Understanding and Appreciating the Misunderstood and Underappreciated Ten Commandments


I spent much time over the past week thinking about the Ten Commandments since Faith Church’s summer sermon series through the Old Testament Book of Exodus took us to the giving of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20. The Ten Commandments are probably one of the most famous passages in the entire Bible. Many people know that there were Ten Commandments given by God, even if they do not necessarily know what they are. As I reflected upon them, I realized that these commandments may be well known, but they are also misunderstood and underappreciated. Let me explore – and hopefully counter – some of the common misunderstandings about them and why they are underappreciated.

Misunderstandings of the Ten Commandments
Probably the most common misunderstanding about the Ten Commandments is thinking that obeying them earns us favor with God and determines whether or not we go to heaven. I understand why people believe this, as we have a natural tendency to think that our worth and status is determined by what we do or don’t do. However, when you look at the Ten Commandments in their original context, you can see that this was never the purpose. God did not give the commandments to Israel before He delivered them out of slavery in Egypt, but rather after. God’s saving activity precedes the giving of these laws and is done based upon His promise and our response of trust in His promises. This is the repeated theme of the Bible: salvation was not determined by works in the Old Testament and now by faith, but always has been by faith in God and His work for us. The conditional nature of the Ten Commandments was not for salvation, but for living into the fullness of the blessings of God, of staying in the land that He was giving them and reflecting the calling that they had as His people to reflect to the world the reality and character of God. 

Another misunderstanding about the Ten Commandments is that as long as you keep the “letter” of the law, you are obeying them. In Matthew 5, Jesus shows that truly keeping these laws goes beyond following the actions forbidden or prescribed but instead having the sort of character in which these actions would not be plausible; it is upholding the underlying principles in our minds and our actions. If we think we are only required to keep the letter of the law, we are likely to conclude that we do a good job of keeping these commandments. However, when we see the deeper meaning, we recognize that we are falling short of obeying the commandments.

Underappreciation of the Ten Commandments
A misunderstanding about the Ten Commandments by both Christians and non-Christians that leads to an underappreciation of them is that the words are no longer relevant for us today.  Many non-Christians believe that the Ten Commandments are archaic ideas from a bygone age, and some Christians think that these words were intended only for the people of Israel and ceased in their applicability with the coming of Christ. Both of these are wrong; the Ten Commandments reflect the heart of the moral law of God that He wove into the world He created and thus should govern life. Thus, rather than being antiquated relics of a different time, these commandments serve to direct life and order society. 

We need only look around at a world and culture that does not uphold, but rather rejects, these ideas and see the chaos and damage that ensues. Rather than being oppressive or limiting, these commands lead to a better life. That is not to say that keeping the commandments always leads to a better life, but ignoring them is something that happens at one’s and society’s own peril. A culture without the Sabbath is an exhausted and overworked society. A world that does not honor the marriage covenant and vows is one that leads to a lack of trust and security in relationships. One filled with coveting and desire leads to devaluing of people and endless pursuit of what’s next.

This truth also means that these commandments were not simply for God’s people in the past, but for Christians today as well. While there are many laws in the Old Testament that are not directly binding on Christians today, the Ten Commandments are different from those laws in that they do not reflect ceremonial aspects (sacrifices, festivals, etc.) nor do they feature particular civil legislation (attaching penalties to particular offenses or speaking to particular situations). When you read the Ten Commandments, you recognize that they speak in more general terms, offering key principles that need to be applied to life. We see this in the rest of the laws that God gives to the people of Israel in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy; this reflects what it would look like in detail to follow the Ten Commandments in that particular time and place. We are called to do the same in our time and place – we don’t recreate the nation of Israel (and we don’t perform the sacrifices because those were shadows pointing to Jesus), but we are still to follow these commands. Of course, most Christians would seek to follow most of these commands (like not killing or stealing!), but we need to recognize that they serve as a unit together; we should not keep one without the other nor separate what God has put together. This means God cares not just about how we treat others or view things in the world, but also how we worship Him and pattern our lives and rhythms. 

Understanding and Appreciating the Ten Commandments
I don’t want to simply point out common ways of misunderstanding and underappreciating the Ten Commandments, but instead offer a few ideas that might help us understand and appreciate them more. These ideas are not original to me but trace back at least to the time of the Reformation as they appear in the writings of Martin Luther and John Calvin, often being called the three uses of the Old Testament Law.

First, we should view the law as having a teaching function (what is often called a “pedagogical use” of the law). It reveals the nature and values of God, which should lead to us recognizing both His righteousness and how we fall short of it. The Ten Commandments point to God’s holiness, especially in placing Him above all other so-called “gods” and common ways of worship, and show us that we don’t always uphold that in our actions and hearts. It thus points us to Christ, which means that we should reflect upon it often and give thanks for the law as it leads to our salvation, not through our obedience, but through our cry out for saving by this holy God. The law is thus like a mirror.

Second, we should recognize that the law restrains evil by pointing out what is wrong. While the giving of the command does not prevent people from breaking these commands (as laws themselves do not change the heart), their existence does point to the standard that is woven into our beings that our sinful nature seeks to suppress. At times, the rule leads to us breaking them, but there are also times in which having the law leads to people obeying them. This means that the law does curb evil, preventing people from being as bad as they could be. 

The third use of the law we should know and appreciate is often called the normative or moral use of the law, in that it provides guidance for us as to how we are to live in gratitude to God’s grace. They provide the ethical foundation and framework for our life, which is why Christians have historically known them and reflected upon them. 

In summary, obeying the Ten Commandments is not a guarantee that we will go to heaven or done by simply adhering to the “letter” and they are not from an ancient time for a primitive culture. Rather, they are an enduring and life-giving way to respond to God’s Word because they point us to know God, resist evil, and follow Him into a new, different, and better way of living.

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