What Do the Ten Commandments Mean to You?
WITHIN three months of their deliverance from Egypt in 1513 B.C.E., the Israelites encamped in front of Mount Sinai in the wilderness. At Jehovah’s beckoning, the prophet Moses ascended the mountain and heard God promise that He would make the nation of Israel His “special property out of all other peoples.” Moses then relayed this to the people through the older men of the nation. “After that all the people answered unanimously and said: ‘All that Jehovah has spoken we are willing to do.’”—Exodus 19:1-8.
Thereafter, God plainly stated the Ten Commandments to Moses, prefacing these laws with the comment: “I am Jehovah your God, who have brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slaves.” (Exodus 20:2) This Decalogue was for the Israelites, who were told in the First Commandment: “You must not have any other gods against my face.”—Exodus 20:3.
Subsequently, Jehovah gave Moses instruction in other divine commandments for Israel. (Exodus 20:4–23:19) Altogether, these amounted to some 600 laws. And what a thrill it was to realize that God’s angel was going ahead of the nation to prepare the way into the Land of Promise! (Exodus 23:20-22) Jehovah declared: “Before all your people I shall do wonderful things that have never been created in all the earth or among all the nations; and all the people in the midst of whom you are will indeed see the work of Jehovah, because it is a fear-inspiring thing that I am doing with you.” In return, what did God require of his people? “For your part keep what I am commanding you today.” Yes, obedience to all of Jehovah’s laws and precepts was mandatory.—Exodus 34:10, 11.
What the Ten Words Meant for Israel
As a result of their divinely protected flight from Egyptian bondage, the Israelites came to know God’s name in a new sense. Jehovah had become their Deliverer. (Exodus 6:2, 3) Consequently, the third commandment took on special meaning for them, as they were thus forbidden to take up the divine name in a worthless way.—Exodus 20:7.
But what of the fourth commandment, which relates to the Sabbath day? This command featured respect for sacred things, as Jehovah had previously indicated when instituting “a sabbath observance” in connection with the collecting of manna. (Exodus 16:22-26) Because some Israelites did not promptly obey, Jehovah plainly reminded them that he had given them that order. “‘Mark the fact that Jehovah has given you the sabbath.’. . . And the people proceeded to observe the sabbath on the seventh day.” (Exodus 16:29, 30) Later, Jehovah showed how exclusive this arrangement was, stating: “Between me and the sons of Israel it is a sign to time indefinite.”—Exodus 31:17.
Then, consider the unique tenth commandment, forbidding covetousness. Here is a law that no human could enforce. Each Israelite was accountable to his God, Jehovah, who searched the individual’s heart to find out his motives.—Exodus 20:17; 1 Samuel 16:7; Jeremiah 17:10.
An Adjusted View
Jesus Christ, who was born into the nation of Israel, told his disciples: “Do not think I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I came, not to destroy, but to fulfill.” (Matthew 5:17) To Hebrew Christians the apostle Paul wrote: “The Law has a shadow of the good things to come, but not the very substance of the things.” (Hebrews 10:1) If you had been a Hebrew convert to Christianity, how would you have understood these comments? Some members of the early Christian congregation believed that all the hundreds of laws that God gave through Moses, including the Ten Commandments, still applied. But was that the right viewpoint?
Consider these words of Paul to Jews who had become Christians in the province of Galatia: “We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners from the nations, knowing as we do that a man is declared righteous, not due to works of law, but only through faith toward Christ Jesus, even we have put our faith in Christ Jesus, that we may be declared righteous due to faith toward Christ, and not due to works of law, because due to works of law no flesh will be declared righteous.” (Galatians 2:15, 16) Indeed, a righteous standing with God did not depend on perfect obedience to the Mosaic Law, for in the imperfect human state, that was impossible. Paul added: “All those who depend upon works of law are under a curse; for it is written: ‘Cursed is every one that does not continue in all the things written in the scroll of the Law in order to do them.’ . . . Christ by purchase released us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse instead of us.”—Galatians 3:10-13.
If Jesus’ Jewish followers were no longer under the curse of the Law, were any Christians obligated to observe all the commandments given to Israel? To the Colossians, Paul wrote: “[God] kindly forgave us all our trespasses and blotted out the handwritten document against us, which consisted of decrees and which was in opposition to us; and He has taken it out of the way by nailing it to [Christ’s] torture stake.” (Colossians 2:13, 14) Doubtless, many early Christians needed to adjust their thinking and recognize that they had been “discharged from the Law.” (Romans 7:6) By exercising faith in Jesus’ sacrificial death, which brought an end to the Law and paved the way for the inauguration of the foretold “new covenant,” they had the prospect of gaining a righteous standing with Jehovah.—Jeremiah 31:31-34; Romans 10:4.
What They Mean for Us
Does this mean that the Ten Commandments, a basic part of the Law, have lost all meaning for Christians? Certainly not! Although the Ten Words are not legally binding on Christians, these laws continue to offer sound guidelines, as do other commands of the Mosaic Law. For instance, Jesus said that the two greatest commandments are those requiring love of God and neighbor. (Leviticus 19:18; Deuteronomy 6:5; Matthew 22:37-40) In counseling Roman Christians, Paul cited the sixth, seventh, eighth, and tenth commandments, adding: “And whatever other commandment there is, is summed up in this word, namely, ‘You must love your neighbor as yourself.’”—Romans 13:8, 9.
So, then, as part of God’s inspired Word, what purpose do the Ten Commandments serve today? They reveal Jehovah’s viewpoint on matters. (2 Timothy 3:16, 17) Consider how they do this.
The first four commandments highlight our responsibilities toward Jehovah. (First) He is a God who still exacts exclusive devotion. (Matthew 4:10) (Second) None of his worshipers should use images. (1 John 5:21) (Third) Our use of God’s name should be proper and dignified, never disrespectful. (John 17:26; Romans 10:13) (Fourth) Our whole life should revolve around sacred matters. This enables us to rest, or ‘take a sabbath,’ from a course of self-righteousness.—Hebrews 4:9, 10.
(Fifth) The obedience of children to their parents continues to serve as the cornerstone of family unity, bringing with it Jehovah’s blessings. And what a marvelous hope this “first command with a promise” offers! It is not only “that it may go well with you” but also that “you may endure a long time on the earth.” (Ephesians 6:1-3) Now that we are living in “the last days” of this present wicked system, such godly obedience offers young people the prospect of never dying.—2 Timothy 3:1; John 11:26.
Love for our neighbor will prevent us from causing him harm through such wicked deeds as (Sixth) murder, (Seventh) adultery, (Eighth) stealing, and (Ninth) making false statements. (1 John 3:10-12; Hebrews 13:4; Ephesians 4:28; Matthew 5:37; Proverbs 6:16-19) But what of our motives? The (Tenth) commandment, against covetousness, reminds us that Jehovah requires that our intentions always be upright in his eyes.—Proverbs 21:2.
What a wealth of meaning we find in the Ten Commandments! Based as they are on divine principles that will never be out-of-date, we should prize them as precious reminders of our obligation to love God and our neighbor.—Matthew 22:37-39.
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Jesus’ death brought an end to the Law, including the Ten Commandments given to the Israelites at Mount Sinai