In our reading this week in Exodus, we get to see God’s people free from Egypt and looking to make their way to the Promised Land. In this major transition, God is going to do a very important work by giving His moral law and then many positive laws by which His people are to obey and honor Him. In Exodus 20, we see Moses give the Ten Commandments, which leads us into a needed study about what they mean for us today and a better understanding of the law. With lots to cover, let’s dig in.
First, the word “law” can be a very confusing one in Scripture. It certainly is a complex topic. When looking to understand the word “law” and its synonyms in the Bible, we cannot take a concordance approach to trying to understand it. We cannot take a single use of the word and apply that to all the other occurrences we see in the text, or we would have a grave misunderstanding of God’s use of the law.
The word “law” has several synonyms in Scripture. These include commandments, statutes, rules, precepts, testimonies, etc. For example:
The word “law” can refer to the Pentateuch. The Pentateuch is the first five books of the Bible.
The word “law” can refer to the law system of the Mosaic Covenant.
The word “law” can refer specifically to ceremonial laws found in the Old Covenant.
The word “law” can refer to the moral law of God (which is a main focus of our study today).
The word “law” can refer to the “penalty” of the law.
I want to expand briefly on this point before we move on, because when this kind of usage is not interpreted correctly, people can get into serious problems. Look at:
Romans 6:14-15 For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!
If someone, as some people do, takes this “law” in this passage to mean, “You are no longer called to obey moral law,” or “You no longer need to obey God because of grace,” then it will have serious, negative, unbiblical consequences.
Conversely, Paul is using the word “law” to mean penalty or condemnation.
Look at the two verses with this correct interpretation to see what Paul is saying. “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under condemnation but under grace. What then? Are we to sin because we are not under the condemnation of the law but under grace? By no means!”
And this is what Romans 6 is all about: The saved are no longer slaves to sin--no longer condemned by sin; rather, we are saved by grace unto a life of repentance from sin and called all the more to obey the moral law of God!
That’s one example of how important it is to understand what the word “law” means in the various appearances in Scripture.
All that to say, this once again shows how handling the word of God rightly is so important.
Today our focus is on “law” as the requirements on man often expressed through commands that God has given.
One of the most important things to understand is that there are two categories of this kind of “law” in Scripture:
Universal Moral Law (also called Natural Law) and
Let’s break these down one at a time. First:
Universal Moral Law (Natural Law): Unchanging law and commands based on the right and character of God, to which man is held accountable for all of life. Universal Moral Law is written in the hearts of all people, leaving them without excuse in disobedience.
This moral law is the eternal, foundational law that has and will always exist. The Universal Moral Law exists at all times, over all of mankind. Even where it was not or is not fully communicated verbally, it exists because it’s based on the right and character of God and mankind’s relation to Him. This means this Universal Moral Law existed when Adam was in the garden, even though we don’t see God laying all of it out for him. It existed when Cain sinned by killing Abel, even though we don’t see God having laid a murder prohibition out for them by then. It existed over the Israelites before God gave a summary of the moral law in the Ten Commandments to them through Moses in our chapter of Exodus 20. It existed over the nations and peoples outside of Israel, even though we don’t see God laying all of it out for them the way He did for the Israelites. And in the same way, it exists now over the people in a backwoods tribe who have never been preached to about God and who do not have a Bible to read about the “law.” Likewise, it exists over an infant who can’t even understand words yet.
This is very important: The Universal Moral Law exists at all times, over all of mankind, because it is based on the right and character of God and our relation to Him as created creatures. And in His wisdom, God decreed that this Universal Moral Law would be placed on the conscience of all persons. The Bible tells us that Universal Moral Law is written in the hearts of all people. And this is why it is sometimes called “Natural Law.”
We see this taught in Romans 2:15-16, where Paul tells us that even those who have never heard about God’s moral requirements of man have “the work of the law written on their hearts,” and their consciences bear witness to this fact.
What that means is that all people, whether they acknowledge it or not and whether it impacts their lives significantly or not, all people have this law written in their hearts--on their consciences. That is why there can be found, to some degree, some common moral principles among people groups around the world, throughout time, even in those who haven’t communicated with others or haven’t heard God’s truths taught. This is why even your pagan friend often will still have a guilty conscience when he steals from his boss or lies to his child. The law is in the hearts of even non-believers, convicting them of their sin.
But as we know all too well, because of the deceitfulness of sin in them, this law being in their hearts is not enough to cause your friend or the various pagan people groups throughout creation to obey God fully. Because of their enslavement to sin, the Universal Moral Law written in them is ignored, denied, and disobeyed.
No person will be able to stand before God and say, “I did not know your moral expectations of me, so there is nothing to which you can hold me accountable.” The man, for example, in the backwoods tribe that never was taught God’s truths, will stand before God guilty of breaking God’s law, the very law that is in him and to whatever degree, bore on his conscience.
