This is the twenty-second lesson in author and pastor Mel Lawrenz’ How to Live the Bible series. If you know someone or a group who would like to follow along on this journey through Scripture, they can get more info and sign up to receive these essays via email here.
Just released: A Book of Prayers for Kids by Mel Lawrenz (a perfect Easter gift for the kids you know and love).
“Do you believe in the value of the Ten Commandments?”
“Do you follow the Ten Commandments?”
“Well… I try my best.”
“How many of the Ten Commandments can you name?”
That is a conversation that might unfold almost anywhere.
There are few statements of life principle that have the historic influence of the Ten Commandments. Some churches have children memorize them, they come up all the time in literature, and they are sculpted on the north and south friezes of the pediment of the Supreme Court building in Washington, DC, and in other official buildings.
Some would say that, if you want a moral foundation for all of life, you need look no further than the Ten Commandments.
What exactly are the Ten Commandments? And what significance do they have today?
They appear both in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, described as direct words from God to the people through their leader Moses. In Hebrew they are called the ten words (Hebrew: aseret ha-d’varîm). Later generations described them as commandments because they clearly were a summary of God’s order for life.
But context is everything when we try to understand a biblical text. The Ten Commandments are not merely ten laws dropped into history. They are not a list of top priorities. They certainly are not a formula for manufacturing personal righteousness.
These “ten words” were the central divine voice at a turning point in the life of God’s people. Several months after Moses led the tribe of the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt, they were encamped at the site of Mount Sinai in a desolate wilderness. There God met them. There God spoke to the people through Moses. And there, at Mount Sinai, God established a covenant with his people. It was almost like the initiation of a marriage. Solemn words of commitment were expressed. The “Book of the Covenant” was given. The “blood of the covenant,” coming from animals sacrificed, signaling a most serious commitment, was sprinkled on the altar and the people. In the midst of a complex and awe-inspiring exchange between God and human beings, these ten words became a landmark expression of covenant life with God.
Exodus 20:1-17 says:
And God spoke all these words:
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
“You shall have no other gods before me.
“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.
“You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.
“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.
“Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.
“You shall not murder.
“You shall not commit adultery.
“You shall not steal.
“You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
“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.”
(A minor point: there is some disagreement as to how to divide up this passage into ten commands, which is why the numbering of them differs between Jewish, Lutheran, Catholic, and other Protestant traditions.)
Let’s begin with some basic observations.
First, this revelation begins with the character and the saving acts of God. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of Egypt.” These are not ten abstract laws, or rules of behavior like we find in the Code of Hammurabi or the writings of Confucius. They are expressions of the moral character of God. They are about devotion, respect, integrity, and generosity.
Second, we should not let the formula “you shall not” make us think of the Ten Commandments as negative, limiting regulations. “You shall not” marks boundaries which keep us on the side of life, safety, and prosperity. On the other side of a “no” is an enlivening “yes.”
Third, the “ten words” are all about covenant relationships: humanity with God, and people with each other. The Ten Commandments define a lifestyle of harmonious relationships. They describe the good life, and the safe life.
Available now: Knowing Him: Devotional Readings About the Cross and Resurrection by Mel Lawrenz. Get it now.
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Mel Lawrenz (@MelLawrenz) trains an international network of Christian leaders, ministry pioneers, and thought-leaders. He served as senior pastor of Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, Wisconsin, for ten years and now serves as Elmbrook’s minister at large. He has a PhD in the history of Christian thought and is on the adjunct faculty of Trinity International University. Mel is the author of 18 books, including How to Understand the Bible—A Simple Guide and Spiritual Influence: the Hidden Power Behind Leadership (Zondervan, 2012). See more of Mel’s writing at WordWay.