“And God spoke all these words, saying, I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exod 20:1-2).
By Stephen W. Hiemstra
Why, as Christians, do we need to know about the Ten Commandments? The short answer is because Jesus tells us to “For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matt 5:18).. Reformer John Calvin reinforced this point and said that the law had three chief purposes: to teach us about God’s will, to aid civil authorities, and to guide our daily lives (Haas 2006, 100).
Still, as postmodern people, we have contempt for law. We live undisciplined lives, ignore posted speed limits, and cheat on our taxes. We want to be independent and in control of our own lives. We do not want anyone, not even God, telling us what to do. The Ten Commandments remind us that we remain rebellious sons and daughters of Adam and Eve.
Our rebellion against God is called sin. Sin takes at least three forms: falling short of expectations (sin), breaking a law (transgression), and not doing something we should do (iniquity). I sin when I try to love God with all my heart, soul, and mind, but fail to do so consistently. I transgress the law when I murder someone. I commit iniquity when I ignore (dishonor) my parents in their old age, leaving their care to my siblings when I am able to help but refuse to. Although these three words are used interchangeably, these distinctions remain helpful.
In our rebellion, the law comes as an act of grace pointing us the way back to God. The Ten Commandments can be thought of as God’s healthy boundaries for life in the Christian community and as an example to the world.
So what is helpful to know about the Ten Commandments?
The Bible tells us that God is the Lord of lords and uses covenants to define His relationship with us. A covenant is a treaty or agreement outlining the duties and obligations of the ruler to the ruled. The Bible outlines covenants with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David and the New Covenant with Christ. The Ten Commandments are part of the covenant with Moses.
Jeremiah prophesied the coming of a new covenant that would be written on our hearts (Jer 31:30-31). Matthew’s Gospel describes this new covenant with five explicit commandments given by Jesus: Matt 5:17-20, Matt 17:9, Matt 19:16-21, Matt 22:36-40, Matt 28:18-20. Two of these have already been mentioned: obey the law (Matt 5:17-20) and the double love command (love God; love neighbor in Matt 22:36-40).
Why do Christians need to understand the Ten Commandments? The Ten Commandments help us to understand what it means to be God’s people and to follow Christ’s commandment to obey the law.
Haas, Guenther H. 2004. “Calvin’s Ethics.” In The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin, 93–105. Edited by Donald K. McKim. New York: Cambridge University Press.