Summary: Analysis of the prologue of the ten commandments with special emphasis on the role of the law in the Christian’s life.

Welcome to the year 2000. CNN put together a list of the top 100 news stories of the 20th century, and number 82 on that list is the space shuttle "Challenger" disaster. Most of us probably remember January 28, 1986, when the space shuttle Challenger burst into flames 73 seconds after liftoff, resulting in the worse space disaster in world history. Seven crew members--six astronauts and a civilian school teacher--all lost their lives in that explosion. An evaluation of the disaster concluded that the reason why the Challenger exploded was because of the failure of a small rubber o-ring to decompress because of the cold weather. Apparently the o-ring manufacturer had warned NASA that the o-ring wouldn’t function correctly in cold conditions, but people ignored the manufacturer’s specifications resulting in a horrible tragedy for 7 people and their families. It’s quite amazing something as seemingly insignificant as an 0-ring could bring such destruction.That’s true of life as well, that when we ignore even the small things God has revealed about life, we end up destroying ourselves. God is the manufacturer of all life, and his specifications about how to live are given to ensure that we live properly. When we ignore God’s specifications, the disastrous results are no less tragic as we saw on that January day in 1986.As the United States enters a new millennium, we as a culture are living in the midst of a moral hangover. Consider some of these statistics from former United States drug czar William Bennett in his updated version of the Index of Leading Cultural Indicators (Bennett 1999). Between 1960 and 1997 violent crime rose 467%, the number of prison inmates increased by 463% and out of wedlock births rose 461% (4). Since 1960 the teen suicide rate doubled, the divorce rate doubled, and couples living together outside of marriage saw a ten fold increase (21). Since 1979 illegal drug use has risen 55% (34). The average American now consumes 36 gallons of alcohol each year (39). The rate of Sexually Transmitted Diseases spreading in America far exceeds any other country in the world (86). Americans spend $9 million each year on pornography (175).

Bennett concludes,"During the last half of this American century, we have made extraordinary progress in medicine, science, and technology. We have advanced the cause of civil rights at home and human rights abroad. We have achieved unprecedented levels of wealth and affluence...But we have lost something in the process. The nation we live in today is more violent and vulgar, coarse and cynical, rude and remorseless, deviant and depressed than the one we once inhabited. A popular culture that is often brutal, gruesome, and enamored with death robs many children of their innocence. People kill other people and themselves more easily. Men and women abandon each other, and their children more readily. Marriage and the American family are weaker, [and] more unstable" (5).

We’re like a culture lost in unfamiliar territory without a map. What we need are some landmarks, some fixed points of reference to figure out where we are and where to go. We need the manufacturer’s specifications. This is where the Ten Commandments come in, as a way to find some fixed landmarks as we enter a new millennium. Of course our problem is that though we respect the Ten Commandments, we’re ignorant about what they say and unsure about how they apply in our lives. For instance, in a 1988 Gallup Poll, 85% of Americans said they believed the ten commandments were morally binding, yet only 15% of Americans could name them (Hughes 13). Jews, Roman Catholics, Protestants differ on how to number the 10 Commandments.And once we figure out what they are, how do we apply them? Last year a small Georgia town called Brooksville tried to use the 10 Commandments as the basis of their city laws (Christianity Today 6/14/99 15). That sounds good at first, especially with the sixth commandment against murder and the eighth commandment against stealing. But do you really want to put a member of the First Church of Elvis behind bars for violating the first commandment? Elvis worshippers may be weird, but I’m not sure they’re criminals. And are you really going to arrest a tenth grader for trying to cheat on his history test because he violated the ninth commandment? And how do you pass laws against coveting?Recently nationally syndicated talk-show host Dr. Laura Schlessinger has written a book on the 10 commandments. It’s a book full of great insights and helpful suggestions from a conservative Jewish perspective. But at the heart of Dr. Laura’s book is the idea that the 10 Commandments are God’s way for us to make ourselves better people (19). She likens the 10 Commandments as God’s pre-nuptial agreement, that we can have a relationship with God if we agree to live according to these laws. Is that really how the 10 Commandments apply?Christian theologians and Bible teachers have differed a lot about how the 10 Commandments relate to Christians, and I’ve posted an in-depth article on our church web site to explain my perspective on this issue for further study and reflection.Today we start a new series on the 10 Commandments called LANDMARKS FOR A NEW MILLENNIUM. In this series we’re going to look in depth at how these ancient principles apply to post-modern followers of Jesus Christ as we enter a third millennium of Christianity. Today we’re going to set the context for the 10 commandments by looking at the prologue. And as we look at the prologue for the 10 commandments we’re going to find something to remember, something to recognize, and a way to view the 10 commandments.

