Scripture: Exodus 20:1-17

Title: Ten Words


  • Introduction
  • God’s love comes first – relationship, freedom & grace (v.2)
  • Loving God – loyalty & jealousy (vv.3-7)
  • Sabbath holds it all together – creation not chaos (vv. 8-11)
  • Loving neighbour – community not competition (vv. 12-17)
  • Conclusion


Whenever I cook I like to follow a recipe

  • Without the instructions I’m cooking blind and don’t know if the outcome will taste any good
  • But with the recipe I don’t worry
  • The recipe gives me confidence that we will eat well that night

Please turn with me to Exodus chapter 20, page 80 in your pew Bibles

  • Today we resume our series on Moses
  • By this stage in their journey Israel are 3 months out of Egypt, camped at the foot of Mt Sinai
  • Moses is acting as an intermediary between God and the people, communicating God’s words to the Israelites
  • In this morning’s reading God gives Moses a recipe for life
  • These are God’s instructions for living well
  • From Exodus chapter 20, verse 1, we read…

Read Exodus 20:1-17

May the Spirit of Jesus illuminate this reading for us

This recipe or list of instructions, in Exodus 20, has been summarised as ‘love God and love your neighbour’

  • And while that’s a pretty good summary it doesn’t actually start with our love – it begins with God’s love
  • Before we can love God, or anyone else, we must first accept God’s love for us – if we miss out that step all our efforts will come to nothing

God’s love comes first – relationship, freedom & grace (v.2)

The thing with following a recipe, or any other set of instructions, is that you have to follow all of it

  • If you leave out any part of the recipe then it doesn’t taste right
  • For example, you might be making a brownie and you see the list of ingredients includes 100 grams of butter
  • You think to yourself – that’s easy – I’ll just measure out 100 grams and throw it in the bowl with the sugar and the flour
  • Then you can’t understand why the ingredients don’t combine well
  • So you go back to read the recipe again (properly this time) and you see that you were supposed to melt the butter first

It’s the same with flat pack furniture

  • You might think you can take a short cut here or there but if you miss out any steps along the way or get those steps in the wrong order, you have to start again

This recipe or list of instructions that God gives Moses in Exodus 20 is commonly referred to as the ‘10 Commandments’

  • It would be more accurate though to call this the ‘10 Words’ or the Decalogue (deca meaning 10 and logue meaning word)

Verse 1 reads, ‘God spoke and these were his words.’

  • The original Hebrew text doesn’t even mention the term ‘commandment’ in this passage

Anyway in verse 2, Yahweh says to Moses…

  • “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, where you were slaves.”

Clearly this is not a commandment – it is a statement of fact

  • God is essentially saying, ‘Israel, I love you. Remember that, because my love is how it all begins’
  • Consequently, in Jewish tradition, the Decalogue (or the 10 words) begins with verse 2

Unfortunately our Protestant tradition overlooks verse 2 altogether

  • Our tradition begins with verse 3, ‘Worship no God but me’.
  • By not paying attention to vs. 2 we Protestants have messed up the recipe
  • We’ve forgotten the first & most important ingredient – God’s love for us

So let’s get it right then – let’s pay attention to the whole recipe and start with God’s first word in verse 2 – because this is where God makes it plain what His intention is in giving the Law

Yahweh begins, “I am the Lord your God”

  • This is a statement of personal relationship
  • As Terence Fretheim observes: The address is to the individual ‘you’ and not to Israel generally – which lifts up the importance of internal motivation rather than corporate pressure or external coercion [1]
  • In other words, God’s instructions should be understood relationally and personally
  • God does not intend for our obedience to be forced from the outside but wants us to obey Him freely and willingly from the inside, because we know He loves us and we love Him in return

We have speed limits on our roads

  • Those limits are put there for our well-being, our safety
  • We might obey the speed limit for external reasons – because we don’t want to get snapped by a speed camera and fined
  • Or we might obey the speed limit for internal reasons – because we care about the people travelling in our vehicle
  • They say a man never drives more carefully than when he has his new born baby in the car. Why? Because he loves his child
  • As a father he isn’t worried about speed cameras – he just wants to protect his child
  • God’s words, His instructions or His recipe, are given in love
  • And He means for us to keep His words out of love for Him – not out of fear of punishment

God goes on to say, in verse 2 …

  • I brought you out of Egypt where you were slaves
  • The message is clear – God’s intention for Israel is that they be free
  • The Law is not to be understood as another form of bondage
  • The Law is to be understood as a recipe for freedom

When God says…

  • Do not commit murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal and so on, He isn’t taking away their freedom
  • He is indicating how they can more fully enter into their freedom
  • The Law is not a whip and God is not a slave driver
  • The Law is a gift and God is a redeemer

