what are commandments

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I received an email asking, “What are commandments?” The questions got me thinking, and this article is a result of my research and pondering about commandments. I hope it is even half as instructive for you to read it as it was for me to write it.

What are commandments?

Anytime the Lord tells us to be a certain way or to do a certain thing, that directive is a commandment. There are 10 commandments that are numbered in the Old Testament (Exodus 20). They were given to Moses to guide the behavior of the children of Israel as they received the lesser law. In the New Testament Jesus numbered two commandments. He labeled one as the first and greatest commandment, which is to love the Lord, and the second, which is like unto it, which is to love our neighbor as ourselves. All other commandments are without any kind of numbering attached.

The only commandments that can have importance attached to their “number” are the two greatest commandments. Matthew 22:37-40 gives us the Savior’s words on the importance of these two singular commandments. All other commandments are appendages to, or are based on these two commandments.

37 Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.

38 This is the first and great commandment.

39 And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Commandments can come from someone other than God, Himself. In Doctrine and Covenants 1:38 the Lord tells us that we need to heed the words of the prophets.

38 What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, and I excuse not myself; and though the heavens and the earth pass away, my word shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled, whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.

This verse is specifically referring to prophecies, but the principle behind the verse is that whether the Lord personally tells us something or his ordained servant says it, it carries the same weight and authority. So commandments can come from prophets as well. Every book of scripture has many examples of commands given to God’s people through God’s servants, the prophets. The Lord holds the people just as responsible for what the prophet tells them to do as he does if He tells them to do something personally.


How can I recognize when something is a commandment?

Commandments come in a number of forms. There is the classic “Thus saith the Lord …” commandment where the word of God is pronounced in as formal a manner as our language can allow. But there are also many commandments given in more subtle ways. The manner of delivery does not lessen the requirement to live by what we are told we need to do to be safe, and be saved. In Doctrine and Covenants 98:11 the Lord puts it this way:

11 And I give unto you a commandment, that ye shall forsake all evil and cleave unto all good, that ye shall live by every word which proceedeth forth out of the mouth of God.

This is an interesting verse. Which part of the verse is the commandment? Is it the instruction to “forsake all evil and cleave unto all good”? If so, then the second half of the sentence tells us that doing so will help us to “live by every word which proceedeth forth out of the mouth of God.” Or are there two commandments here? What do you think? Are we being told two commandments in this verse or one? This demonstrates that not all commandments are clear cut statements.

Personally, I see the commandment from Doctrine and Covenants 98:11 as one commandment that is accompanied by an explanation of what living that commandment will teach us, or allow us to do. If we learn to forsake evil and cleave to all that is good then we will be able to learn how to live by every word that comes from God.

The point here is that finding the commandments, recognizing them, and then learning how to implement them in our lives requires searching the scriptures and praying to recognize what the Lord would have us do in our lives.

A word of wisdom

Commandments don’t always get delivered as a commandment when it is first given. The Word of Wisdom is just such a commandment. The Lord told Joseph Smith the best way for the Saints to live their lives for not only optimal health, but for best results in achieving spirituality. Here is the reminder we received from the Lord about the kinds of commandments we have been given. It is found in Doctrine and Covenants 29:34-35.

34 Wherefore, verily I say unto you that all things unto me are spiritual, and not at any time have I given unto you a law which was temporal; neither any man, nor the children of men; neither Adam, your father, whom I created.

35 Behold, I gave unto him that he should be an agent unto himself; and I gave unto him commandment, but no temporal commandment gave I unto him, for my commandments are spiritual; they are not natural nor temporal, neither carnal nor sensual.

The Lord Himself says that he has never given a temporal or purely physical commandment. All commandments are spiritual in nature. This is a very important point to remember. Look at the Word of Wisdom. It does promise that our health will improve, but the revelation wasn’t given to help us avoid something as trivial as avoiding indigestion. The purpose behind the revelation was to teach us how to improve our spirituality. Here are some of the blessings promised from the Word of Wisdom. In Doctrine and Covenants 89 he spends 17 verses telling us what pleases him and how he designed for us to live and eat in mortality. But the meat, and reason behind the whole revelation is in the last few verses.

18 And all saints who remember to keep and do these sayings, walking in obedience to the commandments, shall receive health in their navel and marrow to their bones;

19 And shall find wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures;

20 And shall run and not be weary, and shall walk and not faint.

21 And I, the Lord, give unto them a promise, that the destroying angel shall pass by them, as the children of Israel, and not slay them. Amen.

Yes, we will be physically healthier (verse 20), but the jewels in the crown are from verses 19 and 21. The treasures of knowledge are spiritual revelations, perspectives, and understanding of eternal things. And verse 21 promises protection from the heavens.

The Word of Wisdom was given as just that, a word of wisdom. So why is it considered a commandment? Eventually, the revelation called the Word of Wisdom was canonized and made into a commandment. Doctrine and Covenants 58:26-29 teaches us the principle behind why this word of wisdom from God became a commandment.

