Lord of All the Law

How Jesus Handled the Ten Commandments

The phrase “Ten Commandments” does not appear in the New Testament. Not once. Which might be surprising for Gentile believers today who have been steeped in a Judeo-Christian heritage, and have come to adopt a distinctively Judeo way of thinking.

Travel through all the precious words and teachings we have in the New Testament — through the Gospels, Acts, and the Epistles, addressing such a variety of circumstances and needs — and Jesus and his inspired spokesmen never make the appeal that’s become instinctive for some Christians today: keep the Ten Commandments. If “obeying the Ten” were essential to Christian morality, or even an expressly important component of it, then Jesus and his men seem to have done us a great disservice. Imagine how differently the whole New Testament would read, beginning with the Sermon on the Mount, if the Ten Commandments, as they appear in Exodus 20 (or Deuteronomy 5), were to be adopted as is into the lives of new-covenant Christians.

Moreover, the phrase “Ten Commandments” (or “Ten Words”) appears just three times in the Old Testament (Exodus 34:28; Deuteronomy 4:13; 10:4), which might clue us in that the Ten have assumed a place in the minds of some that is not only foreign to the Christian aspect of our heritage but even the Judeo part.

Perfect Ten

In the Hebrew Scriptures, we find a few further references to the two “tablets” on which the Ten were written, but not much more — and not at the level of hermeneutical prominence we might assume. And when we turn to the New Testament, we find Paul stating, in very clear terms, that Christians as Christians do not live by these tablets, carved in letters on stone, but by the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:3, 6–7; also Romans 2:27–29). He could hardly speak plainer than he does in Romans 7:6: “We serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.”

In such passages, the contrast between old and new appears so stark that we might ask, How could such a dramatic shift happen from Moses and the letter, to Christ and the Spirit? The short answer is that the climax of history came. Messiah himself, not only David’s son but the divine Son, came among us in fully human flesh and blood, taught and discipled, and died and rose again.

Jesus came to fulfill what “the old” anticipated and to usher in a new covenant and fundamentally new era of history. His followers would not be under the previous administration that had guarded God’s people since Moses. Jesus himself says he did not come to destroy the Law and Prophets, but to do something even more striking: fulfill them (Matthew 5:17). That is, fulfill like prophecy. Not simply keep the Ten in place, or remain under them, or leave them untouched, but fulfill them — first in his own person, and then by his Spirit in his church. He came not to cast off Moses, but to fulfill Jeremiah, and in doing so, he accomplished what is even more radical: establishing himself as the supreme authority, putting God’s law within his people (rather than on tablets), writing it on their hearts (rather than stone), and making all his people to know him (Jeremiah 31:31–34).

Because Jesus lived and taught at the climax of history, in this once-for-all transition from old to new, from the age of Israel to the age of the church, we need to carefully observe the fresh and sometimes subtle differences in emphasis in his ministry and teaching, and confirm our readings in the teachings of his apostles.

As a piece of this larger picture, let’s here take up the limited focus of how Jesus handles the Ten Commandments. Granted, he does not refer to them as a package called “the Ten Commandments,” but he does, at various key points in his teaching, refer to individual commands from the Ten, and so we get a sense of his larger orientation through pondering his various treatments.

1. But I Say to You (Commands 6, 7, and 9)

We turn first to the Sermon on the Mount and the so-called “six antitheses” of Matthew 5:21–48. This is Jesus’s most programmatic teaching related to commandments from the Ten, in the sweeping context of “the Law and the Prophets.”

Doubtlessly, Jesus’s early listeners could sense the winds of change in his message, as he taught “as one who had authority, and not as their scribes” (Matthew 7:28–29). So, in his most celebrated sermon, Jesus clarifies that he has not come to destroy the old or jettison the commandments, per se. Rather, he has come to fulfill what the Law and Prophets have long anticipated, and that fulfillment in himself (as we’ll see) will bring a salvation-historical maturation and completion, not devolution.

