A woman reads the Ten Commandments.

Get to Know the Ten Commandments

The Ten commandments are as relevant today as they were to Moses and the Israelites when God inscribed these enduring laws into stone.

The Commandments in the Old Testament

Outdated or timeless?

Zooming down mountain roads, most drivers appreciate the safety margin provided by the guardrails protecting them from going over sheer cliffs. Intuitively, they understand the value of these barriers—never willfully testing the strength of the rails. God established the Ten Commandments as “guardrails” for His people, the Israelites. Are these commands still relevant more than 3,000 years later? Do these rules apply to Christians today?

What are the Ten Commandments?

You’ll find the story of God’s Ten Commandments in the second and fifth books of the Old Testament (see Exodus 20:1–17 and Deuteronomy 5:4–20). Through Moses, God gave the people of Israel “ten words” or “ten sayings” in biblical Hebrew to guide their interactions with God and each other. The Septuagint, a Greek version of the Old Testament, used the term Decalogue (Greek: deca (ten) and logue (words) for these sayings. Later, these sayings became known to us as the Ten Commandments.

Why did God give Ten Commandments?

As the Book of Exodus opens, the Israelites have been slaves of the Egyptians for 400 years. Not only were they oppressed, they were continually exposed to the Egyptian gods and goddesses. But the Israelite’s God—the God of their forefather Abraham—was more powerful than these false gods. As a sign to the world, God sent plagues on Egypt, forcing Pharaoh to free His people.

As Moses led the people toward the land promised to them by God, He stopped them after three months and called Moses to the top of Mount Sinai. There, the Lord gave Moses the Ten Commandments, which are a distillation of the Law that God would give the Israelites. These ten commands taught the people of Israel how to honor and acknowledge their God. Each person was called to keep the entire Law all of his or her life to be able to stand before God. Since no one could lead a sinless life, only Jesus—who is fully God and fully man—could later fulfill the Law by shedding His blood on the Cross atoning for our sins.

Why are the Israelites special to God?

As the descendants of Abraham, the Israelites were people specifically chosen by God for a special relationship. Abraham’s heirs grew into a nation called Israel, which served as an example to all people of God’s love, faithfulness, protection, favor and blessing for those who believe in Him and obey Him. Their story is told in the section of the Bible called the Old Testament, which ends about 400 years before the birth of Christ. The New Testament tells the story of Jesus.

Why Ten Commandments?

The number 10 is seen as a complete number that helps organize all the other numbers. Some suggest that 10 represents God’s divine order. Others point to their fingers and toes. The number of commandments represents God’s order and man’s responsibility. The first four commandments relate to our relationship with God. The fifth commandment is a transition verse having elements that fit within both groups. The remaining five commandments relate to relationships with other people.

When were the Ten Commandments given?

No exact date is known. Some estimate the Ten Commandments were given somewhere around 1440 BC, based on dating derived from
1 Kings 6:1. Others suggest that the commandments were received closer to 1275 BC. Some scholars speculate that the Ten Commandments were given on the same day of the year that the Holy Spirit was given to the early Chuch on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2) after Christ’s ascension.

How were The Commandments given?

The Bible records how God gave these instructions to Moses and the people in Exodus chapters 19, 20 and 24. God verbally proclaimed the Ten Commandments to the people of Israel. God Himself inscribed these commandments on two stone tablets with His finger (Exodus 20, Deuteronomy 5:22 and Exodus 31:18). Through Moses, God also gave hundreds of other instructions, which cover civil and religious laws. Most are found in the first five books of the Old Testament and, collectively, they are called the Law.

Stone tablets, really?

