January 22, 2023

On a Scale From One to Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 4:12-14)

Preacher: Bryce Morgan Series: Our Bible Reading Plan (2022-2023) Topic: One Truth: Walk in Truth Scripture: Deuteronomy 4:12–14

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Children's Lesson (click here)

I. Commandments and Courts

In June of 1978 the Kentucky legislature adopted a statute that required 16x20 inch copies of the Ten Commandments be displayed in every public school classroom in the state. Two years later, the Supreme Court struck down this statute in it's Stone v. Graham ruling, arguing that the law was unconstitutional and violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

That ruling was not received well by many in religious circles, and a number of years later, one televangelist distributed Ten Commandments textbook covers as an alternative way of getting the biblical laws into the public school system. His disapproval of their removal and his aim with the book covers is clear from his accompanying statement: “the posting of the Ten Commandments would be a wonderful first step in rebuilding the character of our nation."

I think it's important to consider the assumptions that stand behind that kind of statement and that kind of activism. Clearly, there are certain assumptions about how the character of a nation is built. There are certain assumptions about the church's ministry, and specifically her ministry of God's word. And clearly, there are certain assumptions about... the Ten Commandments. But what are the Ten Commandments, and what is it about these Old Testament (OT) laws that has inspired people in every generation, even making their way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Let's examine our own assumptions about these commandments by turning (if you haven't already) to Deuteronomy 4, one of last week's chapters from Our Bible Reading Plan.


II. The Passage: “He Declared to You His Covenant” (4:12-14)

Before we look together at verses 12-14, let me just mention the context here. 'Deuteros-nomos' means the 'second law' in Greek. That points us to the fact that this book represents Moses announcing the law of God to the younger, or second, generation of Hebrews; Israelites who were kids or teenagers when they left Egypt. The older generation, who was under the judgment of God, has now died out in the wilderness, and this younger generation is ready to cross the Jordan River and finally enter into the land promised to their forefathers. Moses has been and is rehearsing the events that have led up to this point, so the people can remember all that God has done for them, and... all that God expects of them. Look with me at 4:12...

Then the LORD spoke to you out of the midst of the fire. You heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice. [13] And he declared to you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, that is, the Ten Commandments [listed in 5:6-21], and he wrote them on two tablets of stone. [14] And the LORD commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and rules, that you might do them in the land that you are going over to possess.

Okay, let's look at three basic observations from this passage about the Ten Commandments:


1. The Words of God

First, notice that Ten Commandments (or literally in Hebrew, the 'ten words'; notice...) these are not marching orders or mandates from Moses. No. They are the very words of God. Verse 12, Yahweh spoke”; verse 13, “he declared to you”, he commanded you”, and “he wrote them”. Knowing this, we want to follow the Thessalonians' example (over a thousand years after Moses). Paul rejoiced in light of this exemplary fact about those believers: “when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God” (I Thess. 2:13). May we do the same with these commandments.

2. The Laws of God

Second, it's clear that these 'ten words' really are ten “commandments”; or using the language of verse 14, these are “statutes and rules”. Moses received them and he was called to teach them to the people. To what end? Verse 14: “that you might do them in the land you are going over to possess”. Yes, these are the words of God himself; revelation from our Creator. But they are not simply heavenly suggestions. They are commands. They are the laws of God, and laws are given to be obeyed.

3. The Covenant of God

Third, and maybe most important, these commandments are clearly referred to in verse 13 as “the covenant”.... God “declared to you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, that is, the Ten Commandments”. The words “that is” are meant to clarify the words “the covenant”. This same language is found in Exodus 34:28, where the writer tells us that Yahweh “wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.” The New Testament (NT) book of Hebrews recognizes this when in 9:4 it points its readers to “the tablets of the covenant.”

But what exactly does this mean? How are the Ten Commandments a “covenant”? To answer that, we need to look back to that pivotal passage I mentioned last time, Exodus 19:5-6...

[God told this newly redeemed people] “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; [6] and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

Now wait. Is this the same covenant mentioned in Exodus 2:24, where it said, “God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob”? No. This is not the same covenant. But these covenants are connected. God multiplied the Hebrews and he redeemed them from Egypt because of the covenant promises made to Abraham. But if any Israelite wanted to participate in those covenant blessings, they could do so through this second covenant. The blessings promised to Abraham could be enjoyed by any of his descendants, as long as they obeyed the commandments of God (which also included the other laws —the 'Ten Words' were just the synopsis, the 'front cover' (as it were) for 603 other ordinances of the Law).

So these Ten Words were not given to us as a generic cornerstone for any civil society, or as universal principles for basic character formation. No. These were covenant stipulations, given at a particular time, to a particular people, for a particular reason. But wait. Don't they still reveal the character of God? Yes! Absolutely.

As the Apostle Paul would later affirm about these laws in Romans 7:12, “the commandment is holy and righteous and good”. But simply affirming that does not answer the question, “How can these Ten Commandments be 'holy and righteous and good'” for us today?” Why would, why should, we ask that question? Because of another covenant-focused promise from the OT, one that God made through the prophet Jeremiah...

Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, [32] not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD.” (Jer. 31:31–32)

And according to Hebrews 8:13 in the NT, that language in Jeremiah describes the end of the earlier covenant: “In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete.”


III. The Fulfilling of the Law

If you belong to Jesus Christ, by grace through faith, then you are, wonderfully, under the “new covenant” that Jeremiah foretold. But what does that mean then in terms of your relationship to these old covenant stipulations; to these Ten Commandments? Well, thankfully, the NT does not leave us in the dark on this issue. Just as I shared three observations about our main text, let me share three truths from the NT regarding Christians and the Ten Commandments:

First, Jesus Christ has fulfilled all the Law, including these Commandments. Jesus taught this explicitly in Matthew 5:17... “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Yes, Jesus did this as the “Lamb of God” (John 1:29), the perfect sacrifice whose death on the cross did what no animal sacrifice could ever do. But it's important to emphasize that Jesus' sacrifice was “like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.” (1 Peter 1:19) Therefore, He “offered himself without blemish to God” (Hebrews 9:14). What does that mean? It means he was morally pure; perfect before the Law of God. Unlike you and me, Jesus kept the Ten Commandments; at all times and in every way.

Second, Jesus' fulfillment now makes it possible for us to fulfill the law. To be clear, we cannot fulfill the law in the same way Jesus did. We are neither perfect nor divine. But Jesus has given us a new heart through his Spirit, the same new heart talked about in that “new covenant” passage in Jeremiah 31. And through the Spirit, we can now walk in Jesus-like, law-fulfilling love. Notice how Paul talks about this love in Romans 13:8–10...

Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. [9] For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery [#7], You shall not murder [#6], You shall not steal [#8], You shall not covet [#10],” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” [10] Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

So does this mean we should keep the Ten Commandments? Yes. But we should do so in light of Christ's fulfilling work, and the fact that “love is the fulfilling of the law”. So for example, in v. 5 of the very next chapter in Romans, chapter 14, Paul undermines traditional, Jewish Sabbath keeping (commandment #4) but retains the principle of daily living “in honor of the Lord” (14:6). But in Ephesians 6:1-3, he upholds and uses the fifth commandment to encourage children to “obey your parents in the Lord”. Why? Because the commandment reveals the way of love.

Let me finish with a third truth from the NT regarding Christians and the Ten Commandments: We must guard against minimizing Jesus' fulfilling work by foolishly maximizing our own.

Please listen very carefully to what Paul has to say about the commandments in Rom. 7:7–11...

...if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” [Commandment #10] [8] But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. [9] I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. [10] The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. [11] For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.

Why did we so desperately need Jesus to fulfill the Law for us? Because, in Paul's words, “the very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me”. The gospel of Jesus Christ is clear that no amount of our law-keeping will tip the scales for sinners like us. You might revere the Ten Commandments, but you don't keep them the way you should. None of us do. You may remember that Jesus, in Matthew 5, took Commandments #6 & #7 and described how the hate and lust behind murder and adultery are equally condemning indicators of our spiritual corruption before God. And as if that wasn't condemning enough, listen to James, “...whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.” (James 2:10) This is why Paul referred to the covenant at Mount Sinai as “the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone” (2 Corinthians 3:7). That's pretty stunning coming from a former Pharisee.

So though these Ten Words truly do reveal the character of God and a way of righteousness. But they also reveal your character as a sinner, leading to condemnation. Yet this is exactly what God intended. Paul explained God's 'big picture' plan in Gal. 3:22... “But the Scripture [i.e., the commandments] imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.” We can't do in order to be accepted by God. All we can do is believe that Jesus did it all. That's the gospel, and the 'Ten Words' can help us appreciate this.

Brother, sister, you should absolutely seek, in love, to fulfill these Jesus-fulfilled commandments. But let us never rely on the commandments, as if our acceptance by God could ever be based on our righteousness, instead of the righteousness of Christ. Letters like Galatians reveal that this works-centered kind of Christianity was a real danger in the early church. But that danger continues to this day, often in very subtle ways. If you tend to think in terms of not doing enough for God, of God being disappointed with you, of needing to prove something to God or repaying God for his kindness to you, of somehow personally securing the spiritual position Jesus died to give you, then you may be in danger of distorting the gospel in this way. As Paul asked in Galatians 3:3, “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?”

No. The Christian life is not 'obey in order to receive covenant blessings'. The Christian life is 'obey as a response to the blessing of a new covenant'. Let us therefore be guided by these commands with new hearts full of faith, love, gratefulness, humility, and praise.

Moreover, let's not labor for simply a moralistic change in the lives of those around us, including with our children. I think it's clear that a reformation of morals will never lead to genuine godliness. No. True godliness flows from the Spirit of God, and that Spirit-empowered change comes through faith and faith alone in the only perfect Commandment-Keeper, Jesus Christ. Let us rest then, brothers and sisters, in his righteous works and in his finished work.


other sermons in this series