Jesus was once asked an important question in Matthew 22, ““Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” Jesus answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
Jesus’ summarized the law and the prophets in these two statements. They reflect the division in the 10 commandments between the commandments that point to our relationship with God and the ones that point to our relationship with others. When Christians read the 10 commandments, they elucidate the two statements Jesus used to summarize the law.
The question we are going to ask today is similar to the one that the scribes asked Jesus. Which passage is the most important in the 10 commandments? You have to start, of course, with the actual text in Exodus, chapter 20 :
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
Which one is most important? One might expect that the first commandment is the most important. If you get the first commandment right, the rest are unnecessary. If you love and trust in God more than anything else, you won’t steal, kill or covet.
But even this chief commandment is governed by the passage that comes before it. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”
This short passage summarizes a great deal of the Exodus story. It begins years after Joseph moved his family to Egypt. After the Hebrews had grown into a great nation, the new Pharaoh became afraid of their numbers. The Pharaoh enslaved them, and he used them to build many of the cities in Egypt. Even worse, when their numbers continued to grow, the Pharaoh decreed that every male child be thrown into the Nile.
During this time, Moses was born. His mother saved him from death in the Nile by floating him down the river. Rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter, he was raised in the Pharaoh’s household until he killed an Egyptian. He escaped to Midian, where he married, raised children, and grew to be an old man.
When Moses was tending his sheep, he saw a burning bush that was not consumed by the fire. When he approached it, God spoke to him through the flames, commanding him to go to Pharaoh and free God’s people. Moses reluctantly obeyed, and he travelled with his brother Aaron to Egypt. When he arrived, Moses told Pharaoh what God had commanded, but Pharaoh did not listen. God sent 10 plagues on Egypt, culminating with the death of the firstborn Sons of Egypt.
The firstborn of Israel, however, were saved by the blood of a lamb, which each family killed in its home. They took the blood and wiped over the doors, and then they cooked and ate the lamb. When the angel of death came into Egypt, he saw the blood over the door and passed over that house. The lamb’s sacrifice saved the firstborn, and it made all who celebrated it into God’s people.
The next day, Pharaoh summoned Moses and told him to take God’s people out of Egypt. Shortly after that, however, Pharaoh’s heart turned hard, and he went out with his army to bring God’s people back. God split the Red Sea, and the people escaped the army by walking on dry ground. After they had made it out of the sea, Pharaoh’s army rushed after then, but God released the waves. The sea went back to normal, and all Pharaoh’s army drowned.
Then, God provided for his people in the wilderness by giving them food and water until they reached Mount Sinai, where God gave them the 10 Commandments.
Why did we rehearse this well-known story? The order of the story is the key to understanding the 10 Commandments God gave them to the people. God saved the people first, and then he gave them the commandments. That order is important. Salvation first. Obedience second.
God came to Israel before they knew him and before they worshiped him. He saved them, because he loved them. It was his choice, his initiative, and his grace that caused him bring his people out of Egypt. He saved them first by his grace, and then he called them to live righteous and holy lives. The commandments, then, are not ways to gain God’s favor or something that you must follow to inherit eternal life. They are, instead, a description of the holy life God wants his saved people to live.
The 10 Commandments work similarly for us, too. They are not 10 ways to get God to love you, save you, or earn his favor. Christians are saved, not by obedience to the commands, but by God’s divine mercy and grace through Jesus Christ. He came to his people, enslaved by sin, and sacrificed himself on the cross to create a new exodus story. He set us free from sin and death, and he made us into God’s people.
We obey the 10 Commandments, not because they are ways to keep our salvation or ways to earn it, but because this is what God’s grace has made us to be. Because Jesus saved us, we live righteous and holy lives.
That is why the introduction is the most important passage in the commandments. Without it, one might think that the commandments are a list of God’s demands to become saved. Then no one would be saved, because we all break God’s law every day. Instead, the commandments are guides to holy living that help people who are already disciples live as God desires.
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