Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
In order to preach or teach this Scripture, I feel like it is well worth our time to help frame the context surrounding it.
So quick recap: God gave the Ten Commandments shortly after freeing God’s enslaved people from captivity in Egypt. The book of Genesis ends with Joseph dying in Egypt after bringing his extended family there. They were protected by the Egyptian king, who knew Joseph. The book of Exodus begins with a description of how Joseph’s extended family increased over time, becoming very numerous. A new king arose who knew nothing of Joseph and felt threatened by this increasing group of people — so he enslaved them. They cried out to God. God heard their cry, and he sent Moses and Aaron to demand that the new king release them. Eventually, after many plagues, including the final deadly one when every Egyptian’s firstborn son was killed, the king released them into the desert. They crossed the Red Sea, wandered through the wilderness, and landed at the base of Mount Sinai.
God’s people had just lived through a lot! Their life together was chaotic and crazy. As slaves, God’s people did not have liberty. Their oppressors had forced rules on them for centuries. So when God delivered them from the hands of the Egyptians, God’s people experienced a previously unknown freedom. And this freedom created questions, such as:
- How do we live together and treat each other fairly?
- How do we become a community?
- How do we learn to trust?
At the base of Mt. Sinai, the people were free but not flourishing. Moses was sent up the mountain to talk with God. He returned with the Ten Commandments which offered some guidance, answers, and structure to this new community.
God gave the Ten Commandments as a gift. God’s people were lost — not just lost in the wilderness, but lost in their relationships, lost in their interactions with one another, and lost in their sense of community. They were struggling with how they could best live with others and how they could flourish in life together. The Ten Commandments were the gift that gave them a new communal direction for life. Patrick Miller puts it this way in his Interpretation Series commentary The Ten Commandments: “The Commandments serve as a kind of constitution for the covenanted community; they stand in relation to all further direction for life.”
This is why the context of the commandments is so important! God’s people sometimes reduce the Ten Commandments to a simple list of DO’s and DON’Ts. DO know God, remember the Sabbath and honor your parents. DON’T worship other gods, shout OMG or spread rumors. If we reduce the commandments to a basic checklist, we limit the spirit of the commandments and the effect the purpose of the commandments can have on our communities.
Another way to talk about the Ten Commandments is the way John Calvin liked to talk about them. Calvin believed that each commandment offers a positive and a negative. For instance, the commandment to not bear false witness against our neighbors tells us something we ought not to do, a negative. But it also offers something positive by telling us something that we should do — we should use our words to build up our brothers and sisters.
You could even emphasize the Ten Commandments as being a guide to help us better understand all the other commandments found in Scripture. Many additional (confusing) regulations are given in the Hebrew scriptures that the Ten Commandments might help frame for us. Some others also say that the Ten Commandments serve as a summary of all the Old Testament commandments. Christians teach that all these commandments and more are summarized in Jesus’ greatest commandment(s) to love.
However the Spirit guides you to share this passage in your teaching and preaching, I would encourage you to think about the context of this passage within the history of God’s people and within the context of the canon. The mutual benefits and the communal implications of these Ten Commandments often go unnoticed. Don’t make these just about you. Don’t make these just about them. Don’t make them into individualized litmus tests for holiness. Help God’s people see these Ten Commandments as the communal gift that they are!
Questions for reflection
- How did this passage intrigue, disturb, challenge, comfort, encourage or inspire you?
- How have the Ten Commandments shaped God’s people over the centuries?
- How do the Ten Commandments still shape us as God’s people today?