In fact, Jesus’s new-covenant people will come to live with the help of such spiritual power that they all will surpass those who were considered the elites of the previous era: “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). Jesus echoes this epochal development in the concluding claim of the antitheses: “You therefore must be perfect [complete, teleioi], as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). The previous era embodied a real but modulated expression of God’s standards; the new will, in some sense, raise the standards (Matthew 5:31–32; 19:7–9; Mark 10:4–9; Luke 16:18) and provide far greater Help (John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7).

Of the six antitheses that follow, the first four are tied to one of the Ten Commandments. First is command 6, “You shall not murder” (Matthew 5:21). The note Jesus strikes is not continuity but completion: “But I say to you [the I is emphatic] that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment” (Matthew 5:22). Here, we might say, he escalates, deepens, or draws out of the negative command (“you shall not”) a timeless moral entailment that God’s own character enjoins on his creatures. Previously, God had expressed in a more accommodated form the moral implications of his character; now, with the coming of Christ, the standards of righteousness, anticipated by the law, come into full flower. And critically, Jesus does not draw it out by appealing to previous Scripture, but he declares it on his own authority: “I say to you.”

“Jesus neither bows to the law, nor burns it down, but draws attention to himself as the surpassing authority.”

Similarly, the second antithesis begins with command 7: “You shall not commit adultery.” Again, Jesus says, “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28). It may seem at this point that Jesus is simply “deepening” the law, but the remaining antitheses do not fit so easily into this pattern. In the third, he expounds the law: “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you . . .” (Matthew 5:31–32).

Both “deepening” and “expounding” are inadequate descriptions of the fourth antithesis, which summarizes several Old Testament texts that expand command 9. Again he says, “But I say to you . . .” and in doing so, he “simply sweeps away the whole system of vows and oaths that was described and regulated in the Old Testament” (Douglas Moo, “The Law of Christ as the Fulfillment of the Law of Moses,” 349). The fifth and sixth antitheses cast the net even wider, showing that Jesus is prepared to speak with authority over a mixture of old-covenant law and popular interpretation in his day.

What emerges, then, is not a common principle for what Jesus is doing to old-covenant commands to put his followers under them, but the radical authority he claims for himself over both human traditions and old-covenant commandments alike. This is, after all, what Matthew reports (and teaches us) at the close of the Sermon:

When Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes. (7:28–29)

The scribes appeal to the authority of Scripture, but Jesus, daringly, asserts his own authority again and again. The key assertion is “I say to you.” The prevailing effect is Jesus’s new supremacy over all other commandments (“you have heard that it was said of old”), be they the seemingly authoritative maxims of the day or even the genuinely authoritative commands of God as expressed in the previous era.

By no means does the rise of Jesus’s authority mean the destruction of the old, such that Jesus’s followers are now turned loose to murder, commit adultery, and bear false witness. Rather, now, with the coming of Christ, he surpasses Moses and becomes the personal channel of God’s moral authority for his people in the new era and covenant. This he will declare climactically in the Great Commission, on the basis of his having “all authority,” and the standard of worldwide disciple-making being “all that I [not Moses!] have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18–20).

2. Out of the Heart (Commands 8 and 10)

In Mark 7, Jesus makes passing reference to commands 8 and 10 (along with 6, 7, and 9). In verses 1–13, he answers the challenge of the scribes about his disciples eating with unwashed hands and so not living “according to the tradition of the elders” (verse 5). After rebuking their “fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish [their] tradition” (verse 9), he gathers a wider audience to speak with his authority to a related issue:

Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him. (Mark 7:14–15)

Related to the Ten, this is a double-edged sword. First, as Mark comments, Jesus thus “declared all foods clean” (verse 19), another astounding revelation of his authority, which, as the God-man’s, surpasses even the divine commands issued in the previous era. Second, Jesus clarifies, “From within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting [that is, commands 6, 7, 8, and 10], wickedness, deceit [command 9], sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness” (verses 21–22). Disobedience to commandments 6 through 10 — and eight other sins besides — reveals the unseen heart, which Jesus comes to address, convict, and transform.

