Quick quiz – Can you list the Ten Commandments?
OK, name one commandment.
And now for the final question: Can you recite the two verses that immediately precede the Ten Commandments?
No matter how you scored on this little pop quiz, you probably have one thing in common with almost everyone else who has taken it: They have no recollection of what comes before the commandments. After all, isn’t the Decalogue (another name for the commandments, meaning “ten words”) the star of the show? It would seem as though talking about the verses before the commandments would be to fixate on the salad instead of the steak or to talk about the lobby instead of the main room.
But if you’re going to make sense of the Ten Words, you’ve got to understand the words that preface them.
An Important Introduction
Exodus 20:1-2 reads, “And God spake all these words, saying, I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” Of course, Moses and the Israelites would have known it was God who was speaking to them; but before they heard His commands for them, they needed to be reminded of who He was and of what He had done for them – and of how they were to respond to His grace.
In other words, these commandments didn’t drop impersonally out of the sky. They were given directly to God’s people by a personal God in the context of a relationship.
“I am the Lord thy God”: as “Lord” (in Hebrew, this name is literally “I am that I am”). He is reminding the people that He is the eternal, self-existent God on whom they depend for life. And this name, “Lord,” is also a personal and relational name for God. It’s the name God revealed to Moses at the burning bush when He told Moses that he would lead His people out of the land of Egypt.
And in saying, “I brought you out of the land of Egypt – out of the house of bondage,” the Lord is refreshing Israel’s memory about what He’d just done for them. They had become enslaved in a foreign land to which they’d once come to escape famine. They were relatively few in number. By all human calculations, Israel should not have been alive – much less on the way to the Promised Land!
These words form the preface to the covenant relationship that the Lord is instituting with His people Israel. In one sense, they’re common to the covenants of those days.
Yet these aren’t any old words; they’re God’s words, and they’re eternally significant. They tell you and me about how great the Lord is, how good the Lord is, and how thankful we should be to Him.
Sometimes when parents have a disciplinary talk with their children, they preface their instructions (“Stop throwing Legos at your brother!”) with a reminder of the relationship they enjoy with their children (“Remember, we’re Mommy and Daddy, and we love you, and we’re here to teach you what’s right”). Viewed in this light, commands are given in the context of love. They are, in fact, the outflow of love.
Grace, then Obedience
So what does this preface mean for the Ten Commandments – and for you? At least two things.
One, God didn’t give these commands to Israel in order for Israel to keep them and thereby to be saved or to be right in His eyes. He gave these commands after He’d already delivered them from slavery.
You might not have been freed from literal enslavement to another person, but if you’ve come to know God’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ, you definitely have been freed from slavery to sin. St. Paul says this very thing in Romans 6:7. This means that the Ten Commandments aren’t there for you to obey in order to have your sin removed, or to be accepted into God’s presence. No, only Jesus Christ can save you and free you. The same grace that the Israelites knew is the grace you and I experience in Christ: the joy of knowing that the Lord is our God, and He has freed us from the yoke of sin and guilt before Him.
Second, the Ten Commandments are given to guide you in how you are to live in the freedom Jesus Christ has won for you. Your obedience to them is not the basis for your salvation – but it is the fruit of your saved and grateful heart. God wanted His people to live a victorious life in His grace, not submitting again to the yoke of spiritual slavery. Indeed, part of His grace is in giving you and me the moral law to direct us (Rom 6:14)!