I used to feel that the Ten Commandments were rather unapproachable and not very relevant to Christian life. I knew that I would not be able to perfectly follow the first few major commandments and that I would have a hard time fulfilling the deeper requirements of the others. But really I did not see how actively following them would help my life or increase my joy in God.
However, I now see that the Ten Commandments are really a basic expression of God’s good character and will. The Bible tells us that they were personally written on tablets of stone by God’s own finger (Ex 31:18, 34:28) The Ten Commandments are the core of the Law of Moses (Deu 4:13). Although we no longer should follow all the Old Testament laws in their entirety, we should be paying careful attention to how these special commands apply to us. Some teach that ‘grace’ means that we do not have to follow Old Testament law, but the New Testament does refer to the applicability of the Ten Commandments to us today (Mk 10:19, Rom 13:9-10). When Paul wrote that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16), he was referring to the Old Testament, not to the New Testament!
There are three basic ideas to keep in mind when we read the Ten Commandments:
- They are to be obeyed in our hearts so that the internal roots of our external actions are changed. We are to fulfill the spirit of the law, not just the letter of the law. Jesus talked at length about this in the Sermon on the Mount (Mat 5:17-48). The Tenth Commandment (“You shall not covet”) already tells us that God is concerned with heart attitudes, not just external actions. We should not even be wanting or seeking to break any of the Commandments. Our attitude to all the laws of God should be that of a joyful willingness to obey them from the heart (Rom 6:17) for God’s glory and for our own good.
- They are to be seen as not only applying to particular sins and actions, but representing whole categories of sins and actions in the same area. The great reformer John Calvin commented on the Fifth Commandment (“Honour your father and mother”), “By that subjection which is easiest to tolerate, the Lord therefore gradually accustoms us to all lawful subjection.” This means that the positive commands (those that tell us to do something) are stated in a way that would be easiest for us to accept. The Commandments should then be extended in scope to cover all similar commands. So when we are told to honour our parents, we should also submit ourselves to all lawful authority. On the other hand, the negative commands (those that tell us not to do something) state the most hateful and wrong examples of that whole category of wrongdoing, in order to shock us into appreciating how hateful and wrong all the sins in the category are. In response, we should turn away from even the minor manifestations of disobedience. For example, we should not only avoid committing adultery, but turn away from every category of sexual sin.
- Even the negative commandments guide us as to the right overall attitudes and actions to have towards others. They point to an opposite, positive fulfillment. So Calvin says of the Sixth Commandment (“You shall not murder”), “… we are required faithfully to do what in us lies to defend the life of our neighbour; to promote whatever tends to his tranquillity, to be vigilant in warding off harm, and, when danger comes, to assist in removing it.”
God does not command His people to do things without reasons. When He gave the Commandments to the Israelites at Sinai, He intended them for good. In the same way, we too will experience blessing and fulfillment when we obey the Ten Commandments rightly.