The Ten Commandments is literally at the heart of the book of Exodus, coming in at chapter 20 of the books 40 chapters. It is obviously an important chapter of the book but whether it is the most important is a matter for debate. It’s quite possible that we place too much importance on the Ten Commandments while overlooking the general guiding principles that they should give us for life.
To begin with, these commandments are not just an important set of laws. This is a covenant between God and Israel. They are placed inside of the Ark of the Covenant, not the ark of the law or ark of the commandments. In Exodus 24 we see that the covenant is agreed to by the people.
We know that this covenant was recorded on two stone tablets but every depiction I’ve seen of the Ten Commandments is actually wrong. You always see the stone tablets with commandments 1-5 on one tablet and 6-10 on the other tablet. In fact there are two tablets because there are two copies of the covenant. Any time a covenant was made between two parties, there were two copies made, just as any modern contract today would do. The two stone tablets include a copy for the Israelites and a copy for God. As we might put an important document or contract in a safe deposit box today, this covenant is placed into the greatest safe deposit box in the universe – inside the Ark of the Covenant.
Now, what about the actual commandments? Obviously a lot can be said about each one and I won’t pretend to give an in depth treatment of each command. Instead I’ll start with a summary of them. This is a case where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. If you grasp the overall goal of the commandments the individual commands are essentially unnecessary.
Jesus was challenged about the law and asked what the greatest commandment was. It was a trap by the Jewish leaders but of course Jesus outwitted them in Matthew 22:34-40:
34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 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.”
The Ten Commandments can be broken down into two components – love God and love others. If we were capable of doing that unfailingly we wouldn’t need ten commandments because those things wouldn’t even cross our minds. But of course we can’t do that. The Ten Commandments serve as examples of what we need to avoid if we are to love God and love others.
With that in mind, let’s jump into the commandments by looking at the first four. The first four commandments concern our love for God. The first commandment tells us that we are to have no other gods before the Lord. This is relatively straight forward in the idea that God is to be number one in our life. It’s easy to think of this strictly in an idol worshipping kind of way but it obviously has just as much importance today. We make gods out of our job, out of television, and out of our other relationships. Any time that we put something ahead of God in importance, we make it into a god.
The second command tells us that we are to build no idols. This means that not only are we not to have any other gods ahead of the Lord, we aren’t to worship any other gods at all. When idolatry was prevalent as it was in this era, there were multiple gods. Despite the presence of multiple gods, one of them had to be the most important. God is more important than all of the other gods as He has just proven through the devastation He laid on Egypt with the ten plagues.
But it isn’t enough to just acknowledge God as more important and more powerful; there is nothing even comparable to Him. There is nothing else to even call a god compared to Him so there is nothing else that is to be worshipped. Because we don’t bow down to physical idols today it’s easy to miss the modern point on this command as well. It means that not only is God to be the most important in our lives, there’s nothing else that we should replace Him with. A person who states that they’re still putting God first in their lives by attending church 3 Sundays out of 4 while golfing the 4th Sunday would be violating this second command by still having idols.
The third command involves taking the Lord’s name in vain. We’ve reduced this command to not saying a certain two word phrase that gets bleeped out on television. And the saddest irony is that the word God is the part that is bleeped out, not the word that is offensive to many. But that completely misses the point of this command I believe.
Misusing God’s name is anything that makes a mockery of God. People may swear an oath using God’s name saying “so help me God” or something like that but if they have no intention of keeping that oath they take God’s name in vain. Perhaps the clearest case of taking God’s name in vain is one that most Christians never think about.
Christian has the name Christ right in it. It literally means “little Christ” or that we are considering ourselves to be Christ like when we call ourselves a Christian. Any Christian who calls themselves such and then does something completely un-Christ-like is making a mockery of Christ. This is a commandment that Christians violate far more often than they realize.
The fourth commandment is to keep the Sabbath holy. This is probably the most controversial of the commandments today because some claim that Jesus did away with this commandment. That is a debate that is outside of the scope of our explanation here.
For Moses and the Israelites, the fourth commandment was clear that they were to rest on the Sabbath day. If there was any confusion to this rule, the manna which God provided six days a week did not appear on the seventh day. By Jesus’ day the Jewish leaders had taken this rule and made it legalistic, losing the spirit of it. Today we have adopted the day of rest as a day of worship. Most Christian denominations no longer worship on the seventh day but on the first day of the week in recognition of Jesus’ resurrection. Although it doesn’t say it in the commandments, worship and rest have been closely linked for a long time.
