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Why the Ten Commandments Still Matter -- a study of Exodus 20

God has a very good reason for giving all people the Ten Commandments.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Exodus 20

God gave the Israelites the law for their good. Christian should still obey the Ten Commandments because they are actually just the basic principles behind the later laws. Jesus taught us two Great Commandments and helped us see that God’s laws are actually harder than we thought. Related: we should strive to obey Jesus.

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the place of slavery. (20:2)

Getting Started: Things to Think About

Why We Need Laws.

Before you start a conversation like this, you usually have to say “Some of you probably think that we have more laws than we need, and you might be right. But let’s put that aside: do we need laws at all?” Then ask everyone why we need laws. I would look for answers in 4 categories:

  1. We need laws because nature behaves according to natural laws. If you try to disobey the laws of physics, you’ll get in trouble!

  2. We need laws because some people don’t take a long-term view of the consequences of their decisions. Without certain laws, things like pollution can end up ruining our homes.

  3. We need laws because some people are not qualified to make decisions, and when they make a mistake in designing a building, people can get hurt or killed.

  4. We need laws because people are sinners, and sometimes the only thing that keeps them from committing a crime is the deterrent of punishment.

Then, depending on how that goes, ask this question: “Can you imagine our country if there were no laws? What would that be like?” Of course we can imagine it: we called it the Wild West! It’s in our history books! But there weren’t nearly as many people, as much money, or as many guns then as there are now . . .

There’s a goofy movie called “The Purge” [future editor's note: this has turned into an actual series] that imagines an America in which all crime is legal for one night of the year. I’ve heard the movie is silly, but google “the purge sociology” and you get some opinions that people put thought into—there are people who believe such an event would be a good idea! Most of the opinions believe that this would be a bad idea, but why is that even a question?

The truth is that humans need laws. We see that from the very beginning. God’s laws help us thrive and build a strong society. (On the other hand, when people start writing their own laws, we tend to go overboard.) Help your group see the value of laws.


This Week's Big Idea: Mt. Sinai

Where Is Mount Sinai?

Say "The Ten Commandments" and somebody will think "Mt. Sinai". So, where is Mt. Sinai?

I think this is a fun exercise; no matter what anybody tells you, it’s okay if we don’t know. The traditional location is Jebel Musa on the Sinai Peninsula. But there is some support for a mountain in Saudi Arabia—Jabal al Lawz (there’s a really cool split rock near it, and the top looks like it’s been scorched). That new location is why they believe that the Red Sea crossing was actually on the Gulf of Aqaba (remember that from a couple of weeks ago?). Here’s the problem that no one brings up; I said last week that the Hebrew camp would cover 100 square miles. One of the draws of Jebel Musa is a nearby plain of about 2 square miles; well, I think that’s laughably small. Jabal al Lawz has a large plain . . . about 20 miles away. That seems a bit far. Tell your group that the debate continues, but just because we don’t know where (for certain) doesn’t mean we doubt the Bible!

Clues to the Location

Realize that a lot of “armchair archeologists” have put stuff on the web about Mt. Sinai. Here’s what we actually know. (1) Mt. Sinai is not in Egypt (Ex 13), and it is in Arabia (Gal 4:25). But realize that the Sinai Peninsula was generally considered part of Arabia, unlike what some websites say. (2) Mt. Sinai is not in the land of Midian (Ex 18: Jethro traveled from Midian to Sinai; Moses does not use “land” to refer to personal property but always to a region). The biggest question is Ex 3:1. The burning bush (Mt. Horeb) was on Mt. Sinai. Moses was shepherding Jethro’s flock when he came to it. Exodus says that Moses had led the flock to the “far side of the desert” (could also be translated “west of the desert”). Clearly, the bottom of the Sinai Peninsula could be considered the far side of the desert from Midian. But is it realistic that Moses would lead a flock around the Gulf of Aqaba and through the mountains of Sinai and end up there at the traditional location? Some scholars say no. Some scholars say that the Midianites ranged very far in their nomadic existence, and going to the tip of the Sinai would not be a big deal. It would easily be weeks of travel one way! I will stick to the traditional location, but let’s just say that my faith doesn’t depend on it. I know God met Moses somewhere.

