The Sinai Covenant

14 The Ten Commandments

by Hubert F. Sturges, , December 2013

And he declared unto you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, even ten commandments; and he wrote them upon two tables of stone. Deuteronomy 4:13

God has called the Ten Commandments the covenant. It has long been the basis for the government of intelligent beings throughout the universe. For sinless beings, it was the only form of the covenant that they needed. Even then, sinless beings did not focus on the law but rather on the God whom they loved. In their close association, the attitudes and actions of God were an example and a command for His children in heaven and earth to do the same.

God designed the Ten Commandments as a reflection of His character. He made angels and human beings in His image, with God’s law written in their hearts. Freedom of His creatures required the boundaries of law to assure harmonious interaction between His earthly and heavenly children. Human beings have recognized the justice and mercy of this law and have used the Ten Commandments as a basis for national laws in each country.

Sin and Its Consequences

After Adam and Eve sinned, the new reality of sin entered the world. As sin, disease, and oppression became common, humans quickly learned the results of breaking the law. Ever since Eden, they have recognized sin. There are gaps in the written history of the patriarchs, which were probably filled in by oral tradition. Every sin or crime identified in the Ten Commandment law was recognized as a sin long before Sinai.

The very nature of human beings had deteriorated so that many were obsessed continually with sin and wickedness (Gen. 6:5). Different forms of sin became increasingly common, including murder, theft, polygamy, covetousness, war, oppression, and idolatry. Sin had reached a threshold, beyond which God would not allow humans to go. The “cup” of the human race was “full” and judgment was due.

The presence of sin also implied a knowledge of God’s law. It is the law that defines what sin is (Rom. 3:20; 5:13). The Bible does not say anything about Sabbath breaking in the patriarchal age, yet Israel knew about it before Sinai (Exod. 16:22-30).


Now that God was dealing with a nation rather than just a family, they needed a written law. By His mighty power, God delivered Israel from Egypt. God sustained the people by water from a rock and by manna that fell each morning. The presence of God was constantly before them in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.

Moses talked “face to face” with God. Messages from God also came from the Urim and Thummim carried by the high priest. The prophets of God gave additional guidance. The priests and Levites taught the people the laws of God.

In addition to all these blessings, the people were designated the “chosen people of God.” A more humble evaluation is that they were barely a step away from being the slaves that made bricks for Pharaoh. God knew the people. They were stiff-necked and stubborn.1 While they kept alive their identity as children of Abraham and their hopes in the covenant, they had also been exposed to the idolatry and wanton pleasures of the Egyptians for generations. They had much to learn and much to unlearn!

Avoiding Legalism, Keeping the Law

Is keeping the law legalism? People are quite willing to forget arguments of “legalism” when it comes to their neighbors. They want neighbors who keep the Ten Commandments! If legalism is unacceptable, it must be something different from just keeping the Ten Commandments, which all agree are essentially correct. A clear definition of legalism is when people spurn grace and keep the commandments as a method to earn salvation.

The Ten Commandments, which God wrote on stone with His own finger, God called “the covenant” and Moses put inside the ark.2 There was also a “book of the law,” or “book of the covenant,” which included the civil and ceremonial laws. The civil law was an expansion of the Ten Commandments, and the ceremonial law was a “shadow” that pointed forward to the promised Redeemer (Heb. 8:5; 10:1). Moses kept this book at the side of the ark (Deut. 31:26).

Why was the law necessary?

Martin Luther gave three uses for the law:
1. To restrain or curb external evil, which was the civil use.3
2. To show one’s sin, as in a mirror4
3. To show us God’s character as a guide to holy living through grace.5

How God’s Character and the Law of God Compare

God's Character The Law of God
Righteous   Ps. 119:137; 1 John 3:7 riighteous   Deut. 4:8; Ps. 119:172
Perfect, true, pure, right    Deut. 32:4 True and good    Neh. 9:13
Perfect   Ps. 18:30; Matt. 5:48 Perfect and sure   Ps. 19:7
Merciful, gracious, longsuffering, good, true, forgiving and just   Ex. 34:6, 7 Pure   Ps. 19:8
Pure peaceable, gentle, approachable, merciful, impartial. amd righteous   James 3:17, 18 Broad, gives wisdom and understaqnding, protects from evil.   Ps. 119:95-100
Holy   Lev. 11:44, 45; 19:2; 20:26; 1 Peter 1:16 Holy, Just and Good   Rom. 7:12; 2 Peter 2:21
Perfect, peaceful, loving   2 Cor. 13:11 Law of liberty   James 1:25
Loving   1 John 4:7 Good   1 Tim. 1:8

It is natural for human beings to be legalistic. Sinful human beings are selfish and will often do things that are beneficial for others simply to achieve their own goals. Shall we then discard the law and break it whenever we feel like it in order to avoid legalism? We know instinctively that this is wrong. The law must be kept, though keeping the law does not save a person.

