Life, Hope & Truth

Living the 10 Commandments—or Just Obeying Them?

God gave us laws to live by—especially the 10 Commandments. But have you thought about the values they represent? Are you living the values behind the laws?

Why do we have laws? Instead of all the speed limit laws, why not just say, “Drive safely”? Would that be enough? Would it work?

From a religious perspective, why do we need the 10 Commandments? Why not just summarize them by saying, “Love God and love your neighbor”?

Summaries can be appealing, yet in society as well as some religions, the making (or changing) of laws seems to have no end. Why?

Spiritual growth

To understand biblical law, we must begin by understanding the concept of spiritual education and growth. Throughout the Bible, we are admonished to grow spiritually. Peter concludes his second epistle with this challenge: “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).

Human attitudes toward God’s law run the gamut. One way to view spiritual growth is as a four-stage process that shows one’s change in approach to God’s law:

  1. Anarchy and lawlessness: For many, this is the starting point, where there is little understanding of God’s laws or desire to obey them.
  2. Blind obedience: This is the point where we come to realize that God has laws that should be obeyed, but we lack understanding of why and how to fully fulfill the law.
  3. Informed compliance: This is the stage where we come to a basic understanding of the law and commit ourselves to obeying. (This is often the point where we seek baptism.)
  4. Value-based living: This is the final and lifelong growth stage where we live not only the letter of the law, but the values behind the law.

Perhaps the greatest difficulty is making the transition from stage three to stage four. Jesus made this clear when He admonished the scribes and Pharisees: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone” (Matthew 23:23).

Here Jesus drew a line between informed compliance (just obeying the letter of the law) and value-based living (additionally, living the values of the law). Many never make it to this fourth stage, which may partly explain why Jesus said, “For many are called, but few are chosen” (Matthew 22:14).

What is the role of law in spiritual growth?

From a religious perspective, the reason for God’s law is clear. The law shows what is right and wrong in God’s sight. It shows what produces good results and what leads to death. God’s law defines sin (1 John 3:4).

And there is another reason for law. Meditating on the letter of the law can help us learn the underlying values—the spirit of the law. The law represents the desires and values of God.

When I think of the relationship between laws and values, I am reminded of a summer job I had when I was in college. I worked at a large shipyard known for building all types of vessels, from atomic submarines to aircraft carriers.

To ensure quality work, there were myriad work rules, standards and procedures (the laws). But the values were expressed very eloquently by an inscription on a statue of the founder, located at the main entrance to the yard where the majority of the workers passed daily. The inscription read: “We will build good ships, at a profit if we can, at a loss if we must, but we will build good ships.”

Was there a flaw in the law—or the people?

The problem is that laws cannot cover every possibility. Consider the U.S. income tax laws. According to an article in the April 15, 2015, Washington Examiner, the tax code has grown from around 26,000 pages in 1984 to over 74,000 now. Why this incredible growth? It is, in part, an attempt to cover every possible loophole or situation that might occur.

And that is the problem with laws—they cannot be written to cover every situation. Take something as simple as the speed limit law of 70 miles per hour on many open highways. While this is perhaps a safe speed in clear weather, what about in rainy weather? What about during a snowstorm? Under such conditions the value of “drive safely” overrides any speed limit.

Notice how God recognizes this problem. “For if the first covenant had been faultless, then no place would have been sought for a second. Because finding fault with them, He says: ‘Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah’” (Hebrews 8:7-8, emphasis added throughout).

The fault in the law was not the law itself but the people, who did not see the law as a statement of values but, rather, simply as a set of rules. They didn’t obey them, and they certainly didn’t live their spiritual values.

Verse 10 shows God’s remedy: “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.”

A gift from God—the gift of the Holy Spirit—is needed to understand the values of the law.

The values expressed by the 10 Commandments

The value of love defines all the commandments. But what about each specific commandment? Are there specific values behind each?Have you ever examined the values expressed by the 10 Commandments? Jesus expressed the overall values clearly when He was asked about which commandment is the greatest. Christ said, “‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:37-39).

The value of love defines all the commandments. But what about each specific commandment? Are there specific values behind each? Here are some of the values I associate with each commandment, and you can likely come up with different ones and perhaps many more. Some of these are obvious, but others are less so:

1. Do not worship other gods. No one but God is worthy of our worship. When God was freeing the ancient Israelites from slavery, six times He sent Moses with this message to Pharaoh: “Let My people go, that they may serve Me” (Exodus 7:16; 8:1, 20; 9:1; 10:3). Also, at the end of the temptation of Jesus by Satan: “Then Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! For it is written, “You shall worship the LORD your God, and Him only you shall serve”’” (Matthew 4:10). Jesus Christ came to serve, and He wants us to learn to serve too (Matthew 20:26-28). A key value I see underlying the First Commandment is service to God.

2. Do not worship idols. No physical image can capture the greatness of the Almighty. Paul expressed a value behind this commandment. “Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things” (Romans 1:22-23). I see God telling us don’t be foolish.

3. Don’t take God’s name in vain. This commandment teaches respect for God.

4. Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. “Surely My Sabbaths you shall keep, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the LORD who sanctifies you” (Exodus 31:13). A value here is sanctification—to be set apart for sacred duty. Do you know what duty God is calling you for?

5. Honor parents. This commandment directly expresses a value: honor. In a broader sense it suggests the value of respect for others, especially family.

6. Don’t murder. Every human life has value. To me, considering Jesus’ commentary in Matthew 5:21-26, this commandment teaches reconciliation and faith in God.

7. Don’t commit adultery. Faithfulness.

8. Don’t steal. This respect for the property of others demonstrates God’s value of justice.

9. Don’t lie. Truth and honesty.

10. Don’t covet. By being content with what we have and not desiring what belongs to others, we learn the values of generosity and unselfishness.

What did Jesus teach?

Just as the Word of God (Jesus Christ before His human birth) appeared on Mount Sinai to give the 10 Commandments to His called-out people, so did Jesus speak from a mountain to His called-out disciples at the beginning of His ministry.

This teaching is now referred to as “The Sermon on the Mount.” In expounding on God’s law, Jesus taught values such as humility, empathy, meekness, seeking righteousness, mercy, purity, peacemaking and enduring persecution with joy, for both righteousness and for Christ’s sake (see Mathew 5:1-12).

As you read the four Gospels, it is clear that Jesus emphasized values. Not in place of the law, but as a complement to the law—the spiritual mind-set necessary to fully obey the intent of God’s law. As He specifically said: “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17).

What about you? Are you just living the letter of the law? Or are you moving on to live the values of God’s laws as well?

To learn more about God’s law, download our free booklet God’s 10 Commandments: Still Relevant Today.

And check out our interesting video series “The 10 Commandments: A Matter of the Heart.”

About the Author

Rick Avent

Dr. Rick Avent is a retired professor of civil engineering at LSU. He is happily married to Sandra with three grown children, and is an elder in the Church of God, a Worldwide Association.

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