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.

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.

10 Commandments: what’s their role?

What are the biggest questions Christians have about the 10 Commandments today? You might think they would be ‘what do they mean’ kind of questions. Yet, in my experience people’s questions revolve around a more foundational principle: ‘How am I supposed to think of them today?’

There are several factors that bring this about. Firstly, the 10 Commandments were written approximately 3500 years ago. That’s a long time ago historically, and in our culture old is irrelevant and new is better. More significantly, they were given at a particular point in God’s plan of redemption. The 10 Commandments were given by God to his people Israel as they made their way to the land of Canaan to set up a socio-political nation where national life would be founded on God’s law and principles. That isn’t the context that we face today where God’s people are scattered throughout the world, living in countries where the law of the land and the law of God are often at odds.

Yet, even this is not the most important difference that could affect our way of approaching the 10 Commandments. The 10 Commandments were given by God before the most explosive event of all history – the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. We live in the time after the cross, the time of the New Covenant, not the Old Covenant, and so do the 10 Commandments have any bearing on our lives today and if so what?

Recently I tried to answer some of these questions in a sermon looking at three fundamental questions:

  1. What is the role of the 10 Commandments?
  2. What is the heart of the 10 Commandments?
  3. How do we apply the 10 Commandments?

Here I’m putting that material into written form in the hope of clarifying what was said and making it plainer.

What is the role of the 10 commandments?

If we want to know how the 10 Commandments should impact our lives today we need to know why God gave them in the first place.

Not a key to salvation

Exodus 20 records God giving the 10 Commandments to Moses and the people of Israel in the desert. Verse 2 is really important. God says:

I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. Exodus 20:2 (ESV)

This verse reminds us about where the 10 Commandments sit in salvation history. God had already saved the Israelites from their slavery before he gave them the 10 Commandments. He did not give them the 10 Commandments in order to better their lives so that they might in some way deserve their salvation. No, God saved them by grace and then gave the commandments to them.

What does this teach us? The 10 Commandments were never given by God as the key to unlock salvation’s door. It was never, ‘Do this and I’ll save you.’ Instead, the 10 Commandments set out the pattern of behaviour that is both right and expected of those whom God has already saved by his grace.

Immediately, it should be apparent that the 10 Commandments are relevant to us today in the New Covenant. God has saved us by his grace in Jesus Christ. Through faith in Jesus, the Bible tells us we have been set free from the slavery of sin and death (Romans 6). How now should we live? How do we walk in a way that is pleasing to God? The 10 Commandments are clearly an important part of that answer.

Seeing the 10 commandments in this way is supported by the actions of the early church. In 125 AD a Greek philosopher named Aristides wrote an apology for the Christian faith to Hadrian the emperor of Rome. In it he examines the religions of the known world and speaks about how different Christians were in their faith and lives. Here is part of his description of their lives.

Wherefore they do not commit adultery nor fornication, nor bear false witness, nor embezzle what is held in pledge, nor covet what is not theirs. They honour father and mother, and show kindness to those near to them; and whenever they are judges, they judge uprightly. They do not worship idols (made) in the image of man; and whatsoever they would not that others should do unto them, they do not to others; and of the food which is consecrated to idols they do not eat, for they are pure.

The Apology of Aristides the Philosopher (

Notice the clear inferences to the 10 Commandments in that description. Clearly, to the early church and to those observing the 10 Commandments were seen as a meaningful and important pattern for the life of God’s people.

Not primarily about us

One of the mistakes we can often make when we look at the Old Testament is to forget that it is just as much about Jesus than the New Testament. Jesus points this out as he is teaching in a sermon we often call the Sermon on the Mount. He responds to criticism that he is doing away with the Old Testament with these words:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. Matthew 5:17 (ESV)

Here Jesus says that he is the goal of the entire Old Testament and that his presence, life, person and work are what will complete its words. We often refer to Matthew 5:17 when we think of the sacrifices of the Old Testament and see them as pictures of what Jesus would do in the ultimate sacrifice as he gives himself on the cross. We might also refer to it when we think of the promises and predictions of the Messiah in the Old Testament and see how Jesus fulfils them.

Yet, Matthew 5:17 is just as true when it comes to the 10 Commandments. Before these commandments become words that guide us as God’s people, they are words that speak of the role and place of Jesus in Salvation.

In Exodus, God lays out a condition of the new covenant relationship that he is forming with his people. He says:

Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Exodus 19:5-6

In order to receive God’s blessings the people must keep his commands. As we go through the Old Testament we see that Israel fails to keep this condition. Over and over again they disobey God’s words and eventually this leads to the fall of the Northern Kingdom at the hands of the Assyrians and then the fall of Judah at the hands of the Babylonians.

This failure to obey God’s law is not only apparent in the centuries before the cross. From the New Testament onwards, history is littered with God’s people getting it wrong, and if we examine our own hearts we will find the same is true of us.

So what hope do we have today? How can we know that we too will not fall and, therefore, lose our place among the people of God, his treasured possession? The answer is Jesus. The Bible tells us that Jesus was perfect and didn’t sin. He didn’t live a perfect life for himself, he did that for us. He took our sin and the punishment we deserved, and we, through faith, receive his righteousness in return. In Romans 8, we are told this guarantees that we will never ever be separated from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Romans 8:33–34 (ESV)

This is really important. When we look at the 10 Commandments by ourselves they only condemn (we’ll look at this next), but when we look at them through the lens of Christ they are commands that Jesus has fulfilled for us and, therefore, speak of our hope and joy in Jesus. The good news of the Gospel is not that God has lessened his standards, but that Jesus has kept them for us.

Not an easy read

None of us like to feel uncomfortable, but the Bible tells us that this is actually one of the purposes of the 10 Commandments. In Romans, Paul writes:

… if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” Romans 7:7 (ESV)

The 10 Commandments don’t only inform us of the pattern of life that God calls his people to live. As we study them with the guidance of the Holy Spirit we will see our own sinfulness and be convicted in our consciences and hearts.

Let me give you one example. When I was preparing to preach this material I read through the 10 Commandments several times thinking about each one and how it applied to my life. I came to the third: ‘You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain’ (Exodus 20:7). I was reminded that we so often think of this command as an injunction against using God’s name as a swear word. Clearly, that is a misuse of God’s name or the name of Jesus, but it does not exhaust the commandment. This refers to any light or frivolous use of God’s name, or anything that brings his name into disrepute.

As I thought about that my mind went back just an hour or so ago. I had just come back to my desk with my lunch in my hand. I’d opened the lid and ‘said grace’ before eating my sandwiches. Did I really pray though? No, actually, I mouthed some words, my normal words, without thinking or even switching on that I was talking to God. I was convicted. Why? Because I had not honoured God’s name, I’d come to him in a light and unthinking way. I needed to repent and so I did.

Now you might read that and think, ‘That wasn’t so bad. There are far worse ways to break the third commandment.’ That’s not the point. The point is that when we look at the 10 Commandments in a prayerful way our sin will be exposed and we will find ourselves needing to repent over and over again, trusting in the reality of the cross: that Jesus has paid for all of our sins – past, present and future.

This exposing of sin was not just something that the Israelites needed around 1500 BC. It was something that Paul needed in his walk with Jesus, and it is something that we still need today.

As I think about these three roles the thing that strikes me is that the 10 Commandments are not just a text for a previous generation. They are not just for those who lived before the cross, they are also for us who live after it.  In the next post we’ll look at the heart of the 10 Commandments and consider how that should affect the way we approach them.