Of all the great events in Human Civilization, none surpasses the Exodus in significance for the formation of civil society. One could argue for the significance of the Exodus along a number of lines. One obviously fruitful line of exposition would emphasize that the Exodus initiates the formation of Israel as a nation--a formation that was essential to bringing forth the Messiah so that all nations would be blessed as God had promised to Abraham. Here I want to mention another aspect of the Exodus that is more subtle and often overlooked. In the Exodus God defeated Pharaoh through a series of plagues. As many theologians have observed, the plagues of the Exodus were not chosen at random. Each plague of the Exodus can be shown to correspond to an aspect of Egyptian cosmology. God was making the point that He alone was sovereign, and that the Egyptian deities had no power. The plagues culminate with judgment upon the firstborn, including the firstborn of Pharaoh. Pharaoh was considered a deity. There was no law governing his actions. His will determined the law of the people and he was subject to no one. The Exodus demonstrated the folly of this ancient Egyptian cosmology and the impotency of the tyrant Pharaoh to stand against the one true God of Israel.
Following the miraculous deliverance from Egypt, the Hebrews were brought to a mountain where God delivered his law to them audibly. These ten commandments were then written down, expanded upon in case law, and given to them the people to inform every aspect of their lives. The contrast with Egypt could not have been more profound. The people of God were no longer subject to the whims of a self-deified human tyrant. Human beings are equal in the sight of God, and God himself is the only one who has absolute authority over the human race. Israel would continue to be unique among its Ancient Near Eastern neighbors in this respect: the King of Israel was to be subject to the law himself and subject to the challenges of the prophets of God who proclaimed that law. The ideal of human political leadership was transformed in Israel from absolute power over inferiors to the stewardship of an authority derived by God and accountable to God.
In a civil society the freedom of religion, which in the context of this post entails the freedom to call to account all forms of human tyranny on the basis of divine revelation, is the only guarantee of civil liberty. Foolish Christian religious wars have slain their thousands, but atheistic states that limited the freedom of religion have slain their millions. Secularists must heed this somber lesson of history. Christians need to see the important link between freedom of religion and the work of gospel ministry. In the seventeenth century John Locke argued for religious toleration (as opposed to coercing faith through legislation) because anything less would lead to hypocrisy--unbelievers feigning a faith they do not truly possess. (Locke observed that Jesus was not shy to call out the sin of hypocrisy.) Free from state coercion to feign faith, individuals are able to confront the claims of Christ from the heart.
The Exodus demonstrates that only God is sovereign over human beings and that no tyrant has the right to govern according to his own whims. Moreover, the law given at Sinai doesn't merely humble political leaders, it is humbles us all. For none of us keep the law. Therefore, none of us can be delivered by the law. Ultimately we are all law breakers and all subject to the same judgment that came to Ancient Egypt. And, just as it was the case in Egypt, if we are not covered by the Blood of the Lamb the wrath of God will smite us all. Thanks be to God for Christ, our Passover lamb.