Where the world comes to study the Bible

16. Obeying The Big Ten (Exodus 20:1-17)

Related Media

Life of Moses (16)

June 10, 2018

In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that reading the Bible and reciting the Lord’s Prayer in public schools violates the U.S. Constitution. Then in 1980, the Court ruled that it is unconstitutional for public schools to post the Ten Commandments on classroom walls. The Court’s 5-4 majority reasoned (cited by Kent Hughes, Disciplines of Grace [Crossway], p. 11):

If the posted copies of the Ten Commandments are to have any effect at all it will be to induce the schoolchildren to read, meditate upon, perhaps to venerate and obey, the Commandments. However desirable this might be as a matter of private devotion, it is not a permissible state objective under the Establishment Clause.

In other words, we dare not post the Ten Commandments because some students might actually read and obey them! They might actually read, “You shall not murder”! But we can’t seem to figure out why so many students are shooting their classmates and teachers!

As Christians, we rightly decry our national slide into immorality and violence, and yet many Christians can’t even name half of the Ten Commandments! There is a lot of debate and confusion among evangelicals as to whether we are required to obey the Ten Commandments. In part, this is due to the influence of moral relativism in the church. It’s also due to a widespread misunderstanding of what it means to live under grace. Many think that any call to obey God’s commandments is legalism. They think that grace means hang-loose living, where we don’t need to be concerned about obeying God. After all, if we mess up, He will forgive!

But don’t forget the setting in which God gave these commands (Exod. 19)! The Lord descended on Mount Sinai in fire and smoke. The whole mountain quaked. There were thunder, lightning flashes, and loud blasts on a trumpet. If the people got too near the mountain, they would die. Both the people and Moses were terrified. Yes, God is gracious to sinners who repent, but even His redeemed people are to offer Him worship “with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28-29). We dare not presume on His grace by disobeying Him (Rom. 6:1-2)!

I admit that the issue of how Old Testament laws apply to New Testament believers is one of the most difficult theological matters to sort out. I’ve read several books and many articles on the subject. I cannot begin to explain all of these matters in this message. But since all Ten Commandments except for the Sabbath command (I’ll say more on that command later) are repeated in the New Testament to believers under grace, I’m going to apply Exodus 20 to us as follows:

Because we have experienced God’s grace in salvation, we should joyfully obey His commandments for His glory and our good.

First, we’ll look at God’s grace as the basis for obeying His commandments. Then we’ll consider why we should joyfully obey His commandments. Finally, I’ll give a very brief overview of the Ten Commandments.

1. Experiencing God’s grace in salvation is essential before you seek to obey His commandments.

Most people think that they can get right with God by keeping the Ten Commandments. But that doesn’t work! James 2:10 states, “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.” The law is like a chain: one broken link means the entire chain is broken. Paul states (Rom. 3:20), “by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight.” When you consider that God not only judges us by our outward behavior, but also by the thoughts and intentions of our hearts (Heb. 4:12-13), you can see why it’s futile to try to commend yourself to God by claiming that you have kept His commandments.

God had already delivered Israel from bondage in Egypt before He gave them the Ten Commandments. So He reminds them (Exod. 20:2), “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” As we’ve seen, the exodus is the great illustration in the Old Testament of our deliverance from bondage to Satan’s domain of darkness. So God didn’t give these commandments for the purpose of saving His people, but after He already had graciously saved them.

So, why did God give Israel the Law? For several reasons. First, as Paul explains (Rom. 3:20), “for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin” (see, also, Rom. 7:7). The Law is like a mirror. Before you look in the mirror, you might have a vague sense that you’ve got dirt on your face. But when you look in the mirror and see it, you know that you’re dirty! All people know that they have violated their own consciences (see Romans 2). But when you hear the specific commands of God’s Law, you know you’re guilty!

In addition, God’s Law shows us our inability to keep it so that we will abandon all attempts to get right with God through keeping His Law and be driven to faith in Christ. As Paul states (Gal. 3:24), “Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith.” Also, God’s Law reveals His holiness. In specific, concrete terms, it shows us what God is like and how we are to live to please Him.

