Exodus 20:1-3

what-are-ten-commandments_472_314_80Exodus 20

1 And God spoke all these words, saying,“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.“You shall have no other gods before me.”

In November of 2014, the Richard Dawkins Foundation website ran an article entitled, “$10,000 ReThink Prize Announced to Crowdsource Secular Alternatives to the Ten Commandments.”

The ReThink Prize is a competition to publicly crowdsource a modern alternative to the Ten Commandments, with prizes totaling $10,000. Prominent thought leaders on the diverse judging panel will include a popular TV personality, a National Medal of Science Winner, a Harvard University Chaplain, and the Executive Director of The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science. The goal is for the competition to spark a national dialogue around a question as simple and personal as: “What do you believe?”

Anyone can vote or submit their beliefs through the website www.TheReThinkPrize.com.

The contest will run through November 30th. A panel of 12 judges will review the submissions and choose the ten beliefs they feel best address our lives today. The panel includes:

Adam Savage from the Discovery Channel’s “Mythbusters”

National Medal of Science recipient, Gordon Bower

Harvard University’s Humanist Chaplain, Greg Epstein

Executive Director of the Richard Dawkins Foundation, Robyn Blumner, and

Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association, Andrew Copson

The competition is being run in association with the American Humanist Association, the Secular Student Alliance, the Richard Dawkins Foundation, and the Global Secular Humanist Movement, among other organizations.

The results of the Prize will be announced on December 17th.[1]

If this was not so tragically wrong-headed it might actually be humorous. How very like modern people to propose new commandments and then approve them by a panel vote.   I suppose this is something like divine truth meets America’s Got Talent. Anyway, on December 17th, the winning entries for the new ten commandments were announced. Here they are:

  1. Be open-minded and be willing to alter your beliefs with new evidence.
  2. Strive to understand what is most likely to be true, not to believe what you wish to be true.
  3. The scientific method is the most reliable way of understanding the natural world.
  4. Every person has the right to control over their body.
  5. God is not necessary to be a good person or to live a full and meaningful life.
  6. Be mindful of the consequences of all your actions and recognize that you must take responsibility for them.
  7. Treat others as you would want them to treat you, and can reasonably expect them to want to be treated. Think about their perspective.
  8. We have the responsibility to consider others, including future generations.
  9. There is no one right way to live.
  10. Leave the world a better place than you found it.[2]

Color me unimpressed. These do not represent a step forward theologically or ethically, but, as evidence of the current zeitgeist, they do have some limited value.

This is not the first time that a rewriting of the commandments has been proposed. Ted Turner wrote his version of the ten commandments in 1990 and called them, in good modern fashion, the “Ten Voluntary Initiatives.” He unveiled them before the fortunate souls at the 1990 American Humanist Association’s annual convention in Orlando, Florida, where he was named “Humanist of the Year.” Ted’s ten are as follows:

  1. I love and respect planet Earth and all living things thereon, especially my fellow species, mankind.
  2. I promise to treat all persons everywhere with dignity, respect and friendliness.
  3. I promise to have no more than two children, or no more than my nation suggests.
  4. I promise to use my best efforts to help save what is left of our natural world in an untouched state and to restore damaged or destroyed areas where practical.
  5. I pledge to use as little non-renewable resources as possible.
  6. I pledge to use as little toxic chemicals, pesticides and other poisons as possible.
  7. I promise to contribute to those less fortunate than myself to help them become self-sufficient and enjoy the benefits of a decent life, including clean air and water, adequate food, health care, housing, education and individual rights.
  8. I reject the use of force, in particular military force, and back United Nations arbitration of international disputes.
  9. I support the total elimination of all nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, and, in time, the total elimination of all weapons of mass destruction.
  10. I support the United Nations in its efforts to collectively improve the conditions of the planet.[3]


Those are not really even commandments per se, but they certainly evidence of a high degree of dependence on the United Nations.

One suspects that these modern efforts at rewriting the commandments may be misunderstanding just how important the commandments are to the modern church anyway. After all, there is not an abundance of evidence to suggest that modern Christians are even all that familiar with the ten commandments. Thus, J.I. Packer, writing in 1994, wrote:

And here I pause to ask my readers: do you know the Ten Commandments? My guess is that if you are over forty you do, but if you are under forty you don’t. About half a century ago churches generally ceased teaching the Commandments, either from the pulpit or in Sunday school or anywhere else. I do not mean that none of the moral and spiritual principles of the Decalogue were taught in any way at all (though it is beyond dispute that churches that have remained strong on the gospel have been comparatively week on ethics). I mean only that as a unified code of conduct and a grid for behavior the Decalogue dropped out. So I ask: could you repeat the Ten Commandments from memory?[4]

One wonders if Packer’s forty-year-old standard still applies? It could be argued that very few people in Christian churches today could recite the ten commandments from memory regardless of their age.

