The book of Exodus is the second book in the Bible. It follows God’s servant Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery and through the desert towards the hoped-for Promised Land. Along the way, they stop at Mt Sinai. Moses goes up the mountain and receives from God ten commandments carved on a stone tablet. This is one of the most famous sections of the Bible, an integral story for both Jews and Christians.

These commands are commonly referred to as the Ten Commandments or the Law. But in the Bible, the word used translates into English to mean “ten words.” Many think these words are outdated and were only created for the Israelites, who couldn’t get anything right. However, God gave them to help people in every generation to love Him and love others. As one of Jesus’ disciples said, “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3).

The Ten Commandments found in Exodus 20 are as follows:

  1. You must have no other gods before me
  2. You must not make any idols
  3. You must not misuse the name of the Lord your God
  4. Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy
  5. Honour your father and mother
  6. You must not murder
  7. You must not commit adultery
  8. You must not steal
  9. You must not testify falsely against your neighbour
  10. You must not covet anything that is your neighbour’s

We miss the point when we see these “ten words” as a list of grumpy declarations. God is not trying to bother us or restrict us with a number of legal requirements to govern our actions (even though 10 really isn’t that many). Rather He is trying to bring us freedom. Because God cares about love, He gave us rules to protect us, bless us and set us free. The commandments do the following:

They show us who God is

They are an expression of God’s heart and character. They don’t just show us what God wants but what He is like and what matters to Him. Through the commandments, we see He is sovereign, delights in spending time with us, values family, and is faithful and fair.

They tell us what’s right and wrong

Some say the commandments were for a specific group of people at a particular time and that they no longer apply to us. But in a world that constantly changes its definitions for things, the commandments are especially helpful. They are an unchanging compass for what is right and wrong, and they guide our behaviour and help us preserve the moral fabric of our society.

They were not given to save us

The commandments weren’t created to follow like a checklist that would save us. We are saved completely by God’s grace. Following them is a response of gratitude to God because we are saved, not because we hope to be saved.

They protect us

Ten commands or rules is not many when you consider how many laws you will find in almost any part of the world. We may not agree with every single law our state or country has created but we can see they were put in place to protect us. We often think, “If it doesn’t hurt anybody, it doesn’t matter.” But throughout history, we have seen examples of where small actions have caused significant damage. There will always be consequences when we go against God’s commands. Not because He punishes us, but because our wrong actions have a natural ripple effect.

They don’t take away from our freedom but add to it

Many have the perception that freedom means getting to do whatever we want. Anything against that is constraining and is stopping us from living how we want. God gave us the commandments so that we could remain free. He is not trying to strip us of pleasure and joy. He wants us to have a life abundant with pleasure and joy and knows that specific parameters will allow us to do so more wholly and fully. As Jesus said, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).

They improve our relationships and help us love better

In the book of Matthew, Jesus is asked what the greatest commandment is. He responds, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’” (Matthew 22:36-40).

When we look at the list of commands, the first four have to do with loving God, and the next six have to do with loving people. Therefore, all ten commands come under His “greatest command” to love God and love others. This shows us that God cares about relationships and gave us certain parameters to help us love better.

A married couple will have expectations, rules and boundaries to protect and strengthen their relationship. Such things might include being honest, spending time together, or not sleeping with anyone else. Our response to these things is not, “How selfish! How unrealistic!” Instead, we adhere with pleasure because we love the other individual, want to be close to them and know that doing these things will benefit both of us. We can think of the Ten Commandments in a similar way. We do them out of love, and as a result, our relationship with God and others grows stronger, healthier and happier.

Though the Ten Commandments were given during a period where ordinary people weren’t valued, pharaohs and kings were worshipped, and human life was degraded, they contain universal and unchanging principles. The commandments God gave Moses on Mount Sinai are more than an ancient list of thou shalts and thou shalt nots. They are about worship, relationship, and freedom for all people. Without them, we lose our moral compass. With them, we learn to be and love more like Jesus. And unfortunately, love isn’t something that always comes easy for us. We could do with a little guidance on how to love each other and our Creator better.

Zanita Fletcher is an assistant editor for Signs of the Times Australia magazine. She lives on the Gold Coast, Australia. A version of this article first appeared on the Signs of the Times Australia/New Zealand website and is republished with permission.