Doctrine Article
Expanded Internet Edition - January 1, 2008 

The Ten Commandments

by Ernest L. Martin, Ph.D., June 1978 and May 1979
Transcribed and edited by David Sielaff, January 2008

Read the accompanying Newsletter for January 2008

The complete title of this lecture is rather strange. The full title is “The Fullness and the Deficiency of the Ten Commandments.” Before I begin I would like to say one thing about the Ten Commandments. They are, without doubt, the most beautiful body of laws that God or anybody could give to mankind. They are what we would call “the basics” of the Old Covenant, and form in many ways the basis to the New Covenant, and in many ways they form the basis of our understanding of what we call the Mystery, the final teachings of God.

By that I mean that they do not necessarily become a corporate part or body of the new revelation that God gave through the apostle Paul and others at later times, but let us understand one thing, almost all the principles that are found within the Ten Commandments (and I would daresay all, including the Sabbath, as a matter of fact), are repeated in one way or another in the New Testament writings even in the latest of the writings. We must do what the Bible says to do: “rightly divide” the Word of God. We have to partition it, but it must be done “rightly” (2 Timothy 2:15).

The Ten Commandments must fit in somewhere because obviously they are there printed in full in the pages of the Bible. Not only that, they themselves were inscribed on stone, first by God’s own hand, and then, of course, Moses himself came along and added some things. What I mean is that he was given responsibility to bring the two stones down to the people. What many people have not understood is that those stones were very small. 1 Moses was able to carry both stones in his hand, both together, between the fingers. Besides, they were written on the back and the front, four sides. They were on stone. Because they were on stone it gives the feeling of permanence. They were not very permanent, however, because even God could cause them to be broken, and Moses broke them and he had to get another set (Exodus 31:18, 32:15–19, and 34:1–4). Maybe they are not as permanent as we might think.

The principles, however, are wonderful. They are right. Even with the Sabbath revelation, that is good also because it is a time for resting, and the great rest is the great Sabbath that will occur in the future. We can have our Sabbath, even though the very day I am lecturing is the Sabbath. The type that God wants us to have is a rest. What did Jesus say? He said clearly: “Come unto me, all you that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Jesus is our rest. So you can even find Him in the Sabbath from that point of view.

There is no set of laws given in ancient times that deserves more praise than the Ten Commandments. Their codification represents one of the grandest periods for the establishment of human civilization that can be imagined. Though simple in content, the ramifications of these laws had profound effects upon the development of good principles among all members of the human race. Historically, they have probably been responsible for more excellence of conduct between humans than any other set of codified laws. The apostle Paul echoed their outstanding worth by saying that they were “holy, just, and good” (Romans 7:12).

The Ten Commandments were given to Israel at Mount Sinai as a type of “constitution” around which all other civil and religious laws of the Old Testament were based. Some have looked on their obvious merits and it has caused numerous people to wonder if they could ever be improved upon. One does not have to look far to understand why the Ten Commandments have been appraised with such esteem. They truly are wonderful and beautiful laws. But, still, there are principles of living which are better, concepts that are far superior. This may be hard to believe, but it is absolutely true. 2

The Bible shows that the Ten Commandments are some of the most wonderful commands given to mankind. No one can dispute that. That represents what I would call “the fullness of the Ten Commandments.” It is interesting that most civilized countries, those countries that have themselves developed laws and principles for humans to live by, have one way or another said in their legal documents that they have been inspired by the Ten Commandments. It has been said time and again, and certainly with the American republic that is the case. There is no doubt about it. The fullness of the Ten Commandments show that they are some of the most marvelous, wonderful, and holy documents that have ever been given to man.

The Deficiencies of the Ten Commandments

Some may find it almost unbelievable but the Decalogue written on the two tables of stone and given to Moses can be the most confusing laws imaginable unless there are other laws to interpret what they mean. If one had only the Ten Commandments as his guide, he would be much in the dark on how to conduct his life — almost as much as if he did not have them at all. Strange as it may seem, this is a fact!

The Ten Commandments themselves are deficient. They were intended to be deficient. I will show you what I mean by deficiency. Look at Exodus chapter 20 (paralleled in Deuteronomy 5:6–21) and read some of the Ten Commandments. You will see that they are deficient in many ways. They must be interpreted correctly.

Indeed, we find people who insist that the Ten Commandments are part of the New Covenant today, or even of the Mystery as we might call it, or that they should be kept for all times, and that includes the 4th Commandment which is the observance of a day of rest on the 7th Day, Friday sundown to Saturday sundown. They insist that the Ten Commandments are as much in force as ever and in full glory.

People do believe that, and many are honest and sincere in their beliefs. I certainly will not ridicule those beliefs because the Ten Commandments are very beautiful and wonderful, but again we must rightly divide the Word of God to know what pertains to us as a constitution, and what pertains to somebody else. The Ten Commandments do have deficiencies to them and they are built-in deficiencies. God intended them to be there. Let me show you what I mean by a deficiency.

