Bible Text: Exodus 20
Lesson Focus: The Ten Commandments are a gift from God intended to help us live with one another.
Big Question: Are the Ten Commandments around just to trip us up and make us feel bad?
Key Words: GUIDELINES, GIFT, THRESHOLD
• The context of the Ten Commandments is the Exodus.
• The law given in the Ten Commandments and in later laws, too, is a gift.
• The Commandments are not “have-tos” or even “to-dos.” These commandments are part of a covenant of response.
• The Commandments don’t effect a relationship with God but rather reflect an already-established relationship with God.
• Israel’s election depended on God’s grace, and that does not change with the giving of the Ten Commandments or any of the laws that follow.
• The Commandments deal with the most practical issues of community life and life dependent on God.
Next to Psalm 23, the Ten Commandments are probably the most familiar scripture in our culture. Their context is the Exodus. The chapters between the two events give Moses time to preach a bit to the people and gather further examples that he will need for rhetorical persuasion later. In chapter 19 the entire community experiences a theophany; they do not like it. The whole mountain seems to burn as thunder booms and lightning flashes; it is terribly frightening. The people are more comfortable with Moses serving as a mediator between them and God. Moses does assume this role again, but first God gives the people the Decalogue or “10 Words.” The experience nearly scares them to death.
Yahweh speaks in the first person and identifies the divine self as the redemptive God of the Exodus, the God of grace and promise. Having delivered the people and the very promise itself out of bondage, Yahweh gives the gift of some “words” on living as chosen people. Jews number the proclamation of Exodus 20:2 as the First Commandment. Many Christians follow Martin Luther’s ordering in seeing 20:2 as a preamble, a contextual clue, with 20:3 as the First Commandment and 20:4 as the Second Commandment.
The law given in the Ten Commandments and in later laws, too, is a gift many Christians overlook. Our Jewish friends and neighbors have a deep understanding of this, but we too often lack the depth to see the law in its fullness. Too quickly we want to wave the banner of “grace alone”—as if this made law obsolete—and we forget to look at the law as it was intended: as grace, as gift! These are not “have-tos” or even “to-dos.” The Ten Commandments are part of a covenant of response. The context of the Commandments is very important. They are given as a gift of structure, boundaries, rules for living as a free people. But they aren’t just guidelines for a civilized humanity. They don’t effect a relationship with God but rather reflect an already-established relationship with God. Israel’s election depended on God’s grace, and that does not change with the giving of the Ten Commandments or any of the laws that follow. In the laws given in the remaining chapters and books of scripture, God is giving them (and thereby us) a framework for their redeemed and precious lives so that they (and we) do not squander the incredible gift that has been given.
The Commandments deal with the most practical issues of community life and life dependent on God. Most are stated prohibitively. The first four address Israel’s relationship to Yahweh, and the remaining six deal with their relationships with one another. Most of life is lived in the ordinary. It is not every day that waters are parted and we cross over to safety. Most of the time, we are wandering around in the wilderness, trying (and, truthfully, not trying at times) to love God and neighbor. The Commandments are a reminder of whose and who we are. In addition, they draw a sketch of the kind of people God intends us to be.
Sometimes the more familiar something is, the less we really know about it. The Ten Commandments are featured on bookmarks, wall plaques, T-shirts, and courtroom doors. Taken out of context, they are far too easy to misinterpret. Their brevity makes their meaning seem simple. People quote them in simplistic ways and make the evening news. They are anything but simple, however. Many theologians throughout the ages have expanded and expounded on them. Given their ubiquity in our culture, we would do well to spend some time with them. They are more than universal law, and they certainly deserve more from us than fancy lettering on a T-shirt or legal battles over where they should be displayed. (They deserve more than memorization during confirmation too!)
Are the Ten Commandments around just to trip us up and make us feel bad?
