Lee, Jeong W.  “Introduction to the Ten Commandments,  Kerux 12.1 (1998) 23-34.

       Copyright © 1998 by Northwest Theological Seminary. Cited with permission.





                     Introduction to the Ten


                                     Exodus 20:1-3; Luke 12:48



                                          Jeong Woo (James) Lee


            Something quite unprecedented is happening in our text. Never

has God so clearly, comprehensively and categorically expressed the

duties he requires of his covenant people in all the areas of their lives

until now. Beginning from this section and continuing through the end of

the Book of Deuteronomy, God will set down specific laws and regula-

tions as guidelines for various aspects of Israel's covenant life as citi-

zens of a new theocratic nation; specific laws and regulations concern-

ing their relationship with God as well as specific laws and regulations

concerning their relationship with one another and with other nations.

Through the law, Israel will know clearly how to worship God, both in

public and private arenas; how to build the tabernacle, ordain priests

and offer sacrifices; what religious festivals and holidays to celebrate

and how to do so; how to deal with one another as fellow citizens through

codes of private, socio-political, judicial and religious ethics--codes cov-

ering everything that happens between the birth and the death of man both

socially and individually.


            The laws given at Mount Sinai (what is popularly called the Mosaic laws)

are usually divided into three categories: the ceremonial, the civil and the

moral. The ceremonial laws are those which are connected with the Old Tes-

tament worship at the tabernacle and temple. They include those regulations




24                                Lee:  Ten Commandments               


concerning all types of animal and grain sacrifices and temple rituals per-

formed by the Levitical priests. The civil laws are those which are particularly

connected with the government and maintenance of the theocratic nation that

Israel once was. As the civil laws of the theocratic nation of Israel, they were

unique and applicable only to Israel--despite many who insist on implement-

ing the ancient Jewish civil laws in modern non-theocratic nations. The unique-

ness of these civil laws stems from the fact that Israel was a theocratic nation

in which the state and the church were united. Thus we see in the Mosaic laws

many penal codes imposing corporal punishments upon "religious" and moral

offenses as well as criminal offenses. We also see provisions made for the

executive branch of the government to oversee cultic practices and even to

initiate religious reforms. Both the priesthood and the imperial court had the

Mosaic laws as their common standards.


The third category of the Mosaic law is the moral laws. What distin-

guishes these from the ceremonial and civil laws (which were temporary in

nature) is their permanent and universal application: they are not unique to

Israel, but universally applicable to all peoples of all ages. These moral laws,

however, must be divided into two categories: there are some which are per-

manent temporally; there are others which are permanent eternally. The former

deal with human relations; the latter deal with man's relationship with God.

For example, the commandment to love God and worship him alone is eter-

nally true, abiding and effective, since our relationship with God is eternal.

However, the commandments to honor our parents and love our spouses will

not be in effect in heaven because those human relationships, being tempo-

rary and temporal in nature, will not be present there: we will all be brothers

and sisters. And yet we can talk about even these temporal moral laws as

being permanent because they remain valid for all people (whether they are

Jews or not) so long as this world continues.


However, we must remember a very important fact. The moral, ceremo-

nial and civil laws are not completely separate, unrelated categories of law.

As they all come from the same divine Lawgiver, they are all interrelated.

And they are interrelated in this way: the ceremonial and civil laws are tem-

porary, situational applications of the eternal moral laws to the specific reli-

gious and social context of the theocratic Israel. After all, the ceremonial

laws are concerned with our relationship with God--more specifically, how



                                                            Kerux                                                  25


we may approach our holy God. Our relationship with God is the central

concern also of the moral laws (namely, the first four of the Ten Command-

ments). Yet, the Mosaic ceremonial laws were temporary in nature because

they revolved around the physical temple which was only a type and shadow

of the eternal, heavenly temple. This is true for the civil laws as well. The civil

laws deal with our relationship with one another--also the main concern of

the moral laws (namely, the latter six of the Ten Commandments). The Mo-

saic civil laws were temporary because the context in which they were ap-

plied (the theocracy of Israel) was also temporary: the theocratic Israel was

also a type/shadow of the eternal kingdom of God.


