The Ten Commandments

An Introduction and Commentary

David G. Phillips

(The Commentary section borrows largely from: Catechism notes from Fr. Kent Doe,

Calvin's Institutes of Religion, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church)



1   You shall have no other gods but me.

2   You shall not make for yourself graven images to worship them.

3   You shall not take the name of the Lord in vain.

4   You shall keep the Sabbath day holy.

5   You shall honour your father and your mother.

6   You shall do no murder.

7   You shall not commit adultery.

8   You shall not steal.

9   You shall not bear false witness.

10 You shall not covet.



Christians believe that the giving of the Ten Commandments is part of a progressive and preparatory revelation of God leading to our salvation in Jesus Christ.  The Ten Commandments are found in the Bible in Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21


The Need:


All have broken fellowship with God and are in need of salvation.  From our birth our souls are affected by the sin of our first ancestors - we no longer "naturally" seek God, but are in need of help from above.  When we sin we are further blinded to the truth about ourselves and about God.  When we sin we loose control of our ability to choose what is good (Romans 7:15-25) and can loose sight that what we are doing is wrong.  We must have help from beyond ourselves to be reunited with God.  The Ten Commandments give us light by revealing to us the perfect will of God, the way of love.


The commandments were given to the people of Israel through Moses after they came out of slavery in Egypt.  God helped the people to be freed from political and mental slavery to the Egyptians, but this was only the beginning.  God's desire is to free His people from being slaves to sin and to endue them with the holiness without which they cannot see Him.


The way God gave the Law is significant for us.  The words were written on stone to show us that they were written from the beginning on our souls (Ex 31: 18); they were broken by Moses upon seeing the peoples' failure to uphold them as a figure of what happens to our hearts when we sin (Exodus 32:19); and they were written a second time on stone as a figure of what God would do in saving us (Ex 34:1 & 28).

Perhaps it is possible, as we are led by these events, to come to some perception of the divine concern for us.  For if the divine Apostle speaks the truth when he calls the tables (of the Law) "hearts," [2 Cor 3] that is, the foremost part of the soul, then it is possible to learn from this that human nature was fashioned by the divine hands and beautified with the unwritten characters of the Law, the intention of the Law lay in our nature in turning us away from evil and in honouring the divine.


When the sound of sin struck our ears, that sound which the first book of Scripture calls the "voice of the serpent," but the history concerning the tables calls the "voice of drunken singing, " the tables fell to the earth and were broken. But again the true Lawgiver, of whom Moses was a type, cut the tables of human nature for himself from our earth. It was not marriage which produced for him his "God receiving" flesh, but he became the stonecutter of his own flesh, which was carved by the divine finger, "for the Holy Spirit came upon the virgin and the power of the Most High overshadowed her."  When this took place, our nature regained its unbroken character, becoming immortal through the letters written by his finger. The Holy Spirit is called "finger" in many places by Scripture. "

                                                         Gregory of Nyssa from The Life of Moses

Jesus shows us that the perfect Law of God calls us to a much deeper righteousness than the outward fulfilling of the Commandments but includes the intentions of our heart (Sermon on the Mount - Matt 5-7).  The Law is impossible to fulfill except by the One who was without sin, Jesus Christ.


Pentecost was the Jewish celebration of the giving of the Law of Moses.  God chose it as the time to pour out His Spirit, to give birth to the Church, because the Spirit makes possible the rewriting of the Law in our hearts, restoring God's image and giving us the grace and strength to fulfill the Law in Christ.


The motivation for keeping the Commandments is not our salvation but our love of God, having been first saved by Him.