Obedient From the Heart

Obedience is a word that has a breadth of meaning, yet it leaves out much that is important. A Christian should focus on the positive aspects of the law. God created human beings “in the image of God” (Gen. 1:27). To be in the image of God is to have His law and character written on our heart as we become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:3-8).

Through grace, the Ten Commandments make God first in an individual’s life. Nothing is to come between the individual and God. The individual will be pure in speech and will avoid hypocrisy, and the family will be pure, to the blessing of children and parents alike. By God’s grace, the individual will treat his or her neighbor with kindness and love, avoiding hatred, lust, theft, and lying.

Christians must take hold of the power of grace through faith. They must consent-even decide- to obey, knowing that only by grace can their decision be firm. Through their love for God, they will desire to be like Him in character; and, through love to their neighbor, they will recognize their own debt to God. What they see in the attitudes and actions of God will be to them an example and a command to do likewise.

Can the Law be Kept?

What happened to Adam and Eve at their fall from grace? Their lives moved from being Godcentered to being self-centered. All sin and sorrow came from self-centeredness. A person can do even admirable things for selfish reasons. Keeping the law for selfish reasons leaves a person’s life unchanged, still under the control of sin and rebellion.

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: -˜Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “˜Love your neighbor as yourself.” All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matt. 22:36-40, NIV).

Jesus summarized the Ten Commandments as love for God and love for our fellow human beings. If people lack love for others, they are selfish. If people lack love for God, they are proud and lack faith, refusing to follow the will of God. Pride, unbelief, and selfishness are the basic characteristics of the sinful nature and can be overcome only by the grace of God.

Knowledge of God and His law has merit only as it leads a person to Christ. Belief alone is not enough. “Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble” (James 2:19).

At the moment of temptation, believers must consent to let Christ live in them. Is it easy? No, it is not! The battle with self is the hardest battle human beings ever have to fight. It is always easy to do something; it is often difficult to submit to Christ as Lord of our life.

By habitually turning to Christ with the temptations of daily life, Christians will “wear ruts” in the road so that, when great temptation comes, they can find their way in the dark. In the faith experience, Christ becomes real. We must think about Christ, talk about Him, focus our life on Him, and leave no room for sin.

The Saviour’s Sabbath

In the middle of the ten-commandment law is the command to keep holy the seventh day as the Sabbath. In this command, the seventh day is to be kept holy because God made it holy.6 God gave the “Sabbath of the Lord thy God” as a memorial to the creation. God is the Creator, and His domain encompasses all of “heaven and earth.” The Sabbath command is God’s “signature” in the middle of His law. It is also the “sign” of sanctification (Exod. 31:13; Ezek. 20:12, 20), and it is, therefore, a vital sign of the covenant that will make of His people “an holy nation.”

Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in 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: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it. (Exod. 20:8-11).

Why does it need to be the seventh day? Would not another day be acceptable to worship God? What is wrong with keeping holy another day, or even keeping holy every day? As a measure of time, the seventh day is no different from the other days of the week. The day is holy because God made it so. He gave the Sabbath as a sign of human relationship with Him. Would humans accept God’s will or would they choose to go their own way? It was an easy test and it was easy to understand. To break the Sabbath was wrong because it was forbidden, not because it was evil by nature. The Sabbath demonstrates whether people accept God as Creator and Lord and place God’s will above their own reasoning. From reverent obedience to this command, obedience to the other nine naturally flows.

Speak thou also unto the children of Israel, saying, Verily my sabbaths ye shall keep: for it is a sign between me and you throughout your generations; that ye may know that I am the Lord that doth sanctify you. It is a sign between me and the children of Israel for ever: for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed. (Exod. 31:13, 17)

Moreover also I gave them my sabbaths, to be a sign between me and them, that they might know that I am the Lord that sanctify them. And hallow my sabbaths; and they shall be a sign between me and you, that ye may know that I am the Lord your God. (Ezek. 20:12, 20)

Another question follows: Why should the Sabbath commandment be kept any differently than the other nine commandments? Christians are insistent about the other nine. Did God not mean what He said about keeping the seventh day as the Sabbath? If Sabbath-keepers are legalistic or idolatrous because they keep the seventh-day Sabbath, what about those who keep the other nine? Are they not just as “legalistic and idolatrous?” These concepts need to be thought and prayed through. A person needs to ask the Holy Spirit for guidance. When Jesus said, “If ye love Me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15), He meant that keeping the commandments brings us closer to Him and, as we are closer to Him, we will want to do what pleases Him.

