The book of Exodus recounts the Lord’s actions in redeeming His people. He saves them from slavery in order to make them His people.
The Lord, through Moses, frees the people from slavery in Egypt and brings them into the deserts of the Sinai peninsula, on their way to the land which He has promised to give them. Let’s pause here to think for a moment on how the people of Israel know the Lord. He is their God who has freed them from captivity, brought them up out of slavery, and is giving them – due to no merit of their own – a promised land. This is a very relational type of knowing. It’s like how you know your parents – they created you, care for you, and love you.
This relational aspect is emphasized in Exodus chapter 19 when the Lord brings the people to Mount Sinai to speak with them. He says, “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.” This is the Lord’s introduction to them, reminding the people of His relation to them in terms of His grace and mercy upon them. Then, the Lord continues, “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:4-6).
That’s the Lord’s purpose in freeing the people. They are to be His people, and He is to be their God. And why? Because He created them, freed them, and bestowed his grace upon them. Everything else flows from that. Who they are and what they do stems from what the Lord has first done for them.
That’s where the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 come into play. Since the people of Israel are the Lord’s people, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, they are called to live as the Lord’s people, not like the people of the other nations. Thus, the Lord reveals to them more fully the natural law which He has written on our hearts.
In the same way, you have also been created by the Lord, freed from captivity to sin, death, and the devil, and brought into the promised land, a land you possess now as the Church on earth and which you will possess for eternity in the restored creation. As St. Peter says, “… you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).
So, you also know the Lord relationally in terms of what He has done for you. This is why in the Creeds – in the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds – when we confess in whom we believe, we do so using words of relation. We confess we believe in a Triune God who created all things, redeemed all things, and is restoring all things. You are His people, and He is your God. And why? Because He created you, freed you, and bestows His grace upon you. Everything else flows from that. Who you are and what you do stems from what the Lord has first done for you.
So, as the Lord’s redeemed people, you also are called to live as the Lord’s people, not like the people of the nations. You are the New Testament Israel, the Church. You also, like the saints of the Old Testament, look to Christ only for salvation and called to be the Lord’s witnesses and intercessors on earth.
So, what is the Lord’s will for our lives? How would He have us live? Do we have to make up things that we think would be pleasing to the Lord? No, He’s already told us His will for us and all people and makes this clear in the 10 Commandments in Exodus chapter 20, as I mentioned. Indeed, this is the Law given to all people; the natural law which we feel tugging on our consciences is God’s Law and His holy will for our lives. Our knowledge of it would be clouded at times, so the Lord makes it clear to us in Exodus 20.
Notice again how the Lord starts His elucidation of His Law. He starts by reminding us who He is. He says, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” The Lord is our Redeemer. In the New Testament Church we know this more clearly through Christ who died and rose for us in order to bring us out of slavery to sin, death, and the devil in order to make us His people.
Then, the Lord says, “You shall have no other gods before me.” What follows is an explanation of this commandment; don’t carve images for yourself to worship – that is do not make anything in creation into a god, because the Lord God is the Creator of all things and is separate from His creation.
Following on this commandment, the Lord says that since He is to be our only God, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.” We normally think of this in terms of cursing, but it also means that we’re not to swear by the Lord, use His name superstitiously, or use His name to deceive others. We are His witnesses on earth, and so we are to bear His name as He meant it to be used, such as calling upon Him in prayer, giving praise to Him, and thanking Him for all He has done for us, and in so doing be His witnesses to others.
Then, the Lord gives us the third commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” And He explains this commandment in reference to the order of creation, for He created all things during six days, but rested on the seventh. Now, Jesus fulfilled the Saturday Sabbath rest for us, but we still need a time of rest from work, us and our workers and families, not to lay around and do nothing, but to go gather with the Lord’s people and receive His gifts that come to us through His Word and Sacraments, either on Sunday or any other day if we can’t avoid work on Sunday.