What must puzzle you at this point is how God's laws can be subject to

situations and be only temporarily applicable. This may sound to you very

much like situational ethics. However, there is a fundamental difference be-

tween situational ethics and what we are talking about. Situational ethics does

not believe in any absolute standard for human morality. Each situation calls

for a different code of ethics, fully determined by pragmatic concerns of that

particular time and situation. What we are talking about, however, is differ-

ent. We are not talking about changes; we are talking about a progressive

revelation of God's law. And this progression we are talking about is not an

evolutionary process--a gradual process of the formation, maturation and

perfection of ethical codes and principles through trial and error. The pro-

gression we are talking about is of an organic nature--like a butterfly going

through different stages of organic growth--going through the egg, the cater-

pillar and the larval stages to finally become a beautiful butterfly. In each

ensuing stage, the preceding manifestation of life is replaced by the new through

a wondrous metamorphosis. However, through all the different stages and

forms, the essence of the butterfly remains the same. Such is the nature of the

progressive revelation of God's law in redemptive history. The eternal law of

God is given to his people in different organic stages. Even the displacement

or replacement of certain portions of the law (such as the ceremonial laws)

does not indicate any change in the fundamental principles. This is so because

the law of God is not merely a code of ethics arbitrarily devised by God just

for man. The law of God is more importantly God's own self-expression of

his holy character given in the form of commandments to his covenant people.

As such, the law of God, though given in a progressive manner, is firmly



26                                Lee:  Ten Commandments               



anchored in the absolute, eternal holiness of the unchangeable, immutable

God. As God cannot change in his holiness, neither can the eternal principles

from which God's commandments come. And these eternal, immutable prin-

ciples, emanating from God's holy character, manifest themselves progres-

sively throughout redemptive history. We can say then that the nature of this

progression in the revelation of God's law does not consist in any change in

essence and principle, but in the increasing clarity of expression and the height-

ening demand of obedience.


Why such a progression in the first place? you might ask. Why didn't God

give us his eternal law from the very beginning? This is a legitimate and im-

portant question. This question can be answered only when we reaffirm the

law as a divine self-expression of God's holy character. We realize that the

full, unrestrained self-expression of God's holiness was impossible in the fallen

world, without destroying sinful humanity. We all know too well the destruc-

tive power of God's holiness in relation to sinful man. Many, who encoun-

tered the theophany of God throughout redemptive history, cried out with

fear and despair, "Woe is me, for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of

hosts!" Due to this total incompatibility between God's holiness and man's

sinfulness, the divine self-revelation of his holiness had to be keeping in step

with his redemptive work. And the divine redemptive program was progres-

sive in nature--to go through the process of promise and fulfillment--the

typological fulfillment first and then the real fulfillment in the end. Thus, the

self-revelation of God and his holiness through the law had to come in a pro-

gressive manner. There is indeed an intimate and directly proportional rela-

tionship between the law of God and the redemptive work of God. The degree

and extent of the revelation of God's holiness through the law is directly pro-

portional to the quality and magnitude of God's redeeming work.


Therefore, we are not surprised to find this relationship at work at the

beginning of the Ten Commandments. In v. 2, we have what we call the pre-

amble to the Mosaic law: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of

the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery." This preamble provides the

historical background and the theological rationale for the giving of the law

and for the obedience required of God's people.



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Notice, first of all, the redemptive-historical character of this preamble.

The Lord declares that he redeemed Israel by bringing her out of the bondage

in Egypt. God is asserting his rightful authority to be obeyed by his people as

their Redeemer-Lord. Second, notice the causal relationship between God's

redeeming work and the giving of the law: it is because the Lord redeemed

Israel that she must obey the commandments. Even at the inauguration of the

Mosaic covenant, it is made clear that redemption is given freely by God's

grace and not by man's own meritorious works. Israel was to keep the com-

mandments because she was already delivered by God, not in order to be

redeemed by God.


In the light of this causal relationship between God's redeeming work

(the cause) and the giving of the law (the consequence), we may assert that

such a clear, comprehensive elucidation of God's will for his people (given

through the law) was possible only because of the great redemption which

God accomplished in the exodus of Israel. The validity of this claim is not

difficult to see. The law had always been present in God's covenantal dealing

with man-even in the garden of Eden. There, the cultural mandate to popu-

late the earth and rule over other creatures was given. Also, a prohibition

concerning the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was de-

creed. Although in the garden of Eden before the fall, God's redemption from

sin (per se) was not necessary as a provision for the giving of the law, the

"law" and its sanctions were given in the garden in accordance with the sinless

condition in(to) which God created man.


