The Old Testament portion of the Bible contains a set of 613 laws that God gave to the nation of Israel as part of the Mosaic Covenant. These laws are collectively referred to as a single unit known as the Law (Torah), because God instructed the Israelites to follow all of them.
Although Christians today don’t follow the civil and ceremonial aspects of the Law (see Tough Question #10), we still follow the moral aspects of the Law because God’s moral standards are absolute and unchanging. The moral law is summarized by the Ten Commandments.
God gave the Ten Commandments, or the Decalogue, to Moses on Mount Sinai (Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5), and God Himself inscribed the commandments on two stone tablets (Exodus 31:18 and Exodus 34:1), with writing on both the front and the back (Exodus 32:15). There were two tablets because the Mosaic Covenant was a conditional contract between God and the nation of Israel, and there was one copy of the contract for each party. God instructed Moses to store the two stone tablets inside the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25:16).
Bible scholars believe that the first four commandments were written on the front of the stone tablets, since those deal with the vertical (man’s relationship with God), while the last six commandments were written on the back of the stone tablets, since those deal with the horizontal (man’s relationship with man):
- Do not worship any other gods besides the God of the Bible.
- All the foreign nations surrounding Israel worshipped false gods, and God didn’t even want the Israelites to mention the names of these gods (Exodus 23:13). For example, Hebrew scholars believe the Israelites intentionally mispronounced the names of gods like Melek (meaning king) as Molek (which combines the vowels from the Hebrew word for shame).
- This commandment denies the popular notion that “all paths lead to God” and instead reinforces the exclusivity of Christianity (John 14:6 and Acts 4:12).
- Do not worship idols.
- Although this commandment specifically addressed the pagan practice of worshipping statues and graven images, it also applies to the worship of anything in place of God. This includes “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.” (1 John 2:16)
- Jesus identified avarice as a form of idolatry: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Matthew 6:24)
- The apostle Paul identified gluttony as a form of idolatry: “Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things.” (Philippians 3:19)
- One of the most popular forms of idolatry today is when so-called Christians throw out anything in the Bible that they don’t agree with and create a false image of Jesus that they feel more comfortable with. This practice leads to the heretical idea that Jesus just loves everyone and would never condemn everyone to Hell.
- Do not blaspheme the Name of God.
- Blasphemy is when you use the name of God as a substitute for a swear word or when you merely treat God with a disrespectful attitude. This was a crime punishable by death (Leviticus 24:10-16).
- People are so casual today with the use of text message abbreviations and similar expressions that they don’t even notice how often they blaspheme.
- Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.
- Originally this commandment prohibited the Israelites from doing any work on Saturday because it was supposed to be a day of rest. However, it was later revealed that the Sabbath day was a symbol for Jesus (Matthew 12:8, Colossians 2:16-17, and Romans 14:5).
- How do Christians today obey this commandment? We are to love and honor Jesus, who is our Sabbath-rest (Hebrews 4:9-10).
- Honor your father and your mother.
- This commandment not only includes having respect for and obeying your mother and father, but it also includes caring for them in their old age (Matthew 15:3-9).
- Do not commit murder.
- This commandment prohibits both premeditated murder as well as death due to carelessness or negligence.
- Because God judges our thoughts as well as our actions, He views unrighteous anger as murder in the heart (Matthew 5:21-22).
- Notice that this commandment doesn’t prohibit lawful killing. For example, God Himself instituted capital punishment, and He establishes governments (Romans 13:1) to carry out executions lawfully.
- Do not commit adultery.
- People who engage in premarital sex may argue that they haven’t broken this commandment since they weren’t cheating on a spouse. However, since there really is no such thing as premarital sex (see Tough Question #5), that makes them guilty.
- Also, because God judges our thoughts as well as our actions, He considers lust to be adultery in the heart (Matthew 5:27-28)
- Do not steal.
- The word steal implies that you have taken something that did not belong to you without prior permission from the owner. Therefore, the monetary value of the object is irrelevant.
