God spoke the Ten Commandments to Israel after rescuing them from slavery in Egypt. Yet, these Ten Words apply not only to Ancient Near Eastern Israel but also to God’s people today and even to those people who are not “his” in the sense that they have not embraced God through Christ Jesus. God’s ten words are intended for his people today and, to be more specific, for American Christians living in a secular age.
For Israel, the Ten Words informed them of their mission to the world. Israel was called to be a “light to the nations” and God’s intention for his people to fulfill his law in such a way that the pagan nations would be jealous of their God and his law which, if obeyed, would cause them to flourish. When Israel obeyed his law, their common life would be a communal witness to the nations. In other words, his Ten Words applied not only to the lives of individuals but to the combined witness of many individuals that would coalesce at the societal level to be a much more powerful “light” to the pagan nations.
God’s law is not enslaving but liberating. According to Scripture, his law is the “perfect law of liberty” (Jas 1:25; 2:12). When a community is dominated by false gods, false worship, disrespect for parents, unlawful killing, theft, workaholism, sex addictions, and covetousness, it finds itself enslaved. By way of contrast, when a community conforms to God’s law, it will flourish and be “free” in the deepest meaning of the word. The freedom God offers is not merely a freedom “from” but a freedom “for.”
In this way, God’s ten words provide a framework for understanding the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, our Christ. They are the words to which Jesus conformed his life perfectly, living as he did the life that we have proven unwilling and unable to live. Further, they are the words that condemn us because of our law-breaking, and therefore are the impetus for Christ’s atoning death and liberating resurrection. Because of Christ Jesus, our law-breaking is forgiven and we are set free for an entirely new way of living, a life in which we lean on his grace to conform our lives to his law, and pursue his Face, for the rest of our lives.
It should be noted that, literarily, the tend words are divided into five and five. Why would God speak the ten words into two tablets instead of listing them all on one, larger tablet? Maybe the answer is that the number five is a military number in Scripture. In Exodus 3:18, for example, the phrase “martial array” can be translated literally, as “fively.” Thus, as Peter Leithart notes, “the Ten Words are given to Yahweh’s ‘hosts’ on their way to conquer Canaan.
Further, as Leithart notes, the Jewish temple symbolizes the movement of God’s word from his throne to his house and then out into the world. Guarding the ark are two cherubim, symbolizing their protection of the two tablets and the cherubic nature of God’s law. Thus, God’s ten words can be viewed as two military units (two tablets) flowing from God’s sanctuary out into the world.
Taken together, the Ten Words address holistically how we should live our lives in this world, including not only our personal ethic but also the sectors of society and spheres of culture that we influence. They overlap and interpenetrate. Each word from God interlocks with the other nine words. Submission to any one of God’s laws helps us to submit to the others. Conversely, disobedience to any one of God’s laws corrupts our ability to obey the other nine laws.
Let us, therefore, thank God for his life-giving law and for the Lord Christ who alone kept the whole of God’s law. He is God’s law fulfilled, God’s Word to the world, God’s salt and light for societies and cultures. May we conform our lives—individually and corporately—to his lifegiving law.