We also know from God's words to Abram that a certain moral standard

was imposed on him (even before the giving of the law at Mount Sinai): "I am

God Almighty; Walk before Me, and be blameless" (Gen. 17:1). Though God's

specific act of redemption is not clearly stated here, we know from the con-

text that God's demand for Abram to walk before God in a blameless manner

was indeed based upon his act of redemption--calling Abram out of Ur of the

Chaldeans. Yet God's redemption for Abram--the fulfillment of God's prom-

ises--was limited, though a son was given in his late age. Abram did not

come into the possession of the land in his life time; Abram did not see his

descendants become as many as the stars in the sky; Abram did not see all the

families of the earth being blessed because of him. This limited fulfillment of



28                                Lee:  Ten Commandments               



God's redemption in his life was the very reason why Abram received a ver-

sion of the law which was sketchy at best, falling far short of the comprehen-

siveness of the law given at Mount Sinai. The Israel at Mount Sinai, on the

other hand, experienced a far greater redemption of God: their number be-

came as many as the stars in the heavens; they were delivered out of the bond-

age of slavery in Egypt by God's great and mighty power; they were about to

receive the promised land as their inheritance, etc. Through God's redemp-

tion, the conditions necessary and conducive for a higher level of spiritual

living were created; accordingly, a higher and greater demand for covenant

obedience is placed upon the redeemed people of God through the fuller rev-

elation of God's law.


Thus, the law begins with a clear affirmation of God's great and mighty

work of redemption: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the

land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery." The Lord through the preamble

declares that the conditions for the next stage of redemptive history have been

prepared by his redemption. Then he proceeds with the giving of the law,

starting with the first commandment. We may paraphrase the beginning of

the Ten Commandments in this way: "Because I have brought you out of the

Egyptian bondage, you shall have no other gods before Me."


However, it is precisely this inseparable connection between God's re-

demption and the self-revelation of God's holiness through the law, which

makes the Mosaic law far from being a complete expression of the holy stan-

dard of God. Here, we are not only referring to the imperfections and limita-

tions of the ceremonial and civil laws, but also of the moral laws represented

by the Ten Commandments. The exodus of Israel from Egypt was not the

ultimate, full redemption of God for his people. The ultimate salvation could

not be just an external liberation from physical bondage, as the exodus of

Israel was in the Old Testament. The ultimate salvation had to deal with the

inner, spiritual corruption of man. For the external, political bondage to which

Israel was subject, both in Egypt and later in the promised land as well, was

only a physical indication of the inner, spiritual bondage to sin and death.

Indeed, Israel's bondage to sin was the very cause of all their miseries. Unless

this problem of sin was fully dealt with, man could never experience the true

redemption. And this ultimate redemption was what was in God's mind from



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the very beginning. All of the redemptive acts of God in the Old Testament,

with all of their externality and attending limitations, pointed to the ultimate,

perfect salvation to be brought to God's people in the fullness of time. There-

fore, the Mosaic law, connected with the imperfect, merely typological salva-

tion of Israel from Egypt, could not be a full expression of God's holiness and

of his holy demand from his people. The full expression of God's holiness had

to wait until the fullness of time when God's full redemption of his people was



Many hundreds of years later, Paul triumphantly declared in Romans

8:3-4, "What the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did:

sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin,

he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the requirement of the law might

be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the

Spirit." In the atoning death of Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, the

requirement of the law was fulfilled for us. And we know that the requirement

of the law, which was fulfilled in Jesus Christ goes far beyond the require-

ment imposed by the Mosaic law. All that the Mosaic law requires for the

forgiveness of our sin is the sacrifices of bulls and goats. This should have

been a clear indication of the terrible limitation of the Mosaic law. For the

atoning death of Jesus Christ clearly tells us that our sins require something

far greater than mere sacrifices of animals. Doesn't the sacrifice of Jesus

Christ--God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God--show us what

the ultimate law of God requires for the forgiveness of our sins? Did Jesus

himself not say that he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it? He

meant more than meeting the requirements of the Mosaic law. In Jesus Christ,

the full expression of the law of God in all of its holiness was given--far

beyond the Mosaic law. Isn't it clear that the Sermon on the Mount outshines

the Mosaic law in its surpassing righteousness? Isn't it clear that Jesus on that

mountain is the One who is far greater than Moses at Mount Sinai? Conse-

quently, what Jesus had to deal with was not the demands of the Mosaic law.

He had to deal with what the Mosaic law was a faint reflection of--the abso-

lute standard of God--without any compromise or diminution.


