A Historical Perspective of The Ten Commandments

The historical context of the Ten Commandments provides a very important foundation for the purpose of the Ten Commandments.

The Ten Commandments were more than just ten good rules. They were a written version of a verbal covenant that had been made by God years earlier with a man named Abraham.

The Ten Commands or Decalogue (name given by Greeks) was also referred to as the Tables of Testimony because they were a testimony to the world of the covenant of God made with Israel.

From the very first sin (Adam and Eve) God designed a plan to restore mankind to relationship and fellowship with himself (see purpose). This plan, given to Israel, was called a covenant. The covenant was originally given to Israel and in turn was to be shared with the whole world. The covenant was binding upon both parties (God and Israel). It could not be broken without severe consequences.

God’s covenant was a promise that His people accepted in faith believing God would do what He said. In turn, the people promised God complete devotion and dedication to Him.

God established a spoken and written (Ten Commandments) set of obligations and responsibilities the people must obey in order to demonstrate their devotion to God and separation from sin. It was through these laws that Israel could learn the character of God and the dangers of sin.

God’s chose Israel to be the messengers of God’s love for all mankind through His covenant. The Ten Commandments were a key element of the covenant God made with Israel.

Throughout the generations God chose certain people with whom to carry out His covenant. Mankind had been alienated from God because of sin. When God made a covenant He made a promise to restore (redeem) the relationship that had been lost. The covenant required three ingredients: 1) union with God, 2) mutual promises, and 3) separation from sin.

The covenant demanded a way of life that was distinct from the “fleshly way of life” (whatever feels good-do it!) toward which all humankind is prone.


Those who entered into God’s covenant were considered His chosen people. These were not of higher worth or greater value, but as part of the covenant they were separated out and a distinction was made. God’s name and character was proclaimed worldwide through this separated people. To non-participants in the covenant the separation of His people combined with the miracles, blessings, and faithfulness of God and plainly visible character and power of God became a testimony to which many non believers were attracted and by which many were converted. Read how the faithfulness of three young men to the covenant influenced a king and nation. Daniel Chapter 3.

The covenant was initiated with Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:15), established with Abram (Gen. 17:1-8), and fulfilled in Christ. It was woven throughout the generations beginning with Adam to Seth, Enoch, Noah, Shem, Abram, Isaac, Jacob, etc.


Approximately 2070 BC the Lord established His covenant with a man named Abram. Abram believed God and was renamed Abraham which means “the father of many nations”. God promised him that through his children all the people of the earth would be blessed. His children through the generations eventually included Jesus – the Messiah who would make salvation from sin available to all.

The promise continued to Abraham’s son Isaac and his son Jacob whom God renamed Israel. Jacob (Israel) had twelve sons who became the twelve tribes of the newly established Nation of Israel.

One of Jacob’s sons, Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt by his jealous brothers. God chose Joseph to preserve the Nation of Israel during a severe famine. Israel continued to reside in Egypt for 400 years during which time they became enslaved by Egypt.
Moses is rescued from the
river by the princess of Egypt.


God called a man named Moses to deliver them from slavery and bondage. Through the miraculous delivery God again reminded Israel of His covenant with them and established their distinction from Egypt. The great exodus began with Israels’ release from Egypt.

Shortly after their exodus from Egypt God gave Israel the Ten Commandments. They were originally spoken by the voice of God in the hearing of the nation of Israel at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19-20).

Afterward the Ten Commandments were written on two stone tablets twice by the finger of God (Exodus 31:18; 32:15-16; 34:1, 28; Dt. 10:4). The first set of tablets were shattered by Moses when he threw them to the ground upon seeing Israel breaking the law by the sin of the golden calf.

The second set of tablets were kept in the Ark of the Covenant (Ex. 25:16; 40:20).

