1. By a show of hands, who likes bumper stickers? Yeah, I used to like bumper stickers...until they stopped being funny. They used to be really funny. They used to say clever things like, “WARNING: In case of rapture this vehicle will be unmanned;” or “My kid can beat up your honor student.” One good one I did see recently in town said, “Do you follow Jesus this close?” But for the most part I don't care for bumper stickers anymore, and not just because the number of them on a car can serve as a barometer for the degree of road-rage you can expect from its driver, but because they've just become so stinking serious. Now they serve more as banners of anger or discontentment, or push some political agenda. So many of them just push things on people. I want to show you a picture of one such bumper sticker that is gaining popularity. (Show “Coexist” bumper sticker on screen) How many have seen this? What do you suppose is this sticker's intended message? It's the same message as what has been recently written by the Dalai Lama. He wrote a book last year called Toward a True Kinship of Faiths: How the World's Religions Can Come Together. In this book he insists that accepting the validity and reality of all faiths is “critical for the sake of peace and happiness.” The presupposition that is being operated from is that the basic human condition is good, and that the highest good to be attained is world peace, a human experience. You see, the logic he's using is off. The whole book is based on a logical fallacy. It says that all people in the world do not believe the same; all religions promote a different belief; therefore an exclusive religion is unrealistic. Yet, in the Bible we have the first commandment in which God says, “You shall not have other gods before Me,” and He goes on in the second commandment to forbid the worship of idols. The first simple reason for this commandment is that the basic human condition is evil. Humanity is fallen, and as such is incapable of creating peace. Humanity has fallen into a billion-mile deep hole, and is incapable of climbing out. The basic message of this bumper sticker, and all proponents of religious pluralism, is not tolerance, but atheism. Religious pluralism equals atheism. How is that? As the saying goes, the fear of everything is essentially the fear of nothing. If all religions are true, then none of them are right, and if none of them are right then none of them are real, because all religions in some way claim to exclusively represent reality.
2. I'm not here this morning to convince you all that Christianity exclusively represents reality. My position is that of the Bible; it never attempts to prove, but simply assumes the existence and truth of God. This is why I'm here: Pastor Bob asked me to contribute a message to this series we've been going through about being a disciple of Jesus, what it means to follow Him and surrender to Him in every area of life. Where I fall in all of this is that what Jesus taught about following Him is a reflection of the first commandment: You shall not have other gods before Me. In a world full of people seeking to rid the world of religion it is imperative that we assert and keep on asserting that there is no truth outside of God, and that what is taught in Scripture is the absolute truth to the exclusion of everything else. But is that enough? Is claiming Biblical Christianity as our exclusive faith following the first commandment? Have you ever thought for yourself what all is implied by this command to not worship other gods? You see, a simple negative command is merely a more succinct way of teaching a whole array of behaviors. Simply not following another religion is not following the first commandment. The ability to stand up and say, “You see? I'm a Christian. I'm not a Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim or devil-worshiper, but a Christian,” is not evidence of following the first commandment, much less of a life of following Christ. Think of it this way: My relationship with my wife is signified outwardly with a ring. This symbol says that I belong to my wife and to her alone. But is wearing this symbol sufficient to fulfill our wedding vows? A great piece of advice I was given when we got married is that the best way to avoid an affair is to avoid the appearance of one. Following the first commandment means ridding oneself of all traces, or appearances of traces, of allegiance, loyalty or devotion to anyone or anything that is not God, because the devotion of the saved belongs to the God who saves. There is no other God who saves sinners, so their devotion should never go anywhere else. The devotion of the saved belongs to the God who saves.
If we're to understand and see how this is what the first commandment means, and what it means for us practically, we have to first understand why it was given in the first place, so I'd like us to go through this section of Exodus together this morning. The ten commandments is found in Exodus 20.
