We live in a land of paradoxes. In one part of a city, a small group meets in a neighborhood church to study the spiritual import of the pomegranates on Aaron’s robe, while in an elementary school across town the Ten Commandments are being removed from the wall where they have resided since 1965. On the one hand, we see the human tendency to learn more and more about less and less, while on the other we witness the inclination to casually discard what previous generations have held to be of fundamental importance. Ask any Christian the meaning of WWJD, the biblical principles of financial prosperity, or the words to their favorite contemporary Christian song and you are apt to receive a ready reply. Ask most to name the Ten Commandments and you are unlikely to get a correct response. Ask them to name them in order and you are less likely still. In this generation, the search for the significant is supplanted by the glorification of the trivial. Jesus called it “straining at gnats and swallowing camels.”
Disregarding Laws of God and His Word opens a Pandora’s box and unleashes a hornet’s nest. Jesus did not destroy the laws of God but became the fulfillment of them. Mercy and Truth (Mercy in the truth) Grace and Law (Grace in the law). Hebrews reminds us that we are free from the law and sin.
Liberties without Laws produce anarchy and chaos. Unrestrained Liberty and freedoms become a License to sin, and eventually becomes open Licentiousness.
Likewise, a nation that does not respect the laws and covenants of God will falter with cracked and unstable foundations, thus disregarding respect for the rule of law, and ultimately turning freedom into enslavement.
Ephesians 5:15-21 is a good reminder to us:
“See then that you walk circumspectly (carefully), not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not be drunk (intoxicated) with wine in which is dissipation; but be filled with the SPIRIT, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another in the fear of the Lord.”
Let us not be so enamored in celebrity and intoxicated with the wares of this world, that we become blinded by the deceptive promises of fleshly satisfaction, that in reality will ultimately enslave us.
May our personal Liberty, not become a fleshly License to sin (and cause others to stumble), thus inevitably leading to open Licentiousness.
The tendency of the church to neglect the teaching of the Ten Commandments can be attributed to the common misunderstanding that the life and ministry of Jesus did away with the commandments and replaced them with the new commandment of love. While it is true that we are justified by faith and are not accepted by God based upon our ability to keep the commandments, Jesus explicitly stated that He “did not come to destroy the Law or the Prophets” (Matthew 5:17). The Greek word translated destroy can also mean “to nullify” or “make invalid.” Jesus did not come to nullify the law! Therefore, the law must still be applicable and relevant to His church.
You shall therefore keep His statutes and His commandments which I command you today, that it may go well with you and with your children after you, and that you may prolong your days in the land which the Lord your God is giving you for all time (Deuteronomy 4:40).
God promises us here that it will “go well” with us if we follow His commands! But, sadly, much of the world believes the Ten Commandments of God are as irrelevant and as archaic as the stone tablets upon which they were inscribed because they do not understand the spirit of God’s law.
I had the pleasure of meeting and ministering with Stephan Tchividjian when he spoke at the annual vision banquet for Hill Country Daily Bread, our Somebody Cares affiliate in Boerne, Texas. Stephan is the eldest grandson of Billy Graham and a gifted teacher in his own right. He often says, “Rules without relationship leads to rebellion.” This explains what we see happening more and more in our nation today as those who have no relationship with the God of the commandments have rebelled to the point of opposing any representation of Him in the public arena. In response, we cry out in righteous indignation—and justifiably so—when the Ten Commandments are removed from public life. We protest when the Bible (the written Word of God) is banned from the public square, as it was in 2004 when a Bible that was part of a tribute to William S. Mosher—founder of Star of Hope, a ministry to the homeless—was removed from the lawn of the courthouse in Houston. And we complain when praying in public is challenged.
Yet the greater question remains for those of us who profess a faith in Christ: Do we even pray in private? Are the commandments of God and the Word of God written in our hearts? What we do behind closed doors is what determines the power of God (or lack of it) in public.
