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The Ten Commandments

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Rev. George Mastrantonis

The Ten Commandments

A Document of Divine Guidance

The Ten Commandments are an excellent piece of literature of the Old Testament, which was given by God Himself, through Moses, to the people of Israel, and which was destined to shape the morals of the society of the world.

The Ten Commandments, also known as the Decalogue (deca, ten; logos, word), constitute the ethical code by which the human race is guided, on the one hand, to believe in the true God, and, on the other hand to sustain the godly society in the attainment and application of God's will on earth. The Ten Commandments were kept undefiled and handed down to us as a treasure and monument of Christian civilization. The Christian Church has embodied the Ten Commandments as a basic moral code of, discipline toward God and toward men. "There is probably no human document which has exercised a greater influence upon, religion and morals than the Ten Commandments."

Moses is an outstanding personality of the Old Testament; he is known not only for his leadership and statesmanship, but especially as a religious forerunner of Judaism. His destiny was planned by God Himself to lead the people of Israel out of the Egyptian bondage and into the wilderness, a land north of Mt. Sinai and between Egypt and Palestine, their new dwelling place. Moses knew this land well because he had spent 40 years in exile from the Egyptians in this area with a great man, his father-in-law Jethro, who gave counsel to him.

Three months after the exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt, Moses their leader, appealed to Almighty God for inspiration in order that the people of Israel might live peacefully and prayerfully under the guidance and shelter of God. God responded by calling Moses to climb Mt. Sinai, where He could give him His covenant to present to the people of Israel as God's word and they confessed: "All that the Lord has spoken, we will do" (Exodus 19:8).

Moses spent 40 days with the Lord, Who "gave to him, when he had made an end of speaking with him upon Mt. Sinai, the two tables of the testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God" (Exodus 31:18). Thus the precepts divinely revealed to Moses on Mt. Sinai and engraven on two tables of stone were given to Moses. The tables were broken by Moses upon coming down from the mountain because of the idolatry of the people (Exodus 32:19), but later were replaced by another pair (Exodus 34:1).

The text of the Commandments is preserved in the Old Testament in two versions, one in Exodus 20:1-17, and the other in Deut. 5:6-18. The Commandments, apart from the prohibition regarding images and the precept of observing the Sabbath, contain rules of life that are the common property of mankind. As such, the commandments have been deepened by our Lord's teachings in the Sermon on the Mount and summed up by Him in the precepts of love toward God and one's neighbor, as it is mentioned in Mark (12:29-31), "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might" also, "thou shalt love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandments greater than these." (cf Deut. 6:4,5; Lev. 19:18).

Tertullian, an early Christian writer, asserted that the Ten Commandments were engraved on the hearts of men even before being written on the tables of stone. The Ten Commandments had gained a prominent place in the instruction of the early catechumens, and constitute the content of a part of the catechism of the Christian Church today.

In the light of the New Testament teachings, the following pages will present a brief interpretation of the Ten Commandments.


Man's Relation to God

The first four Commandments are articulated in such a way as to guide the devotion of the believer toward God. They belong to the one table, and should be recognized and accepted with reverence and fear of Almighty God, without deviation or compromise. The Lord our God demands not a part of our lives, but that the wholeness of our lives be dedicated without hesitation or reservation. By these commandments the full communion of man with God is sought. It is surprising, but at the same time a great privilege for the believer to be allowed to communicate with Almighty God, person to person; to enter the realm of the sonship; to be called a son of God, and to be designated an ambassador of God's will on earth.

The First Commandment

"I am the Lord thy God.... Thou shalt have no other gods before me."

"And God spoke all these words, saying, I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me." Ex. 20:1-3.

Moses went down from the mountain to the people and told them what God ordered him to tell them. God spoke all these words, saying: "I am the Lord your God." God identifies Himself in order to guide mankind to the proper worship and belief in one God; a God Who takes part in the history of mankind, Who is present to harken to the voice of the people and to answer them. It is obvious that the Jewish people believed in a super-existing being. It is the task not only of the Old Testament writers, but even of the New Testament message to guide the people in the paths of believing and knowing the True God. Here in the First Commandment, the question of pure faith is at stake for the believer, "that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent." (John 17:3).

