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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Commandments

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COMMANDMENTS.—As commandments (ἐντολαί) Jesus recognizes (1) the injunctions of the Decalogue, (2) certain other requirements of similar ethical character laid down in the Law. In one instance (Mark 10:5) the Mosaic regulation for divorce is quoted as a ‘commandment,’ but its temporary provisional nature is clearly indicated. ‘This commandment,’ given for a time in view of special circumstances, is implicitly contrasted with the true and abiding ἐντολαί. In the case of a purely ritual ordinance the term προσέταξεν is used (Matthew 8:4, Mark 1:44, Luke 5:14).

The main passages in which our Lord defines His attitude to the commandments are: (1) the exposition in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:17-48); (2) the criticism of Pharisaic tradition (Matthew 15:1-20, Mark 7:1-23; cf. also Matthew 23); (3) the reply to the rich young ruler (Matthew 19:17-21, Mark 10:19; Mark 10:21, Luke 18:20-22); (4) the dialogue with the lawyer (Matthew 22:35-40, Mark 12:28-34, Luke 10:25-37). The treatment of the Sabbath commandment (Mark 2:24-27, Luke 6:1-10; Luke 13:10-16) will have to be considered under Law and Sabbath.

It is assumed by Jesus that the commandments were given directly by God, and as such they are contrasted with the ‘traditions of men’ (Matthew 15:6, Mark 7:8-9). This assumption of their Divine origin determines His whole attitude towards them. As ordained by God they are valid for all time and authoritative; the keeping of them is the necessary condition of eternal life (Matthew 19:17, Mark 10:19); men will take rank in the Kingdom of Heaven according to their obedience to the commandments (Matthew 5:19). It is objected to the Pharisees as their chief offence that they have perverted and overlaid with tradition the commandments of God (Matthew 15:3, Mark 7:7).

In view, then, of the Divine origin of the commandments, Jesus accepts them as the eternal basis of morality. His own ethic is presented not as something new, but as a truer and more inward interpretation of the existing Law. It has been maintained (most notably in recent times by Tolstoi) that Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount enacts an entirely new moral code,—five new laws in contrast to those ordained ‘in old time.’ This, however, is opposed to His own declaration, ‘I came not to destroy but to fulfil.’ The authority which He claims for Himself is not an authority to originate laws, but to explain more fully in their Divine intention those already laid down by God. ‘It was said to them of old time,—I say unto you,’ implies an opposition not of the Decalogue and the new Christian code, but of the ancient interpretation of the Decalogue and the Christian interpretation. Where the men of old time stopped short with the letter, Jesus unfolds the inward principle which must henceforth be accepted as the true aim of the commandment. ‘Thou shalt not kill’ prohibits anger, scorn, contention. ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’ demands chastity of heart as well as of outward act. The law that forbids false swearing requires in the last resort abstinence from all oaths, and perfect simplicity and truthfulness. The case is somewhat different with the two remaining rules which are subjected to criticism (‘an eye for an eye,’ ‘thou shalt love thy neighbour and hate thine enemy’). Here our Lord indeed appears to set new laws of His own over against the imperfect maxims of the ancient morality. But He is still emphasizing what He conceives to be the real drift of the Divine legislation, in contrast to the false and limited constructions which men had placed upon it.

The ethical teaching of Jesus is thus based on the Divinely given commandments. It claims to be nothing more than a ‘fulfilment,’ a reinterpretation of them in the light of their inward spirit and purpose. At the same time, they are so transformed by this unfolding of their ultimate intention, as to result in a code of morality which is radically new. This is recognized in the Fourth Gospel, where the originality of the Christian law is brought into clear prominence (see art. New Commandment). It remains to consider how Jesus, while accepting the commandments, replaced them in effect by a new ethic, different in character as well as wider in range. The process by which He thus transformed them can be traced, with sufficient distinctness, in the Synoptic teaching.

(1) The Moral Law is freed from its association with outward ritual. Jesus does not definitely abrogate the ritual ordinances (‘ye ought not to leave the other undone,’ Matthew 23:23), but He makes the distinction plain between these and the higher obligations, justice, mercy, and faith. He subordinates the law of the Sabbath to the requirements of duty and humanity (Mark 2:27, Luke 6:9; Luke 13:15-16); He confronts the formal piety of His time with the Divine demand as stated by Hosea: ‘I will have mercy and not sacrifice’ (Matthew 9:13; Matthew 12:7); He challenges the whole system of rules concerning meat and drink by His great principle, ‘that which cometh out, not that which goeth in, defileth a man’ (Matthew 15:11, Mark 7:15). This principle, applied to its full extent, meant the abolition of the Levitical law.

(2) In a similar manner the ‘traditions’ which had gathered around the Law and obscured its genuine meaning are swept away. The ethical teaching of Jesus is directed, in the first place, to restoring the commandments to their original simplicity and purity. In the glosses and corollaries with which Pharisaic ingenuity had overlaid them, He sees an attempt to narrow the scope and weaken the full stringency of the Divine law. He instances the casuistry which made it possible to evade a strict obedience to the command, ‘Honour thy father and mother’ (Matthew 15:5-6, Mark 7:10-13). As against such trifling with the law of God, He insists on an honest acceptance of it in its plain and literal meaning. The ten thousand commandments into which the Decalogue had been divided and subdivided are to give place again to the simple ten.

