Many years ago, a Muslim acquaintance asked me whether I would become a snail if I had the opportunity. I assured him that I would not. He followed that up by asking why I supposed Almighty and all-glorious God would choose to become one of us. That was a great question. Here is my answer: I would not become a snail because I do not care for snails, but God became one of us because, for some strange reason, God loves us that much!
Now imagine something with me: Once upon a time, a great king lived in a magnificent palace of glistening, carved marble, with courtyards and garden, pools and fountains, mosaic floors, and elegant tapestries upon the walls. In his palace, the king enjoyed the finest things of life. Chefs prepared for him the greatest of feasts each night; court musicians and jesters performed for his entertainment; and skilled artists produced delights for his eyes.
In a desert, in the remote southern section of the kingdom, lived a small, impoverished, insignificant band of people. One year these people gathered together all of their wealth (which actually amounted to almost nothing). With their supposed wealth, they built a palace—at least they called it a palace. Rather than carving walls from marble, they built walls from sunbaked bricks of mud and straw. The only decorations upon those walls were the random edges of straw protruding from the bricks. The floor was dirt. Water was scarce, so they constructed no pool or fountain, nor did they even attempt to plant a garden to beautify the surroundings. They could provide no chef or musicians or artists. In essence, this “palace” was nothing more than a shack, a hovel, a gloomy box in the barren desert.
Nevertheless, these impoverished desert-dwellers sent a letter to the king with the following request: “Dear King, we have built a fine palace for you, and we invite you to come live with us.”
Shockingly, the king accepted their invitation.
Here’s the real story: Around 3000 years ago, a rather insignificant people in a rather dismal part of the world put together all of their wealth and built what they considered a masterpiece. They laid great stone blocks on top of great stone blocks and covered every stone with a floor of cypress and with walls of cedar. They covered ornately carved doors and walls with a veneer of gold. They beautified an inner and outer courtyard with two great bronze pillars, twelve bronze oxen, various bronze and gold furnishings, and two golden cherubim, each ten feet tall, with outstretched wings meeting above the Ark of the Covenant. They were proud of the house they made for God! But, if truth be told, Solomon’s great temple was but a shack, a hovel, a gloomy box in the barren desert compared to the majesty of heaven, in which God already dwelt.
Nevertheless, these people made a request to God, and I quote from 2 Chronicles 6:41, “Now arise, Lord God, and come to Your resting place.”
Shockingly, God accepted their invitation, and 2 Chronicles 7:1 tells us that the glory of the Lord filled that temple. Why? Because God actually loved these people!
Here’s another real story: 1 Corinthians 6:19 tells me that my body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. If truth be told, it is but a shack, a hovel, a gloomy box in a barren desert. The top has turned gray. The foundation (the feet) have endured several broken bones from years of basketball. I have to wear corrective lenses. My hearing has declined. I am on medication for high cholesterol and high blood pressure. I get grouchy and resentful. I struggle with insecurities and bad attitudes.
Nevertheless, I sent a request to God some time ago. My invitation read, and I quote, “Jesus, will You please come live in my heart?”
Shockingly, God accepted my invitation; God sent His Spirit to live in my soul—and He has never left, despite the poor condition of the abode. Why? Because God actually loves me!
One of the most bizarre of Jesus’ miracles is recorded in Matthew 17:24-27. To pay the temple tax, Jesus tells Peter to “go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.”
Why didn’t Jesus simply instruct Judas to take this amount out of the purse that he kept for the expenses of Jesus and the disciples? Why does He send Peter to the lake for a coin in the mouth of a fish?
To understand this miracle, it helps to understand something about this tax and about this fish.
The Tax: To a significant extent, the tax was like the toll we pay to cross a bridge. Growing up in Oakland, California, if I wanted to go to San Francisco, I would drive across the Bay Bridge, but before driving across I would have to pay the toll. The toll went to the maintenance of the bridge so that it would be safe for me and others to drive across. For the privilege of visiting San Francisco, I would simply pay the pertinent toll.