The other thing we should note here is that grace comes first, before the giving of the Law

  • God saved Israel before they had done anything to deserve it, that’s grace
  • Grace is the horse and obedience is the cart
  • The horse of grace pulls the cart of obedience
  • We mustn’t get the cart before the horse

So, God frames His Law in terms of personal relationship, freedom and grace

  • God gives the Law for our well-being
  • The Law is intended as an expression of God’s love for us


The first step in God’s recipe then is recognising His love for us

  • The second step is about us loving Him
  • Loving God means being loyal to Him


Loving God – loyalty & jealousy (vv.3-7)

In verse 3 the Lord says, ‘Worship no God but me’

  • Then He goes on to explain in verses 4 & 5, this means you don’t make any sort of graven image and you don’t bow down to any idol

Basically God wants our exclusive loyalty

  • He tolerates no rivals (as the Good News Bible puts it)
  • It’s not that God is insecure or feels threatened by the competition
  • Rather, there is no competition
  • There are no other gods beside Yahweh and therefore we would be wasting our time if we worshipped anything else

More literal translations of verse 5 have the Lord saying, ‘I am a jealous God’

  • We tend to think of jealousy as a negative thing – like envy
  • And while jealousy can have that nuance in today’s modern English use-age, it never has that meaning in relation to God – God is not envious

The word jealousy originates from the Latin word zelosus – from which we get the word zealous  [2]

  • Jealousy, in relation to God, has to do with His zealousness for our well being

I didn’t really begin to understand the concept of God’s jealousy until I became a parent

  • You know when your child is vulnerable or threatened or at risk in some way and you experience this incredible urge from within to protect them
  • That energy, that irrepressible instinct to protect, that’s jealousy in the positive sense of the word

There is a movie which came out in 2008 starring Liam Neeson, called Taken

  • I haven’t seen the movie because, as a father of two girls, I don’t find that kind of thing entertaining
  • Basically the daughter of an ex CIA agent is kidnapped and the father (Liam Neeson) goes after the kidnappers to get his girl back
  • The father is jealous for his daughter – he is fiercely protective of her and will not rest until she is safe

God is jealous in the sense that He is fiercely protective of those in His care – those who belong to Him

  • He is jealous in the sense that He will leave no stone unturned to find us and restore us to Himself

Pharaoh inflamed the Lord’s jealousy by his mistreatment of the Hebrew people and Egypt suffered terribly as a consequence

We see the lengths that God would go to, in His jealous love for us, in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross

God’s jealousy, then, is essentially His protective instinct for us

  • Like a parent’s protective instinct with their child
  • God doesn’t want us to bow down to anything else because that would be bad for us and He wants to protect us from what is bad
  • It’s really quite cool that in loving God we are doing ourselves a favour

In the same way that God is jealous for our well-being – we too need to be jealous for God’s reputation

  • And so in verse 7 The Lord says, ‘Do not use my name for evil purposes’
  • Or, ‘Do not take the Lord’s name in vain’

To take the Lord’s name in vain is to say, ‘You must do what I say because God has told me this’, when in fact God has not told you that

To take the Lord’s name in vain is to claim you are doing God’s work by blowing yourself up in a crowd or flying a passenger plane into a high rise

To take the Lord’s name in vain is to say, ‘I’m a Christian’ and then live the lifestyle of a pagan

God is jealous for us and we need to be jealous for Him

  • Loyalty and jealousy – that is what it means to love God

Sabbath holds it all together – creation not chaos (vv.8-11)

When you make a cake you need a binding ingredient – something (like an egg for example) that holds the mixture together

At the centre of God’s recipe is the instruction to dedicate one day in seven, a Sabbath to the Lord for resting

  • The Sabbath is the binding ingredient in God’s recipe for living well
  • It holds together God’s love for us with our love for God & our neighbour
  • Or to change the metaphor: The Sabbath instruction is a major intersection connecting the main arterial routes within God’s Law

We observe a Sabbath for ourselves, for our neighbour and for the sake of creation

Jesus said, ‘Man was not made for the Sabbath. The Sabbath was made for man’

  • Before anything else the Sabbath reminds us of God’s love for us
  • The Sabbath is a gift from God for our well-being
  • By resting, our body is restored and our mind is released from the knots it gets itself into
  • Rest prevents work from becoming an idol and therefore helps us to remain loyal to God

If you are baking bread then normally part of the process involves allowing the dough time to rest before you put it in the oven

  • Or when you cook a choice piece of meat – you don’t cut it as soon as it leaves the pan – you let it rest for a few minutes first

If we are going to enjoy life and get the most out of it then we need to factor in times of regular rest

Not only is it good for us when we observe a Sabbath, it is good for others also – it makes us easier to live with

In verse 10 the Lord says the Sabbath is for everyone, including your children, your manservants & maidservants, your animals and the foreigners living in your country

  • This instruction was way ahead of its time
  • In other cultures the men in charge might be allowed a day off while everyone else had to keep working
  • In Israel though, there was to be Sabbath equality

At its heart, Sabbath rest is really about creation. In verse 11 God says…

  • “In six days I, the Lord, made the earth, the sky, the sea, and everything in them, but on the seventh day I rested. That is why I, the Lord, blessed the Sabbath and made it holy.”

