the light of their exalted, exaggerated view of Mary as “the mother of God,” as somehow making her the mediator between man and God.

It is also in John’s gospel that we find one of the last acts of our Lord upon the cross was done in fulfillment of our Lord’s obligation to honor his mother.

When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing nearby, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then He said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own household. After this, Jesus, knowing that all things had already been accomplished, in order that the Scripture might be fulfilled, said, “I am thirsty” (John 19:26-28).

Mary, the mother of our Lord, is once again referred to as “woman,” rather than as mother. Jesus is about to finish His earthly work, and thus Mary will cease to function as our Lord’s mother. Because Joseph has apparently died and Jesus was the oldest son, a greater obligation for the care of His mother would fall on Him. Thus, in one of His last earthly acts, Jesus appointed John to carry out His earthly obligations. In this final act, Jesus honored His mother.

The Apostles and Honoring Parents

The apostles also spoke to the responsibility of children toward their parents. Particularly, Paul did. In the first place, Paul understood that due to the depravity of man, children would not necessarily be inclined to obey or honor their parents: “For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy … ” (2 Timothy 3:2; cf. also Romans 1:30). Paul’s teaching is also confirmed by Peter and Jude, who speak of those apostates who will disregard authority, thus refusing to give honor to those to whom it is due.

And especially those who indulge the flesh in its corrupt desires and despise authority. Daring, self-willed, they do not tremble when they revile angelic majesties (2 Peter 2:10).

Yet in the same manner these men, also by dreaming, defile the flesh, and reject authority, and revile angelic majesties (Jude 8).

It is not without good theological and practical reason that Paul gave this instruction to children:

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honor your father and mother (which is the first commandment with a promise), That it may be well with you, and that you may live long on the earth (Ephesians 6:1-3).

In this passage, it is noteworthy that Paul does specifically apply the Fifth Commandment to younger children. While the commandment itself is general, the application of it will be specific. For young children who are believers, one primary way in which they will honor their parents is to obey them. This obedience, as all earthly submission, is only within those parameters of what is pleasing to God, and thus the qualification, “in the Lord.”

Paul does not hesitate to base his instruction on one of the Ten Commandments, and thus, on the Old Testament Law. He does, however, modify the Old Testament text, so as to make the promise attached to this command relevant to a Gentile Christian audience. The statement of Exodus 20:12, “that your days may be prolonged in the land which the Lord your God gives you,” has been changed to, “that it may be well with you, and that you may live long on the earth” (Ephesians 6:3). Thus, long life and divine blessing is promised, but not life in Canaan, as was promised to the Israelites.

Not only does Paul apply the principle of honoring parents to young children, he also instructs adult believers to assume responsibility for caring for their needy family, including (in the context) parents: “Honor widows who are widows indeed … But if any one does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith, and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:3, 8). Here, as in the Old Testament and in the teaching of our Lord, failure to honor parents by caring for their needs is spoken of as a most serious offense. In the Old Testament it was a capital offense. In the New, it is a denial of the faith, making one worse than an unbeliever. Thus, Christianity does not abolish Old Testament obligations to honor parents, it ratifies and further clarifies them.

Beyond this, the same honor which is to be shown to parents, is to be shown to others who are older as well: “Do not sharply rebuke an older man, but rather appeal to him as a father, to the younger men as brothers” (1 Timothy 5:1). This instruction is significant because it suggests that the same honor (or at least respect) shown to one’s father should be shown to the older man. Beyond this, since Timothy is instructed to correct an older man like a father, Paul suggests that a father, too, is not beyond rebuke, but that any rebuke must deal with him in a respectful way.


As we conclude, let me suggest several governing principles which I believe are biblical and relevant to the honoring of parents. These principles will give guidance in the agonizing choices which we children will have to make regarding the form which our honor of parents is to take.

(1) If children must give honor to their parents, then parenting must be an honorable occupation. One should hardly have to make such a statement, but in today’s world it is necessary to do so. The fact that women line up at abortion clinics around the country and in various parts of the world suggests that bearing and raising children is viewed as something far less than a blessing. This rejects the clear teaching of the Bible, such as is found in Psalm 127. Those who would leave the home and seek fulfillment in the working world in order to gain dignity and respect have also turned from the truth of God’s Word. Let those who would seek to avoid parenting be reminded that in God’s Word parenting is a most honorable occupation.

(2) Honoring parents takes different forms for different people, and in different circumstances. Since the Fifth Commandment is very general, we should expect that the application of this command is not the same for everybody. The Old and New Testaments provide us with many positive and negative applications of the command to honor our parents. The young child will honor his parents as he obeys them (e.g. Proverbs, Ephesians 6:1-3).29 The older child will honor his parents as he (or she) is obedient to God. The child whose parents are dependent upon him will honor his parents by providing for them (Matthew 15:1-9; Mark 7:1-13; 1 Timothy 5:3, 8).

It is very important to realize that honoring parents takes many different forms at different times. This means that one cannot honor parents by some kind of “token act.” It means that the way one person honor his parents may differ from the way another person does. It should caution us about those who have a very simplistic formula for honoring our parents. It means that we must carefully and prayerfully come to our own convictions and conclusions as to our personal responsibilities to our parents, based upon the principles of God’s word. The next three principles underscore three of the more dramatic changes in the relationship between children and their parents, which affect the way in which honor to parents may be manifested.

(3) The way in which one relates to parents changes with conversion. When a person comes to Christ as his personal Savior, there are a number of significant changes (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:17). When a person becomes a child of God by faith, God becomes a Father to them in a new and previously unknown way. From this point on the Christian relates to God as His child (cf. John 1:12; Matthew 6:9). While God was once denied, and His authority rejected (Ephesians 2:1-3), now He is our Heavenly Father, with final authority, authority which has priority over all others, including fathers and mothers. As we have seen from our Lord’s teaching, faith in Christ may alienate children from their parents.

(4) The way in which one relates to parents changes with marriage. Marriage is usually the first of several dramatic changes in the child’s relationship with his parents. In the Book of Genesis, God revealed that marriage was to bring about a change in the way a child relates to his parents: “For this cause a man shall leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).

Several important changes are signaled here, as I understand this passage. First, the son leaves the authority structure of his parents home to establish a new home, under his authority. This passage draws the son out from under his parents’ authority, as he had once been. It is my personal opinion that the teaching which modifies the “chain of authority” between parent and child to a so-called “chain of counsel” is not a sufficiently adequate separation from parental authority after marriage. Second, the son is to leave home so that his devotion and affection will be primarily focused upon his wife. Certainly the son’s affection toward his parents is not terminated, but leaving his home lessons the competition between a man’s father and mother and his wife for his devotion and attention. Finally, the instruction in this text suggests to us that the parent-child relationship is temporary, the husband-wife relationship is permanent.