These first four commands focus on our love for God which Jesus identified as the greatest commandment. The last six concern our love for others which is the second greatest commandment.
The fifth commandment tells us to honor our parents. This is the single most important relationship that we have with others. The family is something that God created in the very beginning. It isn’t a man made institution unlike other relationships that we may have.
The idea of honoring our parents is pretty straightforward. It doesn’t mean that we will always agree with our parents or do what they want us to do. As we become adults we must make our own decisions that may not please our parents. At the same time we must remain respectful of them even if we disagree.
There is one time when we may not honor our parents however. Luke 14:26 states, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. “
Jesus does not mean hate in the way that we think of hate. What He means is that sometimes we must make a decision between honoring family and honoring God. When that time comes, we must honor God above family. If you’re a Muslim who chooses to follow the Lord, this verse is very pertinent because you can’t honor your father and mother and follow Jesus. Just like in the order of the Ten Commandments, God comes first.
The sixth commandment is against murdering. Once again, this is pretty straight forward on its surface and it’s an idea that is accepted pretty much universally. Jesus, however, made it clear that murder is not just about our actions. We also murder people with our words whenever we attempt to cut them down. We can murder people with our attitudes when we dehumanize them and make them into anything less than someone who was created in the image of God.
Commandment number seven is against adultery. We know what adultery is but Jesus made it clear that even lustful thoughts towards one who isn’t our spouse is adultery. Guys obviously have a bad but well earned reputation for lust. Part of this is because we are visual creatures who are stimulated by our senses. But the truth is that lust is not strictly a burning desire that causes us to think of sex. Lust is longing for anything that is to be fulfilled within a marriage and wishing it to be fulfilled outside of marriage.
We think of lust and adultery in terms of sex because these are the most concrete ways of thinking. But we also have emotional needs that are fulfilled within a marriage relationship. Going to another to have those emotional needs fulfilled or longing to have those needs fulfilled is adultery as well, it just isn’t the physical form.
There have been numerous studies that have shown people who cheat on their spouses usually don’t do so starting out by looking for someone younger or better looking. Instead the relationship begins on the emotional side as they are seeking someone to talk to or get sympathy that they may not get at home. Even though we concretely think of adultery as sex, the issue is much more than that.
Number eight is that we shouldn’t steal. We know that stealing is taking something that doesn’t belong to us. Most people would never walk into a store and put something in their pocket and then walk out. But we justify not paying for things that we’ve received in other ways. The grocery store may not have charged us for an item and we don’t bring it to someone’s attention. We justify it by the fact that it wasn’t our fault and the store is still making plenty of money.
We may steal from our employer by our attitude towards work. We’re paid for eight hours of work but an hour each day may be spent chatting with coworkers about television and sending non-work related emails. Anytime we receive something that we didn’t pay for or earn – and the intention wasn’t to give it to us for free – we steal.
Commandment nine tells us not to lie. I’m not going to spend much time on this one because I probably don’t have much to add to what you’ve likely heard before. We all know the difference between the truth and a lie. Lies also come about when the whole truth is not given, when it is misrepresented, or when it was omitted. A lie is anything that we say that is an attempt at deception or a prevention of the whole truth coming out.
What I won’t get into are little white lies and things of that nature. We all know that the age old question “Does this dress make me look fat?” is a trap. It is not a question that wants an honest answer and certainly no man has been dumb enough to say, “No dear, the dress is fine, it’s your butt that makes you look fat.”
The tenth and final command is do not covet. I believe that this command is last because it is the beginning of a lot of sins. Why do people steal? Because they want something that someone else has. Why does adultery occur? Because someone has coveted another person who is not their spouse. You can break any of the other Ten Commandments because you first coveted something that wasn’t yours.
This is obviously a very brief breakdown of the Ten Commandments. I believe that our goal should not be to legalistically try to follow these commands because we can’t. That’s actually the point that the Jewish leaders never grasped and it is why they were in conflict with Jesus so much. This covenant is one that couldn’t be kept. A new covenant was needed and Jesus came to put it into effect.