Ten Commandments for Getting the Most Out of the Ten Commandments

Last month I started a new preaching series on the Ten Commandments as a vision for healthy community. After that intro, we’re now spending one Sunday morning on each of the ten commandments with a sermon and a response time following. “Every sermon should be followed by this kind of discussion,” a first-time guest said to me yesterday. I would love that too!


Here’s an overview of our approach to this series in the form of ten commandments for getting the most out of the ten commandments. As always, I welcome your comments.

#1 Do take the Ten Commandments seriously as significant words for us today.

While these were ancient words written to a specific people, they continue to speak to us today. They are more than quaint historical interest or a framework for a blog post.

#2 Don’t dismiss the Ten Commandments as a random bunch of laws.

The Ten Commandments are all related to one another, and together they outline a vision for community in concrete, practical terms. They don’t address every situation in detail–they are, after all, just ten brief statements, but they point the way to living together in healthy community.

#3 Do realize that Jesus valued the Ten Commandments.

Jesus quoted the Ten Commandments, made them part of his teaching, and commended them as a way of life (Matthew 19:16-22). He took the ten commandments so seriously, that he included them in his sermon on the mount in an even more intense way (Matthew 5:21-30).

 #4 Do be aware of Jesus’ own summary of the ten commandments and all the law (Matthew 22:34-40):

You shall love the Lord God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. . . . You shall love your neighbour as yourself.

In my church’s preaching series on the Ten Commandments, we’ve started calling this the “Coles Notes” version of the Ten Commandments (thanks, Jeff!). (cf. Romans 13:8-10).

#5 Do start with the prologue to the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:2):

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

Note that the Ten Commandments begin with God’s saving action. They don’t begin with a list of do’s and don’ts for us, but with God’s own love and faithfulness.

#6 Don’t see the Ten Commandments as a way to earn God’s approval.

As the prologue makes clear, God had already acted on behalf of the people. They didn’t need to earn God’s favour. Instead, the Ten Commandments describe a way of living in response to God’s love and faithfulness.

#7 Do understand that the negative prohibitions include the positive, and the positive include the negative.

So “you shall not murder” implies that you shall act in life-giving ways.  “You shall not commit adultery” implies faithfulness in marriage. “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy” includes the negative “you shall not do any work” on the Sabbath day. Each commandment is part of a whole vision for community, with both positive actions to do and negative actions to avoid.

#8 Do see the Ten Commandments in context, not as an isolated list of do’s and don’ts. Remember that they’re grounded in God’s on-going story of love and faithfulness.

This is clear from the prologue to the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:2, and in Deuteronomy 6:20-24:

When your children ask you in time to come, “What is the meaning of the [ten commandments and other laws] that the Lord our God has commanded you?” then you shall say to your children, “We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. The LORD displayed before our eyes great and awesome signs and wonders against Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his household. He brought us out from there in order to bring us in, to give us the land that he promised on oath to our ancestors. Then the LORD commanded us to observe all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God, for our lasting good, so as to keep us alive, as is now the case.”

#9 Do read the Ten Commandments in the context of all of Scripture.

For my sermon yesterday on “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God” (Exodus 20:7), I also drew on other passages of Scripture related to God’s name, e.g., Exodus 3:14; Psalm 69:30. Philippians 2:5-8; Matthew 6:9; John 8:58, 14:13-14. For my Sabbath sermon, I plan to pair what the Ten Commandments say about Sabbath (Exodus 20:8-11) with Jesus’ teaching and practice in Mark 2:23-3:6 and elsewhere.

#10 Do allow the Ten Commandments to challenge you, but don’t be discouraged. Take heart and place your trust in God.

It can be disheartening to read the Ten Commandments and to be confronted by all the ways that we fail to measure up. The apostle Paul was so conscious of his own struggle to do the right thing that he wrote in Romans 7:24:

Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?

His immediate answer in Romans 7:25 is our answer as well:

Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

We’re set free from having to measure up! The Ten Commandments aren’t focused on getting the most out of us, nor do we need to focus on getting the most out of them. Instead, Jesus has fulfilled the law for us, and his Spirit empowers us to live in response to all that God has done for us. We can rest in God’s love and faithfulness.

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