Is it essential then that we be accurate in our service to Christ? Are a person’s sincerity and love for Christ not more important than “details?” Falsehood and error never bring honor to God, however innocent they may seem. Truth has consequences. Truth affects our relationship with God. A correct understanding of truth has often been an issue that divides those who seek to serve God from those who follow another master.

There is only one God, only one Holy Spirit, and only one truth. Our understandings may differ, but, by reading the Bible under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we will learn the truth. “But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him” (John 4:23). “Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14:6).

Jesus kept the Sabbath. “As his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day” (Luke 4:16). He was more liberal than the Jews in Sabbath keeping. His teaching and practice did not follow the multitude of ordinances that the Jews had added to the law. Jesus stated that He was “Lord also of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:28). Like His women followers, Jesus rested in the grave over the hours of the Sabbath after the crucifixion (Luke 23:56). Looking forward forty years to the destruction of Jerusalem in Matthew 24, Jesus told the disciples that they were to pray that their flight be not in the winter or on the Sabbath day.

The last book of the Bible is “the Revelation of Jesus Christ” (Rev. 1:1). The four angels in Revelation 7 hold the four winds of trouble until God’s people receive the seal. What is the seal? God gave the Sabbath as the “sign” of sanctification (Exod. 31:13; Ezek. 20:12, 20). The Holy Spirit seals (verb) God’s 80 More Than a Promise people (Eph. 4:30), showing those who are His. Paul wrote: “Nevertheless the foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal, The Lord knoweth them that are his. And, Let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity” (2 Tim. 2:19). The seal of relationship with God is being known of God and keeping the “righteousness of the law” (Rom. 2:26; 8:4). The seal (noun) of the law is the Sabbath of the fourth commandment, His signature in the midst of His law. In this way, the Holy Spirit prepares a special people to see Jesus when He comes again!


1. God described His people as “stiffnecked” (Exod. 32:9; 33:3, 5; 34:9; Deut. 9:6, 13; 10:16; 2  Chron. 30:8; Acts 7:51).

2. Moses put the two tablets inside the ark (Exod. 25:16, 21; 40:20; Deut. 10:2, 5) with the manna and Aaron’s rod. “And I will write on the tables the words that were in the first tables which thou brakest, and thou shalt put them in the ark” (Deut. 10:2). Later, God instructed Moses to include a pot of manna and Aaron’s rod that budded, “which had the golden censer, and the ark of the covenant overlaid round about with gold, wherein was the golden pot that had manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tables of the covenant” (Heb. 9:4). “And Moses said unto Aaron, Take a pot, and put an omer full of manna therein, and lay it up before the Lord, to be kept for your generations. As the Lord commanded Moses, so Aaron laid it up before the testimony, to be kept” (Exod. 16:33, 34). “And the Lord said unto Moses, Bring Aaron’s rod again before the testimony, to be kept for a token against the rebels; and thou shalt quite take away their murmurings from me, that they die not” (Num. 17:10). During the time of Solomon, there was -| nothing in the ark save the two tables of stone, which Moses put there at Horeb, when the Lord made a covenant” (1 Kings 8:9; cf. 2 Chron. 5:10).

3. “What I have stated earlier so often about both uses of the Law, the political or Gentile use and the theological use, indicates clearly that the Law was not laid down for the righteous but, as Paul teaches elsewhere (1 Tim. 1:9), for the unrighteous” (Martin Luther, Luther’s Works [Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999], vol. 26, comment on Gal. 3:23.)

4. “This is a more majestic and excellent teaching than is the Law, whose purpose is only to tell us what we are to do. The Gospel does not, however, dispose of the Law. For the Law is also the voice of God, and it is fitting for all to be subject to it. Yet even though the Law remains, the Gospel teaches something higher” (Luther’s Works, vol. 12, comment on Psalm 2:7). “The other use of the Law is the theological or spiritual one, which serves to increase transgressions” (Luther’s Works, vol. 26, comment on Gal. 3:19).

5. Luther never used the phrase “the third use of the law,” but a recent work on Luther by Edward A. Engelbrecht, entitled Friends of the Law: Luther’s Use of the Law for the Christian Life (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2011), claims, “Luther maintained a third use of the law, even if he did not always use that specific phrase” (http://beggarsallreformation. Luther wrote: “It is proper that the Law and God’s Commandments provide me with the correct directives for life; they supply me with abundant information about righteousness and eternal life” (Luther’s Works, vol. 22, comment John 1:17).

6. It was at God’s command that the seventh day was sanctified and blessed at Creation. Whether God ever gave a command to the Jews or not, the day became holy and blessed by God’s command. Those who accept Genesis 2:1-3 as an actual account of the end of the creation account, recognize that the Sabbath was then blessed and sanctified by the Creator.