Presenting basic rules for opening the Ten Commandments. Without these their deep purposes and challenges are usually missed.
In a grand but dilapidated mansion run as a Christian conference centre, a small group of people were talking in a lounge, and somehow the subject turned to the Ten Commandments. A student, speaking cautiously as if not wanting to offend, said he didn’t find the Commandments very challenging or useful for personal sanctification, because they dealt mainly with extreme sins like idolatry, adultery, stealing and murder. He acknowledged that they mentioned the Sabbath and lying, but still puzzled over the lack of rules on pride or selfishness or bad temper, not to mention many other sins he struggled with.
An older man in the room said the Commandments were probably not specific enough, and he could understand how the rich young ruler could imagine he had kept them all. A young woman felt they were too negative, whereas she wanted positive advice on how she should live, such as that in the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount, or Paul’s fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, and so on. These were surely more relevant for Christians.
All these people were earnest Christians who would never have meant to disparage any part of the Bible. A pastor in the group then embarked on a defence of the Commandments, pointing out that they were the source and summary of every other passage in the Bible about holy living, covering every conceivable sin – including pride and anger. He outlined their role, scope, and positive features, showing how perfectly they serve modern Christians in the quest for holiness and character.
The writer of this book* was not that pastor, but what follows in the next few pages is the kind of response he may well have given – in more developed form. It will set out briefly five facts it is vital to know about the Commandments if their full scope and depth is to be seen. In summary the five keys for unlocking the Commandments are these:–
Firstly, they reflect God’s character. What a motive this is to respect and study them!
Secondly, they keep their full authority today. It is so important to know that they tower above the old ceremonial and civic laws given temporarily to the children of Israel.
Thirdly, they were designed for believers. Certainly, they are binding on all mankind, but when their full contents are recognised, they are especially relevant to Christian people, even providing rules for worship and for the structure of the church.
Fourthly – and this key has a dramatic effect on how we apply the Commandments – each one covers a whole family of sins.
Fifthly, these Commandments, though mainly expressed in negative form, are also commands to perform the opposite positive virtues. The last two keys particularly revolutionise our use of this mighty code for holiness.
There is nothing quite like these Commandments for stimulating progress in sanctification, once our minds are primed to see all that they teach. In the New Testament we read that keeping them is an act of love to Christ (John 14.15), and also the basis of assurance (1 John 3.18-19). It is true that keeping them cannot save a single soul, but for believers, saved by grace through faith in Christ alone, they are priceless. This book* will follow the five biblical keys as its method of unlocking the riches of the ‘royal law’.
1. The Commandments Reflect God’s Character
First, it is essential to realise that the Ten Commandments flow directly from the eternal character of the holy God, and reflect Him. We must not regard them as an inferior, early version of God’s law; a primitive code designed only for the time of the Old Testament. They have been wrongly called temporary regulations framed to keep the human race in order while living in a fallen world, but they are far more than this. It is because they reflect God’s perfect character that they are the standard by which the world will be judged, and also the permanent rule of life for redeemed people.
Even the great nineteenth-century American theologian Charles Hodge loses sight of this vital fact when he says that the commandments about murder, marriage and property will cease to have relevance beyond this present life, and are therefore ‘not founded on the essential nature of God’. This view is out of line with the traditional mainstream of Bible commentators, and severely limits the personal application of these commandments. Once we grasp that all the Commandments reflect God’s own holy character, then we see that our innermost nature must be shaped by them.
We see, for example, that the sixth commandment condemns murder because it is the unchanging character of God to preserve and to deal very kindly with His people. The Lord will Himself keep the sixth commandment for ever in the eternal glory, where none of His people will ever perish. It is the character of God not to hurt or destroy anyone, aside from the just punishment of sin. Moses (as we shall see) links the sin of murder with that of taking away another person’s liberty, and with destroying the dignity of ageing parents. Whenever people are despised or emotionally crushed, something similar to murder is committed. The chief reason why this is evil is that it is contrary to the character of God, Who is love. We are to become more like Him in lovingkindness – an application which is obvious when we discern that each commandment is based on the character of our glorious God.
