The Importance of the 10 Commandments

An Old Testament Theology: A Canonical and Thematic Approach Have you ever wondered why historic Christian churches and their creeds/confessions put so much emphasis on the Ten Commandments?  For example, both the Heidelberg Catechism and the Westminster Catechisms have a commentary type section on the Ten Words, as do Luther’s Catechisms.  But why?  Simply put, we emphasize the Ten Commandments because Scripture does.  Here’s how Bruce Waltke explains this fact (I’ve summarized his explanation):

1) Their Placement Shows Priority.  The Ten Commandments are given first in the Mosaic Law.  Hebrew syntax and rhetorical style commonly place the main concept first and then elaborate on it, as in Genesis 1:1-2:3.  God commands Moses at the beginning of Exodus to bring the people to the mountain to worship God.  This is the underlying driving force of the Exodus narrative – to reach the climactic moment at the mountain.  That the Ten Commandments were the first revelation at Sinai places them in an unrivaled position.

2) They Are a Better Form of Revelation.  Only the Ten Commandments are given directly by God; the rest of the Law is mediated to them through Moses.  Instructively, Gods word to Moses has priority over his words to prophets because to Moses he spoke directly face to face and clearly but to prophets he spoke indirectly through visions that needed interpretation (Num. 12:1-8).  Two texts make a point to distinguish the Ten Commandments from the rest of the law by their different modes of revelation: Exodus 22:18-21 and Deuteronomy 5:23-32.

3) They Are Deposited in the Ark.  Only the Ten Commandments are deposited in the ark, which resides in the most holy place (Deut. 10:1-5).  In the heart of the temple is the ark.  Inside it, is the ten ‘words.’  They are part of God’s identity, a central part of God’s self-revelation.

4) They Are Not Limited to the Land.  The Ten Commandments are not restricted to geography or history.  Whereas the other laws were intended for Israel in the Sworn Land (Deut. 5:31), the Ten Commandments are not bound by time and space.  They express God’s fundamental moral stance [and are echoed in the New Testament].

5) They Are Called ‘The Covenant’ and the Foundation of the Canon.  The Ten Commandments are referred to as ‘the covenant’ (Deut. 4:13; 9:9, etc.); it summarizes the intent and the spirit of the Mosaic covenant.  With the people’s acceptance of the Ten Commandments, we have the beginning of the canon of Scripture.  The Ten Commandments were spoken then written as the inspired words of God, and the people acknowledged them as such.

6) They Are Addressed Individually to the Whole House of Israel.  Whereas the Book of the Covenant contains case law expressed in the impersonal third person pronoun and the liturgy is addressed to Moses, the Ten Commandments are addressed by the Creator of the universe and Ruler of all things personally to each individual within the whole house of Israel.  The legislative ‘you shall [not]’ is second person singular.  The commandments establish personal intimacy between Israel’s King and each and every Israelite.

More could be said, of course.  But these are six good, biblical reasons why we as God’s people should give a high and holy place to the Ten Commandments in our theology and life.

Waltke’s full discussion is found on pages 412-414 of The Theology of the Old Testament.

shane lems
covenant presbyterian church
hammond, wi

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