Ten Commandments

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery”
Exodus 20:1

Everyone appreciates freedom.[1] In fact, America prides itself on being the home of the free. Throughout the history of our country, American soldiers have fought to secure these freedoms for its citizens. Nowhere is this love of freedom more evident than when the rights of a group or individual are threatened or totally disregarded. We treasure moments in our history when these groups have been granted or have attained, sometimes after difficult struggle, their full rights. For many Americans, these rights are summed up in the words of Thomas Jefferson as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In this Declaration, a young America boldly asserts that these rights stem from our freedom as creations of God and that they, the rights themselves, are self-evident. However, because of the pluralistic, and increasingly secular nature of American society, the connection between our self-evident rights and our being created by an all-wise creator has been blurred or even lost. The problem that this creates is that when we do not acknowledge this Creator-creation relationship, we lose any objective grounds for our freedom that we cherish so dearly. In fact it is difficult to find any other basis for the self-evident nature of these rights. And, as C.S. Lewis writes, “If nothing is self-evident, nothing can be proved.”[2] In addition, it is taken for granted by most that with this great freedom comes much responsibility. We somehow understand that we are truly free only when others respect our personal freedom. In this we see that all freedom must be limited in some way. In other words, we are not free to do whatever it is that we want to do. This leads to two important questions: What are the limits to our freedom and who is entitled to set them? These questions can only be answered properly in the context of an objective standard, a standard held forward in the law of the Creator God.

It is an obvious fact of history that, where freedom has existed, people have tried to use it for their own selfish ends. Governments have been created, in many cases, solely to protect the rights of all and placing limits on those rights. The encyclopedia Ethics notes that, “The moral task of government, then, is too ensure that individuals are at liberty to use their property as they see fit to sustain and enhance their lives.” It goes on to say that, “government thus is given the power to use coercion defensively, in protecting individual rights.”[3] Two things are implied from these statements. First, freedom, as was mentioned earlier, is seen as a value of primary importance to all. Secondly, governments, in order to protect this freedom, must use laws to protect individual rights. The relationship between law and freedom is an interesting and important one. In fact, as John Rushdoony writes, “Because law governs men and society, because it establishes and declares the meaning of justice and righteousness, law is inescapably religious.”[4] To say that law is religious is to say that it governs that which is most important for human existence and that its precepts are taken for granted or, to use previous terminology, self-evident. Rushdoony goes on to assert that, “the source of law is the god of that society.”[5] At this point we are faced with a choice: either we submit to the god of human opinion in order to determine our liberty or we submit to the Creator God who governs His creation. If we declare the former to be our god, we are doomed to ride the waves of popular opinion and the basis of our freedom becomes completely subjective. On the other hand, if we submit to the law of the Creator God, who from this point on I will refer to the God of the Bible (both Old and New Testaments)[6], we will live in a freedom that is unchanging and, in fact, eternal.

For many, it is difficult to accept the Bible as God’s word to human beings. It is not my purpose here to elaborate on or prove the reliability of the Old and New Testament Scriptures. However, it is my intention to show how these writings, specifically those dealing with law, have been laid out for the use of the people of God. I agree with Wright when he argues that though many cannot accept revelation as a basis for ethics this was definitely the case for ancient Israel and for millions of Christians as well.[7] From the traditional Protestant perspective, Scripture has been given by God through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The human writers of the Bible, though inspired by God, were not robotic or unnatural in their writing. When interpreting the Bible, we must always consider the historical and culture context in which it was written. This is extremely important for the interpretation of Old Testament law. It is difficult for many to see any trace of human freedom in the books of the Hebrew Scriptures. It is even harder for many to see the relationship between the apparently harsh Law of Moses and Jesus’ law of love in the New Testament. However, when the contexts of these two systems are evaluated, we must conclude that not only did the Law of Moses grant freedom to its adherents, but that the law of Christ and that of Moses are intimately related to each other.