Similarly, the seventh commandment reflects the faithfulness of God. The ban on adultery is not merely an expedient to regulate human sexual behaviour in this present evil world. It is a commandment which will be perfectly kept (in the highest sense) throughout all eternity by God and His redeemed people, for they will be utterly loyal to one another. Once we see that this commandment flows from the character of God, we see that its scope extends far beyond marriage, and we are not surprised when Isaiah, Jeremiah, Paul and James (among other inspired writers) all use this commandment to teach the duty of spiritual loyalty.
The eighth commandment – ‘Thou shalt not steal’ – also reflects the wonderful character of the Lord, Who is the great giver and not the spoiler of men. His blessings are countless and free, and His people are to resemble Him by being those who give out, not those who sponge, or feed upon, or who drain away the resources (and emotional strength) of others. The eighth commandment goes well beyond the act of physical theft. (Tragically, many Christians who have never stolen anything material are passengers and burdens in their churches, and therefore are thieves, contributing nothing by way of spiritual witness or effort.) The eighth commandment rests on God’s infinitely benevolent character.
These examples provide just a glimpse of the full pastoral application that springs to view as soon as we see the Commandments as an expression of the character and tastes of Almighty God. But how can we be so sure that they reflect the character of God? The answer is that God has said so, for when He commanded Moses to proclaim the moral law to the people He began with these words: ‘Ye shall be holy: for I the Lord your God am holy’ (Leviticus 19.2).
Similar statements occur several times in the books of Moses, all indicating that the moral law was given as an extension of the character of God, or a description of His holiness. The apostle Paul also teaches that the Commandments are more than rules imposed by God for the regulation of society, repeatedly emphasising that they are spiritual in character. In Romans 7.12 and 14 he says – ‘Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good . . . the law is spiritual.’ We must be clear, therefore, that the moral code of the Ten Commandments reveals God’s wonderful nature and divine attributes.
2. The Commandments Keep Their Full Authority Today
The second key for unlocking the riches of the Commandments is to know that they are God’s perpetual rules for worship and holy living. This point naturally follows from the first. After all, if the Commandments reflect the unchanging character of God, it follows they will be supreme over any changing arrangements from the Old Testament era to the New. People often ask why the Ten Commandments should be separated from the civil and ceremonial laws which God gave to Moses, and regarded as the supreme expression of God’s moral law. Why should those other laws be swept away while the Ten Commandments keep their authority?
The answer may be given easily enough from the New Testament, where we find all the Ten Commandments affirmed in the teaching of Christ and His apostles. Some teachers say that the fourth commandment, about the Sabbath or Lord’s Day, is the exception, but they are mistaken, as we shall show in the study of that commandment.
The special status of the Ten Commandments is especially stated by Moses, who draws attention to the way in which they were delivered, saying: ‘These words the Lord spake unto all your assembly in the mount out of the midst of the fire, of the cloud, and of the thick darkness, with a great voice: and he added no more. And he wrote them in two tables of stone, and delivered them unto me’ (Deuteronomy 5.22). Exodus 31.18 adds that the Commandments were ‘written with the finger of God’.
God chose a unique way of communicating this particular portion of His Word. Generally He spoke through inspired human messengers – prophets and apostles – but He delivered these Commandments by a mighty voice from Heaven and wrote them in stone with His own ‘finger’. This direct manner of communication lifted the Ten Commandments high above the ceremonial and civic laws which followed. They were dramatically marked out as different, and ‘elevated’ to a position from which they would ever shine across both testaments.