God identifies Himself to the people as the only Lord who created the universe and governs it continuously, thus guiding the faith of man and leading him into His kingdom. The First Commandment then refers to the right Faith unto the True God. The wholeness of this knowledge was provided by Jesus Christ, so that Christians have a full knowledge of the Almighty God. in the First Commandment we read that God opposes faith in other gods. Everyone believes either in the True God or in idols and superstitions, which are the "other gods". The human race, in its adventure and innate tendency to reach for the super-being, many times fails and misuses this tendency, falling into beliefs in other gods, superstitions and other objects of devotion.

Devotion and worship, unguided and careless, lead people away from God. This commandment does not have meaning for atheists whose hearts are immune to any faith, but appeals to people whose hearts burn with the willingness to believe in God. Other gods are man-made objects or conditions, such as greed, lust, careless education and many other things which man responds to with devotion and dedication. The task of the First Commandment then is to guide the believer to devote himself to the one God in the manner indicated in the Old Testament, and especially through our Lord Jesus Christ. This true faith in the One True God should be nourished daily and constantly through prayer and study so that the temptations of other gods have no power to mislead him. Apostle Paul aware of these faults, advised the Corinthians "to shun the worship of idols." (1 Cor. 10:14), and again, to protect the believer from various desires and goals, for instance, "... covetousness, which is idolatry." (Col. 3:5).

The Second Commandment

"Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven images... Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them."

"Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me: And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments." Ex. 20:4-6.

The Second Commandment is a continuation of the First in guiding the believer not to have for himself a graven image. This utterance is given to protect the believer from the temptation to create images and thus ignore the True God. Some believers worship the means of their own creation, which in itself becomes an idol and graven image. In the religious life of a Christian there are many objects and gestures which absorb his attention and devotion. The Second Commandment forbids anything in Heaven above and the earth beneath from replacing the pure faith in the One Lord. Knowledge, skill, money and works also can become graven images if they are not put to their proper use, that of serving and nourishing the pure faith in the One Lord and God.

This commandment does not prohibit the use of icons or other objects of the Church. These objects help the faithful Christian to express his true faith in God; the believer does not "bow down to them or worship them." The tabernacle with cherubic pictures on the curtains and sculptured cherubs was not considered idolatry, as it is mentioned in Exodus 36:35-38. The use of statues of a non-existing deity in worship is considered idolatry because the worshipper "exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles" (Romans 1:23) (cf Psalm 135:15-18).

The Third Commandment

"Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain."

"Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain." Ex. 20:7.

The Third Commandment urges the faithful to use the name of the Lord With reverence and fear, but never in vain. In prayers, meditation, hymns, in teaching the Christian Truths, the faithful always use the name of God with deep devotion and respect. The faithful are instructed not to use the name of the Lord in vain. The hypocrite uses the name of the Lord in vain because he is dressing his evil thoughts with the mantle of God's name. The Pharisee of the parable, for instance, used the name of God with a loud voice and raised his hands and eyes, but in vain. His intent was to gain arrogant personal satisfaction rather than to present a devoted prayer in repentance and humbleness.

The person who does not accept seriously the majesty of divinity, or who confesses lightly his belief and uses the name of the Lord carelessly and not with reverence and fear, uses the name of God in vain. People in high position in society who pretend they are Christians but ignore God's commandments in their business transactions or in their homes among relatives and friends use the name of the Lord in vain. This commandment does not forbid one to take a good oath in order to establish a truth "to put an end to all strife" (Heb. 6:16). This commandment forbids the false oath and perjury.

The evangelistical law prohibits the faithful from taking an oath, as it is recorded in Matthew 5:34, "swear not at all", and in Romans 12:14, "bless, and curse not." This commandment does not allow the use of the name of the Lord in vain, but it does not mean that one cannot use the, name of the Lord faithfully and humbly for repentance and guidance.

The Fourth Commandment

"Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy."

"Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son nor thy daughter, thy man servant, nor thy maid servant, nor thy cattle. nor thy stranger that is within thy 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 sabbath day, and hallowed it." Ex. 20:8-1 1.