                 "If you love me, you will keep my commandments..." Jn 14:15

                 "If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love..." Jn 15:10



God's Purpose in giving the Ten Commandments:

  • to hold a mirror for us to see the brokenness of our relationship with God;

  • to make us realize our need of mercy (because we fail) and to lead us to cry out for a Saviour (when we realize the effects of sin are deadly, that in breaking fellowship with God we have severed ourselves from Life);

  • to act as a restraint on human depravity (until the coming of Jesus Christ);

  • to help us, restored in Christ, to see our duty to God and humanity

  • the Moral Law is still binding on us (see Article VII and the teaching on the Commandments in the Catechism pp. 547-8 of the Book of Common Prayer.)


Our Use of the Ten Commandments:

  • they are a part of living a reflective life to be used as an aid in preparing ourselves for confession (in private or in public worship or privately before a priest), in seeking to grow in holiness by helping us to see and to bring before God areas of our life needing transformation and by encouraging us to practice the virtue opposite to the vice being prohibited

  • in the Prayer Book Liturgy (Holy Communion) - the use of the Ten Commandments is unique to the Anglican Church

    • they are the Old Testament lesson

    • they help us humble ourselves as we prepare for worship

    • they lead us to callout for mercy

    • after each is read we pray that God would "incline our hearts to keep this law" (Jer 31:33; Ps 119:36; (Heb 8:10)

  • we are to teach them to our children in preparation for their Confirmation (parents and sponsors promise to fulfill this duty (see p. 530 of the BCP)

  • they provide solid guidance in making difficult moral and ethical decisions

  • they are to be for us a source of joy and contemplation (see psalm 119)



1   "God spoke these words and said: I am the Lord your God:

      You shall have no other gods but me."


In the first Commandment

God says we are to "have no other gods but Him"

He says we are "to have Him"

What is it "to have" God?

we can think of the marriage vows where a husband and wife promise "to have and to hold" each other


God says we can "have" Him - but just as in marriage we promise to be faithful, so we must forsake or give up all other gods.  We are not to "commit adultery" with other gods, in other words, we are not to believe in, to worship, to follow or obey or to love any spiritual or material thing as if it was God.


We are not to worship the Creation, not to be seduced by, as we promise in our baptism, "the world; the flesh, or the devil".


God is saying our desire should be first and foremost to be united with Him - and all our needs will be met (but, thankfully, not all our wants).

"Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness,

and all these things shall be added unto you. " [see Matthew 6:25-33]

If we follow after the true God, we will become more like God when we worship and follow and seek Him out - more wise, righteous, just, holy, good, loving, truthful.


Having "no other gods" includes foremost renouncing our own will - we are not to be God, though if we worship God faithfully we will become more and more like God and participate in the divine life.




2  "You shall not make for yourself an idol, nor the likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, or in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them, nor worship them. For I the LORD your God am a jealous God, and visit the sins of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, and show mercy unto thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. "


This Second Commandment is like the First Commandment by "condemning all

fictitious worship which men have invented according to their own minds." [Calvin]


David says in the psalms - those who worship idols become like them.  If we worship an idol, we become deaf, blind, dumb in spirit:

The idols of the heathen are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands.
They have mouths, but they speak not; eyes have they, but they see not;
They have ears, but they hear not; neither is there any breath in their mouths.
They that make them are like unto them: so is every one that trusteth in them.

Psalm 135:15-18 also Psalm 115:5-8

A. God is not forbidding the making of carvings or pictures, but false worship - God is not against ART


There are many examples in the Bible were God commands the making of art:

  • the Ark of the Covenant - God directed the creation of 2 cherubim (creatures in heaven) hammered out of gold [Exodus 25:18]

  • God describes how the tabernacle should be beautified - cloth of blue, purple and scarlet wood covered in gold figures of cherubim on the cloth [Ex26:31]

  • in fact it is God who gives the Spirit to enable some to make beautiful objects of art [see for example Exodus 31: 1-1 0]

Now our sanctuary is Christ, our bodies the Temple of the Spirit, yet where we worship can be beautified with pictures and figures and sculptures but not for worship-these things can remind us of the stories in the Bible or of individuals who are godly examples to us.  It is just as God's Word written evokes images in our mind that lead us to God so are images a kind of language. [the Iconoclastic controversy]


B. God is forbidding the fashioning of objects resembling creatures to protect or to bring luck or to be worshipped. 


We see examples in Paul's day - Read Acts 17:16,22-30 and 19:23-30


C. God is a jealous God


This is a way of describing God's desire that we worship one He who is worthy of

worship - God alone.  Worshipping anything else it hurts us spiritually dividing our soul against itself.  God wants our whole hearted devotion and will raise us to great heights. This commandment is again a call to faithfulness.