What Nehemiah Knew
Nehemiah was a man of position, having grown up a Hebrew slave on Persian soil. But God’s hand of blessing was on him in the land of his captivity and he held a prominent position in the royal court of King Artaxerxes I of Persia. Despite his good fortune and prosperity, he desperately longed for his people to be restored to their calling and destiny as the elect of God.
It had been well over 100 years since the Babylonians had occupied Jerusalem, destroying its walls and temple, and taking all but the poorest of its citizens into exile to be pressed into service. So much had changed with the passing of time. Persia had replaced Babylon as the ruling world empire and many of Israelites had lived their entire lives in captivity, never seeing Jerusalem, the city of the Great King. Several Persian kings had issued decrees authorizing the rebuilding of Jerusalem, but lack of resources, poor leadership, and sabotage of new construction efforts had prevented its completion. Still, Nehemiah waited for news that the walls of the city had been rebuilt and that work to rebuild the temple had begun. Only then would it be clear that the favor of God had returned to His people.
Nehemiah’s brother, Hanani, recently returned from Jerusalem, had brought him news that all was not well in the land of Judah.
“The survivors who are left from the captivity are in great distress and reproach,” Hanani reported. “The wall of Jerusalem is also broken down, and its gates are burned with fire.”
Nehemiah wept with a sorrow beyond description. He had long suspected that the Lord had pulled back His hand of blessing from His people and now he was certain. But he also knew that his God was a God of mercy; the knowledge that his God had provided an avenue of restoration. He began to pray:
Lord God of heaven, O great and awesome God, You who keep Your covenant and mercy with those who love You and observe Your commandments, please let Your ear be attentive and Your eyes open, that You may hear the prayer of Your servant which I pray before You now, day and night, for the children of Israel Your servants, and confess the sins of the children of Israel which we have sinned against You. Both my father’s house and I have sinned.
We have acted very corruptly against You, and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, nor the ordinances which You commanded Your servant Moses. Remember, I pray, the word that You commanded Your servant Moses, saying, “If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations; but if you return to Me, and keep My commandments and do them, though some of you were cast out to the farthest part of the heavens, yet I will gather them from there, and bring them to the place which I have chosen as a dwelling for My name” (Nehemiah 1:5-9).
Nehemiah knew that the people of God were scattered and defenseless before their enemies because they had sinned by not keeping the commandments of God. He also knew that God had left them with a promise. If they would return to God and keep His commandments, they would be forgiven, restored and established in the place that He had chosen—Jerusalem.
Burned Gates and Broken Walls
In ancient times cities were built to protect the community from hostile tribes. In times of attack, the local people gathered inside the walls of the city and closed the massive gates, where they were protected from the assaults of their enemies. When Hanani told Nehemiah that Jerusalem’s gates had been burned and her walls were broken down, he was saying that God’s city was defenseless against whatever attacks the enemy may wish to bring against it. As a result, they had become scattered and were bringing shame upon themselves and the name of God.
In the same way, many of God’s people are defenseless against satan’s schemes. When the day of adversity comes they find the gates of their lives burned and their walls torn down. Instead of safety and stability, there is scattering and reproach. Crumbling marriages, emotional distress, physical infirmity, stress in the workplace, feelings of helplessness, responsibilities of everyday family life—all of these pressures and others are wreaking havoc on believers. Wandering and isolated, many Christians feel cut off from any sense of hope or course of action that will bring them to a place of restoration and peace.
Nehemiah was overwhelmed with similar feelings of despair and frustration, but he did not quit. In his hour of darkness, he turned toward God, weeping, fasting, praying and confessing his sins and the sins of his people. In the Old Testament, God’s people did not respect the commandments of God as a relevant or necessary means of governing their lives. Even though the Lord sent great prophets who called them to return to God and obey His Word, the people went their own way, ignoring God and His commands. The result was judgment, affliction, and hopelessness.