(5) The way in which we honor our parents changes when we become a disciple of Christ. Some Christians seem to think that until or unless a child marries, the strong authoritative role of the parent remains in the older single life of the child. I think this fails to take seriously enough the teaching of our Lord on the change which occurs with a decision to follow Christ as His disciple. In the passages already cited (Matthew 10:32-40; Mark 10:28-31; Luke 14:26), the Lord clearly demanded that disciples choose to follow Him above all others, especially including family. Our Lord will not rival fathers or mothers for the affection and obedience of His disciples. One further passage underscores the change which discipleship has on family relationships: “And do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven” (Matthew 23:9). Thus, children must not only leave father and mother when they marry, they must also do so (while not necessarily literally) when they decide to be a disciple of Christ.

(6) Honoring God as our Father is not an excuse to dishonor our parents. Some, like the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 15:1-9; Mark 7:1-13), had used religious “conviction” and practice as an excuse to avoid their obligation to honor their parents. For those who would wish to do so, the passages about putting God above fathers and mothers can be perverted and distorted to excuse irresponsibility, but let it be remembered that our Lord stripped away the veil of spirituality, showing this to be a most abominable sin.

(7) We honor our parents most when we obey and honor God in our lives. The highest goal of parents is to raise the child God has entrusted to them in such a way as to encourage and promote trust in God and obedience to His Word. Whenever a child trusts in God and obeys His Word, He honors his parents. Even an unbelieving parent is honored by a believing and obedient child.

(8) We honor God when we honor our parents. Not only do we honor our parents when we honor God, but we also honor God when we truly honor our parents. There are two primary reasons why this is true. First, we honor God because we are obeying His command to honor our parents. Honoring our parents, when it is act of obedience to God’s Word, is to honor God. Thus we see that the norm is that honoring parents accomplishes two things at the same time: honoring our parents and honoring God.

But what if a person has parents who are hardly worthy of honor? We know of many children whose parents seem to have done their best to ruin their lives. Children who have been physically, emotionally, or sexually abused will have to deal with the effects of this for their entire life? How can such children honor their parents?

The answer to this question is found in the second way in which honoring parents honors God. When we honor our parents, we acknowledge that they have been ordained of God to be our parents and to receive our honor. Honoring parents who are not worthy of honor can only be done as one recognizes that God has appointed them to be parents, and thus they are honored for their God-given position of parent, not for their performance as a parent.

Let me illustrate this principle with another person who is to be honored by us—a king. We are told in the Scriptures that we are to honor kings (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:17). In the context of these commands to honor the king, he is to be honored by virtue of his position as king, not for his performance as king. In Romans chapter 13, Paul makes it clear that kings are to be honored and obeyed because they have been appointed by God. The fact that they hold their office is evidence of God’s appointment (Romans 13:1-2). Thus, honoring a cruel, ruthless, king is done, not because that person is worthy of honor, but because that person holds his position (a position of honor) by the sovereign will of God.

When a child honors an unworthy, unkind, parent and does so because he or she recognizes that God has appointed them to hold this position of authority and honor, they are submitting themselves to the sovereign hand of God. And because they know that God causes all things ultimately to work for good in the believer’s life, they realize that while the parent may do something for an evil purpose, God has allowed it to happen for a good purpose (cf. Genesis 50:20). Honoring an unworthy parent thus opens the door for one to see the good hand of God in giving a poor parent. It is often the weaknesses of the parent, in such a case, that brings about corresponding strengths in the child.

(9) Honoring parents does not always mean that the child does what his parents want. Father and Mother are not to be honored because they are perfect, but because they are parents. They, like their children, are plagued with the fallenness of mankind. They, like their children, sin. They will therefore make many mistakes in the parenting process. They will command that their children do the wrong things, at times. At times they will also forbid their children to do what is right.

A young child must assume his parents are right, because they have more experience and wisdom. If all else fails, they are bigger! As a child begins to mature, he may begin to question some decisions. This must be done very carefully. I can envision a child’s disobedience only when the Bible has spoken very directly to the matter at hand. For example, I would expect a child to refuse to cooperate in any form of sexual abuse by parents or other adults. At some point in time, a child will even find that the parent is sinning, and will find it necessary to rebuke them. In this case, Paul’s instruction to correct an older man as a father (1 Timothy 5:1) instructs us that parents (and older people) need to be rebuked with gentleness and respect.

Those whose parents have aged to the point of becoming confused, disoriented, or even “rebellious” find themselves in the awkward position of having to discipline their parents, much like their parents once disciplined them. The way one honors his parents surely does change.

(10) Honoring parents may someday require parenting parents. It is an irony indeed, but those who were once parented by fathers and mothers often find themselves parenting their parents in their final years of life. The parent that once fed and diapered the child may in the last days of their life be fed and diapered by their children. The new baby that did not recognize its parents may someday look upon his elderly mother or father and not even receive in return a look of recognition. The child who was once parented now becomes his parent’s parent, making decisions for them, sometimes having to make choices against their will, even deciding how long to allow artificial, life preserving devices to maintain some semblance of life. There is no thought less pleasant than this, but for many it has been, is, or will be a reality.

Some parents will become cross and unreasonable. They may make demands of us and of our family which are impossible to fulfill. They may, if allowed to do so, destroy our home life. They sometimes become incoherent or unmanageable. Physically, aging parents may not be able to care for themselves or to live alone. The decisions which we must make at such times are the most painful ones of our life.

When the time for decisions comes, it must be determined whether any clear Scriptural commands are involved, and, if so, how these must be implemented. The impact of various choices on the family as a whole must be taken into account. And, naturally, the best interest of the parent(s) must be carefully thought through. I believe at least three factors are involved in the determination of what course of action will be best for the parent.

First, we have an obligation to preserve life. This does not necessarily mean that we must artificially prolong the death process, but it does mean that the necessities of life are provided. Food (nutrition—it may come from an I.V.), oxygen, and life sustaining fluids must be provided. All too frequently, these necessities are being withheld, with the inevitable result—death. Withholding the necessities of life constitutes murder, in my understanding of Scripture.

Second, we must seek to provide as much physical and emotional comfort as necessary. The setting should be one that is as familiar and as pleasant as possible. This may, or may not, mean keeping the parent in our own home, or placing them in a facility where professional care is available.