VI. The Hebrew people, the descendants of Abraham, had spent 430 years as slaves in Egypt. Who were these people? Nobodies, really. There weren't that many of them by the world's standards, they weren't politically organized or military people. They posed no real threat to anyone. The Pharaoh in Egypt, the one mentioned in Exodus 1 was merely paranoid. They were hated, despised and oppressed. There was nothing special about them, really...except that they were the recipients of a divine promise, the promise to Abraham that his descendants would be more numerous than the stars in the sky, that they would live in a promised land, the land of the Canaanites, and that through Abraham's descendants would come an eternal blessing for all peoples of the world. After 430 years of enslavement in Egypt, when God's people were at the end of their rope, they cried out to Him, and He remembered them. This doesn't mean He forgot, but that He purposely remembered His promise, the same way it says in Genesis that God remembered Noah. He didn't forget, but after the appointed time He remembered.
VII. The first half of the book of Exodus tells the story about how God raises up Moses, a runaway Hebrew criminal, raised as Egyptian royalty, quite possibly in the running for the throne at one point. God calls Moses, tells Him that His people have cried out to Him and He has heard them, and that he was to go to Pharaoh to tell him to let the Hebrews free. You know the story, but this is the most important event of the entire Old Testament, and everything we're going to hear today is rooted in this story. Pharaoh refused to let them go, so God did something drastic. God was to go through Egypt and kill the firstborn child of every family, except those who take the blood of a perfect lamb and smear it on the doorposts of their houses. Those covered by the lamb's blood would be spared. In the midst of Egypt's grief over the loss of all their firstborn children, God set His people free. He led them to the wilderness to a place called Sinai. We pick up this event in Chapter 19. This is the climax of the whole story. Our author, Moses, has spent 68 chapters leading up to this event where undeserving nobody people are approached by a holy God, reformed into a nation of His own people, brought into a relationship with Him.
VIII. I'm actually going to start us off in Exodus 19. The people were led by God to the mountain where they set up camp. Verse 3: Moses went up to God, and the LORD called to Him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob and the sons of Israel: (notice the double identification: “house of Jacob,” “sons of Israel”; who they were, and who they were becoming…) 'You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagle's wings, and brought you to Myself.'” See, what God is doing here is making a proposition. He is proposing a covenant to Israel. In those days a lord or sovereign would make a treaty or covenant, which is like a legal contract, with a lower citizen or vassal. In this agreement the sovereign would promise protection and other benefits in exchange for loyalty and work from the vassal. There were typically four major parts to this covenant. There was a preamble, in which the parties of the covenant were identified, a prologue in which the historical background of how the parties came into contact with one another was reviewed (what benevolent thing the sovereign had done for the vassal), stipulations in which the rules or code of behavior on the part of the vassal were presented, and finally sanctions in which specific blessings or curses for obedience or disobedience were announced. This is precisely the type of covenant God is proposing here. Verse 3 names the parties involved, God and Israel, and verse 4 reviews the historical basis for this covenant, in this case, the Exodus. Now let's look at the other parts to this. Here are the stipulations... Verse 5: Now then, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep My covenant, those are the stipulations and here are the sanctions, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; Verse 6: and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words you shall speak to the sons of Israel.”
IX. Israel is referred to in three very significant ways here: “My own possession,” “kingdom of priests” and “holy nation.” The first, “my own possession,” or “treasured possession,” or “special treasure.” The idea in this term is private property with particularly high value to the owner. God obviously owned all the peoples of the earth since He was their creator, but He is naming Israel as the specially valued treasure among all of them. If all the peoples of the world are owned by God, how much more is someone specially chosen and treasured as “God's people.” The second identity is “kingdom of priests.” A priest is a mediator, a servant who serves by interceding and mediating between a king, sovereign or even a god and regular people. Israel was to be bearers of the presence of God, a kingdom of those chosen to enjoy the presence of God as He dwelt with them, representing Him to the other nations of the world. And the third, “holy nation”: Israel was to be holy as God was holy. Holy means set apart, utterly different in every way. Israel was to be God's special treasure because of their work as a kingdom of priests, and they would function as a kingdom of priests only by being a holy nation.
