1 And Moses summoned all Israel and said to them, “Hear, O Israel, the statutes and the rules that I speak in your hearing today, and you shall learn them and be careful to do them. 2 The Lord our God made a covenant with us in Horeb. 3 Not with our fathers did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today. 4 The Lord spoke with you face to face at the mountain, out of the midst of the fire, 5 while I stood between the Lord and you at that time, to declare to you the word of the Lord. For you were afraid because of the fire, and you did not go up into the mountain. He said:
6 “‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
7 “‘You shall have no other gods before me.
8 “‘You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 9 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 fourth generation of those who hate me, 10 but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.
11 “‘You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.
12 “‘Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. 13 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 14 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant, or your ox or your donkey or any of your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. 15 You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.” – Deuteronomy 5:1-15 ESV
The Ten Commandments. We’re all vaguely familiar with them, even if we can’t recite them from memory. And we all have an image that comes to mind when we think of Moses holding the two tablets of stone containing the hand-carved code of conduct given by God to the people of Israel. But those commands seem distant and somewhat antiquated to most of us. And for many Christians, we operate as if the Ten Commandments no longer apply to us because we live under grace, not law. After all, the apostle Paul tells us, “Christ has rescued us from the curse pronounced by the law. When he was hung on the cross, he took upon himself the curse for our wrongdoing” (Galatians 3:13 NLT).
It’s easy to read a passage like that one and assume that the Ten Commandments are out-of-date and no longer apply. And Paul seems to support that conclusion with his words to the Christians in Rome.
For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. – Romans 10:4 ESV
But before we jump to conclusions, we have to recall the words of Jesus.
“Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose.” – Matthew 5:17 NLT
Jesus claimed to have come to earth in order to accomplish the purpose behind the law of Moses and the writings of the prophets. We would tend to say that Jesus came to earth to save the lost, and we would be right. Because that is exactly what the law foreshadowed and the prophecies of the Old Testament foretold. The apostle Paul tells us exactly why the law was given.
Why, then, was the law given? It was given alongside the promise to show people their sins. But the law was designed to last only until the coming of the child who was promised. – Galatians 3:19 NLT
God gave the law to the people of Israel in order that they might know just how holy He was and just how sinful they truly were. With God’s detailed list of all the dos and don’ts, shalls, and shall-nots provided for them, the people of Israel could not claim ignorance when it came to God’s expectations of them. But while His rules established clear guidelines for living, they also revealed man’s inability to live up to those guidelines. The Ten Commandments are holy, righteous, and just, providing man with a detailed list of God’s non-negotiable requirements for maintaining a right relationship with Him. But, once again, Paul reminds us that the law could never make anyone right with God because no one was capable of living up to God’s holy standard.
For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are. – Romans 3:20 NLT
The author of Hebrews adds that “the law never made anything perfect” (Hebrews 7:19 NLT). In other words, God’s giving of His holy law was intended to provide the Israelites with a clear standard or set of guidelines for living. But the presence of the law did not empower the people to obey. It told them what God expected of them, but did not provide them with the capacity to live up to those expectations. In a sense, the law could only condemn, not save.
Think of it this way: A speed limit sign is a government-sanctioned law declaring the legally established maximum rate of travel for a motor vehicle. It lets drivers know just how fast they are allowed to go on a particular section of highway. It cannot force them to travel at that speed. It does not limit their capacity to drive slower or faster. It simply sets the rules of conduct for that driving on that patch of road. But if the posted speed limit is 65 and you are traveling 75, every time you pass one of those signs declaring the speed limit, you will be condemned as guilty. All the sign can do is confirm if we are living up to the established standard or condemn us if we are not.
The apostle Paul describes the law as our guardian, tutor, or instructor.
Before the way of faith in Christ was available to us, we were placed under guard by the law. We were kept in protective custody, so to speak, until the way of faith was revealed.
Let me put it another way. The law was our guardian until Christ came; it protected us until we could be made right with God through faith. And now that the way of faith has come, we no longer need the law as our guardian. – Galatians 3:23-25 NLT
The law was given so that man might learn just how holy God is and just how sinful they could be. So, as Moses delivered the Ten Commandments to the next generation of Israelites, he was reminding them of the holiness of their God. They were to take God’s commands seriously and to treat them with the reverence they deserved. He warned them to “learn them and be careful to do them” (Deuteronomy 5:1 ESV). Because breaking God’s laws would break their fellowship with Him. Failing to keep His commands would place them under a curse.
The Jews would live under the guardianship or tutelage of the law for generations. From the time they entered the land of Canaan to the day that Jesus Christ took on human flesh, the Jews would be required by God to live according to His law. And, as Paul put it, the law would protect them as long as they obeyed it. It functioned as the speed limit sign on the highway of life. But when Jesus came, the law became unnecessary, because He provided a way for sinful men to be made right with a holy God. Rather than trying to keep God’s holy and righteous standards through human effort, they could place their faith in Christ. The Son of God became a man so that He might live a sinless life, keeping God’s law perfectly. He obeyed every single command given by God, accomplishing what no other man had ever been able to do before.
And it was because Jesus was perfectly obedient, that He was able to be the spotless sacrifice whose life was given as payment for mankind’s sin debt. He was the one who John described as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 ESV). And He was the one who made forgiveness of sin possible. In other words, He provided a way for man to receive permanent forgiveness for every single violation of God’s holy law. The law revealed man’s sinfulness, but only Jesus could remove it. The law could condemn man as guilty, but only Jesus could pronounce man as innocent and righteous. And one day Paul explained this wonderful reality to a group of Jews who had gathered to hear him speak.
“Brothers, listen! We are here to proclaim that through this man Jesus there is forgiveness for your sins. Everyone who believes in him is made right in God’s sight—something the law of Moses could never do.” – Acts 13:38-39 NLT
So, as Moses unpacks God’s law to the people of Israel, it’s essential that we understand just how blessed we are. We live on this side of the cross, where the curse of the law has been replaced by the blessing of salvation through faith alone in Christ alone. We no longer live under the burden of trying to earn God’s favor through law-keeping. That does not mean the law is null-and-void and no longer applicable. It simply means we have been given a righteousness from Christ that makes it possible for us to live in obedience to God’s commands, not based on human effort but through the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. And rather than viewing the law as our task-master, we can see it the way Paul did: “the law itself is holy, and its commands are holy and right and good” (Romans 7:12 NLT).
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.