Kevin DeYoung / Sep 18, 2016 / Exodus 20:3
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Sermon Summary / Transcript
Heavenly Father, what a great privilege it is to join with all the hosts of heaven, the saints, the elders, and all created things to sing your praises and give you the honor that you deserve, together with the Son and the Holy Spirit, who are equal to you in majesty, rank, power, and authority. We pray now, triune God, that you would give us ears to hear, eyes to see, a heart to believe, a head to understand, and a will to obey. Speak, O Lord, for your servants are listening. We ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.
Please turn to Exodus, the second book of the Bible. We’ve been working through it for the past year, and we’ve now come to one of the most well-known sections in all of the Bible: the Ten Commandments. This morning, we’re just looking at the first commandment (v. 3), but we’ll start reading at the beginning of the chapter:
And God spoke all these words, saying,
“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
“You shall have no other gods before me. Exodus 20:1-3
If our faith is to be a genuine Christian faith, it must be more than faith in faith. In other words, the most important aspect of our faith is not how hard we believe, but whom we believe. There is certainly a subjective element to this, since we do want to be sincere and single-minded in our devotion—but to have a sincerely misguided belief in the wrong things or the wrong person is not saving faith at all. It’s possible to be full of sincere worship and worship the wrong God. That’s the reason for the first commandment. It’s also possible to worship the right God in the wrong way. That’s the reason for the second commandment.
One of the most important things about the God of the Bible is not simply that he demands to be worshiped. That wouldn’t have been a controversial thing for Israel or the rest of the ancient world. What was controversial, setting them apart from among all the nations around them, was that YHWH demanded to be worshiped alone, to the exclusion of all others. So this very first commandment tells us that there is only one God.
There’s a reason that this is first commandment. It’s not that it’s better than the sixth or seventh commandments, but because it’s foundational to all the others. Devotion to God is the ground for an objective moral code. Because there is only one God, who comes to us, has rights over us, and gives us a law to obey, we can have the subsequent nine commandments—an objective moral code that isn’t just true for some people, in some places, depending upon their circumstances.
There’s been a longstanding question among philosophers (and perhaps among your friends on Facebook): do you need God to be good? You can read lots of old works from philosophers that wrestle with this. It’s a classic Enlightenment question and a contemporary, postmodern question.
I’m not asking, “Can non-Christians be decent people?” We have plenty of evidence of that all around us. You have friends and family (maybe some of them are here this morning) who don’t profess faith in Christ, but are still decent people. You like them. But the Bible would say that to be truly good, you need more than just a decent morality. You must be directed towards God, with the proper end goal of his glory alone. Certainly we know that non-Christians can be decent people. Sometimes, to our embarrassment, they look a little more decent than some of us.
The question, rather, is: do we need God in order to have some sort of authoritative, objective moral code? Can a truly authoritative moral law exist without the existence of a divine lawgiver? The obvious answer, according to the Bible, is that it cannot. If morality is to have any force or binding obligation behind it, it must rest on something more than majority opinion, our own internal sense of right and wrong, or (heaven forbid) an internet poll.
Remember, last week we looked at that article from CNN, where two leading atheists conducted an internet survey to come up with their ten non-commandments, which they said didn’t require the existence of God at all. Of course, the ninth non-commandment was: “There is no right way to live.” That eliminates the other nine non-commandments. It’s only with God that we have a truly authoritative moral law.
Lets be honest. Sometimes people say that we live in an age that’s full of moral relativism. That’s true (to a degree), but I would say that it’s also incredibly fundamentalistic. You don’t think that the culture clashes in our day has nothing to do with forcing morality? All of these sort contentious, hot-button social issues have to do with one group’s sense of what’s truly right, just, and moral.
It may appear to some in the secular West that God is irrelevant in determining right from wrong. But it only appears that way because Christianity has been at the center of Western culture for so long that people often don’t realize where they’re getting even the ideas that they’ve said have nothing to do with God. It is as if our forefathers climbed up the ladder of Christianity for centuries, to sit atop this moral superstructure—and now that they’re in a comfortable position, they feel quite happy to kick the ladder down and say, “We don’t need God and Christianity. We can be quite good as we are. We can all come up with a pretty good moral code: treat people how you want to be treated, and don’t hurt people or seek revenge.” Well, where did these ideas come from? These are by no means universally held tenets.
