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Laying Down the Law

Published: 12 months ago- 4 June 2023
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EXODUS 20:1-21



Though let’s face it. Rules govern our lives. There’s road rules, school rules. Company law, labour law, criminal law. Rules dictate our lives.

… Where then do rules come from? What is the basis for morality? Do each of US determine right and wrong for ourselves? Is it what feels good, as long as others aren’t hurt or offended? Or does the majority decide? If 60% vote for gay marriage, does that make it right? Or is it science that decides right from wrong? Or is it determined by what’s best, not for the individual, but for society at large?

Today, we come in Exodus to the most famous rules, the TEN COMMANDMENTS. Literally the ten WORDS. Not invented but GIVEN. Not man-made but DIVINE.

As we travel through Exodus it does divide into 3 main sections. Chapters 1 to 18 … God DELIVERS. His people from slavery. Chapters 19 to 24 God DEMANDS. The law is given. And chapters 25 to 40 God DWELLS. Among His people in the tabernacle.

Today we’re in chapter 20, at the very centre of what God demands.


The law is given at MOUNT SINAI. Where God first spoke to Moses. Through the burning bush, chapter 3.

And the law is given in the middle of a SANDWICH. In chapter 19, at the mountain, there is thunder, lightning, smoke and trumpet. Then in chapter 20 verses 18 to 21, at the mountain, there is thunder, lightning, smoke and trumpet. GOD is present. And everyone’s AFRAID.

Now clearly, the MOUNTAIN and the COMMANDMENTS are connected. Understanding what happens at Mount Sinai will help us rightly understand the commandments given there. So, Israel gathers or assembles at the mountain, literally Israel does CHURCH. They GATHER to MEET WITH GOD. To HEAR God speak. And by speaking God formally CONSTITUTES Israel as HIS nation. And gives them their CONSTITUTION. Of all the nations on the earth, God says to Israel, ‘YOU are mine. My TREASURED possession. Now LIVE THIS WAY.’ It’s not a DEMOCRACY. It’s a MONARCHY. God’s the King. He rules. So, here’s Israel, God’s nation. Gathered at the mountain. To hear God speak.

But that’s 3400 years ago. Some discard the Ten Commandments as IRRELEVANT for TODAY. For our modern, progressive, twenty-first century. They argue it’s like using an ANCIENT map to find your way in a modern city. They’re OUT OF DATE, no longer useful.

These commands are given a long time ago, and they’re given to a specific nation in a specific situation. BUT these commands, understood in the light of the whole Bible story, and in particular Jesus’ life and death, are eternally true and relevant.



And what’s the BASIS for these commands? It’s GOD Himself. His CHARACTER. And ACTIONS.

  1. Almighty God

First off, GOD ALMIGHTY is the law giver. Verse 1. Exodus 20:1 “God SPOKE all these words”

He SPOKE. And it’s that which gives these commands AUTHORITY. Their authority derives from their AUTHOR.

And although specifically given to Israel, these TEN are UNIVERSAL. Of all Old Testament Law they’re UNIQUE. This is the only occasion in the whole of the Old Testament where GOD SPEAKS DIRECTLY to Israel. And, these ten are the only commands written on STONE by the FINGER of GOD. Not written on chalkboard, or paper. But set in CONCRETE, in STONE. And not written in ink or pencil. You can’t rub ’em out. GOD wrote them with His FINGER. There’s a PERMANENCE about them.

They UNIVERSALLY APPLY to everyone. In Romans chapter 2 verse 15, Paul explains that even those not Jewish, who weren’t GIVEN the law, actually HAVE the “law” as it’s written on their hearts. Attested to by their consciences. The law Paul’s speaking of here is the ancient Greek idea of a “natural” law. A set of universal moral norms. Innate in all humans. Surely the essence of these ten are etched in our DNA, stamped in our consciences.

These commands come with GOD’S AUTHORITY. AND they also REFLECT God’s HOLINESS. They EXPRESS the CHARACTER of their giver.

These laws aren’t arbitrary or un-reasonable. These laws have to be what they are because God is who He is. These ten, in a sense, are God’s VERBAL IMAGE. They show us WHO God is, what He is like. And how to relate to Him.

