Living Christianity: The Ten Commandments (Part 1)
December 4, 2018
by Peter Amsterdam
Living Christianity: The Ten Commandments (Part 1)
As explained earlier in this series, the framework that will be used for covering Christian ethics will be the Ten Commandments. Generally, authors divide the Ten Commandments into two groups—the first four commandments, often referred to as “our duty to God,” and the next six, known as “our duty to man.”
The commandments which focus on humanity’s duty to God are You shall have no other gods before Me; You shall make no idols; You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain; you shall keep the Sabbath day holy. The ones focused on our duties to others are Honor your father and your mother; You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor; You shall not covet.1
Christian authors who use the Ten Commandments as the basis for Christian ethics generally focus on the second six commandments. While this series will primarily focus on these last six commandments as the basis for ethical teachings, it will begin by briefly touching on the first four, as the Christian ethical life is rooted in our relationship with God. As our Creator, God is the one who has the authority and therefore the right to set the standards of what is right and wrong for human beings. If we wish to live in alignment with His standards of behavior, it is important to understand what He teaches regarding our relationship with Him, and for that we can look to the first four commandments.
It can be helpful to look at each of the Ten Commandments as the title of a directory, which when opened contains numerous other subdirectories. For example, the fifth commandment, “Honor your father and your mother,” addresses not only the authority of one’s parents, but also other authorities—such as government, employers, teachers, etc. The commandment not to kill opens up topics such as capital punishment, killing in war, self-defense, suicide, abortion, euthanasia, and care and respect for human life in general. Each of the commandments and the ethical topics which fall under their subdirectories will be covered within this series.
When God first gave the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai, He started by declaring who He was and what He had done for the Hebrew people.
I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.2
Shortly before this, God had caused plagues to fall on the land of Egypt because the Egyptian pharaoh would not let the children of Israel, who had been enslaved for generations, leave as God had instructed them to. Due to God’s intervention, the enslaved Hebrew people were delivered from oppression. Because He was their God and Deliverer, He had the right to give them the commandments or laws they were to live by.
The First Commandment
His first commandment is You shall have no other gods before me.3 The “you” in the Hebrew text is singular, showing that this commandment was for each individual, that each one was accountable to Him personally. The Hebrew expression translated as “before me” means “against my face,” which gives the sense of “in my presence.” Stating that they were to have no other gods “before Him” didn’t mean that it was acceptable to have other gods providing they didn’t rank higher than God. It meant they were to have no other gods whatsoever. Scripture teaches that God’s presence is everywhere, thus we are always in His presence or “before Him.”
The first commandment teaches that we are to confess and acknowledge that God is the only true God, and we are to worship and glorify Him accordingly. This includes not only avoiding the worship of other gods, but also to avoid placing anything above Him in our thoughts, actions, and affections. We’re to have nothing competing for our primary allegiance, obedience, and affection. We are to understand that God is the Lord above all, and He rightly does not tolerate rivals.
This commandment calls for our loyalty to God—who has the right to demand our love, trust, and obedience. In the New Testament, we find that Jesus also demanded this same exclusive loyalty when He said that loyalty to Him was a higher obligation than loyalty to our parents.
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.4
As one author wrote:
This is evidence of Jesus’ claim to be God, because he demands the same loyalty that only God himself is worthy to receive. This is why it is so significant that Christians worship Jesus. If Jesus is not God, then worshiping him would be idolatry. If Jesus is truly God, as he claimed, then worshiping him is an eternally appropriate way of obeying the first commandment.5
Any religion that worships deities other than the one true God of Scripture breaks the first commandment. Those who claim that there is no God also violate this commandment, as they give their wrong ideas priority over the worship of the one true God.
Sadly, there are many who believe in God who never consider themselves as putting other gods before Him or worshiping other gods, yet they do that very thing when they slip into patterns which give priority to other things above God. Following are some examples:
No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.6
If I have made gold my trust or called fine gold my confidence, … this also would be an iniquity to be punished by the judges, for I would have been false to God above.7
Then they sweep by like the wind and go on, guilty men, whose own might is their god!8
“I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God said to him, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.9
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: … covetousness, which is idolatry.10
Pleasure and entertainment:
Understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be … lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.11
Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.12
Beware lest you say in your heart, “My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.”13
The king answered and said, “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?”14
Approval of other people:
Am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.15
As Christians, our trust, faith, and allegiance is to be placed in God. The first commandment demands that allegiance and trust. Therefore, it is wise for us to take stock of what we put our faith and trust in, as sometimes we can find ourselves trusting in things more than the Lord. For example, our abilities, healthy lifestyle, favorite political party, doctors, a job, or friends. All of these can be good things, but as believers we aren’t to put them on an equal footing with or above God.
The Second Commandment
The second commandment states, You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.16
The Hebrew word translated as carved image refers to something that is carved or chiseled out of wood, stone, or metal and then used as an object of worship. Some Bible translations render it as graven image, an idol, or just an image. The first commandment prohibits worshiping other gods; this second one, among other things, prohibits worshiping the one true God in a way that makes us think of Him as having physical form. Doing so dishonors Him, as it diminishes the difference between God and all things created.
Some consider that this commandment disallows all representative art; however, nothing else in Scripture suggests that making images is always wrong. God Himself directed His people to make “two cherubim of gold” to put into the holiest part of the Old Testament tabernacle. There were a variety of images used within the tabernacle, all made at God’s direction. There was a lampstand with six branches, with cups that were to be “like almond blossoms.” The priest’s garments contained images of bells and pomegranates. The later Temple contained images of cherubim, and there were figures of palm trees and open flowers in the inner and outer rooms.
What the second commandment teaches is that people should not make images for the purpose of bowing down and worshiping them. God disapproves of the worship of images, whether they are images of false gods or images of Himself. However, He doesn’t disapprove of images or pictures which portray Him, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit, provided the images or pictures are not used as objects of worship.
(Continued in Part Two.)
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1 The Ten Commandments can be found in Exodus 20:1–17 and Deuteronomy 5:6–22.
2 Exodus 20:2.
3 Exodus 20:3.
4 Matthew 10:37–38.
5 Wayne Grudem, Christian Ethics (Wheaton: Crossway, 2018), 272.
6 Matthew 6:24.
7 Job 31:24, 28.
8 Habakkuk 1:11.
9 Luke 12:19–21.
10 Colossians 3:5.
11 2 Timothy 3:1–2, 4.
12 Philippians 3:19.
13 Deuteronomy 8:17.
14 Daniel 4:30.
15 Galatians 1:10.
16 Exodus 20:4–6.