The law delivered to Moses contains instructions for the priests, and instructions for the people; laws which govern how men are to approach God, and laws which govern how they are to conduct themselves. This is why the Lord had said, “Now therefore if ye will obey My voice indeed, and keep My covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto Me above all people, for all the earth is Mine. And ye shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation” (Ex 19:5-6). But this naturally raises the question: “If Sinai is made up of laws which will make the people a holy nation then why is the word prophetic used to title this post? Wouldn’t the category of civil or ceremonial be a better way to understand things given that the law was handed to the nation?” Not really. Such words bring to mind a community, a population, a culture, but God’s eternal purpose is not to create a space where a subset of humanity could flourish, it’s to manifest His attributes to the universe. In giving covenants Christ’s purpose has been to reveal Himself. The proper frame of reference then is not to a people but to a Person, specifically to the person as He’s revealed in the office of king, priest, and prophet.
What is a prophet? It’s someone who receives a message from God and passes it on to others. Technically this makes Adam the first prophet since he relayed what the Lord had told him to his children, although Abraham is the first to be awarded the title (Gen 20:7). In spite of this, neither man is remembered for a prophetic ministry, and the idea doesn’t come into its own until the time of the exodus. By doing this, by waiting to give the full weight of the title to Moses, God gave him an honor no other prophet enjoys. As it is written, “Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, who did all those signs and wonders the Lord sent him to do in Egypt—to Pharaoh and to all his officials and to his whole land. For no one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all Israel.” (Deut 34:10-12, NIV).
Why did God pour an excessive amount of blessing on Moses? Because the greater he is when God says “I will raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee” (Deut 18:18) the more impressive His Son looks. For just as Abraham, David, and Solomon were shadows of Christ, so too is Moses a physical expression of the heavenly reality. Take the story of his life as an example. Moses escaped death from a murderous king as a baby (Ex 2:2-8), was called out of Egypt to be among God’s people (Heb 11:24-25), and received a commission to proclaim a message of liberty (Ex 3:10). He led faithfully (Num 12:7), performed miracles (Ex 14:21), and mediated a covenant (Ex 24:12). He was supremely humble (Num 12:3). He successfully interceded for the people (Ex 32:12-14), and those who didn’t listen to him were judged for their rebellion against God (Num 12:7-8).
This is because he was copied from Jesus, the man who escaped death as a baby (Matt 2:13), came out of Egypt (Matt 2:15), and was commissioned by God to proclaim liberty (Luke 4:18). Jesus performed miracles (John 7:31), led the people (Mark 6:34), and mediated a covenant with God (Heb 12:24). He is the most humble man ever to have lived (2 Cor 8:9), the One who made lasting intercession (John 17). He is the prophet whom men will be judged for not listening to (John 3:18) because He is the one spoken of in Deuteronomy, “For Moses truly said unto the fathers, ‘A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up unto you of your brethren, like unto me; him shall ye hear in all things whatsoever he shall say unto you. And it shall come to pass that every soul which will not hear that prophet shall be destroyed from among the people’” (Acts 3:22-23). For as He Himself said, “had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed Me, for he wrote of Me” (John 5:46).
More important than anchoring the idea of Christ as a prophet however, the covenant at Sinai is a covenant, and is therefore a direct, objective revelation of Christ. Specifically the covenant is the Decalogue, the ten words carved onto stone tablets (Ex 34:27-28; Deut 4:13), which read as follows (Exodus 20:1-19):
- “I am the Lord thy God, who has brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.
- Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven 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. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them, for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of those who hate Me,and showing mercy unto thousands of those who love Me, and keep My commandments.
- Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who taketh His name in vain.
- Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.Six days shalt thou labor and do all thy work,but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God. On it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day, and hallowed it.
- Honor thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.
- Thou shalt not murder.
- Thou shalt not commit adultery.
- Thou shalt not steal.
- Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
- Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor’s.”
In the most basic sense this gives us an insight into His character through the commands. As an analogy, imagine a mayor passing a law which criminalizes murder. Although the decree concerns how the people should act, it also says something about the man that he’s chosen to forbid bloodshed. In the same way, Sinai show us what God likes, what He wants, what His standard of holiness is, what He finds acceptable and what He finds wanting. These ten words show us His desires, and from that, who He is. Helpfully, they’re given in order of importance.
- The most crucial thing to understand, that which God wants to underscore more than anything else, is that He’s a savior. He uses His strength not to crush, but to rescue, because He loves to save men from death and delights to set them free from sin. God is a God who liberates prisoners.
