These commandments show what God’s character is like — what he cares about and values, how he loves, and what he prioritizes. And they do so in order that God’s son — his people — will come to resemble and reflect him, to share his priorities and values, to join him in his loves and hates. In reflecting on the Ten Commandments, we’re seeking to understand the heart and character of our Father as he instructs us in how to live for our good and his glory.
Throughout the history of the church, the Ten Commandments have been central to Christian ethical reflection. Pastors and theologians have consistently gone back to the Ten Words, engraved on tablets at Sinai, in order to explore the breadth and depth of our obligations to God and to each other.
And while we know, as Christians, that we are not under the Old Testament law as a covenant, nevertheless, we also know that all Scripture, including the Ten Words, is God-breathed, and useful for teaching, correcting, rebuking, and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16).
What’s more, when Christian theologians have approached the Ten Commandments, they have often wrestled with various practical questions and provided some general rules to guide us as we think about the duties included within them. In this article, I attempt to provide a few simple observations and guidelines to help us as we approach the Ten Commandments for Christian ethics.
1. How are the commandments grouped?
First, structurally, we can divide the commandments up in two ways. On the one hand, theologians have often divided the laws into the first table of the law and the second table, based on Jesus’s words in Matthew 22 about the two greatest commandments.
According to Jesus, the greatest commandment is to love God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and the second greatest is to love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37–38). All of the Law and Prophets hang on these two.
Applying that to the Ten Commandments, we see that the first four commandments have to do especially with love for God (no other gods; no graven images; don’t bear the Lord’s name in vain; keep the Sabbath), and the last six have to do with love for neighbor (honor your father and mother; don’t murder; don’t commit adultery; don’t steal; don’t bear false witness; don’t covet). And so, theologians speak of the first table (love for God) and the second (love for neighbor).
On the other hand, we might divide the commandments in half (five and five) based on shared features in the text. The first five all contain the name of Yahweh, and each of them provides a motive for obedience. The last five do not. Reflecting on the different motives given for obedience can be illuminating. For example, the fourth commandment (concerning the Sabbath) is grounded in creation in Exodus 20, and in God’s deliverance of Israel from bondage in Deuteronomy 5.
2. What does each forbid — and require?
Though most of the commandments are given in the form of a negative (“You shall not . . .”), each commandment should be understood to have both a negative and a positive dimension: something it forbids and something it requires.
“You shall have no other gods before me” implies “Worship Yahweh alone.”
“You shall not make a graven image” implies “Worship Yahweh in the way that he requires.”
“You shall not take Yahweh’s name in vain” implies “You shall honor the name of Yahweh in your words and conduct.”
“Remember the Sabbath” implies “You shall not labor or make others labor.”
“Honor your father and mother” implies “Don’t disobey or disrespect authorities.”
“You shall not murder” implies “Respect and protect human life.”
“You shall not commit adultery” implies “Respect and protect marriage and sexuality.”
“You shall not steal” implies “Respect and protect other people’s property.”
“You shall not bear false witness” implies “Respect and protect the truth and the integrity of society.”
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, house, etc.” implies “Be content with what God gives to you.”
Recognizing the negative and positive dimensions of the commandments allows us to see that they are not narrow commands about particular actions. Instead, they are comprehensive in both breadth and depth. In breadth, they address the major aspects of human life in its totality — worship, representation, labor, life, marriage, property, societal integrity, and the satisfaction of the human heart. In depth, it’s clear that they don’t aim merely at external obedience. Rather, they aim at our minds, our hearts, and our actions.
When Jesus expounded upon some of the commandments in his Sermon on the Mount, he wasn’t adding additional laws; he was offering the true and proper interpretation of the law as God originally intended it.