Thick darkness, lightning, thunder! A trumpet blasting louder and louder! Fire, and the whole mountain smoking like a great furnace! Earthquake! And then it came: the voice of Jehovah God, Creator of heaven and earth! The Israelites begged that God not speak to them any more! Moses exclaimed: “I exceedingly fear and quake” (Heb. 12:18-21). Before it was over, the God of heaven had pronounced the Ten Commandments.
The Ten Commandments contain some of the basic laws that govern all civilized peoples: do not murder, do not steal, do not bear false witness. Some tell us that the Ten Commandments are the corner stone of western law, the foundation of our “Judeo-Christian” society. But are all ten of the Ten Commandments embodied in American law and culture?
The Ten Commandments in U.S. Law & Society
Religious persecution in Europe was a major factor driving settlers to the New World. Too often, having escaped persecution, the colonists persecuted those who differed with them. However, as the original thirteen colonies united to establish the United States of America, they adopted a constitution to which was quickly added ten amendments. These ten are known as the Bill of Rights. The first words of the first amendment proclaimed freedom of religion, mandating: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The United States of America would have no state religion — there would be separation of church and state.
Where do the Ten Commandments fit into this picture? They don’t. In no sense of the term are the Ten Commandments about freedom of religion or separation of church and state. The Ten Commandments were part of the basic laws to establish the theocracy of Israel, not a democracy. The first two commandments state: “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make unto you any graven image… you shall not bow down to them” (Ex. 20:3-5). The worship of Jehovah was the state religion. Venerating images was outlawed.
The Third Commandment states: “You shall not take the name of Jehovah your God in vain.” A blasphemy law! Is such a law allowed under the U.S. Constitution? After pronouncing freedom of religion, the First Amendment goes on to guarantee freedom of speech and freedom of the press. In preparing this Insight, I was surprised to learn that some States of the U.S. have had blasphemy laws. However, they have largely been ineffective, being unconstitutional. Although some limitations do exist, basic freedom of speech is an integral part of U.S. society. When it comes to blasphemy laws in the twenty-first century, we usually think of repressive Islamist nations that use such laws to persecute Christians.
And what of the Fourth Commandment, which prohibits work on the Sabbath? What day? Saturday: “The seventh day is the sabbath” (Ex. 20:10). Sabbath keeping may be a foundation of Jewish law yet today, but not of American law. The blue laws in the U.S. have always been to “protect” Sunday, not Saturday. In no way has the Fourth Commandment (prohibition of work on Saturday) been a part of U.S. law, culture, or history, except to the extent that a minority (some Jews and some others) voluntarily choose to observe it.
It is true that some of the Ten Commandments — do not murder, do not steal, do not bear false witness — are an important part of the American cultural and legal system, just as it is true of many nations in the world. However, the entire Ten Commandments, as a body of law, are not, and never were, the foundation of U.S. law. Nor are they the foundation of American society, which has always stood for freedom of speech, freedom of press, and freedom of religion.
A far more important issue for Christians is whether the Ten Commandments are the basis of Christian beliefs and practices. Are they the basis of the life God wants us to live? There are many ways to examine this issue. In this Insight, I shall just touch on one way: What does the New Testament designate as the most important commandments?
The Most Important Commandments in the NT
We don’t have to do an exhaustive study to determine which commandments in the Bible are the most important. The Jewish clergy already asked Jesus for us.
Jesus replied: “The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:29-31). Then Jesus added: “There is none other commandment greater than these.” Or, as is recorded by Matthew: “This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it… On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matt. 22:38-40).
Note: To simplify the remarks that follow, I shall refer to the Ten Commandments as “The Ten,” and the two commandments Jesus cited as “The Two.”
Where did Jesus get The Two? Was He offering a new commandment, never before known? Or, was He giving a summary of The Ten? Neither. The Two were direct quotations from the OT Law. You can read them in Deut. 6:5 and Lev. 19:18. The Ten are found in Ex. 20 and Deut. 5. Jesus quoted neither of these latter two chapters.