Like a bridge giving access to San Francisco, the temple gave people access to God. For the privilege of having access to God, people were required to pay a tax for the maintenance of the temple.
But who has to pay the toll? Would a person already living in San Francisco have to pay the toll for others who want to come visit “the city”? Or is the expense only for those who want to come into the city? Would One who already has access to God (as the second person of the Trinity) have to pay the temple tax? No, the tax is for those who want to gain access to God.
The Fish: There are two species of fish in the world which have the unusual habit of protecting their young by opening their mouths wide and allowing their young to swim into their open mouths. One species if found in the Sea of Galilee and is commonly known as St. Peter’s Fish. Jesus sent Peter to find a coin in the mouth of a fish who uses its mouth to protect its young. Jesus was giving Peter a picture of the self-sacrifice He would soon make for Peter…and for us.
In the two verses just before this miracle is recorded, Jesus spoke to His disciples about the self-sacrifice He was about to make for them. In Matthew 17:22-23, Jesus said to His disciples, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill Him, and on the third day He will be raised to life.”
By sending Peter to the lake to get a coin that would cover the cost for both of them from the mouth of a fish who protects its young in its mouth, Jesus was letting Peter (and us) know that He has got us covered, that He will take us into Himself to protect us and care for our needs.
Jesus did this symbolically with a coin from the mouth of a fish that would pay the temple tax (also known as the “atonement tax”) for Himself and Peter. He did this for real when He died upon the cross for our forgiveness and to give us access to God. That’s why 1 John 4:10 declares, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
The second-to-last chapter of the Bible begins with a beautiful expression of God’s longing to welcome us into His everlasting love: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.”
This is a passage I have often shared at funerals—at the end of a person’s life—to declare the joy that awaits us in heaven as we come into the unending loving embrace of our God. But here is what excites me the most: That sentiment (that expression of God’s longing for a marital-type-of-love with us) does not suddenly pop up out of nowhere at the end of the Bible. It is also conveyed very early in Scripture. We may not recognize it with our 21st century American eyes, but there is tremendous wedding imagery in the giving of the 10 Commandments.
In an article in The Jewish Woman, Esther Piekarski and Rishe Deitsch share, “The concept of marriage does not apply only between men and women in Judaism; our entire relationship with our Creator is considered a marriage. Our wedding anniversary is the holiday of Shavuot, the day on which we received the Torah [the Law]. And just as a marriage should be continually renewed, so too, each and every year we once again relive the giving of the Torah, our marriage to G-d…. and we are taught that Mt. Sinai itself, the smallest and most humble of all the mountains, was held above our heads, symbolizing the wedding canopy, the chuppah. When we received the Ten Commandments, the foundation of the Torah, this represented the giving of the marriage contract, the ketubah, representing our love, commitment, respect and responsibility within this relationship.”
An article in JewishJewels.org adds, “Fifty days after the Feast of Passover, we celebrate Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks…known also as Pentecost…. It is traditionally believed that the Israelites arrived at Mount Sinai fifty days after the Exodus, arriving at the mountain on the sixth day of the Hebrew month Sivan…. God gave His people the Law on this special Pilgrim Feast, earning it yet another name: Z’man Matan Torateinu, the Season of the Giving of the Law. It is fascinating to note that the events of Acts Chapter 2 occur on the Feast of Shavuot. The Holy Spirit was given on the exact day that the Law had been given. Coincidence? Absolutely not! The giving of the Spirit made it possible for the Law to move from the outside (tablets of stone) to the inside (the human heart).”
Briefly stated, here are some of the images of a wedding that we find in Exodus 24:
- In a Jewish wedding, a bride must express her consent to the marriage. That’s what we find in verse 3: When Moses told the people the words of the Law, “they responded with one voice, ‘Everything the Lord has said we will do.’” They freely consented to the wedding.