Fathers may lay down the law to their kids, ‘MY roof, MY rules’. Non negotiable. GOD says, ‘MY WORLD, MY rules!’ God determines RIGHT and WRONG. He has the RIGHT to. The right to DEMAND we live His way. We’re accountable, answerable, to Him. God is HOLY. And GOOD. And these laws are GOOD. FOR US. God’s NOT a cosmic KILJOY. It’s true that laws act as WALLS. And who likes walls? Some think God is repressive, hemming us in, restricting our fun and freedom.

BUT God’s laws are like the WALLS of a PLAYGROUND. Which is a very different picture altogether. They’re GOOD walls. Designed to stop children getting out and running onto the road. And designed to stop others getting in and hurting children. Take away the walls. And you invite trouble and danger. Yet within walls … children have freedom to be children. To run and laugh and dance.

Within the walls there’s BLESSING. So, Moses urges the people to obey so that they’ll; Deuteronomy 5:33 (30:19) “… LIVE and PROSPER… ” That they’ll enjoy blessing, enjoy the GOOD life. God gives laws so that, within their bounds, we can FREELY … ENJOY life … as He meant it to be. God, like any good parent, wants what’s best for us AND He knows what’s best. We’re not to live however WE please. We’re to live as HE PLEASES. Though we treat God’s rules like many men treat the assembly instructions for flatpack furniture. We throw them aside. And only consult them when we get stuck. That’s a minor setback for new furniture. It’s an unmitigated disaster when it comes to rules for LIFE. We ignore God at our own peril. God ALMIGHTY is HOLY. A GOOD RULER. With GOOD RULES. For OUR GOOD.

  1. Covenant God

Now, as I said earlier, these commands don’t come in a vacuum. They come in a gathering, a MEETING with God at the mountain. They come couched in the COVENANT.

In Deuteronomy God speaks of the ten commandments as;

Deuteronomy 4:13 “… He declared to you HIS COVENANT, the ten commandments, which He commanded you to follow and then wrote them on two stone tablets.”

In Exodus 19 He refers to;

Exodus 19:5 “… my COVENANT… “

COVENANT. God rules over everyone. Though He’s not in personal relationship with everyone. In verse 1 He declares;

Exodus 20:2 “… I am the LORD … [YAHWEH] … YOUR God… “

‘Yahweh’ is the PERSONAL and COVENANT name of God. It literally means ‘I AM WHO I AM’. God defines Himself by Himself. He is absolutely UNIQUE, absolutely SELF- SUFFICIENT. ‘I am who I am’.

And He declares;

Exodus 20:2 “I am YOUR God… ” YOUR God by virtue of the COVENANT.

Which is an AGREEMENT, a CONTRACT, that binds people in RELATIONSHIP. Like a marriage covenant. Or any contract.

And keeping contracts, agreements, keeping your word … is critical for a healthy society, a healthy workplace or school or family. ‘Cos God’s laws have to do with RELATIONSHIPS. Have to do with LOVING God and loving others.

Which means, for Israel, these commands are PERSONAL. They know God. He LOVES them. They ought to want to please Him.

  1. Saviour God

And it is because of His covenant. That God RESCUES His people. ‘Yahweh’ is Israel’s SAVIOUR.

Verse 1.

Exodus 20:2 “I am the Lord your God, who BROUGHT you OUT OF Egypt, OUT OF the land of slavery.”

In these ancient times modes of transport were very dangerous. There were … bandits on the road, storms at sea, Egyptian chariots in the desert. But Israel’s TRAVEL AGENT is the Al-mighty. They’re guaranteed safe passage. In chapter 19 verse 4 God says; Exodus 19:4-6 “… I CARRIED you on EAGLES’ wings and BROUGHT you to MYSELF.” EAGLE TRAVEL is synonymous with safe loving RESCUE. It speaks to the nature of the relationship between God and His people. God’s people are swept along by HIS sovereign and gracious acts. God CARRIES them. HE RESCUES. This is VERY IMPORTANT. God DELIVERS. THEN demands. LAW comes AFTER liberation. We’re set free to OBEY. RULES come in context of RELATIONSHIP. NOT obey to get saved. OBEY because we are saved.

