But if we walk in the light, just as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ, His Son, cleanses us from all sin. 1 John 1:7

Trinity 6 – 2023

Exodus 20:1-17

“And God spoke all these words…” In this way, Moses introduces his recounting, in the Book of Exodus, of the text of the Ten Commandments that the Lord had revealed to him on Mount Sinai.

We note as Moses tells us, that God spoke these words. The Ten Commandments were not the result of the evolving moral consciousness of the Hebrew people, and they were not compiled eclectically by Moses – or by anyone else – from the legal codes of other nations.

Instead, these words are the words of God. God was establishing the Hebrews as their own nation – as his own nation – dedicated to him and his service. In giving them the Ten Commandments, God exercised his divine right to govern their religious, moral, and societal life.

Surveys among the general population of our country consistently show a fairly high regard for the Ten Commandments – at least as a concept. Most people, when they are asked by survey-takers if they try to govern their lives according to the Ten Commandments, will say Yes.

Another interesting fact that surveys consistently show, however, is that people usually do not have a very clear or complete understanding of what the Ten Commandments are. When asked by survey-takers to name at least five of them, respondents usually cannot do it.

All of this makes it all the more important for us to be serious in paying attention to what Moses tells us today: “And God spoke all these words…”

Of course, even before God delivered the Ten Commandments to Moses, it was possible for human beings to have some measure of knowledge of the moral standards by which they were supposed to govern their lives. St. Paul writes in his Epistle to the Romans:

“Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.”

This inborn knowledge of the difference between right and wrong, which is inscribed on humanity’s conscience, is often called “natural law.” Even without a knowledge of the Bible in general, or of the Ten Commandments in particular, it is still possible for people to know, at least in a basic way, what is good and what is evil.

But people still violate the moral decrees that are written on their hearts by their Creator. As St. Paul describes the rebellion of the unbelieving world, he observes that

“They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed, and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant, and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.”

Because of the sinfulness that infects our race, people have a clouded and distorted perception of the natural law. And even when people do have an accurate understanding in their conscience of what would be the moral thing to do in a particular situation, they often end up not doing it, but follow instead the destructive impulses of their flesh.

It is too easy for fallen man to twist and distort this law of the conscience in his own selfish interests; to rationalize his disobedience; and to ignore those aspects of God’s standards that he doesn’t like.

And so, after God had called the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery, and as he was preparing them to take possession of their own land, he clarified and reiterated, in an objective and written form, his unchanging and timeless moral requirements.

It would be harder to make excuses now. It would be harder to plead ignorance of what God really wants. It would be harder for a sinful man to deceive himself into thinking that he is actually doing, saying, and thinking what God demands.

The law as God makes it known in the human conscience, and on tablets of stone, serves more than one purpose. Its first purpose or use is as an outward curb on overtly wicked behavior.

society cannot survive without at least some measure of community discipline and without a mutually agreed-upon set of standards for public behavior.

It is sometimes said that we should not legislate morality. But this is an absurd statement. Every civil law is an expression of public morality.

Every civil law is an expression of what is considered to be either proper or improper, ethical behavior in the society. Of course, the law code of a particular state or country doesn’t always get it right. But public morality is the intended point of public law.

God’s law – especially as it comes to all people by means of natural law – provides to all human societies a basic guide to what is necessary for the preservation of social order. The divine prohibition of murder, for example, is intended to guide a society and its citizens in protecting people’s lives and safety.

The divine prohibition of stealing is intended to guide a society and its citizens in protecting people’s property. The divine prohibition of adultery is intended to guide a society and its citizens in protecting the institution of marriage and the family – which is the basic building-block of human civilization.

There is, of course, still a lot of injustice in the world. There is no human society in this sinful world that collectively follows the guidance that God provides as fully or as consistently as it should.

It is easy for us to see examples of our own society’s failures in this respect: its failure to protect private and public property, with district attorneys refusing to prosecute shoplifting or vandalism; its failure to protect human life, in allowing elective abortion; its failure to protect marriage – both as an institution, and in many sad individual cases – with tax and pension laws that punish marriage, and with no-fault divorce laws that often make breaking up a family easier than starting one.

Yet the testimony of the human conscience is always there, to spur human societies on to necessary improvements and reforms: if only the populations and governments of those societies would listen to that testimony.

But, the law of God does not exist only for this external civil use. It also fulfills a very important and very personal role in the inner lives of individuals. This is its second purpose or use.

When we hear, and reflect on, God’s commandments – particularly in their inescapably objective, written form – the Holy Spirit convicts us in a very personal way, of our very personal transgressions.

Perhaps according to the external standards of societal order – if we refrain from committing overt crimes – we might be judged by our fellow men to be good and righteous people. But according to the more serious requirements of the divine law – which address us at the level of our deepest desires, and not only at the level of our observable actions – we are not judged to be good and righteous in the eyes of God, who searches the heart.

