The Ten Commandments

1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th

What are the ten commands?

The ten commands are the basic principles of morality which God gave to His people Israel.  For a sermon on the ten commands, see here.


Why do you call them “basic principles” of morality?

Because they are not specific rules for specific situations but are general principles which must be applied to the different circumstances of our life and experience.  Each command guards a principle which is sacred to God and therefore should be sacred to us as well.


Explain your thought that each of the commands guards something sacred.

Note each command and the principle it protects:

Command:  Principle:
First command:  You shall have no other gods before Me. The sanctity of God Himself
Second command:  You shall not make for yourself an idol… The sanctity of God’s worship
Third command:  You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain The sanctity of God’s Name
Fourth command:  Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy The sanctity of God’s day
Fifth command:  Honor your father and your mother… The sanctity of authority
Sixth command:  You shall not murder. The sanctity of human life
Seventh command:  You shall not commit adultery. The sanctity of the sexual relationship
Eighth command:  You shall not steal. The sanctity of private property
Ninth command:  You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. The sanctity of truth
Tenth command:  You shall not covet … anything that belongs to your neighbor. The sanctity of our thoughts


What are the different enumerations of the ten commands?

All Christians recognize ten commands, but they differ as to how they are to be numbered.

What is the numbering put forth by the Roman Catholic and Lutheran Christians?

The Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches have merged what Protestants call the first and second commands.  Then, they split the tenth command into two so as to still have ten commands.  Here is the list from the Baltimore catechism (Roman Catholic):

Question 1130. Which are the Commandments of God?    

Answer: The Commandments of God are these ten:

    1. I am the Lord thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt not have strange gods before me. Thou shalt not make to thyself a graven thing, nor the likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, nor of those things that are in the waters under the earth. Thou shalt not adore them, nor serve them.
    2. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.
    3. Remember thou keep holy the Sabbath day.
    4. Honor thy father and thy mother.
    5. Thou shalt not kill.
    6. Thou shalt not commit adultery.
    7. Thou shalt not steal.
    8. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
    9. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.
    10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods.


What numbering do the Jews follow?

The Talmud has the following numbering:

  1. I am the Lord thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage;
  2. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.  Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, nor 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.  Thou shalt not bow down thyself unto them, nor serve them, for I Jehovah thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generation of them that hate me, and showing lovingkindness unto thousands of them that love me and keep my commandments;
  3. Thou shalt not take God’s name in vain;
  4. Remember to keep holy the Sabbath day;
  5. Honor thy father and thy mother;
  6. Thou shalt not kill;
  7. Thou shalt not commit adultery;
  8. Thou shalt not steal;
  9. Thou shalt not bear false witness;
  10. Thou shalt not covet.  source

To the objection that on this rendering, the first command is not really a command, it is pointed out that all these commands are called ten words כָּל־הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, in the original Hebrew, not necessarily commands.


Which of these numberings is correct?

Catholics usually defend their numbering based on the authority of the Catholic church (see here and here) while protestants argue that the tenth command cannot be divided as Catholics do.  They point to the fact that the order is reversed in Exodus and Deuteronomy which suggests a unity, not a division into two distinct commands.

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his man-servant, nor his maid-servant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is thy neighbor’s. (Exodus 20:17)
Neither shalt thou covet thy neighbor’s wife; neither shalt thou desire thy neighbor’s house, his field, or his man-servant, or his maid-servant, his ox, or his ass, or anything that is thy neighbor’s. (Deuteronomy 5:21)

Augustine defended the Catholic numbering.  Ewald says that no resolution is possible.  Edersheim says:

It is well known that the Roman Catholics and the Lutheran Church combine the two first commandments into one, and divide the tenth into two. But for this there is not the shadow of ground or authority, either in the Hebrew text or even in Jewish tradition.

