One of the most misunderstood relationships in all of Christianity is the relationship between "God's law" and "God's grace." At first glance it's easy to see where there may be conflict between the two. After all, if God's law instructs us not to do something and we do it, can we really expect Him to overlook our indiscretion because of grace? If He is going to give us grace that we don't deserve every time, what's the point of giving us any laws?
The grace of God always precedes the law of God's grace. But at times the debate between law and grace goes beyond the practical and becomes part of a debate about salvation. There are those who claim that the Law was given to provide us with a way of earning our way into God's good favor, and maybe even earning heaven. Most world religions hold to some form of earn-your-way theology. But I'm sure you know that the Bible tells us salvation is by faith and grace alone and according to this view, keeping God's law is not a means of earning salvation. But even among some true believers, I've heard preachers and evangelists claim that if a person isn't consistently keeping God's law, he isn't really a Christian! Their view on law and grace implies that keeping the law is proof of salvation by grace. In other words, that point of view would be that to be a real Christian, we must obey God's law (at least most of the time). Those who believe in this manner, usually don't consider breaking the speed limit a make-or-break infraction, in spite of what Romans chapter 13 teaches about obeying laws instituted by the government.
So where does that leave us? The Bible has its share of "thou-shalts" and "thou-shalt-nots." But at the same time, the Bible talks an awful lot about grace. So which is it? Or if it's both, how do they fit together?
This is not as confusing as it sounds. The easiest way to understand the relationship between "God's law" and "God's grace" is to take a look at the most famous list of laws in the history of mankind and the story behind where they came from. The list I'm referring to is, of course, the Ten Commandments.
Most everybody has heard of the Ten Commandments. In fact, most people would agree that they constitute good morals rules that we should live by. But almost nobody can name them. I heard of a lady who said she kept the Ten Commandments. When someone asked if she actually knew all ten of the commandments she said, "No. But I keep 'em."
In another case, in a street-type interview, people were asked to name as many of the Ten Commandments as they could. No one was able to name them all. Most could name only two. A few more could recall only these four: "Do not kill. Do not steal. Do not commit adultery. Do not lie."
Not one of them remembered the first four. Everyone jumped straight to the "thou-shalt-nots." And that's sad because man's tendency to dwell on the “thou-shalt-nots” supports a universal theory about God and His feelings toward the human race. The common belief is that obedience gets you in with God, and disobedience keeps you out. Another way of saying the same thing is, God's approval is for only those who follow the rules. But nothing could be further from the truth.
The Ten Commandments do not in any way contradict God’s grace; they’re part of the story of God’s grace toward a helpless, undeserving group of people.
The story of the Ten Commandments actually starts with Abraham. You’ve heard of the promised land, the Middle East land grant God promised to Abraham. In Genesis 15:13-16, the Lord promised Abraham that his descendants would come to possess the promised land in three different predictions. They were:
1. Your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own.
2. They will be slaves and be mistreated for four hundred years.
3. (And God said) I will punish the nation and you will come out with great possessions.
God's predictions would eventually come to pass just as He said. Abraham’s great grandson Joseph saved his family from starvation by relocating them to the fertile Land of Goshen in Egypt. Joseph’s wise planning also saved the nation of Egypt from starvation. Abraham's descendants flourished, and after just a few generations, the clan of about 70 souls had multiplied into a nation.
Many years later “there arose a pharoah who knew not Joseph" (Exodus 1:8). This pharaoh worried that the Israelites (as they had come to be known) might support an invading army or lead a revolt against Egypt, so he pressed them into slavery. And for many years, maybe even more than three centuries, the national identity of the Israelites was that of slaves to the nation of Egypt.
Four hundred and thirty years after Abraham's descendants relocated to Egypt, the nation of Israel had grown to around three million. Yet they had no government of their own; Pharaoh was their king. They had no laws; Egypt ruled over them. They had no land of their own. They knew only captivity, oppression, poverty, and hopelessness. While their bloodline remained pure (Egyptians would never consider marrying slaves), their culture and perspective of God had become tainted with Egyptian superstition.
After four hundred years of slavery, God raised up Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt and claim the land He promised Abraham.
After bringing them out of Egypt, but before settling them in the promised land, God wanted to give them a national identity. But first, they needed to know God in the same manner their forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had known Him.