When a Christian experiences adversity, it is not always a result of failure to keep God’s commandments, but a call to prayer and self-examination. When things are not going well, the first thing we should do is take a moral and spiritual inventory in light of God’s Word. Do we need to confess sin as Nehemiah did? Are we guilty of breaking God’s holy commandments?
Before such a personal inventory can take place, it is essential that the believer has an accurate understanding of his responsibility to obey the commandments of God. Attempting to keep the commandments apart from the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit will certainly end in legalism and frustration. If a person mistakenly thinks that the commandments are not relevant for today and endeavors to please God by “living in the Spirit” apart from obedience to His Word, satan will take him captive. With a desire to please God, an understanding of His commandments, and an intimate knowledge of the spirit and heart of not only the law but the law-Giver, we can each receive God’s promise of a life well-lived!
John 1:17 (NKJV) says “For the Law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”
A thousand years before the time of Nehemiah, a great mass of refugees convened in the Middle East at the base of a mountain called Sinai. Although they had witnessed awesome miracles performed by the hand of God, only Moses and Aaron had heard His voice. In the past, their forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had also heard the voice of God (Exodus 4:27). Through their testimony, this multitude of emancipated slaves recognized that there was only one God and not many gods, as other nations believed. Even though God performed mighty acts of deliverance for them, He was only known personally by Moses. Only Moses had been in the presence of God and it was through Moses that God was speaking to His people. And when the people camped below, Moses ascended Mt. Sinai to receive instructions from God.
Moses didn’t have to wait long to hear the Lord call him. He was to invite the Israelites into a relationship unlike any other – a covenant relationship with God:
Thus, you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel: “You 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, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:3b-6a).
The people of Israel had been slaves under the rule of the Pharaoh of Egypt. For well over four hundred years they had suffered under the cruel taskmasters with no one to help them. Without God’s mercy, they undoubtedly would have remained in that condition. But at God’s appointed time, He acted unilaterally to save Israel. He raised up His faithful servant Moses, and with miraculous power, brought deliverance to Israel. This is a type of New Testament salvation. We were helplessly enslaved under the authority of sin and our own evil desires when, in the fullness of time, God sent His Son Jesus to destroy the power of our enemy satan on the cross of Calvary.
The first thing God did after delivering Israel was to call their attention to the fact that He was the One who delivered them from their bondage. He wanted them to recognize His willingness to humble the mightiest nation in the world in order to set them free. He wanted them to understand that without His supernatural power and intervention, the Egyptian army would have destroyed their entire nation. He was reminding them that they owed Him everything, even their lives.
The apostle Paul teaches the relevance of this truth to the New Testament believer when he writes, “Do you not know that…you are not your own? For you were bought at a price” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). God is saying the same thing to Christians today: “I am your God and I have delivered you from the bondage of all the things seeking to control your life.” He delivers us from the shame and bondage of the iniquities in our hearts. We are no longer dependent on drugs, alcohol, sexual promiscuity or unhealthy relational attachments. God delivers us from the need for all things other than Himself. He desires to bring us into a place of dependence and obedience to His Word.
Now God does not deliver from something without delivering to something. He never intended for His people to be free of any responsibility toward Him after He delivered them from the bondage of their sin. The Bible teaches just the opposite: “And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness” (Romans 6:18). In God’s viewpoint, all men are slaves, the only variable being which master has authority over them. God delivers His people from their evil masters in order that they might acknowledge Him as their new Master.
Let’s Make a Deal
God had big plans for His people—He had saved them with a distinct purpose in mind. No longer would they work another man’s fields or build the cities of another nation. They would answer only to God; in fact, they would be His “special treasure” (Segullah in Hebrew) or “prized possession.” The Israelites understood that God was making a claim of ownership on their lives because He had been their Deliverer. But what a wonderful exchange! Not only would they be highly valued by the all-powerful God, but they would also hold exalted positions with respect to all peoples of all nations.
