Standing bare-footed before a burning bush and attending nervously to the address of God, the Old Testament prophet Moses receives a daunting task: “Go and free my people from slavery in Egypt.”
Thus said the Lord in the Scripture lesson from the book of Exodus that we heard last Sunday.
Moses reluctantly obeys his intimidating marching orders and eventually accomplishes his holy mission – leading God’s people out of Egypt, through the parted waters of the Red Sea, and into freedom. Not long after they step into their gracious, newfound autonomy, God issues Ten Commandments that intend to serve as Israel’s guide to continued liberty.
Having spent more than 400 years living in a house of bondage under the oppressive jackboot of a pagan people, the Israelites only know how to live as slaves. Slavery is the only lifestyle they know!
So, God hands down 10 clear, concise, and convincing rules to keep everyone from slipping back into pagan bondage, thus fashioning a life lived as heaven’s liberated daughters and sons. And only if God’s people live by the letter of God’s Law will they be the blessing to the nations that God intends when generations before the Lord establishes his covenant relationship with his chosen people.
That monumental moment in Exodus is the first receiving of God’s Law. And this morning, in our lesson from the book of Deuteronomy, Moses recounts that life-changing moment as the Israelites, having wandered in the desert for 40 years, now finally stand poised to cross the River Jordan into the land that God long promises them.
Despite all their negative-sounding “you shall nots,” the Ten Commandments actually hold a very positive intent.
God’s people easily might have left the far shore of freedom on the Red Sea, gone blindly out into the wilderness, and simply imitated the lifestyle of the Egyptians who had been their masters for so long.
Or they certainly might have stepped into the Promised Land and fallen prey to the false gods and idol-worshiping customs of the pagan peoples who lived there. Which, sadly, they do and find themselves again in bondage. And they only have themselves to blame! We’ll get to that part of the story of God and us in a few weeks. But for now, the God of goodness, the parent of a new family, does what only heaven can do to help the huddled masses learn to walk in safe stride along healthy paths.
Indeed, God spoke all these words, and by the power of God’s Holy Spirit, may these ancient words again speak to our souls and touch our hearts as we make our walk in this world.
Moses convened all Israel and said to them:
Hear, O Israel, the statutes and ordinances that I am addressing to you today; you shall learn them and observe them diligently. The LORD our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. Not with our ancestors did the LORD make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today. The LORD spoke with you face to face at the mountain, out of the fire. (At that time I was standing between the LORD and you to declare to you the words of the LORD; for you were afraid because of the fire and did not go up the mountain.) And he said:
I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work – you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.
Honor your father and your mother, as the LORD your God commanded you, so that your days may be long and that it may go well with you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.
You shall not murder.
Neither shall you commit adultery.
Neither shall you steal.
Neither shall you bear false witness against your neighbor.
Neither shall you covet your neighbor’s wife. Neither shall you desire your neighbor’s house, or field, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
These words the LORD spoke with a loud voice to your whole assembly at the mountain, out of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness, and he added no more. He wrote them on two stone tablets, and gave them to me. (Deuteronomy 5:1-22)
Caring for a newborn baby is no cake walk, but experience tells me that the heavy lifting of parenting truly begins when babies are about nine or 10 months old and they start walking.
That’s when the security gates go up around the house to keep little tykes from wandering into places where they’re not supposed to go. Those barriers are particularly important if you’re raising a child who has little or no sense of danger, which was the case for some friends who once shared this story.
When their son was just a toddler, he had a strong wanderlust and scant respect for hazards and dangers. With reckless abandon, the boy careened around the house with absolutely no regard for potential harm to himself, and he had a particular fascination with the steps leading down to the basement. Throughout each day, he’d charge up to the brink and peer downstairs with a mischievous grin on his face.
Even with a security gate in place, mom and dad sternly cried “No, no, no!” But the boy continued to court danger and flirt with disaster, often standing on his tiptoes to gaze over the gate to spy what lay beyond. And he’d shake it. And he’d try to open it. And he’d sometimes shout at it in frustration. He hated that blasted gate!
Then, one day, mom and dad forgot to close the gate, and before they knew it, their boy took an unrestrained step into the wild side. They heard the sickening sound of his small, fragile body bouncing down those stairs, and they rushed to find him unconscious at the bottom of the stairs. He came to and was fine, no harm, no foul. But his parents nearly succumbed to the fear of a less-fortunate outcome.
Did their firm “no’s’” and that blasted gate intend to ruin the boy’s life? No, quite the opposite. Restrictions on the little boy’s movements and actions intended to keep him safe and preserve his life.
