Why Did God Have to Give His People the 10 Commandments?

Just as a loving parent lays down ground rules for his child to follow to lead a safe and successful life, God the Father gave us the Ten Commandments to help us lead our best lives with regard to our relationship with Him and our relationship with each other.

Dolores Smyth
Moses kneeling in front of the 10 Commandments

Since the Garden of Eden, man has rebelled against God. To help free humanity from this propensity to sin and help each of us to lead our best lives, God handed down the Ten Commandments as a code of moral laws for us to live by.

The Ten Commandments are not an onerous set of rules we should follow out of fear or guilt. Rather, the Commandments serve as signposts that point us to the straight and narrow path while showing us our need for a Savior when we inevitably stray from that path.

The Laws of the Old Testament

In the Old Testament, the Ten Commandments formed part of the 613 laws that governed ancient Hebrew society. The 613 laws consisted of civil rules that governed the Israelites’ day-to-day life, ceremonial rules that governed the worship of God in the Temple, and moral rules (better known as the Ten Commandments) that concisely summarized all of the Old Testament laws as to how people interacted with God and with each other.

Jesus Christ’s death and Resurrection did away with the need for laws involving bloody Temple sacrifices and other Old Testament laws that no longer applied to those saved by faith in Christ.

The Old Testament laws that did become part of the New Testament covenant were the moral laws written in stone and placed in the Ark of the Covenant — the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17; 1 Kings 8:9).

A Brief Review of the Ten Commandments

The Ten Commandments — also called the Decalogue — represent God’s personal interest in bringing out the best in His children so that we may live life to the fullest (John 10:10). The Commandments set God’s people apart, identify right from wrong, and uphold the ultimate importance of love for God and neighbor in promoting peace in this life and salvation after.

The Ten Commandments can be divided into two parts: The first four Commandments deal with our relationship with God, and the last six Commandments deal with our relationship with one another.

The First Commandment

“You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3; Matthew 4:10; 1 Timothy 2:5). This instruction makes clear that God is the one true God and that we are to worship Him only.

In ancient times, this law steered people away from the many false gods worshipped by various cultures. In modern times, this Commandment is a warning against elevating money or other worldly things to god-like status in our lives.

The Second Commandment

“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below” (Exodus 20:4; 1 John 5:21; Acts 17:29). This is a prohibition against worshipping or bowing down to anything instead of God.

The Third Commandment

“You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God” (Exodus 20:7; James 5:12; 1 Timothy 6:1). The proscription here is against using the name of God disrespectfully or in disregard of its holy nature. We are to speak and use God’s name only with the highest reverence.

The Fourth Commandment

“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy” (Exodus 20:8). Scripture is clear that we’re to observe the Sabbath as God’s holy day of rest from work and as a day of “sacred assembly” (Exodus 20:8-10; Genesis 2:2; Leviticus 23:3). This Commandment is not explicitly reiterated in the New Testament, but the Sabbath’s existence at the time of Jesus is referenced (Luke 4:16; 23:55-56).

Despite this, we know that the Christian faith is communal in nature, as evident in Jesus’ teaching us to pray to “our Father,” and not individually to “my” Father, and at Jesus’ assertion that where two or three gather in His name, there is He with them ((Matthew 6:9; Matthew 18:20).

The Fifth Commandment

“Honor your father and your mother” (Exodus 20:12; Ephesians 6:2-3; Luke 18:20). This Commandment tells believers to respect and obey their father and mother. In return, the Commandment promises that if children respect their parents, the children will enjoy a long, successful life.

The Sixth Commandment

“You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13; 1 John 3:15; Romans 13:9). The word “murder” is operative here, as the Commandment forbids the taking of another’s life unlawfully. Scripture makes a distinction between murder and killing as seen in Paul’s discussion on the right of the government to kill evildoers (Romans 13:1-4).

The Seventh Commandment

“You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; Romans 13:9). Starting with Adam and Eve, the Bible teaches that once a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, they become one flesh (Genesis 2:24) joined together before God (Mark 10:7-9). Committing adultery adds a third person to the marriage and, thereby, violates the sanctity of the holy union.

The Eighth Commandment

“You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15; Ephesians 4:28; Romans 13:9). This is a prohibition against taking something that isn’t rightfully yours. The purpose behind this Commandment is not so much to protect our possessions but to safeguard the stability of our society. When theft goes unpunished, people become fearful and resort to potentially violent means to secure and retrieve what belongs to them.

The Ninth Commandment

“You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16; Colossians 3:9-10; Revelation 21:8). To give false testimony against a neighbor is to knowingly lie about that person in a way that will cause him or her harm, such as in a legal proceeding. The importance of truthful testimony is seen in our modern judicial system, which punishes as perjury false testimony in a legal matter.

The Tenth Commandment

“You shall not covet” (Exodus 20:17; Colossians 3:5; Romans 13:9). This Commandment calls for us to control any longing we may have for the belongings of others. This can include a desire for a neighbor’s physical possessions or a longing for people that form part of our neighbor’s life. In other words, we are not to desire or set our sights on anything that rightfully belongs to someone else.

This particular Commandment stands out because it deals with taking control of our inappropriate feelings. As Jesus sagely pointed out, sin often originates with a covetous feeling that can lead a person to break one of the other Commandments, such as that against murder, adultery, or theft (Matthew 5:28; Luke 6:45).

Why Should Christians Follow the Ten Commandments Today?

God gave the Ten Commandments to the people of the Old Testament covenant. Despite this and because sin continues to exist in the world, the New Testament affirms that the Ten Commandments are still essential laws that should govern a Christian’s life today.

In fact, and as annotated above, the New Testament reinforces the importance of abiding by nine of the Ten Commandments numerous times (with the exception of the Commandment on keeping the Sabbath, which is referenced but not explicitly reiterated in the New Testament).

The Ten Commandments serve not only as a moral code of conduct for today’s Christian but as a stark reminder that we are all in need of a Savior because no one can perfectly abide by all of the Commandments all of the time. Jesus Himself identified the main thread running through the Ten Commandments with a single word: Love. Jesus explained that the Commandments require a committed and humble love of God, and a committed and humble love of our fellow man (Matthew 22:34-40).

Paul expanded upon this overarching theme of love when he wrote that the Commandments against adultery, murder, stealing, and coveting are summed up in one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Romans 13:8-9).

The fact that love is the binding theme of the Ten Commandments is no surprise when we consider God’s perfect love for His Creation. Just as a loving parent lays down ground rules for his child to follow to lead a safe and successful life, God the Father gave us the Ten Commandments to help us lead our best lives with regard to the relationships that matter most — our relationship with Him and our relationship with each other.

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/rudall30


Dolores Smyth and her husband have been married for 16 years and still hold hands and go on date nights, babysitting arrangements permitting. You can follow Dolores’s writings on faith and family over Twitter @LolaWordSmyth


Originally published September 25, 2020.