These first three commandments are often called the first table of the Law, and they deal with our relationship with God. They are summarized in the Old Testament and later by Jesus as “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.” For, this is the essence of what it means to have a God, and is what the one true God – the Lord, Yahweh, “He Who Is” – intends for us. He wants us to call upon Him as our only God.
And if we truly do this, then the following seven commandments would flow naturally. For, if we truly love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind, then we will love our neighbor as ourself. For, we will not feel the need to disobey, murder, lie, cheat, steal, or covet, because we will be looking to the Lord only for all good things.
All the commandments go back to the central issue of who or what is our God. Everything is really an issue of the First Commandment. If the Lord is our God, then we will want to use and call upon His name rightly, hear His Word, love His creation rightly, and help those whom He has created.
But, we are fallen creatures, due to the rebellion of Adam and Eve; we are born sinful and turned away from the Lord. And you see the results of this in the world today, just as the results have been seen throughout history.
When John records Jesus’ trip to the temple in John 2:13-25, he closes with an interesting statement, “… Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.”
God knows what is in man. And what is in man due to our fallen nature is counter to God’s Law. Man, as a fallen creature, is a natural rebel against the Ten Commandments. Even as the Lord gives His Law to us, we tend to want to qualify His Words, and make excuses for our behavior, because the weight of the Commandments is too much for us to bear.
And God knows this. Because He loves us, the Lord sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to bear the judgement we deserve for our sins, for our inability to bear the will of our holy Lord God. Jesus accomplished the Lord’s will for us, and then took our sins within the temple of his body and atoned for them with his blood. Jesus the Christ died for you, and rose on the third day, just as he said he would. This is the folly of the cross, the scandal of the cross: the fact that the sinless son of God died for sinners who didn’t deserve to be saved, but in God’s endless grace and mercy, have been.
And then, in your Baptism, the Lord killed you, connecting you with Christ’s death. The person you once were is no more. You are no longer an enemy of God, a rebel against His rule. You are dead to sin. And also in Baptism the Lord raised you up to new life in Him, connecting you with Christ’s resurrection. You are now alive to Christ and connected with all those who also have been baptized into his death and resurrection. You are the Church, the Lord’s redeemed people.
So, now as the Church, we are free to love others as ourselves, because we have the Lord as our God, and we are the body of Christ. The Lord has already fixed our relationship with Him, enabling us therefore to love one another.
So, what of God’s Law now? Well, it still serves the purpose it always has, to show us His will for our lives and what is pleasing to Him. But, lest we begin to think that we earn salvation through following the Law, it shows us something else as well; it shows us that we cannot live up to its demands, we cannot be perfect, we are still sinners. So, it drives us to continually trust in God’s grace given us through Christ, who was given up for your sins and whose blood was poured out for your transgressions.
And to those who are not Christians, those who do not have the Lord as their God, because they do not trust in Christ, the Law serves another purpose. The Law restrains outward sin, because God has instituted civil government to keep and maintain order in the world.
So, we are left with God’s Law serving three purposes: keeping outward order in the world, convicting us of sin, and for us Christians, showing us the things that are pleasing to our Heavenly Father as we live as His children.
You – as Christians – live in the light of God’s grace that He has poured out upon you freely through His Son. So, you are free to live lives as God intends, lives lived in accordance with His holy will, in accordance with His Law; not as those who are trying to earn their salvation, but rather as those who have already freely received God’s grace and salvation through Christ and now seek to live as the children He has made you.
Your good works are therefore a response to what God has first done for you. And when we fail, when we stumble – and we most certainly will – we still have Christ’s atoning body and blood here for us, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of all your sins. Amen.
(Image: Pfarr- und Wallfahrtskirche Maria Schnee, Plankenstein 15a, Texingtal, Niederösterreich – Deckenmalerei Übergabe der Gesetze an Mose, By BSonne – Own work, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51837901 )