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.
“As we approach the Ten Commandments, we don’t approach them directly. We come to them through Christ.”
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.
Continuing with the notion of comprehensiveness, we can see the ways that many other sins and obligations are nested within each of the Ten Commandments. As the Westminster Larger Catechism puts it in the answer to question 99,
Under one sin or duty, all of the same kind are forbidden or commanded; together with all the causes, means, occasions, and appearances thereof, and provocations thereunto.
In fact, this is why the Westminster Larger Catechism (and other similar documents) are so useful in their ethical reflection. The authors of that document recognized the comprehensive nature of the commandments, and sought to draw out the implications and applications of each of them in order to clarify our responsibility before God.
3. How do we apply each in community?
As we seek to apply the commandments, we must avoid the temptation to think of them in merely individualistic terms.
“Fundamentally, we ought to read the Ten Commandments as the instructions of a loving Father to his firstborn son.”
If God has commanded us to avoid covetousness, not only should we seek to be content with what we have, but we should also seek to assist others in growing in their own contentment. We should labor and pray and exhort so that those in our sphere of influence also seek to love God and love their neighbors, and to avoid sinning against God and others. This is perhaps why Jesus has such strong condemnations for those who cause others to stumble (Matthew 18:5–9).
It is grievous to forget that one way we love our neighbors is to help them flee immorality and pursue holiness.
Why Second-Person Singular?
Given the comprehensive and universal application of the commandments, it is perhaps surprising that all of them are written in the second-person masculine singular form (“You shall,” not “Y’all shall”). I think there are two reasons for this.
First, the commands are first addressed to the heads of household in Israel. There’s a particular obligation directed at the men of Israel to lead the way in obedience to God. Notice, for instance, that the tenth commandment forbids coveting your neighbor’s wife, but doesn’t mention coveting your neighbor’s husband. This isn’t because women get a free pass on coveting husbands; it’s because God intends men to lead out in obedience as the heads of their household.
The other reason for the second-person masculine singular form, though, is because of Israel’s identity as God’s firstborn son. In Exodus 4:22–23, Yahweh says it explicitly: “Israel is my firstborn son. . . . Let my son go that he may serve me.” Now that his son has been let go, the Father will teach his son what he is like and call his son to follow in his steps.
4. How do we receive each in Christ?
Israel’s identity as God’s son leads to the final way that we should approach the Ten Commandments. Fundamentally, we ought to read the Ten Commandments as the instructions of a loving Father to his firstborn son.
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.
But as I noted above, we are not under the law of Moses. We approach the Ten Commandments as Christians. Israel was God’s firstborn son, delivered from bondage in Egypt. But the true Israel, the fulfillment of Israel and God’s true firstborn Son, is Jesus. He is Yahweh’s firstborn Son, who resembles and reflects and obeys his Father’s commandments perfectly, from top to bottom and front to back. Not only that, he is the head of his household, the church, and as our covenant head, he obeys on our behalf and thereby becomes our righteousness before God.
Therefore, as we approach the Ten Commandments, we don’t approach them directly. We come to them through Christ, who is the Supreme Lawgiver of the new covenant. And as his disciples, we seek to observe all that he commanded.
More than that, as God’s firstborn Son, he is also our elder brother, and we seek to become like our Father by becoming like his Son. Jesus is the model for our obedience, and God’s aim is that we would be conformed to his image, so that Jesus would be “the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:29). As we come to the Ten Commandments, we look to Jesus, as God’s firstborn Son, for the strength to fulfill God’s law through love — loving our Father with all that we have, and loving our neighbor as ourselves.