Why the commandments? Why only ten? What was their significance long ago? What is their relevance today? These and other related questions will be the focus of this short study.
After leaving Egypt, the children of Israel came to Mount Sinai. It was there that Moses received the ten commandments, “written with the finger of God” on two tables of stone (Exo 31:18). These commandments, often referred to as “the law,” address how we should relate to God and how we should treat others. Their significance can be considered in different ways:
These precepts expressed the holy character of God. While no written record could ever do justice to the greatness of God, within the brief space of these ten commandments God revealed His uniqueness, authority and holiness. Baseline moral truths were expressed in absolute terms of right and wrong. Eight of them were negative prohibitions – “Thou shalt not …” Two of them, remembering the sabbath day and honoring parents, were stated as positive commands. They are all brief, pointed and easy to remember.
The commandments represented a conditional covenant between God and Israel; they required obedience. Other covenants that God made, such as His covenant with Abraham, were unconditional (Gen 15:4-18). After receiving the ten commandments, instructions were also given to Moses for the building of an altar. Despite the confident assertion of the people that they would obey (Exo 19:8), provision was needed to deal with their sins and transgressions. Sadly, their subsequent history was one of rank disobedience, with idolatry and immorality never being far away.
The sinless Son of God was the only One who kept the law, including the ten commandments. He fulfilled the law, not only in the letter but also in the spirit: “I am not come to destroy [the law], but to fulfil” (Mat 5:17).
Christ was once asked to name the most important commandment – “the first commandment of all.” He summarized the law and the two tables given to Moses by emphasizing the importance of love: loving God and loving one’s neighbor were the two greatest commandments (Mar 12:29-31).
The wonder of the gospel of God’s grace is that Christ bore the curse of the law for guilty sinners. Upon the cross He bore our sins and the judgement due to them: “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us” (Gal 3:13).
Christ also made an end of the law as to its jurisdiction over those who come to faith in Him: “Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster” (Gal 3:24-25).
The law is a mirror that reveals universal sinfulness and guilt: “What things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God” (Rom 3:19). It makes the diagnosis, but it can offer no cure: “No man is justified by the law in the sight of God” (Gal 3:11). Justification before God, when He declares that the sinner has been made righteous before Him, comes through faith alone in Christ alone.
Contrary to popular opinion, the ten commandments do not represent a mirror into which a person may gaze to admire his or her moral beauty. Many are hindered from believing the gospel because they do not accept their sinfulness; they claim to possess essential goodness and seek to please God by their works. The Scriptures are plain: “Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ … for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified” (Gal 2:16).
God’s holy standard is perfection: “For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all” (Jas 2:10); “Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them” (Gal 3:10). The perversity of man’s heart also means that law can provoke sin. The boy-racer passes a speed limit sign and immediately accelerates, taking delight in breaking the law.
Law-keeping is neither the means of a believer’s salvation nor even the pathway to his practical sanctification. We are saved by grace through faith (Eph 2:8-9); we are sanctified day by day through the work of the indwelling Spirit of Christ (Rom 15:16), as well as by the Word of God and prayer (1Ti 4:5).
The apostle Paul used the analogy of marriage to show that, just as death breaks the marriage bond and leaves a remaining spouse free to remarry, the believer has been freed from the law through association with Christ’s death: “Ye also are become dead to the law by the body of Christ; that ye should be married to another …. But now we are delivered from the law … that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter” (Rom 7:4-6).
This does not mean that the Christian can live lawlessly or ignore the commandments. However, with the Spirit of Christ dwelling within, there is a higher law written in the heart (2Co 3:3). It goes beyond mere obligation. Motivated by love, the believer seeks to please the Lord in all things, knowing that Christ’s standard exceeds the ten commandments (Mat 5:27-28).
The World in General
These ten commandments are recognized throughout the world as an ancient moral code. But increasingly, they are regarded today as being outdated and irrelevant to life in the twenty-first century. The underlying philosophy of our age rejects biblical principles such as the commandments. It asserts that in a random and meaningless creation, absolute moral laws have no place; truth is purely subjective and relative. What is right in your eyes may not be right in mine. This all sounds sophisticated and modern as a point of theory. It is rarely heeded in practice, even by those who might scoff at the ten commandments. They will be just as outraged as anyone else when their personal property is stolen!
The articles which follow in this series will consider each of the Ten Commandments in order. God continues to speak through His Word, and what He has to say is still relevant to all mankind, whether believing or unbelieving. May we take heed.
 All Scripture quotations in this article are from the KJV.