If you would please, take a copy of God’s Word in your hands and turn with me in them to page 61; Exodus chapter 20. We are going to be thinking about the Ten Commandments. Israel has been rescued from Egyptian slavery; they have begun their journey through the wilderness towards the Promised Land. They have camped at the foot of Mount Sinai. We saw in chapter 19, last Lord’s Day Morning, God came down on the mountain in fire and thunder and earthquake and in a great column of smoke and summoned Moses up into the maelstrom of God’s presence. There, God would deliver to him the summary of His character and His will for His creatures that we have before us in the Ten Commandments. And so beginning this morning, and then over the next few months, God willing, we will be working our way through, one at a time, these Ten Commandments together.
Before we read and pray and consider the text, let me give a couple of tools that might help us understand what we read as we begin. First of all, we need to keep in mind the spiritual nature and the comprehensive reach of the Law of God, and particularly the Ten Commandments. If you read, for example, Jesus’ exposition of God’s Law in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5 through 7, you will see precisely this approach in action as Jesus considers God’s Law. Matthew 5:21, citing the sixth commandment, Jesus says, “You have heard it said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder,’ and whoever murders will be liable to judgment. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, whoever insults his brother will be liable to the counsel, and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will the liable to the hell of fire.” Or Matthew 5:27, this time citing the seventh commandment, “You have heard it said, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” God’s Law, according to Jesus, has to do with more than the outward pattern of our lives; with more than outward conformity to the letter of a commandment, but has to do with the secret thoughts and motives of our hearts. It is spiritual in nature and it is comprehensive in its reach. Jesus shows us that the commandments stand, as it were, like a heading for an entire category and species of sins forbidden and duties commanded. And so we need to keep that in mind as we begin to read God’s Law together.
And secondly, we need to understand how to use God’s Law. We need to understand its nature but also its uses. There are three uses in particular. First of all there’s what’s called the pedagogical use; that is, the law as a teacher. It teaches us about the character of God. He is infinitely holy! God’s Law is a transcript of His character and it teaches us about ourselves. In its light, we see ourselves falling short of the glory of God. We are sinners and we do not perfectly obey as we ought. And so the Law teaches us both about God, about ourselves, and about our need for another who will obey. We need a Savior; we need the Lord Jesus Christ. The Law is a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ. The pedagogical use - the Law as a teacher.
Then there’s a civil use of the Law. The Law of God informs our consciences; it restrains wickedness in society. So many of our laws, the moral decay of our culture notwithstanding, so many of our laws and a good deal of our own codes of conduct and the practice of everyday, common decency, have been shaped in profound ways by God’s Law, informing consciences, restraining wickedness, and we ought to be profoundly thankful for that.
There’s a pedagogical use, a civil use, and then there’s a third use. John Calvin called it “the principle use of God’s Law.” The main reason God gave His Law to His people was that it would be a norm. There’s a normative use to direct us how to live for His glory. Now that Jesus has come, the sting of condemnation has fallen on Him. He has borne it away for every believer. But because the condemning power of the Law is gone, it does not mean that the commanding power of the Law is gone. But now rather having borne our penalty, the condemnation of our Law breaking, Jesus comes to us, as it were, and speaks the Law now no longer as a rebuke but as a guide; no longer as the voice of a judge but as the voice of our Savior. We receive the Law as the words of a friend, as the words of our Elder Brother, the Lord Jesus Christ, guiding us “in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.”
So we might say that the Law is a transcription of the character of God. This is what God is like.
It’s also a prescription for a Christian. Here is how we ought to live! And it is a description of the character God is working in the lives and hearts of all who follow Jesus Christ by His grace. And if we keep those principles in mind as we begin to read and we begin to study God’s Law in the weeks ahead of us, we will be kept from, on the one hand, underestimating the demands of God’s Law and so falling into lax moral indifference or prideful self-congratulation, or overestimating our ability to deal with our sin. We’ll be kept from the paralysis of self-reproach and the pride of self-reliance. So all that in mind, let’s turn our attention to the reading of God’s Word and to its exposition. Before we do that, would you pray with me please?
Our Father, would You give to us ears to hear what Your Spirit says to the Church from this portion of Your Holy Word. Show us Yourself. Show us ourselves. Show us Christ. Show us marvelous things out of Your Law, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Exodus chapter 20 at verse 1. This is the Word of Almighty God:
“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.
You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.
You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
Honor your father and your mother that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor's.’”
Amen, and we give thanks to God that He has spoken in His holy, inerrant Word.
Why Should we Conform to God’s Law?
