The Ten Commandments1
Introduction – The boundaries for living a blessed life: Today, the Ten Commandments should be studied as how to responsibly use your God-given liberty. In the Declaration of Independence, the founding fathers of the United States recognized that God was the source of their freedoms: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” As the founding fathers of America understood, God wants you to be free from tyranny and prejudice. Because God loves liberty, He gives you all free will. Yet, He also is a God of order. He does not want you to use your freedom to rebel against Him. He wants to bless you. But when we misuse your liberty to do evil, He may not do so. Adam and Eve had complete freedom. But they misused their freedoms and rebelled against God. The results were disastrous. Where are your boundaries within which to exercise your God-given freedom while still enjoying His blessings? The boundaries lie within the Ten Commandments.
Introduction – the forgotten boundaries of the Ten Commandments. Sadly, mankind’s knowledge of God’s Ten Commandments has gradually eroded over time. The early Jews understood that the Ten Commandments were so important that they recited them every day. That practice ended shortly after Jesus’ death. Although the exact reasons are disputed, some believe that the rabbis removed the Ten Commandments from the daily liturgy to dispute a claim by early Christians that God handed down only the Ten Commandments and not the rest of the law at Mount Horeb /Sinai. Although the daily reading of the Ten Commandments ended at that point, both Christians and Jews for centuries considered them central to their faiths. Many of the founding fathers in the United States openly embraced the use of the Ten Commandments in civil law. According to historian David Barton, all of the Ten Commandments were once incorporated into the laws of the original 13 Colonies. The only exception was Rhode Island. But it omitted only the first Four Commandments from its civil laws. Even today, the Ten Commandments are carved into a marble frieze above the heads of the U.S. Supreme Court justices. Yet, beginning in the 1960s, America began to rebel first against itself and then against any references to God and Biblical morality in public life. In 1980, after a long series of court battles, the United States Supreme Court held that it was unconstitutional to require public schools to post the Ten Commandments in each classroom (Stone v. Graham, 449 U.S. 39 (1980)). In 2005, the Supreme Court also held that a Kentucky court’s display of the Ten Commandments was also unconstitutional (McCreary County v. American Civil Liberties Union, 545 U.S. 844 (2005)). Although these rulings were not responsible for America’s ignorance of the Ten Commandments, they symbolized the increasing secularization and humanism that came to dominate American thought. But the greatest fault for the decline in our knowledge of the Ten Commandments lies with the Church, not the state. The Church has done little to ensure that its believers know the Ten Commandments the same way the early Church did. Amongst practicing believers, few today could recite all Ten Commandments. Even fewer could explain how they remain relevant and vital to our society. Hopefully, this study will challenge you to know the Ten Commandments and be able to explain to others why they are vital to society.
God’s covenant with His people: Although the Ten Commandments consist of many words, they are sometimes referred to as the Greek term “Decalogue” or “ten words”. The word Decalogue in Greek “δέκα λόγους” comes from the two root words for ten “δεκά” and word “λογος.” In the original Hebrew, the Ten Commandments “עשרת הדברות,” pronounced as Asereth ha-Dibroth, translate as “the ten words”, “the ten sayings” or “the ten matters.” Amongst the 603 other laws that Jews have counted in the Torah, the Ten Commandments are unique because they are the only laws “written with the finger of God.” (Ex. 31:18). The Ten Commandments represent His covenant for receiving the fullness of His blessings here on Earth. For non-believers, they also set forth the conditions for living eternal life with God in heaven as well. Although believers can never hope to live up to our side of the contract, Jesus paid the price for our breaches of this covenant. For a believer in Christ, God will honor His contractual promises in full. Unless we study the Ten Commandments, we have little reason to be thankful for what Jesus did for us. Without studying the Ten Commandments, we cannot fully appreciate how far we fall short of God’s terms and conditions for eternal life.
