When I read Exodus 20, the ten commandments mostly make sense. They are straightforward and easy to follow. I don’t have any problem understanding the application of “don’t murder, don’t steal, or don’t commit adultery.” When God says “keep the Sabbath holy” and “don’t worship other gods,” I can think of practical ways that impacts my life.
However, when I continue to read Exodus 20-23, I am confronted with language that feels so far from the way I live. For example, “When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh, he shall go out free, for nothing” (Exodus 21:2, ESV). Or something like this, “But if the ox has been accustomed to gore in the past, and its owner has been warned but has not kept it in, and it kills a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned, and its owner also shall be put to death” (Exodus 21:29, ESV).
I know I’m not the only person who struggles with verses like these. So, I thought it would be helpful to give a little background on these laws and explain why they were given. Our church has been reading through Exodus this month, and we have been studying how verses like these point to Jesus.
When Jesus was surrounded by Pharisees who used the law against Him, His reply was “For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me” (John 5:45, ESV). After Jesus rose from the dead, He walked with men, “...and beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself” (Luke 24:27, ESV). Jesus spent a lot of His ministry explaining to people how Jewish festivals, events, and laws were given to prepare people’s hearts for Jesus.
When you read the Old Testament through the lens of Jesus, you see the Passover, the Red Sea, and Mt. Sinai in entirely new ways. You also see strange laws like this one, in a new light, “For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield, but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the beasts of the field may eat. You shall do likewise with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard” (Exodus 23:10-11, ESV).
The key to understanding why God gave laws like this starts with understanding what He was doing with Israel. God freed over one million Hebrews from slavery and brought them to a mountain in the wilderness. The point of this was two-fold. First, He desired to make them His people. He wanted their relationship and devotion. However, this required a specific lifestyle change and certain rules that must be followed. This relationship was on God’s terms, and it required the people to live differently than the rest of the world. If the world treated a slave one way, God said: “not in Israel.” If the world placed so little value on human life that an ox could kill someone with no repercussion to the owner, God said: “not in Israel.” If the rest of the world was working the ground bare, never giving themselves rest, and giving their heart to any idol made with human hands, God said: “not in Israel.” Israel was following God’s standard, not the worlds.
This brings us to the second reason God freed Israel. In making their lives look so different from the rest of the world, Israel was reminded on a daily basis that earth was not their real home. God’s kingdom was their home. Therefore, in living like aliens for another kingdom, they stood out to the other nations around them. When other nations saw the fruit of living holy lives, they were interested. God’s commands had a profound impact on Israel, and it showed everywhere they went.
This brings me back to where I started. Reading the ten commandments in Exodus 20 is relatively straightforward in understanding and application. But, if you do the work to read the rest of Exodus through the lens of the cross, you will see an even deeper understanding and application. You probably don’t own farming land or an ox, but as a Christian you are called to live as “...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, ESV).
Just like Israel, Jesus freed you from slavery. He has set you free and desires a relationship with you. But, He also wants you to respond to His love and grace with holiness and obedience. When you follow Jesus’ lead and arrange your life based on His teaching, you will look like a citizen from a different kingdom. You will look peculiar, but your lifestyle will proclaim the beauty of living in His light instead of the darkness of this world.