But the crucial matter to understand is that God didn’t give His Law to save us. We are saved (delivered from God’s judgment) by His undeserved favor through faith in Christ and His death on our behalf (Eph. 2:8-9). He paid the penalty that we deserved. When we trust in Christ, God puts our sin on Christ and imputes Christ’s righteousness to us. Only after putting your trust in Christ and receiving His indwelling Holy Spirit can you begin to obey His Law. But why should you do that?

2. We should joyfully obey God’s commandments for His glory and our good.

Many erroneously think that God is like a mean father, who gives us His commandments to spoil our fun. Also, we see all of the famous, successful people in the world who disobey God but seem to be having a great life. But ever since you started obeying God, life has been one trial after another. Your unbelieving, immoral girlfriends have good-looking hunks for boyfriends, while you sit home alone ever since you committed yourself to obey the Lord! The guy at work who is dishonest got the promotion, while you got passed over, even though you’re honest and hard-working (see Psalm 73).

But the Bible consistently shows that God gives us His commandments for our good, to bless us when we keep them. Moses tells Israel (Deut. 10:12-13): “Now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require from you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways and love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the Lord’s commandments and His statutes which I am commanding you today for your good?” (See, also, Deut. 4:1; 8:1.) God’s commands are like those of a loving father who tells his children, “Under no circumstances are you to go out on that busy street!” He’s not giving that command to take away their fun, but rather to protect them from danger and death.

Even so, God promises His lovingkindness to those who love Him and keep His commandments (Exod. 20:6, 12). But He also threatens punishment on those who disobey (Exod. 20:5, 7). Often children and grandchildren suffer the results of the parents’ sins. Sin always promises quick pleasure, but in the long run it damages the sinner and many others. So we should joyfully obey God’s commandments for our own good and the good of our families and all society.

But the ultimate reason we should obey God is for His glory. God’s name is tied up with His people. When we disobey God, it gives occasion to His enemies to blaspheme His holy name (2 Sam. 12:14). They can shrug off our testimony of God’s salvation by saying, “Those Christians are just a bunch of religious hypocrites!” Our disobedience makes God look bad, when our chief aim in life should be to glorify Him.

Thus, experiencing God’s grace in salvation is essential before you seek to obey His commandments. We should joyfully obey God’s commandments for His glory and our good. Now let’s take a very brief glance at the Ten Commandments:

3. God’s commandments are summed up by loving Him and loving others.

When a hostile lawyer challenged Jesus, “Which is the great commandment in the Law?” Jesus answered (Matt. 22:37-40):

“‘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. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”

God says that those who disobey Him hate Him, while those who obey Him love Him (Exod. 20:5, 6). Jesus said (John 14:21), “He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me; and he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and will disclose Myself to him.” The apostle John wrote (1 John 5:3): “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome.” So we need to view the Ten Commandments relationally. They tell us how we can love God and love one another.

A. Commandments 1-4 show how to love God.

We know that there are Ten Commandments because Moses refers to them (in Hebrew) as “the ten words” (Exodus 34:28; Deut. 4:13 & 10:4). But, there are different ways of numbering the ten. The Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church, and some other scholars combine the first two commandments and divide the last commandment into two. I’m following the usual Reformed way of numbering them.

1) “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exod. 20:3).

Scholars debate the meaning of the Hebrew preposition translated “before.” It is literally, “to My face,” or in modern colloquialism, “in My face.” God tolerates no rivals! It links with God’s statement (Exod. 20:5), “I am a jealous God.” Just as a loving husband will not tolerate his wife having other lovers, so God does not tolerate His people having other gods.

All people, including atheists, have their gods. Philip Ryken (Exodus [Crossway], p. 564) says that you can determine your own gods by two tests: First, What do you love? This focuses on our desires. Because of our fallen nature, we all must fight against the love of self and the love of the world. We’re prone to love success, money, and sex outside of marriage because we love self and the world. We can even use God to try to fulfill self in the hopes that He will give us what we want. At the core of it all is that we put self before God.

The second test is, What do you trust? Do you trust in your wisdom or ingenuity to get out of problems? Do you trust in your investments or wealth to meet your needs? Do you trust in your good works to get into heaven? Or, is your trust in the Lord alone (Ps. 20:7; 33:13-22)?

2) “You shall not make for yourself an idol” (Exod. 20:4).