1. A Fact To Remember

God brought the nation of Israel out of their slavery in Egypt, through the Red Sea, to Mt. Sinai, and eventually into the promised land of Israel. On Mt. Sinai God gave Moses the 10 commandments, and that mountain became the place where God and Israel entered into a mutual commitment to each other. From there Israel wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, and eventually they entered into the promised land, modern day Israel, under the leadership of Joshua.

Now in that context let’s look at the prologue together: "I am the LORD [Hebrew: Yahweh] your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery" (Deuteronomy 5:6 NIV).

God identifies himself by name here, and the word translated "LORD" in our English versions of the Bible is the Hebrew name Yahweh. When God revealed himself to Moses at the burning bush, Moses had asked for God’s name. God replied by saying, "I am that I am, so tell Israel I am has sent you" (Ex 3:14). The name Yahweh is derived from the Hebrew yahah verb "I am." Yahweh occurs 6,800 times in the Old Testament. According to the "New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis," "Giving the name entails a certain kind of relationship; it opens up the possibility of...a certain intimacy...A relationship without a name inevitably means some distance...Naming makes true communication and encounter possible...By giving the name God makes himself accessible" (4:1295). Back in Egypt all kinds of different gods were worshipped under all kinds of different names--Osirus, Ra, even the Pharaoh himself was worshipped as a god. But here we see that Yahweh has revealed himself by name to Israel.Here we find an important fact to remember. As we face a new millennium, WE FIND LANDMARKS BY REMEMBERING THAT TRUTH MATTERS.

What’s true is far more important than what works, or what feels right, or what’s helpful to us. Even though the nation of Israel was free, if they thought for one minute that it was the Egyptian god Ra who had freed them, they would’ve still been in bondage. Just as important as freedom from their slavery, they had to be free from all misconceptions about who had set them free in the first place.We live in a time where people are skeptical about the idea of truth, especially when it’s applied to the spiritual realm. Sure we might be able to talk about truth in the chemist’s lab or the doctor’s office, but in the spiritual realm we’re told there’s only opinions. There are so many strange claims to spiritual truth, that many postmodern people simply write off the whole notion of spiritual truth entirely. But if we do that we risk building our spiritual lives on falshood.When I worked in the mental health field for 10 years before becoming a pastor, I met lots of people who were delusional, people who lived in their own little fantasy world. Many of these people thought they were some famous historical figure, like Jesus or one guy who thought he was Jim Morrison from the Doors. Many of these people were very happy and content to live in their own delusional world, but we as a society have said that basing your entire life on something that’s false is an illness that needs treatment, not a condition to be envied. Yet many people approach the spiritual realm as if it doesn’t matter what you believe so long as it helps you be a better person.Now admitting that truth matters in the spiritual realm helps us rule out some options in the third millennium. This rules out atheism. If Yahweh is God, then this God exists in objective reality, not as a projection of human yearnings and desires as Sigmund Freud thought. Fortunately, our nation’s intellectual climate seems to be moving away from atheism. With the collapse of communism and the latest findings in science pointing to a universe that has intelligent design behind it, more and more leading intellectuals are returning to God. Former atheist scholar from George Washington University Patrick Glynn predicts, "The soon coming when skepticism [and] unbelief is going to be the minority opinion...among intellectuals" (2).This prologue also rules out deism. Deism admits that God exists, but it rejects the idea that we can know anything about this God or have any sort of personal relationship with God. Deism made a significant impact on our nation’s founding, as many of our nation’s founders were Christians in public but deists in private. People like Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Paine were outright deists. But of course, the moment God revealed his name, that makes knowledge of God possible and a relationship with God a possibility. So this prologue rules out deism.But it also rules out relativism. Time magazine named Albert Einstein the man of the 20th century, and Einstein’s most famous discovery was the theory of relativity in 1919. After that discovery, many people thought that meant that there were no absolutes in the moral realm either, that right and wrong, good and evil, were also relative (Hughes 14). Although Einstein himself rejected relativism, it caught on, and millions of people today believe that there’s no such thing as right and wrong. But if God has revealed himself, that God is the source of not only the physical laws of the universe, but also the moral laws.As we face a new millennium, it’s vitally important for us to remember that truth matters in the spiritual realm.

