The 10 Commandments are more than a list of instructions for righteous living. They tell a story that starts in a garden with God trying to find the first couple hiding in their sin. It follows chaos and flood and restoration. With Abraham, there was a revelation as God forms his covenant to make a great nation. How do the 10 Commandments say all this? Sure, on the surface, they are simply 10 rules to follow, but our God doesn’t simply hurl down rules to follow without forming a relationship. Instead, we are in a passion story–one of creation and redemption after our fall. We know it well. Let’s see God’s story afresh as we work out this ultimate guide to the 10 Commandments.
The Ultimate Guide To The 10 Commandments
The Israelites made it. Under the leadership of Moses and the providence of a God who finally heard their prayers after 400 sun-baked years in Egypt, they made it out. They traveled by day and night to do it, under the ever present guide of a cloud and pillar of fire, but they made it beyond Egypt’s stronghold. They saw the Red Sea open up and then fall in on Pharaoh’s army. Moses built an altar on the other shoreline with 12 rocks for the 12 tribes of Israel. The provisions of God were sure. Even in the turmoil of doubt, manna and quail came from heaven, and water burst open from the belly of a rock. And now they rested in the shadow of God’s mountain, a mountain where Moses climbed to commune with God. Of all people, Moses came closest to God. When he came down with the commandments of God, his face glowed with a brilliant light, so much so that he had to put a veil on his face to soften the brightness (Exodus 34:29-35). We get a glimpse of the intimacy he had with God at the end of Moses’s life when we are told that God buries Moses, himself (Deuteronomy 34).
God prepared Moses from birth. Who knew back then, when Pharaoh’s daughter named him Moses because she brings him out of water (Exodus 2:10), that he would cross the Red Sea in the power of God, a sea that caves in and drowns so many Egyptians? God knew. Moses escapes the slaughter of Israelite boys and grows up in the household of the most powerful leader in the world. It seems to be God’s plan to teach Moses about how to lead people. We don’t know exactly what Moses’s responsibilities were in Egypt since the story moves from his birth to adulthood in just 11 verses in Exodus 2, but we can assume that his time in Pharaoh’s court made a lasting impression on him, especially when he returns and sees the Pharaoh’s stubborn want to keep his pride and maintain control in the face of plague after plague.
The intimate relationship between Moses and God begins in Midian, on the mountain of Hebron which was known for being God’s mountain, where Moses sees the burning bush. In all likelihood, similar to Eli’s influence on Samuel, Jethro, a local priest and the one who becomes Moses’s father-in-law is instrumental in teaching Moses to listen for God. When he sees the bush, he steps into the moment with curiosity, expectation, and faith. In Exodus 3, Moses simply says, “Here I am,” when God calls to him. It’s the start of a relationship that grows more and more endearing during Moses’ 120 years of life.
Like all of us, Moses is far from flawless. If you recall, two versions of the commandments are forged in stone. The first is by God’s hand, but in anger at the sight of the atrocities of Aaron and the people dancing around the golden calf, Moses smashes the tablets (Exodus 32). Moses is very angry and God is, too. But do you remember that Moses burns down the golden calf into golden ash and spreads it onto the water? He then forces all the Israelites to drink it. Not only that, the tribe of Levi is commissioned to kill 3,000 of the men of Isreal because of their sin, thus anointing the Levites as the priestly tribe. Not only that, but God sends a plague on the Israelites as a result of their sin. The second set of tablets are chiseled out by Moses himself, who goes back up the holy mountain to commune with God for 40 days and finally bring down the tablets of commands (Exodus 34).
The 10 commandments are presented in Exodus 20 and again in Deuteronomy 5, which is a retelling for the generation readying for the Promised Land. The commandments are divided into two main categories. Commands 1-6 are about our relationship with God, while commands 7-10 are about our relationship with each other. So, we have a people who have experienced God in mighty and terrifying ways as they exit Egypt, and with the help of Moses as their conduit to God, they receive instructions on how to be faithful as God’s chosen people. It’s an important time of training before they enter the Promised Land and create the kingdom of Israel. And nearly every step of the way, they disobey each and every command, including doubting God, fashioning idols to worship, lying, stealing, coveting, and murder. Only a small remnant, people like Joshua and Caleb, continue a line of faithfulness into the Promised Land.
