“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image. . . . You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain. . . . Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. . . .” Exodus 20:2-8
Grandma was well into her eighties when she saw her first basketball game. It was a high school contest in which two of her great grandsons played. She watched the action with great interest. Afterwards everyone piled into the van to get some ice cream and a grandson inquired, “Grandmama, what did you think of the game?” “I sure liked it fine,” she chirped. And then a little hesitantly she added, “But I think the kids would have had more fun if somebody had made the fellow with the whistle leave the players alone!”
I wonder when it comes to God’s law, do most of us feel the same way? We’d all enjoy our lives much more if we could do away with the rules!
Yet think two minutes about playing a basketball game with no rules: anything is fair. Trip, gouge, cut, shoot, elbow, slug, even kick! A little of that and soon the game would become chaos! And players would be walking off the court in disgust, refusing to play in a game that is no fun!
The same with playing by the rules of life. Israel was a slave in Egypt when God through Moses freed them to become a new nation. Then at Sinai the Lord gave them the Ten Commandments with this introduction, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” “I freed you,” God said, “and now I give you these simple laws to keep you free!”
Very simply, the Ten Commandments are a fence God places around our behavior inside which the good things of life can run wild.
Looking at God’s law, it is immediately noticeable they were written on two tablets of stone. So, the law is divided into two parts. The first four laws deal with one’s relationship with God. The next six deal with one’s relationship with people. In this chapter we will deal with the first four.
Law one reads, “I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me.”
“I am,” God affirms. “I exist!” And, “I am the Lord your God.” Straightway we learn God exists and he is a personal God calling us to a relationship with himself.
Malcolm Muggerridge, the fine British intellectual, journalist, and author, became a Christian late in his life. When asked why, he explained, “I didn’t want a God. I was not looking for God. But I had to come to terms with the fact that God wants me and came looking for me.”
That’s exactly what Adam and Eve discovered. When they sinned, they turned from the Lord to themselves and hid from God. Yet the Lord walked in the cool of the evening and called out, “Where are you?” And he sought the twosome until he found them. “I am,” he intoned. “And whether you like it or not, I am your God!”
You see, God is not broccoli that you may decide if you want him on
your plate or not. He is God, the most important fact of the universe. And he calls us to relationship with himself.
“I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me.” Actually, the Hebrew word for “before” can also be translated “beside.” “You shall have no other gods before me or beside me.” God simply asks that he be our number one relationship, our first priority.
Many years ago, I was sitting in a movie theater with my girlfriend. We were watching James Michner’s Hawaii when the main character wept to his wife, “I have sinned, because I love you more than God!” Immediately I was smitten by the Holy Spirit in my heart. By that time in my life I was a Christian. I loved the Lord. It’s just that I also loved my girlfriend, football, clothes, money, myself, cars, and a dozen other things. And, frankly, God was fifth or sixth down on my list of priorities. Result was, I was unhappy. So was God. And he was calling out to me like an anguished lover.
Try this experiment. Go home and turn your radio on. Tune it to a beautiful symphony with long stretches of pristine harmony. Enjoy! Now, turn the tuner dial just a tad to the right so that you’re still receiving the signal, but you’re also mixing it with another channel along with some static. The raucous sounds will cause you to do one of two things: either tune in or turn it off! That’s what Jesus meant when he said, “No one can serve two masters.” “You can’t serve God and mammon.” God wants our first love with no rivals, no static, in full tune. All other loves of our life aren’t even close! (Matthew 6:24).
Is that how you love God now?
No Fixed Image
Law two requires us never to make a graven image of the Lord God and bow to worship it. It’s with a great sense of relief that we come to this law, because most of us think we’re not about to break it. But look twice!
Precocious Nancy, in the first grade, sat in her Sunday School class hunched over her drawing paper working eagerly with crayons. “What are you drawing?” The teacher inquired. “I’m drawing a picture of God!” The child confided. “That’s silly,” the teacher said. “No one knows what God looks like.” To which the child replied, “They will soon!”
We laugh, but we all still think we’ve got God’s picture. Ancient man experienced God in his conscience and through nature. He was awed. The Lord had a voice of thunder, the strength of a bull, the bosom of a mother, the wisdom of the aged. So, ancient man tried to symbolize God by creating a statue of him. Trouble was, when humans reduced God to an image, soon they elevated their image to the status of God. And it became a snare.
