Read the Passage: Exodus 20
Giving of the Law (20:1–2)
Exodus 20:1–17 is one of the most well-known passages in the Bible, as it contains the Ten Commandments, also known as the Decalogue. In studying this passage, it is important that we observe the context in which these laws occur. Namely, we must not view the Ten Commandments as some type of divine works-based salvation scheme—as if God was asking His people to keep the law in order to be saved. Indeed, when read in the context of the larger narrative in the book of Exodus, it is evident that God did not give His people the Decalogue in order to free them from their bonds of slavery. Rather, God freed His people from their bondage in Egypt solely based upon His own grace; only then did God give them the moral law. Given that the exodus event is a picture of salvation, this has obvious implications for the Christian life.
Of course, this is not say that the Ten Commandments play no role in the life of unbelievers. Indeed, they do, for these laws operate in the lives of all people to establish general societal order (cf. Gal. 3:19, 23), as well as to convict the lost of their sin and to prepare people for the gospel (cf. Rom. 3:19–21). Yet, as we read these moral laws as believers, we should read them not as legalistic rules that highlight our sinful condition, but as sweet instructions that guide us in our walk with Jesus Christ. Said differently, while we were once “kept under guard by the law” (Gal, 3:23) and God’s moral standards functioned as “our tutor to bring us to Christ” (Gal. 3:24), for Christians, the Ten Commandments now have become a “light unto our path” (Ps. 119:105) and we cherish them as “the perfect law of liberty” (Jas. 1:25; 2:12).
First Table of the Law (20:3–11)
Exodus 20:1-2 is sometimes called the prologue to the Ten Commandments, for these two verses do not give any directions, rather they reveal the source behind the Decalogue, who is God. In beginning the Ten Commandments with a statement of self-revelation, God was communicating the fact that these moral laws are not arbitrary rules (as if it were possible for God to have commanded the opposite laws). Since God roots the Decalogue in his own self-revelation, we can discern that these commands are not right and true simply because God stated them; rather, the moral laws recorded in Exod. 20:1-17 are right and true because they are a revelation and reflection of God’s own moral character, essence, and being. To cite the seventh commandment as an example, it is right for man to respect innocent human life (or, said differently, to not murder) because God respects innocent human life.
The first four commandments share a commonality in that they all deal with ways in which man is to love and to worship God. To elaborate, the first commandment focuses on the internal love of God, the second commandment focuses on the external love of God, the third commandment focuses on the verbal love of God, and the fourth commandment focuses on the temporal love of God. These four commands, which are sometimes called the first table of the law, define for us how to order our relationship with God. Taken together, Jesus taught that these moral precepts are the first and greatest commandment of the law (cf. Matt. 22:38), and can be summarized as “You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart, with all of your soul, and with all of your mind” (Deut. 6:5), which Christ quoted at Matt. 22:37.
Second Table of the Law (20:12–17)
Commands five through ten of the Decalogue are often referred to as the second table of the law. These six moral laws share a commonality in that they each deal with an aspect of the relationships that exist among mankind. To elaborate, the fifth commandment focuses on the sanctity of human authority, the sixth commandment focuses on the sanctity of human life, the seventh commandment focuses on the sanctity of human intimacy, the eighth commandment focus on the sanctity of human property, the ninth commandment focuses on the sanctity of human reputation, and the tenth commandment focuses on the sanctity of human motives. In quoting Lev. 19:18 Jesus taught that these six moral laws can be summarized with the teaching, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39). Note this same summary was given by Paul at Rom. 13:8–10.
- Is there any moral issue that is not addressed by at least one of the Ten Commandments? Does the Decalogue restrict or promote personal freedom?
- While salvation has always been by faith in Christ (cf. Gal. 3:8; Heb. 4:2), was salvation by law-keeping ever a possibility (cf. Rom. 3:20; Gal. 3:21)?
- Which of the Ten Commandments do you find most difficult to keep? Which of the moral laws are under attack in our contemporary culture?
- Why do some believers affirm the legitimacy of the Ten Commandments, but then deny the applicability of a given commandment?
- Why, when Jesus was asked in the Gospels about salvation, did He always refer to the moral law (cf. Mark 10:17–22; Luke 10:25–28)?