Sabbath keepers claim that The Ten are the most important of all commandments because they were written with the finger of God, written on stone, placed in the ark, are eternal moral precepts, etc. Jesus does not agree with such arguments. Jesus quoted from what Sabbath keepers call “the Ceremonial Law,” a term nowhere found in Scripture. Jesus was telling them and us that not one of The Ten is the greatest. He was telling us that part of what Moses wrote with his hand, in a book, and placed beside the ark was the greatest. Jesus was telling them and us that part of the so-called Ceremonial Law is greater than any of The Ten.
However, Sabbath keepers would go on to insist that The Ten are still the most important — that The Two are simply a summary of The Ten. They say that to “love God” is to keep the first four of The Ten, and to “love your neighbor” is to obey the last six. This is a deceptive half-truth. First of all, Jesus did not say, “On The Two hang The Ten.” Rather, He said, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” It is not just The Ten that fall under The Two; the entire Law and prophets fall under The Two. One version reads: “On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” Whether rendered “hang” or “depend,” the concept is the same. All the law and the prophets “hang on,” depend on,” “fall under,” “are summarized by,” “are based upon” The Two. The Two are the basis of everything, not The Ten.
Furthermore, it is not true that The Two summarize The Ten. Yes, The Ten can be categorized under The Two; but The Two cover far more territory than The Ten. The Ten are mostly negative: “do not.” The Two are positive: “You shall love.” The first four of The Ten, dealing with our relation with God, are largely negative: have no other gods, do not make an image, do not take God’s name in vain, do not work on the Sabbath. Yes, they do contain some positive elements. The second mentions that God shows mercy to those who love Him and keep His commandments. So, loving God is mentioned as a reason for not making idols. The fourth command says to keep the Sabbath holy and to work six days of the week. Thus, there are some positive elements in the first four.
Regarding the Second Commandment, I don’t believe anybody has ever listed “love God” as the Second Commandment of The Ten. No, the Second is “”You shall not make for yourself a carved image…” (Ex. 20:4). Love comes in only as a explanation of a reason for the prohibition, not as the command itself. Jesus was not asked: “What is the greatest explanation.” He was asked “Which is the first commandment of all?” (Mark 12:28) or “which is the great commandment in the law?” (Matt. 22:36). So, Jesus did not quote the explanation given in the Second of The Ten. Rather, He quoted Deut. 6, which not only is a command to love, but deepens it more, adding that this love is to be with all one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength.
As for the last six of The Ten, dealing with our relations with our fellowman, they are almost totally negative. The only positive one is to honor father and mother. The rest are all negative: You shall not murder, not commit adultery, not steal, not bear false witness, not covet. What difference does it make if they are negative or positive? Much. You can obey most of The Ten by sitting down and doing nothing. You can keep the last five your whole life without ever loving anyone. In contrast The Two demand action in heart and deed. Anyone who loves his neighbor will obey those five commands but will not stop there. Love does good, love reaches out.
The difference between positive and negative is well seen in the great difference between the supposed golden rule of various religions and the far superior rule given by Jesus. Many say such things as: “Do not do unto others what you would not want them to do to you.” But Jesus said: “Whatever you would that men should do to you, do you even so to them.” (Matt. 7:12). The negative is passive, empty. The positive is active, full of good deeds from the heart.
Love Is the Greatest
The first, great, and foremost command is “love”! So said our Lord and Savior; and the same truth was taught in various ways by the apostles. “Now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13). Love starts the list of the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace…” (Gal. 5:22). Love is the top rung in the ladder of Christian growth (2 Peter 1:5-8). After quoting the last five of The Ten, Paul states: “and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, You shall love your neighbor as yourself… love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Rom. 13:9-10). James calls “love your neighbor as yourself” the “royal law” (James 2:8).
Someone once told me: “You cannot command love.” No, I can’t. Nor can civil law. But God can, and does. Man’s law deals with actions; it punishes theft, murder, lying under oath. Only God can deal with the heart, the soul, the mind, the will. What and who we love gets at the root of everything. The Ten never were the highest expression of God’s will for man, nor are they the eternal moral law. The highest expression of God’s will for all men for all ages is found in one word: love. And no wonder, for “God is love”!