Rules, paradoxically, are meant to provide freedom when we live within them. Your students may not be aware of this concept and may see rules as a hindrance to their freedom. God provides these rules as a guide for healthy and faithful living. Interviews with troubled youth often reveal their wish for tighter rules from parents, which they see as a sign of love and care. The Commandments that God provides are basic guidelines to keep God’s people walking the way of truth and light. Since the reasoning part of the brain is not fully formed in youth, kids this age need guidelines to help them make moral and ethical decisions. Inviting youth to interpret the Commandments in the language of today will help them incorporate the Commandments into their lives. Reflecting on the relevance of the Commandments today will help the students emotionally grasp what the rules mean for them.
Welcome and Review
Ask students to recall the previous week’s Lesson Focus, Key Words, and Big Question. Reward their efforts with small treats or prizes.
Help kids dive into the Key Words by asking for definitions and/or providing these definitions:
GUIDELINES: standards or principles that provide direction and support.
GIFT: something voluntarily passed to someone without compensation.
THRESHOLD: an entrance or beginning point.
Option 3: Song Option: “I Fought the Law”
Play the song “I Fought the Law” by the Bobby Fuller Four from I Fought the Law: The Best of the Bobby Fuller Four (Rhino Records, 2001). Please preview this content to determine its appropriateness for your setting.
In this 1960s classic, there’s no getting away from the price that comes with disobedience—and in his rebellious behavior, the singer loses everything, including his freedom. Likewise, the people of Israel put their newfound freedom in jeopardy when they displeased God. So God gave them the Commandments to preserve order and a right relationship with the Almighty.
Debrief the activity with these questions:
• Think about a law or rule that seems silly or impossible to take seriously. Do you choose to obey it—or to disobey it? Why?
• Name a way that modern pop culture glorifies rule breakers and lawbreakers. Does the example cause you to feel pressure when it comes to obedience? Why or why not? Discuss several examples.
The story of God giving the people the Ten Commandments is the story of how God rescued and formed the people of God. Israel was to be the people who knowingly and willingly lived under the lordship of God. As Christians, we are the people who knowingly and most of the time willingly live under the rule of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Provide handouts or project the following prayer for all to see. The prayer speaks of a new creation, as described in Isaiah 65:17–18.
Leader: The Lord be with you.
Group: And also with you.
Leader: For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth;
Group: The former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.
Leader: But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating;
Group: For I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.
My Faith Story
Ask kids to respond to the Big Question: Are the Ten Commandments around just to trip us up and make us feel bad?
Then share a part of your own faith story using the suggestion below or another way to share about your positive experiences with rules in life.
Today’s lesson focuses on the Ten Commandants. It may be difficult for your students to see the positive nature of rules and guidelines. It is very easy to see all rules as merely an impediment to freedom. As you share experiences from your own life, help your students see how rules and guidelines can actually increase your sense of freedom and enhance life. For example, what would their favorite games be like without rules? How safe would driving be if there were no traffic laws? How safe would food be if there were no food safety laws?
Open the Bible
Read Proverbs 2:1–6. For the writer of Proverbs, true wisdom begins in understanding God’s commandments. As the students read these verses, have them circle the words commandments and wisdom. What is the relationship between true wisdom and God’s commandments? Where do we find the commandments of God?
Read Exodus 20:1–11. The Commandments can be divided into two groups. The first three deal with how we are to respond to God, and the final seven address how we are to interact with one another. These are guidelines for how God’s people can live faithful lives. If we focus on the word not, we can quickly become legalistic and lose sight of what the commandments are really saying.
Read Exodus 20:12–17. While the first three commandments deal with how we are to live toward God, the final seven deal with how we are to live toward one another. Take the word not out and restate in your own words each the Ten Commandments. How do the commandments provide us with a guideline for living a Christian life?
Read Exodus 20:18–26. The giving of the law to Moses is presented in a very dramatic way. The scene of Moses on the mountain is one of the most dramatic stories in the Bible. For an exciting understanding of Moses’ trip up the mountain and how it looks today, refer to “Climbing Mount Sinai,” chapter 10 in Bruce Feiler’s Walking the Bible (HarperCollins, 2004).