The coming of Christ, with his supreme authority, brings the end of Israel’s peculiar food laws, but it does not undo the timeless standards of morality based on the character of God. In fact, now the inner person, “the heart of man,” comes more clearly in view as the source of full obedience to commandments 6 through 10, as well as in areas unaddressed by the Ten. And all this with Christ himself in the position of supreme Lawgiver, not as mere teacher of Moses.

3. The First and a Second (Commands 1 and 2)

We will look in vain for precisely commands 1 and 2 (Exodus 20:3–6) in the ministry of Jesus; however, we find him mentioning a “great and first commandment” and a “second.” Yet remarkably, Jesus goes outside the Ten when he makes such superlative claims.

During his Passion week, when a lawyer from among the Pharisees asks him, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” Jesus replies not with Exodus 20 but Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18:

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)

Relevant to our focus, Jesus does not elevate the Ten above the larger Torah, but actually, he elevates other parts of the Torah over the Ten! Jesus dares to make the interpretive judgment that Deuteronomy 6:5 represents God’s first and foremost requirement of his people, even better than the first commandment of the Ten. Then, on his own authority, to name the second as an obscurely placed Leviticus 19:18 really should make us shake our heads. Jesus thus demonstrates (1) a wholeness in his approach to the Torah, which does not elevate the Ten above the rest of Scripture, but actually (2) identifies the defining realities as best expressed elsewhere, and all this (3) on the basis of his own authority, not an exegetical argument based on Moses’s authority.

4. Live Long in the Land (Command 5)

Now we come to the first of the three individual commands that remain: command 5, “honor your father and your mother” — which comes not only with a promise, but also a specific context: “that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Exodus 20:12).

This gives us an opportunity to recognize how plainly the Ten are embedded in a particular historical moment and generation: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). The Ten go on to mention male and female servants, livestock, sojourners, city gates, and your neighbor’s ox or donkey. Command 5 refers to “the land” to which these newly liberated slaves in the wilderness are heading: Canaan. To be sure, the applications to later periods of history are intuitive enough (as Paul demonstrates in Ephesians 6:1–3), but we still note that Exodus 20 is unapologetically embedded in a certain moment and does not pretend to be otherwise.

Command 5 also gives us the chance to revisit Jesus’s exchange with one of his most famous interlocutors: the rich young ruler. He approaches Jesus and asks, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” (Matthew 19:16). We expect Jesus to quickly correct the obvious error: a sinful human cannot secure eternal life with any good deed! Yet, like the antitheses in Matthew 5, Jesus turns the encounter masterfully toward his own person. First, explicitly: “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Then, implicitly: “There is only one who is good” (verse 17).

Then Jesus comes at the man’s error through commands 6, 7, 8, 9, and 5 — and through Leviticus 19:18 (verses 18–19). With shocking presumption, and perhaps endearing honesty, the man answers, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” (verse 20). Now Jesus circles back to where the exchange began, and the prevailing lesson of his Sermon on the Mount: me. “If you would be perfect [complete, teleios, same as 5:48], go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (verse 21). Jesus is the first and final answer to the man’s query, and to open his hand to take hold of Jesus, the rich young man must release his grasp on his many possessions.

Here Jesus shows the inadequacy of the commandments to save. The man claims to have kept all the commandments, but that is not sufficient. One thing he lacks: Jesus himself.

5. Hallowed Be His Name (Command 3)

Finding command 3 (“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain,” Exodus 20:7) in Jesus’s teaching seems difficult at first. No exact quotation appears, though we might see a connection to the fourth antithesis. But when we broaden our lens to Jesus’s concern with “the name of the Lord,” we find the associations pervasive. We are hard pressed to find many words more frequently on the lips of Jesus than name. Most memorable of all is the opening request of Jesus’s model prayer: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name” (Matthew 6:9).

