The Ten Commandments are the principles by which man may live with God and man may live with man. They are the expressions of the mind of God for His creatures.
—Cecil B. De Mille, opening of The Ten Commandments (1956)
Most American Christians are terribly ignorant of the Ten Commandments. Few can list them all, let alone quote them accurately. Fewer still can explain the significance of these ten or their relationship to the rest of Christian theology. To most American Christians, as to the world generally, they seem a random collection of obvious—or intrusive—moral requirements.
Why these ten? Why this order? What in the world is God getting at? Doesn’t He have more important (or less obvious) concerns? So here is one more look at the Big Ten from Sinai with some thoughts about their inner cohesion and their eternal ground in the Being of God. Faithfulness to the Ten Commandments can be the beginning of America’s much-needed humility evidenced in II Chronicles 7:14. We need forgiveness, and our land needs healing.
1: No Other Gods
The First Commandment deals with sovereignty, with the proper source of law and authority. There is only one God and, therefore, only one source of law. Yahweh demands that all men recognize His sovereignty, believe His Word, and submit to His laws both in the privacy of their hearts and in all of life. He’s the only One at the top. He is undivided and unconfused in His essence. All of this means we are to love and serve Him with undivided hearts and unconfused loyalty. We are to love Him in and from our hearts and with all our strength—all our energies, passions, and skills (Deut. 6:4-5). We are to reject every kind of legal, political, or cultural polytheism.
2: No Misrepresentation
The Second Commandment addresses the representation and revelation of God’s sovereign authority. How does God reveal Himself? How does man approach God? Who or what mediates between God and men? The Second Commandment rules out images as God speaks to His people through words. God is Spirit (John 4:24) and, therefore, invisible and intangible by nature. He transcends created reality (2 Chron. 6:18). He reveals Himself in everything that He has made, but He is not like any of His creatures (Rom. 1). None of His creatures can contain Him, fully expresses His nature, or serves as a point of contact with His Being. Any attempt to portray God in visible or concrete terms must necessarily misrepresent who He is. Any picture of God is necessarily a lie (Rom. 1:25), and such lies have often become stepping-stones to political or ecclesiastical tyranny.
3: Honor God’s Name
God’s name represents the authority He has given to His people. In His name we may pray, speak, judge, and covenant together. We have permission to act as His agents. But we must use His name on His terms, for His glory, and for the benefit of His kingdom. And we may not dictate the exact manner in which God will carry out His will and promises through us or for us. We are empowered servants, not magicians.
4: Remember the Sabbath Day
The Fourth Commandment establishes the weekly sign and seal upon our relationship with God. It is covenant life in miniature. For Israel, the Sabbath was structure, discipline, type, and promise all in one. It structured Israel’s life and worship and taught her to seek her rest and salvation in God alone. Its rest foreshadowed the world to come, the blessed kingdom of our Messiah (Mic. 4:1-5).
By His resurrection, Jesus recreated and renewed the Sabbath. The New Covenant Lord’s Day testifies to the advent of God’s kingdom, to a Messiah who has already come. But like the Sabbath, it is designed to transform our mindset and lifestyle. More than that, it is designed to transform our society and our culture. And it grounds all of this in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who meets with His Church every Lord’s Day (Rev.1).
5: Honor Your Parents
The Fifth Commandment draws on the archetypical reality of God’s Fatherhood. We ought to honor our fathers because the Son honors His. (And by a similar logic, our fathers ought to be honorable.) But the Commandment rests upon God’s right to image and delegate His authority, not on the moral excellence of particular fathers. We are to honor the Archetype in the image. We are also to submit to God in the human authorities He has ordained (Rom. 13). God links honor for parents with long life and inheritance. Long life means more time for productive service, more time to learn and grow, more time to train and empower the next generation. As families remain faithful over time, their wealth and influence for the kingdom tends to compound. Their sphere of stewardship and productive service should, in theory, grow. And so God’s kingdom advances on Earth and in history. The Fifth Commandment expresses the covenantal principle of continuity, inheritance, and succession.
6: Don’t Kill
The Sixth Commandment reminds us that God is Life—abundant, fruitful life. God images His own Life in created life. This is especially true of human life, as man is made in God’s very image. Life, then, exists on God’s terms and for His purposes. We may only use living things as God’s law permits. We may only take life as His law allows. In this sense, life is sacred. That is, it is protected by God’s holy commandments. But life is not divine. To treat it as such is idolatry. And though we are to “do no murder,” Scripture authorizes the civil magistrate to wield the sword (Rom. 13:1-5)—to execute those guilty of capital crimes and to use deadly force against foreign aggressors. None of this does away with God’s demand for mercy or our obligation to love and take care of His creation. A righteous man regards the life of his beast; a godly man loves his neighbor and even his enemy (Matt. 5:44).
