The Ten Commandments — Their Place Within God’s Law

There is more to the Law of Moses than the Ten Commandments.  In fact, the Ten Commandments form the introduction to a large body of specific moral ordinances prescribed by God for His people.  The Law is commonly broken into three categories – moral, civil, and ceremonial.

The moral law is the Ten Commandments or the Ten Words (Deuteronomy 10:4).  It forms the basic moral principles for life in accountability to God.  The first four commands (have no other gods, no idols, don’t take God’s name in vain, and keep the Sabbath) all relate directly to our response to God.  The last six (honor parents, don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t bear false witness, and don’t covet) speak to our relationship with other people.  The last ones have little impact without the first ones.

The civil law is merely an application of the moral law to specific situations.  It is the law, the ten commandments, applied in the courts, for settling disputes, for affixing blame.  For example, Exodus 21:12-13 relates to the sixth commandment by describing what “murder” means.  It distinguishes from pre-meditated and non-pre-meditated murder and the appropriate penalties.  There are numerous civil applications of the moral law in the Old Testament (for example, Exodus 21:1-23; 33; Leviticus 18:1-20”27; Numbers 5:5-31; Deuteronomy 19:4-21; 22:1-30; 23:24-25:16 with some ceremonial laws mixed in).  Most of these can be related back to one of the last six of the Ten Commandments.  Some are applications of principles generally implied in the Ten Commandments.

The ceremonial law is an application, primarily, of the first four laws.  It encompasses directions for the observance of religious feasts, oath taking, sacrifices, ceremonial cleansing, Sabbath observances and priestly functions.  In some way it is unfair to separate civil and ceremonial law.  Both were equally binding for Israelites.  There was never a distinction between secular and spiritual in Israel’s law.  It was all spiritual.  The absence of one always signaled the absence of the other in practice.  Yet they are distinguishable as to purpose.  The ceremonial law served as a form of public and symbolic instruction about how to relate to God.  The ceremonial observances served to remind Israel of God’s deliverances, His holiness, and Israel’s privileged position.

Why this three part law?  First, by setting the moral law off by itself God highlights, in a very memorable form, the most basic moral requirements for created beings.  No one can complain that they got bogged down in the legal code.  Second, it facilitates child training.  Have you taught your children God’s basic requirements?  Have you spelled out the basic applications of these requirements?  Third, it facilitates evangelism.  An unbeliever must first recognize his guilt before his Creator.  Fourth, it leads the thoughtful soul who seeks wisdom to further explore the principles implied by the moral law.  It gives him a way to reflect on the character of the God who made us.  As we examine each commandment we will be doing the same thing.


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