So, why these commands? They are to identify the Israelites as people of the one true God, as they leave Egypt and enter into the land God promised Abraham. They are the outward marks of a heart surrendered to God. In Ezekiel, we read, “I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh that they may walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God” (11: 19-20). Romans 13 also sums up nicely the commands. It’s an echo of Jesus in John 13, and it’s the passage that brings Augustine to his knees and radically reshapes his life. Paul says, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law (8-10).
Let’s look at each command individually to see what we can draw out.
1. Don’t have any other gods
“Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” – Exodus 20:3 (King James Version)
“You must not have any other god but me.” – Exodus 20:3 (New Living Translation)
This seems easy when we simply package this command as a rebuke of an idol of some former pantheistic culture, but if we reduce the command to only include this particular offense, the command loses the poignancy it should have for us. It’s the first command for a reason. Joy Davidman, C.S. Lewis’s wife, and author of Smoke on the Mountain contends that we are worse off than those before us. She says, “The ancient image worshipers were, at least, worshiping something, not themselves, a Power greater than themselves; they were trying in their limited way to make an image of God, and when the image proved faulty they could break it and make a better one…. But the false gods of today are things of the spirit…. The beast in the heart is always the self.” She goes on to say, “The modern monotheist is frequently adoring his own image in the mirror.”
The god for us is more sinister because it doesn’t reach beyond our own nose. I John 2:16 says it clearly: “For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world.” The world continually bombards us with messages of self-preservation, but Jesus says if we want to save our lives, we will lose them. In other words, when we place anything (usually ourselves or our own interests and life plan) before God, we are making it an idol. No other Gods. Period. No exceptions.
2. Don’t make an idol of any kind
“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” – Exodus 20:4 (King James Version)
“You must not make for yourself an idol of any kind or an image of anything in the heavens or on the earth or in the sea.” – Exodus 20:4 (New Living Translation)
This seems easy and a bit redundant to the first command. Why mention it separately? If God says not to worship any other god, doesn’t that include carved ones? And, besides, like I already mentioned, we don’t have a problem with carved images these days. That was a long time ago.
The first and second commands are companions. The second points to something a bit more nuanced than the blanketed first command. God knows the heart of man, that evil entered in at the Fall and blackened us. We would rather fashion a god we can see like Aaron did with the golden calf than worship the living God. We’d rather put our confidence in our church’s cult of personality than be motivated by the Holy Spirit. We’d rather consume gadgets and waste hours and hours on social media while only praying occasionally.
3. Don’t take the name of God in vain
“Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.” – Exodus 20:7 (King James Version)
“You must not misuse the name of the Lord your God. The Lord will not let you go unpunished if you misuse his name.” – Exodus 20:7 (New Living Translation)
What does it mean to take God’s name in vain? Does it mean the flippant uses that are so readily employed in entertainment? That’s certainly part of it, but it’s not the complete picture. Consider this: for orthodox Jews, the name of God cannot even be written out. He’s too holy; he’s too unapproachable. It’s a level of reverence that aims at this command in much more strident ways that many of our churches who evoke Jesus’ name, especially, in very casual ways. But the command is likely addressing the heart and prompting us to approach God with fear and trembling.
Psalm 2:11 says we ought to serve the Lord with fear and trembling. Philippians 2:12 says we should work out our salvation with fear and trembling. There’s a reason why the priest who yearly went into the Temple to make atonement for the sins of the people had a rope around his ankle. What if God struck the priest down? It would certainly be God’s prerogative to do it. The command to keep our lips pure of vain talk is readying us for the kingdom of God, preparing us to physically enter the throne room of God that now we can only enter spiritually.
