The 10 Commandments

The Second Commandment

Ten Commandments WatsonOur study through the ten commandments now brings us to the second commandment, which says,

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exodus 20:4-6, ESV)

The first thing that you might notice is that this commandment is much longer and more detailed than the first commandment, which simply says, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). The very length of this commandment should get your attention.

The simplest way to summarize this commandment is to say that in it God forbids the sin of idolatryBut what is idolatry? In its most literal sense it is the use of images in worship. In the commandment above the Lord forbids us from the making of images, bowing down to them, and serving them. But it also includes worshiping God in any way that he himself has not ordained. That is the basic meaning of this commandment.

The old Puritan writer, Thomas Watson (1620-1686), put it this way:

“In the first commandment worshiping a false god is forbidden; in this, worshiping the true God in a false manner [is forbidden].” (The Ten Commandments, p.59)

That is a helpful way to understand the relationship between the first and second commandments. The first forbids the worship of false gods; the second forbids false worship, even of the one true God.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism points out that in this commandment the Lord gives us not only a prohibition against a particular form of sin (i.e. the making and serving of images of anything in all of creation), but also gives us several reasons why we should be careful to obey it:

Q. 52. What are the reasons annexed to the second commandment?
A. The reasons annexed to the second commandment are, God’s sovereignty over us, his propriety in us, and the zeal he hath to his own worship.

The first reason why we should be careful to obey this commandment is because God is sovereign over us – He is the Lord. In other words, we should not commit idolatry because God alone is God. In v.5 he calls himself “the LORD your God.” He alone is worthy of worship and obedience.

The second reason is because of God’s redemption and ownership of his people. If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, you have even more reason to refrain from any form of idolatry. If he is “your God” (v.5), then you simply have no business committing idolatry.

The third reason given here is God’s own zeal for His worship – that the Lord “is a jealous God” (v.5) who will judge the “iniquity” of those who commit idolatry. And what motive does the Lord assign to those who would practice idolatry? Hatred of God. Think about that. Idolatry is essentially an expression of hatred toward God. No wonder God warns of judgment against those who practice it!

If you truly love God you will keep his commandments (v.6), especially his commandments regarding his worship! We are not left to worship the Lord according to our own imagination or preferences. The second commandment shows that God is jealous (or zealous) that he alone be worshiped, and that he be worshiped according to his revealed will in Scripture alone.

 

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The First Commandment

Ten Commandments WatsonIn previous posts I dealt with some preliminary concerns about the ten commandments as a whole – things which are helpful for us to understand before going into detail about the individual commandments themselves. (More could certainly be said in that regard.)

But now I would like to spend some time going through each of the ten commandments, one at a time, and in order. That brings us to the first commandment, which simply says,

“You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3, ESV)

Notice that the very first commandment (indeed, the first four commandments!) deals with our relationship with God. It should be instructive for us that this is where the ten commandments begin. In his book, The Ten Commandments, Thomas Watson writes,

“This may well lead the van, and be set in the front of all the commandments, because it is the foundation of all true religion. The sum of this commandment is, that we should sanctify God in our hearts, and give him a precedence above all created beings.” (p.49)

If you were to rank the commandments in the order of their importance, how far up (or down) the list would you rank this one? Perhaps the commandment against murder (6th commandment – Exodus 20:13) comes to mind first, or maybe the commandment against adultery (7th commandment – Exodus 20:14)?

Murder or adultery might strike you as “bigger” sins, so to speak. But what about breaking the first commandment? Does it strike you as a particularly heinous sin and offense? It should. The Lord clearly places this commandment first in order to show us its importance. You could say that breaking the first commandment is just as bad as, if not worse than, murder. That is a pretty startling thought, isn’t it?

That this commandment comes first also shows us that true morality or ethics starts with one’s relationship with God. Doing what is right starts with doing what is right with regard to God himself.

What does it mean to have other gods before God? It means to trust, love, worship, and serve anything else in the place of God – to give something else other than God your first allegiance.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism speaks of what is forbidden in the first commandment:

“Q.47. What is forbidden in the first commandment? A. The first commandment forbids the denying, or not worshiping and glorifying, the true God as God, and our God; and the giving of that worship and glory to any other, which is due to him alone.”

