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Please explain: Why did God give the Ten Commandments?

Why did God give the Ten Commandments?

Anchorage, Alaska, is one of those places where you can experience weather extremes. It can snow in July. There can be a heat wave in January. We have hooks by our front door to help us manage all kinds of clothing and gear—snowsuits, rain gear, jackets, and more—so that we can be ready for any weather. The hooks are full, but they help us stay organized.

The Ten Commandments are like those hooks. They help us recognize and apply God’s law to any situation in life.

The need

God’s law is simple. It can be summarized in a single command: Love! “Love is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13:10). Jesus helps us understand better what God demands by identifying the objects of our love: Love God and love our neighbor (Matthew 22:34-40).

The command to love may sound simple, but as Scripture broadens our understanding of the Ten Commandments, we realize God’s law is overwhelming. God has the highest standards and expectations that permeate every facet of life. God created Adam and Eve with those standards written on their hearts and minds.

Adam and Eve loved and obeyed God. They had a perfect relationship in which they could talk with their Creator face-to-face without any shame or fear. However, when they listened to Satan’s lie and put their own will ahead of God’s will, they sinned, bringing sin and death into the world.

Sin didn’t erase that natural knowledge of God’s will written on the human heart, but it did corrupt and blur it. All people have a conscience with a sense of right and wrong, whether they know the Ten Commandments or not (Romans 2:14,15). But our conscience has been corrupted and makes mistakes. It can accuse us of sinning even when we aren’t. Or it can be dulled through repeated sin and impenitence and not accuse us when we are sinning. That is why “Let your conscience be your guide” is neither wise nor reliable.

We need God to reveal a sure understanding of his law. The Israelites needed that too after four hundred years as slaves under the influence of Egypt’s pagan culture. On the Israelites’ journey from slavery to the Promised Land, the Lord revealed his law and commands “for their instruction” (Exodus 24:12). The Ten Commandments are a written summary of God’s will for how to please God and live in peace with our neighbor, given in the context of God’s covenant with Israel through Moses at Mount Sinai.

The application in our life

As the Lord wrote the commandments on two tablets of stone, he did not provide a numbered list. There are actually 14 commands in Exodus 20:1-17; we grouped some of them together in order to have the Ten Commandments (Exodus 34:28). There are different ways to group the commandments; we follow the numbering that was common in the western church of Luther’s day. Whatever the numbers are, they do not change the meaning or application of the Ten Commandments as a basic summary of God’s moral law.

The commandments serve as hooks to help us apply God’s will to our lives in any and every situation. We can identify a specific theme for each commandment and then see how the rest of Scripture treats that theme, expanding its application beyond the wording given in Exodus chapter 20. Each commandment has a positive aspect of what God wants us to do and a prohibitive side of what he doesn’t want us to do. Each commandment not only applies to outward words and actions but also penetrates to the thoughts of our mind and desires of our heart.

The First Commandment directs our love and respect for God himself above all else. The Second governs how we use God’s name. The Third guides our use of God’s Word. The Fourth calls for respect for human authorities because they are God’s representatives on earth. The Fifth protects God’s gift of human life. The Sixth shields God’s gift of marriage. The Seventh guards God’s gift of earthly possessions. The Eighth preserves God’s gift of a good reputation. The Ninth and Tenth teach us about contentment and gratitude.

The chief purpose of the law

The Ten Commandments are not a ten-step program to earn God’s favor or gain eternal life. If it were possible for us to obey God’s will perfectly, then, yes, we could earn eternal life through them. Jesus once said about God’s law, “Do this and you will live” (Luke 10:28).

The problem is that we can’t do it. It’s not a problem with God’s law; his law is holy. The problem is with us. The Ten Commandments help us recognize just how far we fall short. “No one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin” (Romans 3:20).

God’s law leads us to despair of ourselves and flee to our Savior in repentance. Jesus was born under the law so that he could fulfill the law completely for us (Matthew 5:17; Galatians 4:4). His perfect obedience is credited to us as righteousness (Romans 5:19; Philippians 3:9). In Jesus we have the righteousness that “surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law [so that we can] enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).

A guide for a life of gratitude

While the Ten Commandments are full of dos and don’ts, they come from a gracious God. Even before speaking the First Commandment, the Lord laid the foundation for all the commandments with these words: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). God was not telling the Israelites how to become his people; they already were! God had already chosen them. God had already delivered them. God had already promised them his grace.

This time of year, you might hear people say they’ve given up something for Lent. This can be a beneficial exercise of self-discipline, but Lent isn’t about what we do for God. Lent is about what Jesus has done for us. We follow our Savior to the cross where he “redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). When we hear and believe that our sin and guilt have been paid for by Christ, this completely changes our perspective of the law.

Christians can hook any situation in life to a commandment and find guidance for living in God-pleasing peace and joy.

God’s perfect love drives out all fear of punishment (1 John 4:18). Christ has transformed our motivation entirely. Instead of seeing the Ten Commandments as an obligation to fulfill “or else,” we now see them as opportunities to respond with love and gratitude for our salvation. “This is love for God: to keep his commands. And his commands are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3).

Contrary to the thought that the Ten Commandments constrain us and limit our fun, we find God designed them to be a blessing for us. There is true joy in trusting the Lord first and foremost so that worry disappears, in calling on his name for help and proclaiming his praise to the world, in gathering often with fellow Christians to encourage one another and find rest in his Word. Life on earth is more enjoyable when we honor our parents, church leaders, government officials, school teachers, and employers. Society functions better when we protect one another’s well-being, strengthen the family unit, work to provide for our families and show generosity, defend others’ reputations, and are content. Christians can hook any situation in life to a commandment and find guidance for living in God-pleasing peace and joy.

Psalm 112:1 rings true: “Blessed are those who fear the LORD, who find great delight in his commands.”

Author: Nathan Wagenknecht
Volume 111, Number 03
Issue: March 2024

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