The Ten Commandments (the Decalogue) were given to Moses on Mt. Sinai. The ten commandments are central tenets of God's law, and they were later expanded on to fill in the details. The ten commandments give God's bare minimum standard for man. The do not give us the full revelation of God's character and will for man. That is only seen in the Person of Jesus Christ. The law was mostly written in the negative form, as prohibitions. This shows the true state of man. His fallen nature is inclined to sin, and God must say, "Thou shalt not".1 The commandments were written "by the finger of God" and delivered to Moses (Deut. 9:10). They were written on "two tables of stone". We do not know whether the commandments were divided across the two tables (five and five; or four and six) or if each table contained all ten. We do know from other scriptures that the number two is the minimum requirement to establish testimony. Three is abundant testimony, but two is adequate. These tables are called the "two tables of testimony" (Exodus 31:18). It is possible that, as with other legal contracts, the two tables were identical, though independently written by God to give assurance of their accuracy and permanency. Another reason why there were two tables is because the ten commandments described Israel's twofold responsibility; (1) God-ward, and (2) man-ward. The law could be fulfilled by "love" to God and man (Gal. 5:14; Matt. 22:35-40). We also know that they were "written on both sides" (Exodus 32:15), so the common artistic depictions of them are not accurate. One reason why God chose to cover the entire surface area of each tablet might be that it left no room for man to add to His word!
Four God-ward Commands - Fulfilled by Love Toward God
- "Thou shalt have no other gods before me" (Ex. 20:3; Deut. 5:7)
- "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image" (Ex. 20:4-6; Deut. 5:8-10)
- "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain" (Ex. 20:7; Deut. 5:11)
- "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy" (Ex. 20:8-11; Deut. 5:12-15)
Six Man-ward Commands - Fulfilled by Love Toward Man
- "Honor thy father and thy mother" (Ex. 20:12; Deut. 5:16)
- "Thou shalt not kill" (Ex. 20:13; Deut. 5:17)
- "Thou shalt not commit adultery" (Ex. 20:14; Deut. 5:18)
- "Thou shalt not steal" (Ex. 20:15; Deut. 5:19)
- "Thou shalt not bear false witness" (Ex. 20:16; Deut. 5:20)
- "Thou shalt not covet" (Ex. 20:17; Deut. 5:21)
"These least commandments". The first four commandments had to do with fidelity toward God, summarized by the Lord as "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy understanding" (Deut. 6:5). The last six have to do with conduct toward our fellow man, and the Lord summarized them as "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself" (Lev. 19:18). Read Matt. 22:36-40; Rom. 13:8-10. Both these "summaries" are a form of love, so Paul says "therefore love is the fulfilling of the law" (Rom. 13:10). Man’s responsibility toward God is greater than his responsibility toward his fellow man (a principle much violated today), and therefore the second group of commands was called "these least commandments" (Matt. 5:19).
Ten commandments in the New Testament. Nine out of the ten commandments are brought into the New Testament and used in connection with Christian living. Each time a commandment is brought in, it is used for the moral import of the command, but the Christian is never put under the commandments as a law. Instead "the righteous requirement of the law" is "fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to flesh but according to Spirit" (Rom. 8:4). The one commandment that is NOT brought into the New Testament for Christian living is the one ceremonial commandment (the Sabbath), because it does not have a moral application in Christianity.
The “first commandment with promise” (Eph. 6:2). The command “Honour thy father and thy mother,” (Exodus 20:12) was the first one that had a promise attached to it, showing its importance to God. If obedience was important to God under the Law, how much more now under grace?
The tenth commandment. “But I had not known sin, unless by law: for I had not had conscience also of lust unless the law had said, Thou shalt not lust” (Rom. 7:7). The tenth commandment, “Thou shalt not covet”, is an inward desire, not an outward action. It is the most basic commandment, and everyone has broken it. The young man who came to the Lord in Matt. 19:16-26 had kept all the commandments pertaining to treatment of others. But when the Lord touched on covetousness, it says “he was grieved, for he had large possessions”. Many could keep the other nine out of ten commandments, but lust is one thing that gets all of us in different ways.
- But it was presented here for the most part in a way that betrayed the condition of man — not in positive precepts but in negative ones — a most humbling proof of man's estate. He loved sin so well that God had to interdict it. In the greater part of the ten commandments, in short, it was not "Thou shalt," but "Thou shalt not." That is, it was a prohibition of man's will. He was a sinner, and nothing else. - Kelly, W. Exposition of Exodus.