So also it is with God’s Law in the Ten Commandments, which serve three spiritual purposes.
First, the Ten Commandments serve as a mirror.
Gazing into that mirror exposes our sin and brokenness. When imperfect people like you and me look into the mirror of the Commandments, we see ourselves as we really are: sinful, wretched, and lost; in need of deliverance, in need of cleansing, in need of a savior. And thus, by the prodding of the Holy Spirit, we repent of our old ways and turn toward Jesus and the Cross of Christ to find forgiving mercy and healing resurrection.
The Ten Commandments serve as a mirror, and the Ten Commandment serve as a restraint – a restrainer of evil.
God’s Law functions to keep evildoers from being as bad as they otherwise might be. Thus, to some degree, the Commandments protect us from the sinful conspiracies of the ungodly. But God’s Law alone certainly cannot regenerate a sinful heart and broken spirit. Those are the domains of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel alone.
Nevertheless, as the great reformer John Calvin writes, the Commandments provide restraint that bridles the wicked, “keep[ing] their hands from outward activity and holding inside the depravity that otherwise they would wantonly have indulged. Consequently, they are neither better nor more righteous before God. Hindered by fright or shame, they dare neither execute what they have conceived in their minds, nor openly breathe for the rage of their lust.”
The Ten Commandments serve as a mirror, and as a restraint, and finally, the Ten Commandments reveal the will, desire, and intention of God.
Believers who have been transformed by the Gospel need the Law certainly not as a means of salvation but as a guide to right and holy living as individuals in community. The Law reveals God’s perfect righteousness and reveals that which is pleasing to God, and our lives ought to reflect that. But you only come to delight in God’s commands after the grace of the Gospel infuses your heart.
Turning again to John Calvin, “[B]ecause we need not only teaching but also exhortation, the servant[s] of God will also avail [themselves] of this benefit of the law: By frequent meditation upon it to be aroused to obedience, be strengthened in it, and be drawn back from the slippery path of transgression.”
That’s how we saints must press on, Calvin believed, for however eagerly we may with the help of the Holy Spirit strive toward God’s righteousness, our listless flesh always so burdens us that we do not proceed with due readiness. “The law is to the flesh,” Calvin writes, “like a whip to an idle and balky [donkey], to arouse it to work.”
The Ten Commandments serve as a mirror, and as a restraint, and finally as revelation of the will, desire, and intention of God.
Those abilities of the Ten Commandments serve up a stark reminder that our covenant relationship with God definitely is not just a hand-holding, arm-swinging walk in the park. Yes, we are saved by grace and sustained by grace, but to enjoy that grace – to be thankful for that grace – we must live within the guardrails that God erects along life’s path of freedom.
As the apostle Paul writes in a different context, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery (Galatians 5:1).”
In a strong rebuke of some of our day’s current thinking, liberty is not lawless living, but God’s Law most definitely guards our liberated living.
The Commandments are a guide to gratitude, focusing not just on the guilt of our sins but more importantly on the grace that forgives our sin. That long litany of “you shall nots” invites us to attitudes and behaviors that imitate God and reflect God’s goodness.
Of course, the negative formulation of eight of the Ten Commandments might make it hard, for some, to see how they show us God. After all, this top 10 list heavy with don’ts might lead some to assume that God only closes down our lives. But quite the contrary, God’s Law actually opens up life. It protects not just individuals but also society from actions that have the potential to destroy it. God’s Law recognizes the serious damage that things like disrespect for authority, murder and theft can cause.
“God spoke all these words,” and all of these words cover all of life. As our Creator, our God lays a comprehensive claim on our lives, and as such, our only faithful response is rendering complete submission, allegiance, and obedience to God out of gratitude for his mercies, reverence for his sovereignty, and trust in his continuing care.
God lays this comprehensive claim upon us not as a hard-hearted, heavy-handed tyrant, but as a loving Parent who would do anything to save his children and keep them from falling down the stairs of sin and brokenness into the depths of hell’s basement – as the Lord of love so powerfully demonstrates centuries later when he gives his only begotten Son for the life of a broken and fearful world.
And along the path that takes him to the Cross, Jesus declares that the greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart, and all your strength, and all your mind. And, Jesus says, the second greatest commandment is like it: Love your neighbor as you yourself would be loved.
Ancient words, ever true. Amen, and amen!
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message on Sunday, February 13, 2022. The sixth sermon in his series “Becoming Disciples: The Story of God and Us,” it is adapted from scholarship, commentary, and reflection by Doug Bratt, John Calvin, Stan Mast, and Jeff Robinson.