“Who Brought You Out of the House of Slavery”
Cassopolis/ White Pigeon, October 8, 2017
Text: Exodus 20:1-17; Philippians 3:4b-14
In the opening verse of Exodus 20, the writer tells us that “God spoke all these words”—not just to Moses, but to all the people of Israel as they had gathered around the base of Mount Sinai in the wilderness. God spoke all these words so that all could hear because it was important that none be left out of that hearing. For the words that God speaks here, sometimes referred to as the “Ten Words,” also more commonly called the Ten Commandments, were to be the basic core of God’s instruction to Israel on how to live—for all of them to live. But before God begins to issue these ten vital rules for living a God-like life, God identifies Himself to the people—“I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt—out of the house of slavery.”
Scholars sometimes mention that this opening statement bears a similarity to some of the language in covenantal agreements that countries of the ancient Near East would have made with each other. Typically, one of the two parties was the stronger, and as the document would describe the expectations of the agreement for both, the opening would first indicate why the weaker country should agree to it—what benefit the stronger nation had provided the other to justify their accepting the agreement. In some ways, this is what God does here—Israel, the weaker party in this agreement, should be willing to enter into this covenant with God because has done a great thing for them, provided them with a very obvious benefit—God, by His will and power alone, delivered them out of Egypt where they had been caught in bondage to the Pharaoh. For this reason, by itself, in gratitude, the people of Israel should be willing to become the people of God now and enter this covenant, swearing to live in the ways God commands.
But in this initial statement of God’s there is more than just that one reason suggested for why the Israelites should consent to follow Him. Also implied in the second half of the identifier is an aim God has for the people, an end that will come to exist among them if they do follow Him, giving a further benefit—it will make them truly free, taking the first gift, freedom from Egyptian toil, and multiplying it a hundredfold. As God says there, “I brought you out of the house of slavery.” And God did not do that just to make them a new kind of slave to Himself. Instead, at the root of God’s plan, is the intention to create a people truly free, with a new kind of life altogether, one so graceful, in all the meaning of that term, and full of blessing that it would shine like light across the land making the rest of the world’s people jealous, making them long for that life themselves, for that God themselves. So the Ten Commandments—the Ten Words that God speaks to all of Israel, were never intended to become a burden to the people—they were, indeed, a gift, which if accepted and lived by would finish what God had begun in breaking their Egyptian bonds, making them really free and completely human in the best sense of the word. And to show how these words of God would bring about that end, we’ll take a look at a couple of them specifically and see how this plays out.
No one can be truly free if they don’t know who they are—if they are lacking in self-identity. And that is part of what the first commandment is about—“You shall have no other gods before Me—in My presence.” Now at first glance, this commandment seems to be all about God and how God will brook no competition from the other supposed gods of the other nations, and this is true. Other nations did have the gods they worshiped and to which Israel also might be tempted to bow down in order to gain some advantage. But by this covenant, for Israel, only Yahweh—only this one God would be their God. But as much as this is about God and His sovereignty, so is it also about the people and their assurance. They would never have to wonder which god they go to in trial or crisis—they will never have to question which god should be blessed in times of success. They would know, from start to finish, who their God was, is, and will be. And with that, they would also have the exact knowledge of who they were. Calvin says at the beginning of his most famous work, the Institutes, that knowledge of God is intimately involved in knowledge of ourselves. So it is here—our knowledge of God as our God alone means that we also know ourselves as God’s people alone, with all the meaning this has for our life together.
Along with the freedom of being able to know who their God is, and thus who they are, the Israelites also received a kind of freedom through the second commandment—the freedom to adapt. When God first met Moses at the burning bush, Moses was sent by God to the Israelites and to Pharaoh, and quite logically, Moses had asked who he should say had sent him. In answer, God had provided Moses with God’s own divine name—“I am who I am”, God had said, “That is My name forever”—a name which can also be translated as “I will be who I will be.” And here at the start, suggested within that name is the refusal of God ever to yield His freedom. God cannot be nailed down to one situation or one concept, but would always be “who I am—who I will be.” And in the second commandment, “You shall not make an image of Me,” God voices that same refusal.