In fulfillment of God’s promises to their forefathers (Genesis 12:1-3), Israel was gathered together so they might be offered the opportunity to become a unique nation, a special people of God. They were to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” specially chosen to function as God’s representatives to the rest of the world. This offer took the form of a covenant, an agreement between God and His people that promised them this privileged status if they fulfilled specific conditions. But if the conditions were not met, God would cease to be an agent of blessing on their behalf and would allow their enemies to enslave and scatter them. Their responsibility in this covenant arrangement was to be obedient to God’s commands.
Now God did not give the commandments to Israel right after He delivered them. The commandments of God were given to the Israelites only after they had agreed to God’s gracious offer. In other words, the commandments did not have their foundation in some sterile, legalistic environment, but were communicated as a result of a covenant relationship that had been established willingly between God and Israel.
What Will It Be? Yes or No?
The most common form of covenant relationship today is marriage. It is the most intimate and loving of all relationships and serves as the earthly example of the type of bond that God envisioned with His people. When the people of Israel were enslaved in Egypt, God was the knight in shining armor who slew the Egyptian dragon and gave them their freedom. After their deliverance, God continued to woo them and prove His commitment by supernaturally supplying water, food, and direction in the desert. Free from their oppressors, free from their labors, and free to determine the paths their lives should take, they were also free to accept or reject God’s invitation to covenant relationship, His invitation to marriage.
Moses relayed the invitation of covenant with God to the people, and he had scarcely finished speaking when they replied, “All that the Lord has spoken, we will do.” Israel agreed to enter into covenant relationship with God.
Prepare to Meet God
Moses returned up the mountain and “brought back the words of the people to the Lord.” Then God gave Moses His plan for revealing Himself to the people of Israel, His self-revelation so that they might be brought to a position of faith: “Behold, I come to you in the thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with you, and believe you forever” (Exodus 19:9). God wanted the people to hear His voice for themselves. God knew that without such a revelation of His character, the people could not fulfill their destiny as a holy nation or keep His commandments.
As a means of consecrating and purifying themselves for their encounter with God, the people were instructed to wash their clothes and abstain from sexual relations. After two days of purification, the appointed day arrived when God came down upon Mount Sinai so that all the people might see Him and hear His voice. To fulfill their destiny, they needed to know God in a way they never had known Him before. There were, however, limits to the degree of intimacy the people would experience with God.
The mountain was set apart from the people by clearly-defined boundaries. If any man, woman, or beast dared to trespass the established boundaries, they would be put to death. Although their relationship was to be personal, boundaries of familiarity could not be crossed. God is holy and cannot be approached by sinful man without the greater purification that one day would be provided by the blood of Jesus Christ.
What Happened When It Thundered?
That morning a thick, dark cloud descended upon the mountain with thunder and lightning; and the sound of a trumpet was heard coming from the mountain. The trumpet of God Himself called His people to assemble at the base of the mountain to receive the commandments. During this holy moment of matrimony, the people were to get a more intimate knowledge of their Bridegroom. As Moses led the people from the camp, the mountain began to shake and become completely covered in dark smoke because the fire of the presence of God descended upon it.
Then the Lord spoke the commandments directly to the people assembled at the mountain. The account of this event is found in the book of Deuteronomy. After Moses read the Ten Commandments to the people he declared:
These words the Lord spoke to all your assembly, in the mountain from the midst of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness, with a loud voice; and He added no more. And He wrote them on two tablets of stone and gave them to me (Deuteronomy 5:22).
It had always been God’s intention for the people to hear His commandments spoken to them. Their reaction to His voice was disappointing:
Now all the people witnessed the thunderings, the lightning flashes, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled and stood afar off. Then they said to Moses, “You speak with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die.” And Moses said to the people, “Do not fear; for God has come to test you, and that His fear may be before you, so that you may not sin.” So the people stood afar off, but Moses drew near the thick darkness where God was (Exodus 20:18-21).