Along with this comes the insight that the Lord will not tolerate other gods being around Him. He made the same point to Satan when He promised to send Christ to destroy his kingdom, and He made it again to Abraham when He disallowed the idol of human achievement to be set up before Him. God, being God, reserves for Himself all the praise, adoration, and worship due Him, and as such He will not accept even the smallest amount of it going elsewhere. This isn’t the intolerance of a petulant egomaniac but the proof that He loves men and wants what is best for them. Because He’s the only source of goodness, the earth must be full of Him if it is to be filled with any goodness at all. His nature, His desires, and His character must be seen reflecting in each and every creature so that “Christ is all, and in all” (Col 3:11) so that in turn they may prosper.
- God is not only attentive, protective, and the only source of life, but is an active God, a jealous God, a God who punishes those who attempt to suppress His glory. And idolatry is worthy of punishment because it’s a defiant attempt to shrink His attributes down to size. Even in the best case when this is used to focus thoughts onto Him (as opposed to the more common case of using it to gain power over Him or apart from Him), the net result is that His covenant of revelation is reduced to the size of fallen man’s imagination—a thing so puny that it cannot even conceive of a new color. It’s to oppose God’s plan of making “manifest the aroma of His knowledge by us in every place” (2 Cor 2:14), and is therefore to make an enemy of Him.
Yet God prohibits idolatry not only because He’s jealous for His glory, but also because He doesn’t want to see us harmed. We become like what we worship, and if we gaze longingly upon a deaf, dumb, dead idol we will in turn become deaf, dumb, and dead (Ps 115:8). God’s active, watchful, careful cultivation of His glory is for our own good; His jealousy for Himself maximizes our delight. After all, if His plan is to continually reveal more of Himself to creation for all eternity, then putting a limit on the amount of revelation which He may express puts a limit on not only how glorious He appears, but how happy we are in Him.
- The third word requires us not to take the Lord’s name in vain, and it builds on the revelation shown in the previous command. God’s sovereignty means He’s not only intolerant of men sidetracking His plan, but He refuses us even to obscure it. We are prohibited from cheapening His name, mixing the purity of His character with the sinfulness of ours, or co-opting His authority for our own selfish ends under the guise of piety. It’s yet another expression of His holy love. He will not permit men to steal His glory, and He’s just to do so, for “The Lord is righteous in all His ways, and holy in all His works” (Ps 145:17).
- The command to regularly abstain from work and observe a Sabbath rest shows that God is creative in designing life to be pleasurable and cyclical, like to the changing of the seasons. The universality of it shows He’s a fair judge who considers all equal, regardless of wealth, status, or privilege. That He knows He must order stubborn men to do what’s best for them shows His wisdom, and that He doesn’t drive His servants like slaves shows His kindness. Lastly, in commanding a rest for even the animals God shows His compassion and care for the least and lowly, the weak and despised. It demonstrates that no detail is too small or mundane to escape His attention and fatherly concern.
The first four words teach us God is sovereign, compassionate, kind, wise, holy, loving, jealous, caring, vigilant, good, farseeing, and committed to saving and prospering His creation. They are words which regard our duties toward God, and as a consequence, they don’t require our presence to reveal His attributes. Not so for the next six. These are not vertically but horizontally oriented, they concern our duties toward others and thus require our presence to show God’s attributes through us. This isn’t to say the God-ward element is missing—because it’s not. Just as before our obligations are ultimately to Him. The reason we are not to murder is because God forbade it, which is why after killing Uriah, David confessed to God, “Against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Thy sight” (Ps 51:4). David understood the real problem with murder is that it’s an act of rebellion against God, not that it grieves those closest to the victim.
But it is to say the next six teach us something of God in a way the first four don’t. They show us what beings made in His image looks like, and through that, what He looks like.
- God is trinity: three distinct co-equal, co-eternal, co-glorious, persons who are fully God and equally worthy of worship. Yet even though the three persons of the Godhead are united in essence, nature, power, and will, they are still distinct, and to some extent display something of a hierarchy. The Son submits to the Father (1 Cor 11:3). The Spirit is sent by both the Father (John 14:26) and the Son (John 15:26). The fifth word is a reminder that God, out of His own relationship with Himself, has imbued hierarchy into the fabric of creation. He’s organized humanity in particular according to a chain of command with honor going up and responsibility going down, similar to the perfect submission and familial interaction that He has within Himself. The fifth word calls us to respect this hierarchy. We are to imitate Jesus “who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, and took upon Him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men” (Phil 2:6-7) and honor all those whom God has appointed over us, whether they are our parents, elders (1 Peter 5:5), tax collectors (Rom 13:6), or kings (1 Peter 2:17), because by doing this we show the world what Christ is like.