Though not many of us make statues of God and bow, often we have fixed inner conceptions of who God is. Many today see God as a grandfatherly figure, tolerant, busy, who likes Baroque music, the sort of mahogany found in church pews, and big theological words like “ecclesiastical.” In other words, God is an Episcopalian gentleman . . . or Baptist . . . or Pentecostal . . . or, you fill in the blank!
Fact is, no human can ever fully conceptualize God. That’s like trying to capture the Pacific Ocean in a thimble! Even the apostle Paul was humble here. In 1 Corinthians 13 he wrote of knowing God, saying, “Now we see through a glass darkly.” Paul is saying we view God
through a very dirty window. Sure, Jesus said, “If you’ve seen me you’ve seen the Father” (John 14). But still, of all God is, we know but the dimmest outline. Of his love, his grace, his wisdom, his holiness, his majesty we cannot completely comprehend. So, law number two requires us to remain humble, to worship God open-endedly with ever expanding wonder and awe!
Many years ago in the Louve Museum in Paris, I watched a school teacher take her class of six blind students up to the famous Venus de Milo statue. The students felt the smooth white marble contours of the statues feet and marveled at all of what it must be. And in a real sense we worship the Lord just like that. We know him. We have a grip on him in Jesus, but He is so magnificent and we are so small. There is so much to see and our vision is through a dirty window.
Is God for you a neatly packaged theological concept you’ve entirely figured out and stacked on a closet shelf marked, “irrelevant for daily life?” or is he a growing, consuming, emerging, relevant deity you can’t learn enough about?
The third commandment reads, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” In the Hebrew, to take God’s name “in vain” means to say it idly, emptily, with no sense of reality.
You have a name. And when you hear it called, you turn to that person giving them your attention. Aren’t you disappointed when the person who used your name did so out of mockery?
Jewish people know God as Yahweh, a name so Holy that it is unspeakable. God’s name must never be used without a deep reverential sense that he is listening!
Today in Jewish courts, when a witness is sworn in the judge says, “Remember, the earth trembled when God spoke the third commandment.”
There are two major ways we violate the third commandment today. One is profanity. I watched a movie in which Jesus Christ’s name was used quite regularly. But they weren’t talking to my Lord. And how many of us salt our conversation by telling God what to damn and such? Profanity is basically trying to establish my own authority at God’s expense. It reduces God’s name to a swear word. It destroys reverence.
The second manner in which we violate law three is in lip service. We call Jesus Lord then live as we please. We sign our name into covenant “in the name of God” then keep it as only it is convenient. We stand before the Lord and vow to wed in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, for better or worse, till death us do part. Then we divorce when something better comes along or we get tired of trying.
And pretty soon neither our words nor our vows or prayers mean anything. Reverence is completely destroyed be our easy familiarity.
Law three brings back the spine tingling awe of the reverent use of language to and about God. . . .
“Our Father.” “Jesus.” “Holy Spirit.” “Almighty God.” “The one who hears me speak.”
When you say these words do you mean them reverently?
The fourth law reads, “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.” The Hebrew word “Sabbath” means “to desist.” “Remember the day to desist and keep it holy.”
Pharaoh’s cruel taskmasters had put Israel to forced labor seven days a week, literally worked them right into the ground. So when Moses liberated them, God sat them down at Mount Sinai and said, “You are not slaves, you’re my children. Work, to be sure! But take a day off, a Sabbath to desist, to rest, and keep it holy! Keep it separated unto the Lord.
When I went off to college, I had to learn to wash my own clothes. That means you let everything you have get dirty and pile up in the bottom of your closet. Then you wear it for six more weeks. Finally you decide to wash, because it’s hard to catch the foxes when you smell like the hounds. So you bundle everything up, walk to the laundromat, open the lid, and drop it all in together– jeans, tennis shoes, white shirts, red plaids. And it all kind of swishes together in soapy suds and comes out . . . grey.
That’s what happens to life when we treat the Sabbath as just another day. We no longer keep it holy, separated unto God, so it is secular– just another day to work, run to and fro, play a game, shop. And what happens? The bright, crisp, holy white of the Lord’s presence in our lives greys until there’s no knowledge of God in our lives or in our culture.