The wedding that wasn’t completed. In prior Hebrew culture, a couple entered into the wedding contract before they dwelled together. In Jeremiah 2:2, God tells us that He was betrothed to Israel. He was faithful to His bride (Ps. 18:25). He therefore implored the Jews to return to their husband: ‘“Return faithless people,’ declares the Lord, ‘for I am your husband.’” (Jer. 3:14). And at Mount Horeb, God made a marriage contract. The Jews accepted God’s marriage proposal: “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.” (Ex. 19:1-8). Yet, a wedding contract must be signed by a friend of the bride and a friend of the groom. Moses was a friend of the bride, Israel. But God did not allow him to sign the contract. Instead, Moses broke the Ten Commandments (Ex. 32:19). The sin that caused the people to break the wedding contract was spiritual adultery and idolatry. Rather than accepting their bridegroom and waiting on Him, they made for themselves a new bridegroom out of a golden calf (Ex. 32:24). Adultery is the one sin that Jesus said would justify divorce (Matt. 5:32). God then killed off the entire generation that sinned against Him in the wilderness. Only two witnesses to the contract, Joshua and Caleb, would be allowed to enter the Promised Land.
The new wedding proposal. Although God killed off the generation that broke the wedding contract, He extended the same contract to future generations of believers. When Moses repeated the Ten Commandments to the next generation in Deuteronomy, he did something intriguing. He emphatically stated that it was not their forefathers who received the covenant at Mount Horeb, it was them: “The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. The Lord did not make this covenant with our fathers, but with us, with all those of us alive here today. The Lord spoke to you face to face at the mountain from the midst of the fire, while I was standing between the Lord and you at that time, to declare to you the word of the Lord; for you were afraid because of the fire and did not go up the mountain.” (Dt. 5:2-5). Based upon Moses’ words, the Jews have taught for centuries that the covenant was made with every Jew who has ever lived, even those who were never there. In the same way, Christ paid for the sins of everyone, even the people who were born centuries later. All people need to do is believe in Him.
Extending the proposal to all the nations. In addition to making a wedding contract with the Jews, God wanted to offer this to other nations as well. This was to fulfill His covenant with Abraham (Gen. 15:5; 22:17; 32:12; Heb. 11:12). God gave the Jews the Ten Commandments because He wanted His people to be Holy (Ex. 19:6; Lev. 11:44; Is. 42:6). As a result of being holy, He expected the Jews to become a light to the rest of the world (Is. 49:6; 60:3). He wants us to be Holy as well (1 Pet. 1:16; 2:9). Through moral conduct based upon His law, we become a light to others (Dt. 4:5-6; Matt. 5:14). Conversely, we dishonor God and repel others when we break the law (Ro. 2:23-24).
The future wedding. Jesus will one day complete His marriage with His Church (Rev. 19:7-14). The bridegroom and the bride will then be able to dwell together (Rev. 20:4).
The guide posts of person protection. The number ten also symbolized God’s protection. God requires order. The Ten Commandments were kept inside the ark of the covenant (Ex. 25:16; Heb. 9:4). This symbolized the order required for God to be present. The tabernacle was protected with ten curtains (Ex. 26:1; 36:8). It was held up by boards that were to be exactly ten cubits in length (Ex. 26:16; 36:21). There were exactly ten pillars with ten sockets (Ex. 27:12; 38:12). These served as a barrier between man’s sin and God’s holy shekinah glory. Without these barriers of protection, the people would die (Ex. 33:20). The Ten Commandments therefore provided protection from our own sinful hearts by guiding our choices as free individuals. We all are given free will and liberty to live our lives as we choose. But only when we live within the guideposts of God’s protection will we enjoy the fullness of His blessings and His protection from the evil one. Stepping outside the protection of the Ten Commandments is like moving from the safe zone in a war area to an active area of combat. You might get lucky and escape the “fiery darts” of the evil one (Eph. 6:16). But chances are that you won’t.
The guideposts of protection for society. The Ten Commandments are also important to the protections of a society. They govern our vertical relationship with God and our horizontal relationships with each other. The first five Commandments govern our relationship and worship of God as a society. The last five, with the Fifth Commandment falling into both categories, govern our relationships with each other. They protect the bonds between generations, the Fifth Commandment, the greatest injury to a person, murder (the Sixth Commandment) and the greatest injury to the bonds within a family, adultery (the Sixth Commandment). The remaining Commandments are also crucial to, among other things, the protection of a legal system that promotes and protects commerce, (the prohibition against bearing false witness), the protection against theft and the protection against a host of self-destructive behaviors that flow from coveting.