I saw a very striking article by an author named Tom Holland in a British newspaper just four days ago. I don’t know if you’ve ever read any of his books. His first book was called “The Rubicon”, about ancient Rome and the time of the Caesars. I read it several years ago, and it’s good. He’s a popular historian, but very good and well-known, especially in Britain. The title of the article is: “Why I was wrong about Christianity — It took me a long time to realise my morals are not Greek or Roman, but thoroughly, and proudly, Christian.” I don’t know if he’s claiming to be a Christian, but he’s saying that his morals are Christian.
He tells his story of growing up in a church. From an early age, he started to have doubts about what he was learning in his Sunday School classes, and began to question everything that he was learning in his Christian environment. Then he became a scholar of ancient antiquity, a writer, and a historian, and really became enamored with these things. He says,
By the time I came to read Edward Gibbon and the other great writers of the Enlightenment, I was more than ready to accept their interpretation of history: that the triumph of Christianity had ushered in an “age of superstition and credulity”, and that modernity was founded on the dusting down of long-forgotten classical values.
In other words, he came to believe that the real values he had were from the Greeks and the Romans, and that Christianity introduced a very backwards sort of spirituality and credulity. But here’s what he says next:
“The longer I spent immersed in the study of classical antiquity, the more alien and unsettling I came to find it. The values of Leonidas [a leader of the Spartans. We like the Spartans, but he wasn’t a great guy], whose people had practised a peculiarly murderous form of eugenics, and trained their young to kill uppity Untermenschen by night, were nothing that I recognised as my own; nor were those of Caesar, who was reported to have killed a million Gauls and enslaved a million more. It was not just the extremes of callousness that I came to find shocking, but the lack of a sense that the poor or the weak might have any intrinsic value. As such, the founding conviction of the Enlightenment – that it owed nothing to the faith into which most of its greatest figures had been born – increasingly came to seem to me unsustainable.
“Every sensible man,” Voltaire wrote, “every honourable man, must hold the Christian sect in horror.” Rather than acknowledge that his ethical principles might owe anything to Christianity, he preferred to derive them from a range of other sources – not just classical literature, but Chinese philosophy and his own powers of reason. Yet Voltaire, in his concern for the weak and oppressed, was marked more enduringly by the stamp of biblical ethics than he cared to admit. His defiance of the Christian God, in a paradox that was certainly not unique to him, drew on motivations that were, in part at least, recognisably Christian.
So he says this at the end.
Familiarity with the biblical narrative of the Crucifixion has dulled our sense of just how completely novel a deity Christ was. In the ancient world, it was the role of gods who laid claim to ruling the universe to uphold its order by inflicting punishment – not to suffer it themselves.
Today, even as belief in God fades across the West, the countries that were once collectively known as Christendom continue to bear the stamp of the two-millennia-old revolution that Christianity represents. It is the principal reason why, by and large, most of us who live in post-Christian societies still take for granted that it is nobler to suffer than to inflict suffering. It is why we generally assume that every human life is of equal value. In my morals and ethics, I have learned to accept that I am not Greek or Roman at all, but thoroughly and proudly Christian.
We have a moral code because we have a moral lawgiver. The only reason that the Ten Commandments or the law of Christ can have any sort of binding obligation upon or authority over us is because there is a God who created us, made us, loves us, and has rights over us. The first commandment not only gives us our first obligation as human beings, but lays the groundwork for every other moral obligation.
Let’s move on to looking at the first commandment itself. Let me suggest three ways that we can keep it:
- Worship God exclusively.
- Shun all idolatry
- Turn to Christ uniquely.
Worship God Exclusively
I read all of the first three verses so that you can see that the commandment is predicated on what the Lord did for the Israelites in Egypt. He has a claim over them. He has demonstrated his love and power to them, been gracious to them, and saved them.
As I’ve said many times (and will say throughout this series), remember that the Ten Commandments are coming to a people who have already been saved and redeemed, not coming as a means of earning salvation. When God says, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt,” he is reminding them of Aaron’s staff, which swallowed up the sticks of Pharaoh’s wise men. He is reminding them that he defeated all the gods of the Egyptians—the gods of the Nile, frogs, animals, and the sun. He’s saying to them, “Why would you trust any other so-called god? Why would you trust yourself? You didn’t escape Egypt by your own ingenuity or because of Pharaoh’s great kindness. I put you on eagles’ wings. I delivered you by defeating Egypt. You can trust me.”
When it says, “You shall have no other gods”, it is not saying, “There are a lot of gods out there, and I just want you to have me (YHWH) to be your #1 God. You may have a lot of other gods, and they’re okay for other people, but I want to be first place.” That’s sometimes called “henotheism”—that there’s not just one God, but that you worship your God first. That’s not what this is saying. This is clearly a statement of monotheism—that no other gods truly exist.
Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”—yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. 1 Corinthians 8:4-6
Those other gods are so-called gods. They don’t have a real existence. There is only one supreme being in the universe.
See, syncretism (“a blending or combining together”) was always a problem in Israel. Throughout the Bible, there’s a consistent theme that God’s people must reject a both/and approach to spirituality. That’s not to say that every single doctrinal issue is always either/or, but that on the foundational points of who God is and who you belong to, we don’t have a both/and religion, but an either/or religion.
As one author points out, the very first verse in the Bible is already taking a swipe at the rampant polytheistic worldviews of that day: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Most of us are so familiar with that that it doesn’t strike us as unusual. It was completely unusual, though. The ancients had lots of stories about how the universe came into being. They always involved two gods fighting, or a god and a goddess coming together and procreating, or one god slaying another god and the earth coming out of its carcass. It always involved a multiplicity of deities fighting or coming together.
But Genesis 1:1 says, “In the beginning, God…” One God—the only real God. As one author puts it, “Monotheism is not just the first command; it’s the Bible’s first thought.” The first commandment establishes Biblical faith as an either/or proposition. When you the covenant is renewed at the end of Joshua 24, Joshua says, “Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD.” Elijah, on Mount Carmel, says, “If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” Even Ezekiel talks about the gods that the Israelites worshiped while they were in Egypt. They had already fallen prey to this syncretism. Jesus himself (of course) says, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.”
True Biblical faith is an either/or proposition. The fault of the Israelites throughout the Old Testament was not that they didn’t want anything to do with YHWH. They were quite happy to have YHWH…and Baal, or YHWH…and Asherah, or YHWH…and Dagon. This is probably the fault of many of us. We’re quite happy to have a little bit of God in our lives. Most of you wouldn’t be in church if you weren’t somewhat interested in him.
It’s like when you play Trivial Pursuit. Trivial Pursuit is great. We should all play it. If you ever need an obnoxious friend who wants to play Trivial Pursuit with you, I will be that person. Anyway, you have the pie pieces, and you put the things that you get into different categories. A lot of us think of God in that way. Sports, family, your job, watching football, or food are each little pieces of the pie. We’re happy to make one of those pieces a Jesus piece. “I’d like a God piece in there. Put that right in.” We’re quite happy. God and Jesus just help a well-rounded life. It may not be as obvious as it was when the Israelites bowed down to poles and statues, but it’s the same impulse.
The other nine commandments speak of acts you should or shouldn’t do, but the first commandment (uniquely) mandates a certain kind of relationship. Have you ever noticed that? All the others say: “Do this. Don’t do that.” But the first commandment establishes a certain relationship with God—namely, that he’s the only God. When it says “…no other gods before me”, it could mean “none other but me”, or it could mean “no other gods before my face”. “You shouldn’t have the audacity to be worshiping these other gods as if you could hide them from me. I’m the God who sees everything!” That’s how Calvin understood the commandment. He said that the sin here is “like a shameless woman who brings in an adulterer before her husband’s very eyes, only to vex his mind the more.”
Marriage is a good analogy for what the first commandment is relating to us. You cannot have a both/and relationship with your spouse—at least, not for very long. Men, suppose you came home and said, “Honey, it’s good to see you! I want to introduce someone who’s very special to me. You’re also very special to me. But I’ve met someone else. She’s lovely, and I’m going to spend some time with her—but also a lot of time with you! In fact, maybe a little more time with you than her. But I just want to let you know that some nights, I’m going to be with her instead. I think you two will get along just fine. You’ll be great friends. You both mean so much to me.”
What would your wife say—after you’re on the ground, perhaps? “It’s me or her! If you want me, send her away and never see her again.” If your wife were to say that with a great deal of passion, would anyone think she was being cruel, proud, unfair, or intolerant? No, we would say that she’s being the sort of wife she ought to be. She has every right to be a jealous wife, just as God has every right to be a jealous God. We think that God should somehow be tolerant enough to let us bring other lovers before his face and say, “I’m just so happy that you’re willing to spend some time with me.”
That doesn’t work in marriage. What are the vows that you make when you get married? “Will you have this man (or woman) to be your wedded husband (or wife), to live together after God’s ordnance in the holy estate of matrimony? Will you love him, comfort him, honor, and keep him in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, bind yourself to him (or her), so long as you both shall live?” If I were doing a wedding, and the couple said to me, “When you do the vows, we’re not really comfortable with that part about forsaking all others,” I would say, “I’m not really comfortable marrying you. That’s what it means to be married: to forsake all others as long as you both shall live.”
