Context Matters: The Ten Commandments

At Mt. Sinai, the people are not hearing rules from a cold and distant judge. They are hearing laws from a loving, powerful Father.

The holy, powerful, sovereign, covenant-making God gives these commands to his people out of love. He wants it to go well with them and with their children after them, that their days may be prolonged (Deut 4:40). Because the Israelites are God’s people, he loves them enough to give them these commands.

 

You’ve no doubt heard of the Ten Commandments. You may not have them memorized, but even hardened non-Christians can rattle off a few of these commands.

The Ten Commandments have inspired thousands of sermon series, dozens of catechism questions, and even a Hollywood movie. Within the church we parse the Ten Commandments carefully, considering both what they require and what they forbid of us.

Despite their ubiquity, we don’t often consider this question: Are we using the Ten Commandments as we should?

Context matters. If we learn to read the Bible as it is—and not as a collection of independently assembled laws and proverbs—we’ll discover that some of our most familiar passages take on different or deeper meanings than we’ve always assumed.

Exodus 20

The Ten Commandments are first given to the Israelites at Mt. Sinai, after God has brought them out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and through several post-sea trials. From the top of the mountain God speaks these words to his people.

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. (Exodus 20:2)

This is a short preface which lands an important punch. In it, God reminds the people that he is YHWH, the special, personal name that he has only revealed to Israel. Further, he is their God. He is linked to the people; he is for them.

God has “brought [them] out of the land of Egypt.” The end of this verse is not just repetition, it is a reminder that God is keeping a long-ago promise to to his people. God had promised land to his people—specific land, in fact, that was not in Egypt—and Jacob and Joseph both knew that because of God’s promises their stay in Egypt would be temporary (Genesis 46:3–4Genesis 50:24; see also Exodus 6:8).

Finally, God reminds the Israelites that he brought them “out of the house of slavery.” God redeemed them from their terrible state as slaves. He showed compassion and great power in rescuing them.

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