When a President sets forth a new mandate for a nation or when a military commander articulates the rules of engagement for a war, it is vitally important to listen to their prefatory remarks. Thus, it is even more significant when the Creator of the universe makes prefatory remarks before enumerating the basic moral laws for humanity. For this reason, any exposition of the Ten Commandments, or, “Ten Words” (Ex. 20:3-17) must include an exposition of the Lawgiver’s prefatory remarks (Ex. 20:2).
When God approached Israel to give the covenant and commandments at Sinai, he had done so amid thunder, lightning, fire, and smoke, causing them to tremble in the face of his majesty (Ex 19:16-20). Then, as a preface to the Decalogue, God reminded the people of Israel (and, by extension, reminds us in the present era) of his loving character and proven track record of redemption. He says, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Ex. 20:32). This is a recurrent pattern in Scripture, as God continually reminded Israel that he is God the creator, king, and redeemer, and that he was graciously offering them a salvation thy didn’t deserve. In other words, the Sinai covenant was one of grace, and the Ten Words serve as a charter for that covenant.
In other words, God the Redeemer wants his people to remain truly “free” by living in conformity with his design for their lives. In juxtaposition to the modern conception of freedom as “liberation from all social and moral norms,” a biblical view is that true freedom is always liberation from our bondage to sin and freedom for right living. This insight is vitally significant for modern Americans, with our society’s emphasis on living life in accordance with our own desires, on being free from all restraints. Thus, instead of seeking freedom from all restraints, we should seek to be free from bondage and for right living.
God’s intention was for the Ten Words to cause Israel to flourish as a nation. In Gen. 12:1-3, God had promised Abraham’s clan into a great nation and promised to “bless” the pagan nations through that nation. More to the point, Israel’s adherence to God’s law would cause her to flourish and cause the pagan nations to be jealous of Israel and wish to worship Israel’s God. That is why Isaiah urged Israel to be “a light to the nations” (Is 60:3). This remained Israel’s mission throughout consecutive eras as a tribal confederacy, monarchy, and a scattered and exiled nation.
Israel failed repeatedly and, in response, God sent his son Jesus, who gathered a group of twelve disciples. He intended for Jesus and the disciples to be “a light to the nations.” Jesus himself was a perfect light to the nations but, as it turned out, the disciples were very inconsistent in being a light during Jesus’ earthly ministry. Nonetheless, the point is that God intended for a community of people to be a light to the nations.
After Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, he told Israel to wait for the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8). Sure enough, the Spirit came and the first thing the Spirit did was to plant local churches (communities) that would be a light to the nations (Acts 2:40-47) through their worship, words, and actions. Once again—as with Israel and Jesus and the disciples—God’s intention was for entire communities of people to adhere to his moral law, thus flourishing together under God’s reign.
By way of analogy, it should be our hope as Americans that God would send a “great awakening” to our nation, causing us, its citizens, to worship God and honor his moral law. Although our nation-state will never be a light to the nations in the same way that the church is a light, nonetheless, we know God’s intention is for all communities and nations to honor him and be a witness to his kingship. Unless or until he sends such an awakening, it is incumbent upon American Christians to apply God’s liberating moral law to our personal lives (personal ethics) and to show its liberating power to society at large (social ethics).
Beginning in the next installment of this series, therefore, we will explore each commandment with an eye toward both personal ethics and social ethics. We will do so hopefully and prayerfully, knowing that our society largely rejects strong forms of Christianity and either ignores or disdains the moral law. We do so knowing that as the Father sent Jesus, so he sends us as believers (John 20:21)—to bear witness to the truth of God’s revelation, regardless of the opposition we might experience.