2. A Fact to Recognize.

That brings us to the second half of the prologue: "who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery" (5:5b NIV). Sometimes we think that Moses came to the Jews while they were still in their slavery, that he outlined the 10 commandments, and then said, "If you agree to live according to these laws, then God will set you free." We think the law came first, that God’s redemption of the Israelites from their slavery was conditional on their obedience to the commandments. That’s at the heart of Dr. Laura’s view of the 10 Commandments, that they’re God’s pre-nuptial agreement with us.But here we see that God first redeemed Israel from their slavery. The Hebrew word "brought out" here is where we get our idea of the "exodus" from. The Exodus refers to God’s action of bringing Israel out of their slavery, and the Exodus lies at the heart of the Jewish faith in the Old Testament (NIDOTTE 4:601). In fact, in the Old Testament the Exodus event becomes the paradigm for all of God’s acts of salvation, they’re all an echo of this first Exodus. Israel’s three annual festivals looked back on this Exodus event, with Passover commemorating the actual coming out from Egypt, the feast of booths commemorating Israel’s desert wanderings, and the feast of Pentecost commemorating God giving Israel the 10 commandments. So every year in their worship they thought about this exodus, this deliverance, this redemption.The New Testament builds on this idea:

"For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins" (Colossians 1:13-14 NIV).

The picture Paul paints here of becoming a Christian is based on the Old Testament story of the Exodus. God rescued us from the dominion of darkness, just as God rescued the Israelites from the dominion of Egypt. Before we come to know Jesus, we’re under the tyranny of sin and death. Our individual chains may be different--mine were drug and alcohol addiction, rebellion against authority, and so forth--but all humans are held under the tyranny of sin until God rescues them through faith in Jesus. Just as God brought Israel into the promised land, so God brings us into Jesus Christ’s kingdom.In Jesus Christ people find redemption. That word "redemption" means "to release or set free from slavery" (Louw and Nida 37.128). Whenever the Bible uses the word "redeem" or "redemption" it’s using the word picture of the Exodus event for our emancipation from the tyranny of sin and our slavery to hopelessness. Just as Moses led Israel out of their slavery, so Jesus becomes our Moses to lead us out of our slavery. Just as Israel sacrificed the Passover lamb and sprinkled the blood on the doorposts of their homes before the Exodus, so Jesus Christ is our Passover lamb, who sacrificed his life and shed his blood to cover our sins, and cleanse us from our guilt. It’s impossible to understand the New Testament idea of redemption without first understanding the Exodus event.So here we find the fact to recognize. As we face a new millennium, we find landmarks by recognizing that God’s grace comes first.God freely broke Israel’s chains of slavery, unconditionally, with no strings attached. He didn’t give them the 10 commandments, and say, "Earn your redemption by keeping these laws." God first redeemed Israel--freely, graciously--and only then did he give them the way to live.One of the earliest problems the New Testament church wrestled with was some people who wanted to use the Old Testament law as a way to earn redemption. That’s why the New Testament book of Galatians was written. The apostle Paul warned, "All who rely on observing the law are under a curse" (Gal 3:10). God’s grace must come first, because only a person whose chains of sin have been broken can rightly relate to God’s law.Imagine a little boy who’s been adopted into a family. Now imagine that little boy constantly worrying that his new adoptive parents are going to send him back to the adoption agency if he doesn’t behave. Imagine the fear, the bondage of not knowing whether you’re going to be sent back or not. But imagine if that little boy is told, "We’re now your parents. We brought you out of the adoption agency, out of your temporary foster home, into our home. You’re now our son, you have our name, and nothing can change that. We’re not going to send you back no matter what you do. But here’s how we want you to live as our son." Can you see the difference? God’s grace comes first; we’ve got to constantly remember that.

3. A Way to View the 10 Commandments

If the Ten Commandments are not way to know God, what role do they play in our lives?

"Then the LORD [Hebrew: Yahweh] spoke to you out of the fire. You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice. He declared to you his covenant, the Ten Commandments, which he commanded you to follow and then wrote them on two stone tablets" (Deu 4:12-13 NIV).

