God’s Law (Exodus 20:1-21)


Big Idea: God’s law is rooted in God’s authority and character, and points his people to true freedom in all of life.

If you visit someone’s house, and they have a pet, there’s a simple test you can perform to determine what kind of pet they have. Wait by the front door until the pet comes by, and then hold the door wide open to see what the pet does.

I’ve learned that there are two kinds of animals:

  • One will look at the open door and shrug, so to speak. It’s as if they’re thinking, “Why would I want to escape? I’ve got it pretty good in here.”
  • The other will run for its life. It won’t know exactly why it’s running, but run it will.

In other words, pets have two ideas of freedom. One is to stay and to enjoy all the benefits they’ve been given. The other wants to run as far away as possible and live life in its own terms.

It’s much the same with us.

We’re in a series on the ancient book of Exodus. For over 400 years, God’s people, Israel, have lived as slaves. But God has acted. He’s set them free now from slavery. For the first time in centuries, they are no longer slaves. They get to live as free people for the first time in their lives. The only question is: What does freedom look like? How do you begin to live as a free person when you have no experience?

It’s a question that all of us must face. We live in a world of almost unlimited options. We can live almost anywhere we’d like. The choices before us are endless. But the problem before us is real: How do we make the best possible choices out of all the ones that are offered before us? What are the best choices we can make that will maximize our freedom and lead to the best results in our lives?

That’s what we’re going to answer today. Israel is in the wilderness. They’re out of Egypt, but before they can move to the land that God had promised them, God wants to meet with them. And so he’s summoned them to himself for a meeting. It’s a meeting that lasts the better part of a year. In this meeting, God makes a new covenant with them. In this meeting the entire nation hears God’s voice for themselves. God instructs them what it means to live as free people.

And so today we’re going to look at this extraordinary meeting and ask what we can learn about it from ourselves. And we’re going to learn three lessons.

God’s Law Is Rooted in God’s Authority and Character

I want to set the scene for you as we look at this passage. God set up the meeting that takes place in this passage. In chapter 19:3-6, we read:

The Lord called to him out of the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.”

God was taking the initiative to show his people how they should live. And then God told them to prepare themselves and be ready. He told them to be ready for that third day when God would appear to them. He warned them that on the third day they could not touch the mountain where he would appear, or they would die. On the third day, we read that there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain, and a loud trumpet blast, and that the people trembled.

Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the Lord had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder. The Lord came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain. And the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up. (Exodus 19:18-20)

This was scary! And then the first words that they heard came from God: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). And then he gave them ten words, which we’re going to look at. And God himself wrote them on two tablets — not with some of the commandments on one tablet and some on the other, as you usually see in pictures, but two duplicate copies.

What you may not realize is that God was creating a covenant with his people. A covenant is a treaty that a king would make with his people. It would begin with a preamble in which the king identifies himself, and then a historical prologue, in which the king would survey his past relationship with the people. And then it would list stipulations: the obligations that both parties make in the covenant.

Here, God is saying, “I am your King. I have rescued you. And as your King and Creator, I am now going to tell you how I require you to live.” It’s rooted in his authority. What follows is remarkable. Every stipulation that follows is a reflection of what God himself is like. “The law of God proceeds from God’s being and reflects His character” (R.C. Sproul).

This is where we need to start today. Do you want to know how to live? There’s one place to look: look to the God who created and rescued you. He is our King. He has the right to tell us how to live. We are not our own. We have been bought with a price. Therefore we must glorify God with our bodies (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).

Let me ask you: Have you settled the fact that God has the right to tell you how to live, and that his commands are not arbitrary but reflections of his character? Tim Keller writes: “You are, then, not free to do whatever you choose … You get the best freedoms only if you are willing to submit your choices to various realities, if you honor your own design.” And your Designer. True freedom comes when we acknowledge God as our King and when we submit our lives to him.