In general the Old Testament law, or Law of Moses, can be divided into three categories: civil for governing the nation, ceremonial for worship, and moral for ethics. In each of these areas the men and women of Israel were bound to obey God’s law. The New Dictionary of Christian Ethics notes that, “by obeying the law…they continued to experience His blessing and protection, and became living witnesses to the goodness of God among the nations.”[8] Does this mean that God’s relationship with Israel was strictly legal? If that were true, wouldn’t that be in direct contradiction to Jesus and the writers of the New Testament? It is here that we must understand the Law didn’t just appear to Israel out of nowhere. In other words, “the law is given within the context of a story.”[9]

The story begins with Genesis 1:1, where we learn that God is the Creator of all things and is therefore Lord of all things. Later, we see that God created man in His image, noting a special relationship and/or purpose for human beings. In the third chapter, we see that man falls from his original state in turning away from his loving creator in disobedience. Mankind, represented in Adam and Eve, was expelled from paradise and received the sentence of inevitable death. This death was represented by the expulsion from the garden of Eden, the place of God’s presence,[10] and the end of the special relationship between God and man. Christians have referred to this event as the fall, or spiritual death, of mankind. If just a cursory reading was given to these passages, one would think that there was little hope for mankind and that God had abandoned mankind and the earth. However, when we read from God’s curse pronounced on the serpent we see that God had future plans for His people: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”[11] While Jewish and Christian commentators differ on who this offspring is, it is clear that God is planning to use the line of Adam and Eve to defeat the line of the serpent, or Satan and evil. Later in the book of Genesis, we meet Abraham with whom God makes a covenant and promises that his descendants will be as many as the stars in the sky. At this point we see God bringing together a people for Himself. Eventually, these descendants of Abraham find themselves in Egypt under the bondage of slavery. Moses, who had been miraculously saved at birth, returns to Egypt after encountering God in the desert. He, with the help of God, demands Pharaoh to let God’s people go so that they can worship. The story of God’s rescue of His chosen people found in the book of Exodus, begins with the plagues of Egypt and ends with the crossing of the Red Sea and the meeting with God, Himself, at Mt. Sinai. It was at Mt. Sinai that God reaffirmed His covenant with the descendants of Abraham and gave them His law.

A number of things should be clear at this point. First, the story of Israel centers not around law, but on redemption. Second, before the law was given, God had acted in such a way as to create a relationship between Himself and His people. The redemption that was foreshadowed at the expulsion from the garden had been fulfilled, at least partially, in the redemption of Israel from slavery and the defeat of the Egyptian army at the Red Sea. It is important to note that God had acted on His own accord to save Israel. His actions were of a completely gracious manner. Elsewhere in the Old Testament, Moses explains God’s reasons for saving the people of Israel:
“The LORD did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know therefore that the LORD your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commands.”[12] (Deuteronomy 7:7-9)
The Israelites had been redeemed by a loving, covenant keeping God. This was the understanding of the men and women of Israel as they awaited the word of the LORD at Mt. Sinai.

When Israel received God’s law from Moses, one thing was very clear. It was in the context of this covenant of love that the law was given to the people. Christopher Wright notes that for the Israelite, obeying the law became “a matter of response and gratitude within a personal relationship, not of blind obedience to rules or adherence to timeless principles.”[13] The Israelites were to live in such a way as to honor God’s loving actions on their behalf, thereby honoring the covenant made between He and them. It was not the case, then, that they needed to keep the law in order that God would save them, for they had already been saved. Before Moses read the laws of God to the people, they were already God’s people. He had delivered them and they were now, in light of God’s grace, called to keep His laws.[14] Although the Israelites were called to keep the law (the core of which are the Ten Commandments) of God out of gratitude, keeping the law meant much more than this. In fact, there is a direct relationship between the redemption from Egypt and a new, liberated, way of life. The Decalogue was given because of God’s redemption and for the sake of Israel’s freedom.