7: Don’t Commit Adultery
The Seventh Commandment recognizes that God is ontologically distinct from His creation. Most Americans think this commandment is just about sex. It is, of course, but there’s more: We become His people, not by identity of essence, but by covenant commitment—first His, then ours. The Divine Bridegroom comes seeking us. In Jesus Christ, He laid down His life for us (Eph. 5:25-32). God designed human marriage to reflect this covenant relationship. He ordained marriage as the proper goal of romantic love and as the proper setting for fruitful sexuality and intimate community. And so God requires sexual purity of all humankind and marital fidelity of those who enter the marriage bond. Marriage and family are to serve God’s interests and the coming of His kingdom (Gen. 1:26-28).
8: Don’t Steal
The Eighth Commandment also rests upon God’s nature. Theologians would say, for example, “There is in God a distinction without alienation and relationship without absorption.” Ordinary folks like us would say, “The Father loves His Son, but the Son is not the Father. God made the world, but the world is not God.” The Father says “my Son” and loves Him as His equal; He says “my world” and claims it as His property. God owns the world: He is its Lord. But God has delegated limited responsibilities within His creation to individual men and women. The Biblical word for this is stewardship. For the most part, man’s stewardship of God’s world is individual and particular. Each of us is responsible to God for his own property, time, and talents. Further, each of us will give account of how he has used these things. When it comes to our property, it’s also important to understand that God’s first concern is His glory, purpose and kingdom, not our material well-being.
9: Don’t Bear False Witness
The Ninth Commandment requires us to always tell the truth. But truth requires context. Facts require interpretation. God is the context that explains created reality. God’s sovereign decree structures all of creation, so His word defines reality. In the courtroom, the political arena, the media, and broader culture, we are to bear true witness to the ontological Trinity, to God our sovereign Creator. The issue is not religious sentiment or preference, but the divine mandate: “You are my witnesses” (Isa. 43:10-12; Acts. 1:8).
10: Don’t Covet
The Tenth Commandment speaks to intent, desire, and passion. This one’s tough because it addresses our hearts. We must not want the wrong things or the right things in the wrong way. First, our desires must rise out of an honest and passionate love for God. All our desires must be in God and for God. Second, we must not try to obtain good things by Biblically unlawful or unloving means. We must not cheat the spirit of the law while giving lip service to the letter. Rather, all our desires and intentions ought to resonate with a passionate love for God and an honest passion for our neighbor’s good. At the end of the day, God is Love, and there can be no true joy, fulfillment, or liberty that does not take that eternal Love as its starting point.
Christ and the Law
When we read between the lines of the Ten Commandments, we find the ontological Trinity, Yahweh as He is in Himself. But we also find God as our Redeemer. Jesus Christ is the end and goal of the Law (Rom. 10:4). All of the Commandments point to Him and exist for His sake. He is the Angel of God’s Presence (Isa. 63:9). It is in His face that we behold God, and nowhere else (John 14). He is the image of the invisible God, the only Mediator between God and men (Col. 1:15; 1 Tim. 2:5). He is the Father’s Executor, and His is the name above every other name (Phil. (Phil. 2:9). He is our Rest and Salvation (Heb. 4). He honored and obeyed His Father in all things, even to death on the cross (John 17). There, He won His Bride’s redemption and bought back the world that Adam lost (Eph. 5:25). He is now its King, and that means everything is His (Matt. 28:18-20). He continues to be the Faithful Witness of His Father’s mercy and justice (Rev. 1:5). And until He comes again, He offers Himself as the “Desire of All Nations,” the One in whom we are to find all that we need (Col. 2).
The Ten Commandments are covenant law. They draw the boundaries and describe the parameters of covenant fellowship with God. Within that fellowship, we must not seek any other gods, invent any other mediators, or attempt any magical manipulation of our heavenly Father’s will. Rather, we must honor the created analogues that reflect the divine Archetype: Sabbath rest, delegated authority, human life, marital fidelity, dominion and stewardship, faithful witness, and true love. To think that man can enjoy fellowship with God on any other terms than these is simply madness. And because we are sinners, we can never obtain this amazing fellowship with God by our works alone. We need the work of Jesus Christ, who is the End, Focus, and Goal of all the commandments of God.Every day we delay, we dig the hole deeper and deeper. The desperate financial and economic storms we face are but a symptom of a much deeper and more dangerous problem: America has rejected God’s law.