Law ESTABLISHES Israel in their freedom. And SAFEGUARDS it. This is the way to enjoy God’s BLESSINGS OF GRACE. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve enjoyed a beautiful and bountiful life. But only while they kept within the Law. Once they broke it they we’re enslaved. When the Law went, their liberty went. The ten commandments are truly a CHARTER OF FREEDOM. A pattern of life given to people already rescued. Walls within which they can enjoy freedom, and walls which safeguard their freedom. Parents make rules. Not so kids can earn their love. But because they love their kids. And because they want their kids to enjoy the freedom of being their kids.


So let’s come to the actual commandments. THE LAW God lays down. Ten speaks of COMPLETENESS. These ten are a comprehensive ethical system. They cover EVERY AREA of life. They claim ALL life, and all OF life, FOR God. The first claims our WORSHIP. This reserves worship for GOD ALONE. Exodus 20:3 “You shall have NO OTHER GODS before me.” No competitors. No divided loyalty. The second controls the MANNER of our worship. NO IMAGES.

Exodus 20:4 “… [Don’t] make for yourself an image [of God]… ” We’re made in HIS image. But we’re not at liberty to MAKE Him in OURS. Worship the CREATOR, not his CREATION.

Exodus 20:5 “… [Don’t] bow down to [anything created] or worship them… ” No idols. Made with hands. Or in our minds.

The third requires REVERENCE in worship.

Exodus 20:7 “[Don’t] misuse the name of the Lord… “

Which is much more than swearing. As God’s name represents His nature.

And as we’ve seen throughout Exodus, God’s concern is for HIS NAME to be EXALTED. He demands that our lives ACKNOWLEDGE Him. That we’re not flippant or disrespectful. He is ALMIGHTY, HOLY, JUST. Treat Him as such.

Now these opening commands call us to worship the one true God. He tolerates NO RIVALS. Anything that competes with God … in our hearts … is effectively ANOTHER “god”.

The fourth command claims our TIME. Both REST AND WORK. It both promotes and prohibits work. The word ‘Sabbath’ means ‘to cease’. To STOP the normal work you do for six days. And take ONE day to REST. This command prevents work becoming an IDOL. And thus protects your physical and mental well-being, and that of your ‘significant others’.

Commands five through nine claim our RELATIONSHIPS. And covers everything. FAMILY.

Exodus 20:12 “Honour your father and your mother… ” LIFE is sacred.

Exodus 20:13 “[Don’t] murder.” SEX is pure.

Exodus 20:14 “[Don’t] commit adultery.” Property and possessions.

Exodus 20:15 “[Don’t] steal.” SPEECH. Tell the truth.

Exodus 20:16 “[Don’t lie. Don’t] give false testimony… “

The tenth command wraps them all up, … ‘cos it claims your HEART. Exodus 20:17 “… [Don’t] covet… “

It’s IN our heart that we make choices. Outward sinful actions are birthed by inward sinful minds. Out of the heart FLOW our actions. Think about it. We steal ‘cos our hearts desire something. We’re unfaithful ‘cos our heart seeks what is not ours. We cheat and lie and hurt and dishonour others because our hearts are taken captive by wrongful desires. We covet. You see, these ten are intertwined like a finely spun garment. You unpick one, the others unravel. As does the SOCIETY which is to be based upon them.

For example, take MURDER. When you allow for the abuse of a child in the womb … it automatically leads to abuse outside the womb. Advocating for abortion lowers the value of life. And leads to the euthanasia or mistreatment of the aged or weak. Life becomes cheap.

Another example, SEX. Liberal attitudes towards sex, rather than liberating actually ENSLAVE and destroy. Jonathan Sacks, a former Chief Rabbi in the UK, says; ‘Today in the West almost half the children are born outside marriage, people marry later or not at all, close to half the marriages end in divorce. Why should this matter? … Because children pay the price. [They are the broken pieces when a home falls apart.] When stable marriages cease to be the norm, children are more likely to live in poverty, and a significant minority will be abused, sexually assaulted, abandoned, intimidated or neglected.’


God lays down the law. The law God lays down.

Now let’s ask, ‘what difference does JESUS make? And how ought we to respond?’

  1. The Law and Us

Well, from the NEW Testament we learn three things about the law.

  • Standard

First, the law reveals God’s STANDARD.

It shows His HOLINESS. His absolute perfection.

