One of the divides in American evangelicalism today has to do with the Ten Commandments. There are many who believe that the Ten Words of Exodus 20 are a law enacted by God specific to that time and place and since rescinded. That does not mean that such people necessarily believe that murder can be permitted. Many sensibly believe that murder is never permitted. Some believe that God once again forbids it in the New Testament; and, because he does, it remains out of bounds.
The question is about the nature of the law expressed in the Ten Words. Is it merely positive law, law that exists because God has to make a decision and to draw a line, or is it related to God in a more fundamental way? There is a view of the law that begins to be clearly expressed in the Reformation. This view sees the law as a revelation of God’s character, which is unchanging. It views the Ten Commandments as an unchanging moral law, because its main function is not to regulate behavior, though it also functions that way. But if it doesn’t exist mainly to regulate our behavior, what is its main function? To reveal the Lord to his people.
It is, after all, found in the Bible, which exists for purposes of revelation. What is more, it is in the book of Exodus, the central theme of which is to reveal the Lord as a deliverer and a good master to his people. The Lord is a good master because he is fundamentally holy, just, merciful, patient, and all the other things which Exodus displays and which Pharaoh never was. God reveals his covenant name, he reveals his mighty power, he reveals his transcendence and immanence, and he reveals that he is desirous of restoring humanity to the communion that was lost in the garden.
And just as communion with God is at the heart of the book of Exodus, it is at the heart of the Ten Words.
The Ten Words can be read as directions for human life that are based on the character of God. He is God in exclusivity, there are no other beings in his category. He is not depicted as anything in creation, he is wholly other. He must be taken seriously, and we learn about his related jealously and faithfulness. He alone determines how he should be worshipped, having made the world in the space of six days precisely so that we would have the seventh set apart. We could go through all the commandments that way: honoring authority, valuing life, being faithful, valuing the possessions of others, being honest, and dealing with the heart. All these say something about God, are based on God, reveal his holy character and reveal the terms on which we live with him.
In the story that the Ten Words come to us we see that God thunders the eight negative commands with two positive commands at the center. It is interesting that the one command regularly reduced to a suggestion is the one where the positive vision is set forth: rest and honor are the themes of the fourth and fifth commandments. Rest from the rest of life exists for the purpose of honoring whom we should: so the Old Covenant Sabbath, and the New Covenant Lord’s Day are about communion with God.
The people were overwhelmed by it, they were afraid before Sinai. The law serves that purpose: it should weigh on us and crush us because we cannot keep God’s commands. Moses, however, tells them not to fear. He wants them to understand that not only does God want to crush our sins, he wants to guide our lives. God overawes us, but he does it toward being in relationship. There is an approach. There is a way. There is one who keeps the law, who never violated it; when we trust in Christ his obedience is imputed to us and the crushing condemnation of the law is transferred from us. The law, however, remains, because God’s character remains. And it is a guide for communion with God.
What is the outcome of the story in Exodus 20:21? And the people stood afar off, and Moses drew near unto the thick darkness where God was.
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