The Fourth Commandment, to keep the Sabbath Day holy, does not suggest that the rest of the days of the week could be unholy. God wants the believers to obey His Commandments unceasingly without intervals in responsible life. The believers' deeds and thoughts should be godly in every respect, in work and play, in studies and worship, throughout the entire week, in order to be holy and worthy of the name of God. This commandment is given us to dedicate our lives, especially one whole day of the week, to the Lord; that is, to study more and more His message, to sacrifice a part of our money and pleasure, to help others in the name of Lord, to prepare ourselves for the commencement of the new week. It is a disappointing phenomenon that religious people use Saturday and Sunday for their pleasures and relaxation and for many other activities which make the days rather unholy.

On the other hand, this commandment often is misunderstood to mean that people should be motionless; on the contrary, the Sabbath Day should be set aside for active renovation of the inner world of man in prayer, confession and noble activities of good works for the benefit of one's neighbors and society at large. Our Lord Jesus Christ healed many people on the Sabbath (Luke 13:14), and gave a new interpretation to this commandment and encouraged Christians to follow in His footsteps. The Christian regards Sunday as the day of "rest", and named this day the Lord's Day because of His Resurrection, which began the restoration of moral order.


Man's Relation to Man

The remaining Commandments belong to the second table and deal with the relation of the faithful to their neighbors. The commands are given in a negative form. The Christian interpretation, though, should be accepted in an affirmative context. It is not the general "You shall not" that should be stressed, but rather what I ought to do" in the name of the Lord and for the benefit of my neighbor.

The Fifth Commandment

"Honor thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long."

"Honor thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee." Ex. 20:12.

Parenthood is included in the sanctuary of the Decalogue. This commandment is directed to children, to young men and women, with the admonition not only to love their parents, but especially to honor them. Parenthood is a sacred institution created by God and endorsed with the responsibility of propagation. The father and mother of a family are to be considered the channels of the grace of God for their family, both enlightened and encouraged to rear their children in the realm of the Will of God. This commandment is applied first and foremost to the parents, who are sent by God in a mission of keeping the laws of God intact in their family.

The condition of our society today does not allow us to be proud of a good percentage of fathers and mothers who are included in the list of the causes of delinquency. Parents are commissioned with the rare privilege of making their home an altar of blessings, devotion and worship of the True God. They have been assigned a natural role, presenting themselves as an example walking in the path of God, in order to impose upon their offspring the image of good citizenship on earth and in heaven.

Such parents are blessed and guided by nature to show an affection for their children; to be not only their parents, but also their friends, shaping the feelings of their offspring according to God's Will. In order to attain success in their task of creative achievements, they are endowed by nature with a love for their children which enables them to guide their offspring along the road of the pursuit of happiness.

This commandment is directed mainly to sons and daughters, young and old. They are urged to express not only their love to their parents, but especially to honor them throughout their lives. It is noteworthy that the Decalogue includes in its utterances parenthood, honoring parents with the divine privilege of being respected and obeyed. Children should honor their parents, which means obeying them as God's messengers and sharing with them their affection and happiness.

Today society promotes the separation of children from their parents. The time when Mother Nature disarms older people by taking away their talents and points of physical attraction is the time when younger people should especially show them constant honor. By doing so, their days "may be long in the land as a reward from above. Their prayers should ask God's strength and guidance to fulfill this duty to their parents.

The Sixth Commandment

"Thou shalt not kill." Ex. 20:13.

The killing of a man is forbidden and is considered one of the three major sins. At the time this commandment was given to the people it had an important significance aimed at eliminating the destruction of one's fellow man. It is forbidden not only to take the life of a man, but even to think of killing. The faithful Christian also is forbidden to take his own life. His own life does not belong to him, but to the Creator to Whom life returns.

This commandment reminds us that one has no right even to shorten the life of man by using slander and deceit to undermine the health and dignity of others. The careless use of the tongue, gestures and intentions are forbidden by this commandment because they offend others and shorten and corrupt the health and courage of others. This commandment forbids even the careless driving by which our modern civilization takes the lives of thousands of people.

Waging war against a nation, causing the lives of thousands of people to be uprooted, is forbidden, although it is justified when a nation defends itself to protect the lives of its citizens against the offenders in an unjust war. In the New Testament, the defender is urged to use sympathy and love in order to calm the offender and to increase his welfare. The Christian is admonished not to challenge and insult the offender, but rather to cooperate with him and to pray and work for the peace of the world.

The Seventh Commandment

"Thou shalt not commit adultery" Ex. 20:14.

