The Bible and the 10 Commandments

Take a deeper look at the most famous laws in history.

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"Thou shalt not kill." "Thou shalt not commit adultery."

For centuries, the 10 Commandments have been among the most famous and most influential laws in Western culture -- usually referenced in the old King James Version, including all the "thous" and "shalts." Yet, like many parts of the Bible, it remains possible for people to be marginally aware of the 10 Commandments without understanding their larger purpose and application.

That's a shame, in my opinion. Therefore, let's spend a few moments taking a deeper look at the 10 Commandments -- including how they apply to people in today's world.

The Basics

The best place to read through the 10 Commandments in the Bible itself is Exodus 20. But they can also be found in a slightly different format in Deuteronomy 5.

To make sure we're all on the same page, here is a quick summary of all 10 commandments in more modern English:

  1. Do not follow any gods other than the true God.
  2. Do not make or worship idols.
  3. Do not take God's name in vain.
  4. Observe the Sabbath day by resting every seventh day.
  5. Honor your father and mother.
  6. Do not murder.
  7. Do not commit adultery.
  8. Do not steal.
  9. Do not lie.
  10. Do not covet what belongs to another.

The Context

As with any passage of Scripture, we need to be aware of the context if we want to have a proper understanding of the 10 Commandments. In this case, it's the immediate historical context that's most important -- meaning, the events that were occurring at the time the 10 Commandments were first written down.

The Book of Exodus tells the story of God's people being rescued from their slavery in Egypt -- through a number of incredible miracles, no less -- and their journey to Mt. Sinai to meet with God. This journey took about a year. At Sinai, the people were to receive instructions from God regarding how to live as His chosen people in the Promised Land He would provide for them.

(This was the land of Canaan.)

God explained as much at the beginning of Exodus 19:

Then Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain and said, “This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.”

It's important to remember that God did not meet directly with the Israelites as a whole. Rather, He gave His instructions and commands to Moses, who was the representative of the Israelites -- Moses served as a liaison or mediator between God and His people.

The 10 Commandments, then, were a major part of the instructions that God gave to Moses in order to serve as laws for His people.

It's also important to remember that the 10 Commandments were not the only commands or laws God gave to His people. Far from it. In fact, there are more than 600 different laws and instructions included in the Old Testament.

It's not easy to remember more than 600 laws, however, which is why the 10 Commandments were so important. They served as a kind of summary of the other laws, or perhaps even as a Table of Contents. Meaning, if the Israelites were able to follow the 10 Commandments, it was likely they would also be doing well in following the other 600 plus laws.

The 10 Commandments Today

One of the major questions people often ask regarding the 10 Commandments is whether they apply to Christians in the world today. The answer is yes for a number of reasons.

First of all, the 10 Commandments are part of God's "moral law" in the Old Testament. When Bible scholars look at the different commands contained in the Old Testament, they typically define them as belonging to the "moral law" or the "ceremonial law."

The ceremonial laws in the Scriptures are commands that relate to ritual cleanness or uncleanness among the Israelites.

Part of God's relationship with the Israelites involved His presence dwelling in the midst of the people -- specifically in the tabernacle and the temple. For that reason, God required that individuals keep themselves ceremonially clean in order to approach His presence. This need for cleanness applied to occasions such as skin diseases, blood flow, clean and unclean foods, and so on. When a person was unclean, he or she had to leave the camp in order to avoid tarnishing God's presence.

The moral law of the Old Testament included commands that were connected to sinful practices. These commands reflected the character of God Himself -- they helped the Israelites understand what was right and wrong.

Both the moral law and the ceremonial law were fulfilled through Jesus, according to His own words:

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.
Matthew 5:17-18

Because the law has been fulfilled, modern Christians are no longer bound to the ceremonial portions of the Old Testament. We do not need to remain "clean" in order to stand in God's presence -- we are always clean because of the death and resurrection of Christ.

Things are a bit different for the moral law, however. Because those laws are connected to God's character, they still have an impact on how we live as God's people. Therefore, modern Christians should certainly take the 10 Commandments seriously as a guide to what pleases and displeases God -- and we should choose our actions accordingly.

One final note. Just as the 10 Commandments themselves are a condensing of the entire Old Testament Law, Jesus did a bit of condensing in His own right. When asked which commandments in the law were most important, here's how He 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. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Matthew 22:37-40

Observant readers will note that the first four of the 10 Commandments are all connected with loving God. The final 6 commandments are connected with loving people. Therefore, Jesus' words in Matthew 22 are a poignant summary of the 10 Commandments, which are themselves a helpful summary of the entire law.

By loving God and loving others, then, we are perfectly in line with how God wants us to live as obedient followers of His Word.