The Ten Commandments: The Gift of Heaven

The Ten Commandments: The Gift of Heaven

In the Book of Exodus, God acts and something inexplicable happens. Slaves are set free. The powerless are empowered for a journey thought impossible. The powerful are left in shambles with their firstborns in the mortuary and their army at the bottom of the sea. God rewrites the expected ending. The dying live; the living die.

In essence, Christians see the shadow of resurrection in this story. God moves in a way that creates a future where there was none. A dead end becomes a new highway. People without need for a map now browse travel brochures. They are going somewhere. Their future is blessed by God. Tomorrow is a gift.

Out of this come the Ten Commandments. They come on the other side of Egypt, on the other side of liberation. They are not given as an exit plan from Egypt or a road map to the Promised Land. They are given after God has already acted on their behalf. The commandments are given to people who used to be as good as dead and are now vibrantly alive—and free.

Until we get it fixed in our hearts and minds that law is not how we get to God, earn God, gain God’s attention, placate or impress God, we will not understand the place of the law in our lives. Law is simply how the redeemed live.

And that law is given for life on earth. Sometimes I think we forget that the Ten Commandments were given to God’s people who were en route to an earthly place. We fondly call their destination the Promised Land.

God had made promises to Abraham about land. That promise stayed alive and gave them something to hope for, even in the mud pits of Goshen. But their hopes were not that they would one day die and leave filthy old Egypt behind and go to heaven where the streets were gold and the angels played harps and nobody bossed you around anymore. They hoped for earthly turf where they could work the land, raise a family, and worship God.

But we Christians have turned the Promised Land into an unearthly place out in the galaxy somewhere. Flip through the hymnal and listen to our wishful longing for a faraway land. In our songs we talk about a promised land, flowing with milk and honey. We say that we are just passing through this world on our way to Glory Land, Sweet Beulah Land.

I do understand the longing behind these lyrics. I’ve sung these songs with a wistful longing to be freed from the earthly burdens of labor, sickness, trouble, and death. I do not mean to minimize the desire to be away from the effects of a sinful world, beyond the reach of evil and its consequences. Every child of God feels this tug at some point. And those who have more friends and family on the other side of death feel it especially strong. This is not a denial of the blessed reality of heaven. It is, however, an attempt to deliver us from an escapist faith that embraces a future beyond this world rather than embracing the future of a kingdom coming to this world in a glorious act of bodily resurrection, planetary restoration, and global justice.

If we desire a rest from our labor in the presence of God, the law addresses this in the commandment about Sabbath. But if we think the law is a list of things to do to get to heaven, we have missed its intended function as a way of life on earth. God’s primary interest is not to get us to heaven but to get heaven in us on earth. Remember this part of the Lord’s Prayer, “thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10, KJV). The Promised Land is the land beneath our feet right now, where the God who liberates the captive and raises the dead seeks to bless us with a way of life that is rich in mercy, justice, and righteousness.

Sadly, many of us have given up on much happening here on earth. Like the Jews tramping straw in Pharaoh’s mud pits, like the slaves on the southern cotton plantations, like the elderly woman watching nonstop TV news, we’ve set our sights on escaping to another world. We no longer believe that our eyes will see God’s redemption in the land of the living.

We forget that our own scriptures speak of the earth as the site of God’s last great redemptive move. We forget that the heavenly city is coming down to earth. We forget that we are not going where God is but that God is coming to where we are. We forget that the risen Jesus tells His disciples to meet Him, not just inside the Eastern Gate, but on the road to Galilee.

We forget that the ultimate hope of the Christian is not that our soul would ascend to heaven but that our body would be raised from an earthly grave. We forget that Paul’s great chapter on the resurrection of Jesus ends, not with “Thank God, we’re all going to heaven,” but “Be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58).

The Ten Commandments are not a list to observe so we can go to heaven someday. They are the gift of heaven already landed in our hearts by the God who gives life to His redeemed—which means that the Ten Commandments are better understood as a corporate instruction for the formation of a people, rather than a list of personal morals to be observed.

Today’s post is an excerpt from Dancing with the Law: The Ten Commandments.


  1. Dr. Ray Dunning and Reuben Welch helped me to see this years ago. It frees us from the futile effort to be good enough to be acceptable to God. Plus, Christians should not be cynical about improving our world as you point out so clearly.

  2. This is not what the bible says. The commandments are to show us our sin. Gal 3:24. Romans 3 explains how the commandments are on everyone’s hearts. God placed them there Jer 31:33, Heb 8:10. This is how we know what sin is. Simple.

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