Cumming points out that in his experience, the catholic numbering results in most Catholics just forgetting the second command (also M’Caul).  Fairbairn comments on the division of the tenth command:

Augustine, who is the earliest representative of it [this way of numbering the decalog] known to us (though he speaks of it as held by others in his day), and from whom it has descended to the Roman Catholic, as also to the Lutheran church, was evidently influenced in its favor fully as much by doctrinal as by exegetical considerations. By splitting the command against coveting into two, and throwing the prohibitions against the introduction of false gods and the worship of the true God by means of idols into one, a division was got of the Decalogue into three and seven—both sacred numbers, and the first deemed of special importance, because significant of the great mystery of ‘the Trinity.’ ‘To me, therefore,’ says Augustine, ‘it appears more fitting that the division into three and seven should be accepted, because in those things which pertain to God there appears to more considerate minds (diligentius intuentibus) an indication of the Trinity.’ It was quite in accordance with his usual style of interpretation, which found intimations of the Trinity, as of other Divine mysteries, in the most casual notices; in the mention, for example, of the three water-pots at Cana, the three loaves which the person in the parable is represented as going to ask from his friend, etc. Stress, however, is also laid by Augustine, as by those who follow him, on the twofold prohibition, ‘Thou shalt not covet,’ in both forms of the Decalogue, though coupled in the one with the house first, and in the other with the wife—as apparently implying that the coveting in the one case belonged to a different category from that in the other; and he thinks there is even a greater difference between the two kinds of covetous desire, as directed towards a neighbor’s wife and a neighbor’s property, than between the setting up of other gods beside Jehovah, and the worshipping of Jehovah by idols.

But this view, though it has recently been vindicated by some writers of note (in particular, by Sonntag and Kurtz), is liable to several, and in our judgment quite fatal objections. In the first place, it is without any support from Jewish authority, which, in such a matter, is entitled to considerable weight. A measure of support in its behalf, has, indeed, been sought in the Parashoth, or sectional arrangement of the Heb. MSS. In the larger proportion of these MSS. (460 out of 694 mentioned by Kennicott) the Decalogue is divided into ten Parashoth, with spaces between them commonly marked by a Sethuma (ס); and one of these does stand, in the MSS. referred to, between the two commands against coveting, while it is wanting between the prohibition against having any other gods, and that against worshipping God by idols. But the principle of these Parashoth is unknown, and has yet found no satisfactory explanation. For it is at variance with the only two divisions of the Decalogue, which are certainly known to have prevailed among the Jewish authorities—an older one, which is found alike in Philo and Josephus, the only one, indeed, mentioned by them, making the division into two fives, the first closing with the command to honor father and mother; and a later one, adopted by the Talmudical Jews, according to which there still remain the two fives, and in the second only one command against coveting, but in the earlier part the command against images is combined with that against false gods, and the first command is simply the declaration, ‘I am Jehovah thy God.’ This last classification is certainly erroneous; for in that declaration, as Origen long ago objected, there is nothing that can be called a command, but an announcement merely as to who it is that does command (quis sit, qui mandat, ostendit.) Without, however, going further into Jewish sentiment or belief upon the subject, it may justly be held as an argument of some weight against the Augustinian division of the command about coveting into two separate parts, and still more against the division as a whole into three and seven, that it appears to have been ignored by both earlier and later Jews, that it has also no representative among the Greek Fathers, nor even among the Latins till Augustine.


Is the decalog still binding on Christians in the new covenant?

Yes, it is.  This is evident both in the teaching of Jesus and Paul.  See this message.


What does Jesus teach us about the law?

The key statement here is Jesus’ teaching in the celebrated Sermon on the Mount.

Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.  For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.  Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:17-20)


What does Jesus mean here by the law and the prophets?

This is a reference to all of what we now call the Old Testament.  The law refers to the Pentateuch and the prophets refers to all the rest. more


Jesus says that He did not come to abolish but to fulfill.  What does He mean here by “fulfill?”

The verb “fulfill” here should be understood broadly.  It means that all the Old Testament comes to us in the hands of Jesus.  The ministry of Jesus is like a sieve and all the Old Testament passes through it.  Each part receives its proper interpretation in the hands of Jesus.


Explain this.

Consider the different kinds of law we find in the Old Testament and how Jesus “fulfills” each of these.