God’s revelation of the need for salvation through Christ. The number ten also symbolized God’s complete revelation of the need for salvation through Christ. Through the Ten Commandments comes the knowledge of our sins (Ro. 3:20). God brought exactly ten plagues on Egypt. The ten plagues symbolized God’s judgment. The Egyptians symbolized the flesh and our old lives in bondage to sin. Like the Egyptians, we too have been judged under God’s law. Even Moses, the giver of the law, could not comply with it to enter the Promised Land. The people needed someone to atone for their sins. Again using the number ten, God revealed the answer to the Jews’ dilemma centuries before they even knew that they had a problem. Hidden in the names of the first ten generations from Adam to Noah, God revealed that He would send His son to die for the people’s sins. In Hebrew, each name has a meaning. The following is the translation of each of the first ten listed generations: (1) Man (Adam) [is] (2) appointed (Seth) (3) mortal (Enosh) (4) sorrow (Kennan) [but] (5) the blessed God (Mahalalel) (6) shall come down (Jarred) (7) teaching (Enoch) (8) His death shall bring (Mathuselah) (9) the despairing (Lamech) (10) comfort (Noah). Christ also confirmed His divinity as our savior. Exactly ten times in the Book of John, He revealed Himself as God.
God’s revelation of faith. The Ten Commandments also reveal our need for faith in God as we are tested with our willingness to comply with them. Abraham had ten trials of faith. These include: (1) his willingness to leave his old life in Haran behind, (2) his flight to Egypt from the famine, (3) the Egyptian king’s seizure of Sarah, (4) his willingness to fight for Lot and the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, (5) his taking in Hagar, (6) his circumcision, (7) the second seizure of Sarah at Gerar, (8) the expulsion of Ishmael, (9) the expulsion of Hagar, and (10) the offering of Isaac. Ten also reveals faith in other portions of the Bible. The Lord’s Prayer, for example, has exactly ten parts.
“I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before Me.” (Ex. 20:2-3; Dt. 5:6-7).
To many people, the First Commandment may seem like the easiest commandment to obey. The formal worship of multiple deities is mostly limited to Hinduism and the remaining indigenous religions of the world. For those who accept that God exists, most people have accepted that only one God exists, even if they disagree as to who He is. But the First Commandment governs more than the formal worship of a deity. It governs who you serve with your time, talents, thoughts, and treasures. According to the Apostle Paul, we are slaves to whatever we serve: “Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness?” (Ro. 6:16; Gal. 4:7-9). Jesus also explains that “for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matt. 6:21; Lk. 12:34). Paul also tells us not to trust in our riches but in the God who provides them: “Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy.” (1 Tim. 6:17). In other words, if your heart is focused on your money, yourself, success, reputation, or something else, that is your “god.” Thus, an atheist, a humanist, a secularist, or a carnal believer are all just as guilty of breaking this Commandment as the person who worships a pagan god. Once we understand and accept this, we must come to accept that the First Commandment is both the hardest commandment to obey and the one that we most frequently break. With the struggles and stresses of life, keeping God at the center of your life requires constant effort. Ask God to reveal if your “treasure” is with Him or if it lies in prestige, recognition, work, money, family, lust, or something else. If God is the focus of your life, how often do the stresses and struggles of the world overtake Him?
Satan was the first to break the First Commandment. He loved his own beauty as an archangel so much that he sought to have others worship him (Is. 14:12-14; Ez. 28:14-19). He later tried to tempt Jesus with the world by asking that Jesus worship Satan (Matt. 4:9-10; Lu. 4:7-8). Satan’s tool is deceit: “Beware that your hearts are not deceived, and that you do not turn away and serve other gods and worship them.” (Dt. 11:16; 30:17). He lied to Eve by promising her that she could become “like God” if she ate from the tree of life in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:4-5). Throughout the Bible, he has tried to entice God’s people to turn from God by worshiping other gods, idols, or other men (e.g., “Baal” and Ashtaroth - Judges 2:13-15; 10:6-14; Dan. 3:5-18; “the creation” Ro. 1:25). During the end times, Satan will again seek to have others worship him (Rev. 13:8-12). The day of judgment will come after Satan again “exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, displaying himself as being God.” (2 Thess. 2:1-4).
