The Ten Commandments are a staple in Scripture. They are given, many times, as a requirement for the Christian life. They are presented, by some, as a sort of requirement for salvation. It is claimed by some that before Christ, people were saved by the keeping of the Law (which is represented by the Ten Commandments). Over the next five weeks, we will be looking together in depth at the Ten Commandments.
The book of Exodus is a history that was written either by Moses Himself or under the authority of Moses. As we concluded our study of Genesis, we left with Joseph entering Egypt. There came a king who did not know Joseph and subjected the Israelites into slavery. Israel existed in this state of slavery for 400 years. Moses was born a Hebrew, he was raised as an Egyptian, he fled to Midian, and God sent him back to Egypt to petition for the release of the Hebrew people. After saving the people of Israel out of slavery, God made a covenant with them. This covenant begins with the Ten Commandments.
Before we can rightly understand the Ten Commandments, we have to understand why they were given. Were they given to reveal the sinfulness of humankind? Were they given to guide people in life? Were they given as a system by which Israel could be saved and receive eternal life? Are the Ten Commandments binding for the life of the Christ-follower in our day? Before we can look meaningfully at any part of the law, we must come to a conclusion as to why God gave the Law in this first place. Sadly, most people jump speedily into the commands without first understanding their purpose. As a result, many misunderstand the Scriptures and apply the Law wrongly in our modern day. Why the Law? Why does it matter?
Exodus 19:1-8 HCSB
In the third month, on the same day of the month that the Israelites had left the land of Egypt, they entered the Wilderness of Sinai. After they departed from Rephidim, they entered the Wilderness of Sinai and camped in the wilderness, and Israel camped there in front of the mountain.
Moses went up the mountain to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain: “This is what you must say to the house of Jacob, and explain to the Israelites: ‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me. Now if you will listen to Me and carefully keep My covenant, you will be My own possession out of all the peoples, although all the earth is Mine, and you will be My kingdom of priests and My holy nation.’ These are the words that you are to say to the Israelites.”
After Moses came back, he summoned the elders of the people and set before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him. Then all the people responded together, “We will do all that the Lord has spoken.” So Moses brought the people’s words back to the Lord.
The purpose of the law
To understand the purpose of the Law in light of both the New Testament and the Old, we need to look at Paul’s letters (specifically Romans 5:20-21 and Galatians 3:19) and to the Law itself.
“The law came along to multiply the trespass. But where sin multiplied, grace multiplied even more so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace will reign through righteousness, resulting in eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 5:20-21 HCSB).
“Why then was the law given? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise was made would come” (Galatians 3:19 HCSB).
“Take this book of the law and place it beside the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God so that it may remain there as a witness against you” (Deuteronomy 31:26 HCSB).
In Genesis 19 (the text at hand), we read that the Law is given as a sign of the covenant that God made with the nation of Israel. The New Testament view of the Law is the Law’s own purpose statement. The Law, then, was established as a sign of the covenant (agreement) God made with Israel and its purpose was to multiply the trespass and be a witness against the nation of Israel. There are a couple of ideas here, that the Scriptures give us, that need to be unpacked for our understanding. I want to dedicate some time to unpacking these ideas slowly so that, when we read the Law (including the Ten Commandments), we know exactly why the Law was given and how it applies to us. Firstly, I want to make this realization, though: never does Scripture state that people have to keep the whole degree of the Law to receive salvation or to experience God’s grace. The purpose of the Law was not to make people perfect, to bring people to salvation, to bring people closer to God, to help people to live righteous lives, or to be a standard by which people are measured for salvation. The purpose of the Law was simple: It was a sign of God’s covenant with Israel and served the sole purpose of multiplying the trespass or being the witness against the nation of Israel as God’s chosen national group. Let’s unpack this statement together.
As a sign of the covenant
As we read through the text of Scripture, there are two different theological methods by which we can read. This point in the text of Scripture is one point where our presuppositions regarding theology greatly impact our interpretation of the text.
If we read the Law (including the Ten Commandments) one way, the result is a legalistic faith for the Israelites at this point in history. This way of reading would indicate that there was a time when God’s grace was not available and people could only be saved by their own works. Since the 1830’s, this way of reading the story in Scripture has been referred to as dispensational theology. It is the idea that there are different ages in history where God actually acts differently with the people of the earth. Drawn out to its natural conclusion, dispensational theology leaves us with a God who is ever-changing and who is not consistent. If we choose to read this particular text dispensationally, then we would read it in such a way that it was only by the keeping of the Law that the Israelites could be saved even though we believe that in our own age grace is a free gift from God. This is how many of the Pharisees in Jesus’ day read the Law, and this is how the Judaizers read the law; only they did not believe that God had changed. They fully expected that people had to keep the whole degree of the Law to earn God’s graces. Jesus opposed the Pharisees on the issue of the Law (see Mark 7:6-9). Paul and Barnabas both opposed the Judaizers (Acts 15). There is a great danger if we read through the Scriptures dispensationally and we get to this point. We may be tempted to think that somehow the Israelites received salvation by their keeping of the Law and that God has somehow changed since then. Malachi 3:6 is clear. God Himself clarified for us that He does not change. This, and the Law itself never claims to be the means of salvation for any group. Instead, the Law claims to have been established as a sign of the covenant between God and Israel.
