Ten Brief Lessons on the Ten Commandments

Many Christians tend to have an uneasy relationship with God’s law. Often, wrong perceptions interfere with a clear understanding about the Ten Commandments. To help, here are ten brief lessons regarding the Decalogue.

Lesson 1: The Ten Commandments were given to the redeemed. The Remember that the Ten Commandments were given to Israel after they had been delivered out of Egypt, not before. They were not a code given for Israel to earn there way out of slavery; these commandments were given to them as the redeemed people of God. The Lord reminds them of this in the very preface to the Ten commandments, found in Exodus 20:1 which states, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

Lesson 2: The Lord made a covenant with Israel based on the Ten Commandments. When Moses came down off Mt. Sinai with the stone tables of God’s law as recorded in Exodus 24, he built an altar before the people. He then took the blood of the sacrifice and sprinkled half of it on the altar. After reading the “book of the covenant”, i.e. the Ten Commandments and other laws, the people responded they would obey his word. Then Moses took the other half of the blood and sprinkled it on the people, saying, “Behold the blood of the covenant, which the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words” (Ex. 24:8). This covenant act showed not only that the people were bound by blood to obey the law or suffer its judgments, but with the blood’s placement on the altar that God himself was willing to suffer to fulfill the covenant.

Lesson 3: Two copies of the Ten Commandments were given to Moses. Everyone knows that Moses had two tablets of stone with the Ten Commandments written on them when he came down from Sinai. Most portrayals of this scene depict the first four or five commandments written on the first tablet and the remainder on the second one. Yet many scholars believe that the two tablets were actually two copies of the Ten Commandments. The reason for this is that we know the tablets “were written on both sides; on the front and on the back they were written” (Ex. 32:15). Since they were called the “two tablets of the testimony” (Ex. 31:18), most likely the Lord was giving two copies of this covenant agreement as was common in ancient times. (If so, what would you have to assume about the typical picture accompanying this article?) This practice is similar to today when we often have two or more copies of important contracts or legal documents for both parties.

Lesson 4: The Ten Commandments are listed twice in the Bible. So important were the Ten Words of Moses that the Lord had them repeated in the history of Israel and recorded such in the Scriptures. You can find them both in Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21. The Lord gave them to Israel within approximately a year after they came out of Egypt, then repeated them almost 40 years later when Israel was about to go into the Promised Land. Interestingly, the book of Deuteronomy literally means “the second (giving of the) law.” This repetition was necessary as most of the first generation of Israel had perished in the wilderness, and so Moses recounts their history, reviews God’s law, and prepares them for entrance into the land.

Lesson 5: Copies of the Ten Commandments were placed in the ark of the covenant. As God’s Law, the Ten Commandments were written on stone to represent their permanent, binding nature. God’s Law “endures forever” (Ps. 19:9).  This truth was further emphasized as the Lord instructed Moses to place the tablets of the law in the ark of the covenant, which was then placed in the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle (Ex. 25:16, 40:20; Heb. 9:4).  The ark, with its mercy seat on the top, represented God’s rule as the gracious king over his people. He gave them the law summarized in the Ten Commandments to bless and protect them as the ruler of his people.

Lesson 6: At least five of the commandments refer to the family. The second commandment tells us the effect that both idolatry or obedience to the Lord will have on our children through generations. The fourth law obligates heads of families and their businesses to ensure everyone beneath them has a day of rest and worship. The fifth commandment speaks to the obligation to honor our parents. The seventh one shows we are to uphold our marriage bonds and those of others. The last commandment reminds us that we are to respect everything that belongs to our neighbor, including his family’s marriage and possessions. Rather than the commandments being understood in only individualistic terms, we are to recognize the familial and corporate nature of these laws.

Lesson 7: The reason for the fourth commandment is two-fold. As noted in the fourth lesson above, the Ten Commandments are given in two books – Exodus and Deuteronomy. Interestingly, the reasons given in each account for keeping the Sabbath Day are different. In Exodus 20, they are told to remember this day, for “in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day” (Ex. 20:11). Then in Deuteronomy 5, they are told, “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day” (Deut. 5:15). Thus, both creation and redemption are reasons for keeping this day.

Lesson 8: The Lord promised to write them on our hearts in the New Testament age. Far from merely Old Testament duties, the prophets foresaw that in the days of Christ God’s law would be written on the hearts of his people by his Spirit. Jeremiah said

Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

The author of Hebrews makes this clear that this has taken place in and through the ministry of Christ (Heb. 8:8-13). Through keeping the law perfectly and shedding his blood for our sins, he has provided forgiveness for our sin and trespasses against his law. As his redeemed and re-created people, we are now to live joyfully in accordance with his commandments.

Lesson 9: Jesus preached on the Ten Commandments in the Sermon on the Mount. As the prophet greater than Moses (Deut. 18:15-18), Jesus sat on a mountain and preached in a manner similar to his typological forerunner. In doing so, he helped everyone see the greater intent of God’s commandments. After opening with the Beatitudes, he reminded his hearers that he did not come to abolish God’s law, but to fulfill it and provide a righteousness to his people that far surpassed the legalistic spirit of the Pharisees (Matt. 5:17-20). He then proceeded to show them how the commandments are to be lived out not in the flashy, fleshly show of the Pharisees, but sincerely from the heart and mind into behaviors properly fitting his followers (Matt. 5:21-48).

Lesson 10: The Ten Commandments are summed up in the two greatest commandments. When Jesus himself was asked what was the sum total of the commandments, he replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 22:37-40). The moral law found in the Ten Commandments are God’s directives on how to love him and love those around us (Rom. 13:8-10). 

This would suggest that one who does not seek to live by the Ten Commandments does not simply have a problem with the law. He or she has a problem with love, with Jesus, and with his interpretation of the Bible.


  1. William Duncan October 10, 2017 at 7:14 am #

    Pertaining to Lesson 2, can you explain the belief that the covenant made with Moses was particular to national Israel? My understanding was that the Mosaic was about the standing or falling of Israel the state.

    • Barry York October 10, 2017 at 4:46 pm #

      I’m having difficulty discerning the nature of your question. But if I understand it, the covenant with Moses was with the nation of Israel, and included the Ten Commandments but contained more than them. As WCF 19.3 states, “Besides 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.”

      • William Duncan October 10, 2017 at 6:09 pm #

        Yes, I was not clear as I did not understand enough about the controversy at hand in that some see the Mosaic covenant as a covenant of works concerning only a penalty of national deformity upon violation,where all the other covenants were of grace. I’ve done some research but am still in the “little knowledge is a dangerous thing” stage.

        • Barry York October 10, 2017 at 7:16 pm #


          I think you from this comment you may be thinking of the republication debates, where some view the Mosaic covenant as a republishing of the covenant of works for Israel. For a brief article helping to understand this, see Scott Swain’s article here: http://www.reformation21.org/blog/2014/09/some-thoughts-on-the-mosaic-co.php

          • William Duncan October 11, 2017 at 5:51 am #

            Thanks so much !! First for your time and timely response. Secondly for your seeing through my clutter and finding my issue. You are a wonderful resource for most of us who don’t have access to sound doctrine locally. Very helpful article.

          • Barry York October 11, 2017 at 6:06 pm #

            Glad it was helpful!


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