Introduction/ Purposes of the law
The Ten Commandments given by God to Moses on Mount Sinaï about 3500 years ago have eternal significance for the people of God and the human race. And this for several reasons. We must remember that the Ten Commandments were never given to the people of God as a means to obtain or merit their salvation. We know this fact if we read the book of Exodus in its context. God initiated His plan to rescue the Israelites who were suffering under Pharaoh and the Egyptian people when he appeared to Moses in Arabia in a burning bush (Exodus 3,4). By His outstretched arm and mighty miracles God delivered His people from the most powerful country in the world at the time. God used Moses and Aaron as His instruments to deliver them from the oppression of false religion. God initiated the process, and God executed His miracles by the hand of Moses. By the ten plagues, God destroyed the livestock, resources, army, plantation and firstborn of Egypt. God did this to show the world that there was no God like Him. God made a Name for Himself by delivering the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob from the Egyptians. God remembered the covenant that He made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, when He said that He would give them the land of Canaan as a lasting possession and that He would bless Abraham’s descendants to be like the stars in the sky and like the sand on the seashore (Genesis 15:5; 22:16,17). God kept His promise and kept His covenant of grace, as He is God who cannot lie (Numbers 23:19).
After God delivered the Israelites from the Egyptian army and after He miraculously divided the Red Sea so that more than a million people went through the sea dry-shod God led them through the desert and they camped at Mount Sinaï, where God appeared to Moses in the burning bush. God fulfilled His promise yet again just as He told Moses He would (Exodus 3:7-12). God then told Moses to come up the mountain. For 40 days and 40 nights Moses was on top of Mount Sinaï and God gave Him these commandments engraved with his finger on two tablets of stone. While this was happening God came down in a cloud, and the people witnessed thundering, lightning flashes, the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking. God came down upon the mountain, but His appearance was veiled from the people.
The law of God was given after God delivered the descendants of Abraham from Egypt, not before. The last of the Ten Plagues was called the ‘death of the firstborn’ and before the angel of death killed all the firstborn in Egypt God instituted the Passover. God commanded the Israelites to slaughter lambs and put the blood of the lambs on the doorposts that night. Because the blood was put on the doorposts and because the lambs died God overlooked and covered the sins of His people and no firstborn died in Egypt that night belonging to the Israelites, because of the Passover lambs. The Passover lambs in Egypt and throughout subsequent generations in Israel pointed to the work of redemption that God prepared through His only begotten Son Jesus Christ who would redeem His people from their sins by offering Himself centuries later. Jesus Christ is called the Passover Lamb and the Lamb who was slain, who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29; 1 Corinthians 5:7). So the law of God was never given as a means to free us from the slavery of sin, the world, and the devil, but was given so that we can know the will of God and so that we can live in a way He wants. The covenant that God instituted at Sinaï was a covenant of grace, (some say it was a republication of the covenant of works), nevertheless, in this covenant, as in every covenant that God instituted there were covenant obligations or ‘terms and conditions’ that His people should keep, not as a means to obtain salvation but as a rule of life and to keep good relationship with the God of the Universe. So the law of God given by Moses, the Decalogue (or Ten Commandments) were given as a rule of life.
The Decalogue also has other functions and purposes. Firstly, the Ten Commandments show us and reveal to us the nature and character of God. They show us what kind of God He is and what He is like (God cannot give something more honor than Himself, He cannot commit idolatry). God exists to glorify Himself and to enjoy Himself forever (John Piper: The Pleasures of God). If He didn’t, He would be committing idolatry. The Bible tells us that God is holy and righteous and just. God cannot lie (Numbers 23:19). He cannot steal, He cannot be greedy, dishonor His Name, etc. When we look at the Ten Commandments, we see God’s holiness and His justice. We see that God will by no means clear the guilty (Exodus 20:5; 34:6,7) and that he will punish those who dishonor Him. The law of God is good and right and holy (Romans 7:12) as God is good and right and holy.
–Secondly, the law shows us the nature of sin and that sin is exceedingly sinful (Romans 7:13). The Ten Commandments give us the knowledge of sin (Romans 3:20), and they show us that we all stand guilty before God (Romans 3:19) and are therefore worthy to be punished (Romans 3:23; 6:23; Genesis 2:17). The Ten Commandments show us that we are helpless, carnal and sold under sin (Romans 7:14). The law is our schoolmaster and our tutor to show us that God is holy and we are sinful and that we desperately need a Savior (Galatians 3:24). The law leads and guides us to Christ, God, who can justify us by His blood and righteousness.
–And lastly, the law of God and the Ten Commandments have been given by God to restrain evil. We can say that the law revives sin as Paul said (Romans 7:8,9) because before we knew the law we didn’t know what sin was. But if the government in any land punish the evildoers and reward the righteous as they should then it instills fear in the citizens of that country. We know of no country who are applying the punishments of the law of God consistently, but we do see that every country enforces aspects of the Ten Commandments to a degree and therefore it has a measure of restraining evil in society. Even in many societies, in barbaric societies, and primitive societies through the ages people have the law of God written on their hearts as the book of Romans tell us (Romans 2:12-16).
Each of the Ten Commandments is dealing with a family of sins. We must understand the Ten Commandments in the light of the figure of speech called: synecdoche. Synecdoche is a literary device in which a part of something represents the whole or it may use a whole to represent a part. In the case of the Ten Commandments the part (e.x. ‘You shall have no other gods before Me’ represents the whole (forbidding satanism, animism, pantheism, necrolatry, atheism etc.) Each commandment also calls us to specific God-honoring actions, attitudes, and dispositions. The fact that the Ten Commandments are stated negatively (e.x. You shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery) doesn’t mean the positive command “love your neighbor” isn’t implied. And also here the figure of speech, synecdoche, should be applied.
–My prayer is that as you go through these commandments and as you go through these lessons you will see God in a new light, that you will see that they speak to your conscience, convicting you of sin and God’s righteousness and that they draw you to Christ Jesus for forgiveness. I pray that you see them not only as things that you shouldn’t do but as speaking to you and showing you what God wants you to do and say and think and feel in every area of your life. May the Ten Commandments show you what God’s will is for your life and how you should honor and glorify Him!
Nico van Zyl