The Ten Commandments. Everyone knows of them. They’re a major part of Christendom’s mores and traditionally the foundation of our law systems. Jesus Christ summarised them in just two great commandments: ‘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 neighbour as yourself.’ This summary reaffirms that the Decalogue is not a simple list of ten items which we can tick, but it has profound implications for our way of living and thinking that go far beyond a surface interpretation. If we could love God perfectly and if we could love others perfectly, we would be good (this amounts to perfection), but we know we are not perfect and so doing these things is harder than we would like to imagine.
Christianity can have a tendency to focus on the most sensational conversion stories, to emphasise violence, prostitution, drug addiction and the like, but it is lacking when it comes to reaching out to all. Most people in modern society, while acknowledging their faults, believe they are essentially good by being law-abiding citizens and perhaps through obeying the precepts of cultural Christianity. The Ten Commandments are often seen as the fundamental guideline to Christian ethics, but it is dangerous to think that we can be justified through them. This article aims to demonstrate why this is the case, taking each of the commandments individually.
1. You shall have no other gods before me
I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. (Exodus 20:2-3)
The first commandment means we are to acknowledge the living God, to submit to him, do everything for his glory and to praise him above anything else. Only Christians can feasibly keep this commandment, but even then, we fail because we are distracted by many other things. We may pray to God when we feel we need help and then forget to thank him for what we have received, or when life seems to be going well, when we enjoy his providence, we neglect to consider that these things come from God. Do we really keep God at the forefront of our minds all the time?
2. You shall not make for yourself a carved image
You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:4-6)
The second commandment means that our offerings to God must be pure. We must not defile our worship by joining idols with him. We may not make representations of either the living God or of false gods and we must not tolerate false gods in any way. False gods do not only consist of the Islamic god, the Hindu gods, etc, as people may imagine, but the love of money, narcissism, superstition and the exaltation of values such as ‘freedom’ and ‘equality’ (as they are perceived in modern society) are also false gods, images to which we bow down. Can any of us say we have never served a false god?
3. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain
You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain. (Exodus 20:7)
The third commandment means that anything which relates to God is not to be taken lightly; we must always be reverent in our thoughts towards God. We are not to blaspheme, which includes conforming God’s Word and decrees to our own standards and teaching false religion. Since they involve swearing by God, the sovereign of all creation, we are not to make sinful, inappropriate or haughty oaths or to make any oaths at all which we cannot realistically fulfill. We should also refrain from profane jests and from cursing, including those phrases in everyday speech which have been made to seem harmless such as ‘Oh my God’ and ‘Christ!’ which trivialise his name and fail to give proper honour to God. Can we be confident that we have been appropriately reverential to God in all our thoughts and words?
4. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labour, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Exodus 20:8-11)
The fourth commandment tells us that God has set apart one holiday a week in particular for worship and rest (which falls on the first day, Sunday, since the resurrection of Christ). This should be seen as a gift and not a chore because it revitalises us and sets the tone for the week ahead. If we lose the significance of the Sabbath, it is to our own detriment. Aside from the single day, Christ is also the fulfilment of our Sabbath, our rest, so we are obliged to be bound to him and to remember our mission and life in him unceasingly. Do we Christians really demonstrate the rest that we have in Christ or do we get mixed up in the busyness of the world and forget who we are?
5. Honour your father and your mother
Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you. (Exodus 20:12)
We can deduce from the fifth commandment and from the requirements of God’s law that we are to respect, submit to and obey (insofar as their commandments are in accordance with God’s) our elders, both in age and in office, whom God has put before us and above us. If we neglect our duties to superiors or if we contemn them, we have fallen short of obeying this commandment.
6. You shall not murder
You shall not murder. (Exodus 20:13)
The Hebrew word for ‘murder’ in this case refers not only to premeditated murder, but also to causing human death through carelessness or negligence. Not only this, but Jesus tells us furthermore, ‘You have heard that it was said to those of old, “You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgement; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, “You fool!” will be liable to the hell of fire.’ Even sinful anger and resentful or harmful thoughts are sufficient to fail in the requirements of the sixth commandment.
7. You shall not commit adultery
You shall not commit adultery. (Exodus 20:14)
We understand adultery in a rather narrow sense of cheating on a partner. But again Jesus clarifies this commandment: ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.’ Any form of sexual immorality, any lustful desires towards someone who isn’t a spouse (a wife of a husband or a husband of a wife) therefore constitutes a violation of the seventh commandment.
8. You shall not steal
You shall not steal. (Exodus 20:15)
This commandment forbids theft and, from knowledge of the scriptures, everything which similarly unlawfully deprives others of what is rightfully theirs or leads others to be poor stewards of resources, such as fraud, unfaithful contracts, extortion, usury, bribery and, aside from financial affairs, abduction and slave trading.
9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour. (Exodus 20:16)
This commandment prohibits slandering others and defaming their good name without just cause. We violate this commandment when we carelessly gossip and speculate about others to their dishonour, and even if we stand by and allow others to slander someone while saying nothing, we are bearing false witness against that person. If we rejoice in someone’s failings, underestimating others and overestimating ourselves, we are then also bearing false witness.
10. You shall not covet
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s. (Exodus 20:17)
We are required by the tenth commandment to be charitable towards others and to respect their property. We are prohibited from being discontented at the wealth of others compared to ourselves and from envying them for their wealth.
Christ is our righteousness
In conclusion, we realise that if we judge our goodness on moral precepts, we are skating on very thin ice. The Ten Commandments are good and we should be aiming to love God and our neighbours perfectly, but we cannot achieve the fullness of the Law. We are not justified through the Commandments (immediately after they were revealed, they were already being broken), but there is one who has fulfilled them: the Lord Jesus Christ is our righteousness, our perfection. The true way to be justified and counted as a good person (since we are not inherently good) is to be joined to Christ in faith by grace.