Third, I believe that honoring parents requires that we maintain as much dignity for our parents as possible. The terms “honor” and “dignity” have a fair bit of overlap, and it would seem to me that we honor our parents by seeking to preserve as much dignity for them as possible. For example, I am aware of certain situations in which patients are not able to feed themselves and are “force fed” (by literally pushing the food down the throat). In such situations, I would opt, if at all possible, to have “I.V.” feeding as an alternative. The indignity of force feeding is great, and should be avoided, if possible. These three issues, life, comfort, and dignity, may lead some to care for an elderly parent at home, and others to provide care in a well-run institution.

(11) Honor cannot be earned, nor can it be demanded. Since honor is due on the basis of position, and not performance, we should realize that honor is not something which another person can demand of us. A king can demand that we obey him, but not that we honor him, at least in the fullest sense of the term. So, too, a parent cannot really demand honor of their child. In one’s older years there will be a temptation for the parent to prescribe for the child exactly what form their honor will take, but I believe that this is contrary to the nature of honor itself. Honor demanded is not honor at all.

(12) Since we must honor all men, this means that parents must honor their children. Much has been said and written about developing self-esteem in children. I think I would differ with some of this teaching, based upon the fact that much self-esteem is simply renamed pride, and the Book of Proverbs has more to say about the need for humility in a child than self-confidence (and certainly than self-love). We must, however, deal with our children in a way that not only manifests our own dignity (cf. 1 Timothy 3:4), but also reflects the dignity of the child as a creation of God, one for whom Christ died. Thus, we must honor our children, as we must honor all others.

(13) If we must honor all men, then we must prioritize those whom we must honor above others. We have already seen that we must honor God, kings, elders, parents, and so on. When we must honor all men, and cannot do so to all men equally, or at the same time, then choices must be made. For example, as husbands we must honor our wives, and we must honor our parents. I believe that if one or the other must have priority, it is the wife who should be honored above the parent. Making these priority decisions ahead of a time of crisis is best, for surely these priorities will be put to the test.

(14) Honoring parents is so important, and potentially so costly, it is something which we must plan to do in advance. Honoring parents will require much more than an occasional Hallmark card. If honoring parents involves caring for them in their old age, this is a costly matter, and one for which we must prepare ourselves in advance. A friend of mine suggested that this is something which we may need to provide for in our wills. Suppose, for example, that we were to die before our parents. This was the case with our Lord and His mother, and we have already seen how He made provision for her care. In addition to having our children in our wills, we may need to prepare for the possibility of us dying before our parents. This may mean that extra insurance is to be purchased to meet our parents’ needs in our absence.

In some cases, it may be necessary for Christians, or perhaps the broader Christian community, to provide facilities for the elderly, which not only meet their special physical needs, but which also provide them with an environment of beauty and a sense of dignity. We must avoid like the plague, pushing our parents off into a dingy, dismal dwelling where they simply wait to die.

This only scratches the surface, but I hope that it broadens our vision beyond that which Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security will afford our parents in their older years. A commandment as forcefully put forward in both Old and New Testaments must not be lightly considered.

19 The following Scriptures are important to our understanding of honoring parents. I highly recommend that you study these passages carefully: Central Passages for Honoring Parents: Exodus 20:12 (Deut. 5:16); 21:15, 17; Matthew 15:1-9; Mark 7:1-13; Leviticus 19:3; Ephesians 6:1-3; Proverbs 30:11-14; 31:1-9; 1 Timothy 5:1, 3, 8; Isaiah 29:13; Malachi 1:6. Related Passages on Honoring Parents: Genesis 2:24; Matthew 10:32-40; Leviticus 19:32; 20:9; 21:9; Mark 10:28-31; Numbers 22:17, 37; Luke 14:26; Deuteronomy 4:10-12; 6:4-7; 33:8-10; John 5:22-23; 8:48-50; 12:26; Joshua 2:12-13; Romans 1:30; 2:7, 10; 12:10; 13:7; Judges 13:17; 1 Corinthians 12:23-24; 1 Samuel 2:30; 1 Thessalonians 4:4; Proverbs 1:8; 3:9; 4:1-5; 19:26; 20:20; 1 Thessalonians 4:4; 28:7, 24; 1 Timothy 1:17; 5:3, 17; 6:1; Ezekiel 20:30; 2 Timothy 3:2; Hebrews 5:4; 1 Peter 2:17; 3:7; 2 Peter 1:17; Jude 8; Revelation 4:9-11; 5:12-13; 7:12; 21:24-26.

20 In my study of “honor” in the Bible, I discovered the following people (which generally involve a position) are given honor: God, the Father—1 Timothy 1:17; Proverbs 3:9; Revelation 4:9-11; 5:12-13; 7:12; 19:1; 21:24, 26; God, the Son—John 5:22-23; Hebrews 2:7, 9; 2 Peter 1:17. Those in positions of authority over us: Kings—1 Peter 2:17; Higher authorities—Romans 13:7; Elders—1 Timothy 5:17; Masters (by slaves)—1 Timothy 6:1; Those not in a superior status to us—Husbands to honor wives—1 Peter 3:7; 1 Thessalonians 4:4; All men—1 Peter 2:17; One another—Romans 12:10; God will honor us—John 12:26; Romans 2:7, 10.

21 Since honor was required only with respect to those who had a higher status or position in the Old Testament, we may wonder why the change in the New Testament, requiring the Christian to honor all men. The reason why Christians are commanded to honor others who may even have an inferior status in life is due to the fact that the Christian is required to place others above himself:

Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation (Romans 12:16).

Now we who are strong ought to bear the weaknesses of those without strength and not just please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to his edification. For even Christ did not please Himself; but as it is written, “For the reproaches of those who reproached Thee fell upon Me” (Romans 15:1-3).

Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others (Philippians 2:3-4).

Thus, the Christian, unlike the worldling, honors all men, even when their earthly status is lower than our own, because the mind of Christ elevates others above self. For the Christian, then, all others have a status higher than our own interest. On this basis, they deserve to be honored.

22 The following is a summary of what is done to honor another in the Bible: By giving money or material things: Balaam—Numbers 22:17, 37; 24:11; Widows—1 Timothy 5:3; Elders—1 Timothy 5:17; Offerings to the Lord—Proverbs 3:9; Sacrifices (shared with the angel)—Judges 13:17; By our Lord giving glory to God—John 8:48-50; By beautifying and giving greater prominence—1 Corinthians 12:23-24; By giving respect, and obedience—Romans 13:7; Ephesians 6:1-3; 1 Peter 2:13-27; By giving God worship, Revelation 4:9-11; 5:12-13; 7:12; 19:1; 21:24, 26.