The Ark of the Covenant was a gold plated wooden box containing the two tablets of Decalogue, Aaron’s rod, and a pot of manna. It served as a symbol of God’s guidance and presence with the people. It was a constant reminder of God’s covenant with His people and played a significant role in various times of Israel’s history such as the crossing of the Jordan River and the fall of Jericho.

Keeping the Ten Commandments meant more than just obeying the law. Keeping the commandments was synonymous with keeping the covenant with God. Practicing a life of obedience to the law demonstrated loyalty and dedication to God and faith in His promise to send a Savior who would redeem mankind from their sin. Thus, salvation was obtained through faith, not in the works of the law – though the works of the law are what God required as a demonstration of faith and commitment to God’s covenant.

Disobedience to the law symbolized a breaking of the covenant with God and brought with it severe consequences. Sin alienates mankind from God. After Adam’s sin God knew man was not capable of living a sinless life. God’s covenant with His people, was not for the purpose of eliminating sin. Sin would be ever present. Nor did God sit in the heavens waiting for His people to disobey so He could enjoy punishing them. The purpose of the covenant was to separate a people unto Himself, provide the promise and hope of salvation, and to demonstrate the need for the “new covenant” in Jesus Christ.

God, in His mercy, required sacrifices to be made for sins. The penalty for sin is death and God allowed the death of an animal as payment for the sin. The sacrifices God required were symbolic of the future sacrifice made by the Lamb of God (Jesus Christ) for sin. The practice of obedience to the law, faith in God’s promises, and sacrifice for sin demonstrated keeping God’s covenant. Though God’s people were by no means perfect, living a life in covenant brought God’s blessing and protection upon His people.
Remember, this covenant was only part of God’s plan to restore mankind to Himself. This covenant was inadequate to accomplish God’s ultimate purpose. Does this indicate that God was shortsighted? Not at all. The old covenant (covenant with Israel) served as a shadow of things to come. It helped establish the need for a better way. It gave value to the work of Jesus Christ and became a physical tangible symbol of what Christ actually accomplished.

“The old system in the law of Moses was only a shadow of the things to come, not the reality of the good things Christ has done for us. The sacrifices under the old system were repeated again and again, year after year, but they were never able to provide perfect cleansing for those who came to worship. If they could have provided perfect cleansing, the sacrifices would have stopped, for the worshipers would have been purified once for all time, and their feelings of guilt would have disappeared. But just the opposite happened. Those yearly sacrifices reminded them of their sins year after year. For it is not possible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins…

“Christ said, “You did not want animal sacrifices or grain offerings or animals burned on the altar or other offerings for sin, nor were you pleased with them” (though they are required by the law of Moses). Then he added, “Look, I have come to do your will.” He cancels the first covenant in order to establish the second. And what God wants is for us to be made holy by the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all time” (Hebrews 10:1-4, 8-10.

“This is the new covenant I will make with my people on that day, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts so they will understand them, and I will write them on their minds so they will obey them.” Then he adds, “I will never again remember their sins and lawless deeds.” Now when sins have been forgiven, there is no need to offer any more sacrifices” (Hebrews 10:16-18).

The Ten Commandments are not an isolated set of rules that come from the Bible. They were part of a Divine covenant that has been fulfilled in a new covenant established in Christ.

“But our High Priest [Jesus] has been given a ministry that is far superior to the ministry of those who serve under the old laws, for he is the one who guarantees for us a better covenant with God, based on better promises. If the first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no need for a second covenant to replace it. But God himself found fault with the old one when he said:

“The day will come, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. This covenant will not be like the one I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand and led them out of the land of Egypt. They did not remain faithful to my covenant, so I turned my back on them, says the Lord. But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel on that day, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their minds so they will understand them, and I will write them on their hearts so they will obey them. I will be their God, and they will be my people. And they will not need to teach their neighbors, nor will they need to teach their family, saying, ‘You should know the Lord.’ For everyone, from the least to the greatest, will already know me. And I will forgive their wrongdoings, and I will never again remember their sins.” (Hebrews 8:6-12).

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