For the sake of time I will not deal with each of the Ten Commandments in this current work.[15] I will deal predominantly with the prologue to the Decalogue. We first encounter the Ten Commandments in chapter twenty of the book of Exodus. Our passage reads: “And God spoke all these words: ‘I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.’”[16] There is much to be said regarding this particular passage and we can be most efficient if we divide it into three parts: 1. the LORD your God, 2. who brought you out of Egypt, 3. out of slavery. First, as was previously mentioned, God’s law was given in the context of relationship. Here God uses his special covenant name Yahweh and thereby illustrates His intimate relationship with His people Israel. He was not only a god, or even the God, but he was their God. Again, this shows that the law was not given to create a special relationship, but that, at the giving of the Ten Commandments, a special relationship already existed. Secondly, we are reminded that the law centers on redemption. God had acted in order to redeem them out of Egypt. The God of the Universe had heard and remembered his promises and graciously acted on behalf of his people. Here God shows His love and compassion for His people, in that He condescended to act on their behalf. Finally, God had brought them out of slavery and bondage. In fact, when God had earlier revealed Himself as Yahweh, the covenant God, He is identifying himself as the liberating God who fulfills His promises. The implications of this are two sided. On the on hand, God makes Himself known as the liberating one by graciously redeeming His people from the bondage of slavery. On the other hand, we cannot under-emphasize the fact that Israel had been in bondage. This bondage was a reality on many levels. They had been deprived of their rights and forced into labor against their will. Additionally, many had turned from God and had actually been influenced by the idolatry of Egypt,[17] thereby placing themselves in spiritual bondage. When we consider this aspect of bondage along with the concurrent history of the nation of Israel, we realize that God had liberated Israel in spite of their conduct.[18] Fortunately, God’s liberation was not just a physical one, but a spiritual and ethical liberation as well. The law was intended to teach the holiness of Yahweh, or to show Israel the difference between the way God does things and the way other nations do things. Later, in the Old Testament writings, God warns that continued submission to their love of foreign gods and to immoral practices would not only grieve the heart of God, but would lead them back into bondage. The Decalogue was given to safeguard the people of God from bondage; bondage to sin and its destructive power. Douma summarizes this idea very well: “The prologue prevents us from turning the Decalogue into a set of prescription used to order slaves around. They are instead rules of life for liberated people, people who must not be foolish enough to fall back into slavery.”[19] The liberties purchased for Israel by God in the Exodus “were not to be squandered, but to be protected by social responsibility based on exclusive loyalty to Yahweh.”[20]

So far, we have seen that the law of God, specifically the Ten Commandments, was given to the people of Israel as a means to live a liberated life and to show gratitude to Yahweh. The implications for the nation would have been immense. The law was indispensable as a guide for Israel’s ethics. As the people of God they were to reflect God’s glory to the nations and to establish the rule of God on earth. Peter Enns, in his commentary on Exodus, notes that the Decalogue “integrates cosmic order and social order.”[21] In other words, God’s will in heaven would be done on earth through faithful obedience to the law. It is interesting to compare this with the commission given to man in Genesis who, as the image bearer of God, was to have dominion over the earth. In a very real way, then the law of God is an image of God, or, in other words, the law reflects the character of God. Philip Ryken rightly notes, “The law always reveals the character of the lawgiver. This was especially true at Mount Sinai, where every one of the Ten Commandments was stamped with the being and attributes of Almighty God.”[22] The people of Israel, through the law, were called to be “a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.” In other words, by obeying the law they would reflect the ethical character of God.

Jesus, a loyal Jew, understood this role very well. When we read the gospels, it is obvious that Jesus saw himself as God’s representative on earth.[23] There is also evidence that he understood himself as the image bearer of God.[24] It is clear that the other writers of the New Testament saw Jesus as the image of the living God. Paul, in his second letter to the Corinthians, notes that Christ “is the image of God.”[25] Later, the writer of Hebrews writes, “He (Christ) is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of His nature, and He upholds the universe by the word of His power.”[26] Because of Jesus’ special position, He had the right to interpret and proclaim the will of God for His people. This is true of God’s law as well. Ryken writes, “If we want to understand the Ten Commandments properly, therefore, we need to know how Jesus interpreted them.”[27] In order for Christians to understand how the law relates to ethical behavior, they must first look to Jesus.

Jesus, many Christians would argue, was the true Israel, in that he perfectly obeyed the commands of God. He is the one chosen to show the world the character of God. In His obedience, Jesus sets an example for those who would follow Him in the ages to come. In fact, He urges His followers that unless their righteousness, or conformity to the law and character of God, surpasses that of the Pharisees they shall have no part in the Kingdom. Is Jesus simply putting forth more rules for the people of God to follow? At this point, we must remember that the “perfection” that God requires is one of perfect devotion, not sinlessness. Jesus summed the law up in two commandments. "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”[28] Love, of God and of man, sums up the whole of the law. Jesus is not presenting original material here.[29] He is calling the people of Israel, God’s chosen people, to live up to the calling which they have received: reflecting the character of Yahweh. It is clear that Christ had a high view of the law. He himself kept the law and He encouraged others to do the same. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus sets forward a thorough exposition of the law. His statement in Matthew 5 provides the backdrop for all that follows: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”[30] When Jesus refers here to the “Law or the Prophets” He is referring to the whole of Old Testament revelation. In other words, He did not come to destroy the Old Testament scriptures or to do away with its laws. He had not come to destroy, but to fulfill. John Murray wrote that Jesus, “came to realize the full measure of the intent and purpose of the law and the prophets”[31] or to bring them to full fruition. Jesus, as representative Israel, had perfectly obeyed the law and had brought to realization the many Messianic prophecies. What then were the implications for Jesus’ followers? The following verses provide us with the answer:
“For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 5:18-20)
To summarize the previous statement, Jesus places a strong emphasis on the importance of the law and all of its detail (iota and dot). He reveals an intimate relationship between membership in the kingdom and obedience to the law. To illustrate this, He contrasts the righteousness of the Pharisees with the righteousness of those who will enter the kingdom. The hypocrisy of Israel’s religious leaders was a constant topic of Jesus’ teaching. The righteousness of the Pharisees, therefore, lacked sincerity and true obedience. Murray writes, “The righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees is therefore that of character and behavior, the righteousness of doing and teaching the commandments of God.”[32] The law expresses God’s righteous will for His people and Jesus commands them to keep up, not as a way to get right with God, but as a way of pleasing the God who had redeemed them.[33]