God demonstrated His power in miraculous ways. He redeemed them out of slavery and claimed them as His own. It was after this that God gave the Israelites a set of rules to live by and they consisted of much more than a set of ten rules. The Law of Moses contains more than six hundred rules. There are rules pertaining to diet, sanitation, sex, marriage, children, slaves, animals, and property rights. There are laws defining criminal behavior along with the punishment for such. There's a whole section of the Mosaic law on the ritual of sacrifice to God alone. When you read the book of Leviticus, you may wonder “why so many laws and why in so much detail?”
Remember, this was a nation of slaves who had never been responsible for themselves. They had no government. No king. No judicial system. No laws. They had Moses and a pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night that led them through the desert.
So God gave them the details on how to conduct themselves and the Ten Commandments are the framework for the rest of these laws.
The ten were the first commandments God handed down to Moses and they set the tone for the laws that followed. Not one of the six hundred and thirteen laws handed down had anything to do with where anyone spent eternity. God was simply establishing behavioral guidelines for a group He had redeemed from slavery; a group He had already established as His own.
God’s rules reflect His values. His display of power over the Egyptians revealed His ability but very little of His nature. The Ten Commandments reassured the Israelites that their God was not only powerful but good.
Three months after the Exodus, God told Moses to meet Him at the top of Mount Sinai while the Israelites camped in the valley below. But before issuing the first commandment, God told Moses "I am the LORD your God. . ." (Exodus 20:2). Moses must have thought, “Don't you mean the Lord the God?”
Moses and the Israelites knew almost nothing about God. All they knew was that God had freed them from slavery and that He intended to settle them in the land He had promised Abraham. The word “your” implied something new to the Israelites.
Ancient cultures worshipped imaginary gods that they believed controlled the sun, the moon, storms, birth, and death. And after so many years in Egypt, the idea of a living God having a personal relationship with people was long gone from memory.
"Your God" implies a relationship with God, but the Israelites hadn't done anything to deserve or establish a relationship. But the fact was that the Israelites already had a relationship with God. When the Lord spoke to Moses, He said, in Exodus 20:2. “I am the LORD thy God, which brought you out of the land of Egypt.” He reminded Moses of the ten plagues and how He made a mockery of the Egyptian mythical gods. He told why He had protected His people from the plagues, including the final one, in which the firstborn of every household died. The death angel "passed over" any house where the blood of a sacrificial lamb was on its doorposts. That blood symbolized God's mercy. Then He miraculously parted the Red Sea, saving the Hebrews from the Egyptian army. He gave them a pillar of cloud to follow by day and a pillar of fire by night. And He provided water and food for them in the wilderness.
God's message to Moses could not have been any clearer: They were not to establish a relationship with anyone else. More than six hundred years earlier God had established a relationship with Abraham, and it was within the context of this relationship that He claimed the Israelites as His people and gave His people the Law. God had initiated a relationship with His people before He even told them what the rules were.
It was after God established the relationship that He gave the people rules to live by. God knew that you don’t make rules for someone you don’t have a relationship with. Rules without a relationship lead to rebellion so He gave the Israelites rules after they shared a relationship.
A relationship begins and ends with trust. No matter how much one person wants to connect with another, there can be no relationship without trust. So God's first commandment came as no surprise: "Thou shall have no other gods before me." Exodus 20:3.
The first commandment has to do with trusting God to meet every need. In this commandment God said to Israel, "I want to be your one and only God." For as long as anyone could remember, the Hebrews had been surrounded by people who worshipped many gods. Every culture of that time and every civilization that existed for the next two thousand years worshipped multiple deities. God didn't want the Israelites turning to multiple gods to meet multiple needs--storm gods to grow crops; fertility gods to produce offspring; gods of the sun, moon, planets, and the seasons. He wanted to be their One, all sufficient source of everything they needed. He said, in effect, “I want to be your one and only because I am the One and only.” “Believing that I am the One and only God and that you trust Me is more important to me than your mere obedience.”
The second commandment sounds like a repeat of the first, but it introduces a new idea: "You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below." (Exodus 20:4). This is not God's prohibition against worshipping other gods. This is God forbidding any attempt to erect any kind of monument, fashion any kind of statue, or create any kind of image that represents him. If the idea of a singular God was hard for ancient people to grasp, the notion of an invisible God made no sense at all. All the pagan gods could be traced back to some aspect of nature. Ancient people depicted them in the form of artwork, not merely for the sake of representation, but for actual worship. They bowed down before these images! They offered sacrifices, prayed to these idols to gain their attention and even fed and clothed some of these idols.
The Lord’s people were not to make any image of Him for two reasons. First, no one has ever seen God. God is unrepresentable. He is unique in every manner. God didn't want His people attempting to make Him manageable, something they could visit and then leave behind, something they could create and then neglect and ignore.
