Introduction to the Ten Commandments
Not many decades ago, most citizens of western cultures were quite familiar with the Ten Commandments and much of the rest of the Bible. School teachers prayed and quoted from the Bible. The Ten Commandments were posted in public places—classrooms, court houses, public parks and squares, and churches. Things have changed, drastically. Public displays of the Ten Commandments are becoming rare. They have been absent from public classrooms for many years, and anti-religion groups have been successful in intimidating public officials into removing them from public property. Hence, knowledge of the Ten Commandments is no longer universal. Quite rare is the person today who can recite even half of them.
Comedian Jay Leno, in his “Jaywalking” segment, recently asked the following:
“How many commandments are there?”
“Can you name any of them?”
“Freedom of speech!”
Such confusion and ignorance may seem humorous, but it’s also revealing. Ignorance of the law leads to lawlessness. Without an understanding of basic moral expectations, everyone will do what is right in his own eyes (Jud 17:6), which will result in chaos. Further, secularized people are often unwilling to consider the idea that morality is more than personal opinion. Even those who know something about the Ten Commandments typically ignore them or think of them as mere suggestions. Standards of public morality plunge as people ignore, neglect, and dismiss biblical expectations such as those listed in the Ten Commandments. Without transcendent, eternal norms, human behavior becomes increasingly inhuman, barbaric, and savage.
Conditions are not much better within the church than they are in our secular culture. Quite a bit of page turning would be required for the average believer to find where the Ten Commandments are listed in the Bible. An even more challenging task is understanding the significance OT commandments have for NT believers. Are the Ten Commandments still in force? All of them? Why or why not? What is the relationship between the Law and the Gospel?
Why is it important for us to study the Ten Commandments? John Bunyan gives us the answer: “The man who does not know the nature of the law cannot know the nature of sin. And he who does not know the nature of sin cannot know the nature of the Savior.” 1 The OT law shows us our need for the Savior. It convinces us of sin and drives us to Christ. So we would agree with Paul when he says “the commandment holy, and just, and good” (Rom 7:12). We must affirm the continuing legitimacy, validity, and necessity of God’s law to guide human behavior.
The Use of the OT Law for NT Believers
Before beginning our study of the individual Commandments, we should first consider how NT believers are to understand and apply OT law. So let’s consider that issue first.
Many Christians are confused about the use of the OT Law. Do we follow it or not? Is it still in force or not? What parts of it should we follow? If we are not following it, of what value is it?
This lesson is designed to explore what the OT Law is and how it currently applies to NT believers.
I. Meaning of the word “law”
The Ten Commandments are a small portion of the OT law. We find multiple uses of the word “law” in the Bible. Some of the uses of the term:
A, God’s general moral will expressed throughout the Bible (OT and NT); divine commands in the widest sense (Rom 7:25).
B. The moral principles of the Ten Commandments did not begin with Sinai; they are as eternal and immutable as the very holy character of God Himself (1 Pet 1:16). 2
C. The OT Mosaic code (including or especially the 10 Commandments), i.e., the set of rules and regulations that God gave Moses for Israel (Rom 2:14a; 2:17; 3:21, 28; 7:12; Gal 4:21, 5:3).
D. Scripture in general (especially the OT). Thus: “the law” (Matt 5:18; 12:5; Lk 2:27; 10:26; 16:17; Rom 3:19); “the law and the prophets” (Matt 5:17); “the law of the Lord” (Lk 2:23, 24, 39); “the law of Moses” (Lk 2:22; cf. also Acts 28:23); “Moses and the prophets” (Lk 24:27). The threefold formula “Moses and the prophets and the psalms” also occurs (Lk 24:44).