D God is a merciful God


"visit the sins of the fathers upon the children unto the 3rd and 4th generation of those who hate me"


This reminds us of the intergenerational effect of sin e.g. alcoholism, physical and sexual abuse often cross generations.  God does not punish an innocent offspring for the sins of a parent (see Ezekiel 18 :20) but the impiety of a parent often leads to the destruction of the offspring - but woe to the parent that is responsible for leading a young one astray (Mt 18:6-9).


"and shows mercy unto thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. "


God shows mercy to a thousand generations--emphasizing that His mercy far exceeds His vengeance [Calvin].  God is calling us to offer to Him true spiritual worship.




3 "You shall not take the Name of the LORD your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his Name in vain."


What is it to take God's Name in vain?


A. To use His name as a swear word.


Some use God's Name (God, Jesus Christ) when they want to emphasize how they feel, whether anger or frustration or excitement.  It becomes easier and easier to use God's Name in this way, the person thinks it will make no difference, and then the person doesn't even think about it at all.  It may seem like a doesn't matter much or make a difference - but God says it does.  What you are guilty of is taking that which is holy and pretending it is nothing special - yet everything connected with God is special, is holy.  And if we try to pretend it is not we are living a lie.


When we mention God or Jesus Christ, it should evoke in us a sense of awe and

reverence.  If our heads don't bow physically at their mention, we should bow inwardly in our hearts [Philippians 2:5-11].


Remember that Jesus taught us his prayer, the Lord's Prayer, which begins:

"Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name"


"Hallowed be thy Name", in other words, may we keep your name holy and everything associated with you.  How could we pray this prayer and then use God's name as a swear word?


B. To use His name in prayer that is not authentic

e.g. to curse our neighbour or to ask God for things that will hurt us is to use His Name in vain.

C. To make promises that we don't keep or to make an oath that is not true.


for example: We might say, "I swear to God that I will do this or that" or "As God is my witness, I am telling the truth."  These sorts of oaths are not bad, unless we break them.  Paul gives examples of this sort of oath - Romans 1 :9; 2 Corinthians 1 :23.  But if we do this and then lie, we have not only made ourselves untrustworthy to others, but we have dishonoured God by our careless use of His Name, which stands for Truth itself.


Jesus warns us about swearing oaths in God's name, or in the name of any other created thing - why not simply say "Yes", when we mean "Yes", and "No" when we mean "No". [Matthew 5:33-37]




 4  "Remember that you keep holy the Sabbath-day. Six days shall you labour, and do all that you have to do; but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God.  In it you shalt do no manner of work, you, and your son, and your daughter, your man-servant, and your maid-servant, your cattle, and the stranger that is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the seventh day, and hallowed it."


"Remember the Sabbath day..."

  •  for Jews, the Sabbath day is Saturday, the last day of the week

  • for Christians, the Sabbath day is Sunday, the first day of the week, because it is the day on which Jesus was raised from the dead.  We see this celebration in Acts 20:7 when the disciples gathered to break bread

"In it you shall do no manner of work..."


Jesus says that we are not to take this so literally that we do harm - we are still to do necessary work - e.g. doctors, nurses, police [Mark 2:23-3:6]  But Jesus says that "the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath."  What he is saying is that the Sabbath day of rest is something given to us as a gift by God for our own spiritual and physical health and renewal.  We are to cease from work, so that we allow Him to work in us.  We place ourselves more securely in His hands so that we may continue to be formed and shaped and created by Him. [Calvin]


If we can't take Sunday off, we should try to make up for it by taking another day.