(3) Not only is the Moral Law restored to its original purity, but it is simplified still further. While accepting the commandments as all given by God, Jesus recognizes that they are of different grades of importance. When the young ruler asked Him which of them were life-giving, He singles out the more distinctively ethical: ‘Do not commit adultery, do not kill, do not steal, do not bear false witness, defraud not, honour thy father and mother’ (Mark 10:18-19, Matthew 19:18-19, Luke 18:20). So the question of the lawyer, ‘Which is the great commandment?’ is admitted by Jesus to be a just one. It is significant that in His answer to it He does not quote from the Decalogue itself, but from Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. He thus indicates that it is not the formal enactments which are sacred and binding, but the grand principles that lie behind them. Those sayings extraneous to the Decalogue, which yet lay bare its essential meaning, are ‘greater’ than any of the set commandments.

(4) The two requirements thus singled out are declared to be not only the greatest, but the sum and substance of all the others. The Law in its multiplicity runs back to the two root-demands of love to God and love to men. Of these two, Jesus insists on the former as ‘the first and great commandment.’ The duty of love to God is at once the highest duty required of man, and that which determines the right performance of all the rest. In this sense we must explain the words that follow: ‘The second is like to it’ (Matthew 22:37-39, Mark 12:29-31). Its ‘likeness’ does not consist merely in its similar largeness of scope or in its similar emphasis on love, but in its essential identity with the other commandment. The love to man which it demands is the outward expression, the evidence and effect of love to God (cf. Galatians 5:6 ‘Faith that worketh by love’; 1 John 4:20 ‘He that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?’). Thus in our Lord’s summary of the Law we have more than a resolution of the Ten Commandments into two, corresponding broadly to the two divisions of the Decalogue. We have a clear indication that even those two are ultimately reducible to one.

(5) In this ‘summary’ the Moral Law, however simplified and purified, is still presented under the form of outward enactment. The early Catholic Church so accepted it, and set the nova lex imposed by Jesus on a similar footing with the Law of Moses. Jesus Himself, however, passed wholly beyond the idea of an outward statutory law. His demand is for an inward disposition so attempered to the will of God that it yields a spontaneous obedience. This demand is implicit in the ‘summary,’ couched though it is in the terms of formal enactment. It says nothing of particular moral actions, and insists solely on love, the inward frame of mind in which all right conduct has its source and motive: ‘A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good’ (Luke 6:45); ‘Either make the tree good and his fruit good, or else make the tree corrupt and his fruit corrupt’ (Matthew 12:33). The ultimate aim of our Lord’s ethical teaching is to produce a morality which will be independent of outward ordinance, and arise spontaneously out of the pure heart.

Thus the Decalogue, which in appearance is only revised and expounded, is virtually superseded by Christ. He bases morality on a new principle of inward harmony with God’s will, and discards the whole idea involved in the term ‘commandment.’ It follows that in three essential respects His ethic differs from that which found its highest expression in the Decalogue. (a) Its demands are positive as distinguished from the old system of prohibitory rule. The Rabbinical precept, ‘Do not to another what would be painful to yourself,’ is adopted with a simple change that alters its whole character (Matthew 7:12). Where there is an inward impulse to goodness, it will manifest itself in active love towards men, in positive obedience to the will of God. (b) The ethic of Jesus makes an absolute demand in contrast to the limited requirements of the ancient Law. The chief purpose of the exposition in the Sermon on the Mount is to illustrate and enforce this difference. ‘I say unto you, Refrain not only from the forbidden act, but from evil looks and thoughts. Obey the Moral Law without condition or reservation. Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect’ (cf. the ‘seventy times seven’ of Matthew 18:22). This absolute demand is likewise involved in the substitution of an inward spirit for a statutory law. The moral task is no longer outwardly prescribed for us, and makes an infinite claim on our willing obedience. (c) As opposed to the Decalogue with its hard and fast requirements, the teaching of Jesus imposes a ‘law of liberty.’ The moral life, springing from the inward disposition, is self-determined. It possesses in itself a power of right judgment which makes it independent of any outward direction. It originates its own rules of action, and adapts them with an endless flexibility to all changing circumstances and times.

Our Lord’s ‘fulfilment’ of the ancient Law has thus its outcome in a new morality which cannot be separated from His gospel as a whole. What He demands in the last resort is a change of nature such as can be effected only by faith in Him and possession of His spirit. The ultimate bearing of His criticism of the commandments is well indicated in the words of Luther: ‘Habito Christo facile condemus leges et omnia recte judicabimus. Immo novos decalogos faciemus, qui clariores erunt quam Mosis decalogus, sicut facies Christi clarior est quam facies Mosis.’ See also Ethics.

Literature.—The various Commentaries (in their section on the Sermon on the Mount), e.g. Holtzmann (1901), J. Weiss in Meyer’s Com. (1901); Loisy, Le discours sur la montagne (1903); also articles on same subject in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible, Extra Vol. (1904) [cf. art. ‘Decalogue’ in vol. i.], and Encyc. Bibl. (1903); Weizsacker, Das Apost. Zeitalter (English translation 1897), i. 35 ff.; Pfleiderer, Das Urchristenthum (1887), 489–501; Wernle, Die Anfänge unserer Religion (1901), 23–69; Herrmann, Ethik (1901), 124–140; Harnack, Das Wesen des Christenthums, 45 ff.; Bruce, Apologetics (1895), 346 ff.; Holtzmann, Neutest. Theologie (1897), 130–160. To these may be added Tolstoi’s My Religion, and The Spirit of Christ’s Teaching; also books of popular or homiletical character, such as Horton, Commandments of Jesus; Gore, Sermon on the Mount; Dykes, Manifesto of the King.

E. F. Scott.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Commandments'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/c/commandments.html. 1906-1918.

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