E. The “law of Christ” (1 Cor 9:21; Gal 6:2)
A rule, principle, or force (Rom 2:14b, 3:27, 7:2, 21, 23, 8:2)
Various forms of human laws, those prescribed by man through human government or custom (Luke 20:22; Acts 19:38)
II. NT teaching about the OT Law
A. The law (i.e., the Mosaic code) extended “until John” the Baptist (Mt 11:13); after that comes the gospel of Christ.
B. Christ did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it (Mt 5:17). It is impossible that any part of the law would disappear (Mt 5:18-19). Jesus expected his audience to keep the Law. It’s important to remember that Jesus lived and ministered under the Law. The end of the law came with the death of Christ, the torn veil symbolizing the ending of the Levitical system (Mk 15:38; Heb 6:19, 9:3, 10:20). Jesus’ fulfillment of the law set the stage for the church age.
C. The law can be summarized by these two commands: Love God and love your neighbor (Mt 22:34-40). Paul states that love fulfills the law (Rom 13:10).
D. Christians are not under the OT Law. Note the following verses in this regard: Acts 15:10, 19; Rom 6:14, 7:1-6, 10:4; 2 Cor 3:7-18; Gal 3:10-13, 3:24-25, 5:1; Eph 2:15; Col 2:14
- What does it mean to be “under” the Law? It means to be subject to its rules and regulations, to be accountable to it, to be liable to its penalties, and to be bound to obey it.
- The Israelites were “under” the law in the sense that it applied directly to them; God expected them to apply it and obey it. He blessed obedience and punished disobedience.
- At the Jerusalem council (read Acts 15:5-11, 19-21, 29), the disciples specifically rejected the idea that Gentile believers need to observe all the stipulations of the OT Law.
- The book of Galatians refutes the idea that keeping the OT law is a means of salvation. Those who would put themselves under the OT law have “fallen from grace” (Gal 5:4). Paul states that he is “dead to the law” (Gal 2:19) and that those who want to follow the law are under the curse of the law (Gal 3:10). Christ has redeemed the believer from the law (Gal 3:13). Believers are no longer under that “schoolmaster” (Gal 3:25). The law is a “yoke of bondage” with which we should not be “entangled” (Gal 5:1). Those who are led by the Spirit are not under the law (Gal 5:18). Paul could hardly be clearer on this matter.
- Some Jews, like Paul (1 Cor 9:19-23) determined to observe the rituals of the OT Law, at least occasionally, simply to be non-offensive to those they were trying to reach. At other times, Paul exercised his freedom from those same rituals and restrictions (see Gal 2:11-21).
- The law of Moses is a unit, an indivisible, all-or-nothing proposition. The Bible never makes a distinction between parts of the Law. People commonly recognize the different civil, ceremonial and moral aspects of the Law, but these categories do not stand individually; they are parts of the whole. You can’t just pick and choose the parts that you like and ignore the rest. This is precisely Paul’s point in Galatians 5:3-4—if you agree to be circumcised, you are agreeing to obey the whole Law, which means that you are rejecting salvation by faith in Christ.
The typical distinctions recognized in the OT law:
Ceremonial: deals with sacrifices, rituals, purifications, and other religious activities fulfilled in Christ
Civil: rules dealing with the government regulations, the Theocracy; governed national Israel
Moral: deals with timeless moral principles like the 10 Commandments
Quote: “God did away with the Mosaic law completely, both the [civil,] ceremonial and the moral parts. He terminated it as a code and has replaced it with a new code, “the law of Christ” (Gal 6:2). Some commandments in the law of Christ are the same as those in the law of Moses (e.g., nine of the Ten Commandments, excluding the command to observe the Sabbath day).” 3
E. Christians are under the law of Christ
Rom 8:2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death.
1 Cor 9:21 to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law;
Gal 6:2 Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.
What is the law of Christ? It’s the set of regulations and expectations taught by Jesus and expanded by the NT authors. It’s the Christian rule of life, essentially, the teaching of the NT epistles. In contrast to the Mosaic code, which emphasized rituals and works, the law of Christ emphasizes grace and love (cf. John 1:17, 13:34). We serve “in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter” (Rom 7:6). The law of Christ covers all areas of the believer’s life just as the Mosaic code did for the OT believer.