26 For behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; wherefore he receiveth no reward.

27 Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness;

28 For the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves. And inasmuch as men do good they shall in nowise lose their reward.

29 But he that doeth not anything until he is commanded, and receiveth a commandment with doubtful heart, and keepeth it with slothfulness, the same is damned.

If it is wisdom in God that we observe the health code he revealed to us then we should be anxious to obey it, as though we had been commanded to do so. As he states in verse 29 above, “he that doeth not anything until he is commanded … is damned.” In other words, our spiritual progress will be stopped, like water that hits the wall of a dam if we aren’t purposefully working to move forward with our own spiritual progression. It is all part of learning to live by every word that comes from the mouth of God, whether by his own voice or by the voice of his prophets.

Though Brigham Young asked the saints to live by the Word of Wisdom in 1851, it did not attain its official status as a commandment that was required for Temple attendance until 1921.

Are there more commandments?

Since the purpose of a commandment is to help save the souls of God’s children, the more commandments we learn to keep, the more He will reveal. The Children of Israel in Moses’ day were deprived of the fulness of the gospel because they were not willing to live by those commandments. These were the commandments Moses first brought down from the mountain. When he saw the people worshiping the golden calf he smashed those tablets and had to go back to the Lord to receive a lesser law to school or teach them to look forward to the day when Christ would come and give them the higher law. So commandments are based on what we are currently capable of receiving.


As we become more Christlike, and become closer to being a Zion people, we should expect more commandments to come periodically from the Prophet. This has always been the pattern from the beginning of the world. Every General Conference listen carefully to what the Prophet teaches the Church. If he says we “should” be doing this, that, or the other then take that as your commandment as to how you should be living your life from that moment forward. Many of the statements from the prophets won’t be given in the formal form of “Thus saith the Lord.” Many of the words of the prophets will come in the form of words of wisdom that the wise will follow.

Those who are anxiously engaged in learning how to keep the Lord’s commandments will receive the joy that comes from living more like God lives. And these are the people who will be quick to adopt and live the teachings of the prophets. Receiving more commandments is a blessing, not a greater restriction on our activities. Commandments are meant to spiritually free us, not restrain us.

Commandments versus policy

A commandments tells us how to live so as to invite the Holy Ghost into our lives and make us more receptive to the revelation the Holy Ghost gives us. Commandments are most commonly principles upon which we govern our lives. Policies are rules and practices. In the Old Testament, the law of Moses was policy by which the 10 commandments were to be lived. When Jesus came and gave the higher law, the 10 commandments were still included, but all the policies or practices of the Church were changed because they were given a higher law to live.

As a side note I should mention that just as in the priesthood, someone who is a high priest also can perform all the duties and responsibilities of any lower priesthood office, so too are commandments able to stack. We are able to live the 10 commandments from the law of Moses, and still live the higher laws given by Christ. And as the restoration of Christ’s gospel continues to unfold we should expect to receive greater revelations and more instructions from the Lord in the form of changing policies or ways of doing things that will make what we do better. This was most recently demonstrated by the changes we made when we went from home and visiting teaching to ministering. The prophet called it a “holier approach to caring for and ministering to others.” In this case the change came by way of revelation, and required policy changes to implement the new revelation.

Often you will see policies change (new ways of doing things) when new revelation comes. The new revelations to the prophets are new commandments. The whole point of the Lord revealing new things to the prophets is to prepare us as quickly as we are capable of living the higher laws for the day he returns to govern his people personally. We still have quite a way to go before we are ready for the Lord’s return. We should be excited when the Lord demonstrates his faith in our ability to live up to a new and higher standard of living. What a compliment! Each time it happens it means we have drawn one step closer to being more like Christ.

Where can I find all these commandments?

Many of the commandments are formally listed in places, but as you search the scriptures, deliberately seeking for the Lord’s will to be revealed to you, you will start to discover that the prophets tell us all over the place in the scriptures, talks, Conference addresses, and in personal sermons what we should be doing. Each time an apostle gives a talk and you hear him say that he is leaving an apostolic blessing on those who are listening, you should be writing as fast as you can. His blessings will include what behavior you need to demonstrate to receive the blessing. These are those words of wisdom that the wise will hasten to believe and implement in their lives.

Final Thoughts

Commandments are laws of happiness that are meant to spiritually free us and enable us to be prepared for the revelation the Holy Ghost needs to give us so we can return to our heavenly home. Commandments are not restrictions, but liberations. They are not confining, but freeing. Hence we should be excited about finding them anywhere we can and living them to the best of our ability. We should be thrilled when the Lord replaces one commandment with another, because those replacements will always bring us closer to Christ.

In our ministering to others, our ability to keep the commandments we currently understand will have a direct impact on how well we are able to touch the lives of others and bless them with our service.