And God spoke all these words, saying: 2 " I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
3 " You shall have no other gods before Me. 4 " You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; 5 you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, 6 but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments…
“I’m free!” said the fourth grader as the final bell rang on the last day of school. He had already planned out his entire summer. He was going to sleep in. He was going to play video games. He was going to go fishing down at the creek whenever he wanted. He was going to do what he wanted to do, and not what some teacher told him to do.
His plans, however, came to a stunning halt the very next day. There was one factor he hadn’t counted on. It was his mother. “You know,” she said, “just because it’s summer and you don’t have to go to school doesn’t mean you get to do whatever you want.” She then proceeded to place limits on his freedom. Only half an hour of video games a day. No sleeping in except for Saturdays. And fishing could only take place once all of the daily chores were done.
When she was finished, the boy muttered under his breath, “This is just as bad as being in school.”
Overhearing, his mother replied, “You won’t be saying that come the end of August!”
How many parents have had that conversation with their children over the years? And yet that situation continues to go on, doesn’t it? And not just with kids. How many people in the world today think of freedom as the right to do whatever you want whenever you want to? How often have we, ourselves, looked at freedom as the absolute release from every requirement under the sun?
But is that real freedom? It’s here in Exodus 20 that we learn what it means to live as the Lord’s free people.
- Live according to His commands.
First of all freedom in God’s eyes means the freedom to live according to God’s commands. The children of Israel were now free! Free from their slavery by the almighty power of the LORD. He was the One who had brought them “out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (v. 2). The LORD had done it all Himself. He was the One who had worked all those terrible plagues, including the plague of the death of the firstborn that finally persuaded Pharaoh to release the Israelites. He was the One who had defeated Pharaoh’s army, drowning them in the depths of the Red Sea.
And now that they were free, the LORD wanted them to understand that they were no longer Egyptian slaves; they were now His people. They were to live not for themselves, but for the God who rescued them. So God spoke all the words that are before us today (v. 1). This was why He gave them His commandments.
The LORD has set us free too—free from the slavery of sin and death. The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us (John 1:14), paying for all the sins of the world by His own blood. As Jesus predicted in our gospel lesson for today, the temple of His body was destroyed, but on the third day He was raised to life again—living proof of our freedom from the guilt, punishment, and power of sin. However, also like the Israelites, Christ didn’t rescue us so that we could do whatever we wanted. He set us free from sin and death so that we could “be His own and live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence and blessedness.” In other words, He set us free so that we could live as the LORD’s free people.
And that means living our lives according to the Lord’s commands. Commands that begin and end with loving God above all things: “You shall have no other gods before me” (v. 3); “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house… your neighbor’s wife, your neighbor’s male servant, nor his female servant… nor anything that is your neighbor’s” (v. 17). Even the commands that deal only with how you treat your neighbor—“Honor your father and your mother… You shall not kill. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (v. 12-16)—all these are still God’s words—He was the one who spoke them. God takes it as a personal offense against Him when we do harm to our neighbor!
This is because the LORD is a jealous God (v. 5), jealous of our love and our loyalty the same way that a good husband is rightfully jealous of his wife’s love and loyalty. He wants us to love Him first and foremost, as the One who rescued us from sin and death. And a big part of loving God is doing what He says—loving Him by our thoughts, words, and actions.
And this is precisely what we fail at. We hurt the people around us. We anger and frustrate our parents (or maybe our kids!). We justify telling “little white lies” for fear of making someone mad at us. We covet—and boy do we covet—our neighbor’s big, beautiful house and their fancy cars, along with their success. And when we’re confronted with the things we’ve done—so often, what’s our excuse? “It’s my life! I can do what I want!”
And we wind up falling for two illusions. First, that when you sin against God you’re doing what you want. No you’re not! You’re just running back to the life of slavery again—slavery to sin, and a life that leads to death because the guilty can’t go unpunished. And the second illusion: that it’s your life. We say, “It’s my life!” No it’s not! “You are not your own; you were bought at a price” (1 Cor 6:20)—the price being the holy, precious blood of Jesus Christ Himself. You belong to Him!
So, are you uncomfortable yet? Good! That’s the whole point of why God gave us His commandments to begin with—not because we can keep them, but because we can’t! In the end, God lets us live as His free people not because we’re so good at keeping His laws, but because we live:
- Live in His saving love and mercy.
Our love for God and for our neighbor is never perfect, is it? And so we need Jesus’ work as our Savior constantly. We constantly need the perfect life that Jesus lived in our place; we constantly need the payment that Jesus made, when He offered up that perfect life of His for the sins of the whole world. We constantly need the assurance of Christ’s resurrection—the assurance that the Father has forgiven us completely for the sake of His one and only Son.
We constantly need the merits of Jesus—and our Lord in His saving mercy and love constantly provides it. In our Baptisms, in the Lord’s Supper, and in the read, preached, and spoken Word of God—in all those places God grants us the solid declaration that our sins are forgiven. And that’s the love and mercy of God that we live in each and every day!
Some people think it’s unloving of God to put so many controls and restrictions on our lives, that He’s out to take away our freedom. I once read a fictional story about some eco-terrorists who thought they were striking a real blow against cruelty to animals. They were going to save these turkeys from the turkey farm where they had been raised. So they broke in, opened all the cages and chased the turkeys out of the building. They were so happy with themselves for setting these turkeys free! The next day there was a news report: hundreds of turkeys lost their lives trying to cross the interstate and in the process cause a thirty-car pileup.
Were those eco-terrorists really doing the loving thing by setting those birds loose? Would God have truly done the loving thing if He had saved us from the slavery of sin only to let us run back to our slavery by letting us do whatever we wanted? Would Jesus have done the truly loving thing if He had left those moneychangers alone in the temple to do what they were doing? Or was He trying to spare them an even worse fate?
God certainly does not need our obedience to the Law—He has Christ’s obedience in our place. But we need it. We need the Law to guide us in our lives and keep us from running back into the slavery of sin. We need the Law even for our own earthly welfare and safety! The Ten Commandments form the basic building blocks of our society and our dealings with one another—even if people don’t like to admit it. You and I certainly like it very much that our neighbor is not out to kill us or take our things. And in the Law, you don’t just need your neighbor’s obedience—your neighbor needs your obedience too! Your parents and superiors in life—they need you to honor and respect them. The people around you need you to respect their health and life with regard to your choices and actions. Society itself needs you to honor marriage and keep the marriage bed pure.
And so it is that—even in the Law—God is always the God who loves us. By His Law, the LORD is still graciously providing for our needs. By His Law, the LORD—the God of free and faithful grace, who forgives sins, and shows mercy—reveals Himself as the One who loves our neighbors just as much as He loves us! And by the Law God graciously allows us to recognize the fact that we’re sinners—so that He can point us to the good news of His saving work: the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ that frees us from all slavery.
True freedom is not the license to do whatever you want. True freedom happens when we live as the LORD’s free people. This is the freedom for which Jesus died and rose again. Freedom from sin; freedom from death; freedom from the power of the devil—this is the freedom that we live in, the freedom we receive by the love and mercy of God alone. Amen.