“You must not murder.
“You must not commit adultery.
“You must not steal.
“You must not testify falsely against your neighbor.
“You must not covet your neighbor’s house. You must not covet your neighbor’s wife, male or female servant, ox or donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor.” — Exodus 20:13-17, NLT
I want you all to remember this idea: context. Context changes everything.
If you were to give this passage to someone who has never read the Bible, they would probably look at it and think, This is a list of rules. It’s about how to be a good person, and treat other people well. Maybe that’s what the Bible is about.
Now that’s not entirely wrong. The Bible does have a lot of rules, and it does show us what a good person looks like. But if we stop there, and assume that this is what the Bible is all about, we will come away with a very inaccurate picture. So how might context give us a clearer, bigger picture?
These laws we see here are the second half of the Ten Commandments, given by God to Moses. The first four are about our relationship with God – don’t worship other gods, honour God’s name, and keep the Sabbath holy.
Here, context gives us a bigger picture of God’s commandments. We see here that God wants us to honour him first and foremost, and then comes honouring people. Or put it another way, you can’t honour people properly without honouring God first.
Ok, shall we stop there then? If we do, following commandments becomes our main message. And yes, the Bible tells us to follow God’s commandments, but if we stop there, we’ll come away thinking that being a Christian means following a list of rules, to be a better person.
Is that correct? Again yes, but no. Let’s expand our context a bit more again.
Think: when were these commandments given? Just one chapter before this, God tells his people: I have rescued you out of Egypt, out of Pharaoh’s hand, out of slavery. Now follow these commandments and you will be my treasured people.
Did you notice the order of events? Because it changes the game entirely. Freedom comes first, then the law. Freedom from slavery first, and then the law. When we only focus on the law, we forget why it was given to God’s people. It wasn’t given so they could prove ourselves to be nice people, so they’d impress God enough that he’d love them and save them. Freedom from slavery comes first, and then the law. God didn’t get Israel out of trouble because they followed the law, he got Israel out of trouble so that they could follow the law.
Ok but… that kind of sounds like out of one slavery, and into another. And if we were to stop there, that is what it would look like. It would look like God saves us from one awful reality, only to slam us with a bunch of very hard, and – let’s be honest -not very exciting commandments. But again, let’s expand our context, and see if that changes the picture.
So far we’ve been looking backward in time, now let’s look forward in time from our passage, see where that leads us. Fast forward a couple of chapters, there’s some more laws, some seemingly bizarre rules about setting up a fancy table, what priests should wear… and then comes another game changer. God gives Moses very clear rules about sacrificing animals. What is all this for?
These animal sacrifices, God tells Moses, are a sin offering. These animal sacrifices are needed because the people of God will keep sinning, and sin guarantees death. So an innocent animal will have to pay for these sins with its life every single year. Why is this a game changer? Because when you put the Ten Commandments in context with animal sacrifice, you come away with a very unexpected picture: a perfect law, with a built-in failure clause.
And suddenly the Ten Commandments are not about being a good person anymore. They’re about the reality that a perfect God gives his perfect law to a very imperfect people. When we take in the full context, the Ten Commandments are no longer about achievement. Now the picture we see, the full picture, is grace. God’s perfection is demanded from an imperfect, weak people. But of course, there is absolutely no way we can fulfil all these on our own, I mean, are you nuts? Don’t be jealous? Don’t lie? Don’t steal? Who could fulfil all these? What kind of sane person could look at all the Ten Commandments and say yeah, sure, perfectly doable.
Hence the built-in failure clause. God knows his people are weak. God knows they will fail. And God still loves them with a love stronger than death. Hence something will die in his people’s place every, single, year. And that’s the full picture that God’s people got, all the way from the time of Moses, until Jesus came, and finally, finally, paid for all people’s sins and weakness, everywhere, and for all time. The perfect sin offering to end all sin offerings.
That is how context changes everything.
But this isn’t just about Bible-handling skills, this is something to encourage you. Yes, God is perfect. Be you perfect as he is perfect. And hopefully your first reaction to this isn’t yeah, sure, and more like how could I possibly…?; and that, that is why we are thankful for what Jesus did. Not to affirm that we’re awesome, not to cheer ourselves up when we’re not feeling good about ourselves. But to remember how much has always been at stake in our salvation, that this man actually paid so much for us, did something that none of us could ever have done in a million years. And with that freedom in mind, with that knowledge that our debt is paid, knowing that someone has loved you so dearly and so fiercely, follow God’s law. Don’t follow it because you think it’s easy, don’t follow it because that’s just what a good person does, don’t follow it because you’re terrified of being zapped by lightning or struck down with plague if you don’t. Follow it because someone has already paid for your failures, past, present and future. And that person is alive, he loves you, and you will see him again.