The Ten Commandments… they used to be well-known (having been memorised at Sunday School), but these days are rarely thought about or consciously adhered to. Even Christians tend to ignore them. Can a collection of Bronze Age sayings really be relevant to the modern world? Didn’t Jesus put an end to keeping the Law of Moses – including the Ten Commandments – anyway? What is so special about them?
Are they relevant?
I don’t think the Ten Commandments are at all arbitrary or outdated: they are rooted in the very nature of God, and they reflect the underlying moral structure of His creation. This is what Yahweh (in contrast to other gods) is like; so this is how His people (in contrast to unbelievers and pagans) should live. They embrace our thoughts (commands one and ten) and our words (commands three and nine) as well as our deeds – a fully comprehensive package.
In essence, they can be summed up in just two, endorsed by Jesus: “The most important commandment is this: ’Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’” (Mark 12:29-31) This is a most fundamental statement about what man’s relationship with God should be. For it was these two basic commandments that were broken by the first two recorded sins: Adam rebelled against God, breaking the first commandment, and then Cain murdered his brother Abel, thus breaking the second.
Although the Ten Commandments deal with the very basics of human attitudes and behaviour, they are not a universal moral code that can be imposed on the whole world. Rather, they describe the lifestyle of those who have been redeemed and therefore belong to God. A world that does not acknowledge the true God is not going to observe even the first commandment, let alone the other nine! Yet at the same time, they are not totally alien: laws against murder and theft are universal, and people in most cultures would agree that honesty, marital fidelity, and respect for parents are good ideals. By keeping them, then, we shall be holding up a ‘standard’ that all people, whatever their background, should be able to recognise and acknowledge as good.
Who are they for?
The Ten Commandments were not given ‘in a vacuum’ but immediately following a once-for-all experience of unearned and undeserved salvation – the Exodus. “I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” (Exodus 20:2) This opening sentence is not just a preamble; it is vital context. For it is because of what God has done for us that He has the right to command our allegiance and our obedience. When taken in its proper context, the law does not contradict God’s grace; it follows and presupposes grace.It is not a new form of bondage, but the blueprint for a really free life. To follow the Lord’s commands without first being redeemed would indeed be legalism. But for anyone who has been redeemed, to obey His commands is the normal – indeed the only logical – response. “If anyone loves Me (i.e. anyone who has had their sins forgiven – Luke 7:40-43), he will obey My teaching.” (John 14:23)
The same principle applies to Christians. “You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.” (Romans 6:18) Our justification is just the beginning of our new life with Jesus – a life that should reflect the nature of our Lord and Saviour. “Live a life worthy of the Gospel” is a refrain echoing throughout the New Testament. (e.g. I Thessalonians 2:12; Philippians 1:27; Ephesians 4:1) We are not called to impose Christian standards of behaviour on unbelievers, but to live them out in our own lives (which is hard enough, if we’re honest) and thus demonstrate the difference that being a Christian makes.
Are they for today?
Since Christians are ‘slaves of righteousness’ (Romans 6:18), then we must have a code of behaviour to live by. Otherwise, we are groping around in a moral mist, with only our consciences to guide us. And even with the help of the Holy Spirit, conscience is not infallible. Hence the many passages in the New Testament letters dealing with what is or isn’t appropriate Christian behaviour.
So have the Ten Commandments been superseded by the New Testament? Not exactly: the details of the Law may have been done away with, but the basic principles of holiness remain unchanged. Almost all of the Ten Commandments are explicitly endorsed in the New Testament, and so they cannot be dismissed as irrelevant or outdated. For example, Paul refers to most of them in Ephesians 4-6: preamble (4:1), three (4:30), five (6:1-3), six (4:31), seven (5:3), eight (4:28), nine (4:25,29) and ten (5:5).
How should we apply them?
The Ten Commandments were engraved on the two stone tablets that were placed in the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 34:28). They are the basis and summary of the whole of the rest of the Law (which can be understood as commentary and application). The Law of Moses amplified the basic ten commands into dozens (and eventually thousands) of prescriptive and often culturally focussed rules. Not only did the sheer number of rules eventually become burdensome, but many of them would be ridiculous if applied literally in a modern, industrial society. We Christians have to remember that we are not subject to the whole law of Moses (Acts 15:10,11). We need to go back to the basics and start again – but not in the same way. If we are not careful, we can simply replace one set of Bronze Age rules with another set of 21st-century rules – which would go out of date even more quickly!
In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:17-48), Jesus did not reject the Law; instead, He re-formulated it. He invites us to consider the underlying principles: each command is actually a practical application of a deeper truth. (For example, if you think that “You shall not murder” is just about killing, think again – Matthew 5:21,22) The law of the Spirit (Romans 8:2) takes us down into these deeper principles and thus writes God’s law on our hearts (Jeremiah 31:33).