We are "to keep it holy..."


How do we keep the Sabbath day holy?


In the time of the prophets, God spoke through Isaiah [56:2] and Jeremiah [17:21-27]and Ezekiel [20:12-13; 22:8; 23:38] and complained that his Sabbaths were polluted - because people were worshipping other gods; the Sabbaths were not remembered; and they were made unholy, because people did not hold that day as any different from other days.

  • We can keep the Sabbath day holy by taking time especially to think upon God's Word

  • We keep it as a day to gather together to give thanks for all His blessings, to sing our praises to God (joining in with the angels and our ancestors) and to be remade by His Word written and made visible in Holy Communion

God does not have a need to be worshipped by us, our worship does not add anything to Him, but when we worship Him we are helped, it keeps us focussed upon the One who is truly good.  When we come for worship, our faith is built up, our hope is renewed, we are reminded and taught about love - that it is about forgiveness and sacrifice (self giving).


Keeping the Sabbath is also a reminder that we are not indispensible - nothing we do is that important.  It is a help in humbling us, in helping us to keep perspective on our life - that it is from God and to be lived to His greater glory.  It is a great excuse that God gives us not to do anything and a source of great joy.  It should be something we look forward to each week.




5 "Honour your father and your mother, that your days may be long

in the land which the Lord your God gives you.. "

(based primarily on the notes from Calvin's Institutes)


What does it mean to honour?

  • - to treat them with respect - regardless of their actions (though we do not condone wrong actions) (any who curses a mother or father to be killed under the OT

  • - Ex 21: 17; Lev 20:9, Prov 20:20 )

  • - to obey them Colossians 3:20-21 (not blind obedience to unrighteousness) Ephesians 6: 1-4 (obey your parents in the Lord)

    (any who disobey a mother or father to be put to death under OT - Deut 21 : 18-21

  • - to be thankful to them - they have brought us into this life - they were there for us when we couldn't care for ourselves, attending to our needs & we ought to care for them as they become weak in later life

    (Jesus reminds us of our obligation of honour and gratefulness Mt 15:1-9)

Why should we honour our parents? 


Eternal consequences -

  • Our natural response is to rebel against authority (our pride).  Following this command teaches us humility.  God has willed that we be under them - it is easiest to accept submission from our parents,  from this we learn submission to others in authority.  Submitting to governing authorities (police, laws of the land), teachers, bosses leads us to understand ultimately submission to God's authority over us.

Temporal consequences -


"that you life may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you"

the commandment contains a promise of long life - the family unit ordered, leads to a society that is well ordered, governed

          we have parents, we submit - otherwise childishness rules over wisdom

          we have bosses, we submit - otherwise nothing happens

          we have governments, we submit to laws - otherwise chaos

                     (think of the benefits of laws - air traffic, road traffic, the organization

                      of settled life - infrastructure


Other implications of this Commandment:

  • We are to treat all others who are our elders with the same respect, like a father or mother [1 Timothy 5:1-2; 17-19 ]

  • It is a call to honour the wisdom that comes from life experience one of the things we have to look forward to as we grow older - wisdom and being able to help by godly advice - if we respect this wisdom, we are more likely to listen to it

  • There is a call on parents to be worthy of honour and respect -  do not provoke your children to anger [Ephesians 6:4; Co13:21] by not keeping your word, by not being just and fair, by abusing your authority, by not turning your heart to your children [Malachi 4:6]



6 "You shall do no murder"

(References: Bible, Calvin's Institutes, Catholic Catechism)


What Does "Murder" Include?

- Jesus' reading of this Commandment: [Matthew 5:22-23] [1 John 3:15] Includes a whole range: from the outward act of murder to the inward holding of anger in our hearts.