4. Keep the Sabbath day holy
“Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.” – Exodus 20:8 (King James Version)
“Remember to observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” – Exodus 20:8 (New Living Translation)
The first thing God ordains as holy is time; it’s the Sabbath. The other days of the week are governed by the Sabbath, not the other way around. More than any other commandment, this one is about memory. A Sabbath rest is not only one that frees us from labor, it reunites us with God’s faithfulness. When God rested on the seventh day, creation remained sustained in the good work of God. He alone holds up the four corners of the sky. He alone is the giver of life. We live on borrowed breath. In addition to the general scope of God’s faithfulness in preserving us, the Sabbath specifically oriented the Israelites to the story of Exodus, the story of God’s providence to make good on the promise given to Abraham.
Just like other commands, Jesus reshapes our understanding of the Sabbath. In Matthew 12, he picks grain with his disciples on the Sabbath because they were hungry. The Pharisees criticized him for working on God’s holy day. Jesus responds with a refrain we hear throughout Scripture: “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.” When he then goes on and heals the man with the withered hand, he says, “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”
The Sabbath changes from Saturday to Sunday when Christianity breaks out from being a sect of Judaism to something more, a fulfillment of it. Much like the Jewish people who still gather on Saturday to remember God’s faithfulness, most Christians gather on Sunday to celebrate the Incarnation of God in Christ Jesus, his death and resurrection. When we desecrate the Sabbath day by fulfilling our own desires, we are telling God we don’t need him. We can order our own week, take things into our hands. Some may want a written rule to not frequent restaurants or not to work on home repair or other kinds of work, but this lands us into the same trouble as the Pharisees. If we are manipulating the Sabbath, if we are bending and shaping it to benefit us rather than using the time to open our week in devotion to the living God, we’ll know it. If we are relying on an hour service time to make right our Sabbath rest, we’ll know it. We’ll know we’re not keeping this day as holy, set apart for God as the governor of every day that follows. We’ll know it because our lack of care and honesty and love of God will show in our actions throughout the week.
5. Honoring father and mother
“Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.” – Exodus 20:12 (King James Version)
“Honor your father and mother. Then you will live a long, full life in the land the Lord your God is giving you.” – Exodus 20:12 (New Living Translation)
Honoring parents is the first of four commands about our relationships with each other. Honor is a deeply rooted characteristic. This means high respect, esteem, and looking outside our own self-worth to the ones who might know us better. There are clear challenges to honoring father and mother, especially as the time becomes more and more broken, and the nuclear family along with it. In the case of abuse or abandonment, sinful unions or single-parent households, the command doesn’t go away. It doesn’t adjust to meet our desires to give up the honor God asks us to keep. However, in Jesus, we know there’s mercy and patience as he molds us into a new creation.
The Scripture is packed full of slimy, sneaky, ungrateful, sinful fathers and mothers (but usually fathers). There is never an excuse or exit door to ignore this command. We certainly have many examples of people not adhering to it and the result is an ongoing brokenness and a sea of regret. Our parents, however devilish they may be, provide a start to reconciliation and right living with God, one of forgiveness and dependency.
6. Don’t murder
“Thou shalt not kill.” – Exodus 20:13 (King James Version)
“You must not murder.” – Exodus 20:13 (New Living Translation)
Murder is wrong. It was wrong with the Israelites, wrong with Hammurabi, wrong with every culture everywhere. It’s one of the commands that reflects the inward pulse we all have toward conscience and being made in the image of God. Cain is the first murderer in the Bible. He knew it was wrong to take Abel’s life well before God comes looking for him. Murder steals away the plans of God because it steals away the breath God grants. It places us in the position to decide and judge another person.
When Jesus expands our understanding of this command to include our hatred toward another person, we see more fully how disobedience to this command places us as judge and jury for whomever we’re hating. We don’t hold the person up as an immortal creature made in the image of God. Instead, we dismantle the person through our own propped up superiority. Like the other commands, there are no exceptions here. If we are being made into people who will inhabit the kingdom of God one day, we may have very, very difficult situations, but the answer is always opposite of hate. We are to love, and by our love, the world will know that we are not our own. Rather, we’ve been bought with a price, the death of Jesus, when all the hatred that ever was or would be was hurled up and nailed to a cross.
