Were the 10 Commandments given exclusively to the nation of Israel? Are they relevant only for Jews, or are the 10 Commandments for Christians as well?
If you walk into the homes of some Christians, you may see prominent displays of the 10 Commandments, and they are on display in some churches as well. But in other churches, the Commandments are rarely mentioned.
How important are the 10 Commandments for Christians? And what did Jesus teach?
What Jesus taught about the 10 Commandments
Jesus Christ addressed this issue early in His ministry. It was a critical element of a message Jesus taught to a large crowd. These people had followed Him to a mountain after His fame had begun to spread throughout Galilee and other Roman provinces and kingdoms (Matthew 4:23-25).
This message, recorded in chapters 5 through 7 of Matthew, is often called the Sermon on the Mount. (If you’d like to know more about this vital teaching, download our free booklet The Sermon on the Mount.)
At one point in His message, Jesus made a statement that summarized His view of God’s law and anticipated future misunderstandings: “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets” (Matthew 5:17).
Not even the jots and tittles
Jesus continued, emphasizing His statement by saying, “Till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled” (verse 18). In this context, the Greek word translated “fulfilled” means fill to the full. (To learn more about the meaning of the word fulfilled in this passage, read our article “Did Jesus Fulfill the Law?”)
Jot is the English translation of the Greek word iota, which refers to yod, the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Tittle comes from the Greek keraia. According to the Mounce Reverse Interlinear New Testament, the word keraia refers to the “least stroke of a pen . . . a portion of a letter of the alphabet.”
By mentioning these least significant parts of letters of the alphabet, Jesus made it clear that no part of the law would be nullified as long as heaven and earth exist. Take a look around you. Is the earth still here? What about the heavens?
If we believe Jesus, we have to conclude that the law has not been nullified and that God has given the 10 Commandments for Christians as well as for Jews. In fact, the 10 Commandments are for everyone!
An astonishing admonition
The multitudes would not have been shocked by His validation of the law, but as Jesus continued His discourse, He said something that would have surprised them. He told the crowd that “unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven” (verse 20).
By using this formula Jesus validated the law itself and not merely its intent. That’s because it’s absolutely impossible to keep the spirit of the law while breaking the letter of the law!The scribes were experts in the law, and the Pharisees were well known for their scrupulous adherence to the law. How, then, could anyone ever hope to enter into the Kingdom of God if doing so required being more righteous than the scribes and Pharisees?
They didn’t have to wait long for the answer to this unspoken question. Shortly after this shocking declaration, Jesus began to compare common expectations with the true intent of God’s law.
Explaining the 10 Commandments for Christians
For much of the remainder of the chapter, Jesus Christ used a formula to compare and contrast. He would begin a comparison by saying, “You have heard that it was said,” or similar words (verses 21, 27, 31, 33, 38 and 43). Then He would follow that statement by saying, “But I say to you” or the equivalent (verses 22, 28, 32, 34, 39 and 44).
Inherent within this construction is the message that Jesus, the Word of God, has the authority and understanding to interpret the intent of the law. Since our label as Christians indicates that we are “followers of Christ,” we would do well to listen to this interpretation.
The first law to be considered—the prohibition of murder—is part of the 10 Commandments (Matthew 5:21; Exodus 20:13). Jesus moved quickly from the physical act of murdering a fellow human to the motivation for that act.
Following His “but I say to you,” Christ warned about anger and the ensuing name-calling that stems from that anger (Matthew 5:22). Anger is the motivation for violence, but it also destroys relationships. That’s why Jesus later spoke of the importance of reconciliation (verse 24).
Recognizing the scope of each commandment
Using His “you have heard . . . but I say” formula, Jesus demonstrated the spiritual intent of the law. Christ also showed that all of us, including those seemingly righteous scribes and Pharisees, have failed to keep the law.
For instance, while most people can say they have never actually murdered someone, no one can claim to have lived without anger, bitterness and resentment.
By using this formula Jesus validated the law itself and not merely its intent. That’s because it’s absolutely impossible to keep the spirit of the law while breaking the letter of the law!
This is abundantly clear with the next commandment Jesus addressed—the law against adultery. Once again, He went beyond prohibiting merely the physical act of adultery and also prohibited unfaithfulness in heart and mind as well, saying that for a man to look at a woman lustfully breaks the commandment (verse 28). It’s absurd to think anyone could physically commit adultery without first lusting.
The core of the 10 Commandments
Who could listen to these words, or read them, and not think about spiritual applications for all of God’s commandments? In a sense, while Jesus was teaching about specific commandments, He was also encouraging the multitudes who heard His message—as well as those of us today who read them—to consider the depth of God’s law.
Reading through Matthew 5 carefully and thoughtfully, we cannot help but notice how interconnected the laws are. The most significant connection between any two laws, however, is found in the attitudes leading up to the choice to obey or to disobey.
In every case of disobedience, there is a selfishness that ignores the will of God, and in many cases, there is further selfishness that discounts the best interests of another person. That’s why Christ summarized the law as two commandments—to love God and to love our neighbor (Matthew 22:34-40).
Impossible for flesh and blood
What Jesus Christ put before the multitude was a daunting challenge. To refrain from killing someone or committing physical adultery is one thing, but to control our anger and lust is another.
The first requires a degree of self-control. The second requires true mastery of our hearts. Exercising that mastery over anger and lust is an impossible request for flesh and blood.
The apostle Paul explained this to the church at Rome: “Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:7-8).
How, then, can anyone succeed?
How Christians can keep the 10 Commandments
Fortunately, Jesus did not leave us helpless. First, He paid the penalty for our sins. He did not die such a painful death so that we could live however we want, but so that we “might live for righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24). The blood of Christ is the first step.
And because Jesus made that sacrifice, He has also provided us access to the power of God. On the night before His crucifixion, Jesus described that power, the Holy Spirit, as “another Helper” (John 14:16).
In this same passage, just before promising the Holy Spirit, Christ once again emphasized the need for Christians to keep the 10 Commandments, saying, “If you love Me, keep My commandments” (verse 15).
Paul, too, wrote about the Holy Spirit. By itself, His assertion that the carnal mind cannot be subject to the law of God could be discouraging (Romans 8:7-8).
However, Paul offered hope to the church at Rome: “But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you” (verse 9). Christians are those who have God’s Spirit in them and leading them.
The 10 Commandments in heart and mind
The Holy Spirit helps Christians by providing the understanding and power we need to obey, but it does more. It can transform our flesh-and-blood mindset into a godly one (Romans 12:2).
Centuries before Christ delivered His message to the multitudes on that mountain in Galilee, the prophet Jeremiah wrote about this change. He highlighted God’s intent to make a New Covenant, a new agreement (Jeremiah 31:31).
What sets this New Covenant apart from the agreement made at Sinai is a special promise. God declared, “I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people” (verse 33).
Even with God’s Holy Spirit dwelling within us, we will still slip up. Though we strive not to, we will still sin. But, as we grow in grace and knowledge (2 Peter 3:18), we will find that we no longer seek to obey only out of fear or compulsion, but out of love for our God.
So, are the 10 Commandments for Christians? Yes! In fact, they define the character of God—the character that true Christians aspire to have!