Take first as an example the laws surrounding the celebration of the Passover. (Exodus 12)  These laws are not ended; rather, the reality to which they pointed has arrived.  This is why Paul can say that Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed. (1 Corinthians 5:7)  The same things happens with the sin offering. (Leviticus 4)  Any law or event which was a type of Christ has now realized its fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus.  The shadows have given way to the reality; the type to the antitype.  These kinds of laws have been traditionally referred to as ceremonial laws.

Now consider the laws we find in Deuteronomy 22:

When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you will not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone falls from it.  You shall not sow your vineyard with two kinds of seed, or all the produce of the seed which you have sown and the increase of the vineyard will become defiled.  You shall not plow with an ox and a donkey together.  You shall not wear a material mixed of wool and linen together.  You shall make yourself tassels on the four corners of your garment with which you cover yourself. (Deuteronomy 22:8-12)

These laws were peculiar to the covenant which God had made with the Jewish nation.  When Jesus came, this covenant was ended and the laws which were peculiar to it also came to an end.  These laws have often been referred to as civil laws.

Finally, there are those laws which are of perpetual obligation.  The ten commands are examples.  These laws Jesus fulfills by obeying them perfectly.  The term given to this body of law is “the moral law.”


Jesus says that not even the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the law.  Why do you say that the civil laws are no longer binding?  

Because of the teaching of Jesus Himself on the law.  Consider two examples which show Jesus’ thinking on this point.  Note that both of these examples come from Matthew’s gospel which is important because this is the same author who gave us the above teaching from Jesus that the Old Testament was not abolished but fulfilled.

First, is the paying of the temple tax, a law given to Israel in Exodus 30:13.  Jesus, however, teaches His disciples that they no longer need to obey this law. (Matthew 17:26)

Second, consider all the laws surrounding the eating of clean and unclean foods. (Leviticus 11)  In the hands of Jesus, however, this law is ended.  Jesus teaches us that it is not what goes into a man that defiles him, but what comes out of him. (Matthew 15:11)  This means that it is not what we eat that defiles us as was the case in the old dispensation but what we say that defiles us.

Clearly Jesus fulfills these laws in the sense of bringing them to an end.  Since Jesus brings an end to God’s covenant with Israel, He also brings an end to the laws which belonged to that covenant.


Surely the decalog also belonged to the old covenant; why is it not also brought to an end?

This would certainly seem to follow but a close reading of several biblical passages shows us that this is not the way God would have us think about the decalog.


Which Bible passages?  

Consider first the promise of the new covenant that we have from Jeremiah.  His words are:

Behold, days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD.  “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the LORD, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.  They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the LORD, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)

Note that the law is not dispensed with in the new covenant but is internalized.


What does Jesus teach us about the Old Testament law?

Jesus’ teaching on this has already been quoted above from Matthew 5:17f.  Clearly, the intent of this passage is not to show the end of the law but it’s perpetuity.  On another occasion, Jesus gives the famous golden rule.  The reason He gives as to why this command should be obeyed is because it is contained in the law and the prophets.

In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 7:12)

The unstated assumption here is that the law and the prophets are still binding on Christians in the new covenant.


What does Paul teach us about the Old Testament law?

Paul is always extolling the virtue of love. (1 Corinthians 13)  The way we love each other, says Paul, is laid out for us in the decalog.  He writes:

Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.  For this, “YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY, YOU SHALL NOT MURDER, YOU SHALL NOT STEAL, YOU SHALL NOT COVET,” and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, “YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.”  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (Romans 13:8-10)

That Paul has the decalog in mind here is clear since he lists the 6th, 7th, 8th, and 10th commands from the decalog.  Paul gives the same thought in Galatians:

For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.  For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, “YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.”  But if you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another. (Galatians 5:13-15)

Paul teaches us that the commands of the decalog are the way we show love to our neighbor.  Elsewhere, Paul commands children to obey their parents.  This obligation he bases on the fifth command:

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.  HONOR YOUR FATHER AND MOTHER (which is the first commandment with a promise), SO THAT IT MAY BE WELL WITH YOU, AND THAT YOU MAY LIVE LONG ON THE EARTH. (Ephesians 6:1-3)

Witsius points out (§36) that Paul bases his argument here on the very order of the decalog noting that the command to honor ones parents is the first command given with a promise.  If the decalog belonged to a previous dispensation and was no longer binding in the present dispensation, then Paul’s argument here is impossible to understand.  Clearly, Paul assumes that the decalog continues to bind new covenant Christians.