The 1st Commandment: No other gods but YHWH

When the 1st Commandment said to have no other gods “before me,” one would be at a loss to know how to keep this command unless one were told elsewhere who it was that represented the God that brought Israel out of Egypt. 3

The 2nd Commandment: Not Making Graven Images

The 2nd Commandment said to make “no graven image ... no likeness of anything in heaven, in earth, or in the water under the earth” (Exodus 20:4; Leviticus 19:4, 26:1; Deuteronomy 4:16–17, 23, 5:8). 4 Could anything seem plainer? No image — of anything — was allowed. But a few days later Moses was ordered by the heavenly spokesman to make two statues of Cherubs [half animal and half human images] which were representations of heavenly beings and he was to position them within the holiest part of the tabernacle (Exodus 25:18–22)! Cherubs were also embroidered on the veil of the temple (Exodus 26:31) and on the curtains (Exodus 36:8)

Besides this, Moses was also ordered to make an image of a brazen serpent (Numbers chapter 21), and this order was given to Moses some 39 years after the Ten Commandments were ordained. This image became an object of such idolatry that God later commanded it to be utterly destroyed. And it was (2 Kings 18:4). The fact is, the 2nd Commandment made it clear that no images of any kind were to be made, but Moses felt no pangs of conscience by making images of Cherubs and the serpent. One can easily see how later interpretation modified the express statements of the Ten Commandments.

The 6th Commandment: Not Killing

Look at the 6th Commandment: “Thou shalt not kill.” 5 It is a beautiful command. It is something that you and I ought to heed to this very day. But do you know something? We still do not know by those two Hebrew and four English words what is meant by “Thou shalt not kill.” We need to have interpretation given somewhere else. The command is deficient of itself. We need other teachings of God to inform us what He means by “do not kill.”

The 6th Commandment of the Decalogue is very decisive in its statement. It said that no one was to kill. Should there be any argument over the matter? The statement is plain and simply put. But is it? In fact, there have always been problems with the 6th Commandment. When the 6th Commandment said not to kill, does it mean not to kill anything at all?

All right, what about killing a tree? If you cut down a tree, that is killing it. It means you could not even step on an ant, I guess because that would be killing. Obviously we are getting silly here, but if you do not have interpretation you cannot know what it means.

And what about killing an animal for food or sacrifice? True, these questions may seem ridiculous, but I have known several people who have asked those very questions — and they were serious! God does not mean not to kill animals because you have to eat. Of course, we can know that the command was not intended to include animals because they were allowed to be killed. Some people do not feel you should even do that (1 Timothy 4:3–4).

“If an ox gore a man or a woman, that they die: then the ox shall be surely stoned, and his flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall be quit. …

If the ox shall push a manservant or a maidservant; he shall give unto their master thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned.”

Humans Could Be Killed

Of course people say, that is absurd, it means do not kill man. That is true; so we are getting closer to the meaning. What does it mean, do not kill man? In the body of interpretation coming along in Exodus chapter 21, it says if any man kills another person, he himself shall be executed (Exodus 21:12). Capital punishment is throughout the Bible, so obviously if you have laws saying to kill someone if they have committed a capital crime, when it says “do not kill,” it could not mean death as legal punishment.

The 6th Commandment allowed murderers (Exodus 21:12), witches (22:18), sodomites (22:19), and idolaters (22:20) to be judged for these capital crimes. All such people could be legally executed — and the 6th Commandment was not violated.

In the Old Testament up to the coming of Christ it was quite proper for Israel to go to war and kill people. That was not a violation of this 6th Commandment at all. Israel was not only allowed, but they were commanded by God to wage war against other nations and this meant the killing of people (Deuteronomy 20:10–18). Specifically in the time of Joshua, God told the Israelites to go into the land of Canaan and to slaughter all the people that were there and take over their land. When they went to war — and God commanded them to do so — they killed people! 6

The Commandment said they were not supposed to kill, but God ordered them to kill. Well, this can be answered very carefully and quickly by saying that the phrase really means (and this is what the Jews have always interpreted it to mean), “Thou shalt not murder.” Clearly, that is really what it means. Now when you say “murder” it means to kill illegally. 7 You must have interpretation on all of these things or else you are in trouble.

I understand the principle, and that is proper if you apply it correctly. Whether it should be applied in this case or not is a matter of opinion. All I am saying is that the Ten Commandments are full and replete and beautiful, but they are deficient because when it says “Thou shalt not kill” because from time to time the understanding and meaning may change. This shows that the 6th Commandment of itself was meaningless unless other laws define it. The commands of the Decalogue are not elaborate enough to explain what they mean.

For many of our Christian friends today, some feel they should not go to war at all. I hate war. I do not want to go to war. I do not want to kill anybody by any means, but you know that. The thing is that many of our Christian friends say, well, we should be pacifists. We should not kill at all. Why do they say it? It says in the Bible “Thou shalt not kill.” They are not interpreting it correctly, or if they are, what they are doing is taking sections out of the Bible that might apply, coming out of the Sermon on the Mount, and avoid all the other things about killing a criminal who has killed somebody else, or going to war if God ordains it. What they say is, well, that was for that time. For this time now we have something different.

For our friends who believe that the Ten Commandments are still in force today, it would seem to me that God is the one who must interpret what He means by these things.

The 7th Commandment: Not Committing Adultery

The 7th Commandment, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” 8 but what did God mean by the term “adultery”? The Ten Commandments do not explain. Believe me, the term “adultery” has changed meaning drastically over the years!

Many of our people today who want to insist on proper morality point to the Ten Commandments saying that adultery is a crime. And that is true. Adultery is a crime according to the Bible and according to many states. It is not a crime any longer, I understand, in the state of California. They have taken it off of the statute books. In most countries it still is a crime, and it certainly is there in the Ten Commandments and the New Testament too.