III. Interpreting the OT Law
While we should not import NT ideas into the OT in our interpretation, we do consider NT teaching when applying OT principles. Our application of the OT should be read thru NT lenses. What principles still apply in NT times? What parts has Christ fulfilled or accomplished? What parts are mere shadows and symbols?
IV. Values of the OT Law
A. The law is “holy and good” (Rom 7:12), one of God’s gifts to Israel (Rom 9:4).
B. The law provided a standard of righteousness (Deut 4:8; Psalm 19:7-9). The law revealed the righteousness, holiness, and goodness of God (Deut 4:8; Lev 11:44-45; 19:2; 20:7; Rom 7:12-14).
Note the Quote: God’s Law provides the foundation and parameters for civil and political freedom. Here we find timeless wisdom that is to regulate the daily discourse and which gives significance and purpose to life and work. 4
C. The law entered “that the offense might abound” (Rom 5:20; cf. 7:8-13; 1 Cor 15:56b), and in order to “confine” men under law and sin, with no prospect of escape until Christ should come (Gal 3:22f.). The law produces the startling realization of sin which does not save (Rom 3:20; 7:7); but it calls forth a cry for help in one’s lost condition (Rom 7:24), a cry which can be answered effectively only by Jesus Christ (Rom 7:25). 5
Rom 3:19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.
Rom 7:13 Has then what is good become death to me? Certainly not! But sin, that it might appear sin, was producing death in me through what is good, so that sin through the commandment might become exceedingly sinful.
1 Tim 1:9 knowing this: that the law is not made for a righteous person, but for the lawless and insubordinate, for the ungodly and for sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers,…
Note: In an evangelistic appeal, one must emphasize the sinner’s sinfulness. A comparison of the person’s lifestyle to the requirements of the 10 Commandments and to Jesus’ teaching on the Sermon on the Mount is often helpful in revealing the sinner’s total depravity.
Luther: The law must be laid upon those that are to be justified, that they may be shut up in the prison thereof, until the righteousness of faith comes—that, when they are cast down and humbled by the Law, they should fly to Christ. The law humbles them, not to their destruction, but to their salvation. For God woundeth that He may heal again. He killeth that he may quicken again. 6
Luther: As long as a person is not a murderer, adulterer, thief, he would swear that he is righteous. How is God going to humble such a person except by Law? The Law is the hammer of death, the thunder of hell and the thunder of God’s wrath to bring down the proud and shameless hypocrites. …. As long as a person thinks he is right he is going to be incomprehensibly proud and presumptuous. He is going to hate God, despise His grace and mercy, and ignore the promises in Christ. The Gospel of the free forgiveness of sins through Christ will never appeal to the self-righteous. This monster of self-righteousness, this stiff-necked beast, needs a big axe. And that is what the Law is, a big axe. Accordingly the proper use and function of the Law is to threaten until the conscience is scared stiff. 7
D. Perhaps the most significant purpose of the law is to lead men to Christ. The law is a paidago4gos, “schoolmaster, tutor, custodian” (Gal 3:24-25). The paidago4gos was usually a slave whose duty it was to take the pupil to school and supervise his conduct generally. The OT law served this purpose—it held authority until the coming of Christ. Paul states clearly that after faith comes, “we are no longer under a schoolmaster” (Gal 3:25).
E. 2 Tim 3:16 All of the OT is revelation, profitable material, containing doctrine and instruction in righteousness.
F. 1 Cor 10:11 Now all these things happened unto them for examples: and they are written for our admonition.
Good quote: It is possible to conclude that since it is unnecessary to keep the law to be saved, it is unnecessary to pay attention to the law for any reason. However, Paul was not urging his converts to burn their Old Testaments. The law has values, as he previously pointed out, … Under grace we are free to fulfill the law by loving one another. [Cf. Ro 13:10.] For the Christian the Mosaic law has revelatory value (2 Tim 3:16–17) even though it does not have regulatory value, controlling our behavior. 8
V. Weaknesses of the OT Law
A. The law cannot save. Salvation was never based on obedience to the Law, but on God’s grace and man’s faith in God’s promises (Rom 4:1-3). There is no truth to the assertion that under the OT system, people were saved by works (Gal 2:16).