An image—an idol—any concrete representation of who or what something is has a way of freezing that something or someone in our minds—it will not, after that, have the freedom to be what it will be, but is expected to be what we have made it be—have conceptualized it to be. A case in point is American spelling. For many years at the beginning of the republic, spelling was extremely variable as you can tell by looking at very old documents. How a word looked varied greatly from writer to writer. But once Noah Webster and other early lexicographers printed their dictionaries, put in black and white what a word should look like, spelling became standardized—there was a right spelling and a wrong spelling. Once you had an image of what your God looked like—or a mental image of exactly what you God should do in every specific situation—your God was no longer free. And our God refuses that boundary—God refuses not to be free.
Which also yields a kind of interesting freedom to us who follow such a God. The band, Jefferson Airplane once sang, “Life is change—how it differs from the rocks.” Time does change the contexts we live in, and as time moves forward, and life alters in all its variety, the situations we face in life change as well. And with that change, God is free to change the way He responds, even though His eternal essence and character may remain ever the same. In eth same way, the rites and rituals, the worship forms and ways we pray and sing and even live out our faith, may, since we have this kind of adapting God, also alter as well—we don’t have to do the same things over and over and over again just because we always have. Now they don’t have to change—if a way we do things is working well and is still relevant and true to our environment, it’s not necessary to change it—it can be just as foolish to change just for the sake of change as it is to insist that all remain the same forever. But if change is needed—if reformation is needed—we are free to do so in how we worship, how we live, how we witness, always provided that such change remains faithful to our one God who never changes toward us and in His desires for us. Perhaps, indeed, faithfully seeking new, more honest ways to live in freedom to the glory of God in new situations may be the only real way to be truly faithful to the God who will be what He will be.
The fourth commandment regarding the Sabbath is much more clearly intended to help a freed people stay free by refusing to allow them to be bound down to a daily grind. It’s a convenient trap to fall into, and one that seems even respectable at times, to become a constant worker, even a workaholic. In our society such things may even be applauded and lifted up as good. They are not to God, however. To allow one’s necessary labor to exceed necessity and become the core of our life, is allowing it, in fact, to become our god—and this will never do. To some extent, the fourth commandment protects against this idolatrous abuse by forcing people once a week to acknowledge that it is God who runs the world, and not us, so we may take time off from the grind and worship that God and enjoy the life God has provided without having to fear for our lives and security. And this is the way it frees us—by allowing, indeed, mandating, that in at least one day in seven people relax—rest—play and worship and be together in some context greater than labor. A people once enslaved to labor for the Pharaoh should not be one enslaved to themselves, even to their own so-called necessity, and thus the Sabbath works to make us free in more than just name.
It would be possible to do this kind of analysis with each one of the Ten Commandments, focusing, for instance, on how the latter four taken together allow the freedom of a society that follows them to exist together in peace and trust. But what has been suggested here is sufficient I think to make the point; when God spoke His ten words—His commandments given to all the people for their hearing—it was not to bind them into a new slavery. It was to show them a way to be free, and in that freedom, to follow God out of love and gratitude. However, human beings have always been really good, really truly expert, at at least one thing—taking something made for good, and turning it in another, problematic direction. And that‘s just what we did with God’s words—God’s law.
It was done in different ways. Some took what was intended to be a gift of guidance and made it into a rule of tyranny—took what was made to be a way of freedom, and made it a chain of bondage under which anything but perfect performance yielded only wrath and punishment. And since none of us—no human being, save one, at least—would ever be able to perfectly perform everything God spoke and desired to see, it became like a curse—a law no one could follow, and thus be acceptable to God—an invitation to death, not life.