It says “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” God wrote that, but Moses interpreted it. That is the point. You must have the interpretation on the side or else you are in trouble. It is deficient as it stands. We must know what God means by it.

It is interesting that Moses himself was married to two women. He was married to Zipporah (Exodus 2:21, 18:2) and he was married to a Cushite woman (Numbers 12:1), at least these are the ones we know of. They were not the same person, though some people have tried to argue that. The reason Miriam and Aaron did not like the idea of Moses marrying that Cushite woman was not because he already had Zipporah as a wife, because even in the interpretive laws a man could have more than one wife. It is in there. I am not saying it was good, but it is in the Bible.

Moses having a second wife was not the reason Miriam was cursed with leprosy. It was because they did not like her being a Cushite. Clearly that is what it is, or some other unstated reason, maybe. God showed those two who was boss. He was boss and he allowed Moses to go ahead and marry that Cushite woman. Moses had both of them.

We certainly we know that others did also. King David had at least six wives that we know of, and it says in the Scripture that God gave David his wives. 9 I am not saying I approve of that necessarily, but if God does something, I cannot help it. He is the boss.

It does say that God gave him those wives. The righteous priest Jehoiada who lived over 100 years of age, selected two wives for King Joash to have (2 Chronicles 24:1–3). He did not give him four, not three, he gave him two. I have often found that one is enough, but Joash had two wives.

Parable of the Ten Virgins

I do not know how a person wants to interpret our Lord’s illustration of the ten virgins. 10 A person can do as they please on that, but it is interesting. We know that the ten virgins is a parable. We know that because it is in a series of teachings of Christ just before His crucifixion, about His coming again, and about Him being the bridegroom. How many virgins does He have there waiting for Him? Ten. They all should have been trimming their lamps. For five of them, though, the lamps began to flicker. They wanted to go buy oil. At midnight they could not get oil. So while they were trying to get it, the bridegroom came and do you know what the five virgins with oil did? They went on in and met the bridegroom. For what? For marriage! They were virgins.

Some would say, no, they were not, they were just dancers. Okay, they were just dancers. But the whole illustration is that Christ is the bridegroom coming for His ekklesia, and the ten virgins were representing whom He was going to marry. 11 They were virgins, and He was going to marry all of them. Some might say, well, that is getting into polygamy. You bet it is. It is all throughout the Bible.

Does not Paul say that a minister, an overseer, should have only one wife (1 Timothy 3:2, 12; Titus 1:6)? That is true, because I will tell you, I have been in Israel and I have seen plural marriages between some Arabs there, Muslims, and I have never seen one of them yet that worked. As far as I am concerned it is a terrible, terrible social custom and it works against the stability of the home and everything else. Look at the marriages, even of righteous people in this Bible. Look at the marriages of Jacob. His wives were arguing with each other all the time, and the kids were juvenile delinquents. Those things are given there in the Bible, not to show us what to do, but to show us what not to do.

Clearly, plural marriages never work where you have two women in one home. It just will not work. Even down in Arab lands they are wise enough to have two kitchens, if they can, one for one woman and one for the other, or else there is trouble.

I know that Paul said for an overseer of the ekklesia, that he should be married to one woman. He would not have to say such a thing if everybody was just married to one woman at one time. Josephus tells us and Philo tells us, people living at the time say it was very common, particularly amongst high born, and certainly amongst kings, to have more than one wife.

King Herod himself had ten wives, some of them living at the same time, and completely legal, justified by the ancient Sanhedrin, and also the Jewish people who were living at the time. It was never condemned in any section of the Scripture.

Does that mean I approve of it? Ernest Martin does not. But I am not the one who wrote the Bible. I am not the one who allowed it. God almighty did. All I can say is that Moses had two wives, David had six wives (and David was unusual, a man after God’s own heart, 1 Samuel 13:14 and Acts 13:22, and God said He gave David his wives), and others had more than one wife. Sure enough, that was what happened and it was completely legal in the Old Testament.

The Bible says you shall not commit adultery. That is what it says, and that is wonderful. But the thing is this, some people apply a definition of adultery that is in existence right now that they have established and adapted themselves. The Ten Commandments themselves are full and complete, but they are deficient because David did not commit any adultery at all, except for Bathsheba as far as we know (2 Samuel 11:1–13). David married Bathsheba later on, and as far as I know in Scripture, he did commit adultery by doing so. But for David to have multiple wives was not adultery at all. That is why there is a deficiency for the 7th Commandment.

This all proves our point very well. While the 7th Commandment said “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” note these points carefully:

But none of these men committed adultery by having relations with those various women who were their legal wives. 14 Thus, the 7th Commandment had to be interpreted, or else it was of no meaning whatever.

The 8th Commandment: Not Stealing

When the 8th Commandment said not to steal, does this mean in all and every circumstance? It does not say in the Decalogue. Regarding this Commandment, I will give just one illustration. The land of the Canaanites, which they inhabited at the time of the Exodus, was their land according to all law in existence at the time. But God came along and told the ancient Israelites, I want you to go in and take over their land because I have given it to you.