So it is with God. Love is at the very heart of the first commandment. Again, think of marriage. If you bring that other woman to your wife, no matter what you protest to her—“I love you so much! There are so many warm emotions toward you in my heart. Why do you put all of these rules on me? It’s just about the relationship”—she’d say, “We don’t have a relationship if you don’t follow some basic rules. You don’t love me if you bring this other woman before me!”
“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Deuteronomy 6:4-5
Love is an affection—and a decision. As one author puts it, “To love means to stick to your choice.” You choose God because he first chose you. Now, forsaking all others, you commit yourself to him unreservedly. There can be no “and” in your relationship with God. Love and worship him above all others. He alone is God.
Shun All Idolatry
What is idolatry? The Heidelberg Catechism gives this definition: “Idolatry is having or inventing something in which one trusts in place of or alongside of the only true God, who has revealed himself in his Word.” Though (in American culture) we do not tend to see actual trees, sticks, and stones being bowed down to, we’re foolish to think that we don’t have the same temptations to idolatry that they did in ancient Israel.
When I was at Gordon-Conwell, one of the professors was an Old Testament scholar named Doug Stuart. I didn’t actually take his class, but many of my classmates and friends did. When he came around in any of his classes to a particular lecture, people would always be talking about it, raving about how helpful it was. It was a lecture on the attraction of idolatry. For a long time, I wanted to find someone’s notes for all of those points. I had them given to me, but they didn’t all sink in. Then, when I was using his commentary on Exodus, I was so pleased to find that he has an excursus on the attraction of idolatry.
I find this very helpful to think about. When you think of the Old Testament, you’re like, “Okay, idols.” And if you are a Christian, you sort of know that we all have idols, and family or food might be an idol. We know that at an intellectual level, but really seeing the attraction of idolatry can be hard for us in a country like this. So, here are his reasons for the attraction of idolatry in the Old Testament.
- It was guaranteed. If you did the right incantation, it worked. If you said the right words, God showed up. Who wouldn’t want that?
- It was selfish. In the ancient world, the gods (though they were powerful) needed the humans for one very important thing: food. It was understood that you needed to bring sacrifices because the gods were hungry. You could get the gods to do what you wanted because you brought them the food that they needed. The whole arrangement was very selfish: “Ah, you can do something for me, and I can feed you.”
- It was easy. You’d come often and provide your sacrifice, but there was little in the way of ethical standards or personal sacrifice. A good Canaanite didn’t have to have an elaborate moral code about personal holiness. They just had to show up and present the offerings. That’s what Israel fell into, time and time again. “It doesn’t really matter what I do. I just have to show up and do the religious rituals.”
- It was convenient. There were franchises all over the place. That’s where Israel got in trouble with the high places. They thought, “Let’s make it easy to take care of our ritual duties.” That’s why it was so unique that God said, “There is only going to be one place, which you all have to come to to do your worship: the Tabernacle (or later the Temple).”
- It was normal. The only people who did not do religion like this in the ancient Near East were the Israelites. Everyone else—though their gods had different names and did different things—whether in Egypt, Syria, Canaan, or Edom, all did religion in the same sort of way.
- It was logical. It made sense: “There are lots of gods who specialize in one area of blessing or one part of the cosmos. This god will help me with wind. This god will help me with rain. This god will help me with the crops. It makes sense.”
- It was pleasing to the senses. There was even an aesthetic element to it. It could be artsy, having a certain beauty to it. Maybe it was entertainment. You could go and see it with your eyes, right in front of you.
- It was indulgent. Meat was a relative rarity in the ancient world, since not everyone had herds that they could sacrifice. You tended to eat meat only as a part of ritual worship. You would sacrifice the food, and then you would get to eat it. Sometimes, it was also thought that if you presented a drink offering, you could drink it. So what you think of as happening on Friday or Saturday night—or I guess it’s now Thursday night—was what they did with worship. “This is when we get to eat the best food and get drunk. We present it to the gods, and then we get it ourselves.
- It was erotic. If you took part in these sacrifices, part of the understanding was that you needed the gods to mate to get blessings from them. You needed Baal and Asherah to hook up, and their procreation would produce rain and offspring for you and fertile ground for your crops. So how would you get that to happen? “Well,” they thought, “when we do our ritual worship, we’ll play the part of Baal and Asherah and have sex.”
When you read the Old Testament—maybe you’ve missed it before—Israel adopted the same practices. They would have temple prostitutes: female prostitutes for men, and sometimes even male prostitutes for men. The idea was: “You come here and find a prostitute who will take part in the religious ritual. Then you have sex with him or her, and through that act, blessings come.”