Yes, but these tablets are different then those we typically see in film. Lawson Stone, professor of Old Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky, provides an interesting description of the tablets in his article “Turning the Tables—The ABCs of the Ten Commandments.” Here are Lawson's main points:

  • The tablets were not huge. They were probably a little smaller than a piece of notebook paper.
  • The commandments were written on both sides of each stone.
  • The two tablets were really two copies. Each tablet contains all of the 10 words or sayings. Because the commandments were actually a legal treaty, or contract, a copy was made for each party—God and the Israelites. This was the Mideastern tradition at the time for a treaty between a king and his vassal (subordinate). The king kept one copy and the vassal kept the other. Since God designated the Tabernacle (a portable temple made by the Israelites) as His dwelling, both copies of the Ten Commandments were stored there. The tablets were inscribed with early Hebrew script and resembled something closer to those Charlton Heston hoisted in the 1956 film The Ten Commandments than to modern re-creations in films and images.

Note: All Bible quotes are from the New International Version.

Two tablets with the Ten Commandments.
Allanswart/Thinkstock

Ten Commandments and Their Meaning

Our Relationship with God, Family and Society

1. You shall have no other gods before me.
In who or what do you place your daily and ultimate trust? Who or what do you worship? God, money, good looks, another person, intelligence? God must come first.

2. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the Earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous god, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
Worshipping things comes easy to us. Money can become an image. Photos of the perfect guy, girl or house can become an item of worship. Some figuratively bow to a framed and prominently displayed educational degree. Where we spend our time, money or attention can reveal what we worship.

3. You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses His name.
God's name represents his character and power. Do we honor God in how we address Him or refer to His name?

4. Remember the sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor 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, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the Earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but He rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and made it holy.
Setting aside one day a week to praise and worship God is essential. It communicates respect and honor to God. it also allows us to focus on our relationship with God. We are renewed as we remember the most important parts of life. We are refreshed when we rest. Do you honor God in worship each week?

5. Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.
Parents are part of God’s structure for society. We can honor the position parents have in our lives, even if we cannot always respect them when they sin or exhibit bad behavior.

Our Relationship with Others

6. You shall not murder.
Not just murder. Jesus suggests that anger that leads to violence and harm also makes a person subject to judgment. Love protects and considers the interests of others. Do you?

7. You shall not commit adultery.
Adultery is infidelity with or by a married person. The words Jesus uses suggest adultery is any sexual relationship outside of marriage. Even lust is included. Every sexual relationship impacts a person, although we may not see it for years. God understands this special union and seeks to protect us.

8. You shall not steal.
Stealing can be as blatant as taking from another. Or it can be subtle: Stealing includes cheating another, not dealing fairly with others and stealing credit for another’s work. Treat others as you wish to be treated.

9. You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
Lying comes in many forms. It includes giving false testimony in court, telling untruths about another, gossiping, willfully misrepresenting the truth, and withholding truth when others are being harmed. Consider how to be kind and how to always speak the truth.

10. You shall not covet your neighbor's house. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
Covet means a strong desire to wrestle something away from another. It is green and idolatry. Do we twist situations to get what we want? Do we give thanks to God for what we have?

The Commandments in the New Testament

Jesus and the Ten Commandments

Jesus said He came to fulfill the Law (Matthew 5:17). This meant He had to keep and never break any of the commandments. No one had and still hasn’t ever achieved this state of perfection. Only Jesus, who was fully God and fully man, could lead a sinless life.

The Pharisees quizzed Jesus, asking which commandment was the greatest. “Jesus replied, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All of the Law and Prophets hang on these two commandments” Matthew 22:37–40.

The Ten Commandments point us to Jesus Christ. Love for God and love for people are at the heart of who Jesus is. He fulfilled all through His love. God is love, therefore Jesus is love (1 John 4:16, Philippians 2:6). Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” John 15:13. This greater love is the basis of the new relationship Jesus established between God and people.

The Apostles, the Law and the Ten Commandments

The apostle Paul explains in Galatians 3 that the Law was given to guard mankind until God sent Jesus Christ. The Law was meant to lead us to Christ (Galatians 3:24). Old Testament laws were given for specific purposes in three areas: moral behavior (the Ten Commandments), civil (government) behavior and ceremonial (worship) behavior. The New Testament confirms that the need for civil and ceremonial laws had ended. For example, Peter and Paul address these practices (Acts 11, Colossians 2:13–23, Galatians 5:6, Hebrews 7:18, 26–28). The apostles kept the moral law (the Ten Commandments) by following Jesus’ example of love for one another and for God.

