The Ten Commandments are well known in the sense that just about everyone has heard of them. But most of us would be hard pressed to rattle off all ten. Likely we’d hit a few, such as the ones against killing and stealing, but I doubt we’d get them all or come close to putting them in the right order.
Almost certainly we’d miss how the list given in Exodus 20 opens and ends: parts of the whole that are significant and give context to what is going on in the remainder of the commands. At the beginning of the Ten Commandments, God identifies himself and then tells the people that “you shall have no other gods before me.” The last of the commandments is, “You shall not covet…” followed by a list of things not to covet.
Both the first and the last commandments have to do with thoughts: with our attitudes. While commandments against idol building, stealing, or keeping the Sabbath are outward actions easily seen and easily regulated, the first and the last are matters that are going on inside our heads. In the New Testament Jesus plays off on this fact by pointing out, “Jesus said, ‘Do you still not understand? Surely you know that nothing that enters someone from the outside can make that person unclean. It does not go into the mind, but into the stomach. Then it goes out of the body.’ (When Jesus said this, he meant that no longer was any food unclean for people to eat.) And Jesus said, ‘The things that come out of people are the things that make them unclean. All these evil things begin inside people, in the mind: evil thoughts, sexual sins, stealing, murder, adultery, greed, evil actions, lying, doing sinful things, jealousy, speaking evil of others, pride, and foolish living. All these evil things come from inside and make people unclean.’” (Mark 7:18-23, New Century Version, 2005)
The commandments against stealing, adultery, murder and the like arise from failing to control our thoughts and letting the bad ones come out. As if to emphasize the importance of thoughts, the fifth commandment (Exodus 20:12), the one in the middle, focuses on an attitude as well: “honor your father and mother.” And even keeping the Sabbath—taking a day off to rest, begins with the word “Remember.” (Exodus 20:8) It’s what goes on in our heads that leads to everything else, whether good or bad.