In Matthew 5:17-19, Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to destroy the law or the prophets: I have not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, until all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men to do so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
We see that the Commandments were not abolished, but fulfilled by Jesus to perfection. We are called to be “conformed to His image” (Romans 8:29) — to be little imitators of Christ, which means we love and do the same things He would do. In addition, Jesus says in this passage to actively teach His commandments.
Jesus was asked which was the greatest commandment of all. He responded, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as you love yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40).
If we can help our children understand that the whole basis for following the Ten Commandments is because we love God wholeheartedly, we won’t have to worry too much about them becoming legalists. We must bring home to them that disobedience to what God has clearly said hurts our heavenly Father’s heart. We don’t want to hurt Him. And one of the things which hurts His heart the most is when we don’t love other people like He loves them. We demonstrate love for the Lord by loving people.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus pointed out in great detail that the Commandments are about heart attitude first. (See Matthew 5:21-48 in particular.) This is also what Paul was talking about when he said, “… The letter [of the law] kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6).
While the Ten Commandments give details of how to walk out the two great commandments Jesus spoke of in Matthew 22:37-40, they are still only a bare outline of what God intends. In teaching the Commandments to our children, we can flesh them out by giving concrete examples of how they should be lived (and loved) out.
For instance, “You shall have no other gods before me” doesn’t mean that as long as God is at the head of the line, it’s OK to have secondary gods pulling at our heartstrings. God does not want to be first among many: He wants to be our all. Anything which distracts us from Him is an offense to Him. Obviously, we can’t even begin to live Commandment #1 in our own strength. It requires continual dependence on Him.
“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain” is more than avoiding using His name as a loose exclamation. It is about living reverently toward Him in every way possible, realizing that His name is holy and precious. Using His name is invoking His aid, His authority, His power, and His nature. I personally believe that ritualistic prayer, done without thought or sincerity of heart, could be a violation of this commandment, as could tacking on “in Jesus’ name” at the end as a mere formality.
“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” is, again, about an attitude of reverence. Do we attend church out of duty, or because we can’t wait to worship the Lord, learn from His Word, and live out Christ-love together with other believers?
“Honor your father and mother” is more than avoiding overt disrespect or disobedience. It involves heart-felt reverence for parents. They are representatives of the heavenly Father to their children. Honoring one’s parents does not end when we reach adulthood. Even if we do not agree with some of the ways we were raised, or if our elderly parents become physically or mentally weak, we are to continue to honor them.
Jesus addresses “You shall not kill” and “You shall not commit adultery” thoroughly in Matthew 5:21-32, so I won’t do that here.
Besides its obvious meaning, “You shall not steal” includes any defrauding or taking advantage of others. Jesus said that the thief (the devil) comes to kill, steal, and destroy, but that He has come to bring abundant life (John 10:10). We can encourage our children to bring life to others, rather than being like the devil, who is a thief. Philippians 2:3, 4 (NLT) gives us practical ways to bring abundant life and avoid “thieving” from others: “… thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too.”
“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” speaks of lies such as perjury, slander, and libel, but also includes any attempt to cast a bad light on someone’s character. Gossip, with its malicious delight in exposing someone’s failings, falls under this category. Telling partial truths to make ourselves look good and others look bad does as well. The devil is “the accuser of our brethren” (Revelation 12:10). We shouldn’t be.
“You shall not covet” addresses the selfish desire to have what belongs to someone else. It is closely tied to bitter envy — secretly wishing that what we cannot have, our neighbor would not have either. Coveting can lead to stealing material goods or relationships. We must teach our children to be happy for others when they receive blessings. There is more than enough to go around in God’s kingdom, so He will give them special gifts too, at the right time. While we can assure them that God desires to bless each of them abundantly, we should also continually shift their gaze from the “stuff” of earth to the higher things of God. (Memorizing verses such as James 1:17 and 1 John 2:15-17 helps reinforce these ideas.)
In summary, memorize the Commandments, but study them from the perspective of desiring to bless others and to make our Father’s heart happy. Encourage your children to seek the Holy Spirit’s help in living them out as Jesus would. Being led by the Spirit in the ways of God is our goal, and the Ten Commandments are a tool to aid us.