- In modern society, this commandment could include illegally downloading copyrighted material, plagiarizing copyrighted ideas, or even taking extra long breaks at work.
- Do not lie.
- I’ve heard people argue that this commandment only applies to false testimony during court proceedings. However, it’s clear that God condemns liars to Hell (Revelation 21:8), so it’s clear that this commandment applies to any lie.
- Do not covet.
Purpose of the Ten Commandments
To be clear, Christians are not under the Mosaic Covenant, but rather the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:31, Luke 22:20, 2 Corinthians 3:6, and Hebrews 9:15), also known as the Law of Christ (1 Corinthians 9:21 and Galatians 6:2). This means that we are not required to follow God’s moral laws under threat of punishment or to earn our salvation. Instead, we follow the moral laws naturally because God has put His Holy Spirit within us, making us born again as new creations.
So what good is are the Ten Commandments to Christians today? According to church reformer John Calvin, the primary use of the Law is to convict us of our sins (Romans 3:20 and Romans 7:7). The moral law acts as a mirror to show us how perfectly righteous God is and how sinful and wicked we are. It is only after we recognize our fallen state that we realize our need for a savior. They act as a tutor to bring us to Christ (Galatians 3:24).
It is a common misconception is that the Ten Commandments were intended to be God’s top ten list of the worst sins you could commit. Since the list omits reprehensible acts such as rape, child abuse, and enslavement, atheists have argued that it cannot be the work of an omniscient God. Atheists like George Carlin have published “improvements” to the Ten Commandments to argue that the writers of the Bible were primitive and prejudiced.
The truth is that the Ten Commandments were perfectly crafted to cover the most common sins so that no one can read them without realizing their own guilt. According to James 4:6 and 1 Peter 5:5, “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.” What better way to shut up a proud, self-righteous person than to hold up the mirror of God’s holy Law and let them see themselves as God sees them–a sinner who is bound for Hell. For this reason, evangelist Ray Comfort refers to the Ten Commandments as the Ten Cannons of God’s Law (See Hell’s Best Kept Secret: https://www.livingwaters.com/pdf/HellsBestKeptSecret.pdf). His motto is “Law to the proud and grace to the humble.”
Think about the setting in which the Israelites received the Ten Commandments. God had just rescued them out of bondage to Egypt (symbolic for how Jesus saves us from our sin), but before they could enter into the Promised Land (symbolic for Heaven), they had to pass by Mount Sinai (symbolic for the Law), where God made his wrath unmistakable:
“On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently.” (Exodus 19:16-18)
According to Rev. John Watson (aka Ian Maclaren), the Scottish Presbyterian Church elders used to ask prospective church members, “Have you been to Sinai?” The purpose of this question was to confirm that the person had seen the mirror of the Ten Commandments and behind it the thunder and lightning of God’s awesome judgement. Once the church elder was satisfied that the aspiring church member had been humbled by the Law, then he could be sure that the message of the cross would make sense to them.
In Mark 10:17-22, Jesus gave us a practical application of how to use the Law in evangelism:
- A rich young ruler asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. The man’s presupposition that he could earn salvation revealed his pride and self-righteous attitude.
- Jesus corrected this assumption by explaining that no one is good except God alone, and then He read through the second table of the Ten Commandments to make His point.
- An honest person would have admitted that they had not kept all of those commandments, but the ruler claimed that he had. Most likely he had broken at least one of the commandments and was simply justifying his actions. For example, he might have said to himself, “I only told one little white lie, and it was for a good cause.”
- Jesus lovingly told the man to sell all of his possessions, which was a test to see whether he was an idolater (breaking the second commandment).
- The man went away sad rather than sell his possessions, proving that he worshipped money above God.
Notice that Jesus didn’t share the gospel with the young man, because the man was unwilling to admit that he was a sinner who deserved God’s wrath. We are instructed not to cast our pearls before swine (Matthew 7:6), meaning that we shouldn’t waste our time sharing the good news of the gospel if someone refuses to admit his own guilt and need for a savior.