That is why the true nature of our sin in all of its ugliness and repulsive-

ness could not be exposed until the death of Jesus Christ. The first function of



30                                Lee:  Ten Commandments               



the law is to bring in the knowledge of sin. Yet, the knowledge of sin brought

out by the Mosaic law was not complete. It gave an impression that all that

was required for the atonement of our sins was animal sacrifices. However,

the death of Jesus Christ on the cross showed that sin, being an offense against

an infinitely holy God, is a crime deserving an infinite, eternal damnation. No

blood of bulls and goats--though they may be thousands and tens of thou-

sands in number--can atone for our sins. Not even myriads of angels with

their deaths could pay for a single sin of ours, for they are finite beings and as

such insufficient payment for our infinite sin. Nothing less than the blood of

Jesus Christ, the infinite God himself, can pay for our infinite sins.


On the other hand, we must understand that the death of Jesus Christ

acquired the full remission of our sins. None of the judgments of God in the

Old Testament--as terrible as they might have been--were ever a full expres-

sion of God's wrath. That means that there could not have been a full remis-

sion of sins in the Old Testament. (This doesn't mean that no one in the Old

Testament was saved. Though they were not saved by the sacrificial system

of the Old Testament, they were saved through their faith in the coming Mes-

siah, represented in the sacrificial system.) For the divine justice requires the

full punishment of our sins for their perfect forgiveness. The horrible death

that the generation of Noah died in the flood was not a sufficient punishment

for their sin against the infinite God; the burning of Sodom and Gomorrah

with fire and brimstone from heaven was not even close to the full punish-

ment which they deserved from God. Those who perished under the sword of

Joshua still have to undergo the eternal punishment of God in hell. The full

wrath of God was never unleashed in the Old Testament because the full

release of God's wrath would have burned up the whole universe in its con-

suming fire. This full wrath of God is reserved for the time of the final judg-

ment and eternal damnation in hell. But we know that this full wrath of God

against the sins of his people was fully unleashed upon Jesus Christ hanging

on the cross. What made Jesus pray at the garden of Gethsemane that the cup

be passed from him was not the physical pain of crucifixion--as excruciat-

ingly painful as it might have been. He knew full well that, for the first time in

eternity, God the Father would look upon him with eternal wrath and pour out

on him all that the heinous sins of his people deserved! All of God's righteous

wrath against the sins of his people would be concentrated upon this Lamb of




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God and Christ would experience, while he hung upon that cross, all the dam-

nation of eternal hell!


In Jesus Christ, the full redemption could be accomplished because the

full wrath of God was unleashed and satisfied in the once-for-all sacrifice of

the eternal Son of God. How does this affect the law? Did Christ's redemption

abolish the law? Of course not! We know that the ceremonial laws were

fulfilled in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ; as we come, not bringing bulls and

goats but fully trusting in the all-sufficiency of Christ's sacrifice for the for-

giveness of our sins, the ceremonial laws are fulfilled. We also know that the

civil laws administered through the power of the sword are replaced with the

laws of church discipline administered by the moral, spiritual authority of the

church. But then, what about the moral law?


The Sermon on the Mount shows clearly what is demanded of those who

received their salvation in Jesus Christ. And there we find that far greater is

God's demand for New Testament believers than for Old Testament believ-

ers. The reason is very simple: the greater the grace, the greater the demand.

Because God's grace abounded to the fullest in Jesus Christ, God's demand

for holiness from his people becomes perfect as well. Jesus himself said in

Luke 12:48, "And from everyone who has been given much shall much be

required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more."

This must be understood in terms of redemptive-historical progression, not

just in terms of individual gifts. No matter what your individual spiritual gifts

may be, all the believers of the New Testament have been given much much

more than the believers of the Old Testament--because of Jesus Christ. All of

you are to live in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been

called: to be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.


There is a radical reversal in Jesus Christ, however. First of all, a higher

demand of holiness does not come any more through a greater volume of

commandments. Our life is no longer to be tied up in the web of rules and

regulations. Christ told his disciples in John 15:15, "No longer do I call you

slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called

you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father, I have made

known to you." We can no longer mindlessly follow the commandments out

of fear; now we are called to understand the very heart of God and live in



32                                Lee:  Ten Commandments               



union with him and his will. This, of course, does not mean that we do away

with the law. The law provides for us a framework and boundaries so that we

do not become antinomians and heretics. (The antinomians would say that, as

long as they have good motives and sincerity, whatever they do for God is

good and acceptable. Not so! Our sincerity is not enough unless what we do

out of sincerity of our love for God is also according to God's own way pre-

scribed for us in the law. The law provides the boundaries for our actions.)

