Someone once said insight isn’t primarily about getting new information but about seeing old information in fresh ways. This happened to me recently with the Ten Commandments. Our tendency is to view the Ten Commandments as merely a set of prohibitions.
But a closer examination of them reveals three things that help us gain fresh insight.
The Ten Commandments remind us who God is
First, these commandments remind us who God is. He is the rescuer! This is vital! Notice how the Ten Commandments begin in Exodus chapter 20.
And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Exodus 20:1–2 ESV
If we miss God’s identity as the rescuer, we will completely misunderstand the purpose and heart of the Ten Commandments. God did not give Israel these commandments while they were in Egypt and say, “Now if you keep these perfectly, I will rescue you from Pharaoh and bring you into the promised land.” No! In his grace and mercy, God has compassion on the plight of his people and he rescues them. It is only after they have been rescued that he gives them the gift of the commandments as part of his covenant agreement with them.
Even more than revealing that God is a rescuer, these commandments reveal the kind of God it is who rescues like this. Sandra Richter writes in her outstanding book, The Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament:
In its place in redemptive history, the law served to sketch the profile of God to a fallen race who no longer had any idea who God was or what he defined as “good.”…This god [sic] was different, and what he expected of his people was different as well. This is what the Mosaic law brought into focus and Israel’s world. It was a very good thing.
The Ten Commandments remind us who we are
But that’s not all. The Ten Commandments also remind us who we are. We are no longer slaves! We are the rescued! That is our new identity; we are rescued people. The commandments then define our identity and way of life as people who have been rescued by grace. These words to live by are not a means of salvation or rescue, but obedience to them can shape the identity of those people who have been rescued.
The moment we start viewing the Ten Commandments as primarily about making God happy with us, we have missed the heart of God. It is true that we express our love to God through our obedience to him. But we do this because we are already secure in his love for us.
In the original moment of their giving, the Ten Commandments served to make God’s people distinct in the world. They served as an identity marker. This fact is the foundation for the third insight.
The Ten Commandments remind us how to act
Not only do they remind us who God is (the rescuer) and who we are (the rescued), the Ten Commandments also reveal how to act like rescued people.
In their fascinating and hopeful book, The Other Half of Church: Christian Community, Brain Science, and Overcoming Spiritual Stagnation, Jim Wilder and Michel Hendricks explain that God has created our brains in such a way that we are constantly asking Who are my people? and How should I act right now to be like them? Here is how they unpack this:
Through infancy and childhood, the brain is designed to develop individual identity through attachment to the parents and other caregivers. Around age 12, the brain undergoes a structural change that balances individual identity with group identity. From this point on, our group identity is a key player in the formation of character. We are formed by our strongest attachments and the shared identity of our community. Our brains are wired this way.…
Our brains were designed to respond to group identity in order to help us act like “our people.” … every one-sixth of a second our right brain tries to answer the question, “Who am I? How do my people act now?” If my control center is working smoothly, my circumstances are integrated with my group identity. I spontaneously act with joy and peace. If my control center desynchronizes, I forget who I am and how to connect with those around me. I stop acting like myself. Even though I am a Christian, I stop acting like one. My brain has cramped.
When we fail to build the character of Christ into the identity of our community, we easily forget who we are. We become salt that’s not salty, and our character lacks the savory flavor of transformation.
So, then, far from being a way to earn favor with God, the Ten Commandments are God’s gracious gift that reveals who he is and how to act like his people.
So how is it to act like God’s rescued people? What are we to do? What are we to be like?
Rescued people don’t have any other gods. They don’t look to anyone or anything else for their rescue, hope, and satisfaction. The rescued bear God’s name and identity with wholeness. Rescued people receive God’s gift of rest as a reminder that they have been rescued. They aren’t slaves anymore. They can stop and rest. Rescued people treat their parents with honor, respect, and kindness. Rescued people don’t murder people with their hands or in their hearts. Rescued people joyfully receive and practice God’s design for sexuality even when it can seem counterintuitive and is countercultural. Rescued people respect the fruits of other people’s labor and refuse to steal in any way. Rescued people tell the truth even when it hurts, and they refuse to use the truth in ways that harm others, such as gossip. Rescued people are content with what God has given them. They don’t look down on others who have less or envy those who have more.
That is how it is for us to act as God’s people who are salt and light, pointing others to the rescue we have found.