X. One of the most difficult challenges for many Christians is understanding the Old Testament Law, particularly as it applies, or does not apply, to the Church today. The purpose and function of the Law for Israel tells us how it applies to us today. First of all, the Law was a covenant. A contract. The Law was never given as a means of salvation, but was given as a gift to Israel to give them the means by which they were to relate to and pleasing God, resulting in blessings or curses for obedience or disobedience. After God redeemed Israel and brought them out of Egypt they needed direction as to how they were to live life as God's people. They had to leave the gods of Egypt and were to reject the gods of Canaan where they were going. The stipulations in the covenant told them how to do that, how to relate with God within the covenant. The Ten Commandments are the overarching principles which all 600 specific laws are based on. The Ten Commandments was their constitution, so to speak. As Christians we relate to God under a different covenant, so the Old Testament Law does not apply to us as law, although it is extremely important and, I would argue, vital to the proper understanding of the Gospel.
XI. One of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite preachers, the great Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones is, “To think that the Gospel came in as a second thought after the Law had failed [to lead to salvation] is to misunderstand both the Law and the Gospel.” The Law, it says in Galatians 3:24, is our tutor that leads us to Christ. It shows us how utterly hopeless it is to try to ascent to the level of God's righteousness. The Law presents God's minimum standard of righteousness, the Ten Commandments. When we examine ourselves against the backdrop of the righteous requirements of a holy God, knowing full well that there is no possible way we can perfectly obey all of these commandments....especially if obeying them means more than what it appears on the surface....we realize that we are utterly sinful by nature, and if these commandments are the righteous standard by which God's people are measured...what hope do we have? As I said, the Law was never given as a means of salvation. In Romans 3 Paul says that in the eyes of God no one is ever made righteous. We can only be made righteous by the One who could fulfill all of the Law Himself on our behalf. God Himself had to fulfill the Law in Jesus Christ, and as we are covered by His blood, the blood of the true Passover Lamb, we are set free from the law of sin and death and we enter into covenant with God by His grace.
XII. So God proposes a covenant, and Israel accepts. By God's instructions Israel spends the next 3 days consecrating themselves, being made holy, ceremonially fit to approach God's presence. What happens here is incredible. Try to imagine what this was like: Verse 16: So it came about on the third day, when it was morning, that there were thunder and lightning flashes and a thick cloud upon the mountain and a very loud trumpet sound, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled. And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain....
XIII. Chapter 20, verse 1: Then 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.” One of the most important aspects of the book of Exodus is God's self-identification by the divine name, Yahweh. When you see LORD in all capital letters in your Bible that's the name that's written in the Hebrew. The meaning of this name is very significant, and its meaning is one of the main sources of meaning for this whole passage. A derivative of the verb “to be,” Yahweh means I AM, but what's more is that the name itself is connected with Israel's history and redemption. Moses asked what God's name was and God responded by saying I AM THAT I AM. I exist because I exist. The promise God made to Moses just before was “I will be with you.” The divine name itself is God's character, identity, power and will all wrapped up in four Hebrew letters. When God says “I am Yahweh,” He is referring directly to His salvation of sinners and His identity as the one and only true God, the God who saves. So by attaching this phrase “I am Yahweh,” to the reference of the Exodus event, God is attaching the eternal security of Israel as the chosen people of God to His own name.
XIV. The connection of the Commandments to the Exodus event, the redemption of Israel, is part of how we know the function of the covenant, how it was never about earning salvation. Worship of God was never a condition of salvation. Unless one be saved first he cannot please God. It is impossible to please a God with whom you have no relationship. Nowhere does God say, “If you will obey my voice and keep my covenant you will my people.” Nowhere does it say, “You shall have no other gods before Me, and once you do that you'll be My people.” Israel became God's people when He redeemed them from slavery. We don't become born again when we obey God or worship Him. Unless we were first saved we can never obey God or worship Him, because, as Jesus said in John 4, true worshipers worship God in spirit and truth. Just as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12 that “no one can say 'Jesus is Lord' except by the Holy Spirit,” true obedience and worship cannot take place without the Holy Spirit, and is not real apart from the truth. Israel could not follow this covenant unless they were first invited and placed into it. God does not save people because they are good; God saves people because He is good. God did not look down from heaven, look to see who was behaving themselves and then choose them. God reached down into the mud and the muck of a sinful world and chose one ugly rock, polished it, shined it and set it in gold to show the rest of the ugly rocks who the jeweler is. God reached down and chose Israel for His purpose and for His glory, and He does the same with you and me.