Have you done this? You’ll never be free until you do. The more you try to live life on your own terms, the more bondage you’ll experience. You’ll never be truly free. God’s law is rooted in his authority and character. Because it’s rooted in his authority, he has the right to tell us how to live. Because it’s rooted in his character, what he tells us is good. Submit to his law today.

Second lesson:

God’s Law Is for God’s People

Don’t get me wrong. In a sense, God’s law is for everyone. It reveals his character and what he expects from the world. One day all of us — Christian or not — will give an account before God for how we have lived. Romans 2 tells us that those without the law still have the law written on their hearts, and will also stand before God’s judgment.

But in a particular sense, God’s law is given as a gift for God’s people. Notice the order in this passage, because if we get the order wrong, we get everything else wrong.

You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. (Exodus 19:4-6)

Notice the order:

  • God saves the people, which leads to:
  • Their response of obedience; which leads to:
  • The blessings of obedience

In other words, we don’t obey to earn God’s salvation. We obey as a response to God’s salvation. God’s law is given to people who have experienced God’s grace. And when we experience God’s grace, and then shape ourselves around God’s Law, then we begin to experience the blessings of obedience that God promises.

Let me apply this in two ways today.

If you are here and you are not yet a follower of Jesus Christ, do not think for a minute that the place to begin is with your obedience. The place to begin is with God’s grace. You can no sooner obey your way to acceptance with God than you could jump to the moon. Your only hope is to throw yourself on Jesus who lived the law perfectly because we never could, and who died in our place, and rose again to new life. Never start with your obedience. You will never obey your way to a right relationship with God. The place to start is always by trusting in what Jesus has done for you.

But if you are here as a follower of Jesus, the law is for you. It’s a gift. You may be thinking, “Wait a minute! I thought that I was saved to be free!” You are! That’s why James calls it the perfect “law of liberty” (James 1:25). The law is God’s instruction for how to live now that he’s set us free from slavery. If you want to live as a free person, the law is God’s instruction on how to do so. Don’t choose your own path. Choose God’s path to freedom as a response to his grace in your life. Submit to his lawyer of liberty if you want to experience true freedom.

God’s law is rooted in God’s authority and character, and is for his people. There’s a third lesson we see in this passage.

God’s Law Points to Freedom in Every Part of Life

The law that God gives in Exodus 20 is given in two parts. The first part covers our relationship with God. The second covers our relationship with others. It’s why the best summary of the law, according to Jesus, is to love God and to love our neighbors (Matthew 22:34-40). God cares about both the horizontal and vertical dimensions of our lives. We need both to really live.

But then I want to you see how it covers every part of our lives: our thoughts, words, and actions.

The words or commandments to do with God are broken down like this:

  • thoughts (commandments 1 and 2)
  • words (3)
  • actions (4)

The commandments do do with people go in reverse order:

  • actions (commandments 6 to 8)
  • words (9)
  • thoughts (10)

They begin and end with our thoughts. They’re not just about what we do; they cover what we think and the words we say as well.

What are the ten words that God spoke?

  • In the first, God requires that we know and trust him as the only true God, that we are loyal to him above everyone and everything else.
  • In the second, God requires that we avoid idolatry and worship him properly. Even when we worship him as the only God, we must take care in how we do so. Don’t reshape or remake God as you please.
  • In the third, God commands that we treat God’s name with reverence, honoring his Word and works.
  • In the fourth, God commands us to follow his work ethic, imitating God’s pattern in Genesis 1 and 2 and devoting one day to the Lord to be uniquely used for him. It’s why Sunday is so important, and why corporate worship is such an important part of your weekly routine. “Sunday should be not a second Saturday every week … nor an idle nothing … but a day positively different because it is being lived specially for God” (Alec Motyer).

This is what it looks like to relate to God, to love him with all our hearts: in our thoughts to put him first and to worship him properly; in our words to treat his name with reverence, and with our actions to devote one day a week to him.

So what does it look like in our relationships with others?