Patrick Miller quotes Reinhard Hütter as saying, “It is a matter of fact that in mainline liturgies across the board ecumenically, the Ten Commandments have ceased to be a regular component of Christian worship on the Lord’s day.” Miller himself concludes, “Perhaps we should go back to the early Anglican tradition in this country, following the Canons of 1604, according to which the Ten Commandments were to be ‘set up on the East end of every Church and Chapel, where the people may best see and read the same.’”[5]

Perhaps we should. Regardless of how it is done, the commandments do indeed need to take up residency in the hearts and minds of believers today as they once did. Ignorance of them is a scandal and is both a factor in and a result of a weakening church age.

The ten commandments are detailed explanations of what Jesus called the greatest commandments: love of God and love of neighbor.

We will begin by noting that we read the commandments from this side of the cross. We read them through the lens of the cross and through the interpretation of Jesus. When we do so, we notice that Jesus offered a profound summary of the commandments in His response to a question concerning the greatest commandment in Matthew 22.

34 But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. 35 And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

The whole of the ten commandments are summarized in these two great commandments: love God and love your neighbor. The first of these summarizes the first four of the ten commandments and the second of these summarizes the last six of the ten commandments. The 5th/6th century church father, Caesarius of Arles, rightly observed, “We should also know that the ten commandments of the law are also fulfilled by the two gospel precepts, love of God and love of neighbor.”[6]

There is a vertical/horizontal pattern here that can be consistently seen throughout scripture. By vertical I mean the relationship between God and man and by horizontal I mean the relationship between man and his fellow man. The two greatest commandments that Jesus expressed in Matthew 22 include both of these in this particular order: vertical then horizontal.


37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”


39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

We see the same order in the ten commandments.


3 “You shall have no other gods before me.

4 “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.

5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

7 “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain. 8 “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.


12 “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

13 “You shall not murder.

14 “You shall not commit adultery.

15 “You shall not steal.

16 “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”

It has been noted that when you converge the vertical with the horizontal you end with the cross. This makes sense, for it was on the cross that that Christ brought fallen man to a holy God.

What is abundantly clear is this: Jesus did not see the ten commandments as old or dated or useless. On the contrary, in Matthew 5 Jesus said:

17 “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. 18 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. 19 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. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

He would then go on, in Matthew 22, to summarize the ten commandments in the two greatest commandments, as we have already seen. In other words, Jesus both summarized and fulfilled the law. He went to the heart of the matter and He fulfilled the heart of the matter in His life and death and resurrection. We therefore find the fulfillment of the ten commandments in the perfection of Christ and, as Christ takes up residence in our hearts, we are freed now to obey God’s law.

The ten commandments are universal truths but can best be understood and only truly obeyed from within the context of a loving relationship with God.

Turning to Exodus 20, we see that the prefatory first two verses establish the context in which the commandments can be understood and obeyed: a loving relationship with God. Notice the increasingly specific elements of God’s relationship with His people in these two verses.

1 And God spoke all these words, saying,“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

Here is the progression:

  • “And God spoke all these words…”
  • “I am the Lord your God…”
  • “…who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”

We see (1) that God speaks, (2) that the God who speaks is Israel’s God, and (3) that Israel’s God is the God who saves His people. In other words, the commandments were not delivered within an impersonal context of arbitrary legislation from on high. They were delivered by the saving God to His redeemed people. What is more, William Propp points out that, “although English cannot convey the distinction, ‘your’ is singular; the Decalog addresses each Israelite individually.”[7] This heightens the relational context of the commandments even more. The commandments are give to you.

We are not to think, then, of Zeus thundering on high. Nor are we to think of Allah, shrouded in transcendent, inapproachable power. We are to think of the one, true God, clothed in majesty and power and might, Who yet comes to us, saves us, redeems us, and shows us the way. The giving of the ten commandments, then, was not mere legislation, it was loving communication. It was an act of divine self-disclosure intended to lead to life.

Again, on this side of the cross, we know that the law serves to highlight our great need for mercy and forgiveness, for “the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith,” to use Paul’s memorable words from Galatians 3:24 as translated by the King James Bible. But even this revelation of our own inadequacy that the law ushers in is an act of love. It does not render the law cruel to say that the law condemns. Rather, it means that the law casts a needed spotlight on our own pretensions to self-righteousness and shows us the folly of our own conceits.

