The Ten Words

Exodus 19:3-7; 20:1-17


In the beginning, when God created, there was nothing, and God brought into existence, something.

But creation isn’t something that was, but something that is. Creation didn’t end with the explosion of light and life and existence, that was simply the beginning. In our story this morning, we are seeing another act of creation, the creation of God’s people as a liberated people an identifiable people.

Last week I mentioned that the story of the exodus is a pivotal point in the story of the people of God. This is the moment that God’s people are reminded of time and time again. We sometimes wonder why God doesn’t do big and amazing and significant things like this again, but the exodus is something which only happened once. We don’t all have to witness it, because we tell the story on down the generations. Memory is so significant to our faith, not our own individual memories, but our collective memory. Many times throughout scripture the people are told to remember. Many of those times it was to remember what God did in liberating the people.

But here the people are told to remember, or rather that they do remember, what God did to the Egyptians, and how God had brought God’s people to Godself. God liberated God’s people and here they are gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai, the mountain where God has chosen to assemble God’s people.

The first thing that God does is remind them that they saw what happened back there, and that God had brought the people to Godself. It is after this that God commands obedience. And then they are reminded that the world belongs to God, yet they are special. They are to be a people to reflect God to the world, in this covenant community, the world will see the ways and desires of God.

At this point God creates something new, God creates the nation that God promised to Abram. This was not the fullness of it, but this is the fulfillment of it. God reminds the people of what God had done and then laid the foundation for their life together.


The ancient people of Israel have not experienced freedom, they have been enslaved for generations. How are they to begin their new life together? How would they function together?

So often we see the Ten Commandments as simply a set of rules, a collection of don’ts. But in reality, what we have here is so much more than just a list of rules, it is the foundation of a new creation, the people of ancient Israel, the people who strive with God. The commandments that are given here, the ten words as they are sometimes called, enable freedom rather than hindering freedom.

So God speaks these words to Moses to bring to the people. These words are more than just a law as we understand it, they are more than a code of ethics, they are a guide in how God desires for God’s people to live. The are not for pragmatic and utilitarian reasons alone, but for reasons of peace and justice and goodness and wholeness. The commandments are not a series of rituals to be performed in order to gain favor, but they are one half that helped them to understand who they were in relation to God and one half that helped them to understand who they were in relation to one another.

This was a people who did not only have responsibilities toward the divine, but also to one another. In fact, God is greatly concerned with how humans treat one another. Thus, these ten words serve as the guide for the building of their new community, a guide to living in freedom.

This is, in some ways, a contrast to our cultural narrative of freedom. We see freedom as freedom from — freedom from tyranny, freedom from oppression, freedom from this or that. At times, we take it to the extreme and understand it to be freedom from norms and guidelines — don’t tread on me and all that.

But this is not the biblical way to understand freedom, this is not the freedom that God envisions for God’s people.

God envisions a freedom for.  A freedom for peace and justice, a freedom for living according to God’s desires, a freedom for witness amongst the world. Freedom from and freedom for, it’s only a preposition, but prepositions often carry so much weight.


This is to be a community centered in God, pledging allegiance not to a nation, not to a local deity, but this one particular God. It is a community that is to be dependent upon God as is evident from not putting faith in idols, not using God’s name for their own personal gain, as we so often do in the political realm in our nation, and trusting God enough to rest at least once throughout the week.


It is to be a community where families respect and honor one another, not because they agree or even like one another, but because this is how things are to be set up. It is a community that values fidelity in relationships and commitment, a community in which people are not to kill one another, people are to be truthful to one another in speech and action, and people don’t steal from one another or cheat one another, either by commission or omission, and people don’t have a deep set envy for what others have.

It is to be a community based upon faith in God, mutual respect and trust. If it works, it will be a utopia, a perfect society.

But as we know, it never turned out to be a utopia, and the people could not live their lives according to these ten words. Because of this, more words were added, the law grew, and grew. The law became a burden rather than a blessing, it began to restrict rather than liberate.

The law became a way to determine one’s sinfulness, one’s missing the mark. The law does not condemn, but serves as a mirror through which we can see our own sinfulness, our own need for redemption, our complete reliance upon God.


But is this the only value of these ten words? to order a society which never succeeded and to show us our own sin.

No, we cannot forget the grace that permeates these ten words. God gave the ancient people these ten words not simply so that they could be shown their sin, but truly that they would strive to fulfill them. This is how God desires for us to live. Indeed Jesus summed up these ten words, indeed all of scripture in two commands. Love God and love others. This is the center of all of it. The first five words help us to love God, the second five help us to love one another.

God was very aware that humans could not keep these ten words perfectly, God knew that this was not a realistic attainment on their own. In fact, if they could do it on their own they wouldn’t need these ten words in the first place. But people are not able to fulfill these perfectly, and people are broken. However, God never left it to people to fulfill these on their own anyway. This is why God instituted rituals of sacrifice and atonement and chose priests and prophets to help call the people to faithfulness and God continued to work, even from the beginning, to turn people toward God.

We always approach the Old Testament as people living in a post-resurrection world. We don’t have to go through the rituals of sacrifice and atonement, because we have one who atoned for us. But this does not make the Old Testament inapplicable. Remember, Jesus said that not one smallest stroke of the smallest letter of the law will pass away?

These ten words are at the heart of the entire law, and loving God and loving others is at the heart of these ten words.

These are not just to restrain evil, although it is that. These are not just to show us our sin, although it is that too. It is also a guide to help us in our living, we ought to strive to actually live these out, because this is what God desires. We are to live them out in the spirit rather than the letter. We get a glimpse into this when Jesus taught, “You heard it said…” that even if we hate someone we are just as guilty of murdering them. Even if we lust with another in our heart, we are guilty of adultery. If we pledge allegiance to anything other than the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, we are guilty of having other gods.

Although we have not had the experience of being an oppressed and enslaved people for generations, we, too, must still listen to how God desired for God’s people to live. Because God still desires for God’s people to live this way.

Sisters and brothers, hear what our gracious God is saying to us. These are not rules to restrict our freedom, they are ten gracious words to help us to have freedom for service to God, for life with God, for life as God’s covenant people. Jesus told his followers that they were the light of the world, a city atop a hill which  cannot be hidden. This is because we are to reflect God’s goodness, God’s grace and mercy, God’s shalom and harmony and wholeness through the whole of creation. God has redeemed our people, God has freed our people from slavery with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and God has brought us to Godself. If we will hear God, and obey, we will be God’s treasured possession, the pearl of great price.

God calls to you and to me, that we are redeemed, we are now to live into that redemption and to help others do the same.

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