The Ten Commandments–A Brief Helpful Introduction

“The Ten Commandments”
(See Exodus 20:2-17)

ABC news correspondent Ted Coppell once said, “What Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai were not the Ten Suggestions, they are Commandments. Are, not were. The sheer brilliance of the Ten Commandments is that they codify, in a handful of words, acceptable human behavior. Not just for then or now but for all time.”

The Ten Commandments are presented to us in Scripture this way:

1. They were given by God.

“And God spoke all these words…” (Exodus 20:1)

Like it or not, if you strip the presence of the “God who speaks” from the ethical values of the Ten Commandments, they lose moral power. Ethics without God is just one man’s (or philosophy’s) opinion against another’s.

2. They were given by God to his chosen people.

“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 house of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel’” (Exodus 19:3)

While the whole human race benefits by obeying these commands, and while a society benefits when these commands are inculcated into its culture (respect for life, respect for parents, respect for property, etc.), as a “set of commands” they are an inseparable feature of God’s covenant relationship to his people. Thus, a secular society misses the point if it tries to post The Ten Commandments in public classrooms or on monuments as a moral code.

3. They were given by God to his chosen people whom he had saved by his grace.

“You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself” (Exodus 19:4).

The people were to obey these commands not so they gain salvation, but because they have already experienced salvation (deliverance from slavery). The Ten Commandments, properly understood, cannot be pitted against the forgiving grace of God and life under the grace of God.

4. They were “covenant expectations”.

“Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession…a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6; see 1 Peter 2:9).

Israelites were to obey the commandments not as a condition for entering a special relationship with God, but to continue in the blessings and benefits of that relationship. Departing from the commandments means hardship, loss, pain and bondage—no matter how good things once were when the commands were held high.

5. They are further explained in “case law” – how they should apply in specific situations. (See especially Exodus 21-23)

“A thief must certainly make restitution” (Exodus 22:3). Imagine how this principle would impact the cause of justice if it were widely applied!

“If a thief is caught breaking in and is struck so that he dies, the defender is not guilty of bloodshed. But if it happens after sunrise, he is guilty of bloodshed” (Exodus 22:2). Not all killing is murder—people may justifiably defend lives and property. But you cannot kill a thief in just any situation.

“Anyone who strikes a man and kills him shall surely be put to death. However, if he does not do it intentionally…he is to flee to a place I will designate. But if a man schemes and kills another man deliberately, take him away from my altar and put him to death” (Exodus 21:12-14). This shows many principles: (1) when a society executes a murderer, that act of killing is not itself an act of murder; (2) if a killing is unintentional, the person who caused the death is not treated as a murderer; (3) premeditated murder is the primary prohibition in the commandment “You shall not kill”.

Telling the truth? “Do not spread false reports… When you give testimony in a lawsuit, do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd, and do not show favoritism to a poor man in his lawsuit” (Exodus 23:1-2). “Do not bear false witness” is obeyed through nurturing a strong passion for truth.

Respecting property rights? Obedience to the “do not steal” commandment has its positive side: you must do what you can to restore property that the owner has lost—even if you don’t particularly like the guy (“your enemy”)! See Exodus 23:4.

6. Human nature tries to justify breaking the commandments through moral chicanery, tricks, traditions, qualifications and justifications.

“God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’… But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition” (Jesus’ teaching on observing Law over tradition in Matthew 15:4-6).
7. In Bible times, prophets and teachers of the Law (supremely Jesus) applied The Ten Commandments to new situations and called for them to be kept sincerely and correctly from the heart. Every generation of those who claim to know God has to apply them to new situations without departing from their original intent.

The Ten Commandments must be applied afresh even as people find new and creative ways to break them. In fact, in our rapidly changing world, they need to be renewed each decade, to see if we are keeping them as God intended.

By all means, learn and live The Ten Commandments!

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