With so many rules and laws in the Old Testament, why put such a special emphasis on the ten commandments? What about the many other commands throughout the Old Testament?
1. The Ten Commandments are a summary of the natural law in creation and therefore cannot be abolished or pushed to the side.
All ten commandments in one way or another are taught or implicit before the giving of the tablets of Sinai. This means that even if the Mosaic law were completely done away with, then the ten would still be a part of humanity's moral fabric.
(1) "No other Gods" (Ex. 15:11; Gen. 6:9) was implicit by the OT approval of those who walked with God, who worshipped only the Lord. Even the serpent's temptation to Eve was a temptation to set themselves up in God's place, therefore violating the first commandment.
(2) "No Idols" is already present in Genesis. As Philip Ross points out, the story from Gen. 31:34 where the menstrual woman is sitting on the idol is a "very sharp judgment on the unholiness and nothingness of this 'god'; a woman sat upon it in her uncleanness" (p 63). Also, at one point (Gen. 35:2) God commands Jacob to "Get rid of their foreign god."
(3) "Do not misuse the name of the Lord" is implicit whenever the name of the Lord is exalted or honored or sworn by in the pre-Mosaic fathers (Gen. 4:26; 24:3; 22:16).
(4) "Remember the sabbath" is referenced before the giving of the ten also. In Ex. 16:4-5 the people are told that they must collect enough mana and not to collect any on the seventh day. The narrative makes clear that the seventh day is to be "a day of rest, a holy Sabbath to the LORD" (16:23). God's complaint in 16:28 "How long will you refuse to keep my commands and instruction?", according to Ross, "implies knowledge of 'commands' and 'instructions' concerning the Sabbath." The greatest proof of the Sabbath, however, is that it is rooted in the creation account which specifically points to the seventh day as a day of rest for God who needs no rest. Clearly, then, the mention of the Sabbath day is not for God's sake, but for man's sake.
(5) "Honor your father and your mother" is demonstrably present before the giving of the ten as Noah's sons go with him into the ark (Gen. 7:7), and as Reuben and Judah plead with their father for Benjamin to come to Egypt (Gen. 42:29-43:13). Negatively, dishonoring one's parents is condemned in Gen. 9:20-27 when Ham is condemned for his disrespectful attitude towards his father's nakedness.
(6) "You shall not kill" is obviously present in the murder of Abel. If murder did not become a sin until the giving of the law at Sinai, then upon what moral grounds did God condemn Cain? Clearly the sixth commandment was part of the moral law given to all humanity before any written law. Recall, also, that Moses killed a man and sought to cover it up (Ex. 2:11-14). This was also before any law had been given to humanity. As Ross once again points out, "Murder was therefore a crime before Sinai, among the chosen people and in heathen nations."
(7) "Do not commit adultery" begins in the garden of Eden as Adam and Eve become united in a one-flesh union (Gen. 2:23-25). This is later pointed to by Jesus as the grounds upon which divorce ought not to happen. If divorce is forbidden by Adam and Eve's union in the Garden, then surely the breaking of that union by adultery was as well. Also, consider how Abraham allowed Sarah into Abimelech's house. What happened next is remarkable because God came to Abimelech in a dream and warned him not that "adultery is a transgression of the moral order - he knows that already - but so that he knows he will commit adultery if he touches Sarah (Gen. 20:3-7).
(8) "You shall not steal" is violated almost immediately when Adam and Eve stole fruit from God which they did not have any right to (although we'd be mistaken to reduce their sin to theft). Some major examples of theft before Sinai: Laban's defrauding of Jacob (Gen. 31:6-7), Rachel's theft of her father (31:19), and don't forget the episode involving Joseph's cup (Gen. 44). "Theft was in no sense acceptable before Israel heard the ten words" (p 73).
(9) "Do not bear false witness" immediately comes to mind when Adam passes the buck to Eve in the garden of Eden. After all, if he wasn't guilty then only Eve would have stood condemned in the Garden. Admittedly this is an indirect reference to lying, but it should be agreed that lying was a sin from the beginning. When Abraham lies to Abimelech about his wife, Abimelech the pagan lectures Abraham because Abraham was doing something "that ought not be done" (Gen. 20:9). Other events involved Sarah's lie in Gen. 18:15. Another is when Jacob recognizes that his deceit of his father to obtain the blessing would make him worthy of a curse (Gen. 27:12).
(10) "Do not covet" is also a command which is implicit in the fall narrative. The taking of the fruit was a desiring of something which Adam and Eve did not have a right to (Gen. 3:6). Geerhard von Rad observes also that Cain's murder of Abel sprang from his envy of God's pleasure in his brother. Joseph too experienced suffering at his brothers' hands when they coveted their father's affection from Joseph. Covetousness is a "constant theme" in the destruction of Abraham's family.
Natural Law was in place before Sinai:
(a) In Gen. 6:5 God judges the world because "The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually." Clearly humanity lived under a moral law before the giving of the ten commandments. Once again, the moral law transcends the Sinai commandments.
(b) In Gen. 26:5 God says that "Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws." Ross notes that "This is the first time the Pentateuch uses those words, which are of considerable significance later." Another scholar writes, "This is no simple anachronism; it carries significance for understanding the place of the law in the pre-Sinai period."1
(c) Some scholars see significance in the fact that the ten commandments were given in a desert which was not understood to be owned by any particular nation. They argue that this emphasizes the transcendent and universal applicability of the ten commandments.
