10 Commandments: how do they apply?

The trick with any set of instructions is to put them into practice in real life. The same is true with the 10 Commandments. God has given us 10 Commands that define a life that pleases him and show what it is to love God and love each other. How do we put them into action in the reality of our lives? No blog post will ever adequately answer that. The plan here is to explain three essential principles that the Bible gives us to get us started.

Heart before actions

In Matthew 5-7 Jesus teaches his disciples on a hillside. Near the beginning of this sermon he deals with their understanding of the commands ‘do not murder’ and ‘do not commit adultery’. In both instances, he shows that the command covers more than a specific action, it also speaks to our thoughts and desires. Here is his teaching on the 7th Commandment:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. Matthew 5:27–28 (ESV)

The hearers of Jesus had heard the commandment since childhood. However, Jesus points out that their application was too narrow in its scope. To them, this command was broken with the act of adultery. Yet, Jesus teaches that while the act of adultery does break this commandment, the commandment itself is actually broken a long time before that when someone looks lustfully at another person who isn’t their husband or wife.

Our actions do not exist in a vacuum. They begin long before they happen in the attitude and activity of our hearts – our thoughts and desires. The same is true for adultery. It begins with a lingering look or a wrong desire that is allowed to settle rather than being nipped in the bud. Jesus says that we break the command with these internal, unseen things as much as with the act itself.

What does this mean for our application of the 10 Commandments? It means that we must not limit their reach to our actions only. Instead, we need to first consider the heart that gives rise to actions in our lives. As we read the 10 Commandments we need to ask God to expose our wrong thinking and to shape the desires of our heart as well as guide us in our actions.

Purpose before application

The Pharisees of the New Testament era spent a lot of time thinking and debating about how they should apply the commandments of God. They had come up with great lists of specific applications to real life situations. However, in all this they’d lost sight of the original commands. This is most notable in their teaching and understanding of the 4th Commandment, ‘Keep the Sabbath’. Here is one example of an occasion where Jesus took them to task on this issue:

One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. And the Pharisees were saying to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?” And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” Mark 2:23–28 (ESV)

Note first of all what Jesus takes issue with. He is not against the Sabbath, nor is he saying that the 4th Commandment doesn’t matter. Jesus affirms that he is Lord of the Sabbath and that the Sabbath is something good and a gift given to humanity by God. What he takes issue with is the obsession of the Pharisees with their rules about the Sabbath. These were preventing the Sabbath from being the day God intended it to be.

This seems to be what Jesus is saying with his use of the illustration of David. In that incident God had given a clear command that the bread of the presence was to be eaten by Aaron and his sons – the priests of God. Yet, David turns up at the Tabernacle in Nob, running for his life with his men with him and in need of food. Ahimelech, the priest on duty that day, has no other food to offer than the bread of the presence. Therefore, he gives David the ‘holy bread’ (1 Samuel 21:6).

Now Jesus doesn’t make any further comment on this event in David’s life, but it does seem clear from the context that both Jesus and also the Pharisees saw the act of Ahimelech as the right thing to do. Even though in this instance Ahimelech’s actions broke the letter of the law they met the spirit of the law.

If we are to avoid the mistake of the Pharisees we must make sure we seek to understand and remember the purpose of the law as we make applications of it in our lives. This is especially important as we recognise the changing landscape and the multiple contexts in which we live.

The fourth commandment is a good example of this. When we look at the New Testament we see a shift from Saturday to Sunday for the meetings of the church as they met on the day of resurrection. We find them meeting for instruction and encouragement and in this worshipping God together. Yet, for many, most notably the many slaves, this was not in a context where it was possible to have one day off a week.

What does this teach us? There is not a one-size-fits-all rule book that we can hand out that defines how the 10 Commandments should be lived out today. Rather with the help of the Bible, the Holy Spirit, and God’s people around us (the church) we need to grasp the principles and then apply them in our contexts.

Transformation before determination

As we seek to take God’s law and apply it in our lives we need to understand that we are setting out on a task we cannot complete. God gave the 10 Commandments to the Israelites at Mount Sinai having just brought them out of Egypt. It followed several incredible displays of God’s power and greatness and was accompanied with a glimpse of his glory (Exodus 20:18-21). Yet, even with these clear demonstrations so fresh in their minds the people blatantly and brazenly broke God’s commands within a matter of weeks.

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” Exodus 32:1 (ESV)

As we go through the Old Testament we see this pattern continuing. It didn’t matter how much grace God showed his people, how much he reminded them what life was like outside of his presence or the extent of the victories he won on their behalf, they consistently fell into sin and turned from him.

Why is this? God tells us in the book of Jeremiah when he points us to the New Covenant in Jesus:

For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Jeremiah 31:33 (ESV)

The problem in the Old Testament was the sinfulness of the human heart. God’s law is perfect and does not need to be changed. Yet, if we are to keep it we need more than words on a page showing us God’s plans and purposes, we need to have our hearts changed.

In one sense this has already happened for the person who has put their trust in Jesus. The Bible tells us:

We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. Romans 6:6 (ESV)

However, this work is not yet completed in our experience and we need God’s work of transformation on a daily basis. This is why Paul wrote to the Christians in Galatia:

the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. Galatians 5:22–23 (ESV)

If we want to live out God’s law we need more than understanding and determination, we need the transforming work of God’s Holy Spirit in our lives. It’s important not to forget this.

As I mentioned at the beginning this isn’t a post that explains how the 10 Commandments apply to life. Rather, the aim has been to lay out some important principles that are necessary to apply the 10 Commandments in a biblical way. Armed with these we need to dig deep into God’s word and pray that God will teach us and guide us so that we understand how we should live today as God’s people, glorifying his name and loving him and others as we should.