This study is based upon the New City Catechism.


“You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3)


The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-21) summarize the Mosaic Law. They are “the kernel and essence of [the Law].”[1] Also called the “Decalogue” or “ten words,” Exodus 20:1-21 serves as a foundational covenant document in which the cornerstone of the Old Covenant[3] is categorically revealed: commandments I-IV call us to love God, commandments V-X call us to love our neighbor.[4] The whole is wrapped up in the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3), which establishes the primacy of God’s Law for His covenant people.

First, these commandments are relevant. Let us not fall prey to the thought, “These commands were given to Moses’ Israel, not Christ’s church.” We find in the Decalogue a display of basic righteousness. The Law brings revival and wisdom (Psalm 19:7); it is deserving of love and meditation (119:97). Its equity straddles the Testaments (Matthew 5:18-20) and is a tool by which Christ redeems us (v.17). The Law displays basic righteousness, which means it is a standard for understanding God’s character and the responsibilities of civil magistrates.

Second, these commandments are part of a whole. Many in the West place particular importance upon the Ten Commandments, in contrast with other instructions within the Law. While the Decalogue is foundational, no further precedence should be given to it over other parts of the Law. Its distinction is contextual and constitutional, not authoritative or beneficial.[5] These ten words form the acorn before a large oak tree. If we desire to understand and benefit from God’s Law, let us become serious about studying and obeying it all.

Third, these commandments are redemptive. What Calvin called the “preamble” to the Decalogue (Exodus 20:1-2) provides both context and motivation for obedience. Israel should have obeyed the Law in light of God’s bringing them “out of the land of Egypt” (v.2). This cause for obedience is not merely obligatory, but inspirational as well. God’s grace should give us great ambition to obey God’s Law. By this principle, the church has greater cause for holiness than anyone else in history, for unto us the mystery of the gospel has been revealed (Ephesians 3:1-13). Christ crucified should drive us to piety.

God’s grace should give us great ambition to obey God’s Law.

Fourth, these commandments are creational. The Decalogue is a “foundational covenant document,” explaining what God expects of His people.[6] As stated above, Exodus 20:1-21 is contextually redemptive. However, the Decalogue is also creational, because redemption constitutes a wholistic return to the Imago Dei. Redemption encompasses a return to this image in Christ (Romans 8:29);[7]and entering God’s covenant community is a command in itself (Mark 1:15). Therefore, God’s covenant people are not the only ones held accountable to these Ten Commandments. Everyone who learns of these divine charges is responsible for obeying them, and those who never hear are responsible for obeying whatever essence of the law God has written on their hearts (Romans 2:14-15). Let us then make no hesitation in calling the world to obey these ten words.

Question: What is the law of God stated in the Ten Commandments?
Answer: You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below—you shall not bow down to them or worship them. You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God. Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Honor your father and your mother. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not give false testimony. You shall not covet.

[1] Keil-Delitzsch, The Pentateuch, 108.

[3] Matthew 22:37-40 (cf. Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18). See also “Catechism VII.”

[4] The ten commandments were probably divided evenly between the stone faces, as was the opinion of Josephus (Ant. Iii. 5, 5), Philo (quis rer. divin. hœr. § 35, de Decal. § 12, etc.), and a majority of fathers through fourth century AD (Keil-Delitzsch, The Pentateuch, 108-9). This point is categorically distinct, yet may imply of some the following understanding of the Decalogue: commandments I-V call us to respect our lords, commandments VI-X call us to respect our fellows. I concur with command placement upon the stones, yet diverge when the latter view is taken.

[5] See Stuart, NAC Exodus, 440-1. Stuart also claims Scripture presents the Law in three levels of specificity: “the two [Matthew 22:37-40], the ten [Exodus 20:1-21], the six hundred and one [other commands],” (Ibid.). However, the “two” and the “ten” are part of the Law, not separate revelations of it (esp. since “the two” are not revealed together in the Pentateuch). I prefer to view these three levels as ascending floors, rather than reiterations of the same house.

[6] Barrs, Delighting in the Law of the Lord, 76.

[7] “In the law, the original calling of our human race, our creational calling, is being revealed more fully,” (Barrs, Delighting in the Law of the Lord, 76).

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