Q & A about the Commandments

It’s easy to become confused when discussing the Ten Commandments. We must look at the entire Bible, not just part of the Scriptures. Asking the right questions guides how we should respond to the Ten Commandments.

Do I need to keep the Ten Commandments?
Yes. Keeping the Ten Commandments is a demonstration of your love for God. It is not the basis for your salvation. It demonstrates your acknowledgment that God is ruler of all. We submit to His kingship by following His rules. His rules are based on love, justice, mercy and righteousness. Jesus encourages others to keep the commandments. He said that He came to fulfill the commandments not to do away with them. Will we fail at times? Yes, that is why confessing our sins daily refreshes us with God’s mercy (1 John 1:9).

Is my salvation dependent on my keeping the 10 Commandments?
No. Salvation comes through faith. God declared Abraham as righteous based on his faith (Romans 4:3, Galatians 3:6). Abraham lived before God gave the Law, and Jesus has already fulfilled the Law on our behalf.

God did not change His manner of dealing with humanity. Jesus said that it is God’s will that everyone who looks to the Son will have eternal life (John 6:40). Paul declares that salvation could never come through the Law. God only honors faith in Himself (Jesus Christ) as the basis for righteousness and salvation (Galatians 2:16, 3:11). We are saved by grace not works, even the keeping of the Ten Commandments (Ephesians 2:8).

Is salvation granted through grace?
Yes. Most seem to hope that God grades on a curve. Many think they just need to do more good work than bad to get into heaven. But keeping the Ten Commandments does not make anyone an “A” student in God’s eyes. We all fail when evaluated on our own performance.

Jesus proclaimed, “ … unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). Jesus goes on in the next verses to expand on the Ten Commandments, saying inward thoughts like anger and lust demonstrate the condition of the heart.

God looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7, 1 Chronicles 28:9, Romans 5:5, 8:27). Nothing is hidden from God. But God in His mercy gives us a perfect score because Jesus passed the test for us. Undeserved, Christ’s righteousness is credited to us as our righteousness (Romans 4:22-24, 10:3–4). This is the wonder of grace.

Are the Ten Commandments etched into our hearts?
Yes. God promises in Hebrews 10:15–17 to etch His laws into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. Jesus tells us, “for He (the Holy Spirit) lives with you and will be in you” John 14:17. Christ’s love flows through the Holy Spirit as we walk with Him. It is through Christ’s perfect love that we can love God and love our neighbors as ourselves, fulfilling the Ten Commandments and more. And when we fail there is forgiveness.

How do we keep the Ten Commandments?
Jesus said, “I am the Vine, you are the branches. If you remain in Me and I in you, you will bear much fruit, apart from Me you can do nothing” John 15:5.

Become a Commandment Keeper

As children of God who are saved by grace, we should keep the commandments. Why? In one of His teaching stories, or parables, Jesus told of a father who asked his two sons to do a task. One said yes, but did not do it. The other said no, but regretted refusing and completed the task. Which did as the father asked? It is the one that completed the task, not the one that just said yes (Matthew 21: 28–31).

As children of God, the Ten Commandments encourage us to reflect His character in all our thoughts, deeds and attitudes. We will do as the Father asks. We will keep His rules and do His work as obedient children.

The book of James explains that our deeds (works) demonstrate that our faith is real (James 2:17-26). This is a nice way of saying “talk is cheap.” We are known by our fruit. Our words, deeds, attitudes and thoughts demonstrate for all to see what we value in life.

Jesus said He is the Vine and we are the branches. We draw the power through the Spirit to live as God commands. The Holy Spirit changes us through God’s Word and makes us holy (John 17:17).

Keep the Ten Commandments and your faith will shine for all to see.
Woman Reading Photograph Squaredpixels/Istock

A typographic layout of the Ten Commandments.