If you’re a believer, you should know the Ten Commandments. You should have them committed to memory. You should know them well enough that you can rehearse them easily and quickly. At the end of this post I’ll give you a shortcut method for learning them so you can recite what is the summary of His moral law on demand. Why is this important? Because without an understanding of the Ten Commandments you don’t fully appreciate the gospel, you don’t have a good roadmap for how you’re to live as a believer, and you have one less weapon available when called upon to defend the faith. You also won’t have them on your heart so you can teach others (Deut 6:4-9).
As part of knowing the Ten Commandments, you should also KNOW the Ten Commandments (profound, eh?). What I mean is you should understand how they’re set up and what the implications of the different commands are. They aren’t just a set of arcane laws given on a mountain to govern an ancient people. They summarize God’s will and establish God’s standards for living in His presence. As such they reach far beyond external actions or obedience to the letter of the law. They touch every area of life. We won’t take the time here to mine all they have for us (in the future I’ll post a more exhaustive study from Deuteronomy 5 and you can get a fuller explanation here), but for now there are three things that are important to know.
The first commandment is the most important. You shall have no other gods before Me is the commandment upon which the others stand. Why? Because you can’t keep the other nine without keeping the first one. And you always break the first one when you break one of the other nine. What is sin in its most basic form? It’s putting myself on the throne of my life. It’s breaking the first commandment. To murder or commit adultery or lie, I first decide that something else is more important than God. And by doing so, I essentially decide to worship another god. You could argue that the first two commands go together and therefore both are the most important, and that works too. But either way the idea is the same; we don’t sin without first going after a different god. To reinforce this point, the first two are the only commands that come with their own curse and blessing (Ex 20:5-6).
The second-most important commandment is the tenth. Sounds odd, doesn’t it? Most of us would probably say that coveting is one of the lesser sins compared to the others listed, so how does You shall not covet rate so highly? Because it deals with a matter of the heart (or mind, depending on how you want to look at it). I can covet without you knowing it, right? It’s something that’s internal more than external. The command doesn’t prohibit an action. Thus it shows that the commandments are not interested only in externals. If the tenth commandment addresses the heart, then it’s likely that all the commandments deal with the heart. And this is exactly what Jesus points out in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5. He contrasts how the Pharisees look at the Law – as something to be kept by the letter – with how God intended it – to be obeyed in spirit. The Ten Commandments ultimately deal with so much more than external actions – they address the motives of the heart. And the Tenth Commandment makes this abundantly clear.
The last thing to know for our brief overview is that the commandments break down into sets of four and six. The first four commandments address our horizontal relationship with God. They are summarized by the greatest commandment – You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind (Matt 22:37). [Don’t get confused here, the Greatest Commandment is not part of the Ten Commandments. It was spoken by God at a different time to Moses (Deut 6:4-5) as a summary of the Law.] The last six commands address our horizontal relationships with each other. They are summarized by the Second Greatest Commandment – You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Matt 22:39). [Which also isn’t part of the Ten Commandments but summarizes the horizontal commands in the same way that the Greatest Commandment summarizes the vertical ones – I’m not making this easy, am I?] The two sections are separate but interdependent. One doesn’t exist without the other. You can only love others as yourself if you first love God, and you can’t claim to love God if you don’t love others.
Now I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Why don’t I just learn the two great commandments and not worry about knowing all of the other ten?” Well, first let me say I’m a little disappointed that you want to take the easy way out. Secondly, if you don’t know the ten you won’t grasp the implications inherent in each. Each commandment is loaded. You need to know them and know how Jesus explained them to get this. So, bottom line, you need to step up and MEMORIZE (and you should really know all TWELVE).
So how to memorize? First of all, don’t worry about knowing them in the original King James English that God used when He gave them to Charlton Heston on Mount Sinai. Knowing all the “Thou shalts” can be a little cumbersome (not that there’s anything wrong with that – if you learned them that way long ago, stay the course). It’s likely easier to just put them into everyday English. That means we can state them as follows:
- You shall have no other gods before Me.
- You shall not make any idols.
- You shall not take the Lord’s name in vain.
- Remember the Sabbath.
- Honor your father and mother (or mother and father if you like that better).
- You shall not murder.
- You shall not commit adultery.
- You shall not steal.
- You shall not lie.
- You shall not covet.
Now remember, the first four deal with our relationship with God. The last six are horizontal. Those are memory helps. Also, the last six essentially decline in severity. We might argue about this, but the different sins mentioned become less severe as you go. Murder is worse than adultery, adultery is worse than stealing, stealing is worse than lying, lying is worse than coveting. So that’s another memory help.
Lastly, it helps if you just use one word to remember each one:
- vain (or name)
- father (or mother)
See? If you do it that way, it’s easy, right? Memorize the words and then you’ll be able to fill in the rest. And even if you can’t, you’ll at least be able to say the words if anyone asks. “Bob, what’s the third commandment?” “Vain!”
So remember the three facts: the first commandment is the most important; the tenth commandment is the second-most important; and the commandments break down into the first four governing our relationship with God and the last six governing our relationships with each other. And remember the words. And then start memorizing.
You now officially have no excuse for not knowing the Ten Commandments.
Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. And you shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. Deut 6:4-9