Why study the Ten Commandments? Our very brief answer to that significant question is because the law reveals the holy character of God and simultaneously defines how our lives must reflect that holy character. Jesus taught that the law is summed up by “love God and love your neighbor” (Matthew 22:36-40). The Ten Commandments (and the other commandments too) are just a more detailed expression of what it means to love God and love your neighbor. Jesus also taught that the prohibition against murder (Exodus 20:13) implies that the anger leading one to murder is equally sinful (Matthew 5:21-22). He said the same thing about adultery (Exodus 20:14) and the lust that potentially leads to that sinful act (Matthew 5:27-28).
Clearly there is more to the Ten Commandments than just outwardly keeping a list of rules. At the root of the Ten Commandments is a divine concern that we are conformed fully to the holy character of God at the level of our heart’s desires and attitudes.
Sadly, the idea that “we are not under the law but under grace” has sometimes led to neglecting a careful consideration of how the Old Testament addresses the heart. While it is true that we are not under the law as a means of salvation, the Old Testament is still a revelation of God’s moral character, which is unchanging and was fully expressed by the Lord Jesus Christ when He walked the earth.
We are going to answer a few key questions to help us understand why studying the Ten Commandments is a useful and edifying undertaking. Along the way we hope to dismantle some misconceptions about the Old Testament and set the stage for learning how to be edified by it.
A code of law is simply a set of rules for governing a specific people, for a specific time, in a specific place. We can point to almost any civilization historically and show how each one has a law code that the people in that society must abide by. The Law God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai was the law code given by God to govern the people of Israel. It was a law that contained moral standards, religious standards, and even guidelines to govern their civil life together (health codes, business practices, economic standards, etc.). This law is no longer binding in the same way on God’s people today because it was given to a specific nation (Israel). That leads to the next question.
We know that the Old Testament is summed up by “love God and love your neighbor” (Matthew 22:36-40). The “new commandment” given by Christ is also summed up by love for God and love for others (John 13:34; 1 John 4:20-21). So we see that both Old and New Testament believers have a law whose foundation is “love God and love your neighbor.” We would expect there to be a LOT of similarity and overlap between these two sets of rules when the moral foundation of love is the defining factor for both. In fact, in one of our lessons we will show that even before the Ten Commandments were given to Moses, the people who followed God already knew them. They didn’t know them as “the Ten” but they knew it was wrong to murder, steal, worship idols, etc. In that sense, the Ten Commandments weren’t “new.” They were simply encoded in a specific and new form and established as Israel’s new law code by a formal covenant at Sinai through Moses.
Consider this illustration. Building and electrical codes might vary from one state to the next. Perhaps the required spacing of outlets or the depth for a foundation might be different. But underneath those different laws is a universal principle—construction must be safe and stable. Whatever is determined to be necessary for a building to be safe and stable becomes the law in that state. Similarly, love for God and love for neighbor is the universal principle. How that is required to be lived out and expressed varies at different times for different people—even people following the same God.
This actually helps explain why the Old Testament law has so many nitty-gritty specifics about cultural practices in the ancient world. God was defining how the specific culture of the Israelites was to set them apart as God’s special people in the world. Now that God’s people are not defined in any way by location, ethnicity, or culture, the New Testament gives only broad moral principles and expects us to figure out how we are to live that out in our location and culture. The New Testament now becomes a law that can be universally learned and applied anywhere by all of God’s people—regardless of culture and ethnicity.
So, while we have a totally “new” testament law, there is still the question of how to understand what we are to do with the Old Testament law.
I would say it this way: A New Testament Christian is not “under the law” but the law still applies.
We will probably need to repeat this to ourselves a lot throughout our study. The law does not define how we must approach God, or even please God—if by the law we mean keeping the particulars of observing feasts, making sacrifices, not charging usury, or never boiling a baby goat in its mother’s milk (it’s in there three times; Exodus 23:19; 34:26; Deuteronomy 14:21). However, shaping all of those practices is an underlying principle of “loving God” and “loving neighbor.” We apply the Old Testament law by figuring out in what sense those practices expressed love and devotion to God and others, and then apply that kind of love and devotion in our context. We don’t do that in order to obtain or maintain our standing before God. We do that as an expression of our love for God.
We know, however, that it can still be hard to find the underlying thread of love for God and neighbor when we read commands about boiling goats (or scraping our boils, for that matter). We are over 3,400 years removed from the time and culture of Moses, so we might expect it to be hard. Fortunately, we have the underlying principles laid out for us in more general terms in the writings of the New Testament. But the common thread of both Old and New Testaments being about love for God and neighbor help us see that there is always a principle to understand and apply, no matter what testament you’re reading.
And that’s why we say, “a New Testament Christian is not ‘under the law’ but the law still applies.”
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