10 Commandments: what’s at their heart?

One day a man approached Jesus with the intention of catching him out. We’re told this man was an expert in the law and he asked Jesus which was the greatest commandment in the law (Matthew 22:36). Here is Jesus’ reply:

“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. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 22:37–40 (ESV)

These words are a summary of the entirety of God’s law, but especially of the 10 Commandments. They help us to understand what the 10 Commandments are about and how we should apply them.

Relationship not just religion

With his answer, Jesus cuts through the endless debate of the law experts of his day and drives to the very foundation for the 10 Commandments: Love. Love for God, and love for the people around us.

Often when we think of the 10 Commandments we think of them in terms of a rule book that we must adhere to. However, Jesus tells us that God’s plan in giving the law was more than that. Love is a distinctly relational word. The law was not given for religious rules, instead it was given to set boundaries and behaviour so that we might enjoy wholesome and joy-filled relationships with God and others.

When I married Anita we entered into a covenant relationship with each other. It was a relationship based on promises and commitments. If we want to enjoy that relationship we need to keep those commitments. When we break them, discord comes in. The same principle is true in all our relationships whether with God or with others. Bad behaviour wrecks the relationship and stops us from enjoying it.

When we look at the 10 Commandments what do we see? Jesus shows us that they give us the framework in which we can enjoy these relationships. Jesus divides his statements into two areas of love – love for God and love for each other. These two areas are clearly present in the 10 Commandments. Commandments 1 to 4 (for some 5 is included here too) deal directly with how we love God in an appropriate way. Commandments 5 to 10 set boundaries for our love for others.

Love not just affection

But, can love and rules really go together? For some the idea of love and command going hand in hand just shouldn’t be. Love is surely enough by itself and doesn’t need rules. Yet, is that true? Jesus said to his disciples:

Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. John 14:21 (ESV)

Jesus clearly combines love and obedience as two sides of one coin. What does this mean? It means that God calls us to love, but that we aren’t free to make up what that love looks like. Our love is individual because it comes from us and not from someone else, but it is only genuine if it is expressed and shown in the right way.

We are human beings who get things wrong and don’t know everything. Both of these are reflected in the quality of our love which is imperfect. If we want to love as we should, we need more than just affection and a desire to do what’s right. We need God’s law to show us how to love God and one another. This is why the 10 Commandments are so important.

Now, not just then 

By telling us that the foundation of the Old Testament law is love, Jesus doesn’t just give us an understanding of the heart of the law. He also shows us that the 10 Commandments apply to us today as Christians living after the cross of Jesus.

What do I mean by this? I don’t mean that every little application of the law that we find in the Old Testament is to be followed to the letter today (for more on this see the next post when we look at applying the 10 Commandments). What I mean is that the principles of God’s law, which are what the 10 Commandments express, are very much applicable for us today.

The book of Revelation begins with seven letters from Jesus to seven real churches. The first of these is written to the church meeting in the city of Ephesus. Jesus points out that there is much that is good about the church. They are hard workers and are clearly concerned for the truth and uncovering error. Yet, there is a big problem:

But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Revelation 2:4 (ESV)

The church in Ephesus had been characterised by love for God (cf. Acts 19:18-19) and love for each other (Ephesians 1:15). However, this was no longer the case and the embers of love were growing cold. In his letter, Jesus does not treat this as a small thing. He goes on:

Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. Revelation 2:5 (ESV)

What are we being told here? Jesus is ready to pull the switch if they don’t sort this out. Love is something of vital importance.

This brings us back to the summary of the law that Jesus gives in Matthew 22. If the 10 Commandments were rules for Israel to keep, we might be able to argue that they were for a point in time and have had their day. Yet, that is not what Jesus says when he summarises them in Matthew 22. Instead, we see they are a framework that shows us what it looks like to love God and to love one another. As such, their relevance is timeless.

How we view the 10 Commandments affects how we see them in our lives and how we go on to apply them day by day. To see them in a relational way is key to understanding and applying them biblically. In our next article we will look at the application side of things and think of some important principles that will guide us.