By Dr. Mark Scott
Obedience is not Testament specific. Both the Old and New Testaments call God’s people to obey. The Old Testament contains at least 613 commands to obey. The New Testament contains well over 1,000 commands to obey. Obedience is a response to redemption (Exodus 20:2). Obedience helps us learn the mind of God (John 7:17). Obedience is the response of faith to grace. Obedience is not legalism. Obedience is not opposed to grace. In his classic work, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer says that to follow Christ means to obey Christ. Jesus himself said, “If you love me, keep my commands” (14:15).
The Ten Commandments (Decalogue) are all that stand between last week’s lesson on God’s Covenant with Israel and this week’s lesson on Obeying God’s Law. Exodus 20:1-17 contains the Ten Commandments. Our text today (Exodus 20:18-26) contains the call to obey the Ten Commandments. The chapters that follow (21–23) contain what those Ten Commandments look like lived out in everyday life.
Obedience and Fear
Most of the high water marks in the Bible mention fear. When humankind fell into sin, fear was present (Genesis 3:10). When God drowned Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea, fear was present (Exodus 14:31). When Jesus came to earth, fear was present (Luke 2:9). When Jesus was raised from the dead, fear was present (Mark 16:8). A “healthy” sense of fear of God never hurt anyone (Proverbs 1:7). Frankly, our current American culture could use buckets of it.
As Israel entered their covenant with God through his law, proper fear would aid her obedience to the God who had redeemed them. Once again the natural and supernatural signs of God’s presence were in evidence: thunder, lightning, trumpet blasts, smoke, and thick darkness. The people had a right to tremble (shake, quiver, or vibrate). This was the God who had just defeated the most powerful army on the planet, and in that same power descended on Mount Sinai. No wonder the text says twice that that the people remained at a distance (verses 18 and 21). The word “fear” (terrible, dreadful, or reverence) in some form occurs three times in the English text.
Israel wanted Moses to function as a mediator. This ended up being a role that Moses did have to play (Hebrews 3:1-6; 2 Corinthians 3:7-16). Israel feared that if God spoke to them directly they would die. But Moses pastorally explained to them that incapacitating fear was not what they needed. Reverential fear was appropriate for their testing (try or prove) and to keep them from sinning. God never tempts us to draw us into sin (James 1:13), but he does test us to draw us away from sin (1 Corinthians 10:13). Respect is the basis of all relationships. We obey God because we respect him as God. Fear, rightly understood and biblically defined, is in solidarity with obedience.
Obedience and Distinction
What nation of all the nations on earth was redeemed like Israel was? None! Their deliverance from bondage was unique and predictive. As a result, God made Israel distinct from every other nation on earth. But God would use Israel to bless the whole world (Genesis 12:1-3; Romans 11:12). As Israel obeyed their Redeemer, their distinction as a people among all the peoples of the earth would be evident.
This distinction is seen in how Israel was very unlike the people who surrounded them. The nations had not heard God’s voice from the heavens. The nations worshipped dumb idols that were fashioned out of silver or gold by human hands. The nations offered human sacrifices (something detestable to God), whereas God wanted burnt and fellowship offerings of animals. The nations cut their stones for their altars whereas Israel used the rocks that God provided in creation for their altars. The nations built steps up to their altars and greatly abused their spirituality with gross sexuality, a practice that lacked discretion and modesty (see Exodus 28:42; 39:28).
But God would have none of it. While, missionally speaking, we want to remove barriers between ourselves and the people to whom God has sent us to evangelize, we must use discernment lest we blur the lines between culture and church. My friend JK Jones says, “We are best for our communities when we are most unlike our communities.” While we all have a common humanity, it is dangerous when there appears to be no difference between the church and the world. No wonder the New Testament says, “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21).
Dr. Mark Scott teaches Preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.
Based on International Sunday School Lesson, © 2013, by the Lesson Committee. Scripture quotations are from the New International Version ©2011, unless otherwise indicated.