Immediately after the giving of the Ten Commandments, the Lord revealed a host of other requirements to the Israelites in a less spectacular way, through Moses. He gave more detailed explanations of the Commandments, added many laws for specific situations, and also appended the religious ceremonial laws. These secondary laws were designed for the following purposes:
(1) to educate the minds of the people to understand vital concepts such as the holiness of God and the need for mediation and sacrifice;
(2) to provide a temporary system of worship until Christ came;
(3) to be visual aids pointing forward to the work of the Messiah.
All these secondary laws, both civic and ceremonial, were intended to operate only until Christ came, although their underlying principles have many lessons and applications for today. Nevertheless, the Ten Commandments stand above them all as the abiding moral law of God, and we must discount any teaching which places them on the same level as the laws which were terminated by the coming of Christ.
3. The Commandments Were Designed for Believers
The third key to seeing the riches of the Ten Commandments is the realisation that they were given to serve a two-fold purpose. They were obviously intended to be binding upon all mankind, yet at the same time they were designed to be particularly helpful to those who truly know and love the Lord. For mankind generally the Ten Commandments are the standards of righteousness for acceptance with God, barring the approach to Heaven to guilty and unforgiven people. Sinners can only be washed and redeemed because Christ has fulfilled the law’s demands on their behalf, and paid the eternal punishment of sin for His people.
Before conversion, the Commandments tower over us to condemn and convict, but once we have been brought to Christ, the same Commandments wear a friendly smile and become a great guide and help. On the one hand they are absolutely binding upon the whole human race as the basis of judgement, and on the other they are the manual of conduct, worship and blessing for all saved people. We learn this from Moses, who emphasises the special suitability of the law for believers in these words: ‘And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart’ (Deuteronomy 6.5-6). Moses did not here speak of an obedience of fear, but introduced the law as something designed to be a blessing to those who love the Lord. For them, the Commandments would be directive, and also precious, compelling and inspiring.
Do we find such inspiration in the Commandments? We may if we hold this key, namely, the realisation that they were largely framed with born-again people in view. When the Lord introduced the Commandments to the people, He said, ‘I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.’ These words show their special relevance to people who had found liberty and deliverance from God. They were written as a code of kindness, the ‘formula’ for continuing in liberty. God’s purpose was to protect His dear children from harm, and so He said (in effect), ‘I have brought you from bondage to liberty, and here are the rules which will keep you in the way of blessing.’
The dual function of the Commandments is like a great iron drawbridge barring the way to a castle surrounded by a wide moat. Once raised, it is impossible to break down the drawbridge, but should the signal be given to let someone into the castle, that impassable barrier swings down to bridge the moat. Once lowered, the person entering sees a solid iron road with strong, safe handrails, and the menacing barrier becomes a help and a support. This illustration falls short of the mark because the Ten Commandments are in no sense a bridge or mediator between man and God, nevertheless, salvation transforms the Commandments from enemies to friends. We must therefore approach the Commandments with a high expectation of personal, pastoral help and counsel. We must expect to hear from them a kindly, protective word. One of them, for example, when seen in this light, is a commandment to protect churches against the instability of inexperienced leadership. How can we be guaranteed as Christians the wonderful blessings of God, including clear evidence of His presence? The answer is – by these Commandments. Though they are binding upon all men, and though they certainly include stern prohibitions, they are among God’s kindest and most productive words for the protection and refining of believers.
4. Each Commandment Covers a ‘Family’ of Sins
The fourth key to unlocking the full value of the Commandments is indispensable, for, when this key is neglected, any exposition or understanding becomes superficial in the extreme. This fourth key is the belief that each sin named in the Commandments represents an entire species of sin. Each sin named is the chief offence of a whole family of wrong deeds. Moses demonstrates this principle in several passages, and the New Testament confirms it repeatedly. It is well known, for example, that the commandment against adultery also covers lust in the heart, and the commandment against murder includes hatred. Therefore when a commandment forbids a major sin, all the ‘lesser’ sins in the same family are to be included in the scope of that commandment.