Physical Harm to the body of another:

  • Physical violence of all kinds directed at another - Murder, any kind of physical assault - hitting, pushing, slapping, kicking... sexual assault of any kind.  Examples: abortion (except in extreme cases), euthanasia, suicide

  • It does not include killing of another out of self-defence.  Examples - to preserve one's own life, to protect one's family, or to preserve the common good in society (a just war)

  • It includes failing to help another person in danger or exposing others to danger

Spiritual harm to another (psychological harm)

  • uttering threats, intimidating others, cursing them anything that leads them to be afraid - tempting others to sin, especially those who are under one's authority or who are weaker (especially children see Matthew 18:6-7, Luke 7:15)

Why Are We Forbidden to Murder (intimidate, hate,...)?

  • It violates the golden rule - do unto others as you would have them do to you (Mt 7:12)

  • All human beings are made in the image of God and we are not to violate in any way that image - our neighbour's life and our life is sacred (see Genesis 9:5,6)

  • God is the giver of life, and loves and cherishes all life - God hates any action that limits the freedom and growth of another. When people live in fear of another, it limits their freedom as human beings and stunts the growth of their soul.

Just before the flood, the whole world was filled with violence (Genesis 6:11)  Violence is the sign of the final degradation of the soul - the opposite of giving one's life for a friend (love) is to take another life out of self love (hate).


What Can We Do About Violence?

  • Deal quickly with our anger - reconcile as soon as possible, if possible, before the sun goes down (Eph 4:26t)

  • Look for its source in your soul - envy, covetousness, revenge, lust for power, frustration, injustice - at the heart of reconciliation is forgiveness - recall God's forgiveness of each of us, even while Christ was being tortured and was hanging on the Cross.

  • Wrath kills. If anger is in us, we are to humble ourselves and put on the Lord Jesus Christ: 

    "Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved; compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another. "

    Colossians 3: 12-13

  • Do not provoke anger in others (Ephesians 6:4; Colossians 3:21)



 7 "You shall not commit adultery"

(References: Bible, Calvin's Institutes, Catholic Catechism,...)


What Does" Adultery" Include?

  • Jesus' reading of this Commandment: Matthew 5:27-30 it ranges from the outward act of sex with anyone who is not your spouse to the inward lusting after a woman or man in your heart.

Physical Relations:

     Fornication: the sin of sexual intercourse outside of marriage

     Incest: any sort of sexual relations within a family is strictly forbidden (Lev 20)     

     Homosexuality: sexual relations between men or between women (Lev 20)


Lustful thoughts:

     Temptation in the form of thoughts that arise in the mind are not sin, unless we

     allow ourselves to dwell on those thoughts.


Why Are We Forbidden To Have Sexual Relations Outside Of Marriage?

  • Sexual relations can result in the birth of children.  The ideal is that children grow up having the benefit of a father and a mother who have a loving and lifetime commitment to one another.

  • The spiritual and emotional and physical health of a person who is called to marriage flourishes in a climate of trust and mutual respect with one partner.

  • Faithful sexual relationships within a marriage will serve to strengthen a whole community since there are otherwise jealousies, hatreds that arise when people have many partners, couples also find it harder to be faithful to one another if they have had other (many) partners before marriage.

  • Sexual diseases are virtually unheard of between faithful monogamous couples.

How Can We Lesson the Power of this Temptation?

  • when lustful thoughts arise just let them go, do not dwell on them - exercise purity in all our relations

  • treat others of your age as brothers and sisters, those who are older as fathers and mothers - don't flirt

  • remember all those who would be hurt by your unfaithfulness - love your vows of fidelity in marriage, the hearts and the union that Christ is hallowing, more than some momentary bodily pleasure with a stranger - be chaste within marriage (seeking grace to transform lust for your spouse into self giving love)

  • recognize that you can be moved by attraction for another, but that it is not true love but fickle Eros - marriage is based upon vows of fidelity

  • avoid pornography, beware of the images you are filling your mind with

  • recognize that alcohol and drugs and even excessive eating can lesson your ability to overcome temptation - consider fasting from time to time.