XV. And now, here in verse 3, is the first commandment. You shall have no gods before me. The Lord, by virtue of the meaning of His own name, the one and only true God, the only God who saves, has every right to insist on being worshiped exclusively. This phrase “before Me,” is difficult to translate, but either means “in My presence,” “in opposition to Me,” or the one I like, “in preference to Me.” Either way the effect of this phrase is the same. God will not give His glory to another. No one else should get credit for what God does and for who He is. There is no other God who saves. And they didn't deserve it. They were nobodies, yet God chose them to be His special people, and gave them this covenant as a method of relating to Him and coming into blessings from Him. This is why so often in the Old Testament people refer to the Law as their delight. They delight in the Law of the Lord. Why? Because by it and through it they were lavished upon with grace and blessings when they deserved nothing but payment for their sins.
XVI. Here we find the proper motivation for obedience to God: gratitude. God could demand our worship because of who He is, like Allah, but instead He lavishes people He loves with grace upon grace, revealing Himself to them and calling them His own. Obedience to God is our thanks to Him for saving us. We show God our gratitude for our salvation by obedience. But, as I said earlier, simply claiming Christianity to be our exclusive faith does not mean we have followed the first commandment. We must rid ourselves of all traces of allegiance, loyalty or devotion to anyone or anything that is not God, because the devotion of the saved belongs to the God who saves. For most of us the temptation to follow after other religions is not that high. That's just not usually something we deal with. However, because of our sin nature we face many temptations daily to disobey this commandment.
XVII. See, the fact that God is the only God who saves is really only the first of two major reasons for this command. There's a second reason, related to God's purpose for choosing Israel, to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. To fulfill that role they must follow God alone. The simple fact is that people become like the gods they worship. In Isaiah 6 God describes his people as having eyes but never seeing, having ears but never hearing. Why? Because the idols they worshiped had eyes but couldn't see, ears but couldn't hear, and hands but could do nothing. God's people also become like the gods they worship, whether it's God Himself or the god of self-indulgence, the god of greed, the god of anger, the god of lust, the god of power. Whatever we seek after in this life we become like. To be God's presence in the world we must become like Him. To become like Him He must reveal Himself to us. To have God reveal Himself to us we must seek Him and Him alone.
XVIII. If we do not, if we give our devotion to something or someone other than God, if we have our interests and affections divided, there are 3 consequences. First, we are put out of touch with reality. God is the ultimate reality and when we are not seeking Him exclusively our whole grid we view the world through is off. We are no longer grounded in reality. Second, we become like whatever we're seeking or sharing devotion with that's not God. And third, and possibly most severely, we show contempt for the blood of Christ; we show contempt for what our salvation cost God. “Well, God, I know that You saved me and that without you I'd be going to hell for my sins, and that I don't deserve any of this, but I still want to do this.”
XIX. There is a TV show that Sara and I have watched on occasion. It's called “Hoarders.” It's about people with a mental disorder which produces a compulsive need to collect and keep things. These people fill their houses, to dangerous and unsanitary levels, with possessions which are often garbage. The show sends a psychologist and a clean-up crew to come help clean their house. It's a very sad show to watch, because frequently children have been taken from the home, spouses have left, and the family is in disarray. The hardest part to watch is seeing the hurt that family members experience knowing that their mom or dad, or their spouse has chosen material things over them. I can't imagine knowing that a close family member had chosen things over their relationship with me, but I think that must be something like what God must feel when we choose other things over Him. The devotion of the saved belongs to the God who saves, and to Him alone.