There is a relationship between the physical order and the moral order

  • When Adam sinned against God in the garden, the land was cursed
  • When we make production and consumption and money more important than God, then the environment suffers
  • But when we keep God’s moral order we preserve the physical order
  • Observing Sabbath rest is a creative act which keeps the forces of chaos at bay

The first step in God’s recipe is recognising His love for us

  • The second step is us loving God – being loyal to Him & jealous for His reputation
  • The key ingredient which holds it all together is Sabbath rest
  • Sabbath connects loving God with loving our neighbour

Loving neighbour – community not competition (vv. 12-17)

To love our neighbour is to be beside them and have their back – to be committed to their well-being as God is committed to our well-being

Verses 12-17, of Exodus 20, spell out what loving our neighbour looks like…

  • Honour your father and mother
  • Do not kill
  • Do not commit adultery
  • Do not steal
  • Do not accuse anyone falsely
  • Do not covet

These instructions are about living in community, as opposed to living in competition

  • Community requires cooperation – competition leads to isolation
  • Community sees connections and how to strengthen those connections
  • Competition sees people either as tools to be used or as a threat to be eliminated
  • In community we have each other’s back – we don’t worry about ourselves – we think about the person next to us
  • Therefore we have a sense of security in community
  • But in competition there is only anxiety

When we look at these ‘love thy neighbour’ instructions we notice that at least two of them relate directly to family life

  • Honouring parents and not committing adultery
  • Parents and husband or wife are our nearest neighbours
  • To follow these two instructions is to maintain family life which in turn strengthens the wider community

Honouring parents is an intentionally broad expression which may mean different things depending on the circumstances and stages of life

  • When we are young it could mean obeying our parents, but it won’t always mean that
  • As our parents get older and less able, honouring them might mean taking care of their physical needs

‘Do not kill’, is a tricky one – particularly in light of some other aspects of Old Testament Law where God seems to condone killing

  • For this reason some translators prefer to say, ‘Do not commit murder’
  • But this is problematic also
  • Perhaps it is good that the Hebrew word for kill (rasah) is a little vague in its definition, because this forces us to continually reflect on the meaning of the commandment, particularly in light of issues like war, euthanasia, suicide, self-defence and abortion
  • I like what Terence Fretheim says here: “The basis of the command is that all life belongs to God. The divine intention in creation is that no life be taken. Life is thus not for human beings to do with as they will; they are not God.” [3]

We are not to steal, because work is a gift from God and when someone steals they show contempt for other people’s work

  • Stealing, in the original context, could also be a life and death matter, depending on what was stolen and how poor the victim was

‘Do not accuse anyone falsely’, was originally a reference to not giving a false testimony in legal proceedings – don’t pervert justice in other words

  • But it could also mean don’t gossip or speak slanderous or deceptive words about anybody
  • We need to have each other’s backs in our conversations and guard one another’s reputations – this builds trust

Covetousness has to do with misplaced desire, envy, lust & greed and this last instruction is mostly concerned with a person’s inner life – the inclinations of the heart and the habits of the mind

  • The thing with coveting is that other people can’t usually tell when we are doing it – but God knows, because God looks on the heart
  • If we avoid coveting other people’s stuff then we will probably avoid breaking the previous five ‘love thy neighbour’ instructions


There’s a lot more we could say about God’s recipe in Exodus 20 – in particular the way Jesus modified it and extended its meaning in His Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 – but that’s enough for today

The main thing to take away is that the Decalogue (God’s 10 Words of instruction) are a recipe for living well

The first step in the recipe is recognising God’s love for us

  • Grace comes before the Law
  • But even the Law itself is an expression of God’s grace
  • God gives His instructions so we can be free

The second step is us loving God

  • That means being loyal to Him & jealous for His reputation

The key ingredient which holds it all together is Sabbath rest

  • Sabbath is a creative act in that it keeps the forces of chaos at bay and connects loving God with loving our neighbour

To love our neighbour is to have their back – to stand beside them in commitment to their well-being as God is committed to our well being

  • Loving our neighbour requires a community attitude, in contrast to a competitive attitude

Let us pray…

[1] Terence Fretheim, Exodus, page 222


[3] Terence Fretheim, Exodus, page 233.