The whole system was guaranteed, selfish, easy, convenient, normal, logical, pleasing, indulgent, and erotic. When you look at it that way, the allure of idolatry doesn’t seem too far removed from us. It’s easy to see how we can make idols out of everything from health insurance, to retirement accounts, political candidates, academic approval, sports, entertainment, Facebook, food, sex, or whatever else we consider normal or logical, especially if it’s entertaining or erotic. There’s a great allure to this idolatry. So what God was telling them was not easy, nor is it easy for us: we must shun all idolatry.
Turn to Christ Uniquely
As we’ll see throughout the Ten Commandments, this first commandment (like the others) is transformed by the coming of Christ. It’s not so much that he says, “Forget about that commandment.” Rather, we might say that it’s transposed. You’re playing music in a certain key, and then you modulate to a higher key—to a slightly different sound. That’s what’s happening here. The commandments are still commandments for the church—we saw that last week in how the New Testament authors pull from the ethical commands of the Decalogue—but they’re all transposed by the coming of Christ.
We could think of this first commandment, in relationship to Christ, as a tale of two mountains. God comes down on Mount Sinai, saying, “Worship me alone.” Then he comes down on the Mount of Transfiguration, and the voice from that mountain says, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” The God who said, “Worship me, and don’t worship anyone else” says about his Son, “Listen to him.”
On the other side of the Incarnation, the first commandment can only be obeyed by worshiping Jesus, because he shows us what the true God is like. He is the “one mediator between God and men…” (1 Timothy 2:5) “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature…” (Hebrews 1:3) “…so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow […] and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord…” (Philippians 2:10-11). As Jesus says in John 14:7, “If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
In other words, Jesus has the audacity to say, “If you know me, you know God. If you follow me, love me, and worship me, you worship God. When you see me, you have seen God in the flesh.” By implication, therefore, if you don’t know God in Christ, then you do not know God. The coming of Jesus has changed everything.
No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known. John 1:18
Think of the illustration that I gave a few weeks ago about going to your high school reunion. You’re all saying, “Brian!” “Brian!” As it turns out, “That’s not the guy I was thinking of. I had someone else in mind.” “No, that’s not the Brian who I sat next to.” “That’s not the Brian who was a quarterback for the football team.” You were all saying the same name, but you each had someone else in mind.
Think of that now, on the other side of the Incarnation. “God!” “God!” “Worship God!” When we come to the great reunion in the sky: “Do you mean the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ? The God who shows himself and came to earth in the person of his Son? The God who, as the God-man, died on the cross for our sins and was raised to life? Is that the God you mean, because that’s the God who I’m talking about.”
If someone says, “No, that God is blasphemy to me,” then we’re not really worshiping the same God. We must know God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit if we are to truly know him. We cannot speak of God any longer unless we speak of him as the God and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. “This is my Son. Listen to him.”
Here’s Calvin explanation of the first commandment. He says that in obeying the First Commandment, we owe God four things: adoration, trust, invocation, and thanksgiving. Apply each of those to Christ: what does it mean, on this side of the Incarnation, to obey the first Commandment? In adoration, we worship Christ. In trust, we treasure Christ. In invocation, we look to Christ. In thanksgiving, we find grace in Christ.
Or you could use those same four things to ask four questions which will reveal to you your functional deity. You profess and sing one thing, but who (or what) is your functional deity? Who do you praise? You complement your children, spouse, and friends. You understand that. But who do you give your ultimate praise to? Who do you count on? Sure, God works through means and seatbelts, but when you really are in need, who do you count on to always come through? Who do you call for when you are desperate, discouraged, or depressed? Yes, God uses doctors and good books, but what’s your first instinct? Who do you call for? How are you going to feel better? How are you going to be helped? If you could only eat that thing that you love, get that bottle, or zone out on the TV… Who do you call for?
How about this question: who do you thank? That’s the question that I always wonder about atheists or agnostics. Who do you thank for the sky, the trees, life, help, and blessing?
Who do you praise? Who do you count on? Who do you call for? Who do you thank? Only in Christ will we find the answer to all of those questions. Only in him can we truly obey the first commandment. He is worthy, able, willing, and mighty to save.
Let’s pray. Our Father in heaven, what an inestimable privilege it is that we can call upon you as the God and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ—your Son, and our Savior. In him, we see you. In him, we find your glory, our purpose, and our grace. Turn our eyes from fleeting, worthless things—broken cisterns that will never satisfy. Turn us to the living God, the one in whom we see in the face of Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.
Transcription and editing provided by 10:17 Transcription
Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.