- Before the wedding, the bride and the groom (separately) must take a mikvah, a bath for spiritual cleansing. Verse 6 describes God’s mikvah: “Moses took half of the blood and put it in bowls, and the other half he splashed against the altar.” Verse 8 describes the bride’s mikvah: “Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, ‘This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.’”
- A Jewish wedding includes the signing of the ketubah, the marriage contract. Verse 12 states, “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Come up to me on the mountain and stay here, and I will give you the tablets of stone with the law and commandments I have written for their instruction.” The Law is nothing short of our marriage contract.
- A Jewish wedding is considered a simcha, a joyous occasion. No wonder verses 9-11 tell us that when “the seventy elders of Israel went up…they saw God, and they ate and drank.” The receiving of the Law (the wedding with God) was and is celebrated as a joyous occasion!
Legalists misunderstand and misrepresent the Ten Commandments. They perceive the Ten Commandments as a funnel, squeezing us onto a narrow ledge where we walk in continual fear that we might step the wrong way and plummet into a chasm of sin and guilt, abandoned by God.
The Pharisees, the masters of legalism, compiled God’s Law into 613 rules (divided into 248 commands and 365 prohibitions—one thing you cannot do for every day of the year!). To make the rules as clear as possible, they added 1,521 sub-rules, detailing more precisely how people were to obey the major rules. For example, to protect people from defiling the Sabbath, they outlawed thirty-nine activities that might be construed as “work.” (Jesus came up against one of these banned activities one Sabbath as He crushed a grain of wheat in His fingers as He walked through the fields with His disciples.) The most scrupulous of the legalists became known as the “bleeding Pharisees” because they would walk through the streets of town with their heads down to avoid any chance that they might look at a woman and lust after her, but as they walked along with their heads down they would run into things and become, indeed, the bleeding Pharisees.
To view the Ten Commandments as a funnel, squeezing us onto a narrow ledge upon which we must walk through life, is to miss the greater intent of the Ten Commandments.
Yes, the Ten Commandments are a wise guide to our lives, making clear to us how we ought to live and how we ought not to live our lives. But the best way to understand the Ten Commandments is to see them as God’s covenant of love with us, beginning with God’s declaration of love for us and going on to detail how we are to return that love.
If the aim of the Ten Commandments was to funnel us onto that narrow ledge upon which we must walk carefully so as to earn God’s acceptance, they would begin with demands of what we must do before God will be nice to us. But that’s not how the Ten Commandments begin. They begin with the pronouncement of what God has already done out of love for His people. They begin with this sentence: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt.”
It is not that we must do good in order for God to love us; it is that God has shown His love to us, therefore let us do good in reply.
One of the tragic potholes for a marriage is when a husband or wife does not communicate openly and honestly what he or she wants from their partner. God does not leave such a pothole in our way. God communicates clearly His love for us and how we can return love to Him. He makes it clear that we are to keep no lovers (no idols or false gods), and we are not to abuse or misuse His name, and we are to set aside a day to rest and to build our relationship with Him, and we are to honor our parents, and we are not to do anything that harms or mistreats other people whom God cares about. To put it another way, we are to love the Lord with our whole being, and we are to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.
After declaring His love for us, then informing us how to return love to Him, God wraps it up with an assurance of His ongoing love for us and presence with us. The last verse of Exodus 31 says, “When the Lord finished speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, He gave him the two tablets of the Testimony, the tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God.”
God did not send Moses down with two tablets because it took two tablets to fit all the commands. Rather, God sent Moses down with two tablets because, as was customary with a covenant, two copies of the stipulations were needed: one copy for the Israelites, and one copy for God. Moses carried both copies to the people as an assurance to the people that God would continue to be with them. Since God’s copy of the covenant was there in their midst, they would know that God Himself was there in their midst. God was not waiting for them to get it right before He would join them; God was committing Himself to be with them no matter what!