Here is a summary example of the argument in favor of the Saudi Arabia location:

  • Real Mt. Sinai Found In Saudi Arabia (Messianic Literary Corner) - Messianic Literary Corner (

And here is a way-too-detailed rebuttal:


 This Week's Bigger Idea: Christians and “The Law”

In the background of this lesson is the question, “Do Christians have to follow the Ten Commandments today?” The answer is both “no” and “yes”. It is “no” in the sense that we have forgiveness and freedom in Christ; we do not "have" to follow the Ten Commandments in order to be saved. But the answer is also “yes” in the sense that our freedom in Christ is not a license to disobey God.

The Bible Project has a nice video and short summary of this topic:

There is no way that God could write down a law to cover every scenario in life (in a book that could be carried around), so He gave the Jews 613 representative laws dealing with society, religion, personal morality, and family. There was not an area of life where one could say “God doesn’t care about this”. God used the laws as a way of showing the Jews that everything they did—including in their hearts—defined their relationship with Him. They misunderstood, of course, thinking that obedience was about keeping God happy and earning salvation. So then Jesus came along and said that all of the laws could be summarized as “love God” and “love your neighbor”. In other words, the old laws are still binding on Christians, but in a deeper way. Jesus specifically said that the ceremonial laws (sacrifice, temple, etc.) no longer apply because He was fulfilling their purpose. So what about the rest of the laws? Some scholars have tried to divide the other laws into “civil” laws and “moral” laws and argue that we only have to keep the moral laws, but the Bible nowhere actually makes that distinction. Instead, our best approach is to see that God gave the Jews a number of laws that would give them a national/cultural identity. Christians are not Jews, so those laws would not apply to us. Into this category, I would put laws like “do not weave a cloth with two kinds of thread” or “show your skin disease to the priest” or “do not boil a goat in its mother’s milk”. With respect to the Ten Commandments, this is simple: can I commit murder and still love my neighbor? Of course not. And Jesus made sure we realized that physical murder isn’t enough—just being angry breaks that command! Consequently, all of the Ten Commandments are bare minimum behavioral standards for Christians. This also gives us a context for the other, stranger, commands. Can I love my neighbor and walk around with a contagious, infectious skin disease? Probably not. How about rounding the corners of your beard or tattoos? Well, some Christians believe those things are associated with pagan culture, and so they don’t get them. Some Christians do, but in all honesty they’ve never really thought about it. Some Christians have decided that those are artificial cultural barriers that no longer apply. In other words, a Christian can choose to follow those laws, but does not have to (as long as they’ve actually thought about it!). Those laws do not really apply to us, but we may find them helpful (like the Ten Commandments).

The Context of the Exodus

God has miraculously rescued His people from Egypt. He has provided for them in the desert. Now it’s time for “the catch”. God expects something from the Israelites in return: to be His people. Luckily, there’s a great video explaining all of this:

As with Christianity, God does all the real work. All we have to do is trust God enough to follow the rules He has set for us—which are in our own best interest in the first place! Christians have a slightly different approach to the Law of Moses; see above for more details.


Part 1: The God of the Commandments (20:1-2)

Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the place of slavery.

You will be tempted to skip these verses, but don’t. These verses are the equivalent of Jesus praying “Our Father in heaven” or David saying “The Lord is my Shepherd”. God the Father is the beginning and end of everything we are; it all comes back to Him. Just soak on these words: (1) God speaks to us. (2) God is willing to be our God. (3) God acts on our behalf. And note the final phrase: out of slavery. Yes, that reminds them of their awful past, but it also tells them that this new relationship they have with God will not be one of master/slave. It will be a relationship common in the Ancient Near East: king/vassal. The king will take care of the people; the people will respect the king. What’s fascinating about them is that most would be impossible to enforce; only God (who knows the heart) could even know if they have been violated, let alone the power to bring about punishment. Right off the top, we are given the hints that Israel will be a people unlike any other with a God like none other and a standard of living like none other. (There are other law codes from that time, but nothing like this.)


