The Essence of the Ten Commandments


Of all the commandments we find in the Bible, the Ten Commandments are a summary of what God requires of people. But Jesus said that these Ten Commandments can be summarized even more.

When asked, "Which is the great commandment in the Law?" Jesus said that "the great and first commandment" is, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" (Matt 22:36-38). It's not one of the Ten Commandments, but this command does come from the Bible (Deut 6:5). And then there is a second command that is next in greatness. Citing from Leviticus 19:18, Jesus said it is "to love your neighbor as yourself."

So Question 74 in our catechism asks: What is the essence of the Ten Commandments? The answer is:

The essence of the Ten Commandments is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love everyone else as we love ourselves.

Why is it that these two are the greatest of all the commandments? It is because, according to Jesus, "On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets" (Matt 22:40). In other words, every other command, instruction, or direction we are given in the Bible is dependent on (the Greek word here literally means “to hang”) these two commandments.

The Essence Is Love

What we find in common between these two summary commands is the command to love, to love God and to love everyone else. The New Testament says it this way, "Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law" (Rom 13:8).

The command to love is the "essence" of the Ten Commandments. That means that if we keep the Ten Commandments outwardly but do not keep them with a heart of love, then we have not really kept the commandments. God does not give us commands to keep with a heart of resentment or pure duty. He gives us commands that are meant to flow from love. Indeed, without love, you cannot truly keep any of God's commands.

What Love Commands

On the other hand, if we truly love God, then we will do what he says (Jn 15:14). And this includes the command to love everyone else (Jn 15:17).

So while love is the fulfillment of the law, we do not get to decide for ourselves what love is. Sometimes what is truly loving is that which does not seem loving by someone else’s standard. There are plenty of ways we can act in what we think is a loving way only to find out later that our act caused more harm than good. Good intentions are not the standard of love.

God’s truth is the standard of love, and that's why we need the commands of God, to show us what love looks like.

Love God First

If the essence of the Ten Commandments is to love God and everyone else, and if love is to be measured by the standard of God’s truth and commands, then where are we to begin if we want to take the Ten Commandments seriously?

Begin with the “great and first commandment,” for you can’t keep the second if you don’t keep the first.

The first half of the Ten Commandments deal specifically with our relationship with God. The last half deal more so with our relationship with others. The order is important. You can’t truly love others if you don’t love God. And the first half of the Ten Commandments shows us the shape that a true love for God will inevitably take.

What it will take to love God as we should is everything we have, all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. This is the essence of the Ten Commandments. It requires much from us.

It requires all of us.

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