The Ten Commandments (also known as the Decalogue, from the Greek for “ten words” or “ten laws”) are some of the most basic rules that Christians follow. God loves his people, so he makes sure we have rules to live by, because these rules tell us how we flourish and function best. When we sin against the commandments, we not only disobey God but also do harm to ourselves and others, even if we don’t recognize it at the time.
A Numbered List of the Ten Commandments
- I, the Lord, am your God. You shall have no other gods before me.
- You shall not take the name of the Lord, your God, in vain.
- Remember to keep holy the Sabbath day.
- Honor your father and your mother.
- You shall not kill.
- You shall not commit adultery.
- You shall not steal.
- You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
- You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.
- You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor.
Catholic and Protestant
This listing of the Ten Commandments is the one Catholics use, but most Protestants use a slightly different set of Commandments. Their list includes a commandment against making graven images (which Catholics see as part of what the First Commandment commands). Then, the last commandment is simply, “You shall not covet,” instead of having two separate commandments about coveting. The content is basically the same for all Christians, but the numbering is different.
Why do Catholics use a different listing from most Protestants? Well, if you look up the Ten Commandments in the Bible, you might notice that they aren’t numbered. The Ten Commandments are sometimes separated into different verses, where each verse is a Commandment. This can make it easy to think that the numbering of the Commandments is from the Bible, but the division of the Bible into verses came millennia after the Ten Commandments were first written down.
The practice of presenting the Decalogue as a numbered list developed much later in history, with the early Church Fathers. St. Augustine, the most influential Church Father in the Latin Church, listed the Decalogue based on the law presented in Deuteronomy 5. However, the Decalogue is also found in Exodus 20, and most Protestants go by the way they are presented there.
Did Catholics Change the List?
Some Protestants accuse Catholics of changing the listing of the Ten Commandments to avoid listing the commandment against making images. The order that Catholics use, however, is from a period of Church history long before Protestantism even existed. St. Augustine died in 430, and the Protestant Reformation did not begin until 1517.
Furthermore, Catholics understand that it is not wrong to have statues. The command against graven images is a command not to worship images, not a command not to make images at all. In fact, God commanded Moses to make statues to adorn the Ark of the Covenant, where God’s presence dwelled (Exodus 25:18-20). God even worked miracles through an image of a bronze serpent that Moses made at God’s command (Numbers 21:5-9).
The Hierarchy of Commandments
In addition to the Ten Commandments, there are many other commandments in the Old Testament. For example, there are many commands about how to perform sacrifices or celebrate certain Jewish feasts. Jesus summarized the purpose and meaning of these commandments. When someone asked him what commandment was the greatest, Jesus said: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22: 37-39).
Love of God
When we look at the Ten Commandments, they follow this same hierarchy. The first three Commandments deal with our love for God. We must love God above all things. Loving God above all things mean that we love and honor his name. It also means that on the day God tells us to rest, we rest, and we devote the day to special worship of God.
Love of Neighbor
The last seven Commandments tell us how to love our neighbor. We have a special duty to our parents, who gave us life. That is enough reason to honor them, because without them, we would not be alive to experience any of God’s blessings.
Just as our lives are a gift, we must respect that gift in others, and it is wrong for us to take the life of another person (self-defense is an exception to this rule).
We must treat sex with respect, because it has a meaning that involves procreation and unity. To commit adultery is to violate the meaning of sex, which is intended to unite spouses. We have a responsibility to honor our spouses, and to respect the marriages of others. The ninth Commandment shows that this respect is not only a matter of actions (i.e. not committing adultery), but also a matter of respecting others’ marriages in our hearts and minds.
When we steal from others, we are by definition depriving them of what belongs to them. This shows a lack of love for our neighbor. For every right we have, there is a responsibility. People have the right to keep the things that belong to them, but they have the responsibility to look after the poor rather than hoarding their possessions.
When we lie, we can greatly hurt our neighbors. When someone deserves the truth from us, we have a duty to tell it. Lying is especially bad when we lie about others, because we can ruin their reputations.
Finally, we are not to covet our neighbors’ goods. It is okay to see good things that others have and want to have those good things, too. The problem comes when we think that we deserve to have something just because someone else has it, or when we let our neighbors’ possessions make us resentful that we do not have those things, too. At worst, we might commit the sin of envy. This means that we go beyond wanting what other people have and even want them to lose the good things they have. If we envy, we aren’t just sad that we don’t have something good, but we are also sad that someone else does have something good.
The Purpose of the Commandments
The Commandments teach us the best way to love God and to love our neighbor. As human beings created out of relationship (the life of the Trinity) for relationship, we are happiest when we have good relationships with other human beings and with God. The Ten Commandments tell us basic ways to live to promote healthy relationships. Sometimes it might be hard to follow the commandments (both the Ten Commandments and the other laws of God), and in a fallen world following the commandments sometimes results in sharing Jesus’ cross. Even so, the Ten Commandments are a sign of God’s love for us, and one of the many ways he teaches us what is good for us.