The Seventh Commandment instructs the believer to avoid any act leading to the dishonor of the fidelity of the family. Any such activity outside of marriage is forbidden by this commandment. Purity of life is recommended in order to make steadfast the moral ability of an individual and a nation. To attain this goal the faithful are instructed to protect themselves. The faithful are urged, on one hand, to avoid outside influence and temptation and, on the other hand, to create the ideal of chastity, nourishing it by their relations with friends and with worthy activities. They are urged to invoke the assistance of Almighty God to lead them in the pasture of His Will.

Apostle Paul, writing to the Corinthians, refers to the purity of the faith, saying, "Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you? If any one destroys God's temple, God will destroy him. For God's temple is holy and that temple you are" (1 Cor. 3:16, 17). This commandment challenges man to resist carnal temptations.

The Eighth Commandment

"Thou shalt not steal." Ex. 20:15.

Almighty God endowed each of us with abilities to work and produce the means of life. Man's possessions, both spiritual and material, enable him to be a steward for the benefit of himself and society. To steal your neighbor's property is forbidden, and is considered a sin.

This commandment forbids also the supposed legitimate act of taking away your neighbor's property by so-called legal methods. Stealing is deceit, and regardless of legal protections, it is an evil act which both corrupts the conscience of a people and undermines the peace of societies, individuals and nations.

The Christian attitude is to make steadfast moral values opposed to legal cleverness.

Stealing is a bad habit and should be corrected early in a person's life in-order to create in him an attitude of respect and honor for the possessions of others. This attitude, should be a standard from within rather than being guided by external laws of the state, which many times are misconstrued.

The Ninth Commandment

"Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor." Ex. 20:16.

To accuse a man by bearing false witness against him, either in the court of law officially, or in public in order to destroy his dignity, is a sin not only before God, but even before man, according to the ordinary standards of life. This act is not merely a lie; it is spiteful joy at the expense of an innocent person. To bear false witness, against one's neighbor is a vice which includes lying and defamation, as well as mockery, calumny and profanity.

It is an offense with the armour of manyfold weapons of destruction. The writer of the Epistle of James 1:3-5, describes in a vivid manner the use of human abilities against one's neighbor and society. Such behavior is the opposite of the truth by which the Church of Christ is sustained and nourished by Almighty God. The commandment not only admonishes us to avoid bearing false witness or even neutrality, but also encourages us to promote the fruits of the Truth as it is described by our Savior in the Sermon on the Mount.

The Tenth Commandment

"Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house."

"Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife, not his manservant, not his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor's." Ex. 20:17.

Evil desires are a product of loose character, uncontrolled and malnourished. To covet your neighbor's house, which in itself is an unlawful desire, has its roots in the heart of man after the fall of Adam. The human heart, if it is not well protected and shielded, will become a prey of the evil spirit and an instrument of diabolical activities against society.

"Let no one say when be is tempted, 'I am tempted by God', for God cannot he tempted by evil, and he himself tempts no one; but each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desires. Then desire, when it has conceived, gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death" (James 1:13-15).

A person who is nourished in the pastures of the Gospel should bear true witness for his neighbor, and thus become the very channel of the Gospel of Christ, which is the truth par-excellence that prevails forever.


The Decalogue, the Custodian unto Christ

The Content of the Ten Commandments is given in the negative approach, teaching us not to do what is forbidden. It is an excellent teaching and guide in its sphere of negative dominion, opposing evil in its external influence. The Decalogue is considered the "schoolmaster (custodian) to bring us unto Christ" (Gal. 3:24). When the Christian faithful ascend the steps of the Decalogue, they are urged to follow the new steps of Christian ideals toward Almighty God and toward their neighbors. Our Lord Jesus Christ stressed the point and said "I have come not to abolish them (the law) but fulfill them (Matt 5:17). The Decalogue is the law which has been fulfilled by the Grace of God through the Person of Jesus Christ as the Head of the Church and the Author of our Faith. Any effort of the faithful to ascend the steps of the New Creation should start with a sincere conviction and unshakable faith in Christ, Who is in fact the Protector of our desires for the perfection of our thoughts and being. The faithful are urged to keep undefiled the "good soil", to accept without doubt the divine seed of faith in God in Whom "we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28).

Copyright: © 1990-1996 Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America

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