- Murder is prohibited not only because we must respect God by respecting those created in His image, but because He wants the world to see who He is through us. This means we are to be selfless, slow to anger, patient, respectful, stable, judicial, reflective, not temperamental, not rash, not impulsive, not vengeful, nor hateful. We are to be, in other words, like Christ, so that the world may see Him through us.
- The seventh word teaches us that God is faithful, and loves faithfulness. It requires us to be trustworthy, dependable, committed, loving, dedicated, kind, forgiving, tenacious, persistent, resilient, and wholly given to doing what is right. Why? Because that’s what He’s like. He is utterly reliable, eternally faithful, unimaginably selfless. He pursues us when we flee from Him, and seeks our good even when we don’t. He is “the great and terrible God who keeps covenant and mercy” (Neh 1:5). Adultery is very much unlike Him, which is why its presence fills the world with suffering.
- “No stealing” is a reminder that boundaries are part of the fundamental nature of the universe. It shows that God delights in lines of demarcation, distinctions, diversity, and order. We in turn as image bearers have inherited the right to own things to teach us both how God feels about us. Do we value our own possessions? He feels that way about us. Are we upset when someone takes what is rightfully ours in order to destroy it? God is similarly jealous for us, having made us.
This command also requires us to not bemoan or pity ourselves for our lot in life, to not act unjustly, and to accept the things God has done to us and for us. We must be like Him who is respectful, polite, and considerate, rather than abusive, imposing, and proud.
- No false witness is given because if our speech is to reflect the image of God it must be pure, for God cannot lie (Titus 1:2). His purpose is to reveal Himself to us; a lie obscures His glory, therefore a lie is impossible for Him. Because of this, when Jesus came among us He was incapable of being anything other than completely transparent about God. When we look at Him we see the Father (John 14:9). Likewise we are to be transparent after His example. No deception, no hiding, no false witnessing, but serious, just, and honest communications, so the world can see and appreciate the character of God.
- The final word reminds us that God sees our hearts. He knows all, He perceives all, and He is everywhere. There is no place we can flee to that He will not find us, no part of us we can keep Him out of, no truth we can keep from Him.
It also teaches us that He wants us to be content, for He Himself is content. He is happy, at rest, at peace, satisfied, not miserable, not brooding, not scheming, not bitter, nor resentful, but joyful no matter who He’s around or what they’ve been given.
It’s apparent then that the Decalogue shows a tremendous amount of God’s attributes to us, but what may not be so apparent is that these revelations are not just about God in general, but are about Christ in particular. These are proclamations which help us to see who He is. Does this mean they’re a prophecy about the things He’ll do? Yes. Do they form a personality sketch which enables Israel to identify Him when He came down to walk among them? Again, yes. But more than that the Decalogue is a living exposé of Jesus. He’s the very embodiment of them. These ten words are descriptions of Him who is the Word, the man whose “name is called The Word of God” (Rev 19:13). Small wonder then the Apostle John begins his gospel with, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1), or that he would say the Word Himself “was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father) full of grace and truth” (John 1:14), the one who “was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled—the Word of life” (1 John 1:1). A true humanity was placed over the Word of God.
So the law teaches us who God is, but it also gives us His requirement for how we should live to please Him. As He said, “You shall be holy unto Me, for I the Lord am holy” (Lev 20:26). After showing us Christ, the law shows us ourselves.
[A necessary digression: the proper ordering of these two functions is vital. Only by putting the objective, God-centered revelatory aspect of the covenant first does the subjective, human-centric element find its proper place. Beginning with the question “What does this teach me about God?” naturally leads to, “What does God want from me?” But jumping straight to “What does this mean I must do differently?” is a surefire way to miss looking to the person of Christ and become bogged down in rigid rule keeping. Take as an example the prophet Isaiah. It wasn’t until he caught a glimpse of God in glory that he really understood what he was, and once he did he cried out, “Woe is me! For I am undone because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips” (Is 6:5). Or consider Peter. Once Jesus revealed Himself to him Peter began to plead, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8). What was God’s response both times? “Do not be afraid.” Had they not looked to God first but attempted to impress Him with a deluded and false holiness drawn from their imagination, His response would have been very different.]
