The Ten Commandments: List, Biblical Origin, Meaning and Catholic Understanding 

A picture of the Bible with a set of rosary beads

Ten Commandments: Table of Contents

  1. Intro and List of 10 Commandments in Order
  2. 10 Commandments in the Bible (Exodus, Deuteronomy)
  3. Jesus and the 10 Commandments
  4. The Popes and Understanding the 10 Commandments
  5. The 10 Commandments as Loving Words
  6. 10 Commandments and Prayer

The Ten Commandments: Listed in Order

The Ten Commandments are as famous as they are powerful:

  1. I am the LORD your God; you shall not have strange gods before me.
  2. You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.
  3. Remember to keep holy the LORD’s Day.
  4. Honor your father and mother.
  5. You shall not kill.
  6. You shall not commit adultery.
  7. You shall not steal.
  8. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
  9. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.
  10. You shall not covet your neighbor’s goods. (via Catechism of the Catholic Church)

Even someone who has never opened a Bible has undoubtedly heard the phrase and could probably identify “Thou shall not kill” or “Thou shall not steal” as examples of some of the teachings.

The format–10 clear, simple directives–has proven so popular that we see its structure repeated constantly in everything from the 10 commandments of teaching and the 10 commandments of leadership to even something as trivial as the 10 commandments of baseball-watching etiquette!

To fully appreciate how important the Ten Commandments are to our prayer lives today, it’s best to fully appreciate them in their full historical context.

Ten Commandments in the Bible 

We receive the Ten Commandments, sometimes called the Decalogue (“ten words” in Greek), in Exodus 20, when Moses ascended up Mt. Sinai to meet God, who “descended upon it in fire; and the smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain quaked greatly.” (Exodus 19: 18)

The Revised Standard Version of the Bible lays out the Ten Commandments as follows:

1  Then God spoke all these words:

2  I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3 you shall have no other gods before me.

4  You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

7  You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

8  Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

12  Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

13  You shall not murder.

14  You shall not commit adultery.

15  You shall not steal.

16  You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

17  You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

18  When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, 19 and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” 20 Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.” 21 Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.

So important were the Ten Commandments to the early understanding of natural law that Moses repeated them again in Deuteronomy.

But it’s not until the New Testament that we entirely grasp the Ten Commandments.

Jesus and the Ten Commandments

As important as the Ten Commandments were in the Old Testament, we can’t fully appreciate their meaning without understanding them in relation to Jesus.

As the Catechism tells us, “Beginning with the Old Testament, the sacred books refer to the ‘ten words,’ but it is in the New Covenant in Jesus Christ that their full meaning will be revealed.”

Being a follower of Jesus means following, not forgetting, the commandments,.

“The Law has not been abolished (Mt 5:17),” the Catechism teaches us, “but rather, man is invited to rediscover it in the person of his Master who is its perfect fulfillment.”

The first three Commandments refer to love of God; the next seven, love of neighbor. When Jesus is challenged by the Pharisees in Matthew 22, he summarizes the Ten Commandments into two concise directives.

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.”

These two instructions, sometimes called the Greatest Commandments, complement each other and beckon us to allow our love for God to move us to do His will and be His hands and feet here on earth.

“The love of God always comes first,” writes Brother Silas Henderson, SDS. “Our response to that love should take us outside of ourselves as we are asked to share with others the love and compassion that we have received from God.”

To understand the connection between the Ten Commandments and Jesus is to recognize God at work in humanity across thousands of years.

The Ten Commandments continue to be relevant, and popes through the years have helped guide us through a contemporary understanding of them.

The Ten Commandments and Pope Pius XII, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI

Various popes throughout history have helped us give us new lenses through which to understand the 10 instructions given to us so long ago.

In 1944, Pope Pius XII beautifully spoke about the Ten Commandments, describing them as steps for Christians to climb, to draw closer to Christ and elevate man above the moral abyss, challenging us to “ contribute to making men fit to receive this salvation, leading them to the mountain of the Lord.”

Pope John Paul II beautifully described the Ten Commandments as “ written in stone; but before that, they were written on the human heart as the universal moral law, valid in every time and place.”

Describing the Commandments as signs from God that help us understand good from evil, Pope Benedict XVI said, “when man ignores the Commandments in his life, not only does he alienate himself from God and abandon the alliance with him but he also distances himself from life and lasting happiness.”

The 10 Commandments also were something that captivated St. Augustine, who wrote about them in great detail.

Pope Francis’s message around the Ten Commandments might be the most graceful of all.

The Ten Commandments as Loving Words

So how are we to understand the Ten Commandments in our modern world, which feels so far from Mt. Sinai?

In a 2018 general audience address, Pope Francis addressed the Ten Commandments and explored the etymology of the Decalogue (“ten words”) term, characterizing the Ten Commandments as “loving words, not oppressive commands.”

“A command is a communication that does not require dialogue. A word, instead, is the essential medium of relationship as a dialogue,” Pope Francis said. “When someone speaks to our heart, our loneliness is over. It receives a word; there is communication, and the commandments are God’s words: God communicates through these ten Words, and he awaits our response.”

Pope Francis recognizes the Ten Commandments as a way to draw closer to God through dialogue–to allow our hearts to receive his words.

Ten Commandments and Prayer

How are God’s words reaching your heart?

When we spend time with Scripture, through programs like Bible in a Year, we create a time and medium for God’s words to mold our hearts. Lectio Divina is another great way to let God’s words begin a dialogue within us.

Build a habit of daily prayer and listen to God’s word. Let those words, like the Commandments, prompt a conversation where you respond to God. 

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