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How to read (and apply) the 10 Commandments

06.21.18 | Gospel, Scripture, Theology, Obedience | by Matt Shantz

    Not only are large portions of the Old Testament difficult to understand historically and theologically, how to interpret the Old Testament in light of the New makes many passages doubly difficult to understand theologically.

    We're not under the law, but under grace, right? Yes and amen! But then Jesus comes along and says things like, “I haven’t come to abolish the law but to fulfill it”. What is the place of the law in the Christian life?

    Our law-keeping cannot save us, only Jesus can. But those who are saved by Jesus joyfully respond with obedience to the law. But to all the laws of the Old Testament or only some? Is it selective and inconsistent of us to obey some and neglect others?

    How do we as Christians approach the Law (the Ten Commandments being the summary of the Torah/Law)?

    One of the reasons we are working through a sermon series on the 10 Commandments is so that we can engage these questions and rightly handle the Word of Truth (2 Timothy 2:15), namely how the New Testament informs the Old, how the New Covenant fulfills the Old.

    Hermeneutics are methods of interpretation and the following are what I hope will be helpful rules for interpreting Old Testament Law. Consider this your 10 Commandments primer:


    While these aren't perfect categories (where does the Sabbath neatly fall for example) and are a bit of an oversimplification, they can be helpful. 

    1. The Moral Law
    The first five books of the Bible are called the Torah, which means Law. The Torah was given by God to Moses at Mount Sinai. And the moral law is summarized in the 10 Commandments. It's the righteous and eternal standard for our relationship with God and with others. These are laws with ethical categories.

    2. The Civil Law
    These are the laws that governed Israel as a nation. Laws pertaining to guidelines for war, restrictions around land use, debt and loan regulations, and penalties for violations against Israel's legal code. These are laws with social categories.

    3. The Ceremonial Law
    Things like regulations for worship in the sanctuary, for religious festivals, and the sacrificial system fall under this third type of the law. From clean and unclean foods to instructions for ritual purity, the guidelines for the conduct of priests, to detailed instructions for offering sacrifices. And I mean detailed. Check out the Book of Leviticus. These are laws with religious categories.

    The Ceremonial Law is no longer in effect because all of its regulations pointed forward to Jesus (Colossians 2:16-17). Now that Jesus has offered Himself as the once-for-all atoning sacrifice for our sins, no more sacrifices are needed. In fact, to continue to follow the old ceremonies would actually be to deny the sufficiency of the cross of Christ. There are two ceremonies in effect in the church: the ordinances of baptism & the Lord’s Supper. They are both cross-related.

    The Civil Law is no longer in effect but for different reasons. The Church is not a State. We have a King and His name is Jesus — but His Kingdom is spiritual — and His commission to His disciples is trans-national.

    The Ceremonial Law and Civil Law were types and figures pointing forward to the cross and Kingdom of Jesus. But what the New Testament does not do is declare an end to God’s Moral Law as the standard for our lives.

    While the Moral Law also finds it's fulfillment in Christ, these moral commands continue to find their expression through the Spirit-empowered lives of followers of Jesus (Jeremiah 31:31-33).


    1. Map
    The Law as a map that guides our conduct. It is useful for instructing us in righteousness. It helps us know what is pleasing to God and shows us how to live.

    2. Muzzle
    The Law as a muzzle that restrains evil. The commandments, with their accusation of guilt and threat of punishment, discourage people from sinning against God. This use of the law is as a deterrent that has the preventative purpose of keeping God's people away from sin. Like a parent who says, "Don't touch the element on the stove, you'll get burned!".

    3. Mirror
    The Law as a mirror that shows us our sin. The Ten Commandments expose our sinful motives and behaviours for what they are: the transgression of specific commands. This is how the law helps us: not by saving us but by driving us to the Saviour. Like a mirror that shows us that our face is dirty, which drives us to cleansing water.


    1. Revelation
    Insight into the character of God.

    2. Confrontation
    Insight into our own character.

    3. Instruction 
    Charts a new path to walk, by God’s grace.

    4. Promise 
    Because of the new covenant, God promises to write His law on our hearts.

    Every one of the 10 Commandments (which stand as a summary of God's moral law) gives us insight into the character of God, an accurate indictment on our own character, the way forward made by the gospel, and gospel hope.


    The Biblical Rule
    Every commandment must be understood in the context of the entire Bible. In the context of the 10 Commandments, all the prophets and apostles accepted the abiding authority of God’s moral law.

    The Inside/Outside Rule
    The Ten Commandments are internal as well as external meaning they demand inward integrity as well as outward conformity. They deal with our souls as well as our bodies. For example, what the 7th commandment forbids is not just inappropriate sexual activity, but sinful sexual desires (Matthew 5:28).

    The Two-sided Rule 
    Every commandment is both positive and negative. This helps us see that where a sin is forbidden, the corresponding duty is required. And where a duty is required, the corresponding sin is forbidden. Most of the commandments are a list of don’ts: don’t make other gods, don’t steal, don’t lie. The Two-sided Rule helps us see that there is a flip to every command. Each one condemns a particular vice and commends a particular virtue. The true intent of each commandment is to tell us what to do as well as what not to do.
    For example, the command not to murder simultaneously requires the preservation of life. The command not to steal also demands that we give generously to people in need. 

    The Rule of Categories
    Each commandment stands for a whole category of sins. It not only governs the specific sin it mentions but all the sins that lead up to it, and all the supposedly lesser sins of the same kind.
    For example, You shall not murder: Jesus explained that it also condemns hatred. In addition to outright murder, the 6th Commandment forbids any form of physical violence, domestic violence, and even neglect of personal health, as well as everything that leads up to these sins such as fits of anger.

    The Brother’s Keeper Rule
    We are not allowed to encourage someone else to do what God has told us not to do. Put positively (well done! You're applying the Two-Sided Rule), we must do everything in our power to help other people keep God’s law.
    For example, the 10 Commandments require parents to teach their children how to put God first, how to keep the Sabbath, how to tell the truth, and so on. 

    The Law of the Tables
    The first table of the law always takes precedence over the second. Our duty to God in the first four commandments always governs our duty to one another in the last six commandments Said another way, our love for neighbour is subject to our love for God.


    We must get the order right. The gospel informs the law. The law can't save us. Only Jesus can. Leading with the law rather than the gospel will find us condemned (Romans 2:12). 

    We keep the law not as a way of getting right with God but as a way of pleasing the God who has made us right with Him! In that light, the law is not a burden to crush us but a gift to guide us. Our motivation for law-keeping isn't to merit salvation, it's grace-driven effort. Because the gospel is so amazing, we want to follow God's commands out of joyful response.

    The Apostle Paul helps us when he writes, For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law... (Romans 3:28) and then goes on to say, Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law (Romans 3:31). By faith, we receive the gift of Jesus' law-keeping. 

    So the way we uphold the law is by turning our backs on our warped efforts to keep the law by putting our confidence and trust in Jesus, who satisfied all the law’s demands on our behalf.

    The law, therefore, shows us God's moral character and righteous requirements. They are a map, muzzle, and mirror. But, as the Apostle John wrote, his commandments are not burdensome (1 John 5:3), and the reason they're not burdensome is that our salvation doesn't rest on great law-keeping. It relies on our great Saviour, Jesus Christ, who kept the law perfectly on our behalf.

    That's enough for one day. Class dismissed.

    X: Gospel-Empowered Obedience to the Law of God