23 Commenting on Deuteronomy 21:17, Jordan writes, “There are two words for ‘curse’ in Hebrew. One has as its basic meaning ‘to separate from or banish,’ and is used for the curse in Genesis 3:14. The second, which is used in Exodus 21:17, basically means ‘to make light of, or repudiate.’ As Umberto Cassuto has pointed out, this verb ‘to make light of’ is the opposite of the verb which means ‘to make heavy, honor, or glorify.’ For the Hebrew, to glorify or honor someone was to treat them as weighty, just as American slang in the 1970s and 1980s uses the word ‘heavy’ to refer to important or impressive matters.” James B. Jordan, The Law of the Covenant (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1984), p. 105.

24 This public dimension of honor helps to explain a great deal. First, it explains why the worship (honoring) of God requires a public expression of praise and adoration. It also explains why a husband is commanded to honor his wife, but the wife is nowhere commanded to honor her husband (cf. 1 Peter 3:7). The woman is to reverence her husband (Ephesians 5:33; 1 Peter 3:2, 5), because this is a matter of her (private) attitude. She cannot honor him publicly because her role is restricted with regard to public speaking, especially in the church (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:34-35; 1 Timothy 2:12). The husband, on the other hand, is to publicly honor his wife. He is able to honor his wife because of his more public role. He needs to honor his wife because of her more private role.

25 Jordan comments on Deuteronomy 21:18-21: “The fifth commandment orders sons and daughters to honor their parents, and the verb used is the verb ‘to make heavy, to glorify.’ Thus, to make light of, to despise, is the opposite. An example of this is clearly set out in Deuteronomy 21:18-21. …” Notice that it is an older child who is in view, not a little boy; he is old enough to be a drunkard. Second, notice the sin is a settled disposition to rebel, not a one time act of disobedience. Third, notice that the young man has given public witness to his rebellious heart; the parents can remind the judges that they all know he is a drunkard and a glutton. Note, fourth, that the parents do not have the power to deal with this rebel on their own; they have to bring evidence and testimony to the judges. This shows us how the Law was carried out, and what is involved in making light of one’s parents, ridiculing them, and repudiating them.

In 1 Timothy 5:3, 17, to ‘honor’ someone means to give them money, to care for them financially. In line with this understanding, Jesus applies the death penalty for dishonoring parents directly to those who refuse to care for them in their old age. The Law of the Covenant, pp. 105-106.

26 Similar promises are found in Deut. 4:26, 40; 5:16, 33; 6:2; 11:8, 9; 17:20; 22:7; 30:18; 32:47; Job 6:11; Prov. 28:16; Ecc. 8:12-13; Isa. 53:10.

27 Jordan remarks, “Notice that Jesus sets Exodus 21:17 right next to the fifth commandment in binding force. Notice also that ‘cursing’ father and mother is definitely said to include verbally reviling them. Principally, however, this passage shows us that in the practical legal sense, refusing to care for parents in their old age is a capital offense.” Ibid, p. 107.

28 It is interesting that our Lord modified (or perhaps we should better say clarified) Exodus 21:17, rendering the term “cursing” “speak evil of.” Thus, cursing is more than speaking profanities at or about parents. Furthermore, I am inclined to believe that our Lord used the “of” in “speak evil of” in broader terms than we would expect. Our Lord was applying these two texts to the evil practiced by the scribes and Pharisees. To be more exact, the evil spoken by them. The saying of the word “Corban” in a traditional formula forced (or allowed) the child of elderly parents to disregard and disobey God’s command to honor them by providing for them. The evil thus spoken was not something evil said of (or about) the parents, but something evil spoken with respect to the parents. The evil spoken was the statement, “Anything of mine you might have bveen helped by is Corban” (Mark 7:11). Our Lord has thus broadened considerably the application of the Fifth Commandment.

29 As I have thought about it, I am not at all certain that a young child is really capable of honoring his parents. He is capable of obeying them, but not really of grasping the concept of honor. This is precisely why parents are needed—to care for the child until he is mature enough to live independently from them. As a child grows up, the more he should begin to grasp what honoring parents is all about, and the more he should honor his parents.

Related Topics: Christian Home

19. The Sanctity of Life (Exodus 20:13)


This is a message on murder. I am curious to know what kind of response this arouses in you. Does it sound boring? Perhaps you might wonder how anyone could make a whole message out of this topic. Or, perhaps you wonder why anyone would think such a message necessary. After all, who isn’t against murder? Some (foolishly) may settle back, feeling a little smug, and even more secure. Now here is a message that ought to make one feel that he has really arrived. If it were a message about anger, self control or self-sacrifice, that might be another matter. But for one who has not committed murder and is not thinking about it, shouldn’t he feel relaxed about this subject?

I must caution you about getting too comfortable. You see, the commandment prohibiting murder goes much farther than this. It condemns any attitude or action which might lead to murder. It also necessitates that we learn the principle which underlies this prohibition. And finally, it requires some positive action on our part, not just the avoidance of a specific evil, but the pursuit of some specific good.

My approach to the Sixth Commandment will be to consider the biblical teaching on murder through the Old Testament, and then through the New. We will attempt to define what murder is, its various types, and what is not murder. We will also determine the punishments for murder, along with the provisions God has made for some murderers. Finally, we will conclude by exploring the implications of the principle which underlies the Sixth Commandment—the sacredness of life, along with the positive actions which this commandment requires of Christians.

Murder in the Old Testament

We must begin our study at the creation of the world, and especially of mankind, for God gave man life in a way which sets him apart from all the rest of God’s living creatures: “Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being” (Gen. 2:7). God was more intimately involved in the process of giving life to man. He breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. This is distinct from the way He gave life to every other living creature. I believe that it corresponds to the fact that God created man in His own image (Gen. 1:26). Since man is a reflection of God (created in His image), he is distinct, and thus the way in which man came to life was also different from all other creatures. Just as Genesis 2 set the seventh day apart from the other six days, so it sets man apart from all other creatures. In the passages which will follow, it should come as no surprise that since God gave life to man, man should not feel free to take life from any man (including himself). As Job put it, “The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away” (Job 1:21).

If what God joined together (Adam and Eve, man and woman, in marriage), man shall not separate (Matt. 19:6), since God gave life to man, man should not be the one to take it away.30

The first taking of life (murder) is described shortly after the fall of man:

And it came about when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” And he said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” And He said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to Me from the ground. And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you cultivate the ground, it shall no longer yield its strength to you; you shall be a vagrant and a wanderer on the earth.” And Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is too great to bear! Behold, Thou has driven me this day from the face of the ground; and from Thy face I shall be hidden, and I shall be a vagrant and a wanderer on the earth, and it will come about that whoever finds me will kill me.” So the Lord said to him, “Therefore whoever kills Cain, vengeance will be taken on him sevenfold.” And the Lord appointed a sign for Cain, lest anyone finding him should slay him. Then Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden (Genesis 4:8-16).