The key word here is that word "covenant," that the 10 commandments form the heart of God’s covenant relationship with the nation of Israel. Theologians call this the mosaic covenant, because it came from God, through Moses, to the nation of Israel. This Hebrew word "covenant" is one of the most important words in all the Old Testament. A covenant describes a relationship of obligation. Once you enter into a covenant relationship, you’ve entered into a sacred relationship, a commitment of mutual obligation. It’s far more than a partnership or a contract. The closest thing we have in our culture is the marriage ceremony, as the bride and groom covenant together to live according to their vows.The heart of God’s covenant with Israel through Moses is the 10 Commandments. Like all covenants back then, these commandments were written on two tablets of stone. Now back then stone was normally only used for documents that were considered very important, things like covenants (Tigay 48). Often we think of the first half of the 10 commandments being on one tablet, and the second half being on the other tablet. But the way covenants worked back then, the two stone tablets were identical, symbolizing both party’s commitment to keep the covenant. Israel carried around both copies to constantly be reminded of God’s promise to keep his part, and their obligation to live according to their part.Now this obviously causes some questions for us as followers of Jesus Christ, because the New Testament claims that Christians don’t live under the mosaic covenant. Instead, followers of Jesus live under what the Bible calls the New Covenant. The Mosaic covenant was God’s covenant with Israel, based on their Exodus from Egypt, expressed in the Old Testament laws, and the sign of the mosaic covenant was circumcision. The New Covenant is open to all people--not just Jewish people--it’s based on Jesus Christ’s death on the cross, it’s expressed in what the New Testament calls "the law of Christ," and the sign of the New Covenant is water baptism. Although there’s significant overlap between the mosaic covenant and the new covenant, we can’t just arbitrarily apply Israel’s covenant to ourselves without careful application of the New Testament. That would be like finding your grandparents’ wedding license, crossing out their name and putting in your name.But how are we to view these 10 commandments?

As we face a new millennium, we find landmarks by viewing the 10 commandments as boundaries for our relationships. The 10 Commandments--even from a new covenant perspective--are God’s boundaries for all our relationships. A boundary shows where it’s safe and where it’s dangerous, where it’s lawful and where it’s unlawful.My four boys have certain boundaries of where they can play and where they can’t. We’ve stipulated certain adults they can talk to and certain ones they can’t talk to, certain kids they can play with and other kids they can’t play with. Some people view our boundaries as overprotective, but we view them as an expression of love for our own children’s protection.The first four commandments deal with our relationship with God. They tell us how to love God, by putting God first, by understanding God’s nature, by honoring God’s name, and so forth. This is how to love God. The last six commandments deal with our relationships with other people. They show us how to love others, based on our love for God. They deal with things like respecting authority, protecting human life, preserving the sanctity of marriage, how to deal with property, managing relationships, and managing our own hearts.But these commandments are not given to everyone to make them better people. They’re given to people who are already redeemed from sin--saved by grace through Jesus Christ’s death--so they can understand the boundaries God’s given for our relationships.As we face a new millennium, we need landmarks to guide us. We need the manufacturer’s specifications, and we find these in the 10 Commandments. But before we can profit from a study of these 10 gracious words given to Israel by God, we need to remember that truth matters, we need to recognize that God’s grace comes first, and we need to view the 10 commandments as boundaries for our relationships.As we face the third millennium of Christianity in our world, our mission as a church remains unchanged. God has still called us to reach unchurched people with Christ’s love and to help them become fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ who wholeheartedly love God and other people. This series is going to help us define exactly what it means to love God and to love other people as we seek to express our devotion for Jesus. This series is going to show us the manufacturer’s specifications for being a fully devoted follower of Jesus Christ.


Hughes, R. Kent. 1993. Disciples of Grace: God’s Ten Words for a Vital Spiritual Life. Wheaton: Crossway Books.

Louw, J. P. and E. Nida (editors). 1989. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains. New York: United Bible Societies. CD-Rom edition.

NIDOTTE = VanGemeren, Willem A. (editor). 1997. The New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Schlessinger, Larua with Rabbi Stewart Vogel. 1998. The Ten Commandments: The Significance of God’s Laws In Everyday Life. New York: Harper Perennial.

Tigay, Jeffrey. 1996. Deuteronomy, The JPS Torah Commentary. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society.