Now most children go through a “Why?” phase, don’t they? You know how that goes. “I want you to make your bed.” “Why?” “I want you to brush your teeth.” “Why?” “I want you to stop asking that question.” “Why?” Hopefully we grow out of that eventually, but when it comes to moral change, if we are going to invest the blood, sweat, and tears that it will take to change patterns of behavior and the trajectory of our lives, then we need answers to the “Why?” question and the question of motivation, don’t we? If you’ll look at our passage this morning, Exodus 20 verses 1 to 3, you’ll see it has two sections to it. Verses 1 and 2 function as a preamble to the Ten Commandments and then we have the first commandment in verse 3. In verses 1 and 2 we really do have the answer to the “Why?” question. “Why obey the Law of God? Why live this way? Why conform yourself, your words and thoughts and actions, to the standard of God’s holy Law?”
- The Authority of God
And there are three parts to the answer that we have in verses 1 and 2. First of all, we should keep God’s commandments because of the authority of God Himself who speaks them. Because of the authority of God. God is talking. Verse 1, “And God spoke all these words.” These are not the inventions of men. These are not the products of an ethical think-tank. These are not the deduction of moral philosophers. If this was all we had before us, then we might well choose a different code by which to live, right? But no, these are the ipsissima verba; these are the very words of God. God is talking in these words! So when you ask your Daddy the “Why?” question - you know, in the obnoxious, repetitious manner when you ask that question over and over and over “Why?” Wasn’t there a time when eventually, perhaps with some frustration he said to you, “Because I said so!” And actually he’s quite right. And that’s precisely the point being made here. Because of who He is, we ought to obey. Because He said so. Because He said so. Because of the authority of God speaking in them.
- The Identity of God
And then secondly we should obey, according to our passage, not just because of God’s authority but because of God’s identity. Look at the text again. “And God spoke all these words saying, ‘I am the LORD your God.’” We should obey because of His essential identity. “I am the LORD,” in all caps. “I am Yahweh. I am the great sovereign King.” Everywhere present, always here, ever with us. The LORD, exalted in holiness and power and in majesty. The Creator before whom every creature must bow in submission and awe, to whom we all owe instant and perpetual obedience. But we should also obey because of His relative identity. “I am the LORD your God.” Not just the Lord high and lifted up, but the Lord who stoops down in covenant love to bind Himself to His people, to be your God and to take you to be His child. The Lord of glory who condescends, who comes down to you, to make you His.
- The Grace of God
Obey because of the authority of God, obey because of the identity of God, then obey thirdly because of the grace of God. Look again at the passage. “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.’” God has rescued His people in His grace. He is not some cold, distant dictator. He is not, for example, the god of Islam - sovereign but unknowable, unreachable. No, He is the God who reigns and rescues, who is the Lord who loves His people and intervenes, who bears His mighty arm to set His people free. He has been a Savior to Israel. He has redeemed them from bondage. And we have been redeemed, have we not, from a greater bondage even than they, from the slavery of sin by the blood of Jesus Christ. Why should you do what God says? “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” Why should you do what God says? “God demonstrates His love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Why should you do what God says? “In Him we have redemption by His blood, the forgiveness of sins.” He has set you free. The One who was bound for your liberty, who died that you might live. You should obey because of sheer, redeeming grace. Obey because of the authority of God and the identity of God and the sheer grace of God rescuing us by means of His Son. They all call, don’t they, for our glad, immediate surrender to His every command. These are our great motives for obedience.
The First Commandment in Exodus 20:3.
And having those motives before us, let’s turn our attention to the first command itself in verse 3. “You shall have no other gods before Me,” or more literally, “You shall have no other gods before My face.” God isn’t simply saying, “You may have another god as long as he stays in second place. I need to be first.” That’s not it at all. Rather, what He’s saying is, “You may not bring any competitor into My presence. Before My face there will be no rival. I am the LORD; that is My name. I will not give My glory to another” - Isaiah 42 and verse 8. He has an exclusive claim over our hearts. In Galatians 4 and verse 8, Paul reminds us that “formerly, before you knew God, you were by nature slaves to those that were not God.” He makes the same point again in Romans 1 at verse 25. Before we were Christians, “we exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator who is blessed forever. Amen.” The fact is, the human heart, as John Calvin now famously put it, is “a perpetual factory of idols.” We worship! That is almost a definition of a human being, we are inveterate worshipers. Bob Dylan’s worst album by far was “Slow Train Coming.” It’s terrible! It’s terrible! But he was absolutely right when he sang, “You’ve got to serve somebody.” You’ve got to serve somebody. We are worshipers! We can’t help it! We are hardwired to serve to worship but since Adam ate the forbidden fruit our problem is we’ve been worshiping the wrong thing. We make idols. Our hearts are churning them out. Our hearts are prone to leave the God we love.
What do you Love Most?