Since God, the ruler of heaven and earth, said that the Israelites were to have the land, and they went in and took it, was that stealing? It really was not because God gave it to them. That is true. But as far as the Canaanites were concerned, the Israelites were stealing Canaanite land, Canaanite cattle. That was a war of conquest. 15 When it says “Thou shalt not steal” it must be interpreted. God said later, go in and take over that land. He did not say it was stealing, but as far as the Canaanites were concerned, it sure was. It must be interpreted.

This did not happen just with the Canaanites. This same principle is reflected in other sections of the Decalogue. The 8th Commandment said specifically “Thou shalt not steal,” but God told Israel to spoil (steal) the possessions of the Midianites (Numbers 31:1, 9–11, 25–47).

The 9th Commandment: No false witness

When the 9th Commandment said not to bear false witness against one’s neighbor, does it mean that no one should ever tell a lie?

Were these instances examples of breaking the 9th Commandment? Some might say “yes.” But were they? Only later definitions of the Commandments can help us understand what they mean. And this is just the point we wish to make. Without later instructions regarding what the Ten Commandments signified, they become almost unintelligible to the ordinary human.

The 10th Commandment: Not Coveting

And the 10th Commandment said: “Covet not thy neighbor’s house,” but God told Israel to uproot the Canaanites and take over their homes and lands (Exodus 23:26–33).

The 4th Commandment: Keeping the Sabbath Day

When you come to the Sabbath, the 4th Commandment is troublesome to many people. Why in the world when some say that we should be keeping the Ten Commandments, why do those people not keep it exactly:

“But the seventh day is the sabbath of YHWH your Elohim: in it you shall not do any work, you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your manservant, nor your maidservant, nor your ox, nor your ass, nor any of your cattle, nor your stranger that is within your gates; that your manservant and your maidservant may rest as well as you.

When the 4th Commandment said not to “work” on the Sabbath day, one would not know what “work” really was unless it were defined elsewhere, so again problems emerge. If one had only the Decalogue itself to go on, no one would really know what the word “work” signified. That is why Moses and others had to define the term.

Without all of these later laws or judgments, no one would really know what the word “work” meant in the 4th Commandment.

Without doubt the 4th Commandment stated that no work was to be done by >anyone on the Sabbath day. There were no exceptions in the original command. But, a few days later the 4th Commandment had to be modified from its strict wording. What took precedence over the law of the Ten Commandments? It was ritual!

How many of our friends today keep the Sabbath as it is written? This is not to be rude to any of them, because after all I myself tried to keep the Sabbath the best I knew how for years and years. I did it honestly. We all did. There are more words given to the Sabbath than any of the other commands, that is true. When I wanted to know what to do on the Sabbath, it says do not do any work of any kind. The next question I asked was, well you mean no work at all? Do I just stay in bed all day? No, you go out a little farther. It says you can do this, you can do that. So I can do a little bit? Yes, you can do a little bit.

It says you cannot pick up sticks on the Sabbath. You cannot pick up kindling to light a fire. Kindling is not very much, just a bit in your hand. You cannot do that. The Bible absolutely says you cannot light a fire. They did not have matches back there, but they had flints. It is interesting. I pick up two pieces of paper and imagine they are flint, and you click them together at an angle, and you get a spark. There is nothing to it. But if you get the fire going, the next thing you will do is to cook some food. If you cook food, that will take a little effort. You may be working too much, so you do not even strike the flint. That is what it says. 17

Our friends today, they say that was the Old Testament. I know that is the Old Testament, but I would like to ask this, where in the New Testament does it say you can now light a fire on the Sabbath? I do not read a word of that. Where does it say in the New Testament that you can now pick up sticks on the Sabbath? You were not to work at all.

They had to have regulations such as “the ox in the ditch” (Luke 14:5–6, see also 13:15, or a sheep in Matthew 12:11). That was allowed. Then some of the rabbis got together and they said you can do this, but you cannot do that. You can do that, but you cannot do this.

Then they finally determined you can walk on the Sabbath, but you can only walk 2,000 cubits and back because that was the length of the column of the Israelites going around Jericho from the center where the Ark of the Covenant was to the end of the column. So 2,000 cubits, and they walked 7 days and one of the days must have been the Sabbath, they finally arrived at the principal that you could walk 2,000 cubits. It makes sense. But that was as far as you could go or else you were violating the Sabbath. 18

Jesus, David, and the Priests Break the Sabbath

People say that is just Old Testament. So what we do today is we keep the Sabbath the way we feel Christ wants us to. I ask you, how does Christ want you to keep it? Well, when Jesus’ disciples were going through the cornfield, they began to pluck the wheat, rub it in their hands, and they ate it. Christ allowed that.

But as I have pointed out several times, when Christ allowed the disciples to do that, He was not ameliorating the Sabbath rules at all. He allowed them to what they did because He was Lord of the Sabbath (the one who commanded it in the first place). He allowed them to break the Sabbath. That was exactly what they did according to the Old Testament Law (Matthew 12:1–8; Mark 2:23–28; Luke 6:1–5).

When they took of those grains in their hands they were harvesting, though just a little bit. When they rubbed it in their hands they were threshing, though just a little bit. The illustration that Christ gave to the Pharisees was not that this is not really work, and that they can do this. No, He did not say that.