There is another way that we can read through the Scriptures: covenantally. Instead of reading as if God might change through different stages of history, we read knowing that God is and has always been a God of grace. Reading covenantally means that we read with the presupposition that God does not change, that people were always saved by grace through faith, that God has always had the same plan regarding salvation, and that God does not and has not ever depended on human works. Advocates of this view include John Piper and Voddie Baucham. Paul wrote that even Abraham was saved by faith (Romans 4:2-3). Here, as we look to our current passage of Scripture, the law itself states that it was given, not for the purpose of bringing salvation, but as a sign of a covenant that God was making with Israel as His chosen national people. If the Law was given to Israel as a sign of God’s covenant with Israel, then the Law was never and never should be thought of as the means of salvation.
As a witness against Israel
The purpose of the Law, according to Deuteronomy 31 and Romans 5 was to multiply the trespass and to stand as a witness against the nation of Israel. What in the world could this possibly mean? Multiply the trespass? Stand as a prosecuting witness?
Romans 5:13-14 says this regarding the Law: “In fact, sin was in the world before the law, but sin is not charged to a person’s account when there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who did not sin in the likeness of Adam’s transgression. He is a prototype of the Coming One” (HCSB).
People were sinful before the Law was given and people suffered the consequence of their sin (that is death) before the law was given. The Law did not cause people to be sinful, but raised awareness of sinfulness. Thinking on Genesis 15, then, if the whole earth was to be blessed through Abraham’s descendants and the Law was given to Abraham’s descendants, then it was through the nation of Israel that the sins of the whole world would be made evident by the Law. The Law revealed to the people of Israel just how rebellious they were as people against God. If the Law stood as a witness against Israel, it also stands as a witness against the rest of the world. The Law does not bring about salvation. It makes evident the sin that is in our lives.
Reading the Law
What does this mean for us as we read the Law and as we devote time together looking at the Ten Commandments? We have a tendency in our time to read the Ten Commandments as a checklist. If we haven’t murdered anyone this last week, we must be in God’s good graces! This is legalism and when we read the Ten Commandments in this way, we ignore the fact that the commands were given to be a testimony against us. They were not given as a checklist or a means of righteousness. They were given to be a witness against us. As we read, then, we read for the purpose of seeing our sinfulness exposed. We cannot boast in our keeping the Law, but by the Law we are humbled and our need for grace is revealed plainly. The Law is a mirror, not a checklist. We can be confident in this and we can experience some encouragement in this. If the Law is not a checklist, then we do not have to earn God’s grace by keeping the whole degree of the Law. Hallelujah!
Means of salvation
What are the means of salvation, then? In the land of Canaan and through the nation of Israel, came a man named Jesus. In Matthew 5:17-20, Jesus teaches regarding His own view of the Law:
“Don’t assume that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For I assure you: Until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all things are accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches people to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (HCSB).
If Christ did not destroy or do-away with the Law, then it still stands as a witness against people today. Christ, though, is the fulfillment of the Law. God chose the nation of Israel, made a covenant with them, and gave the Law as a sign of the covenant. If the Law stands as a witness against us, then the only way that it can be fulfilled is for us to receive the consequence of our sin against God. If Jesus fulfilled the Law, then He suffered the consequence of humanity’s sinfulness. Indeed, Christ suffered and died, fulfilling the Law. The agreement that God made with the nation of Israel was completed and God’s grace was made available (that all nations might be blessed). Our need for grace is made evident as the Law witnesses against us. We find God’s grace in our Lord, Jesus Christ. There is no other name by which we can be saved and those who came before Christ, also being saved by grace, were saved through Christ’s sacrifice. So, there are two laws. The Law of condemnation and the Law of grace. Those who are not in Christ stand condemned by the law that stands as a witness against them. Those who are in Christ stand free because He is the only one who could properly fulfill the Law and complete God’s covenant with the nation of Israel.
I am reminded of a scene that begins to unfold in Revelation 5 where Jesus takes the scroll and begins to break its seals. As He breaks the seals, the whole world is warned that it is about to be judged. The scroll that Jesus holds in the book of Revelation serves the same purpose that the Law does here. In fact, John may have had this Law in mind as he wrote the letter of Revelation. Will we be found guilty by the indictment of the Law, or will we trust in the one who fulfilled the Law?