This second work of the law—acting as our mirror—is not so much an alternative function as much as what happens when His character is revealed to us. The law testifies to the moral attributes of God as it leaves His mouth, and to our sinfulness when it reaches our ears. Its work in us makes it inescapably clear we are guilty before God. Sadly, our response as fallen creatures is to stop our ears, protect our egos, and pretend we’ve really kept the law, but in order to do this we must necessarily shrink the commands to a smaller, more manageable size. They thus cease to be insights into His character and instead become mere physical instructions which concern our volitional actions. “Do not murder” only means that we are not permitted to kill someone in a premeditated fashion. “Do not steal” only means we cannot pick-pocket someone once we’ve already decided not to. The rich young ruler thought this, and yet the fact of his pleading with Jesus to tell him what he was missing to earn salvation testifies that his approach was fundamentally flawed (Mark 10:17-22). The words of the law are spiritual, they regard a proper inward disposition which pleases God. It’s not enough to refrain from murder, God wants someone to think no murderous thoughts. As the Scripture says, “Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer” (1 John 3:15).
This is equally applicable to bearing false witness. It’s not enough to avoid stirring up conflict by not giving a bad formal testimony in court, God requires people to actively go about making peace to such an extent that they will not even worship if they know they’ve offended their brother (Mat 5:23).
It’s not enough to avoid the final act of sexual infidelity to commit adultery, to be pure a person must be inwardly clean at all times. They must be so holy that even their secret thoughts are perfect. To “looketh on a woman to lust after her” is just as much to be a lawbreaker as it is to have intercourse with another man’s wife (Mat 5:28).
Likewise it’s not enough to refrain from using God’s title for selfish purposes or cheapening His name by associating it with mundane oaths, to avoid takings God’s name in vain the law positively requires a man to live in simplicity and honesty at all times. Unless “your communication be ‘Yea, yea; nay, nay” you have sinned and sided with the devil, “for whatsoever is more than these comes of evil” (Matt 5:37).
The same goes for theft. It’s not enough to refrain from taking another’s goods to keep the command against stealing. It’s not even enough to continually give due regard to other’s property at all times to such an extent that you rejoice when God gives them good gifts. No, keeping this command requires someone to have so little attachment to their possessions that when anyone demands of them a coat the cloak is freely offered as well (Matt 5:40-42). It requires a person to be as much a joyful giver as God is in all things.
And the same goes for idolatry. It’s not enough to refrain from putting your knees on the ground and bowing before a statue, God is only pleased with the man who is so consumed with doing His will that he has no time or thought for self. He wants a servant who has entirely put away the invisible idols of pride and self, hatred and enmity to such an extent that they love all men—including enemies just as their master does (Matt 5:44-46).
The tenth word was the clue for this, because it concerns not an outward act of the hands or tongue but an inward disposition of the heart. It shows God is really concerned about what’s inside of us. That’s why the law isn’t a ladder for climbing toward heaven, as if it were some kind of divinely approved tower of Babel, but an x-ray to show us our dark hearts. Because we do in fact have dark hearts, as He Himself said, “That which cometh out of the man, that defiles the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within” (Mark 7:20-23).
Our problem is that by nature we have an inflated sense of self, and believe we’re okay as we are. But the specificity of the law makes this comforting delusion impossible. It shows us we’re evil people with hearts bent toward evil, not good people who occasionally do bad things once in a while. Through it we become aware that we’re infested to the core with rebellion, having inherited a mutinous disposition from our first father Adam, and that the corruption of sin has inked its way through the whole of our will, mind, emotions, affections, and reason. The painful gaze of the law is a great kindness however, for in showing us how sick we really are, our desire to justify ourselves is mortified. This is what Paul meant when he said, “I had not known sin, except by the law. For I had not known lust, except the law had said, ‘Thou shalt not covet.’ But sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence. For without the law sin was dead. For I was alive without the law once, but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died” (Rom 7:7-9).
Paradoxically, the stronger sin is, and the more hopeless our situation seems, the better off we are. For just as it’s easier to see the grandeur of the Milky Way when the man made lights are turned off, the law darkens the sky by showing us how much we’ve sinned. We’ve sinned by falling short in an honest attempt to be good. We’ve sinned by failing to fix the mess we made when we ruined God’s perfect creation. We’ve sinned by normally going about our business in forgetting to do it all to the glory of God. And we’ve sinned deliberately in a high handed rebellion that seeks to knock God off His throne. But seeing ourselves as we truly are, as sinners who have made God wrathful with our provocations and our endless disobedience, we may see Christ’s love for us which comes from within Himself, and is therefore firm, fixed, and everlasting. His law is a kindness, given to show the sin we must be saved from.
But even more specifically, the law was given to show us we need a priest to offer a sacrifice to turn away the fierce wrath of God.
Next: Sinai and the Priestly law