Aside: The “Decalogue”

The Bible actually refers to the Ten Commandments as “The Ten Words”. This is an important distinction; God’s covenant with His people can’t be reduced to a series of commands. Though they are worded in the form of commands (scholars believe this to be for memorization purposes), they are actually foundational principles. The rest of this covenant (found in Exodus and Leviticus) present applications of these ten basic principles—Ten Words.

Realize that the Ten Commandments weren’t any more important than any of the other commands in the whole law. What was “special” about them was that God wrote them Himself on two tablets of stone (and that’s extremely special); everything else in the covenant was dictated to Moses on the mountain. Other than that, all that we say about the Ten Commandments is that they were the first part of the covenant, very much like a Bill of Rights. (See below for how we can read them as such.) In them, we learn the rights of God and the rights of the people—but it’s not so much about protecting “my” rights but teaching me how I am supposed to protect the rights of others. It is rightly noted that the Ten Commandments are in two parts—the part about God is shorter.

Hopefully you can see why calling them the “Ten Commandments” sells them short to us today. They are so much more than commands; they establish the framework for a people’s relationship with God. Similarly, calling Jesus’ commands the “Great Commandments” is also selling them short. They go way beyond things we should or shouldn’t do to who we’re supposed to be.


Part 2: Relating to God (20:3-11)

Do not have other gods besides me. Do not make an idol for yourself, whether in the shape of anything in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth. Do not bow in worship to them, and do not serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the fathers’ iniquity, to the third and fourth generations of those who hate me, but showing faithful love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commands. Do not misuse the name of the Lord your God, because the Lord will not leave anyone unpunished who misuses his name. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy: You are to labor six days and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. You must not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male or female servant, your livestock, or the resident alien who is within your city gates. For the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything in them in six days; then he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and declared it holy.

Ask this question: “Why does God think people need laws?” I sure hope everyone in your group already sees it. Left to our own devices, we get everything wrong. Catastrophically. These laws were for the Hebrews’ good (and they still made a mess of things). I’m confident that without the Law, the Hebrews would have disappeared from history just like every one of their neighbors.

This first section focuses on God. The key word for commandment 1 is exclusive. As Jesus said, no one can serve two masters. Commandment 2 focuses on the “how” of worship—don’t make something to represent God and then worship it. Why? Don’t we have pictures of Jesus around our church building? Yes, but we don’t worship them. No image, no painting, no creation can accurately reflect God Almighty, so it becomes a “lesser god”. Human tendency is to start worshiping the image itself (we see this all over the world today). Why is God “jealous”? Isn’t that petty? Well, the word itself actually just means “demands exclusivity”. Why would God demand that? What about punishing the children for the fathers’ iniquity? That directly contradicts what the Bible says elsewhere about a person suffering for his own sin (Deut 24:16)! Well, the language actually implies that the children also hate God, which is why they’re being punished. But the parents are still to blame, though, because they taught the children to hate God!

I would have your group say the two Great Commandments, ask how these first two commands fit in with that, and then ask how well we do keeping them today. The next two commands are just as hard. Saying God’s name in vain means (1) swearing, (2) lying under oath, and (3) using God’s name frivolously (as in worship or in trying to be spiritual without really meaning it). And then the Sabbath. Note the purpose of saying that their servants couldn’t do any work either: the Hebrews could not get around this command by passing their work off on someone else. I think we have a problem with that today! Sabbath is no longer up for debate in our culture; there is no Sabbath. But what do Christian do about it? Well, read the description to the Jews—it was about the physical need for rest, the spiritual need to spend time with God, and the cultural need to be different from the other peoples. Do we no longer have those needs today? How can we keep the spirit of this command?


