Covenant and Commandments
- Main Text: Exodus 19:3-7, 20:1-17
- Accompanying Text: Matthew 5:17
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:8-10).
The Christian life is more than just being freed from the slavery of sin; we are not just freed from sin, we are freed to serve God. While the parting of the sea that we covered last week focused on God’s saving Israel from slavery in Egypt, our text(s) this week look(s) at what Israel was being saved for, namely, ‘to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’ (19:6). As we read these texts, we are reminded that we too have been saved for God’s good purposes.
In Exodus 19:3-7 we see that God had chosen already Israel as the recipient of his saving grace and covenantal love (beautifully expressed as being carried on eagle’s wings – see also Deut 32:11, Isa 40:31) before Israel was given the law at Sinai. Grace comes first: it is neither dependent upon nor conditional on Israel’s keeping the law. Instead the law is given to help Israel understand her calling to be a ‘kingdom of priests and a holy nation’. Gary Deddo writes that “the law could never prevent its misuse nor fulfil God’s purposes as laid out in his covenant” , consequently, we need to be careful not to remove the law from the story in which it is set – the story of God’s interventions in history to save Israel and call her to be his ‘treasured possession’ (19:5). In a similar fashion the law of Christ (John 13:34, Gal 6:2) must never be separated from the salvation we have been given in Christ and the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
The decalogue are best understood as being what James Torrance describes as Israel’s “unconditional obligations of grace” . 20:2 begins by reminding us of the grace shown to Israel that has been described in the first 19 chapters of Exodus. The ten words, as they are known in Hebrew, are not given in a legal format. No judicial consequences are given for those guilty of transgressing the commandments and the question of enforcing the commandments is not raised.
There are different ways of counting the ten commandments, with some beginning in 20:2 and others in 20:3. 20:16 is then either viewed as either one commandment or as two to keep the total number as ten. The commandments are also given again in Deut 5:6-21 in a slightly evolved form. The commandments are typically split into two sections, with the first half covering Israel relationship with God and the second half Israel’s relationship with the community (see Matt 22:37-40).
Exodus 20:2-11 covers the first half – Israel’s call to love God. All of these commandments reflect the need to have God be the priority in Israel’s life. 20:2 is a declaration that God is Israel’s God in a personal sense – he is not a remote impersonal deity, but the God who saves. 20:3-5 covers the incompatibility of worshiping Yahweh with other gods, Israel, like Christians, cannot serve two masters (Matt 6:24). 20:7 stresses the obligation that the Israelites have to honour God through their words, a theme which Jesus takes up in the model prayer (Matt 6:9). In 20:8-11, God sets aside time for Israel to dedicate to God as a community (for Christians, sabbath should always be understood in light of Jesus Christ as Lord of the sabbath – see Matt 12:1-14).
Exodus 20:12-17 covers the commandments relating to Israel as a community. The focus of these commandments is not on self-improvement, instead they reflect that humanity was always intended to live in relation to others. God’s call is for Israel to be a holy nation, not a collection of holy people. As such the commandments we have in 20:12-17 are designed to bring freedom to Israel. Terence Fretheim comments “the law is given to the people of God as a vehicle in and through which Egypt [with its injustice and oppression] will not be repeated among them” . Not having to worry about our spouses being unfaithful, or our care in our old age, or worry about having our belongings stolen, brings freedom to the community as oppose to taking it away.
The relevance of the ten commandments for Christians
The God who saves Israel from slavery, idolatry and oppression in Egypt calls Israel to have nothing to do with slavery, idolatry and oppression. Likewise, as Christians we, who are rescued from the slavery of sin and the oppression of Satan are called to have nothing to do with sin and evil.
Israel looked to the law of Moses, spoken by God to Israel, to understand how to respond to God’s grace – how Israel should act to reflect her calling to be a ‘kingdom of priests, a holy nation’. Israel was called to be holy as God was holy.
As Christians, we are called to look to the teaching of Jesus (John 8:31-32), spoken by God to us, to understand what our response should be to the God who has called us out of slavery. Just as Israel looked to the decalogue, we look the sermon on the mount (Matthew 5-7). It should come as no surprise that, just as “Jesus has been found worthy of greater honour than Moses” (Heb 3:3), so Christians are called to a higher standard of love than the ten commandments. These obligations of grace should not be confused as being conditions of grace. God is faithful even when we are faithless, and part of God’s grace is that he has given us his Holy Spirit who is transforming us into the likeness of Christ. We put our faith in Jesus Christ to do what we cannot: to make us holy as God is holy.
- 1 Peter 1: 13-16, 2:9-10
- Matthew 5:17-48
- 2 Corinthians 3:1-17
- Deuteronomy 5:6-21
- Developing a Christian Mind by Oliver Barclays, chapter two (handed out at the GCI UK denominational conference 2018).
- The table below may be helpful and is an updated and adapted version of a table in The Interpreter’s Bible: Exodus.
- Gary Deddo, https://www.gci.org/articles/covenant-law-and-gods-faithfulness/.
- Terence E. Fretheim, Interpretation: Exodus, p204.
- J. Edgar Park, The Interpreter’s Bible: Exodus, p989 (adapted).