Why do some Christians disagree with this?

Many evangelicals have the idea that when the Mosaic covenant was removed with the coming of Christ, nothing remained from it.  Everything that pertained to this covenant was done away with.  If any part of the Mosaic law is repeated in the New Testament, then that law is binding on new covenant Christians.  Otherwise, the entire Mosaic system has no relevance to today’s believer.  Witsius mentions (§27) Zanchi as one who affirmed “that we Christians have nothing to do with the moral precepts, as they were given to the Israelites by Moses; but only in so far as they agree with the law of nature, common to all nations, and confirmed by Christ, whom we acknowledge to be our king.”  Apparently, Musculus was of the same opinion.  Closer to our own day was Donald Barnhouse who wrote:

It was a tragic hour when the Reformation churches wrote the Ten Commandments into their creeds and catechisms and sought to bring Gentile believers into bondage to Jewish law, which was never intended either for the Gentile nations or for the church.  God’s Freedom, p134.

Grudem repeats the very common principle that only those commands are binding which are repeated in the New Testament:

Why, then, have I followed the structure of the Ten Commandments in organizing this book on ethics? I have done so because nine of the Ten Commandments are reaffirmed or even quoted in the New Testament as having moral validity for Christians in the new covenant age as well. This indicates that these nine commandments (at least) were given by God to the Israelites not for the purpose of showing that Israel was visibly distinct from other nations, but because these nine commandments contained moral standards from God that were applicable to all of mankind for all of history. Their application was not limited just to Israel for a particular time. Christian Ethics, p347


What teaching do such people find in the Bible which leads them to believe this?

Paul writes to the Romans:

Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.  For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace. (Romans 6:12-14)

When Paul says you are not under law but under grace, such Christians understand Paul to be saying that we are no longer under the Old Testament law but under something new.


What is the correct way to understand Paul’s teaching here?

We need to understand what Paul means here by “law” and “grace.”  When Paul says “law” here, he is referring to a law-way of justification as opposed to grace which is the grace-way of being justified.  In Reformed circles, the terms “covenant of works” is used to refer to this law-way of justification and “covenant of grace” for the grace-way of justification.  Paul is not teaching here that believers are no longer subject to the Old Testament laws; this would contradict Jeremiah 31:33.  Paul is teaching them that they are no longer in a covenant, the terms of which require from them a perfect obedience.  Because of this, sin will not have any dominion over them.


What is meant here by the “law-way” and “grace-way” of justification?

The covenant of works or the law-way of justification is the way of getting right with God by a perfect obedience to His commands.  The terms of this covenant are a perfect obedience to the entire revealed will of God.  The covenant of grace or grace-way of justification is being justified by the merits of another given to us as a free gift.  The terms of this covenant are just simple faith in Jesus.  Newell calls it “the legal principle” (see comment on v14):

Note the two “fors.” [in Romans 6:14] The first “for” announces the Divine decree that sin’s lordship over us shall be ended. The second reveals the happy condition of things in which such a release is possible: we are not under the legal principle,—which first demanded duty, and then offered blessing; but we are under the grace principle,—which confers blessing first, and, behold, fruits follow!


What other passages do these Christians use to show that the decalog is no longer binding on new covenant Christians?

Paul’s teaching in Romans 10 is often used for this purpose:

Brethren, my heart’s desire and my prayer to God for them is for their salvation.  For I testify about them that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge.  For not knowing about God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God.  For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. (Romans 10:1-4)

This verse is understood to be teaching that the coming of Christ into the world brought the Old Testament law to an end.


What is wrong with this interpretation of this verse?

The “end” spoken of here is not the end of the Old Testament law but the end of our attempts to be justified by law-keeping.  It is when we come to the end of trying to work out our own righteousness by our own efforts, and by our own law-keeping that we come to Jesus and receive from Him the free gift of a perfect righteousness.










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