How many millions of souls break this first commandment simply by denying God and so failing to worship Him as God! And how many millions more do so by worshiping and serving other (false) gods! Indeed, in the book of Romans the Apostle Paul tells us that the “wrath of God is revealed from heaven” against such sins (Romans 1:18).

This can be done in a literal way through false religion, or worshiping false gods. In Isaiah 44:6 God says, “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god” (ESV). If God is the only true god, than to worship anyone or anything else is to have another god (even if a false one) before him. And Isaiah 42:8 likewise says, I am the LORD; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols” (ESV).

Having other gods before him can also be done in seemingly non-religious ways as well. In Matthew 6:24 the Lord Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (ESV).

Money can be a false god if it takes top priority in your life. In fact, serving money may be the most common form of false religion or idolatry in the history of humanity.

The first commandment teaches us that it is our duty to know the one true God and Creator, and to acknowledge him as such by trusting, loving, worshiping, and serving him above all else.

The Ten Commandments & The Great Commandment

Theologians have commonly divided up the ten commandments into two parts (or “tables”). The first part consists of the first four commandments (i.e. Exodus 20:3-11), while the second part consists of the last six commandments (i.e. Exodus 20:12-17).

The first four commandments deal with our relationship to God, while the last six commandments deal with our relationship with our neighbor. The Westminster Larger Catechism says that “the first four commandments [contain] our duty to God, and the other six our duty to man” (Q.98).

This distinction is also clearly implied in Matthew’s Gospel, where someone asks Jesus the question, “Master, which is the great commandment in the law?” (Matthew 22:36, KJV). Jesus answered:

“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40, KJV)

Notice that Jesus basically includes two (2) commandments there: Love God and love your neighbor. When he says, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets,” he is essentially saying that in some way those two commandments can be considered the summary of the entire Old Testament.

Not surprisingly, those two commandments are also a summary of the two parts of the ten commandments as well. In other words, the first four commandments show you what it means to love God, while the last six commandments show you what it means to love your neighbor.

And so if you truly love God, you will not have any other gods before him (Exodus 20:3). If you love God, you will not worship him through images or idols (Exodus 20:4-6). If you love God you will not take his name in vain (Exodus 20:7). And, finally, if you love God you will remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy (Exodus 20:8-11).

That is what true love for God looks like.

Likewise, if you truly love your neighbor as yourself, you will honor your father and your mother (the first authority figures in your life – Exodus 20:12). If you love your neighbor as yourself, you will not commit murder against him or her (Exodus 20:13), commit adultery against him or her (Exodus 20:14), steal from him or her (Exodus 20:15), bear false witness against him or her (Exodus 20:16), or even covet anything that belongs to him or her (Exodus 20:17).

That is what true love for your neighbor looks like.

In future posts I hope to spend some time examining each of the ten commandments, in order. May the Lord Jesus be pleased to use these studies to help you and I learn more about what it means to truly love Him and love our neighbor as ourselves.

The Ten Commandments and the New Testament

Moses LawOne of the questions that needs to be addressed in any study of the Ten Commandments is that of their proper relation to the New Testament Scriptures.

Many in the church in our day seem to be under the mistaken impression that the coming of Christ has somehow rendered the law of God null and void, or at least in some way irrelevant or unnecessary.

But if you take the time to examine the teachings of Jesus and His apostles, you will find that the uniform testimony of the New Testament is such that the ten commandments have a continuing authority and relevance. They are every bit as binding and important today as they have ever been. They are still God’s standard for holiness, and they are still the summary of God’s moral will, telling us how He would have His redeemed people to live.

First, let’s start with the teachings of the Lord Jesus himself. What did Jesus have to say about the law of God in general, and the Ten Commandments in particular? In what is probably His best known (or at least most famous) sermon – the “sermon on the mount” (found in Matthew chapters 5 through 7), Jesus actually had quite a bit to say about the law of God and the Ten Commandments.

In Matthew 5:17 Jesus states, “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” (ESV). When He speaks of “the Law or the Prophets” there, that is a shorthand way of referring to the entire Old Testament. So Jesus tells us right from the beginning that He had not come to do away with the Old Testament, including the Law. Rather, the reason that He came was in order to “fulfill” them.

