If I had to sum up God’s message and role to humanity in a saying that would fit on a T-shirt – anything worth remembering will fit on a T-shirt – it would be: blessed to be a blessing. Blessed to be a blessing is the scarlet thread that runs from Genesis through Revelation, from creation to eternity. Blessed to be a blessing is also the ethic of the Decalogue, more commonly known as the Ten Commandments.
Contrary to how the Ten Commandments are often seen, they are not a code to be obeyed for the purpose of achieving righteousness. Rather, they are the heartbeat of our response to a God who has blessed and redeemed humanity. The Ten Commandments offer a series of priorities – God, family/community, and individual – to motivate God’s people. The people of Israel were poor, strangers, indebted, and enslaved when God redeemed them and led them out of captivity in Egypt. The Ten Commandments were given to be lived out as a grateful response to God for their deliverance.
Let’s take a look at the first few commandments and see if we can find some meaningful application for our lives in a 21st century, pluralistic world.
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
You shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself an idol.
You shall not bow down to them or worship them.
You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.
Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy (Exodus 20:1-11).
God begins the Ten Commandments by linking the commandments to the exodus, leading the people of Israel out of captivity in Egypt. This is where the Charleston Heston movie The Ten Commandments comes in handy as a refresher for the plight of the people of Israel, God cornering Moses to confront Pharaoh, and then lead the Israelites out of Egypt as Pharaoh’s charioteers are chasing them down. Great chariot scene.
The God who redeemed Israel extends an offer of friendship that must take precedence over every other relationship. This gets established in the first few commandments. The last six commands deal with human relationships, and extending from the covenant people to the rest of the world.
The first command – You shall have no other gods – is revolutionary and the distinctive contribution of Old Testament theology. The story throughout the Old Testament is one of Israel constantly struggling with having no other gods besides God. I’d say that is the exact struggle humanity continues to have in the 21st century! It doesn’t matter whether we interpret this to mean no other gods exist OR we are not to give these other deities our worship, our offerings, or our obedience. The point is there is to be no other competition for our devotion to God. The idea was that the Israelites would be eternally grateful for all God did for them from Noah, Abraham and getting them out of captivity, that they would recognize God’s abiding presence in their lives.
Nothing ever gets in the way from God seeking a relationship with us, but plenty gets in our way from seeking a relationship with God. We’ve been endowed with intellect, curiosity, ingenuity, ego, desires, and anything else you can think of that makes us human. There are infinite competing desires and distractions for us when it comes to seeking friendship with God. Even when we acknowledge God’s blessings in our lives, we can turn right around and go our own way with no thought of God being present in our lives.
Maybe that’s one reason why the sabbath day – a day of rest and refreshment – is so important. The concept of sabbath is quite rich and much more involved than the due we’re going to give it here. Interestingly, every man, woman, child and beast (you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns) must be given rest. This must have been an extraordinary gift in the work-laden society such as theirs. The basic human needs of rest and worship are ingrained in the fabric of creation and, as a result, are to be acknowledged and fulfilled.
How much different would you life be if you heeded a day of rest and relaxation every week? Setting aside regular tasks, having a nice time with friends, enjoying a beautiful space, refusing to worry, having your own time for worship. Would you feel refreshed? Prepared for another week? I know it’s not easy. I’m as big an offender as anyone else. I always do laundry on my day of rest … along with everything else I didn’t get done around the house and yard during the week. In other words, I’m not disciplined at all about a day of rest. And then I wonder why I plough into the week forgetting to check in with God!
These initial commands offer us foundational principles for a positive relationship with God. It begins with God’s blessing in our lives, as demonstrated with the ancient Israelites. This also sets our foundation to be a blessing to others. Next time, we’ll see how radical this was in the ancient world!