17. How are you going to live out the first commandment? What traces of loyalty or devotion to something other than God are you going to rid yourself of? This strategy that I'm employing this morning is called Audience-Directed Application. That means that I'm not going to tell you exactly what to do with this sermon. I'm giving you what is in the Scriptures. I'm telling you why this is important, but I can't tell you precisely what you should do with it. I will, however, tell you a story, my story, about how this principle affected my life.
Several years ago Sara and I were living in England. Olivia was less than a year old, we'd been married about 3 years, and we were in a bad way. I was addicted to pornography, Sara was angry and hurt, understandably so. We each had our own issues going on, we had stopped going to church, and we were in trouble. We were consciously headed for a divorce. We had gone so far as to announce to my parents that we intended to split up. Then one day I got an email from a man named Chad who I have to say is the best friend I could ever imagine. Chad was my best man at our wedding. When I told him what was happening he responded with a brief email describing his surprise and saying that he would think and pray and then get back to me. A week later he sent me another email that I can only describe as a slap in the face, a kick in the pants and big hug wrapped all in one. He said some words that were harder to swallow than anything that had ever been said to me...and I was in the military! He said, “I stood there at your wedding and witnessed you make vows to Sara, to your family and friends, and to God that you were staying in this marriage for better or for worse. What gives you the right to give up just because it's hard?” So I thought maybe I was looking at life all wrong...maybe my perspective was off. I was looking at things in a way that made sense to me. I had value as a child of God, so I shouldn't have to take this difficulty. I know God hates divorce, but I shouldn't have to deal with this. I have rights! Not long after that I was reading through the Gospel of Luke and came to Chapter 10. That's the part where Jesus sends the 70 disciples ahead of Him to witness to people, and they come back excited that because they did it in Jesus' name even demons were subject to them. And Jesus said something to them that rocked my world. He said, “Do not rejoice that the demons are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” The most important reality is not what we experience here, but our salvation. I realized the best way to get past my problem was to ignore it, to put 100% of my energy into pleasing God alone. If my focus is on Him alone I should be okay. The first time I put this into practice and I said, “Okay, God. I'm going to focus my attention solely on You to the neglect of everyone and everything else,” you know what happened? Immediately I sensed that inner voice of the Holy Spirit that revealed to me that my primary problem was not enough time with God in His Word and in prayer, and not enough time spent with my wife. It was as if the Holy Spirit said the words, “You're not getting enough Me, and you're not getting enough Sara.” I neglected everything and everyone else and focused my attention solely on pleasing God, throwing myself at the mercy of His wisdom, and He told me to love on my wife. And I can't tell you how much our marriage began to improve over the next few weeks.
18. Put 100% of your energy into pleasing God. Throw yourself entirely at the mercy of His wisdom, and then do what He says. You will be amazed what God will do in your life. Marriages and other relationships will be healed, Christ will be displayed before people who otherwise would never see Him, and people will be saved.
19. In conclusion, there is a saying that has gone around the Church for quite a while. It goes: “Salvation is free, but it will cost you your life.” Have you ever heard that? The first time I heard that saying I believed it. After all, Jesus paints a pretty costly picture of discipleship; giving up everything and following Him to the point of death... But if you consider this teaching in the light of the Old Testament covenant, you see that salvation is not free. It cost God His life. When Jesus says to deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Him, He's not demanding payment for a service. It wasn't Israel's obedience that God purchased by their redemption from slavery. It wasn't your obedience that Christ purchased with His blood. It was you. He purchased you with His blood. If you have accepted Christ's payment for your sins by faith you were bought with a price. You are owned, paid for by the blood of Christ. Forsaking everything, denying yourself and following Jesus is only really the acceptance of reality. It's the act of rejecting the notion that you are the master of your fate, that you have rights that you can reserve over against God, or that you're in a position to barter with God. It's the act of acknowledging your true standing with God, embracing the fact that you were weak and powerless and totally evil, and that God chose you, recreated you and made you His own. That's why God introduced the Ten Commandments by saying, “I am the LORD, your God.” People come into this world with nothing and the only thing anyone can leave with is God, which makes His people the richest in all creation, richer than even the angels. What other God does that? What other God can do that? That is why the devotion of the saved belongs to the God who saves.