This command does not forbid all art or sculpture. Even the tabernacle had the cherubim hovering over the Ark of the Covenant. Christians have disagreed over whether it’s permissible to use pictures of Jesus to teach children about Him or for artists to make paintings or statues to depict Him. But verse 5 clarifies the meaning of this command: “You shall not worship them or serve them.” Praying to a statue or picture of Jesus or Mary violates the second commandment. As we will see (Exod. 32), Israel quickly disobeyed this commandment when they made the golden calf.

Also, those who reject God as He is revealed in Scripture and worship “God as they conceive Him to be” are violating the second commandment. Some claim to be Christians, but they say, “My God is a God of love, not of wrath and judgment!” They’re worshiping an idol that they made up, not the God of the Bible. (See my message [6/18/06], “Knowing This, Guard Yourself.”)

3) “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain” (Exod. 20:7).

The Lord’s name refers to His person—all that He is. To use His name in vain includes using it in sorcery or divination, in false prophecy, and in taking false oaths (Ryken, p.580). It also means to use God’s name lightly, for no purpose, whether in exclamation, surprise, or anger. The current exclamation, “Oh my God!” uses His name in vain, unless the person is truly calling on the Lord in heartfelt prayer. Also, to exclaim, “Oh, Jeez!” is to use Jesus’ name in vain. This command does not prohibit taking legitimate oaths, since Deuteronomy 6:13 commands, “You shall fear only the Lord your God; and you shall worship Him and swear by His name.” (See, also, Ps. 63:11; Rom. 1:9; Rev. 10:5-6.)

4) “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exod. 20:8).

This is the most debated command among evangelical Christians. As I said, it’s the only one of the ten not repeated in the New Testament. In fact, Paul seems to nullify it rather than affirm it (Rom. 14:5-6; Gal. 4:10; Col. 2:16)! While books have been written on this (and I have read several), I can only comment briefly.

My understanding is that Sunday is not the Christian Sabbath. The command to Israel involved both work on six days and rest on the seventh, including giving rest to their servants and animals. There is no mention of participating in worship services. There were severe penalties, including death, for violating this command (Num. 15:32-36)! It was a serious matter to violate the Sabbath!

In my experience, sincere Christians who attempt to impose this command on the church invariably end up mired in legalism. They come up with lists of what you can and cannot do on Sundays. Some even say that you have sinned if you talk or even think about anything other than spiritual matters on Sunday!

I believe that we are not under the Old Testament Sabbath commandment. It was fulfilled in Christ, who is our true rest (Col. 2:16-17; Heb. 3-4). At the same time, there is a valid principle that carries over to New Testament believers: Set aside the Lord’s Day to rest from your normal work and to gather with God’s people for worship, instruction, fellowship, and prayer. (See my message [8/20/17], “How to Spend the Lord’s Day.”)

B. Commandments 5-10 show how to love your neighbor.

(I’m continuing the numbering after commands 1-4):

5) “Honor your father and your mother” (Exod. 20:12).

Children who are still at home should respect and obey their parents. Parents should teach their children when they are very young that they are not permitted to defy their parents, hit their parents, or say that they hate them. The command also applies to adult children showing honor and taking care of their elderly parents. It establishes the family as the foundation of society.

I recognize that it is extremely difficult to apply this command if your parents have been emotionally, physically, or sexually abusive. It is difficult for a believing young person to honor parents who attack his or her faith in Christ. In such cases, get godly counsel on how to show respect while protecting yourself from abuse. It may be necessary to report abusive parents to civil authorities. (See my message, [5/12/96], “Keeping the Fifth.”)

6) “You shall not murder” (Exod. 20:13).

Most of us are prone to think, “Well, at least there’s one that I’ve kept!” But then we read (Matt. 5:21-22) how Jesus extended this command to include anger, and we realize that we’re guilty of breaking this commandment! Jesus taught that outward sins such as murder, adultery, fornication, theft, lying, and slander all originate in the heart (Matt. 15:18-19). Sinful actions always begin with unchecked sinful thoughts. Thus while most of us think that we are incapable of murdering someone, if we don’t deal with bitterness and anger, we’re feeding the root that grows into murder. (See my message [5/4/08], “Taming Your Temper.”)