In a sense everything that was written in the Old Testament was in some way prophetic of Christ, both his sufferings and the glory that was to follow. (See Luke 24:25-27.) And so in both His person and in His actions He fulfilled those prophecies to the letter. His atoning death for His people fulfilled the entire Old Testament sacrificial system, including the Temple, the priesthood, and even the very sacrifices themselves. All of those things were meant to point forward to the person and work of Jesus. (See Hebrews chapters 9-10.) That is why those things are no longer needed – they have served their purpose, and were never intended to be seen as an end in and of themselves.

What about the ten commandments? Did the Lord Jesus set them aside? Certainly not. Not only did He clearly tell us that He did not come to “abolish” the law (Matthew 5:17), but He also said that “until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (v.18, ESV)! He even went on to say that “whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (v.19-20, ESV).

If you read the rest of Matthew chapter 5 in particular, you will find that the bulk of that chapter actually consists of extended teaching regarding at least two of the ten commandments themselves, including those prohibiting murder (v.21-26) and adultery (v.27-30). So, in summary, Jesus himself not only perfectly obeyed the ten commandments, but He also clearly taught obedience to them as well.

The Lord Jesus expects his ministers to teach others to obey His commandments (Matthew 28:19). To be sure, no one is justified in the sight of God by their obedience to His commandments, but rather we are saved by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone in order that we might obey His commandments from the heart. We are not saved by works (Ephesians 2:9), but we are saved for them (Ephesians 2:10).

What about the apostles themselves? What did they have to say about the law of God in general, and the Ten Commandments in particular? Let us look in particular at what the apostle Paul had to say about the law and the ten commandments.

In the book of Romans, for example, the Apostle Paul uses one form or another of the Greek word for “law” (nomos) no less than 73 times. Clearly he had a lot to say about the law of God, even in a book that is primarily about the gospel (Romans 1:16).

There he says that “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Romans 7:12, ESV). He even says that the law is “spiritual” (7:14) and “good” (7:16). Clearly Paul had a very high view of the law of God (as he did of all of Scripture), even after coming to faith in Christ for salvation.

What about the Ten Commandments in particular? In Romans 7:7 he says, “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” (ESV). In other words, God’s righteous commandment revealed Paul’s sin to him, and so also revealed to him his need for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ!

Elsewhere, in Ephesians 6:1, Paul gives a command, saying, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right” (ESV) And on what does he base this command? How does he prove that “this is right” (v.1) for them to do so? He quotes the 5th commandment. He reminds us that the law of God says, “Honor your father and mother” (v.2), which is a direct quotation from Exodus 20:12.

That alone should give pause to those in the church who would say that the law of God (especially the Ten Commandments) no longer applies to believers today. Nothing could be further from the truth! The ten commandments are still the summary of the moral will of God for His people. They are still a reflection of God’s own holiness and perfections. He cannot change, and so that does not change either!

But Paul doesn’t stop there, does he? He reminds us that “this is the first commandment with a promise” (v.2), and then actually quotes and interprets the promise that God Himself annexed to the 5th commandment, saying, “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land” (v.3, Exodus 20:12). So the commandment, of course, still applies, and not only that, but God’s promise of blessing and reward still applies as well!

How about the Apostle John? He has much to say about keeping God’s commandments. In fact, he equates love for God with keeping His commandments. In 1 John 5:3 he writes,

“For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” (ESV)

Love and law are not contrary to each other – quite the opposite! If we love God, we will love His law as well, like David did (Psalm 119:97), and make it our aim in life to willingly keep His commandments, rather than seeing them as “burdensome.”

God has certainly not changed (and indeed cannot!), nor has his moral will for the lives of his redeemed people. The ten commandments are still the summary of the moral will of God; they are still of great use to the believer in Christ; and God still promises blessing to His children for obeying His commandments. Of these things let us be sure that the New Testament Scriptures are abundantly clear.

A Footnote on the Neglect of God’s Law

devoted7a-810x1280__82818.1478970628.315.315In one of the many footnotes in his book, Devoted to God, Sinclair Ferguson makes a sobering observation about the all-too-common tendency in many evangelical circles today to neglect God’s law:

“The contrast between older evangelical teaching on the law and its relative relegation today may be illustrated by the fact that the catechisms written by Luther and Calvin at the time of the sixteenth-century Reformation devoted considerable attention to the exposition of the law. They were followed by the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms which devote around one third of their questions to the exposition and application of the Ten Commandments. By contrast, were catechisms to be written today by evangelicals it is doubtful whether the law would receive much if any detailed attention.” (p.163, footnote 6)

The Westminster Shorter Catechism devotes no less than 41 (Q.41-81) of its 107 total questions to dealing with a right understanding of the ten commandments.  In other words, nearly 40% of the Shorter Catechism is spent focusing on this summary of the moral law of God! Likewise the Heidelberg Catechism includes 24 questions (out of a total of 129), divided up over the span of 11 Lord’s days, to the same subject. So 11 out of the 52 weeks in a calendar year are to be spent dealing with instruction on God’s moral law.