Many people serve God intensely. Yet, our service to God is frequently divided. Once we understand that God will not accept divided allegiances, we realize how frequently we fall short in complying with this commandment: “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Matt. 6:24; Lk. 16:13). “You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” (Jam. 4:4). “For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ.” (Gal. 1:10). “[B]ecause the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so,” (Ro. 8:7). “And Elijah came near to all the people and said, ‘How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal is god, then follow him.’ And the people did not answer him a word.” (1 Kings 18:21). “If it is disagreeable in your sight to serve the LORD, choose for yourselves today whom you will serve: whether the gods which your fathers served which were beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.” (Josh. 24:15). Are you divided in your heart between the things of God and the things of the world? Do you seek recognition, wealth, or power for yourself? If so, you are “double minded” in your faith, and you have fallen short of the First Commandment.
The First Commandment has always been about love. Before stating that they must have only one God, God reminded the people that He loved them enough to bring them out of bondage from Egypt (Dt. 5:6; Ex. 20:2). While the Jews traditionally quote the reference to Egyptian bondage when quoting the First Commandment, both Protestants and Catholics traditionally drop this preceding verse when quoting the First Commandment. As a result, the love behind the commandment is sometimes lost on people. God did not want their worship merely because He is an abstract God. He wants their worship because He loves them. Once we understand this, Jesus’ summary of the first half of the Ten Commandments makes more sense. A Pharisee lawyer once sought to test Jesus. He asked Jesus to name the greatest Commandment (Matt. 22:34-35). Jesus responded by quoting Moses to identify the “greatest” commandment: “You shall love the Lord God with all your heart, and all your soul and with all your mind.” (Matt. 22:35-38; Dt. 6:4-9; 10:12-13; Ex. 20:1-8). Although this may sound easy at first, Jesus warns that your heart lies in what you “treasure” in life. Because love comes from God, it is the only kind of love that endures: “[F]or love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.” (1 Jo. 4:7-8). If we love God, we will want to keep His commandments out of love: “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments ; and His commandments are not burdensome.” (1 Jo. 5:3). Jesus’ test for you is whether you love God with all your heart, soul, and mind. Would you pass this test? Or, do you at times love other things more than God?
Before Jesus came, God condemned the Jews for turning their worship of Him into mindless ritual: “I hate, I reject your festivals, Nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies.” (Amos 5:21; same Is. 66:3). Jesus also warned that if we worship Him out of ritual or based upon the doctrines contrived by mankind, we worship Him in “vain”: “But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.” (Mark 7:7). Paul attempted to have people worship with their hearts by freeing them from obligation to follow the dietary and certain other Old Testament laws. Yet, Gallio, the proconsul of Achaia, brought Paul before the judgment seat and accused him “persuad[ing] men to worship God contrary to the law.” (Acts 18:12-13). Are you showing up to church on Sundays out of ritual? Do you feel like you are going through the motions when your church observes major holidays like Christmas and Easter? Do you mouth the words of worship songs? Do you quickly repeat the Lord’s Prayer without thinking about what you are saying? All of these things constitute worthless rituals.
While many may be comfortable with generic prayer references to “God,” the prayers become controversial if they include Jesus’ name. There is only one God (Dt. 32:39; Is. 43:10; 44:6, 8; 45:5). Yet, Jesus is equal to the Holy Spirit and God the Father: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the one who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” (Rev. 22:13). “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am.” (Jo. 8:58-9; 10:30, 38). “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . . and the Word became flesh.” (Jo. 1:1-3, 14). When Jesus made a post-resurrection appearance to Thomas, the disciple worshiped Him by calling Him: “my Lord and my God.” (Jo. 20:28). Paul also worshiped Jesus as the Creator of all things (Col. 1:16-17). The wise men also came to “worship” Jesus at His birth (Matt. 2:2). When you pray out loud, do you include Jesus’ name? Or, do you remove His name from your prayers so as not to offend others around you?