What He said to prove His divinity and that He was Lord of the Sabbath was this: you know what David did when he was hungered? This happened on the Sabbath day in the Old Testament. David went into the sanctuary and ate of the shewbread which was only allowed for the priests. It says clearly in the Old Testament that anybody who is not of Aaronic blood eats that shewbread he will be guilty before God for a capital crime. I mean he was to be cut off from Israel. That is how serious it was. 19

David went to the priest Ahimelech and said I and my men are hungry. Ahimelech said he did not have anything except these loaves of the sanctuary that had been here all week. They changed them every week. Ahimelech said it is the Sabbath day and we have this shewbread; I am going to get rid of them soon. You are hungry, eat them. They went into the Sanctuary and they were not supposed to do it, but they ate it.

Here is Christ showing the illustration of how David broke the law, in common sense, and yet the Pharisees could not get out of that because they loved David; and Jesus said, “the Son of man is Lord also of the sabbath” (Matthew 12:8; Mark 2:28; Luke 6:5).

The next thing Jesus said was to consider what the priests do. Moses told the priests that they did not have to obey the strict Sabbath command. In fact, they were ordered to work twice as hard on the Sabbath and were required to offer double the amount of animal sacrifices (Numbers 28:9–15). It says you shall not work but the priests have to work, and God said they were to work twice as hard.

And in case anyone should think that this later command was within the allowance of the 4th Commandment of the Decalogue, it ought to be mentioned that our Lord Himself, Jesus Christ, said that the priests were not keeping the Sabbath day, but they were profaning it! “The priests in the temple profane the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:5). That is the English but it is an absolute reflection of what the Greek says. Anyone who says they were not profaning it will have to argue the matter with Christ, because He said they did.

The two illustrations that Christ gave were not to say, well, we can relax the Sabbath rules now and still keep it. These illustrations show that the rules were being broken.

Modern Reasoning about the Sabbath

But some of our friends will say, well, I still think it is all right to cook breakfast on Sabbath morning, with the major meal, a roast for example, cooked the day before. I am not ridiculing this, but you know how it is, cooked the day before and you can warm it up on the Sabbath.

But you are not even supposed to strike a match! Oh, that has been rescinded. Where has that been rescinded? Oh well, I think it has, our Lord did it. Where in Scripture did He do it? Well, he had not done it, but I think He has.

I am glad you think he has, because the next thing you will want to do is to cook fried eggs. I have never seen anybody yet cook fried eggs Friday afternoon before the sun went down and try to heat them up the next morning. They do not taste very good. Cooking eggs on the Sabbath is all right, supposedly, according to some “Sabbath keepers.”

If a fellow wants to go to a restaurant you have to exchange money. There is to be no exchange of money on the Sabbath (Nehemiah 10:31; Amos 8:5). Every time you eat in a restaurant on the Sabbath you are violating the Law of the Ten Commandments.

The fullness of the 4th Commandment says:

“You shall not do any work, you, nor your son, nor your daughter, your manservant, nor your maidservant, nor your cattle, …”

Well, some say that needs to be interpreted. That is right. The interpretation is that if an ox falls in a ditch, then get it out, but only in an emergency. That is as far as it goes. You cannot strike a match. You cannot get kindling. You cannot gather manna. You cannot cook eggs or any food on Sabbath morning. You cannot exchange or pay money at restaurants for food. You cannot walk very far, and you cannot carry blankets, briefcases, spoons, Bibles, or anything out of your house on the Sabbath. You cannot light fires (meaning stoves or ovens or fireplaces). You cannot pick up sticks out of your path if the wind has blown them there. You cannot turn on TV or the radio for some innocent “pleasure” on the Sabbath because the Bible says clearly not to do it.

If a person is going to keep the Sabbath of the Bible, why are they doing all these other things that are forbidden? That is what I would like to know. None of those rules have ever been rescinded in the Scripture. Those are the interpretations that go on to the Ten Commandments that help to fill in the deficiency. That is why the Ten Commandments are deficient of themselves and must have these explanations. Strangely, almost every one of these later interpretations has been set aside as meaningless by the modern Christians who “claim” they want to keep the Sabbath. Of course, they are privileged to do as they please without condemnation by any of us, but don’t try to tell anyone you have biblical sanction to do so.

The Ten Commandments Are Not Eternal Laws

Many Christian people assume that the Ten Commandments are eternal laws which must be observed by Christians today. Nothing could be further from the truth! Though the Decalogue was profound and beautiful in its time, I have shown it is deficient in showing what people should be doing today. Some Christians want the Ten Commandments to be the essential legislation that governs the lives of Christians. They say that the Mosaic laws which interpret the Ten Commandments can be set aside, but they feel that the Decalogue itself stands alone as an eternal set of laws.

But the Old Testament itself shows clearly that the Ten Commandments are not eternal laws; they were changed even within the Old Testament itself. Before we look at the evidence which shows this, let us comprehend one principle: The Ten Commandments represent one code of laws. It cannot be cut into pieces with one part being reckoned as eternal and the other transitory. It all stands or falls together, and this principle is sustained by James (James 2:10–12).

With this in mind let us now look at clear proof that the code of the Ten Commandments is not eternal. Look again at the 2nd Commandment. One of its major parts records that the practice of idolatry is such a heinous sin in God’s eyes that He will “visit the iniquity of the fathers unto the children unto the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 20:4–5; Deuteronomy 5:8–9). This is plain, and it is a part of the Ten Commandments. Now, get ready for a surprise. Almost a thousand years after this original command was given, God changed His mind. He decided to alter the teaching of the Ten Commandments!