Open the Catechism
On a whiteboard or chart paper, write “Luther’s Explanations to the Ten Commandments.” In his explanations to the Commandments, Luther provides a great way for students to think about what the Commandments are and how we as Christians should understand them.
Here We Stand Student Book page 296: Invite students to turn to the Ten Commandments and Luther’s explanations. Take time to work through each commandment and Luther’s explanation.
1. The Ten Commandments can be found in . . .
a. Exodus 20. (Correct)
b. Joshua 24.
c. Mark 11.
d. Exodus 10.
2. Moses went up to pray to God on . . .
a. Mount McKinley.
b. Mount Sinai. (Correct)
c. the Mount of Olives.
d. Mount Olympus.
3. The people wouldn’t go near the mountain because . . .
a. snow made the road impassable.
b. they were afraid of the thunder, flames, and smoke. (Correct)
c. they thought the mountain was cursed.
d. the road was flooded out.
4. How many commandments are about our relationship to God?
b. 3 (Correct)
5. How many commandments are about our relationship to our neighbor?
c. 7 (Correct)
6. Luther believed that . . .
a. if we keep the Commandments exactly, we will go to heaven.
b. the Ten Commandments give us the basics for faithful living in relationship to God and our neighbors. (Correct)
c. the Ten Commandments should be expanded to 100.
d. both a and b.
7. God gave the Ten Commandments to . . .
c. Moses. (Correct)
8. The Fourth Commandment is to . . .
a. honor your brother or sister.
b. remember the weekend and make it fun.
c. remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.
d. honor your mother and father. (Correct)
Select one of the options below to explore in your small group. Then finish with the Best/Worst activity and prayer.
Option 1: Memorization Option: Martin Luther’s Words
Martin Luther’s explanation of the First Commandment is short (11 words) but profound. It’s easy to memorize and well worth the effort.
Tell the students that everyone, including you, is going to memorize Luther’s short answer to the meaning of the First Commandment. Give the students a few minutes to practice; then go around the room and have everyone recite what they have memorized. If you have time, you could have a contest to see who can say it the fastest or even who can say it the slowest.
Have fun with this activity. Memorization often gets a bad rap today. Having some favorite Bible verses memorized, along with some key items from Luther’s Small Catechism, can be a source of strength and wisdom at various times in life.
Option 2: Science Option: How High
Before the lesson, assemble the supplies, read through the experiment, and do a trial run.
• One large and one small rubber ball
• A location with a high ceiling
The Ten Commandments are God’s rules for people to follow. What would happen if we lived in a world without rules? Life would be very chaotic, unfair, and unsafe. The guidelines and rules that God gave to Moses form a framework for life today too.
If you have a balcony in your church, try this experiment from the balcony for the extra height and excitement. Hold the two balls together, with the smaller ball on top, and drop them together. The balls should separate a bit. When the bottom ball hits the ground first, it will bounce back, and on the way back up, it should hit the smaller ball as it is still in downward motion, creating a head-on collision! The energy that is transferred from the first ball to the second ball will make the smaller ball go up even higher toward the ceiling. This experiment integrates the basic laws of physics and gravity.
Like the laws of science, such as gravity or the Bernoulli principle that helps explains why airplanes can fly, God’s rules are rules of order. We may not always understand the rules of science, or even the Ten Commandments, but without either, life would be a lot more difficult.
Debrief the science activity with these questions:
• What laws of science operate when balls are dropped?
• How do the laws of science make things predictable and ordered?
• How are God’s rules like the laws of science?
Option 3: Movie Option: Finding Nemo
Play a scene from the movie Finding Nemo (animated; rated G; Disney, 2003). Please preview this content to determine its appropriateness for your setting.
Start cue: Scene 2; 0:05. The title “Finding Nemo” appears.
End cue: “Be safe.”
Having experienced the terrors of the sea, Marlin is protective of his son, Nemo. On the first day of school, Nemo is eager to set out into unexplored territory.
Debrief the movie clip with these questions:
• What commandments does Marlin establish for Nemo?