And thus it shows us how to live, not as we please, but so as to PLEASE GOD. For we are;

1 Peter 2:9 “… [God’s] chosen people, possession… ” a holy nation, God’s special possession

To whom is said;

1 Peter 1:15 “… just as He who called you is holy, so … BE HOLY in all you do… “

The law reveals God’s HOLY standard.

  • Sin

Which links to the second thing. The law reveals our SIN. Romans 3 verse 20.

Romans 3:20 “… no one [is] declared righteous in God’s sight by the law;

[The law cannot save] … rather, through the law we become CONSCIOUS of our sin.”

Imagine at school or Uni you get 23% for your math’s exam. And you tell the teacher, ‘23% is good enough. I deserve to pass.’ They’d say, ‘You’re nuts. You don’t set the standard. The educational authorities set the standard. I enforce it. You failed.’

Arnold was an unbelieving friend I used to read the Bible with. On one occasion I asked, ‘Do you think you’re a good person?’ ‘Yes’ he said. To which I asked, ‘By whose standard are you measuring?’

If it’s our own standard we’ll always get a ‘PASS’. But God’s standard is not 23%. It’s not even 50%. Or 60 or 75 or 90. God’s standard is nothing less than 100% PERFECTION.

And so we are under, as the Apostle Paul calls it; Galatians 3:13 “… the curse of the law… ” CONDEMNED. CURSED. DAMNED by God’s DEMANDS.

  • Saviour

And so thirdly, thankfully, the law reveals our SAVIOUR. It drives us to JESUS. Galatians chapter 3.

Galatians 3:23-24 “… we were held in CUSTODY under the law, LOCKED UP, the law was our GUARDIAN … until Christ came … that we might be [saved] justified by faith.”

The law, in showing us our sin, shows us our need for a saviour. And shepherds us to Jesus.

  1. Jesus and the Cross

And we need JESUS. ‘Cos the law can’t save. Being “good” is never gonna be ‘good enough’. The law is NOT a ladder that we use to CLIMB UP to God. We’re FALLEN. We fall down. And yet, in His great love, Jesus CLIMBED DOWN to us. He came FROM heaven to take us TO heaven. And how does He save? He LAYS DOWN HIS LIFE. We don’t need a ladder. We need a CROSS.

Galatians 3:13 “… Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us… “

He hung on a cross. He lived the perfect life, He always obeyed the will of His Father. And as the sinless Son of God, He paid the penalty;

1 Peter 3:18 “… Christ suffered for sins, … the RIGHTEOUS for the
UN-RIGHTEOUS, to bring [us] to God.”

He CARRIES us, not on eagle’s wings, but with the precious BLOOD OF CHRIST. Through His blood shed we are bought and brought to be His treasured possession. And as with eagle’s wings, it’s GUARANTEED safe travel. Salvation ASSURED.

  1. Jesus, the Mountain and the Law

In Matthew’s gospel Jesus re-enacts Israel’s history. He goes through the WATERS of baptism, wanders in the WILDERNESS, calls a NEW ISRAEL to Himself, the disciples and GATHERS them at a MOUNTAIN. Where He delivers His most famous sermon. The sermon on the MOUNT.

And He says;

Matthew 5:17 “Don’t think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to abolish but to FULFILL.”

Fulfil. How? In part by living a life of perfect trust and obedience. And in part by being the REALITY to which the Law pointed. As Jesus is the TRUE SACRIFICE. In Him our sins are ATONED for. And Jesus is the TRUE SABBATH. In Him we enjoy REST.

Furthermore, the principles stated in the Ten Commandments are restated in the New Testament. And in Matthew 22 Jesus summarises the ten into two.

Matthew 22:37,39 “… LOVE GOD and LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOUR… “

Apart from Christ we are un-ruly slaves to sin. In Christ we are set free. And indwelt by His Holy Spirit. Who writes God’s Law on our HEARTS. And then EMPOWERS us, not to live however WE please, but to live as HE pleases. As Jesus says; John 14:15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Obedience is LOVE. Obedience is FREEDOM. TRUSTING Jesus. And living HIS WAY. And that’s the RESPONSE God calls for. First, TRUST Jesus. Don’t trust the Law. It can’t save. It’ll condemn you. Trust Jesus for salvation. Second, OBEY Jesus. From your heart. With joy. Because, the church is not gathered at the foot of SINAI. We’re gathered at the foot of the CROSS.