In the mid-1800s an English safari made its way into the African interior. For six arduous days the explorers and their bearers slashed their way into the jungle’s heart. Come day seven, the leaders were up early to be at it again. But their porters wouldn’t pack up. No amount of coaxing or threats would make them move. Finally the black tribal leader explained, “Day seven we stop here and rest. Let our soul catch up with body.”
There you have it. Refusing to let the material outpace the spiritual, allowing the spiritual time to grow amidst the secular.
Look at it this way. If I want to obey law one and put God first, and if I want to be careful how I conceptualize God and expend my physical energy bowing and pursuing him, and if by law three I am careful with my tongue not to destroy reverence as I talk about God, then there is only one thing more I lack– time. Time to put God first. Time to bow down. Time to think, to study, to talk of him in worship. Hence, remember the day to desist, to keep it holy, separated out from the rest of human affairs like work and shopping, traveling etc., a day set aside for rest and worship that I might know God.
My friend, if you break the laws of agriculture the crop fails. Break the laws of architecture and the building collapses. Break the laws of health and your body suffers. The same with God’s moral laws, the Ten Commandments. Just look around you today and you will see in our society the results of our breaking these first four commandments.
But here is the good news! While the law tells us what man must do, the gospel tells us what God has done.
Man has sinned. But God has come to redeem. Man has turned from the law to go his own way only to end up in ruin. But Christ has come calling us to turn back to God. And in the end he paid the penalty for our sins on the cross.
A student said to me, “Why did Jesus die on the cross? Why didn’t
God just forgive us? I mean, after all, he is God. He can do anything he wants! I told the student God does love us– but his nature is also just. He loves us with the love of a judge.
I was riding in my car through the little town of Ware Sholes, South Carolina. I was doing about 45 miles per hour in a 35 miles per hour zone and a policeman coming toward me pulled me over. He said, “You’re speeding. You’re under arrest. You’ll have to come with me.” And he took me to the local justice of the peace who was also a barber who was shaving a man at the moment. He told me, sit down. The court will be in session in a few minutes. Sure enough, when he finished shaving the man, he stepped over to a desk in the corner, rapped a gavel, said, “The court’s in session. What’s the charge?”
“Speeding,” the officer accused.
“Guilty or not guilty?” the judge asked me.
“Guilty, your honor.” I said.
“That’ll be $65,” he said, without looking up.
So I reached in my wallet to get my money to pay the man, when suddenly the judge looked up, stared at me, and a look of recognition crossed his face.
“Don’t I know you?” he inquired.
I said, “I hope not, your honor!”
“Aren’t you Stephen Crotts, the minister who spoke to our South Carolina State Fellowship of Christian Athletes Convention?”
I said, “Your honor, sir, I regret to admit, that’s me.”
He stood up and said, “Put her there pal!” And shook my hand vigorously. He went on to say how much my sermon had meant to his son, and how welcome I was in his town.
Well, I slipped my wallet back into my pocket and felt relieved. He offered me a Pepsi and a pig knuckle and we chatted amiably for 30 minutes. Then I reminded him I was in a hurry, after all, that’s why I was here in the first place. “Another town in which to preach the gospel,” I assured him. And as I turned to leave, he said, “That’ll still be $65!”
Now he liked me. He was my friend. But he was still a judge.
And what sort of judge would he have been if he’d have winked at the law?
The crime had been committed. The penalty had to be extracted. So I paid dearly.
And what of this universe, God’s law, and our lawlessness?
What God has done is take three $20 bills and a $5 bill and put them in the drawer himself. “You’ve broken the law. But I’m going to pay the penalty for you.”
That’s what it means when Jesus died for our sins. He suffered the death penalty for sin we deserved.
All of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We deserved to die, to be separated from God forever.
But Christ stepped in and took our place.
All we can do now is turn from sin to God by faith and ask Christ to save us. But then God does a wonderful thing. He not only forgives us, he fills us with his Spirit and causes us to want to obey Him, to live out his law– not to save us, but because we are saved.
Perhaps there is one of you here today who’d like to get in on this gospel. Right now, right here, you’d turn to Jesus and accept his grace and devote yourself in gratitude to putting him first, worshiping him spiritually, and using your days to reverently know and speak of him.
My friend, the old laws still apply!
Jesus, Lord, forgive my sins. And fill me with your spirit as you write your law upon my heart that I might walk in them. For Christ’s sake. Amen.