So, what exactly is this Universal Moral Law?
The moral law is the eternal, foundational law that has and will always exist. The Universal Moral Law exists at all times, over all of mankind. Even where it was not or is not fully communicated verbally it exists because it’s based on the right and character of God and mankind’s relation to Him.
God has chosen different ways to inform us of this law. As we saw a bit ago, one of these ways is that He has written on the heart of every human who has or will exist. From Adam, to us, to the babies in wombs, to any people who will be conceived in the future, we all have the moral law written on our hearts.
While that’s foundational, it’s not the only way God has informed us of this Universal Moral Law.
In the Old Testament, we see Him directly communicate elements of the moral law.
And the pinnacle of this is the Ten Commandments that we read about in Exodus 20.
In the Ten Commandments (sometimes called the “Ten Words” or “the Decalogue”), God was expressing a summary of the moral law. The reformers in Christian church history said, “The moral law is summarily comprehended in the Ten Commandments, which were delivered by the voice of God upon mount Sinai, and written by him in two tables of stone; and are recorded in the twentieth chapter of Exodus.”
“Summarily comprehended” is the phrase they used to say that the moral law was summarized and expressed by God in the Ten Commandments. This is very important. It is a summary of the Universal Moral Law; it is not the only way to summarize the Universal Moral Law, as we’ll see in a minute, but it is indeed a summary of the eternal moral law. And that’s why we can look back now to the Ten Commandments and see God’s revealed will for us in them in our time.
Briefly, let’s see how they summarize the Universal Moral Law. The Ten Commandments have two main themes:
The first four commandments are primarily vertical, towards God, and the last six commandments focus on the horizontal, towards others.
In the first four of the ten God says:
“You shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself an idol.
You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God.
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.”
In the last six of the ten, God says:
“Honor your father and mother.
You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
You shall not covet.”
Now all commands that God gives are first and foremost to be obeyed to the honor of God, to honor His name and glory. But we can see the function of the Ten Commandments have directional purpose. Each of the first four function to display that God is our highest treasure and our one true, sovereign King; while the last six function to honor God by loving others correctly. So, in this, the moral law as expressed in the Ten Commandments require us to 1) love God first, correctly, and supremely; and 2) love others correctly, out of love for God.
Hopefully you can see that the Ten Commandments are not just good principles to live by. They are an expression of the Universal Moral Law that you, and I, and every other human being are required to obey.
Some have wrongly said that the moral law was fulfilled by Christ and is no longer needed today, but this is not true, as the moral law is for all people for all time. God has communicated the Universal Moral Law in the New Testament as well. In the New Testament, we see Jesus and the Apostles teach the same moral law that man has always been under.
You’re familiar with Christ’s words in Matthew 22; look there with me:
In Matthew 22:36-40 Jesus was asked “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
Jesus is showing us that the moral law has two main themes: vertical (towards God) and horizontal (towards others). And when He says, “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets,” He is saying all moral law we see in the Old Testament, like the Ten Commandments for example, can also be summarized in these TWO commandments. So, the Ten Commandments summarize the moral law--that’s one way God did it--and the two commandments here spoken by Jesus summarize the moral law--this is another way God communicates a summary of it.
And that’s also what we see the Apostles teach about the moral law.
Look at one example from the Apostle Paul.
In regards to the horizontal theme of the law, man to man, Paul says it like this:
Romans 13:8-10 Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
See that? Paul quotes from the horizontal part of the Ten Commandments and then summarizes it in a similar way as Christ did!
Basically, Paul is saying we fulfill the man-ward requirements of the moral law when we correctly love our neighbors.
What you need to understand is that neither Christ nor the Apostles contradicted or replaced the moral law found summarized in the Ten Commandments. They did not contradict or replace Universal Moral Law.
The Ten Commandments are an accurate summary of the Universal Moral Law, Christ’s moral law teaching is an accurate summary of the Universal Moral Law, and the Apostle’s moral teaching is an accurate summary of the Universal Moral Law.
Those are some important elements to know about Universal Moral Law.
What we will see next week in our reading are examples of Positive Law. I will give you that definition here so you can know what is to come as you read next week, and then we will discuss Positive Law more in the following study.
Positive Law: Law and commands based on the will of God for a particular people, a particular purpose, and a particular time.
Next week we will read a few of the many Positive Laws that God prescribes to a particular people, a particular purpose, and a particular time, but today as we read the Ten Commandments, we must realize each of them are to be obeyed still today by us, as we honor God’s moral law and in doing so, honor God and make much of His name to the watching world.
As we close, meditate on the Ten Commandments and why they make for a better society than when we disregard these things and live selfishly. May we fight our sin to serve and honor God in these things. May we hold high the commands of God and His authority over our lives. May we live in the power Christ has given and the conviction of the Holy Spirit to live out the moral law God has given us.