• How does Nemo feel about these rules?
• How does God’s law express God’s love for us?
Best/Worst and Prayer
Go around the group and have each student share the best and worst thing from his or her week. Remind them to pay special attention to (for example) the person on their right, as they will be praying for that person in a moment. Alternate prayer partners from week to week.
Have students get together with a prayer partner. Ask them to share with their partner some challenge they will be facing in the week ahead. Is there something in particular they would like their partner to pray for? Introduce the prayer and allow them time to pray for their partners either aloud or silently.
Gracious God, let your strength flow through us that we might accomplish great things in your name. (Allow time for partners to pray aloud or silently for each other.) In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
Pass out pencils and Student Sheets. Look at the front of the Student Sheet together. Pick a volunteer to read each bullet point aloud for the group. Talk about the points with students.
• What rules are the most difficult for you to deal with?
• How do you prioritize things in your life?
• Why should we look at the Commandments as guidelines rather than “have-tos” or “to-dos”?
Turn to this week’s activity called “The Ten Commandments Word Search.” Let your kids pair up to work through the activity page together. After a few minutes, discuss the answers as a group.
Use the cartoon and questions on the Student Sheet to kick off a conversation.
• What are some rules in your family?
These may include no television or phones during dinner time, bed times, chores, etc. As the students talk about the various rules in their families, have them identify some common themes. Do they think some of the rules are silly or arbitrary? Do some make sense?
• How can rules make relationships work better?
When people live together, rules and expectations make things run more smoothly. God gave the Ten Commandments to Israel so they could live with one another. As the students discuss this question, encourage them to explore how rules make things easier in their home and school life. What would life be like if there were no rules or if everyone ignored them?
• Where do you really appreciate having rules?
Encourage students to think about where they really don’t mind having rules. Are there areas in their lives that would be chaotic if no rules were in place? How can rules sometimes make things work better?
Student Book Connection
Here We Stand Student Book page 188: Read through “How to Tell the Difference between the Law and the Gospel.” This discussion of law and gospel is critical for understanding the Ten Commandments in a Lutheran context. As the students wrestle with this, encourage them to explore how they experience the two in their own lives. The “Be Aware” section on page 190 may be the most helpful section for understanding how law and gospel work together in our lives and in our world. Talk about these questions with your group: How do you experience the law and gospel in your life? How does that help you understand the Ten Commandments?
Talk about last week’s Life Connection. Ask your group what they did this week to live out last week’s lesson. What did they learn? What might they do in the future to keep living out that Life Connection?
Today’s Life Connection asks students to seek out someone in their congregation or perhaps an older relative or neighbor who can share about a time when they received forgiveness after they had done something wrong. Talk about the Ten Commandments inevitably leads to talk about our inability to fully live up to what we are called to be. In this context, the students need to hear the gospel; they need to hear stories about forgiveness.
Kids this age have lots of questions about right and wrong, stories in the Bible, and faith and life.
After their questions, ask one or more of the following questions to connect your conversations with the Lesson Focus:
• If you could change one rule in your family, what would it be? If you could add one rule, what would it be?
• If someone said to you, “The Ten Commandments are impossible to fulfill, so why did God give them anyway?” what would you say?
Tell the students that today’s Closing Prayer will focus on the many blessings we have received from God, the greatest blessing being eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. Ask them to take a minute to think of the good things God has done in their lives. Provide handouts or project the following prayer for all to see.
Leader: Lord, we have sinned and fallen short.
Group: Yet you have given us so much.
Leader: We have not loved you with our whole heart.
Group: Yet you have given us food and family and friends.
Leader: We have not loved our neighbor as ourself.
Group: Yet you have forgiven us.
Leader: For all you do for us, we thank you. (Allow time for class petitions.)
Group: Thank you, Lord.
Before students leave, be sure to give each of them the following blessing as you trace the cross on their foreheads.
May you walk in God and serve your neighbor in need. In the name of the Father+, and the Son+, and the Holy Spirit+. Amen.