The Ten Commandments and the New Testament

Moses LawOne of the questions that needs to be addressed in any study of the Ten Commandments is that of their proper relation to the New Testament Scriptures.

Many in the church in our day seem to be under the mistaken impression that the coming of Christ has somehow rendered the law of God null and void, or at least in some way irrelevant or unnecessary.

But if you take the time to examine the teachings of Jesus and His apostles, you will find that the uniform testimony of the New Testament is such that the ten commandments have a continuing authority and relevance. They are every bit as binding and important today as they have ever been. They are still God’s standard for holiness, and they are still the summary of God’s moral will, telling us how He would have His redeemed people to live.

First, let’s start with the teachings of the Lord Jesus himself. What did Jesus have to say about the law of God in general, and the Ten Commandments in particular? In what is probably His best known (or at least most famous) sermon – the “sermon on the mount” (found in Matthew chapters 5 through 7), Jesus actually had quite a bit to say about the law of God and the Ten Commandments.

In Matthew 5:17 Jesus states, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (ESV). When He speaks of “the Law or the Prophets” there, that is a shorthand way of referring to the entire Old Testament. So Jesus tells us right from the beginning that He had not come to do away with the Old Testament, including the Law. Rather, the reason that He came was in order to “fulfill” them.

In a sense everything that was written in the Old Testament was in some way prophetic of Christ, both his sufferings and the glory that was to follow. (See Luke 24:25-27.) And so in both His person and in His actions He fulfilled those prophecies to the letter. His atoning death for His people fulfilled the entire Old Testament sacrificial system, including the Temple, the priesthood, and even the very sacrifices themselves. All of those things were meant to point forward to the person and work of Jesus. (See Hebrews chapters 9-10.) That is why those things are no longer needed – they have served their purpose, and were never intended to be seen as an end in and of themselves.

What about the ten commandments? Did the Lord Jesus set them aside? Certainly not. Not only did He clearly tell us that He did not come to “abolish” the law (Matthew 5:17), but He also said that “until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (v.18, ESV)! He even went on to say that “whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (v.19-20, ESV).

If you read the rest of Matthew chapter 5 in particular, you will find that the bulk of that chapter actually consists of extended teaching regarding at least two of the ten commandments themselves, including those prohibiting murder (v.21-26) and adultery (v.27-30). So, in summary, Jesus himself not only perfectly obeyed the ten commandments, but He also clearly taught obedience to them as well.

The Lord Jesus expects his ministers to teach others to obey His commandments (Matthew 28:19). To be sure, no one is justified in the sight of God by their obedience to His commandments, but rather we are saved by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone in order that we might obey His commandments from the heart. We are not saved by works (Ephesians 2:9), but we are saved for them (Ephesians 2:10).

What about the apostles themselves? What did they have to say about the law of God in general, and the Ten Commandments in particular? Let us look in particular at what the apostle Paul had to say about the law and the ten commandments.

In the book of Romans, for example, the Apostle Paul uses one form or another of the Greek word for “law” (nomos) no less than 73 times. Clearly he had a lot to say about the law of God, even in a book that is primarily about the gospel (Romans 1:16).

There he says that “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Romans 7:12, ESV). He even says that the law is “spiritual” (7:14) and “good” (7:16). Clearly Paul had a very high view of the law of God (as he did of all of Scripture), even after coming to faith in Christ for salvation.

What about the Ten Commandments in particular? In Romans 7:7 he says, “if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet” (ESV). In other words, God’s righteous commandment revealed Paul’s sin to him, and so also revealed to him his need for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ!

Elsewhere, in Ephesians 6:1, Paul gives a command, saying, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right” (ESV) And on what does he base this command? How does he prove that “this is right” (v.1) for them to do so? He quotes the 5th commandment. He reminds us that the law of God says, “Honor your father and mother” (v.2), which is a direct quotation from Exodus 20:12.

That alone should give pause to those in the church who would say that the law of God (especially the Ten Commandments) no longer applies to believers today. Nothing could be further from the truth! The ten commandments are still the summary of the moral will of God for His people. They are still a reflection of God’s own holiness and perfections. He cannot change, and so that does not change either!

But Paul doesn’t stop there, does he? He reminds us that “this is the first commandment with a promise” (v.2), and then actually quotes and interprets the promise that God Himself annexed to the 5th commandment, saying, “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land” (v.3, Exodus 20:12). So the commandment, of course, still applies, and not only that, but God’s promise of blessing and reward still applies as well!

How about the Apostle John? He has much to say about keeping God’s commandments. In fact, he equates love for God with keeping His commandments. In 1 John 5:3 he writes,

“For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” (ESV)

Love and law are not contrary to each other – quite the opposite! If we love God, we will love His law as well, like David did (Psalm 119:97), and make it our aim in life to willingly keep His commandments, rather than seeing them as “burdensome.”

God has certainly not changed (and indeed cannot!), nor has his moral will for the lives of his redeemed people. The ten commandments are still the summary of the moral will of God; they are still of great use to the believer in Christ; and God still promises blessing to His children for obeying His commandments. Of these things let us be sure that the New Testament Scriptures are abundantly clear.

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5 comments

  1. What still confuses me still …were the Ceremonial & Judicial laws only for making Israel different, like restrictions on food & fabrics etc?

    Also, when sctiptire says those who die without the law are still judged by it, is that talking about the Mosaic laws?
    Thanks Pastor Andy

    1. Trying to stump the pastor? 🙂

      The second question is, I think, easier to answer. Yes, and I believe that Paul there (in Romans 2:12-16) primarily has the moral law/ten commandments in mind there. According to the Shorter Catechism (Q.40-41), the moral law given to Adam is the same as the moral law given to Moses in the ten commandments. That substance of the moral law is known to all mankind through our consciences, so that even those who have never seen or heard the ten commandments still know that murder, adultery, etc. are sins, and things for which they will be judged, even if they suppress that knowledge (Romans 1:18-23). As Paul says, “they are without excuse” (Romans 1:20).

      The ceremonial law pointed forward to Christ and His work of redemption & the salvation that is to be found in Him alone. (See Westminster Confession of Faith 19.3.) The judicial law (or the judicial aspects of the law) is a more complex thing to understand rightly. Westminster Confession of Faith 19.4 is helpful regarding that, when it says, “To them also, as a body politic, he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require.”

      I hope that doesn’t sound like a lazy answer, but I really do find Confession of Faith chapter 19 (“Of the Law of God”) to be tremendously clear and helpful. I hope that helps somewhat.

      1. Yes it is helpful. If you could summarize is simple layman’s terms, what would say was the reason God gave the Mosaic Law as a whole to Israel?

        I’ve heard it was for distinguishing them for all other peoples …I’ve also heard they were laws that furthered their flourishing as a people group etc.

        Also, what’s your interpretation of the verse, “the Law & Prophets were until John” in light of you saying that term translates into the OT?

        My understanding is it refers from Moses to John the Baptist, I think of the Mosaic Law & the last Prophet like book ends & the life of Israel as a nation is sandwiched between them.
        After John, there is no more prophets to guide them to Messiah because He’s in fact there as John announces.

        Sometimes is so hard to believe that the Jews didn’t recognize their Messiah but the more I’ve read extra biblical books on what happened during the intertestamental period, the more I’m convinced the Jews were completely preoccupied only with relief from Roman oppression & injustice & they yearned for a liberator for Israel. The Sadducees & Pharisees had come to desire political reformation more than spiritual, don’t you think?

        Sorry …am getting way off topic …just been thinking a lot about this as of late.

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