The law is true for all but can only be approached by a redeemed people who see and understand the heart of God. An unregenerate person will hate the law and chafe under it. A redeemed person has been brought low by the law then raised up by the mercies of Christ. The book of Psalms begins with this basic affirmation.

1 Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers. The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; for the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.

Obedience should be a delight for the people of God to whom He has revealed His commandments.

All obedience is directly linked to a radical and undivided allegiance to God and God alone.

A right relationship with God hinges upon a radical commitment of undivided allegiance to the King of Kings. The person who would see the beauty of the law is the person who knows that God is without equal, that He alone is Lord.

“You shall have no other gods before me.”

Gregory of Nyssa paraphrased this first commandment as, “You shall never worship a strange god,” and then defined the “strange god” as “he who is alien from the nature of the true God.”[8] We must purge all other gods from our hearts. It raises the question, however, of whether or not there truly are other gods that can be purged. In other words, is there an implicit acknowledgment of polytheism in this reference to “other gods”?

Douglas Stuart makes an interesting translation insight when he suggests that this phrase should best be rendered, “You must have no other gods over against me,” or, “You must have no other gods in distinction to me.” As to the question of who these other gods are, Stuart explains:

Why, then, did God not just say, “I am the only God. Don’t believe in any others”? The answer is, as previously noted, to be found in the range of meaning of the term ‘elohim (here “gods”). The word ‘elohim carries the connotation of “supernatural beings,” including angels. Accordingly, this first word/commandment implicitly acknowledges that there are many “gods” (nonhuman, nonearthly beings) in the same sense that Ps 82 does (or that Jesus does in John 10:34-36) but at the same time demands that only Yahweh be worshiped as the sole divinity, or God. All other “gods” (supernatural beings such as angels) are to be understood and appreciated for their roles in the universe, but only Yahweh is divine.[9]

That is helpful, for it keeps us from thinking of “gods” only in the terms of, say, the Greek gods or, in our time, the gods of Hinduism. Certainly it includes this idea, but it also includes any powers to which we might be tempted to turn.

There is something else, though. There are the internal gods that tempt us to devotion. J.I. Packer writes, “Your god is what you love, seek, worship, serve, and allow to control you.”[10] If that is so (and I would content that is a great definition of a “god”), then we suddenly realize we cannot let ourselves off the hook, as it were, by pointing out that we are not Hindus or Muslims or pagans. In fact, most modern Americans are much less likely to worship the gods of Olympus than they are the gods of their own hearts, minds, and egos. But these are gods as well, and they are equally false and malicious.

With all due respect to Shakespeare, “To thine own self be true” is terrible advice. Nobody can deceive us better than our own minds and hearts. We are forever refusing to see the reality of what is happening in our own beings. We tell ourselves that we are devoted to Christ and Him alone, then we run after the gods of ego, of upward mobility, of material success, of self-sufficiency, of wealth, of power, of lust, of success.

These are gods, church, as much as the gods that populate the roadside altars of India. These are the gods of our land, and it is against these gods that the Lord God of Heaven and earth says, “You shall have no other gods before me.”

There must be no other gods in our lives. We must smash the altars and silence the priests that call us to this or that deity, be it Baal or Wall Street. These are pernicious gods, damning gods, and gods that corrupt us, mind, body, and soul.

“You shall have no other gods before me.”


Search your hearts, church. Are there other gods there? Then by the power of Christ drive them out! Turn over the tables and cleanse the temples and let the one, true God reign.

He awaits your allegiance so that He can transform you from the inside out.

He is here, and His name is Jesus.


[1] https://richarddawkins.net/2014/11/10000-rethink-prize-announced-to-crowdsource-secular-alternatives-to-the-ten-commandments/

[2] https://www.atheistmindhumanistheart.com/winners/

[3] https://articles.latimes.com/1990-05-04/news/vw-404_1_ted-turner

[4] Packer, J. I. (2008-01-07). Keeping the Ten Commandments (Kindle Locations 136-140). Crossway. Kindle Edition.

[5] Quoted in Miller, Patrick D. (2009-08-06). The Ten Commandments: Interpretation: Resources for the Use of Scripture in the Church (Kindle Locations 370-372,396-397). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

[6] Joseph T. Lienhard, ed., Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Old Testament, vol.III. Thomas C. Oden, ed. (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), p.101.

[7] William H.C. Propp, Exodus 19-40. The Anchor Bible. Vol.2A. (New York, NY: Doubleday, 2006), p.167.

[8] Joseph T. Lienhard, p.102.

[9] Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus. Vol.2. The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2006), p.449.

[10] Packer, J. I., Kindle Locations 402-403.

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