Teaching through whole books of Scripture, verse-by-verse has its blessings. Most certainly, the practice brings its challenges as well. The church receives blessing due to its becoming acquainted with all parts of Scripture, regardless of how often these texts come into the fore of Christian culture. The teachers of those texts, and the hearers of the teaching also face the challenge of understanding every text with reference to the person, work, and glory of Christ Jesus himself. John Owen said the following on the matter:
It is said of our Lord Jesus Christ, that “beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he
declared unto his disciples in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself,”
Luke xxiv. 27. It is therefore manifest that Moses, and the Prophets, and all the
Scriptures do give testimony unto him and his glory.”
Entering Exodus 20:22-21:11, one finds Moses did not give the contemporary Western Christian an easy task! Notice, the task of teaching Jesus Christ from such a text not availing itself easily to our minds does not make the task impossible, nor does it indicate a deficiency in the Scriptures. Whenever we find the Bible challenging, the weakness lies in the people of God, not the word of God. We also know this from experience: the things providing the greatest challenge often yield the greatest profit. The most difficult or obscure parts of Scripture unleashed to promote the person of the Savior to the people of God truly yields a sweet profit.
On the heels of the Ten Commandments, God reminds Moses of his sole claim on them as people. God alone spoke to them from heaven, and he alone shall receive their worship. No idol, no statue, will stand before the people of God as an object of worship and devotion. He commands Moses to build altars for his worship which bear a distinctiveness about them. Moses will construct them of either plain earth or uncut stone, and no one will mistake these altars for those of the pagan gods. Furthermore, the people will retain their dignity, and never let the most intimate parts of their bodies become exposed during worship. Though God gives these distinctive marks of his own worship, none of these things truly place a burden upon his people. He provides the simpler task in building an altar of naturally shaped rocks than one of rocks modified by human labor.
But what of Exodus 21:1-11? Why would God address slavery other than saying, “You will have no slaves among you.”?
I could write thousands of words on the matter, but for the sake of time and space, I think the following summarizes those words: nearly everything entering our minds when we think of slavery in the contemporary West runs counter to the biblical laws on the practice. The kidnapping, constant abuse of every conceivable type, and division of families on the auction block had no place in the people of God. The abuses God’s people endured in Egypt needed to stay in Egypt. God would not allow his people to repeat such things.
Before going further, a reading of the text itself proves necessary. Notice several things:
1. Slavery had an end to it, unless the slave himself decided to remain a slave. The
slave possessed the ability to act as an agent.
2. Families remain together, though one member may remain in serving out a term.
3. Masters did not turn out female slaves alone in the society where they had virtually no status apart from a husband or master. In the tradition of arranged marriages, the master can marry her himself or marry her to a son. If he decides to practice polygamy (a subject for another day), he cannot deny her any rights as a wife. Only if he will not take her into his family or allow her redemption does she go out, and she does so on
his own dime.
Under these regulations, no one ever became a non-image-bearer of God, nor did they become someone else’s property completely. The image of the master beating an old man in the field does not comport with these laws. God’s demands of worship on them reminded them they practiced these things under his watchful eye. Their ability to practice a form of slavery existed as a stewardship given by the terrifying and thundering God who split the Red Sea.
So what of Christ?
Recall Romans 1:1, 2 Corinthians 4:5, Galatians 1:10, Philippians 1:1, Titus 1:1, James 1:1, 2 Peter 1:1, Jude 1, and Revelation 1:1. In these texts, Paul, James, Peter, Jude, and John each refer to themselves as slaves of either God or Christ. Either way they put it, the meaning remains the same—they see their relationship to their Creator and Savior as one of permanent slavery to Christ. Metaphorically speaking, they approached the doorpost, and Jesus drove the awl through their ear.
Yet, the enslavement to Christ provides more freedom than the other option: enslavement to sin. If the image of the Exodus itself has application on our own salvation (and I think it does), then Christ has freed his people from the sin taskmaster, the Egyptian with his whip. We do not bend to the capricious whims of sin any more. Instead, we sold ourselves to Christ our Redeemer and Savior. He now acts as Master over us, and in him, we find no vagary or trickery. He does not align with the pagan gods in his disposition. Rather, he beckons the weary to him. O wonderful transaction! The trade of a worthless life devoted to a never-satisfied, always seeking my evil master for the Master of all Creation!
Christian, you have something better than autonomy. You have something better than the embrace of your impulses and dark, secret desires. The nail-pierced hand wields no whip; rather his back bore the whip for you. He gives gives grace and rest and peace to those who would bear his name and his reproach on this earth.
John Owen, Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ, vol. 1 of The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1993), 348. Reprint.