Second, God didn't want His people to become slaves to inanimate objects when they had a living God ready and willing to care for them. Ironically, while Moses was receiving these commandments from God, the Israelites and Aaron, their second-in-command, were fashioning a golden calf to represent an imaginary god they could worship. They apparently were not content with a powerful invisible God who actually exists, they wanted a physical representation of a imaginary powerless god. They set aside the God who delivered them from bondage to worship a god they could manage and manipulate to suit their own wishes.
In reading the story, we can see the absurdity of the events taking place at the top and bottom of the mountain; God reaching out to the Israelites at the summit while the Israelites forsook Him for worship of a golden calf in the valley below.
In the first two commandments, God addressed the issue of religious authority. Then, in the third commandment, God plainly stated that honor and respect were due His name. “Thou shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain;” (Exodus 20:7).
The Israelites considered the name of God so sacred that they wouldn’t speak it and it was represented by four consonants, which correspond to the English letters Y H W H.
While knowing and honoring God's name is very important, He didn’t give this commandment to discourage people from calling out His name. The clearest translation of the Hebrew in the third commandment is, "Do not misuse the name of the LORD." Or to paraphrase it, Do not attach God's name to something He hasn't attached to Himself. Don’t use the name of God to further your own agenda.
God was about to give the new nation of Israel a constitution consisting of hundreds of laws and statutes and He didn't want them to start looking for loopholes. God knew people would try to use His name to support their traditions and as a means of nullifying or circumventing His law. This hasn't stopped religious authorities in Jerusalem and all over the world from misusing the name of God to serve their own ends for centuries, often resulting in the most appalling atrocities in history. The crusades. The Inquisition. Ethnic cleansing. Terrorism. At the time of Jesus, religious tradition allowed a person to dedicate all his or her worldly goods to God and still use them for their own exclusive benefit thus neglecting the responsibility of caring for their aging parents. They were using what you might call a kind of estate-planning scheme.
On a note more relative to today, almost everyone knows of some religious authority who used God's name to institute certain rules or traditions and then punished people for daring to oppose God's will. This is precisely what the Lord wanted to avoid. God instituted this commandment, like the first two, to safeguard the Hebrews' personal relationship with Him.
Now we come to the fourth commandment. Whereas the first three commandments safeguard man's relationship with God, the fourth celebrates it. "Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy." (Exodus 20:8).
His people were to stop all work and devote an entire twenty-four-hour period to resting. Moses pointed back to the creation account to explain why. "For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy" (Exodus 20:11).
Moses' point was that God had completed all the work necessary in creation. He had provided everything humanity needed in six days and He made the seventh day a day of rest. He gave the Israelites the Sabbath day as a perpetual reminder that they could rest in His complete and abundant care.
A case in point of this abundant care is the manna He supplied as long as they were in the wilderness.
Upon leaving Egypt, the people could only carry so much food and water and when these ran low, the people complained against Moses “you have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” Exodus 16:3. The Lord sent them the manna and instructed them to gather only enough for one day's needs, but of course, many tried to store it overnight only to find it rotten and crawling with worms the next morning.
God told the people He would provide for them each day. He made one exception to this provision. On Friday, the people were to gather enough for two days. On the other days, any left over manna rotted overnight.
That gathered on Friday stayed fresh for Saturday. None appeared on the ground Saturday because the Lord had declared it a Sabbath day.
The Lord used this daily bread lesson to teach His people to depend solely on Him for their sustenance. This lesson would teach them that their provider is God, not the soil, or the economy, or a king, or foreign allies. Each day, for the duration of their time in the wilderness, the people depended on God's grace for their daily provisions.
The point is this: all provision comes from God. Saturday's manna, gathered on Friday, was a weekly reminder of God's provision for them. He required nothing more of His people than to trust in His faithfulness and goodness. He wanted them, and still wants us, to remember that our daily sustenance comes from him.
So the fourth commandment, like the first three, reinforces the fact that Israel already had a relationship with God. It was just a matter of acknowledging their relationship and living in complete dependence on Him. As a result, they could enjoy abundant living, spiritually and sometimes materially.
This whole experience is a lesson for every believer. God wants you and me to trust Him fully for our eternal welfare and for our daily lives.
“Trust in the LORD with all thine heart;
and lean not unto thine own understanding.
6: In all thy ways acknowledge him,
and He shall direct thy paths.”
We’ll take up the remaining commandments in a future message.