As society has become informal in work and in relationships, the modern Church has tried to adapt to meet people where they are. If you want to be informal about everything in life, surely God must be fine with that in our worship as well. But the Bible tells us to be reverent in our worship: “Worship the LORD with reverence and rejoice with trembling.” (Ps. 2:11). “Come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the LORD our Maker.” (Ps. 95:6). “Worship the LORD in holy attire; tremble before Him, all the earth.” (Ps. 96:9). “Exalt the LORD our God and worship at His footstool; Holy is He.” (Ps. 99:5). “Exalt the LORD our God and worship at His holy hill, for holy is the LORD our God.” (Ps. 99:9). “Let us go into His dwelling place; let us worship at His footstool.” (Ps. 132:7). “For great is the Lord and greatly to be praised; He is to be feared above all gods. (Ps. 96:4). Jesus began the Lord’s prayer by referring to God the Father’s Holy name: “Our Father who is in heaven, Hallowed be Your name.” (Matt. 6:9). Are you reverent in your worship? Do you refer to God as being holy, awesome, or powerful in your prayers? Do you dress appropriately for church?
Worship is also a time to give thanks and acknowledge that all that is good in your life comes from God (Ja. 1:17). He loved us so much that He sent His son to die for us and to give us eternal life (Jo. 3:16). “Let them give thanks to the LORD for His loving-kindness, and for His wonders to the sons of men! For He has satisfied the thirsty soul, and the hungry soul He has filled with what is good.” (Ps. 107:8-9). ‘“Now behold, I have brought the first of the produce of the ground which You, O LORD have given me.’ And you shall set it down before the LORD your God, and worship before the LORD your God” (Dt. 26:10). “Nebuchadnezzar responded and said, ‘Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego, who has sent His angel and delivered His servants who put their trust in Him, violating the king's command, and yielded up their bodies so as not to serve or worship any god except their own God.”’ (Dan 3:28; Zec. 14:16). “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for He is good . . He has redeemed from the hand of the adversary . . Let them also offer sacrifices of thanksgiving, and tell of His works with joyful singing.” (Ps. 107:1, 2, 22; 116:1, 17-18). In “everything”, you are to “give thanks.” (1 Thess. 5:18; Phil. 4:6). Do you regularly thank God for all that is good in your life? Or, do you take credit for your accomplishments?
God will not withhold any good thing from you when you walk uprightly (Ps. 84:11; 19:7). Yet, failing to worship God as He requires will only lead to sorrow and heartache in your life. For the unsaved, the penalty for worshiping other gods is death (Dt. 13:6, 10; 17:2, 6; Ex. 22:20). “It shall come about if you ever forget the LORD your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I testify against you today that you will surely perish.” (Dt. 8:19). “So they forsook the LORD and served Baal and the Ashtaroth. The anger of the LORD burned against Israel . . .” (Jdgs. 2:13-15). “Then the sons of Israel again did evil in the sight of the LORD, served the Baals and the Ashtaroth . . . The anger of the LORD burned against Israel, and He sold them into the hands of the Philistines . . . so that Israel was greatly distressed . . .” (Jdgs. 10:6-14). “But if you or your sons indeed turn away from following Me, and do not keep My commandments and My statutes which I have set before you, and go and serve other gods and worship them, then I will cut off Israel . . .” (1 Kings 9:6-7; Ex. 20:5; Dt. 5:9). If you seek fulfillment in things other than God, God may remove His protections from you. False gods will inevitably disappoint. Only worshiping God will give you the peace that surpasses all understanding (Phil. 4:7).
As you study the First Commandment, your sins will become known to you (Ro. 3:20; 7:7). The law is a mirror that reflects your sins (Jam. 1:22-25). Our God is “jealous” of anything that draws you from Him (Ex. 34:14; Dt. 5:9). “You shall not worship their gods, nor serve them, nor do according to their deeds; but you shall utterly overthrow them and break their sacred pillars in pieces.” (Ex. 23:24). “They cried out to the LORD and said, ‘We have sinned because we have forsaken the LORD and have served the Baals and the Ashtaroth ; but now deliver us from the hands of our enemies, and we will serve You.”’ (1 Sam. 12:10). Your study of the law should also make clear you can never fulfill it on your own. Only through your redeemer Christ is your salvation possible (Ro. 3:9-12; Gal. 2:16; 2:21; 3:23-24). Is there any area that you are convicted to repent of where your worship is divided, irreverent, or ungrateful? Have you given thanks to Jesus that, because of Him, your prior transgressions of the First Commandment will not cause you to lose your salvation?
Moses judges the Jews for breaking God’s Commandments2