In the Old Testament, the Torah was a set of instructions that told the Hebrews how to stand apart from everyone else so that when the nations looked at a member of the covenant people of Israel, they saw their God (Deut. 4:6–8). Following the Torah was not a works-based righteous system whereby one was “saved” if they followed it closely. Rather, in the Old Testament one is “saved” by faith in Yahweh (Gen. 15:6) and after one was declared righteous by God through faith, then they were to follow Torah as a demonstration that they have been set apart as a Yahweh follower (this is precisely the argument Paul makes in Romans 4 and Galatians 3).
Jesus fulfilled these (not replaced them). The way that a member of God’s people is set apart today and shows the nations that they are a member of the Church is not by avoiding pork, not shaving and nor ceasing to work one day a week. Rather, one shows themselves to be set apart as a member of God’s covenant people by accepting Christ and being led by the Holy Spirit. God still wants his people to be set-apart (hence, Jesus’ disclaimer that he did not come to abolish but to fulfill in his Sermon on the Mount) and so the purposes of Torah remain operative — it is just that they are fulfilled in Christ.
Once I learned multiplication in the 4th grade and moved on to 5th grade, I did not need to continue to have lessons on how to multiply. However, just because I learned the truth of multiplication and no longer had exams and quizzes on it, that does not mean that multiplication was replaced by exponents and algebra. Rather, as I continued throughout school and took more and more math, my teacher assumed and built upon the truth of multiplication. The “new” stuff I learned wouldn’t work without the truth and necessity of multiplication. So it is with the Torah. As a Christian, I do not follow the “old” set of instructions on how to be set apart, but I still need to be set apart. In the Old Testament, one was set apart by Torah; now I am set apart by being in Christ.
The purpose of the Ten Commandments is slightly different than the rest of the 613 instructions of the Old Testament of which they are a part. Many Christians think that the Ten Commandments established what is right or wrong, but they did not. They simply reflected and articulated what God had already established as right and wrong when he created the world. So, for example, the Ten Commandments say, “Do not kill.” Well, the day before God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, was killing acceptable to God? Absolutely not. If you look closely, each one of the Ten Commandments is rooted in the ethics and morality that God established in Genesis 1–3. The Ten Commandments then simply reflect and express the morality that God had already written into the universe; they did not establish that morality.
So are the Ten Commandments applicable to Christians today? Yes they are, but this is kind of beside the point. The Bible would say that the Ten Commandments are applicable to everyone! Killing is not just “wrong” for Christians or Jews to do; the Bible would say that it is a morally wrong thing to do, no matter who you are!
As for whether they should be on display in courts of law and the like, I wouldn’t think that there’s anything wrong with putting them there — they reflect a good moral code irrespective of one’s religion. Nevertheless, many Christians somehow think that putting these sorts of things on display in public places will actually have the effect of making the morality expressed within them manifest in society. The Ten Commandments are not a magic spell or incantation that will make crooked people righteous. Only Christ can do that.
This adapted article was originally posted on Jan. 15, 2019, on The Good Book Blog.