B. The fundamental weakness of the law is that its only answer to sin is to forbid it and condemn it. Law cannot overcome sin, because it depends on the cooperation of the flesh (i.e., autonomous human nature), which is weak (Rom 8:3), incapable of obedience.
C. The law is essentially a letter that kills, a yoke the Jews were unable to bear (Rom 7:6; Acts 15:10). In contrast, the life of the new covenant is the Spirit who makes alive (2 Cor 3:6). What the law demands can be gained only by the Spirit because of the work of Christ (Rom 8:4).
D. The book of Hebrews demonstrates that the old covenant of the Mosaic law was only temporary and has been replaced by the coming of Christ whose ministry is based on (1) a better priesthood, one after the order of Melchizedek which is superior to Aaron’s, and (2) a better covenant with better promises (see Heb 7-10). The old covenant was only a shadow of heavenly things, and if it had been able to make men perfect before God there would have been no occasion for a second or new covenant (see Heb 7:11-12; 8:1-13). 9
Heb 7:19 For the law made nothing perfect, but the bringing in of a better hope did; by the which we draw nigh unto God.
VI. Why not place yourself under the Law?
Many today strongly assert that at least some of the rules and regulations from the OT are still binding for Christians. They claim that Christians should observe OT moral stipulations whenever possible. They say that although we are not saved by keeping the law, we keep the law as means of sanctification. The OT law becomes a rule of life for the believer. God gave those rules for a reason, so there must be some value in keeping them.
Examples: dietary regulations, clothing guidelines, infant circumcision, observation of the Saturday Sabbath
What is true of those seeking to place themselves under the OT Law?
A. They are violating the proper use of the law (read 1 Tim 1:9).
B. They ignore the fact that the law demands entire obedience (Gal 3:10, quoting Deut 27:26). It’s illegitimate to pick and choose those elements of it that seem “applicable.”
C. Paul says that if one has been delivered from the law through faith in Christ, to deliberately place oneself under its control results in “falling from grace” (Gal 5:4). In other words, to go back to the law amounts to a rejection of Christ.
D. To go back to the law as a way of life puts one under the control of the flesh; it nullifies true spirituality by faith in the Holy Spirit and defeats the believer. It results domination by the sin nature or the flesh (Gal 5:1-5; Col 2:14f). 10
E. To go back to the law ignores all the NT statements telling believers that they are not under the OT law.
VII. Is the Christian without law (i.e., lawless, antinomian)? No. Grace and forgiveness are not a license to sin.
Gal 5:13 For you, brothers were called to freedom; only do not use freedom for an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.
Gal 6:2 Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.
Titus 2:11-14 For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world;
Heb 1:9 [Christ] loved righteousness and hated lawlessness…
1 John 3:4 Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness.
- Quoted in Philip Graham Ryken, Written in Stone: The Ten Commandments and Today’s Moral Crisis (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2003), 8. ↩
- J. Hampton Keathley III , “The Mosaic Law: Its Function and Purpose in the New Testament.” www.Bible.net ↩
- Tom Constable. (2003; 2003). Tom Constable’s Expository Notes on the Bible (Ga 5:1). Galaxie Software. ↩
- Alistair Begg, Pathway to Freedom: How God’s Laws Guide Our Lives (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2003), 36. ↩
- NIDNTT ↩
- Quoted in R. Kent Hughes, The Sermon on the Mount: The Message of the Kingdom (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2001), 95. ↩
- Luther, Galatians, quoted in Alistair Begg, Pathway to Freedom: How God’s Laws Guide Our Lives (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2003), 37. ↩
- Constable. ↩
- Keathley ↩
- Keathley ↩