Moses told the people that God was testing them (nasah in Hebrew). The word carries with it the idea of testing in order to see what kind of response is generated. God was testing the people to see how they would respond to a revelation of His power and glory; however, instead of drawing near to God, they distanced themselves from His presence.
Their refusal to appreciate and relate to God in His holiness made it impossible for them to honor the commandments because they chose not to engage themselves in the relationship that was the foundation of the commandments. Moses encouraged them to draw near to God because without a proper appreciation for His holy and awesome character, remaining faithful to the commandments would be difficult. Intimate knowledge of the majesty of God is a prerequisite for avoiding sin and keeping His covenant!
The Israelites’ reluctance to pursue a relationship with God had immediate consequences. The Bible records in painful detail how swiftly the Israelites abandoned their covenant vows; in fact, before Moses returned from the mountain with the written commandments, the people had already fallen into idolatry, worshiping gods of wood and gold. Within two generations their enemies were defeating them and taking the land that God had given them. From time to time, the nation prospered under righteous leaders who knew God, such as David, Solomon, Josiah, Ezra, and Nehemiah, and they obeyed the commandments and embraced His covenant, but the majority of the people remained distant from Him. Consequently, for the most part, the nation never fulfilled its destiny.
During a particularly dark period of Israel’s history, a group of reformers known as Hasidim (pious people) called Israel to return to God by keeping His covenant and obeying His law. Under the direction of the Hasidim, leaders arose who revolted against the foreign powers that ruled and established their own king over Israel. Their independence was short and the nation was once again subjected to a foreign power (Rome), but the zeal for the law and covenant found in the Hasidim continued to exist and eventually developed into the religious sect known as the Pharisees.
In today’s Christian culture, the term Pharisee is a rather uncomplimentary term applied to those who have self-righteous, condescending attitudes. Consider, however, that Jesus never criticized the Pharisees just because they were Pharisees:
The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do (Matthew 23:2-3).
Jesus affirmed the Pharisees as teachers of God’s law to the people; He even went so far as to instruct the people to obey their words. The criticism brought against them was that they were hypocrites; they failed to practice what they had preached. How could they have such zeal and passion for the law but yet fail to obey and please God?
The Mistake the Pharisees Made
Before his conversion to Christ, the apostle Paul was a Pharisee. Through the spirit of Christ he had come to understand that the problem was not one of passion, but of knowledge:
For I bear them [Israel] witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God (Romans 10:2-3).
The Pharisees made the mistake of trying to keep the commandments of God without knowing the God of the commandments. They got caught up in human efforts of keeping the law without pursuing a relationship with God, who gave it to them. Because they did not know God, they twisted His law to avoid the need for submitting to Him.
When the people received the commandments at Mount Sinai, they failed to press in to an intimate knowledge of God and so they were not able to keep His commandments. Why? Because the Bible teaches that the letter of the law without the knowledge of God which comes through the Spirit of Christ — kills.
It is not possible to understand and interpret God’s law accurately without an intimate knowledge of Him. Many Christians today are defeated and live in religious bondage because they try to keep God’s commandments without truly knowing the spirit behind them. They are caught in a routine of religious activity and practice, but their hearts are cold toward God, and they are not experiencing the joy of fulfilling their true purpose. It is only in Jesus that men receive the law (truth) and the restoration of relationship (grace) that enables us to walk faithfully with God in the richness of our callings.
Let’s get to know the God of the commandments and be renewed in our hearts and minds by Him. Only then will the Spirit of the 10 Commandments be at work in our everyday lives. I want to challenge you…seek God and the revelation of His love as you read through the 10 Commandments. Write them out and ponder them in light of God’s love; ask God for his grace to live them out in your life. As you do, see how God brings life and restoration to areas you thought were impossible!
And join us for a Spiritual Reset by going to somebodycares.org/reset/