  • In the fifth, God requires that we honor and respect our parents — not just the ones who deserve it, but all of them.
  • In the sixth, God requires that do not murder others.
  • In the seventh, God requires that we do not commit adultery — that we don’t sleep with people outside of marriage.
  • In the eighth, God requires that we don’t take what doesn’t belong to us.
  • In the ninth, God requires that we tell the truth.
  • In the tenth, God requires that we don’t covet what belongs to others.

This is what it looks like to love others: in our actions, to respect our parents, respect the lives of others, and to follow God’s design for sex; in our words to speak the truth; in our minds to be thankful for what we have rather than chase after what belongs to others.

Every single one of these commands, apart from the fourth, is repeated in the New Testament.

What a gift! Think of what this law does for us. It shows us clearly how to relate to God. For these slaves who had worked seven days a week for all of their lives, it gives them room to slow down for one day and devote a day to the enjoyment of God. It establishes private property, protects marriages and life, and helps us to develop gratitude and contentment.

God’s law is rooted in God’s authority and character, and points his people to true freedom in all of life. God’s law isn’t just for people long ago and far away. It’s for those of us who know God’s grace today too.

But as we close today, let’s admit that we have not kept God’s commands.

  • We have made other people and things more important than God.
  • We’ve tried to shrink God and made him manageable.
  • We’ve not only misspoken God’s name, but we’ve misrepresented him as his people.
  • We’ve treated the Lord’s Day as a second Saturday, or worked right through because we’re too busy.
  • We’ve disregarded parental authority and not shown proper respect to our parents.
  • We’ve harbored violent thoughts against others and wished injury upon them.
  • We’ve lusted after people who aren’t our spouses and had sex on our own terms.
  • We’ve taken what’s not ours.
  • We’ve deceived and withheld truth.
  • We’ve been discontent with what’s ours and wanted what doesn’t belong to us.

We have not kept God’s law. In fact, we can’t. We need a Savior. But look at Jesus:

  • “You shall have no other gods before me” (v 3). Jesus said to his Father, “I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do” (John 17:4).
  • “You shall not make for yourself an image” (Exodus 20:4). Jesus didn’t reduce God or re-imagine God. He said, “The Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does” (John 5:19).
  • “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God” (Exodus 20:7). Jesus said, “I have revealed your name to those whom you gave me” (John 17:6).
  • “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy” (Exodus 20: 8). Jesus brought healing and wholeness on the Sabbath.
  • “Honour your father and your mother” (Exodus 20: 12). Jesus said, “I love the Father and I do exactly what my Father has commanded me” (John 14: 31).
  • “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20: 13). Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10: 11).
  • “You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20: 14). Jesus gives his life for his bride (John 3: 29).
  • “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20: 15). Jesus came to give, not take: “The thief comes to the sheep only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full … No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10: 10, 18).
  • “You shall not give false testimony” (Exodus 20: 16). Jesus said that he is “the truth” (John 14: 6)
  • “You shall not covet” (Exodus 20: 17). Jesus is content with God’s will, even when that meant the cross.

(adapted from Tim Chester)

God’s law is rooted in God’s authority and character, and points his people to true freedom in all of life — and it also points us to our Savior. Our hope is not our law-keeping but his law-keeping. Praise Jesus for what he has done for us!

Friends, here’s how you live a life that’s free: love God’s law and live according to it. And love the one who kept it perfectly for us so that we have hope even when we fail.

Lord, forgive us for desiring to live our way rather than yours. Help us to say with David:

Oh how I love your law!
It is my meditation all the day.
Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies,
for it is ever with me.
(Psalm 119:97-98)

As we long to keep your law, may our hope not be in our law-keeping, but in Jesus who perfectly obeyed your law and died in our place. It’s in his name we hope. It’s in his name we pray. Amen.

God’s Law (Exodus 20:1-21)
Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash

I'm a grateful husband, father, oupa, and pastor of Liberty Grace Church in Toronto. I love learning, writing, and encouraging. I'm on a lifelong quest to become a humble, gracious old man.
Toronto, Canada