Love (seeing another as a child of God and wanting the best for them) is the antidote to Lust (using another person simply for what they can give you).




8 "You shall not steal"

(References: Bible, Calvin's Institutes, Catholic Catechism)


What Does "Stealing" Include?

  • Material possessions - the earthly goods and the fruit of the labour of others whether the person is rich or poor, a person or a government

  • Spiritual possessions - not giving what is due to all people - dignity and respect as God's children, justice and to be loved

  • Failing to acknowledge the source of gifts - not acknowledging the source of all gifts is stealing from God (Luke 12:44-47) and taking credit for something that someone else did is stealing.

  • Failing to use the gifts given us for the good of all is a kind of stealing from God examples of failures:

    • the Rich man and Lazarus -- Luke 16:20-25

    • the good and wicked stewards -- Matthew 25:14-30

    • oppression, defrauding of wages -- James 5:1-6

Why Are We Forbidden To Steal?


All things come from God and are given to individuals for their benefit and well being but also for the well being of others - we are only stewards of the garden  (Genesis2:15-17); to whom much is given much will be required - (Luke 12:48b);

spiritual gifts given for good of all - (Ephesians 4:7-16).


Also, the way we handle our possessions, our material goods is a kind of test that God gives us - If we can be trusted in little things God will trust us in big things (Lk 16:9-12) - the true riches spoken of are spiritual - wisdom, understanding, love...


What Can We Do About Stealing?

  • If we have stolen, pay back what has been taken.

  • Use our hands for working that we may have something to share with others [Ephesians 4:28].

  • Practice generosity to God (e.g. tithing) and to others (e.g. hospitality) so that we acquire a generous heart, not one that is stingy, grasping, covetous, small.

  • Do not handle our property in a way that is a temptation to others.

  • Teach your children to respect the person and property of another. Remember to acknowledge daily, that all things are gifts of God.

  • Make it a discipline to say grace at meals; give prayers of thanksgiving to God; pray seeking God's guidance in how we are to use His gifts.



9 "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour"

(References: Bible, Calvin's Institutes, Catholic Catechism)


This 9th Commandment is a call for us to LIVE IN THE TRUTH


Jesus tells us that He is the Way, the Truth and the Life - if we want to live in Him, we must live in Truth.  The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ is the Spirit of Truth.


The alternative is to live our lives according to lies, deceit and falsehood.

Jesus said to those that did not believe in Him -

"You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do.  He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him.  When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father oflies." John 8:44


How do we Break this Commandment?

  • perjury in a court of law

  • Gossip is the next most obvious way in which we can break this commandment. when we do this we can ruin the reputation of others it can lead to false judgements, since we are only listening to one side of the issue "love does not rejoice in sin but rejoices in the truth" 1 Cor 13:6 .

  • Flattering someone falsely to build them up so we can manipulate them

  • Boasting before others of what we have done is lying by not giving God the glory

What happens when you lie? nobody trusts you even if you are telling the truth.  (e.g. never cry wolf)  Paul says that, as Christians, we are to "put away lying, "Let each of you speak truth with his neighbour", for we are members of one another." Ephesians 4:25


The TRUTH must be spoken in LOVE

  • It is possible to speak to a person about whom you have heard gossip but not if it is out of curiosity or a desire to shame them or defame them.

  • Love also calls us in a very few cases to withhold the truth to protect the safety of another person (e.g. Nazis hunting Jews); to protect the privacy of an individual (e.g. medical records) ; in the case of a confession to a priest

Not being a false witness, means that we are to bear witness to the Truth


When Jesus was being questioned by Pontius Pilot, Jesus said, "For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth." John 18:37


Let us open our mouths to bear witness to Jesus and to His Gospel.