In chapter 18 of Ezekiel we have the prophet, speaking in the name of the Lord, saying:

“What mean you, that you use this proverb concerning the land of Israel, saying, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge?’ As I live, says the Lord God, you shall not have occasion any more to use this proverb in Israel.”

The use of that particular proverb by Israelites was prompted by the teaching of the Ten Commandments that God would “visit the iniquity of the fathers unto the children unto the third and fourth generation.” But in Ezekiel 18:19–23, we have the clear teaching that God has set aside that law as no longer having relevance. Indeed, Ezekiel made it plain: “The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father” (verse 20) as long as the son turns from his evil ways and does right (verses 21–23). This is a reversal of a cardinal Ten Commandment law, and it was changed about 600 years before the time of Christ.

The apostle Paul was aware that this part of the law had been altered by God. He said that an unbelieving Gentile parent is sanctified by the believing one and that the children are holy and not unclean (1 Corinthians 7:13–14). In the Gentile world when Paul made that statement, it was almost an assured thing that an unbelieving Gentile was some kind of an idolater. If one applied the Ten Commandments in this case, the children until the fourth generation would bear the father’s iniquity. But the apostle Paul knew better. Even for those under the Old Covenant, this part of the Decalogue was changed and made redundant some 600 years before the time of Christ. This point alone is enough to show that the Ten Commandments were not eternal laws.

The Ritual Laws Are God’s Law, the Law of Moses

Christians today interpret the word “work” in the Ten Commandments very differently than what Moses and the Prophets said it meant. The normal excuse they give for such violations is to say the Ten Commandments represent “God’s law,” while the later interpretive laws of Moses are pure ritual — they are “Mosaic law” and can be disobeyed. But this usual excuse is not valid in a biblical sense. The “ritualistic” side of the law is as much “God’s law” as the Ten Commandments. One section of Scripture proves this conclusively. Luke mentions it in regard to the circumcision of Christ.

“And when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they brought him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord; (As it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord’) And to offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the law of the Lord.”

So, the law of the Lord and the law of Moses were synonymous as far as the New Testament was concerned. When people try to separate the laws which interpret what “work” means on the Sabbath (calling them mere rituals) from what the Ten Commandments state, they are destroying the very “law of the Lord” they claim to keep. To keep the Sabbath means to keep it the way God says to do it, or keep it not at all. 20

The reason I do not keep the Sabbath of the Bible now (and I do not, and I mean the Sabbath of the Ten Commandments interpreted by the rest of the Bible) is because our Lord now has fulfilled the Sabbath command, the ritualistic commands, the Temple commands — everything dealing with the Old Testament He has fulfilled. Jesus fulfilled everything. 21

That is why the apostle Paul explains that with Christ dying on the tree of crucifixion, all of the regulations of the Old Testament that were in force up to that time now went into a quiescence, shall we say, as far as real Christians are concerned. I do not have time to explain every detail, obviously. Paul was able then to say in Colossians 2:16–17 that if someone comes along and wants to judge you on what you eat, on what you drink, on a holy day, or a new moon, or a Sabbath, he says do not worry about it, no one is to do that anyway. In the Old Testament everyone had the right to start judging you and your family on a holy day if it was not kept right, on a new moon if it was not the right time, or on a Sabbath day if you were doing it wrong. 22 Now it is different.

The Ten Commandments are very beautiful. They are wonderful. They are the highest form of legislation in a constitutional form that you could find anywhere, but they are deficient and must be interpreted. I ask people who say they keep the Law — why don’t they do it? Why don’t they do it the right way?

However, though the principles of the Ten Commandments are found all over the New Testament, if we have biblical revelation that the Ten Commandments as a corporate Law for us today is not a part of the administration of the Christian ekklesia today as it was for the ekklesia of Israel (if you want to call it that) in the Old Testament, then we have legal and good reasons for not having to go by every little detail.

The Inferiority of the Decalogue

There is another reason why the Ten Commandments are not on the same level with the message given to the Christian ekklesia. Christianity is teaching which was dispensed by Christ Himself — the creator of heaven and earth — but the Ten Commandments were not delivered to Moses and Israel by the direct agency of God. This may seem strange to say because on the tables of stone the very first words are:

“And God spoke all these words saying, I am the Lord your God, which have brought you out of the land of Egypt.”

This seems to say that it was none other than God who gave Moses the Decalogue, but this is not the case. The personage who said these things was an angel who had authority from God to use His name in the first person (Exodus 23:21). It was the same angel who appeared to Moses in the burning bush and said: “I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exodus 3:1–6).

Though the heavenly messenger called Himself “God,” Stephen said he was an angel. There appeared to Moses “in the wilderness of mount Sina an angel of the Lord in a flame of fire in a bush” (Acts 7:30). And interestingly, Stephen went on to say that this personage was also:

the angel which spoke to him [Moses] in the mount Sina, and with our fathers: who received the lively oracles [the Ten Commandments] to give unto us.”

Actually, the tables of stone, with the other interpretive laws, were given by this supreme angel (along with other angels) — not by God directly. Paul mentions this fact.

“Wherefore then serves the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator [the angel of the Lord]. Now a mediator [the angel] is not a mediator of one [of God], but God is one.”

