“You shall have no other gods before me.”
–The First Commandment (Exodus 20:3)
As the collective memory of Christian heritage and biblical knowledge grow fainter in the mind of Western civilization, the Ten Commandments remain strangely familiar and relevant, albeit mostly in the context of arguments about whether or not public institutions are allowed to put them on display.
For God’s people in the Old Testament, the Ten Commandments represented the core of God’s law and his will for humanity. The stone tablets on which the Lord himself wrote the most famous top ten list in all of history were cherished in the Ark of the Covenant for generations, traveling with the people as a symbol of God’s presence.
Today, these words appear in Bibles, on monuments, and even on film. But as we learn from the second half of the Bible, our righteousness comes from Jesus, not whether we obey a set of ten rules or the 600-plus other rule that appear throughout the rest of the Old Testament.
So what can we learn from the Ten Commandments and how do they apply to our lives today? That’s the question I’ll try to answer over the course of this blog series.
God launches into the Ten Commandments with a clear statement of his identity and preeminence: “You shall have no other gods before me.” In order to understand the significance of this point and the nine that follow—not to mention the rest of Scriptures—it’s important to consider the God who spoke these words. We need to start at the beginning.
Historical background for the 10 Commandments
The book of Exodus, where we find the Ten Commandments, is part of something called the Pentateuch, which means “book in five parts.” Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy appear at the beginning of every Bible, but all were written by Moses—one book in five parts. And the Ten Commandments are right in the middle, tucked away in Exodus 20.
The biblical events leading up to the giving of the Ten Commandments really begin in Genesis after sin entered the world. God chose a person named Abraham to be saved and to be used by God to bring forth the nation of Israel and ultimately Jesus Christ. God promised to bring a family and a blessing through Abraham and his wife, Sarah.
Working through the storyline of Genesis, we see that Abraham and Sarah had Isaac, and Isaac had Jacob. As we near the end of Genesis, we see that Jacob had a family and many sons. Jacob favored the younger son named Joseph, which led to some family drama. Joseph was also a bit of an arrogant kid who liked to talk about himself, and his brothers got a little sick of it. They decided to get rid of him, sell him into slavery, and tell their dad, Jacob, that he was dead. Joseph ended up in Egypt. Though far away from God’s people, he was not far away from God. God drew near to Joseph.
Even though enslaved and eventually imprisoned, Joseph was used by God to rise up as a very powerful, prominent, preeminent political leader. Joseph worked for Pharaoh, the godless king of Egypt—the most powerful, influential nation in the history of the world at that time. Egypt was the international powerhouse in that day, much like the Roman Empire to come or, some would argue, the United States of America.
God revealed to Joseph that lean years of famine were coming. Pharaoh commissioned Joseph to store up food in the years of plenty in preparation for the years of lack, want, and need. “During the seven plentiful years the earth produced abundantly, and he gathered up all the food of these seven years, which occurred in the land of Egypt, and put the food in the cities” (Genesis 41:47-48). As a result, while other nations were starving, the nation of Egypt was flourishing because of the presence of a great and wise leader and manager named Joseph.
Joseph’s brothers traveled to Egypt seeking survival during the famine. Without food, their family would starve to death. An amazing reunion transpired between Joseph and his brothers, and he forgave them. This is a picture of Jesus, who, though we’ve sinned against him and turned our backs on him, came to forgive, embrace, love, and reconcile with us.
This wonderful reconciliation story continued when Jacob found out his son Joseph was alive and reconciled with him. Joseph invited his father and his brothers to move to Egypt so they could live under his blessing and provision.
Four hundred and thirty years passed between the end of Genesis and the beginning of Exodus. In that time, Jacob’s family—which entered into Egypt with about seventy people—had become a nation of a few million people, the great nation of Israel. The new pharaoh hated, despised, enslaved, and abused God’s people. They lived in misery as slaves—no hope, no prosperity, no future, no love, no grace, no betterment.
God hears and answers our prayers, particularly when we’re suffering and in need.
God’s people in Egypt reached a point where they cried out to him, begging for deliverance. God determined that he would set his people free, and he would do so through a mediator, a man named Moses. Moses served as a prophet who represented and foreshadowed the coming of Jesus. Our Mediator, Jesus, stands between us and God and speaks God’s truth to us.
Moses was a man who lost his temper and committed murder. Moses was a man with a speech impediment. Moses was a bit of a coward. But God chose Moses because God can do extraordinary things through ordinary people. He chose Moses in order to display his own glory. When God uses someone like Moses, or you or me, the focus is on God and his grace, not on the gifts of the servant.
God told Moses to go to Pharaoh and tell him what to do. Of course, no one could tell Pharaoh what to do, because he thought he was God. No one ever dared enter his presence and say, “I demand this.” But God commanded Moses, his messenger, to confront Pharaoh and say, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness’ ” (Genesis 5:1). In other words, God said, “Go tell Pharaoh that he’s not God, that there’s a real God. The real God is not happy with the way he’s treating his children. Go tell the false god that the real God says, ‘Let my people go, that they might be free to worship me.’ ”
That’s freedom. Freedom is not the ability to do what you want; freedom is the ability to do what you were made for by God. It is using the ability and having the desire to worship God.