What are the Ten Commandments?

Last updated on November 10, 2021

Ten Commandments

When speaking about the Old Testament or about God’s will for humans, often the term “Ten Commandments” appears. But what is the meaning of these Ten Commandments and what are they about?

Historical background

The history of Israel as a nation started when God rescued them out of the land of Egypt, out of the place of slavery. God had promised to guide them towards the land of Canaan, which had been promised to their ancestors as an everlasting possession (see e.g. Genesis 17:8).

But before they entered this land, God established a covenant with the Israelites. The Ten Commandments are the terms of this covenant. They contain the basic principles that are further explained and worked out in the Bible books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These basic rules were written down on two tablets of stone, and carefully kept in the most holy place of the tabernacle (later the temple) (Exodus 34:4; 34:28; Deuteronomy 10:5; 1 Kings 8:9).

The layout of the Ten Commandments

As the name makes clear, there are ten commandments. These are preceded by an introduction: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). In this introduction, God presents Himself as a personal God, the Lord of Israel. This is explained in a reference to His major act of salvation for Israel: their exodus out of Egypt. This introduction provides the background for God’s laws.

The first and second commandment are about God’s uniqueness and incomparability. The third is about treating God’s name with respect, and the fourth is about keeping the Sabbath – a time of rest and celebration to reflect upon God and his works. The last six commandments are more interpersonal in nature, they are about people’s attitude towards other humans.

The actual text of the Ten Commandments

  1. You shall have no other gods before me.
  2. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.
  3. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.
  4. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
  5. Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
  6. You shall not murder.
  7. You shall not commit adultery.
  8. You shall not steal.
  9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
  10. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.

(Exodus 20:3-17, numbers added for clarity.)

The meaning and purpose of the Ten Commandments

Throughout Israel’s history, these Ten Commandments should form the legal, moral and spiritual foundation of the nation’s life. They were Israel’s institution. But there was more to it, since those commandments were the terms of Israel’s covenant with God. Failing to obey them thus was not just a problem for society, but also for the personal and communal relationship with God. And it is clear that nobody ever managed to obey these commandments fully all of his life. “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins” (Ecclesiastes 7:20).

It is impossible to earn God’s favor and your own salvation by obeying these commandments. But the Ten Commandments do help people gain insight in the problem of their sinful hearts (Romans 3:20). That should bring them to repentance, it should motivate them to ask God for forgiveness (Psalm 32:5). The apostle Paul concludes: “So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:24). Even before Jesus Christ had actually come to earth, the Israelites were saved not by obedience to God’s commandments but by faith in Jesus .

Jesus fulfilled the law

The laws of the Old Testament have been fulfilled by Jesus (Matthew 5:17-19). They pointed forward to Him, and have been perfectly obeyed by Him.

Therefore, Christians no longer live under the “yoke” of the law, but in the freedom of Christ (Galatians 5:1). Paul explains further: “Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Galatians 5:13-14).

Because we are freed from the power of sin, the Holy Spirit now enables us to actually live a God pleasing life more and more.

The Ten Commandments function as a mirror

Believers nowadays thus need not obey the Old Testament laws anymore.

But their function as a mirror is still helpful to make us see how awful sin actually is. Like Paul states: “If it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, You shall not covet” (Romans 7:7). Naturally, we tend to underestimate our own sinfulness and not realize its seriousness. The Ten Commandments can help us overcome that problem.

The Ten Commandments function as a guide

Moreover, these commandments show God’s eternal and infinite will and wisdom. This same will and wisdom is expressed in New Testament sayings of Jesus and in various letters. After all, these are “written” by the same God!

Although the Ten Commandments are not copied literally in the New Testament, we find many similar commandments, e.g. “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:19-24).

Keeping God’s commandments will bring about a blessing, both personally and as a society. If everybody would follow these Ten Commandments, this would result in a perfectly harmonious and peaceful world. God shows us the right way to live as Christians, until we will finally reach perfection when we are eternally united with Him.

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