At this point, I wish to make only a few observations which I think are important to our study of murder:

(1) Cain killed Abel because Abel was righteous and he was not. Cain’s sin manifested itself by his persecution of righteous Abel, whose sacrifice was pleasing to God (cf. 1 John 3:12).

(2) Cain killed Abel in rebellion against God. God had rejected Cain’s offering, but accepted Abel’s. When He saw that Cain was angry, God sought him out, urging him to do what was right, and to master the sin which was threatening to overpower him. When Cain killed Abel, it was a deliberate, willful act of rebellion against God’s encouragement to resist evil and to do what was right.

(3) Cain was punished for murdering his brother, but not by the death penalty, which would only later be instituted. Cain was forced to live in some way which did not require farming, since the ground was cursed so as not to produce for him.31 To keep any man from killing Cain, a sign was given to him and a sevenfold vengeance was promised to any who would slay him. Capital punishment, which was commanded later on, is specifically prohibited here. Neither God nor man took Cain’s life.

(4) It would seem that the shedding of the blood of Abel on the ground was related to the cursing of the soil, which made farming impossible for Cain. Later on, the shedding of blood will be clearly identified as profaning the land. Here, it would seem, this is implied.

(5) It was not long until one of Cain’s descendants became a murderer, and seems almost to boast of it:

And Lamech said to his wives, “Adah and Zillah, Listen to my voice, You wives of Lamech, Give heed to my speech, For I have killed a man for wounding me; And a boy for striking me; If Cain is avenged sevenfold, Then Lamech seventy-sevenfold” (Gen. 4:23-24).

(6) It is not until after the flood that capital punishment is prescribed as the punishment for the sin of murder. After the flood, when God killed most of mankind for their sin, God prescribed the death penalty for those who took the life of another human being:

And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. And the fear of you and the terror of you shall be on every beast of the earth and on every bird of the sky; with everything that creeps on the ground, and all the fish of the sea, into your hand they are given. Every moving thing that is alive shall be food for you; I give all to you, as I gave the green plant. Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. And surely I will require your lifeblood; from every beast I will require it. And from every man, from every man’s brother I will require the life of man.

Whoever sheds man’s blood, By man his blood shall be shed, For in the image of God He made man. And as for you, be fruitful and multiply; Populate the earth abundantly and multiply in it” (Genesis 9:1-7).

The relationship between this text and Genesis 1:27-30 is fascinating,32 but beyond the scope of our study, other than those matters which bear on the subject of murder. The important change to observe is that while murder was at least tacitly understood to be forbidden, here it is clearly condemned, and the death penalty is prescribed. Somehow this is related to some other changes which are indicated in the text. In Genesis 1:27-30, only plants and trees were viewed as food for man and beast. Now, however, it is stated that man can eat meat as well. What is the relationship between the ability of man to eat meat and the institution of the death penalty? What is the reason for capital punishment here? Why was Cain not put to death (nor were others allowed to do so), but now a murderer is to be executed? I have several suggestions, which might help to explain this change:

(1) The fear of man, which God put in the living creatures, now given for food, meant that the animals were given a defense and that man would have to become a hunter. Before, had man been given the right to eat meat, he would have been able to walk up to any creature and kill the defenseless creature. Now, the creatures feared man, and would flee from him. Man could eat meat, but only by becoming a hunter. Domesticated animals could be killed for meat, too, but were most often kept for the wool, milk, or some other product.

(2) Although man is given the right to eat meat, he must never eat the blood, but must pour it out. The blood of all creatures is thus set apart. In order for man’s life to be sustained by eating meat, blood must therefore be shed. Life is sustained by bloodshed. Man must come to have respect for even the blood of animals.

(3) The institution of capital punishment for murder also instructs men to have respect for the blood (that is, the life) of mankind. Man, who was created in the image of God, must not have his life taken by another man, unless, of course, it is as punishment for murder.

(4) Ultimately, God is progressively revealing the concept of blood atonement. What will later be taught more clearly is now revealed in very general and non-specific terms. Nevertheless, the way is being prepared for man to understand the concept of blood sacrifice.

Leaving Genesis (and incidents which may well relate to our study of murder33), let us move on to the Book of Exodus, where the Sixth Commandment is first given. Before turning to the prohibition of murder in the Ten Commandments, however, let us refresh our memory as to the man, Moses, through whom these Scriptures have come to us:

Now it came about in those days, when Moses had grown up, that he went out to his brethren and looked on their hard labors; and he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his brethren. So he looked this way and that, and when he saw there was no one around, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand (Exodus 2:11-12).

It is ironic that the one through whom the commandment prohibiting murder has come to us is, himself, a murderer. It is likewise ironic that when Cain killed Abel, he rejected any responsibility for being his brother’s keeper; when Moses killed the Egyptian, he did so thinking that he was acting as his brother’s keeper (cf. Acts 7:23-25).

In Exodus chapter 20 we find the prohibition of murder given as the Sixth Commandment: “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13; Deuteronomy 5:17). Here, there is neither a precise definition of “murder”34 given, nor is any specific punishment prescribed. This is due to the very precise, summary form of the Ten Commandments. Very shortly, however, the particulars pertaining to this commandment will begin to appear. We shall briefly survey the kinds of murder, the penalties prescribed for murder, and the provisions made for some murderers, as prescribed in the Old Testament Law.

Premeditated murder is punishable by death, while murder which was not premeditated (second degree?) was viewed as a lesser offense:

“He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death. But if he did not lie in wait for him, but God let him fall into his hand, then I will appoint you a place to which he may flee. If, however, a man acts presumptuously toward his neighbor, so as to kill him craftily, you are to take him even from My altar, that he may die” (Exodus 21:12-14).

Negligent homicide can also be as serious a matter as premeditated murder when one knows of a real danger, but willfully avoids doing what is necessary to prevent the death of another:

“And if an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall surely be stoned and its flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall go unpunished. If, however, an ox was previously in the habit of goring, and its owner has been warned, yet he does not confine it, and it kills a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned and its owner also shall be put to death. If ransom is demanded of him, then he shall give for the redemption of his life whatever is demanded of him” (Exodus 21:28-30).35

In this case, while the death penalty is prescribed for the owner of the ox, it would seem that a ransom is possible, if such is the desire of the surviving relatives. The owner of the ox, however, is not in any position to negotiate about the price of the ransom that is demanded.

The Law goes so far as to distinguish between homicide which is justifiable and that which is not:

“If a thief is caught while breaking in, and is struck so that he dies, there will be no bloodguiltiness on his account. But if the sun has risen on him, there will be bloodguiltiness on his account. He shall surely make restitution; if he owns nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft” (Exodus 22:2-3).