In his Sermon on the Mount as recorded in St. Matthew – from which today’s Gospel is taken – Jesus explains the deeper meaning of the Ten Commandments, thereby taking away from the hypocrites of his day – and from us – the ability to make any kind of pretentious claim to having truly obeyed them. He says:

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’ But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment.”

Again: “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

A society can still be preserved in its outward orderliness even when its citizens have angry or lustful thoughts – as long as they do not act on those thoughts. But according to what’s hidden in the sinful hearts of men, none of us can stand as innocent before God’s judgment, in view of the true inner meaning of the law that Jesus here unfolds.

And so, according to this second, spiritual use of the law of God, the law reveals to our conscience the impossibility of making ourselves righteous before God by our obedience. “For all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God.”

The law shows us instead our need for a Savior. It drives us to the cross of Christ. And it prepares us for the message of forgiveness that Jesus proclaims to the penitent, to be received by faith. As St. Paul says in his Epistle to the Galatians:

“Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith.”

One of the main reasons why Jesus Christ is able to be the Savior we all need is because he, without any shortcomings or failures, did obey God’s law – his own divine law – to the letter.

He was a law-abiding member of the civil society of which he was a part. But even more important than that, every single thought of his mind, every single desire of his heart, and every single intention of his will was pure and perfect.

Throughout his life, Jesus obeyed all of the law, all of the time. He never bore false witness, but always told the truth. That unvarnished truth-telling is partly what got him in trouble with the authorities.

He did not hate his neighbors but loved all men – even his enemies. He was chaste and pure in all his relationships with all women.

He honored his Father, by fulfilling his heavenly Father’s will in going to the cross for our salvation. From the cross, he honored his mother Mary as well, by arranging for her to be taken care of by the Apostle John since he would no longer be able to care for her.

Jesus’ zeal for the First Three Commandments – pertaining to God and the honor of God – was reflected in the righteous anger that he showed at the Temple when he chased the money-changers out of a sacred place that was intended to be a place of prayer for all nations.

Therefore, when Jesus offered his life on the cross for all of us, the sacrifice that he offered was an acceptable and fully sufficient sacrifice. By a lifetime of obedience, he had established in himself a real human righteousness under the law: a righteousness that deserved to be rewarded.

The life of Christ had passed the test of the Ten Commandments in every way. It was without any spot or moral blemish.

For this reason, the death of Christ – which he personally did not deserve – could and did serve as a substitute for the death that all of us do deserve, under the just judgment of God’s law against our many transgressions of that law.

Jesus’ sacrifice atoned for the shortcomings and failures of all people. It placed his perfect righteousness over humanity’s unrighteousness.

And Jesus’ sacrifice atoned for, and covered over, all of your sins. It won for you a complete reconciliation with God.

As you now cling to Christ in faith, and trust in his words of peace and pardon – having been clothed with him in your Baptism, and having been invited to his eucharistic banquet of forgiveness – everything that he is, and has, becomes yours. His obedience – his obedience specifically of the Ten Commandments – is credited to you.

And then, the law’s third purpose or use – as a guide to Christians for holy living – kicks in. In actuality, all three uses of the law are being applied to your life by the Holy Spirit all the time – as you are simultaneously guided in your outward behavior, brought under conviction for your sins, and taught the ways of righteousness.

But according to the logic of it, the changed and regenerated heart that God’s Spirit gives us when we believe in Christ, is not afraid of God’s wrath – since it is at peace with him and is resting in his grace – but instead has an earnest desire to serve God, by cheerfully serving the neighbor in need. As the Psalmist prays:

“I will delight myself in Your commandments, which I love. My hands also I will lift up to Your commandments, which I love, and I will meditate on Your statutes.”

And as Jesus tells us elsewhere in the Sermon on the Mount:

“You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”

“And God spoke all these words…”

He spoke all these words, in order to clarify and reiterate the natural law that had already been placed in the conscience of all men. He spoke all these words, so that those words could serve as an outward guide for the civil order of the nation.

He spoke all these words, so that those words would reveal to each man’s heart his personal sinfulness and need for a Savior; and would serve as a description of the flawless life and perfect obedience of that Savior. And he spoke all these words, so that redeemed and forgiven children of God will know what pleases their beloved Father in heaven, and what works lovingly serve other people in their struggles and trials.

To us God gave these Ten Commands That you might learn, O child of man,
Your sinfulness – and also know To live for God, as you go. Have mercy, Lord!

Lord Jesus Christ, now help us all, Our Mediator from the Fall,
Our works are all so full of sin, But You, for us, heaven did win. Have mercy, Lord! Amen.