Jesus clearly reverences the divine name, and in his life and ministry he not only “takes the name of the Lord” without vanity, but even fills it up completely in his own person. On Jesus, “the name” is not received as an empty shell, but filled with all the fullness of deity in full humanity. He is the first to take up the name without any vanity or lack whatsoever, and so, remarkably, he speaks not only of his Father’s name but also, inimitably, and even more often, of his own. He warns his disciples that they will leave “houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake” (19:29) and “will be hated by all for my name’s sake” (10:22; 24:9). “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me” (18:5), and “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (18:20). Examples could be multiplied from the Gospels, especially John.

Most provocatively, Jesus puts himself, as Son, alongside his Father and the Spirit, as sharing in the singular divine name in his Great Commission: “Make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).

6. Lord of the Sabbath (Command 4)

Finally, and most scandalously, is command 4: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8, including verses 9–11). Of the Ten, this one is most conspicuous in the tenor of its New Testament handling, including in the ministry of Jesus, as well as in the wrestling of the church for twenty centuries. Essentially, you will not find careful, reasonable Christian arguments in such tension with any of the other Ten in their central moral thrust. Many of us are eager to affirm a six-and-one principle in creation, even if command 4, in its Mosaic expression, is not binding on the new-covenant believer.

Here, we need not tackle the question “Should Christians Keep the Sabbath?,” addressed ably elsewhere. Instead, we emphasize the astonishing way in which Jesus handles command 4 and, like the antitheses and the Great Commission, freshly declares his supremacy over all that came before — and in the strongest terms of all.

Having just captured the beloved invitation, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden” (11:28), Matthew reports, “At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath . . .” (12:1). As Scott Hubbard observes, “The seventh day marks the setting of so many clashes between Jesus and the Pharisees that when we read something like, ‘Now it was a Sabbath day . . .’ (John 9:14), we expect trouble.” And so it begins.

The hungry disciples pluck and eat some heads of grain, and true to form, the Pharisees, while somehow keeping Sabbath themselves, are right there on the spot to register their disapproval: “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath” (12:2). Jesus replies magnificently at multiple levels. David’s men were exempt on the basis of their being with God’s anointed. So too, in the law itself (Numbers 28:9–10), “the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath” — performing a burnt offering every Saturday — “and are guiltless” (Matthew 12:5).

“Jesus is indeed Lord — Lord of the Sabbath, Lord of the Ten, and Lord of all.”

Jesus then does what we now might have come to expect: he neither bows to the law, nor burns it down, but draws attention to himself as the surpassing authority. And he does so twice. Both are partially veiled expressions in the moment, and boldly conspicuous in retrospect. Verse 6: “I tell you [note that language again], something greater than the temple is here.” Verse 8: “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”

Far from Sabbath’s servant, or its saboteur, Jesus is its Lord. He is Lord of the temple, Lord of the Ten, and Lord of all that came before (whether divine commands or human traditions), and all that will follow. And so, we see how his invitation in Matthew 11:28–30 leads smoothly into this episode “at that time” (12:1):

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

Christ himself is and gives the climactic rest. Command 4, and commands 1 through 10, indeed all the Law and Prophets, prophesied (Matthew 11:13) of this greater one to come — greater than the temple, than David, than Solomon, than Jonah, and greater than Moses, the Sabbath, and the Ten.

Lord of All

Those of us raised with a heightened appreciation for the Ten, or perhaps with a diminished view of the rest of Scripture, and even Christ himself, may feel ourselves in moral freefall to first ponder the implications of Jesus’s lordship over the Ten. But the unsettled feeling passes quickly, and soon we find our feet, and moral stability, on even firmer ground, and our admiration for Jesus increased besides. And in that increase is our appreciation for Jesus’s authority and his words.

Jesus not only outshone the Pharisees in his understanding of Moses, but he himself generously issued commands, and commissioned his church “to observe all that I have commanded you.”

He is indeed Lord — Lord of the Sabbath, Lord of the Ten, and Lord of all.