By far, the most definitive treatment of murder and of its consequences is found in Numbers 35.36 Here, as elsewhere, there is a distinction drawn between first and second degree murder (first degree, vss. 16-21; second degree, vss. 22-28). The important truth which is emphasized here is the provision of cities of refuge for those who are not guilty of first degree murder (cf. vss. 6ff., esp. v. 15). Several things should be underscored regarding the cities of refuge:

  • These are cities set apart for the Levites (v. 6).
  • These cities are a place of refuge not only for Israelites, but also for the alien and the sojourner (v. 15).
  • There is refuge only for the one who has “stood trial” before the congregation, and who has been found to have unintentionally taken the life of another (vss. 11-12, 24-25).
  • There is refuge only if one remains in a city of refuge (vss. 26-28).
  • There is refuge until the death of the high priest, at which time the one who shed the blood of another may return to his home, without fear of reprisal (vss. 25, 28, 32).37
  • The reason why murder must be dealt with in such meticulous terms is that if it is not rectified in some way, the blood which is shed pollutes the land (vss. 29-34).38

This pollution of the land, along with others, is the reason why God will thrust the nation Israel from the land, into captivity.39 Thus, the Old Testament prophets will condemn the Israelites for violating the Sixth Commandment, along with the rest of God’s commands:

How the faithful city [Jerusalem] has become a harlot, She who was full of justice! Righteousness once lodged in her, But now murderers (Isa. 1:21; cf. Jer. 7:9).

Listen to the word of the Lord, O sons of Israel, For the Lord has a case against the inhabitants of the land, Because there is no faithfulness or kindness Or knowledge of God in the land. There is swearing, deception, murder, stealing, and adultery. They employ violence, so that bloodshed follows bloodshed. Therefore the land mourns, And every one who lives in it languishes Along with the beasts of the field and the birds of the sky; And also the fish of the sea disappear (Hosea 4:1-3).

Unbelievable as it may seem, murder is even practiced by the priests:

For I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice, And in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. But like Adam they have transgressed the covenant; There they have dealt treacherously against Me. Gilead is a city of wrongdoers, Tracked with bloody footprints. And as raiders wait for a man, So a band of priests murder on the way to Shechem; Surely they have committed crime (Hosea 6:6-9).

Before leaving the Old Testament teaching on murder and moving to the New, let me remind you that some of the great men of the Bible were murderers. In addition to Moses (the Egyptian), there is David (Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband) and King Ahab (who was great, but not godly), who killed Naboth to obtain his field (1 Kings 21:19).

Murder in the New Testament

The scribes and Pharisees felt that they kept all of the Law of Moses.40 Surely they felt innocent with regard to the Sixth Commandment. Jesus pressed for an obedience to the Law which went far beyond the precept which was stated, beyond the mere letter of the Law, to its spirit. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus extended the Old Testament teaching on murder:

“You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not commit murder’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever shall say to his brother, ‘Raca,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever shall say, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the hell of fire. If therefore you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar, and go your way; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering. Make friends quickly with your opponent at Law while you are with him on the way, in order that your opponent may not deliver you to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. Truly I say to you, you shall not come out of there, until you have paid up the last cent” (Matthew 5:21-26).

From our Lord’s teaching in this text, we can draw the following conclusions:

(1) It is not enough to keep the Sixth Commandment as a precept, we must keep the Sixth Commandment in a broader context. If we are to view murder as so evil that we never wish to be tempted to kill someone, we must deal with those attitudes and actions which incline us toward murder, if not dealt with. Some of these will follow.

(2) Anger harbored against a brother can become a motive for murder. No one will ever know the number of murders which were the result of anger, but the percentage of such cases would be very high. Jesus thus exposes the all too common emotion of anger as a motive for murder which must be dealt with.

(3) Viewing a brother as inferior, as worthless, or as a liability to society is a motive for murder. The terms “Raca” and “fool” are not just evil because they are names which we call another. These names betray an attitude on the part of the name-caller that the world would be a better place without those thus named. Many who have taken the life of another have done so thinking they have done society a favor.

(4) Irreconciled relationships and unresolved conflicts can lead to murder. The Lord applied His teaching on murder by urging His hearers to promote and hasten the process of reconciliation. Unresolved conflicts only intensify, sometimes to the point murder.

James adds one more ingredient which can result in murder: “What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members? You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. And you are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel. You do not have because you do not ask” (James 4:1-2). He informs us that the lust for those things which bring us pleasure often bring us into conflict with our brethren. Worse yet, men sometimes kill others in order to enjoy the pleasures which they possess.

Elsewhere, Jesus taught who the ultimate source and promoter of murder is: “You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature; for he is a liar, and the father of lies” (John 8:44). He said this of His enemies, the scribes and Pharisees, who were sons of the Devil, through whom He, Himself, would be murdered. Thus Peter could say to the Jews in his powerful Pentecost Sermon: “But you disowned the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, but put to death the Prince of life, the one whom God raised from the dead, a fact to which we are witnesses” (Acts 3:14-15).

To those who murdered our Lord, the gospel was proclaimed. Some of these believed. One murderer was to become one of the greatest proclaimers of the gospel of all time: “Now Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest” (Acts 9:1). It is Saul who, when he was confronted by the Savior on the road to Damascus, became a man who would willingly lay down his life for others. Murder must therefore be regarded as a most serious sin, but not an unpardonable sin.


Thus far, we have seen that murder was prohibited very early in the Old Testament. It was defined so that premeditated and willful murder was distinguished from that which was unintentional. Thus, the fact that a life is taken by another is not always murder, and even when we may call an act murder, there are still different levels of culpability. The Old Testament therefore prescribed differing punishments, depending upon the circumstances of the killing.

It is very significant in the light of the severity of the crime of murder to note the gracious provisions of the Law for those who unintentionally or without “with malice of forethought” took the life of another. The cities of refuge are, I believe, an evidence of the grace of God, and perhaps even a foreshadowing of the release which men would experience when Jesus Christ, the Great High Priest, died.