2. In the OT, the Ten Commandments are singled out as unique and distinct from the rest of the Old Testament laws.
(a) Deuteronomy 4:12-14 teaches not only that the ten commandments are important, but they are the covenant. Exodus 34:28 teaches the exact same thing. Clearly the ten commandments occupy a very important place right up front in Israel's history.
(b) Interestingly, the two tablets containing two copies of the commandments were kept in the ark rather than beside it as the law was. This emphasized the covenantal nature of the ten commandments as one copy was normally given to each party in ancient near eastern secular treaties. In the case of Israel, both tablets are kept together because the Lord himself will dwell with the Israelites.
(c) In Deuteronomy 5:22 it says: "These words the LORD spoke with a loud voice to your whole assembly, at the mountain, from the midst of the fire, the cloud and the thick darkness; and he added nothing more." This clause is a boundary marker so that an answer might be given to the one who might ask, "Why the ten commandments? Why isn't the rest of the law of Moses seen as unique and applicable in all times and places?"
(d) Ross offers his own summary of his argument that "the Pentateuch recognized the Decalogue as a distinct element within the law"
1. The ten were not a marked historical development or a new law.
2. God spoke these words.
3. These words came from the finger of God.
4. He added nothing to these words and no other part of the law had that 'binding foundation-scroll' status.
5. The rest of the law was not written in a form which was addressed to the individual throughout.
6. Only the ten commandments function as the 'constitution' upon which 'all else is but commentary.' Ultimately, it was the 'constitution of the universe.'
The OT laws were traditionally divided into civil, ceremonial, and moral laws. Thomas Aquinas offered Deuteronomy 4:13-14 as a prooftext for this division of the law.
I should also note that our own confession, the Westminster Confession, teaches that while the moral law (again, summarized in the ten commandments) is still in effect for the church today, the civil and ceremonial aspects of the law are no longer binding for the church. So it recognizes this same division.
19.3 “Beside this law, commonly called moral, God was pleased to give to the people of Israel, as a church under age, ceremonial laws, containing several typical ordinances, partly of worship, prefiguring Christ, his graces, actions, sufferings, and benefits; and partly, holding forth divers instructions of moral duties. All which ceremonial laws are now abrogated, under the new testament.”And so our own confession recognizes that while the moral law, which is summarized by the ten commandments, is still binding, the civil laws and ceremonial laws have "expired together with the State of that people; not obliging any other now."
19.4 “To them also, as a body politic, he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require.”
3. The NT teaches that the Ten Commandments are still binding.
(a) Jesus did not change the law or his attitude to the law in any way during his life. Rather, as our Larger Catechism says, "Christ humbled himself in his life, by subjecting himself to the law, which he perfectly fulfilled."
"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:17-19)In all of the Gospels, Jesus is portrayed as keeping each and every commandment of the Old Testament and of teaching others to keep them, as well. Even Jesus' teachings on the Sabbath, which some point to as being a change from the "old order" were entirely in keeping with Old Testament teachings. When we get to the fourth commandment we will address this question, but in the meantime it is useful for us to note that Jesus' teaching is always in keeping with the Old Testament teachings.
1 Matthew 4:10
2 John 4:24
3 Matthew 5:33-37
4 Luke 23:56
5 Matthew 15:4; Luke 2:51
6 Matt. 5:21-6; 15:9; 19:3-9, 18
7 Matt. 5:27-32; 15:19; 19:3-9, 18
8 Matt. 5:19; 19:18
9 Matt. 5:33-37; 15:19; 19:18
10 Luke 12:15
(b) Jesus saw the Ten Commandments as an inseparable unit. In Mark 10:17 Jesus is talking with the rich young ruler and when the man asks how he might have eternal life, Jesus points to the ten commandments: "You know the commandments: 'Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.'" What is so brilliant is that Jesus references the ten by pointing to several of the ten, but not all of them. He does not have to - this young man would have known all ten commandments by heart.
(c) The Ten Commandments are all presented positively in the book of Acts (both explicitly and implicitly), even after Jesus' ascension.
1 Acts 4:11-12; 4:24; 12:22-23
2 Acts 7:42; 15:20, 29; 19:19
3 Acts 23:3
4 Acts 13:14, 44; 16:13; 17:2; 18:4
5 Acts 23:5; 25:6-12
6 Acts 7:51-53; 9:22-24; 21:30-31
7 Acts 15:20
8 Acts 5:4
9 Acts 5:1-11
10 Acts 20:33
(d) The Moral Law is never revoked. Elsewhere in the book of Acts (10:28), we find that Peter has a vision and is commanded by God to eat the unclean animals. In this event, God declares that the ceremonial (purity) laws of the Mosaic period are no longer binding. He does not revoke the moral laws. The Ten Commandments are NOT part of the ceremonial law. Rather, as we argued already, the Ten are a summary of the Natural Law which God has placed in the hearts of all men. Such a law cannot simply be revoked. However, many try to argue that of all the ten, only the Sabbath is part of the purity laws. Once again, this will be addressed when we discuss the fourth commandment. We must remember that the Ten are viewed by Moses, as well as by Jesus, as a unit, all written together, and to be obeyed without being separated from one another.
Almost none of this lesson would have been possible without the aid of Philip Ross' book From the Finger of God. Many of the arguments in this lesson were taken straight from (or were summarized from) his book.