Introduction to the Ten Commandments

The Ten CommandmentsAll Christians, all Jews, and even all Muslims agree the Ten Commandments are a basic statement of how to live according to God’s will. The disagreements come with how to codify these into specific laws. For instance, in our time you could argue all religious people are pro-life even though they do not agree on what that means. They debate whether “Do not kill” includes war, capital punishment, abortion, destruction of stem cells, and even contraception.

The differing positions do not indicate that some Christians are living in hypocrisy or with evil intentions, but rather that they are confused about how to apply the commandments in modern circumstances. The global technological society is an entirely unique stage in human history that presents new challenges to traditional values.

This situation brings home that the Ten Commandments are not really laws at all, but rather values that describe healthy relationships between people. They should be read as teachings and guidelines rather than regulations or rules. Their enduring value is not as eternal laws but rather as teachings that can be applied in all situations. The three Western religions have always regarded them as gifts from God that reveal how we who have been created in his image can live according to his will.

This is evident in the way Jesus interpreted the Commandments. He spoke of them as virtues that indicate basic human qualities that cannot be inspired with specific regulations or punishments. For example, he taught obeying “Do not kill” involves not even being angry at another person. Obedience comes then from the heart and is dependent on a person’s character. Jesus’ objective is to inspire the whole person.

You see this understanding when the lawyer asks Jesus to indicate his choice for the greatest commandment. He does not turn to the classic ten, but mentions two found other places in the Old Testament. Fascinatingly, he claims the two are the same, apparently indicating you can’t have one without the other. The first was the Shema from Deuteronomy 6: 4-9 by which all Israelites identified themselves. This was the commandment the lawyer probably expected. “Love the lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul.” The second was from Leviticus 19: 17, 18, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Obviously, love is a virtue that cannot be commanded. You are either loving or you are not. It indicates if you are caring, kind, and generous.

John puts the love commandment in a different context, adding to our understanding. He builds his narrative to the Last Supper where Jesus gives the one command found in his gospel. He words it from a different angle with “Love one another as I have loved you.” Jesus becomes the model that defines love for us. If he is God for us, he shows us how to live out being made in his image. The command is to love unconditional as he did and that means being ready to die for the other person.

John’s presentation points to another biblical understanding. Obedience is primarily a response to God’s actions. John believes it is significant that God first loved us. Exodus and Deuteronomy preface the Ten Commandments with a call for the Israelites to remember God rescued them from slavery in Egypt. Again obedience is inspired, not ordered or demanded.

It is helpful to remember these points as we examine each of the ten one at a time. That way we can keep the biblical perspective that brings unity rather than division, peace rather than conflict.

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