And that doesn’t mean there’s a shrine in your home with a statue in it for you to be an idolater. Listen to Origin, one of the fathers of the early church in his description, rather piercing description of what qualifies for idolatry. He said this. “What each one honors before all else, what before all things he admires and loves, this for him is God.” That’s searching, isn’t it? “What each one honors before all else, what before all things he admires and loves, this for him is God.” What do you most love? What is it without which you would feel utterly directionless, rudderless, hopeless? What is it that you believe is essential to your contentment and joy and identity and worth? The answer to that question defines God for you. And if it is not the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, it is an idol to be torn from the throne of your heart at God’s command. Let’s search our hearts! Let’s look in the dark corners of our souls for a moment. Take your courage in your hands; let’s do some inventory! Where are your idols and what are they? I wonder. Sport, perhaps? Entertainment? We do live in a culture that is desperate to be constantly entertained. Popularity? Do you have to be in a relationship? Is it perhaps your affluent lifestyle, your public reputation? “You shall have no other gods before Me. I will brook no rivals,” God says. Our relationship is to be exclusive.
The Exclusivity of the Marriage Covenant.
In the 1559 edition of The Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England, the form for the solemnization of marriage contains the following, pretty familiar wedding vow, with one important component that’s quite often missing from modern wedding ceremonies. Listen to it and see if you can identify the component that’s often missing. Speaking to the groom, or with modification to the bride, the minister will say: “Wilt thou have this woman to be thy wedded wife, to live together after God’s ordinance in the holy estate of matrimony? Wilt thou love her, comfort her, honor and keep her, in sickness and in health, and forsaking all other, keep thee only to her, so long as you both shall live?” Did you hear it? “Forsaking all other, keep thee only to her as long as you both shall live.” There’s an exclusivity involved in the covenant of marriage; that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Love demands that it be so! Lovers would have it no other way. Forsaking all others, keeping only to one another, forever. Isaiah 54 and verse 5 says, “Your Maker is your husband; the Lord of hosts is His name.” Your Maker is your husband. As we read the first commandment, there’s a real sense in which what we’re hearing is the voice of the heavenly bridegroom, the Lord God of Israel, speaking to His Bride, His Church, about His love for her. The first commandment is a kind of marriage vow in which God calls us to affirm the exclusive place He holds in our hearts. This is what love demands. “Forsaking all others,” He says to us, “I want you to keep only to Me, your Husband forever. Love would have it no other way.”
Christ Calls us into an Exclusive Relationship with Him.
And as we put it in those terms, aren’t we immediately reminded that in Jesus Christ the Bridegroom has come in pursuit of His Bride, who gave Himself up for her, who held nothing back that He may win her and make her His? What love He had for us. Seeing therefore all that Jesus has done to make us His, to pour Himself out, loving us and giving Himself for us when we hear Him say to us in turn, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” Or when we hear Acts 14:12 say, “There is no other name under heaven given among men by which we may be saved but the name of Jesus.” What are we hearing? We’re hearing the call of the Bridegroom calling us to an exclusivity of relationship with Him, claiming our hearts entirely for Him. This is the call and claim of Calvary love flowing from the lips of one who gave all for you.
And so as we prepare to come to the Lord’s Table, we should come with the Bridegroom’s voice echoing in our ears claiming the exclusive devotion of our hearts. We should resolve, as we come to the Table, to tear every competitor, every rival that we have allowed to take its place in our hearts, to tear it down and to set apart Christ as Lord there alone. He invites us now to forsake all others and to cleave only to Him, having given up all for us. So when you take the bread and you drink the cup, renew your covenant vows. Say to the One who stands at the head of the table with the tokens and emblems of His love for you, say to Him, “I forsake all others. I cling only to You, now and always.” These are the emblems of His unbroken faithfulness to you. These are His vows to you. “I have given all for you and I am yours always.”
Notice just as we close in Exodus 20 and verse 3, the “you” there is singular and not plural. It’s spoken to the whole congregation of Israel but it’s spoken really to every individual believing heart. “You shall have no other god before My face. You, you particularly. I want you for Myself. I give Myself for you. I am yours and you are Mine!” Here’s the voice of Calvary love summoning you in repentance to devote yourself to your Master and Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. Will you pray with me please?
Our Father, as we bow before You in preparation of coming to the Table, we acknowledge that we have often been prone to wander and leave the God that we love. We’ve turned aside to that which is not God and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator who is blessed forever, amen. Have mercy on us, we pray, and help us as we come to Christ in repentance and faith to forsake all others and keep only to Him, now and always. How grateful we are that He has given all, His all for us. As we receive the bread and wine, teach us please to feast by faith upon Him with joy and gratitude. For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.
©2016 First Presbyterian Church.
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