This should be instructive to us as believers. How much time do we spend considering God’s law or meditating upon it?  Psalm 1 calls upon us to delight in “the law of the LORD, and so to meditate upon it “day and night” (Psalm 1:2). This should also be instructive to those of us who have the privilege of serving the Lord as pastors & teachers in His church. Do we devote much time & attention to teaching God’s law to His people? If we do not, we would seem to be neglecting, not only the law of God, but also the best examples from among our Reformed fathers in the faith.

We must not relegate the law of God to the status of a mere footnote of the Christian faith.

Sinclair Ferguson on the Law and Love

devoted7a-810x1280__82818.1478970628.315.315Many in our day seem to pit law and love against each other, as if love somehow renders the law of God unnecessary, or as if rules and relationships (or loving ones anyway)  were mutual exclusive. But is this the biblical way of looking at it? What is the right way to view the relationship between law (specifically the ten commandments) and love?

In his book, Devoted to God, Sinclair Ferguson writes,

“In fact love was always at the heart of God’s law. It was given by love to be received in love and obeyed through love. The divine commandments could be summed up in the great commandment to love God with heart, soul, and strength. Thus Jesus himself teaches that if we love him we will keep his commandments. Paul adds that rather than nullify[ing] the law the gospel strengthens it. Moreover specific laws from the Decalogue are almost casually sprinkled throughout the New Testament. Not only does love not abolish the law, but the law commands love!” (p.162-163)

Even in the very text of the ten commandments themselves this is explicitly stated. Look at the text of the 2nd commandment (as stated in Exodus 20:4-6):

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. (ESV, italics mine)

Those who commit the sin of idolatry are said to “hate” God. Why? Because they commit idolatry. In other words, if they truly loved God, they would not commit idolatry (or have other Gods before Him, or take His name in vain, etc.). Love, in many ways, is defined by its actions. So while love certainly involves more than our outward actions (i.e. it includes right motives), it does not involve less than our outward actions (i.e. it doesn’t render them meaningless or unnecessary).

And how does God Himself describe those who love Him? As those who “love me and keep my commandments” (v.6). So love and commandment-keeping go together – and they always have. And (as the saying goes), what God has joined together, let no man separate.

J.C. Ryle on the Spiritual Use of the Law

holinessCan a sinner be justified in the sight of a holy God by works, or by obedience to God’s commandments? No, of course not. In Galatians 2:16 the Apostle Paul plainly states as much:

“yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” (ESV)

Notice that Paul basically states this same truth at least three (3) times in just this one simple verse. (It’s as if he is trying to emphasize his point!) No one will be justified by the works of the law. No one.

Having established that, we must be careful to maintain that although we are not in any way justified by works or by obedience to God’s commandments, yet this does not therefore mean that we as believers in Christ have no more need or use for God’s law. Quite the opposite! In his book, Holiness, J.C. Ryle writes,

“There is no greater mistake than to suppose that a Christian has nothing to do with the law and the Ten Commandments, because he cannot be justified by keeping them. The same Holy Ghost who convinces the believer of sin by the law, and leads him to Christ for justification, will always lead him to a spiritual use of the law, as a friendly guide, in the pursuit of sanctification.” (p.26)

As Ryle rightly points out, the Holy Spirit not only uses the law of God to convince or convict the believer of his or her sin, and so to drive them to look to Christ by faith for salvation from sin (often referred to as the pedagogical use of the law), but after conversion also leads that same believer to what Ryle calls a “spiritual use of the law.” What is that “spiritual use” of God’s law? It is to use it as the believer’s rule for life (often called the normative or 3rd use of the law).

To the believer who has been justified by faith alone in Christ alone, the law no longer holds forth the threat of condemnation for sin, but now serves as (to use Ryle’s words) a “friendly guide” in our lifelong pursuit of sanctification.