Jesus had not come to contradict that which God had revealed to Israel at Mount Sinai. This becomes more obvious when we learn that Jesus, like a second Moses, came to save His people from their sins. Jesus upheld the validity of law as the revealed will of God. However, this did not mean that the law was an end in and of itself. Nor did this mean that God’s people needed to obey the law in order to partake in the blessings purchased by Jesus’ sacrifice. Like Moses, Jesus set forward the law as the ethical standard of living, based on God’s character, in order that His people might live a life of love and gratitude to the God who had redeemed them. Christ saved His people from the slavery of sin, just as Moses had freed Israel from slavery in Egypt. Christians must live out this freedom, not by using it as a license to do as they wish, but in order to exercise a righteousness that is pleasing to God. John writes in his gospel that, “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” Free to please God, free to gratefully obey his law.

Kris Ryan


1. Human freedom is a complicated issue and will not be dealt with extensively here. For further treatment see Ethics, John Roth ed. and The New Dictionary of Christian Ethics & Pastoral Theology. David J. Atkins ed.
2. Lewis, C.S. The Abolition of Man, p. 40, parenthesis mine.
3. Roth, John, ed. Ethics: Revised Edition, v.1, p. 540
4. Rushdoony, Rousas John. The Institutes of Biblical Law, p. 4
5. ibid., p. 4
6. For a strong philosophical defense of the Christian God see the classical works of Cornelius Van Til and Francis A. Schaeffer. For a more recent defense, note the works of John Frame and K. Scott Oliphint (specifically, his Reasons for Faith).
7. Wright, Cristopher J.H. Old Testament Ethics and the People of God, p. 32
8. Atkinson, David J. ed. New Dictionary of Christian Ethics & Pastoral Theology, p. 539
9. Wright, p. 26
10. The writer of Genesis, who the present author believes to be Moses, notes in Genesis chapter 3 that the man and his wife “heard the sound of the LORD God moving about in the garden at the breezy time of day.” (Jewish Publication Society) This and other language cause many commentators to see the garden of Eden as a archetype of the Temple in Jerusalem, the special place where God’s presence dwelled among his people. For further development of the garden-temple motif see Gordon Wenham’s Commentary on Genesis (Word Biblical Commentary).
11. Genesis 3:15 (New International Version)
12. NIV, emphasis mine.
13. Wright, p. 25
14. ibid., p. 28
15. For a detailed exposition of the Ten Commandments see Thomas Watson’s The Ten Commandments (Banner of Truth) and J. Douma’s The Ten Commandment(Nelson).
16. Exodus 20:1-2 (NIV)
17. This aspect of the Israelites character is illustrated in the recorded history of the nation and its continual rebellion against God.
18. Douma, J. The Ten Commandments, p. 3
19. ibid, p. 7, emphasis mine.
20. Wright, p. 54
21. Enns, Peter. Exodus: NIV Application Commentary, p. 411
22. Ryken, Philip G. Written in Stone: The Ten Commandments and Today’s Moral Crisis, p. 14
23. See Mark 9:37; Luke 10:16; John 7:16 and others.
24. See John 14:6-9
25. 1 Corinthians 4:4
26. Hebrews 1:3, English Standard Version, emphasis mine.
27. Ryken, p. 44
28. Matthew 22:37-39, ESV
29. See Deuteronomy 6:5, 11:13, 13:3
30. Matthew 5:17, ESV
31. Murray, John. Principles of Conduct, p. 150
32. ibid., p. 156
33. Ryken, p. 25