However, when Christ calls us friends, he is calling us to a relationship of

love and understanding which no law can express perfectly nor do full justice.

A slave does what is required of him--no more nor less. That is why clearer

and more detailed directions need to be given to insure that the assigned task

be properly executed. A friend motivated by love and understanding, on the

other hand, will use all that is at his disposal to bring pleasure and delight to

his friend beyond what is required of him. In the same way, if we love our

Lord, we will obey his commandments--this is the least we would do for the

Lord whom we love dearly. However, to love the Lord is more than just obey-

ing his commandments--that is what slaves do. We go an extra mile to fulfill

the spirit of the law.


Second, the demand was already perfectly met in Jesus Christ through

his perfect righteousness. The death of Jesus Christ did not just bring us back

to the garden of Eden for a second chance. Through faith, we have been brought

into a union with Jesus Christ. We now live by the very resurrection power of

Jesus Christ--to die to sin and to live to God. In Jesus Christ, God's promise

given through Ezekiel is fulfilled: "I will put My Spirit within you and cause

you to walk in My statutes." (Ezk. 36:27). The difference of the new covenant

from the old is not the absence of the holy demand from God, but the presence

of God's effectual help for you to walk in the law--God's effectual and gra-

cious help in Jesus Christ (in his perfect righteousness) and in addition through

the Holy Spirit (for our sanctification).


However, we must remember that the law itself has been perfected in

Jesus Christ. The Ten Commandments, given in the context of the theo-

cratic Israel, could not fully express the law of God. For there is an

inseparable relationship between the law and the environment in which

the law must be executed. The law of God could be given its full ex-

pression only with the inauguration of the true, heavenly kingdom of




                                                            Kerux                                                  33



God. This kingdom is the kingdom of God's beloved Son, Jesus Christ (Col.

1:13). That is why the true meaning and the full extent of the Ten Command-

ments can be seen only in and through Jesus Christ. This is exactly what Paul

meant in 2 Corinthians 3:15-16 when he said, "But to this day whenever Moses

is read, a veil lies over their heart; but whenever a man turns to the Lord, the

veil is taken away." Apart from Jesus Christ, the Ten Commandments can no

longer stand as some kind of independent, absolute moral standard: without

Christ, there can be no true understanding of the Ten Commandments; neither

can there be true obedience without Christ. That means that even the most

pious Jews cannot obey the Ten Commandments. Here, we are not just talking

about their inability to perfectly obey the commandments. No one can. But

the Jews, to whom the Ten Commandments were originally given, cannot

even begin to obey them. As a matter of fact, their very (genuine) efforts to

keep the commandments result in sin. We know this to be true with regard to

their sacrificial system: offering any cultic sacrifices would be a downright

rejection of the all-sufficiency of Christ's atoning sacrifice. But this is true

even in the moral law. Take the first commandment, for example. The mono-

theistic faith of the Jews in YHWH is now terribly deficient. No one can come

to the Father except through the Son (Jn. 14:6) because the full revelation of

God came through Jesus Christ (Heb. 1:2). It is impossible to observe the first

commandment without knowing God as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

To continue to worship YHWH without acknowledging Jesus Christ is noth-

ing less than idolatry.


Brothers and sisters, let us rejoice that the kingdom of God has dawned

upon us. And in and through Jesus Christ, we have been brought into the

kingdom of God to receive all the riches of our heavenly inheritance. That

means that we have been given a call to holy living, worthy of being citizens

of the heavenly kingdom of God's beloved Son. God's high calling is a testi-

mony to the great redemption accomplished in Jesus Christ, which makes our

obedience possible and real. So we may compose a new preamble for the new



"I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the bondage of sin and

death. ‘Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body that you should

obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin

but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members



34                                Lee:  Ten Commandments               



as instruments of righteousness to God .... Present your bodies a living and

holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.’”

(Rom. 6:12-13; 12:1).


New Life Mission Church, Presbyterian Church in America

La Jolla, California





This material is cited with gracious permission from:

Northwest Theological Seminary

            17711 Spruce Way

            Lynwood, WA  98037-7431


Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at:  thildebrandt@gordon.edu