God's Sent One has brought the people to the mountain to serve the Unseen LORD (Ex 3:12; 19:5-6). But the people lose their nerve at the trumpet call (19:13, cf 19:19). They remain distant. Only Moses goes into the fiery cloud (20:18-22). But he does so on the people's behalf.
Moses' mediation was a shadow testifying to the future ministry of the Sent One, when He would become the Prophet like Moses (Deut 18:15ff).
On the mountain, Moses will receive words (e.g. Ten Commandments - lit. "Ten Words") and a pattern/copy/construction (i.e. the tabernacle, Ex 25:9,40).
The two should be understood together. Both are given to Moses as heavenly blueprints for a people-in-waiting. The Law (which inextricably involves the tabernacle and sacrificial system) lays out a wholistic discipleship programme for the priestly nation. It shows the world what forward-looking faith in the LORD Jesus looks like. (Deut 4:6ff)
Let's think about the Ten Words.
Verses 1 and 2:
And God spoke all these words: 2 "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
Here we see that God’s commandments flow out of God’s salvation. They do not lead to God’s salvation. The law is given to a people who have already been made His people by the redemption of the Divine Angel. The LORD does not say, "If you want to be my people, this is how you should act." He says, "You are already my people, and here is an authoritative description of what it looks like to be the LORD’s people, waiting for the Messiah in the promised land."
This is a foundational point: the Law is never presented as a way of salvation. Instead it is a gift to the saved people of the LORD.
Let’s read what these commandments are, from v3:
3 "You shall have no other gods before me (lit. My Presence).
The Ten Commandments are the words of the Unseen LORD (cf Deut 5:26) - the Father. It's natural therefore that His first command is to have no other gods before His Presence. It has been the Presence (the LORD Jesus) who has saved the people out of Egypt (Deut 4:37; Jude 5). So of course the Father's first command is to have no other gods but Jesus.
It's often said, and rightly so, that transgressing the first commandment is the heart of all other transgressions. This is true - the first and foundational sin is rejecting the Son (John 3:36; 16:9).
Let's keep reading:
4 "You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
Here we see that the law is a reflection of the character of the LORD.
The LORD gives us reasons within Himself for why He gives us the commands He does. He doesn’t give us arbitrary hoops to jump through to prove we are obedient in some abstract sense. In giving us the Law, the LORD is expressing His holiness, His righteous character.
If you read through Leviticus you’ll come across scores of commands but nestled in among them is the repeated phrase ‘I am the LORD.’ He tells us ‘I am the LORD who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy.’ (Lev 11:44-45). So the Law reflects the LORD’s character.
Let’s read on from v7:
7 "You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name. 8 "Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. 11 For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
Here we see that the Law witnesses to underlying gospel truth.
Not only are there reasons in the LORD’s character for why the commands are as they are, there are underlying theological and historical gospel truths that are being witnessed to and upheld by the Law.
Let’s read on from verse 12 (the fifth commandment):
12 "Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.
Here we see, the Law is expressly given in the context of the promised land.
As you read Exodus and Leviticus and especially Deuteronomy you cannot escape the truth given again and again that the Law is to be carried out in the land. Deuteronomy – an extended teaching of the law by Moses – uses the word ‘land’ over 200 times.
So, just as verse 2 gave us a specific audience for the Law – the Israelites – so v12 (and countless verses like it) give us a specific place for the Law – the promised land.
We haven't got time here to talk about how the shadow of these mountain-top words/tabernacle are filled out in the incarnate work of Christ. Obviously Paul is able to apply the fifth commandment to the Ephesians (6:2-3). But he does so in the same sense as calling the Corinthians to 'keep the feast' (1 Cor 5:8), or as Hebrews tells us to go to the altar (Heb 13:10).
Taking these five bolded points together, we get a picture of Law that looks something like this:
The Law is given to a people who are already saved by the LORD Jesus and brought to the Father to hear words that are an expression of His character and Gospel. Supremely they are a call for the saved people of God to put His Son first in all things.
Let’s read the last five commandments from v13:
13 "You shall not murder. 14 "You shall not commit adultery. 15 "You shall not steal. 16 "You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor. 17 "You shall not covet your neighbor's house. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor."
Let's ask a basic hermeneutical question here - one for all the linguists out there: In what mood are the commandments given here?
It’s not imperative. There is an imperative mood in Hebrew. The Father could have said ‘You must not murder.’ But instead He says ‘You will not murder.’
Of course that carries with it a powerful imperative force doesn’t it? If the LORD God says you will not do something, then by golly you’d better not do it. But it carries with it other nuances as well. Can we not see in these words aspects of promise? ‘You won’t murder, you won’t commit adultery, you won’t steal?’
Imagine the phrase ‘There will be peace in this house.’ Now that phrase can mean different things in different contexts. If a mother says this to two rowdy boys it is most definitely a command isn’t it? ‘There will be peace in this house.’ But if a prince says it to his kingdom, it’s a promise isn’t it: ‘There will be peace in this house.’ And what about if there was a person whose name was Peace, who embodied Peace itself – what would those words mean then: ‘There will be Peace in this house’? I think there are shades of all those meanings when we look at the Law
So the Law carries not only a sense of command but also of promise.
The Law not only commands the Israelites, it also points beyond itself to a Kingdom and to a King where perfect righteousness exists. Christ is the LORD whose character soaks through every jot and tittle of the law. So when He is born of a woman, born under Law, He summarizes the Law as ‘Love God and love neighbour’. As He does so, He's not just summarizing the Law, He is summarizing Himself. He is the One who supremely loves God with all His heart, soul, mind and strength. And He is the One who supremely loves His neighbour as Himself.
This is so vital: Christ is the Answer to the commanding Father. Not me. Certainly not in the first instance anyway.
So when I look at the Law I don’t see an arbitrary list of commands to simply cut and paste from Sinai into my life. Instead I see the most rich and complex gospel presentation. Here are mountain-top words and structures given as shadows to Moses for the Israelites and filled full in the LORD Jesus (Matt 5:17).
As I read this description of righteousness I'm forced to say: ‘That Law does not describe me. Not even my best efforts bring me close to being the Person described in that Law. But, I know a Person who it does describe. It describes the LORD Jesus.'
I acknowledge that the Law is good. But I am not. I do not and cannot answer the Father's words here with faith, worship and obedience. But I know a Man who does.
When we're in Him by faith, He puts His law in us by the Spirit and it bubbles out for all the nations to see.