For centuries, the Christian church has given careful attention to the Ten Commandments. In his commentaries, John Calvin devotes hundreds of pages to expounding them, and in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, he describes and explains them as the summary of the moral law in the Old Testament (2.8.1). Regardless of whether we agree with every aspect of Calvin’s exposition, most, if not all, of the commandments are explicitly repeated in the New Testament, and as we’ll see below, the commandments themselves express the heart of God’s law in unique ways.
In order to get a better handle on the role of the Ten Commandments, we need to understand their place in the old covenant itself. While Christians do not live under the old covenant as such (we are “not under the law,” Romans 6:14–15; 1 Corinthians 9:20; Galatians 5:18), it is important for us to understand these “Ten Words” and their connection to the covenant, because they create a pattern that is repeated in the new covenant as well.
When the Jewish leaders asked Jesus about the greatest commandment in the law, he did not reply by listing the Ten Commandments. Instead, he said,
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)
“Love for God and love for neighbor are the foundation for the rest of the commandments in the Old Testament.”
Jesus taught that love for God and love for neighbor are the foundation for the rest of the commandments in the Old Testament. That is to say, everything else that God asks of his people is impossible if they do not love God with everything and love their neighbors as themselves.
What, then, do these commands have to do with the Ten Commandments? Why didn’t Jesus just quote Exodus 20 back to them? To understand this, we need to consider the relationship between the covenant and commandments — in both the Old and New Testaments.
Delivered to Love
In Galatians 5:13–14, Paul exhorts the Galatians to use their freedom as an opportunity to love one another. He writes,
You were called to freedom, brothers. 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.”
Here he highlights the close connection between freedom and the call to love our neighbors. In the first four chapters of Galatians, this freedom is described as freedom in Christ, which is opposed to the bondage that comes from seeking to be justified before God by the law. Through Christ, we have been set free from this bondage of sin. Therefore, Galatians 5 begins, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).
The move from God’s previous work of redemption to his command to love your neighbor is similar to what we find in Exodus 20. In the prologue to the Ten Commandments, the Lord reminds his people of his prior work to redeem them from slavery in Egypt: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). Just as we saw in Galatians, the work of God to redeem his people from slavery comes before his commands to his people. Dutch scholar Jochem Douma’s description fits equally well in both Exodus 20 and Galatians 5: “The commandments follow the gospel of undeserved deliverance” (The Ten Commandments, 4).
God and Neighbor
With this understanding in place, we can better understand the connection between the greatest commandments and the Ten Commandments. In Galatians 5, the command to love our neighbor is grounded in God’s prior work of redemption. In Exodus 20, the Ten Commandments are grounded in God’s prior work of redemption. What’s more, many have noticed a close connection between the love for God in the first part of the Ten and love for neighbor in the second part.
As you read through the commands, this description seems to fit. The first four commandments involve exclusive loyalty to the Lord, avoiding idol worship, not taking the name of the Lord in vain, and keeping the Sabbath day holy to God (Exodus 20:1–11). You can see how these commands are God-oriented. Because he had redeemed them from their slavery, God’s people were now free to honor and worship him as he commanded. The next six commandments are oriented toward others. Honoring your father and mother, not murdering, not committing adultery, not stealing, not bearing false witness, and not coveting are all ways to put the rights of others ahead of yourself (Exodus 20:12–17). In other words, love for God and love for neighbor as expressed in the Ten Commandments are both grounded in the work of God in the exodus, when he rescued his people from their slavery in Egypt.
Why a New Covenant?
At this point, you might be wondering why we need a new covenant at all. If the structure of the old and new covenants is so similar, why didn’t we just stick with the old covenant? As great as the work of God in the exodus was, it was only a pointer to a greater work of redemption still to come. Hebrews 4:8 tells us that the rest that God’s people enjoyed when Joshua led them into the Promised Land pointed to a greater rest yet to come. Later in Hebrews, the author tells us that the law is only “a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities” (Hebrews 10:1).
“The work of God to redeem his people from slavery comes before his commands to his people.”
God intended both Israel’s redemption from slavery in Egypt and the law covenant itself to be incomplete and insufficient. They were pointing to a greater work of redemption yet to come. We can see the insufficiency of the law covenant born out in the life of Israel throughout the Old Testament. They were unwilling (and therefore unable) to love God and love their neighbors as the Ten Commandments instructed them to do. They needed a greater redemption through a greater redeemer than Joshua or Moses.
This greater redemption is exactly what Paul points us to in Galatians 5. Through Christ, we have been set free from our deepest slavery. Christ redeemed us not only from physical slavery, but also from the slavery to sin into which we all were born. As a result of this redemption, we are now free to truly love God and love neighbor the way the law always intended.
When we understand the relationship between the law and the covenant, we can turn afresh to the question of how Christians ought to fulfill these commandments in light of the work of Christ. Regardless of whether we think nine, ten, or zero commandments are immediately binding on us today, we can all see that it is only through the greater work of Christ to redeem us from our slavery to sin that we can begin to truly love God and love our neighbors as we ought.