The Old Testament Law is also instructive in that it helps us to keep the sin of murder in proper perspective. Here is a sin which we place at the top of the list. What could be more evil? Perhaps a better question would be, “What may be just as evil?” If the severity of the punishment is a clue to the seriousness of the sin, then we should remind ourselves of all the sins which are punishable by death. These are:

  • Premeditated murder (Exod. 21:12-14).
  • Kidnapping (Exod. 21:16; Deut. 24:7).
  • Adultery (Lev. 20:10-21; Deut. 22:22).
  • Homosexuality (Lev. 20:13).
  • Incest (Lev. 20:11-12, 14).
  • Bestiality (Exod. 22:19; Lev. 20:15-16).
  • Incorrigible delinquency and persistent disobedience to parents and authorities (Deut. 17:12; 21:18-21).
  • Striking or cursing parents (Exod. 21:15; Lev. 20:9; Prov. 20:20; Matt. 15:4; Mark 7:10).
  • Offering human sacrifice (Lev. 20:2).
  • False prophecy (Deut. 13:1-10).
  • Blasphemy (Lev. 24:11-14, 16, 23).
  • Profaning the Sabbath (Exod. 35:2; Num. 15:32-36).
  • Sacrificing to false gods (Exod. 22:20).
  • Magic and divination (Exod. 22:18).
  • Unchastity (Deut. 22:20-21).
  • Rape of a betrothed virgin (Deut. 22:23-27).41

If we are tempted to feel smug because we have not sinned so greatly as to have committed murder, we must also see if there are any sins listed above which we are guilty of, and for which the death penalty has been prescribed.

To go one step further, in the New Testament, James seems to teach that it really does not matter which of the Ten Commandments we have not violated, for to have violated one makes us guilty of all: For whoever keeps the whole Law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all. For He who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Do not commit murder.’ Now if you do not commit adultery, but do commit murder, you have become a transgressor of the Law” (James 2:10-11).

For this reason, hell will be populated not only by murderers, but also by many other kinds of sinner: “But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death” (Rev. 21:8). In the final analysis, whether one is sent to hell as a murderer or as a liar, he is a sinner deserving of hell. There will be little status and no satisfaction in hell, knowing that you were not guilty of murder, as though this makes you a better sinner as a liar.

The implications of the Sixth Commandment are broad and significant. Let me suggest how you and I should respond to this commandment on different levels:

First, on the literal level, you and I do not have the right to take a life in any way which constitutes murder, that is, which deprives one of life whom God has intended and indicated should live. Certainly, I believe that this commandment prohibits a mother from abortion on demand, for the God-given life of the child in her womb is taken. Euthanasia, or more bluntly “pulling the plug” is called into question. Sometimes machines are employed to artificially sustain life or to unnecessarily prolong the process of death. To “pull the plug” in such cases is not murder, in my opinion. However, when one deprives an individual of the necessities of life (for example, oxygen or nutrition), this is very likely an act of murder. Outright, cold-blooded, murder or suicide is clearly forbidden by the Sixth Commandment.

Second, murder is forbidden in its seminal or formative stages. Jesus clearly taught that murderous thoughts and attitudes were, in effect, murder in principle, or at least murder in embryonic form. Thus, any attitude or act which could lead to murder is to be dealt with quickly and decisively. Lust, greed, hatred and demeaning prejudice (“you fool”) must be dealt with as murderous attitudes. Unresolved conflict and animosity must be quickly dealt with, so that reconciliation occurs. Prolonged hostility only increases the temptation to destroy one’s enemy.

Third, the principle underlying the prohibition of murder is that of THE SACREDNESS OF LIFE. Murder is sin and thus is forbidden because God has given life to man and has reserved the sole right to take it away. Even in cases where capital punishment is administered, it is done in God’s behalf, with man acting as the agent of God’s wrath (cf. Gen. 9:5-6; Rom. 13:4).

The sacredness of life demands far more of us than merely prohibiting murder. It demands that we seek to save the life of those who are in danger of death, those whose lives we are able to spare. It means, as many Christians have grasped, that we cannot stand idly by without attempting to stop abortion on demand. It means, just as much, that when a person is dying of starvation, disease, or natural disaster, you and I are obligated to do everything in our power to save their lives. It means that those political refugees, whose lives are in danger in foreign countries, may need to be allowed to find sanctuary in America, even though some jobs may be taken in the process and some economic sacrifices may have to be made by Americans to find a place for them.

Fourth, the sacredness of life underscores the urgency and priority of evangelism. Our Lord once said, “And do not fear those who kill the body, but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28). Death is a terrible thing, especially when it plunges one into a Christless eternity in hell. If death is something which we are commanded to prevent if at all possible, then surely the greater evil, to be prevented as a matter of highest urgency, is that of one entering into eternity without Jesus Christ and the salvation He offers to any who will trust in Him. It is not the “first death” (physical death) which is to be most feared, but the “second death” (spiritual death) which we must seek to prevent men from entering into without warning and the message of deliverance—the good news of the gospel.

Fifth, while the Old Testament commands us not to take the life of another, the New Testament calls upon the Christian to lay down his life for another. “Every one who hates his brother is a murderer; and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (1 John 3:15-16).

When Cain killed Abel and was questioned by God about his whereabouts, Cain responded, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” In effect, Cain did not seem to think it was his concern, even if his brother were dead. When we follow the precedent set by our Lord, we not only find it necessary to be our “brother’s keeper,” but to be willing to do so at the cost of our own life. We are not only told not to take our brother’s life, but to lay down our own life for our brother.

This attitude, which is also described in Philippians chapter 2 as the “mind of Christ,” is that view of life which turns the Christian’s values upside down and the world’s values inside out. Once we have made the decision to give up our life for our brethren, we find it possible to put the interests of others above our own. We find it therefore necessary to “take up our cross daily,” dying to self, which is what the New Testament tells us the Christian life is all about.

By no means let any of you suffer as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler; but if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not feel ashamed, but in that name let him glorify God (1 Peter 4:15-16).

  • Self-defense values one’s own life above that of another.
  • Murder values one’s self-interests above the life of another—abortion?
  • Christianity lays down one’s life for others (Phil. 2)

As I conclude, let me suggest several clever ways in which we may try to avoid the application of the Sixth Commandment to our lives.

First, we may seek to apply this commandment as a precept, but not as a principle. If we, like the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day, see this only as a command not to kill another, we have generally made it irrelevant to our life, for few will actually consider killing another. If we understand the principle to be the sanctity of human life, the principles are profound and intensely practical. Let us think of this commandment as a principle, then, and not just as a precept.

Second, we may avoid this commandment by narrowing the application. The lawyer who asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life was told that he must keep the Law (cf. Luke 10:25-28). Seeking to avoid all that this implied (v. 29), the lawyer asked the question, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29). This was a very significant question, and our Lord’s answer was very pointed. You see, the Jew was willing to apply the commandments related to men to Jews, but not to Gentiles. He hoped that the kindness which the Law required was only kindness toward fellow-Jews. When our Lord told the story of the Good Samaritan, it was a Levite and a priest who failed to help the victim who was beaten. It was a Samaritan, a despised foreigner (whom the Jews would not want to consider “neighbors,” who was a neighbor. If neighbors included Gentiles, the Ten Commandments were a bitter pill for the Jews to swallow.