7. Don’t commit adultery
“Thou shalt not commit adultery.” – Exodus 20:14 (King James Version)
“You must not commit adultery.” – Exodus 20:14 (New Living Translation)
Similar to the command not to murder, Jesus enlarges this command to include lustful thoughts. He says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell” (Matthew 5:27-30).
Sexual sin, whether it be physical or mental, carries destruction with it. It dehumanizes the other person and it robs us of an intimacy only found in marriage. Remember, like the other commands, the sin is simply a reshaping of something that God intended for good. God intended the sexual union of husband and wife because it forges in us a bond that is deeper than any other human bond (or should). When we abuse this through flagrant or private sins, we displace the right for the wrong, the good for the wicked. Pornography, nudity in films and streaming shows, hidden glances over our shoulder at another person, all fall under this command. There are no shades of grey. None. If we want to be like Christ, let’s attend to that. If we don’t, let’s stop pretending.
8. Don’t steal
“Thou shalt not steal.” – Exodus 20:15 (King James Version)
“You must not steal.” – Exodus 20:15 (New Living Translation)
Stealing comes in all forms. The obvious one is theft of some tangible object that isn’t ours. Kids steal cookies from the cookie jar; adults steal more expensive objects. It’s the same thing. We declare, “I want it now, I want it fast. I don’t want to work for it, and I don’t care whose it is.” As adults, we might steal time away from our employer as we survey social media. We might steal from the grocery store when something just doesn’t ring up in the self-checkout line. We might steal from a restaurant when the waiter forgets to add the appetizer to the ticket. The list of theft can be a mile long. It’s all stealing. There’s no justification for any of it, so let’s quit making exceptions. Call it out and be honest every step of the way.
9. Don’t lie
“Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.” – Exodus 20:16 (King James Version)
“You must not testify falsely against your neighbor.” – Exodus 20:16 (New Living Translation)
Honesty always calls in the “what ifs”. I think of the families hiding Jews from the Nazis; What if the Nazis come to the door and ask if we’re hiding anyone? I think of the strange-looking lady who wants encouragement; What if she asks me if her new hairdo is attractive? There are a thousand ways we try to wiggle out of telling the truth. Perhaps this posture is so easy for us to take because deceit became humanity’s first reaction to God, as he questioned Adam and Eve about the forbidden fruit. Lying can be both in denying our involvement in something and in our omission of details that might implicate us in some situation.
We are all good in manipulation. We want to be seen positively by others. We want to live up to the standards that are asked of us. We want to be successful and accomplished and be shining examples of God’s good favor. Unfortunately, we must admit that we at times belittle others and stage our righteousness to better ourselves and not honor God. We must admit that we are liars and our hope is found in fleeing from the father of lies and landing in that very vulnerable position of being ragamuffin disciples of God.
10. Don’t covet
“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.” – Exodus 20:17 (King James Version)
“You must not covet your neighbor’s house. You must not covet your neighbor’s wife, male or female servant, ox or donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor.” – Exodus 20:17 (New Living Translation)
We all want what we don’t have. We envy the person who is more wealthy or possesses more prestige or influence. We look at grass over in our neighbor’s yard, and it’s greener. Why do we covet? Why aren’t we satisfied as believers to take what God gives – enough for today with the avoidance to whatever tomorrow brings? Remember what Jesus says: “… do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:31-33).
Covetousness finds its footing when we are not seeking God’s kingdom and his righteousness. When we are concentrated on our own self-aggrandizement or preservation, we will go to whatever lengths to satisfy ourselves, not realizing that God supplies all our needs according to his riches in glory (Philippians 4:19).
The 10 commandments point us into a right relationship with both God and neighbor. If we were to sum them up, we are wise to do it like Jesus did. He says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40).