The Commandments are certainly to be taken at face value, and obeyed at the level of the sin named, but to limit the Commandments to the sins specifically mentioned robs them of all but their surface meaning. We must always ask – What other sins are in the same family as the chief and representative offence named? Moses frequently provides the answer for us as he explains the law further, and we shall refer to his ‘commentary’ in the following chapters*. When, for example, idols and images are forbidden, we realise that this is the chief sin of a family, and non-literal forms of idol are included. If, therefore, there is something in our worship or in our lives which becomes a source of carnal enjoyment or satisfaction, displacing God, then it is an idol. Similarly, literal adultery is the worst sin in a family of offences that includes all other forms of unfaithfulness, and also spiritual adultery. We shall explore (and prove) these ‘families’ of sin in the chapters* ahead.
5. The Commandments Include Opposite Positive Virtues
The final key for understanding and appreciating the Commandments is the conviction that they are meant to be handled in a positive, as well as a negative, manner. While couched in negative tones, God means us to strive for the opposite virtue of every sin. The Commandments are expressed in a negative way because their first function is to highlight man’s sinfulness, but believers are to love and pursue the opposite qualities of each forbidden thing. This is how the New Testament teaches us to view the Commandments, as, for example, in Hebrews 13.5, where we read – ‘Let your conversation be without covetousness; and be content with such things as ye have: for he hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee.’ Contentment and reliance on the Lord are the positive virtues derived from the tenth commandment.
This was a method of interpretation which God intended His people to adopt from the very beginning, Moses being inspired to set the example when he says, ‘And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might’ (Deuteronomy 6.5), words later chosen by the Lord Jesus as a perfect summary of the first table of the Commandments. It was always intended that true believers should see the positive side of each prohibition. Moses again calls us to think about the positive virtues, saying, ‘Ye shall diligently keep the commandments of the Lord your God, and his testimonies, and his statutes, which he hath commanded thee. And thou shalt do that which is right and good in the sight of the Lord: that it may be well with thee’ (Deuteronomy 6.17-18). Nothing could be more positive than this fatherly exhortation. If we fail to identify the good behaviour implicit in each commandment we miss the point entirely. We must from each one build up a solid appreciation of the kind of people that God wants us to be, noting the contrasting good deed of each sin.
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It should be made clear that we depend on Christ alone for all our blessing, throughout life. Believers do not earn or secure their continuing blessing by obedience to the law, for all benefits, lifelong, come solely through the merits and work of Christ. Our striving for holiness cannot earn anything, for we fall so far short of God’s righteousness. Nevertheless, God requires that we should willingly, gladly desire to walk by the moral law, to please and honour Him. A small child may receive a reward for good behaviour, perhaps an outing or a gift, but the child’s efforts do not earn the money to pay for the reward. Similarly, God ‘rewards’ the righteous, but these rewards are entirely purchased by our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, and are rewards of grace. Indifference to God’s Commandments, however, will forfeit much spiritual comfort, assurance, instrumentality and answered prayer, and may even bring the Lord’s hand of discipline upon us (see Hebrews 12).
This article is derived from the introductory chapter of God’s Rules for Holiness: Unlocking the Ten Commandments, by Peter Masters. Available for purchase via the Tabernacle Bookshop. ISBN 9781870855662.
God’s Rules for Holiness
Prologue. Five Crucial Keys
1. Putting God First
‘Thou shalt have no other gods before me’
2. Making God Small
‘Thou shalt not make … any graven image’
3. Keeping Close to the Lord
‘Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain’
4. The Believer’s Special Day
‘Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy’
5. God’s Plan for His Church
‘Honour thy father and the mother’
6. Murderers All!
‘Thou shalt not kill’
7. One Fence to Disaster
‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’
8. The Many Faces of Theft
‘Thou shalt not steal’
9. A Family of Lies
‘Thou shalt not bear false witness’
10. Enemy of the Heart
‘Thou shalt not covet’