Paul showed that the Ten Commandments were not given to Moses by God directly, but they were dispensed by the hand of a mediator — the angel of the Lord that appeared to Moses in the burning bush! And though it says that “God spoke all these words,” it is clear from the Old as well as the New Testaments that the personage was an angel speaking in the name of God. 23

To Paul and Stephen this made the law of the Ten Commandments inferior to the direct teachings of Christ and the Holy Spirit (Galatians 3:23–25). In truth, the Christian is no longer governed by laws chiseled “in tables of stone, but in fleshly tables of the heart” (2 Corinthians 3:3). And while “the ministration of death, written and engraven in stones, was glorious,” that glory “was to be done away” (verse 7). Paul taught that the glory of the Decalogue is “that which is done away” (verse 11), and it is “that which is abolished” (verse 13), and that the Old Covenant is also that which “is done away in Christ” (verse 14).

Why has the Ten Commandment code of the Old Covenant been abolished? It is legally quite simple.

“I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts ... for all shall know me from the least to the greatest ... their iniquities will I remember no more.”

There was a legal shifting of the laws from tables of stone to the hearts of people. Thus, no external written codes were necessary under a New Covenant relationship with God. What counts is the fruit of God’s Spirit being activated in a person’s life from the heart (Galatians 5:22–23). No law has been devised that could be against those spiritual fruits. “Against such there is no law” (Galatians 5:23). If one will only show an unfeigned love toward God and to other humans, all the laws of God will be completely fulfilled:

“Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loves another has fulfilled the law.

For this, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, You shall not covet’; and

if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love works no ill to his neighbor: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”

Love is the only law that is eternal (1 Corinthians 13:13) and it is motivated from the inner heart, not from tables of stone. The Ten Commandments, on the other hand, were external laws given by an angel [not by God Himself], with the help of other angels, which were intended to be the “constitution” for the ancient nation of Israel. They could only be kept properly when interpreted by the other civil and religious laws given to Israel at Sinai. They were not eternal laws. They were intended to last only until the true Christian message was enacted. They were “our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ ... but after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster” (Galatians 3:24–25).

The Ten Commandments served their purpose well as schoolmaster, while people were spiritual infants, but the apostle Paul said that God now wishes to treat His children as full grown adults. The laws of Israel, including even Israel’s “constitution,” have been superseded by something better: a genuine adult love which comes from the heart and is engendered by the Holy Spirit. When such love is in full and proper action, no other laws are needed — not even the Commandments engraven on stones.

Faith is positive. Faith is a way of life, just as Paul said, “… The just shall live by faith.” (Romans 1:17). The Bible places the supreme emphasis on faith, hope, and love (1 Corinthians 13:13) as the greatest of all virtues. They are all positive in their effect upon others and upon yourself.

Obedience to God Today

In closing, for people who want to rely on the Ten Commandments and say it is their law, an eternal law, and they will try to keep it, well, they had better keep it letter by letter, interpretation by interpretation. If they do it, I will admire them because at least they are keeping the Ten Commandments of the Bible.

For us our understanding of Christianity comes from New Testament legislation, and we do not have to base it on the Ten Commandments. We have another two Commandments, one really, to base our lives upon. The two are as Jesus pointed out:

“Jesus said unto him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

The one command is:

“For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

This also needs to be interpreted, but the interpretation is found in our New Testament. It is clear there. It is plain. It is understandable.

We too may have deficiencies in words. But we have New Testament interpretation which builds up the deficiencies, and the interpretation comes from the words of our Lord and from His apostles, and not from someone necessarily in the Old Testament period.

Ernest L Martin, June 1978 and May 1979
Edited by David Sielaff, January 2008


1 We have seen the movie The Ten Commandments in which Charlton Heston played Moses and he has these gigantic two stones that must have been at least four feet tall and three inches thick, no human being could possibly carry some things like that. No wonder they were made out of foam rubber. Most people think they were made out of huge stones. They were not large at all if a person would read the Bible carefully.  ELM   See Bible Secret #1 at http://www.askelm.com/secrets/sec001.htm from Dr. Martin’s book 101 Bible Secrets That Christians Do Not Know.  DWS

2 Later, the entire Old Testament was considered the constitution for Israel. As a legal corpus of documents, the Old Testament provides a long series of historical examples (good and bad), and interpretive changes to the basics of the law, the Ten Commandments. For example, the laws in Deuteronomy were different than the laws in Leviticus due to changing circumstances. Israel was transitioning to a pastoral/farming society in the Promised Land from the wilderness circumstances. See Dr. Martin’s discussion of this in Chapter 3, “The Original Number of Old Testament Books” at http://askelm.com/restoring/res003.htm from Dr. Martin’s book Restoring the Original Bible. See also Chapter 1, “The Law of God” from Dr. Martin’s Essentials of New Testament Doctrine at http://www.askelm.com/essentials/ess001a.htm.  DWS

3 YHWH addressed Moses through an angel who represented YHWH. See Chapter 2, “The Law Was Given by Angels” at http://askelm.com/essentials/ess003a.htm in Dr. Martin’s Essentials of New Testament Doctrine.  DWS

4 God cursed anyone who made a graven image of a god, and this was acknowledged by all the people of Israel:

“Cursed be the man that makes any graven or molten image, an abomination unto YHWH, the work of the hands of the craftsman, and puts it in a secret place. And all the people shall answer and say, Amen.”