Others objected to God’s words for another reason—simply because it was God who gave them. In this case, the very hint that God appeared to think that He knew better what was right for us and good for us than we might ourselves became a provocation to rebel. This is the story of Adam and Eve, and it has never stopped being humanity’s story as well. And the more we became rebels against this God, it gradually became lost to our reason that if indeed God was the creator of humanity, God might actually know humanity’s potential problems and possibilities pretty well, even better than we did. But still, coming from God—coming from outside, or what we thought of as outside, it was unwelcome. And so the law, by this thinking, became imposition thrust upon us, not gift given to us.
Finally, there have always been some folks who were quite ready and willing to hear God’s words and make it the business of their lives to follow them to the letter in every particular. Like the good student who always sits at the front of the class, there has always been the person who truly wants to live in a righteous way. Now this doesn’t seem too bad on the surface, since following said words were to be a way that led to freedom—this seems to be moving in a right not a wrong direction vis-à-vis God. But with that peculiar talent people have of turning even something good to bad ( a talent so different from God’s reverse aptitude), such good students fell into another convenient trap—they found a way to make made perfect or near-perfect performance of God’s law into a contest. And in this contest, one in which they worked hard to get as many points as possible, they were the clear winners, all who fell short becoming the clear losers, deserving only of scorn. And in that contest environment, what developed was the idea of us and them—us versus them. And this, of course, totally missed the mark of God’s intention that living by God’s words would tie us together in unity and prove attraction to all humankind. What arose instead was a wall of division and along with it the notion of some that we could earn God’s love and needed to do so, and by doing so could be set apart from the rest of the world, high and holy above them. And what developed was a system of living that did a remarkably good job of tearing people apart, dividing us into ones who were supposedly in good with God and ones who were not. And it was among this third group of people—that is, the successful ones—that Paul, according to his letter to the Philippians once counted himself. For he had been very good at getting God-points.
As Paul writes his letter to Philippi, he is doing so, at least in part, according to the passage we read this morning, because he is concerned that some teachers who have made their way in among the Philippians are interested in turning them there into the same kind of point-counters he had once been, and to allow them to do so, he believes, will inevitably lead his friends in Philippi away from the freedom they have in the gospel of Jesus Christ. What these teachers seem to have been saying is that while it’s a good and necessary thing to know Jesus Christ as Savior—to recognize God’s salvation at work in Jesus—something else is also necessary; believers also need to make sure they follow some of God’s old ritual law, particularly the parts about eating only some things, and of men being circumcised. Only if you do this, they seem to say, will Christ be effective for you. If you do what the law says and hold to the old standards and rituals that the Israelites had before you, you will do your part in getting the points necessary to please God with Jesus making up for the rest. And by this, Paul says, the teachers are leading the church back into slavery.
But before he can speak against this doctrine, he has to establish his street credentials for being able to do so, to show the Philippians that he understands precisely what these folks are talking about. So, Paul lays out his religious scorecard in short order. “If anyone has reason to be confident in the flesh, to trust in what I have on my side to get in good with God, then I am that one.” And he specifies the reasons for this. “I was circumcised on the eighth day after my birth”—exactly the right day according to the law. “And I was a Hebrew born of Hebrews—from my birth I was in the covenant,” not like some of these teachers who were possibly Gentile converts. I was a member of the tribe of Benjamin,” Paul continues, the only tribe that stayed faithful to the house of David after Israel split in rebellion. ”And I was perfect in doing what the law says, so zealous for it that I even persecuted those awful Christians when they began to talk about their Jesus—I was that righteous.” But then Paul goes on. “But when I met Jesus—when I came to know the reality of Jesus in my own life, and the real fullness of God and of God’s grace in Him—the freedom I had in Him—I threw all of that away.”
