The Ten Commandments are almost universally recognized as outstanding moral precepts. Even churches which teach that the law of God is abolished under the New Covenant usually make an exception for these ten, which they often refer to as the eternal “moral law.” (We might ask in reply if any part of God’s Word is NOT moral?) A few years ago I spoke with a member of a church proclaiming “grace doctrine” – the law is abolished by grace, he explained. “But don’t you teach your children the Ten Commandments,” I asked? He replied, “Yes, of course I do; I just don’t call them the Ten Commandments, because that is all done away. I call them, “daddy’s commandments!”
In a similar vein, others refer to God’s law as “Moses’ law,” as if they weren’t composed by God at all, but just entirely made up on the spot by Moses. The reasoning seems to be: “if it is only a human composition, then it is flawed and we need not concern ourselves with it.”
To paraphrase Shakespeare, a rose by any other name is still a rose, and God’s laws by any other name are still Divine commands. In fact, the original Hebrew text of the Scriptures never even refers to them once as the “Ten Commandments,” as our English translations do. There are three main Biblical labels for these ten laws, which appear in the account of the giving of the law in the Book of Exodus:
“And the LORD said unto Moses, Write thou these words: for after the tenor of these words I have made a covenant with thee and with Israel. And he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he did neither eat bread, nor drink water. And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments. [lit., ten words] And it came to pass, when Moses came down from mount Sinai with the two tables of testimony, when he came down from the mount, that Moses wist not that the skin of his face shone while he talked with him.” (Ex. 34:27-29)
The Two Tables Of Testimony
In the above passage from Exodus, the Ten Commandments are referred to as “the two tables of testimony,” and indeed they can be separated into two groups of commands. The first is composed of four duties toward God: no other gods, no graven images, no false swearing in His Name, and to keep the Sabbath Day holy. The second section contains six duties toward our fellow man: honor your parents, do no murder, no adultery, no stealing, no false witness, no covetingSome church denominations enumerate the Ten Commandments differently. A few years ago, I mentioned this while preaching on the subject and a first-time visitor broke out into the loudest horse-laugh you ever heard – right in the midst of the worship service. He thought I was just absolutely ridiculous to imply that different denominations had different lists of the Ten Commandments. It may sound ridiculous, but church doctrine can do strange things to Scripture. The Roman Catholic denomination, in order to de-emphasize the command against graven images, has combined the first two commands while dividing the tenth into two. The Lutheran Church also has its own particular division, as well. Whichever way you slice it, the words are still all there for us to obey.
Commands of the Covenant
Exodus 34:28, quoted above, uses the phrase “Words of the Covenant,” which an alternate translation gives as “Commands of the Covenant.” Similar language is found in the Book of Deuteronomy: “And the LORD spake unto you out of the midst of the fire: ye heard the voice of the words, but saw no similitude; only ye heard a voice. And he declared unto you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, even ten commandments [lit: ten words]; and he wrote them upon two tables of stone.” (Deut. 4:12-13) Although these commandments were given under the Old Covenant, they supersede or surpass it as eternal precepts carrying on into the New Covenant. The late Rev. John Shenton expressed this point saying, “By sealing the New Covenant with His blood, Jesus brought the Mosaic Covenant (not the Law of God) to an end… It is now Israel’s responsibility to declare the salvation of God through the death of Christ to the whole world, also to show forth in her national life the superiority of the Divine Law.” (Thy Kingdom Come, June 2007, p.14)
Therefore, under the New Covenant, these laws become the “Commands of the New Covenant.” A covenant is a vehicle which God uses to bring His Plan and Purposes into effect. Under the New Covenant, God implemented a better covenant, a better vehicle to carry out His Will for mankind; yet His moral principles and precepts never change.
The Ten Words
Exodus 34:28 and other passages use the phrase “ten commandments” in our English Bibles, yet the Hebrew literally says, “the ten words.” This phrase appears again, for example, in Deuteronomy 10:4: “And he wrote on the tables, according to the first writing, the ten commandments [lit: ten words], which the LORD spake unto you in the mount out of the midst of the fire in the day of the assembly: and the LORD gave them unto me.”
Everything that God has asked us to do may be called a commandment. What is different about these ten? An in-depth study at the church I pastor has shown us that these are ten top-level principles that summarize all of God’s other commands. Every other law in Scripture will fit in one of these ten categories. To say, as some do, that only the Ten Commandments are for us today and that everything else in the law is abolished, is nonsense.
Every law in Scripture relates to one of the Ten Commandments. For example, the first commandment, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3) relates to other laws concerning tyranny, celibacy, excommunication, exile, treason, insurrection, treaties, government, authority, court procedure, equality of justice, humanism, kings, partiality, judgment, judges, holiness, obedience and love to God, offerings, priests and pastors, repentance and redemption, sacrificial requirements, the sanctuary of God, and worship.
A related study-chart titled, “Categorization of Bible law,” may be found on the CBIA website at www.israelite.ca. This lists all of the various subject areas covered by the law of God and specifies which of the Ten Commandments each of them relates to.