5 Exodus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 5:17, repeated for the sake of instruction in Jeremiah 7:9; Matthew 5:21, 19:18 (“murder” in Greek is the general word “kill”); Mark 10:19; Luke 18:20; James 2:11; and Romans 13:9.  DWS

6 In fact God commanded King Saul, through the prophet Samuel, to totally exterminate the Amalekite people. Today we call this genocide:

“Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.”

   Saul failed to follow Samuel’s instructions from God and as a result God removed the kingdom of Israel from Saul’s rule. Read all of 1 Samuel chapter 15 for the full context. The Book of Esther describes how Haman the Amalekite attempted to utterly exterminate Israel. First Samuel chapter 15 provides the back story for the entire Book of Esther.  DWS

7 The American Heritage Dictionary defines murder as: “1. The unlawful killing of one human being by another, especially with premeditated malice.”  DWS

8 See Exodus 20:14 and Deuteronomy 5:18, repeated for the sake of instruction in Jeremiah 7:9, 23:14; Hosea 4:13–14; Matthew 5:27, 32, 19:18; Mark 10:9, 18–19; Luke 18:20; James 2:11; Romans 2:22, 13:9; and Revelation 2:22.  DWS

9 Nathan the prophet told David that his wives were given to him by God:

“And I gave you your master's house, and your master's wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would moreover have given unto you such and such things.”

  God said to David through Nathan, I gave you these wives and they were not enough for you? Regarding David’s multiple wives, see also 1 Samuel 25:43, 27:3, 30:18; 2 Samuel 2:2, 5:13, 12:11; 1 Chronicles 14:3.  DWS

10 Matthew 25:1–13. Verse 1: “Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins …”  DWS

11 If they were merely “guests” at the party or bridesmaids, what would be the point? They would miss a good party? No. They missed out on the wedding celebration in which they were to participate.  DWS

12 Technically Abraham had two wives, Sarah and Keturah. Keturah became Abraham’s wife after Sarah died. Before God miraculously gave Sarah a child, Isaac, Sarah gave a handmaid of hers named Hagar to became Abraham’s concubine. Scholars are undecided as to the legal status of concubines in Old Testament times. Hagar bore Abraham a son, Ishmael (Genesis 16:1–6). After Isaac’s birth to Sarah (Genesis 21:1–7), Hagar and Ishmael were driven out of the family into the wilderness because of her conflict with Sarah (Genesis 21:8–21). The point is this: even though Hagar was not a wife, Abraham had sexual relations with her. No adultery was committed. How can we know? Because there is no criticism or charge of adultery against Abraham by anyone in Scripture throughout history, and certainly not by Christ.  DWS

13 Bilhah, Rachel’s handmaid and Jacob’s concubine, gave birth to two sons, Dan and Napthali. Zilpah, Leah’s handmaid and Jacob’s concubine, gave birth to two sons, Gad and Asher. See Genesis 35:22–26 where the mothers and sons are listed.  DWS

14 Note also, if multiple wives and concubines would have been adulterous sins for the men, so too it would have been adulterous for the women.  DWS

15 In fact, as Dr. Martin noted above, God intended it to be a war of extermination in addition to conquest. However, the Israelites did not carry out God’s command.  DWS

16 It does not mention the wife in that list. I guess that means she can go ahead and work all she wants to. Well, actually back in biblical times the man and wife were reckoned as one flesh and everything that pertained to the man pertained to the wife, so she is included in that way of looking at it. It means you should not work, not even your cattle.  ELM

17 For Israel the penalty of violating Sabbath rules was death:

“You shall keep the sabbath therefore; for it is holy unto you: every one that defiles it shall surely be put to death: for whosoever does any work therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people.”

“Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you an holy day, a sabbath of rest to YHWH: whosoever does work therein shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the sabbath day.”

    Because of gross violations of the Sabbath, God threatened to “kindle a fire” against the gates of Jerusalem opening the city to conquest (Jeremiah 17:23).  DWS

18 After Jesus’ ascension the apostles returned to Jerusalem “a sabbath day’s journey,” Acts 1:12, about 3,000 feet. A entire tractate of the Mishnah called “Erubin” (‘The Fusion of Sabbath Limits’) deals with the do’s and don’ts of the Sabbath limits. “Erubin” is considered to a supplement to the Mishnah tractate “Shabbath” which discusses detailed do’s and don’ts of the Jews for their Sabbath observance. The Mishnah reflects the attempt to put into practical terms “oral teaching” of the Jews (developed primarily by the Pharisees) after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. and written down in the 2nd century A.D.  DWS

19 David’s actions refer to the incident in 1 Samuel 21:1–9. Only the priests could eat that bread (Exodus 29:32–33).  DWS

20 See Chapter 20, “Remember the Sabbath Day” at http://askelm.com/essentials/ess029.htm from Dr. Martin’s book Essentials of New Testament Doctrine.  DWS

21 Indeed, what did Jesus see the Father do even on the Sabbath? John quoted Christ as saying: “My Father works hitherto, and I work” (John 5:17). What God the Father and Christ did then, they are doing now. What they are doing, we should do.  DWS

22 The entire community was responsible for their neighbors because violations of the Ten Commandments reflected upon the reward or punishment of the entire community.  DWS

23 For the full biblical evidence see Chapter 2, “The Law Was Given by Angels” linked in note #3 above. DWS

Go to ASK Home Page •  Print Page

© 1976-2014 Associates for Scriptural Knowledge - ASK is supported by freewill contributions