This command does not prohibit nations from armed conflicts or wars to protect their citizens from outside aggression. It does not prohibit governments imposing capital punishment for serious crimes after a fair trial with conclusive evidence. It does not forbid law enforcement officers from using deadly force when necessary to protect the innocent. And, it does not forbid self-defense or defense of one’s family or of innocent victims if law enforcement officers are not on the scene. It does prohibit killing babies in the womb unless the physical life of the mother is at stake. (See my messages [1/25/04], “What the Bible Says About Abortion”; and [4/21/96], “The Sanctity of Human Life.”)

7) “You shall not commit adultery” (Exod. 20:14).

“Adultery” includes any sexual activity outside of lifelong heterosexual marriage. As with murder, Jesus extended this command to our thought life when He said that to lust after a woman is to commit adultery with her in your heart (Matt. 5:27-28). This is not to say that mental lust is as serious or harmful as physical adultery. But it is to say that if you look at pornography or lustfully check out women, you are guilty of adultery in God’s sight. God requires moral purity on the thought level. (See my message, [6/1/97], “Moral Purity in a Polluted World.”)

8) “You shall not steal” (Exod. 20:15).

This command acknowledges the right to own private property. It forbids all theft, robbery, extortion, embezzlement, and taking bribes. It prohibits cheating on your income taxes, as well as welfare and Medicare fraud. You violate this command if you steal intellectual property through plagiarism or copyright violations. It’s wrong to steal office supplies or equipment, or to steal time from your employer. It’s sin to incur debt that you know you are unable to pay back. While sometimes bankruptcy is unavoidable, Christians should do their best to pay creditors what is owed. (See my message [4/6/08], “To Cure a Thief.”)

9) “You shall not bear false witness” (Exod. 20:16).

This is another sin that Jesus said originates in the heart (Matt. 15:19). The command primarily focuses on bearing false witness against your neighbor in a legal setting, where lying or misrepresenting something about him would damage him or wrongly be to your advantage. But it also extends to lying to or about someone or spreading half truths about him in any setting. God is the God of truth who cannot lie (Isa. 65:16; Titus 1:2). Jesus is the truth (John 14:6). To be like Him, we must be people who speak the truth and do not bear false witness.

This doesn’t mean that we are required to tell everything we know about a situation. And, sometimes to be brutally honest is not the loving thing to do. We are to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15). Love seeks the highest good of the other person. To bear false witness undermines your integrity, undermines relationships, and damages or destroys the other person. (See my message [3/16/08], “To Tell the Truth.”)

10) “You shall not covet” (Exod. 20:17).

This commandment deals with heart motives. You are not to desire so as to try to obtain for yourself your neighbor’s house, his wife, or anything that belongs to him. It stems from being discontented with what the Lord has given you. This commandment links back to the first commandment: to covet other persons or things puts something other than God in first place in your life (Christopher J. H. Wright, How to Preach & Teach the Old Testament for All Its Worth [Zondervan]., p. 172). (See my message [10/29/95], “The Secret of Contentment.”)


A “Frank and Earnest” cartoon [5/8/98] pictured Moses on the mountain before God, holding the Ten Commandments. He tells God, “It’s your call but I still think ‘The Ten Habits of Highly Effective People’ is a catchier title.”

But they’re not “ten habits of highly effective people” or “ten suggestions for a happy life”! They’re Ten Commandments from the holy God, given for His glory and your good. If you think seriously about them, you’ve broken every one on the heart or thought level. That’s why you need a Savior who died to forgive your sins! When you trust in the Lord Jesus to save you, He gives you the Holy Spirit to indwell you and enable you joyfully to obey His commandments out of love for Him!

Application Questions

  1. A Christian says, “We’re not under the Old Testament Law, so the Ten Commandments don’t apply to us.” Your reply?
  2. To learn how to use the Ten Commandments in evangelism, go to
  3. Are New Testament believers obligated to keep the Sabbath commandment? Support your answer with Scripture.
  4. How would you counsel a person with abusive parents to honor them? What does this mean practically? What are the limits?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2018, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Basics for Christians, Christian Life, Soteriology (Salvation)

Report Inappropriate Ad