When you hear someone talk about “the Ten Commandments,” what comes to mind?
Perhaps it is Charlton Heston’s depiction of Moses in Cecil B. DeMille’s classic 1956 film. Or maybe you feel dread thinking of all the “thou shalt nots” you have broken in your life. Or, you may not even know what I am referring to.
What Are the Ten Commandments?
The Ten Commandments are the laws God gave Moses after he led the Israelite nation out of slavery in Egypt. We read about this in the Old Testament of the Bible, in the book of Exodus. God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai and gave him two tablets of stone containing the covenant law (Exodus 31:18)—an ethical contract regulating his relationship with his people—popularly known as the Ten Commandments.
The two tablets regulated two key relationships: one with God (commandments 1 through 4) and the other with fellow humans (commandments 5 through 10).
These commandments were a practical and comprehensive summary of God’s purpose for his people: love. In fact, Jesus summarized the whole Old Testament law in this way:
Jesus replied: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40 NIV)
From a healthy relationship with God grows a healthy relationship with others. Love of neighbor naturally flows from love of God.
Why Did God Give Us the Ten Commandments?
God not only wants us to love him and others, but he also gave us laws because he loves us. He did not give these commandments because he’s a killjoy. Rather, he gave them to help us live a good life.
As sinners, we have a propensity toward self-destruction. Frequently lying, for example, ruins your reputation, not to mention the harm it causes others. In the same way, taking things that aren’t your own—or taking the life of another—brings great harm to society. Loving God and loving others is actually the best way for us all to live.
As a loving heavenly Father, the Ten Commandments are meant to discipline us so that we will live productive, healthy lives.
Why These Ten Commandments?
People often wrongly assume that the items in the Ten Commandments are God’s “top ten list.” You may think that what’s included is most important, so un-included sins are less important, or can even be ignored.
On the contrary, God gave the Israelites over 600 laws in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. All of these laws also came from God. It would be a grave mistake to assume that if something is not specified in the Ten Commandments, then it really isn’t important. First, because if God calls something sin, who are we to say otherwise? And second, because the Ten Commandments function more like comprehensive categories.
For example, in the commandments involving our neighbor, we find God’s concern for:
- the family (command 5)
- sanctity of life (command 6)
- marriage and sexuality (command 7)
- property rights (command 8)
- integrity of speech (command 9)
The tenth commandment, a law against covetousness, is the capstone of the Ten Commandments and is a check on our inclination toward greed and envy, from which the other “do not’s” often flow.
God intends to protect us with these principle commands, giving us a framework for the rest of his commands. A society that has respect for personal property, honest communication, marital sanctity, individual life and liberty, and the importance of a strong family with clear levels of authority cannot help but thrive.
What Do I Do With the Ten Commandments?
Knowing that we are sinners who far too often only care about our own interests, God gave us these commandments to expose our genuine inner being. The Ten Commandments reveal just how sinful we are, naming our specific failures, thereby exposing how much we need God’s forgiveness and grace in our lives.
The Bible says, “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin” (Romans 3:20 NIV).
Not only does the law expose and categorize our sin, but it also points us to the One who dealt with it: “Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:24 NKJV). Because God knew we could never perfectly adhere to his perfect law, he sent his Son, Jesus Christ, into the world to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17).
In other words, Jesus did what none of us could ever do: he lived a sinless life. Then, through his atoning death on the cross, he paid the penalty for the sins of everyone who believes in him. Now that he has risen from the dead, he offers us his righteousness. Jesus had to do this work because God takes all sin seriously, even if we do not.
Read the Ten Commandments again. Do you see God’s standard of righteousness? Honestly evaluate your own life. Do you see that you fall short of this standard (Romans 3:23)? God nonetheless gave you a way by which that righteous standard can be met—if you have faith in the righteousness of his Son, Jesus (Philippians 3:8-9).
Despite your inability to perfectly obey the Ten Commandments, God offers you forgiveness through Jesus.
Will you accept it, and love him for it, and love others in response to it?