Part 3: Relating to Society (20:12-17)

Honor your father and your mother so that you may have a long life in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. Do not murder. Do not commit adultery. Do not steal. Do not give false testimony against your neighbor. Do not covet your neighbor’s house. Do not covet your neighbor’s wife, his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

These commands are straightforward UNTIL we put them in context of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Have your group read Matthew 5:21-30—those address commands 6 & 7. Then ask how they think Jesus might have expanded on the other commands. (your Leader Guide gives a table with references to the New Testament; some other ideas—stealing: we steal time from our employers when we slack, we steal privacy when we eavesdrop, we steal reputation when we gossip, we steal resources when we freeload // false testimony: this has to do with all kinds of dishonesty; when we make a white lie to make ourselves look good, we are distorting our neighbor’s understanding of the truth, the same goes for withholding information, slander, twisting the facts // coveting: we do this in some form or another all the time; the root cause is the idea that if we can have something that someone else has, we will be happy; in other words, we are not content and we are not grateful)

Close with this: God gave the Ten Commandments to the Jews for their good. They would protect the Jews from the consequences of superstition, protect the Jewish family from being torn apart, protect Jewish society from collapsing under the weight of sin, and protect Jewish integrity from the influence of the wicked cultures around them. How are the two Great Commandments Jesus gave us for our good today? Divide your group into teams and see who can come up with the most real-world examples. Then, turn the tables on them and see which team intends to actually pay attention to those examples in their lives this week? Say that talking about following/obeying Jesus without actually doing it is the exact definition of taking the Lord’s name in vain! Challenge your group to memorize the Ten Commandments and to think about them. Challenge your group to memorize the introduction to the Ten Commandments and put them into their own words (like “I am the Lord your God, who wants what is best for you, who won’t even let death come between us, who has given everything to save you.”) In that context, I think these commands take on a very new life!


Another Approach to the Ten Commandments

If we read these like a Bill of Rights, they would be:

  1. God has the right to exclusive allegiance.

  2. God has the right to define His position.

  3. God has the right to proper representation from His people.

  4. God has the right to His people’s time (and—a household has the right to proper rest).

  5. Parents have the right to respect.

  6. Neighbors have the right to life.

  7. Neighbors have the right to a secure marriage.

  8. Neighbors have the right to personal property.

  9. Neighbors have the right to an honest hearing.

  10. Neighbors have the right to a secure existence.


Closing Thoughts: A Memory Device for the Ten Commandments

For what it’s worth, this is how I remember the Ten Commandments. Don't @ me if you think one of these is stupid. Make up your own.

  1. “One” God. No other gods. This one’s easy.

  2. I don’t have a trick for this one; "no idols" just follows "no other gods".

  3. A sideways 3 looks like an m = “nammmmme”. Don’t take the name of the Lord in vain.

  4. “For”/”four” the Sabbath. Rest for the Sabbath.

  5. “Honor” is a 5-letter word. Honor your father and mother.

  6. For whatever reason, I have the phrase “murder in the 6th” buried somewhere in my subconscious. It means nothing. I have no idea where it came from. But it helps me put “murder” with the sixth commandment.

  7. Again, for whatever reason, when I think about the historical lists of the seven deadly sins, “adultery” always seems to be at the top (even above murder). So “seven” = “seven deadly sins” = “adultery”.

  8. If I “ate”/”8” someone else’s cookie, I must have stolen it.

  9. This is a bizarre acronym for me: “nine”=“nn”=“not neighbor”=“don’t bear false witness against your neighbor”. Smooth, logical.

  10. I haven’t watched the old movie “10” with Bo Derek, but I know it’s about a man who lusts after someone else’s (younger) wife. Ergo, “covet”.

You can come up with a memory device that will work for you!



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