He didn’t throw them away, however, because they were of no value—they were, at least they had been to him, of very high value indeed. They had made him who he believed he was, giving him status and identity and meaning. But then he had encountered Jesus Christ, or rather Jesus Christ had encountered him. And in that encounter, Paul had found a whole new understanding about what was really valuable. In fact, in that meeting, Paul had discovered something about those so things he had so clung to before—they had enslaved him. They had enslaved him, in part, by keeping him divided from others, and not only divided from them but violently hostile toward them. They had also enslaved him to the need to be constantly counting, constantly striving to maintain his status, his superiority over others. And, beyond this, he had to also constantly be on guard to keep up his rightness vis-à-vis God, making sure that he did everything he needed in the right way to make God happy. And although now, Paul was readier than ever to make God happy, he no longer had to fight to do, since God had established his righteousness it in Jesus in a much better way than Paul had ever been able to do.
So, for all these reasons, Paul now says, “For His sake, I have suffered the loss of all things”—and probably he did “suffer” it since it would have been painful to allow all of the things which had defined him for so long to be set aside. But not only did he set them aside for Christ, but he goes on to say that he had come to “regard them as rubbish”—the literal word here is “skubalo” which means “the human waste that goes down the sewer”—“I have come to regard them as skubalo in order that I may gain Christ.” For in Jesus Christ, in a way he never dreamed of before, through Christ’s sufferings and dying and rising again, all which Paul now says he wishes to share with Jesus out of sheer gratitude, Paul found a freedom he had never had before—a righteousness he had never possessed—a perfect freedom and righteousness and meaning that came from the hand of God, not the flawed ones that he had tried so hard to establish for himself. Paul never wanted to go back to that way of life again—and neither did he want his friends at Philippi, or any believer, to trade their freedom or their relationship with God in Christ for such rubbish.
Now in n this passage, Paul indicates that he had been one of the folks who felt able to keep in a perfect way the demands of the law, who seemed to have every advantage in the God-game, and he advises others who feel like that to give up their so-called advantages as he has. But Paul does not speak only to those religious high-achievers—he also speaks for those who felt the weight of God’s guidance as a burden they could never live up to. They too found freedom in Jesus because since the freedom and righteousness which Paul now preaches depended on the faithfulness and grace of God, not on the perfection of humans, those blessings were no longer the sole province of religious champions—they were a love token from God, given not only to the strong, but to the weak, to mere failing humans who would find in God’s care even the permission to stumble—to fail and fall back at times, while always knowing the will of God that they get up and continue, encouraged and picked up then and always to keep walking toward the freedom of God’s will and way, having a God and Savior who know and accept the fact that they are working with clay jars, limited humans, and yet will not give up on them for a moment for God wants His glory to shine in all. Even Paul now recognizes that he also needs this grace, just like the rest of us, for as he says, “I’m myself am on a race to get to the high prize of the calling of Jesus Christ, and I haven’t made it yet. But I press on—God calls me and keeps me pressing on.”
And he knows he will be able to keep pressing on for, as he writes, “Jesus Christ has made me His own.” And here he addresses the concern of every person who has ever felt God’s will—God’s law—as an imposition—a tyranny cast upon humanity by a dictating God far beyond us, far beyond understanding or really caring about us, concerned only with demanding from us. For nothing could be further from the truth, Paul believes—indeed, the freedom and righteousness and life that God has given, has been given through One who took all demands upon Himself and became one of us. It came through a cross and through the life of Jesus, God in flesh, lived, not beyond us, but with us. And the calling of God is not something imposed from the outside, but a wooing that wants to bring us inside, achieved not by us but by the very self-giving of God. These are beckonings of love, not demands of force. And if they are to be real in us, while they may start outside, coming into our hearing through the words of God, the words of the gospel, words of grace, they soon become words written on our hearts, etched deep within as God in the Spirit touches hearts and transforms minds, not by duress, but as our freely given answer to God’s freely offered promise of life sealed in the spirit by grace, a door to freedom, not a cellblock.
This is, of, course, what God has always wanted for His people—freedom—blessing in life—wholeness. It was the intent of the Law given to Moses at Sinai, although the weakness of our flesh abused that intention. But what the law could not do, God has done in Jesus Christ. For God is now, and was then, and always will what God claims in Exodus 20, speaking His ten words—”I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt—I am the LORD your God who has brought you out of the house of slavery.+++