It is easy for us to be touched by the murder of innocent, helpless babes, still in need of the refuge and safety of the mother’s womb. But let me ask you, my friend, how do you feel when you hear of the execution of a criminal, or how do you feel when you hear of the death of a homosexual who has died of aids? If life is sacred, then we must seek to save the lives (and the souls) of all men and women, not just those who seem innocent, or helpless, or socially desirable. If we favor capital punishment because we value human life, that is one thing, consistent with the teaching of Genesis chapter 9. If we are delighted with the news of someone’s death because we disdain and despise the person, we are guilty of the very sin which the Sixth Commandment forbids.

Third, we can miss the point of this commandment if we stratify sin so that murder is the greatest sin and that lying or adultery or some other sin is somehow less evil. I do not mean to say that all sins are equally sinful. Surely it is worse to kill a person than it is to think about it. But when we make a sin (like murder) the worst sin, a sin which we will likely never commit, we often are only minimizing our own sins, which may be just as deadly, and are surely just as damning. Let us remember that James has told us the one who breaks one Law has broken the whole Law. Let us remember that men are condemned to hell for lying just as much as they are for murder. Often times the seriousness of a particular sin is merely the measure of its social acceptability. Let us view all sin as deadly and damning. Let us flee from all sin. And let us not deceive ourselves that there is any sin we cannot or could not commit, including murder. We need only remember king David.

May God give us the ability to grasp the sacredness of life, and to have an attitude of being willing to lay down our lives for the benefit of others.

30 Incidentally, at the beginning, it does not seem that man had the right to kill any animal. Then, it would seem, after the fall man could kill an animal for a sacrifice (since God killed an animal to cover the nakedness of Adam and Eve). Finally, after the flood, permission was given to shed the blood of animals for food.

31 This is indeed interesting. Adam suffered the curse of the soil too, but only to the degree that he had to work hard to produce a crop (“by the sweat of his brow”). For Cain, the ground was doubly cursed, so that it would appear that he could not farm at all. No wonder he fled from Eden and his offspring built cities. As a friend of mine pointed out, his sentence was poetic justice. The one who would not be his brother’s keeper now becomes dependent upon his brethren, for he cannot grow his own crops.

32 For your further study, let me mention several important features of Genesis 9:1-7 when compared with Genesis 1:27-30. There is a deliberate attempt to show the similarity of the two events. In both passages, there is a new beginning. Also, in both texts God pronounced a blessing closely associated with the command to be fruitful and multiply (or was the blessing that man would be fruitful and would multiply?). In the first passage, God instructed man to subdue the creation, while in the second, God seems to have indicated that every living creature now fears man. Does this suggest that some aspects of nature may have changed after the flood, just as they did after the fall? We assume that it did not rain until the time of the flood; what other changes occurred? Finally, it seems to me that God frequently sets the example, which He then calls upon men to follow. God first sacrificed an animal, so that He could cover Adam and Eve with skins. From this time on, man apparently could kill an animal for sacrifice, as Abel did (but interestingly, not Cain). Now, God has put most of mankind and most of the living animals on the earth to death, in judgment of man’s sin. He then instructs men to put a man to death who sins by the taking of human life. Is there a sense in which every new command which God gives is preceded by an exemplary act of God?

33 Specifically, I am thinking of the slaughter of the Shechemites (Genesis 34) and the near murder of Joseph (Genesis 37, especially v. 18), both by Jacob’s sons.

34 “It does not say, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ but, ‘Thou shalt not commit murder’ (the verb rasah is a specific term for murder, and is never used of executing a criminal or slaying an enemy in battle).” “Crimes and Punishments,” G. L. Archer, The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977), vol. 1, p. 1032.

Rasah is a purely Hebrew term. It has no clear cognate in any of the contemporary tongues. The root occurs thirty-eight times in the OT, with fourteen occurrences in Num 35. The initial use of the root appears in the Ten Commandments (Ex 20:13). … Much has been made of the fact that the root rasah appears in the Mosaic legislation, as though this term bore a special connotation of premeditation, as though the Decalogue only proscribed premeditated crime. This is not the case. The many occurrences in Num 35 deal with the organization of the six cities of refuge to which manslayers who killed a person accidentally could flee. Numbers 35:11 make completely clear that the refuge was for those guilty of unpremeditated, accidental killings. This makes clear that rasah applies equally to both cases of premeditated murder and killings as a result of any other circumstances, what English Common Law has called, ‘man slaughter.’ The root also describes killing for revenge (Num 35:27, 30) and assassination (II Kings 6:32). … In all other cases of the use of rasah [other than Prov. 22:13], it is man’s crime against man and God’s censure of it which is uppermost.” “Rasah,” William White, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, ed. by R. Laird Harris; assoc. editors: Gleason L. Archer, Jr., Bruce K. Waltke (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), vol. 2, p. 860.

35 It is interesting to notice that the blood of the ox, that is, his death, is required, as well as that of his master. If a man’s blood is shed by either man or animal (or, as in this case, both), the blood of the killer is required.

36 Cf. also Deuteronomy 4:41-43; 19:1-13.

37 It seems to me that there is something prophetic here. A man who has unintentionally shed the blood of another finds refuge in a priestly city (that is, one of the cities of the Levites), and upon the death of the high priest, may return to his home with no more guilt or fear. Does this in any way anticipate the death of our Great High Priest?

38 “It is significant that in the case of unsolved murders a public hearing had to be held in which the elders of the community in whose borders the crime had occurred would have to take an oath of innocence and then offer a sacrifice to God with an accompanying prayer for forgiveness, lest their land should remain polluted (Deut 21:1-9).” The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, p. 1032.

39 Generally, I hear people speak of the Jews as God’s chosen people, and that they own the land of Palestine because of their chosen status. The Scriptures substantiate some of this, but not all. The land is God’s, not Israel’s (Lev. 25:23; cf. Exod. 19:5). God thrust out the Canaanites because of their iniquity (Gen. 15:16), and He will also thrust out the Israelites if they defile the land by doing the same (Lev. 18:24-28). I understand Jacob’s dream (Jacob’s ladder) in Genesis 28:10-17 was intended to teach him of the sacredness of the promised land. Thus, the holiness of this land, as God’s dwelling place, necessitates that He cast out any nation (including Israel) which defiles it. One way of defiling the land is the shedding of innocent blood on it.

40 Cf. Paul’s words in Philippians 3:4-6.

41 This list is virtually identical with that provided by Walter C. Kaiser in his book, Toward Old Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1983), pp. 91-92.

Related Topics: Hamartiology (Sin)