Exodus 20:1-3 - Keeping the First First

June 29, 2014 Speaker: Series: Exodus

Topic: Sunday Worship Passage: Exodus 20:1–20:3

[Exodus 20:1-3 - "Keeping the First First"]

(Aside: Pray for me, brothers and sisters. I am a sinner preaching about the perfect Law of God, which would – apart from Christ – condemn me to death. Even in Christ, I tremble at my call to talk to you.)

Here we are - The Ten Commandments. Literally, the "Ten Words" - Ten Words that have endured since Israel heard them at the mountain wrapped in smoke and lightning. These Ten Words first inscribed on stone endure now written indelibly on paper and in hearts. As a binding law, still in effect, they invoke awe and fear and anger from humanity - some hearing in them the perfect character of God while others think them rattling chains holding humanity in bondage. What do they do to you?

[Read Exodus 20:1-17 for context]

Those were the first words Israel heard directly from the mouth of God. In Deuteronomy 5:22 Moses said, "These words YHWH spoke to all your assembly at the mountain out of the midst of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness, with a loud voice...." But as you listened to them, what did you hear? Did you hear law only - commands to be followed? Or did you hear more?

I ask because before the law is given, there is grace. Before a command is given, love was shown. And although that does not change the requirement of obedience, it does change the motivation.

Jenny issued a command. Well, actually it was a request, but I knew I should take it as more than that. "I want to make a growth chart for the boys;" she said, "will you help me?" Now, I love Jenny. But, more importantly, I know she loves me - telling me and showing me over and over. And even though I'm usually a selfish jerk, I heard what she wanted - and I wanted it, too. So, I went to Home Depot and bought a board. And out came the brushes with the red-oak stain. And on went the decals to make it look like a giant's ruler. I even optimistically added the six-foot mark, although it's unlikely a son of mine will reach it. So, soon we'll have marks charting the growth of our boys - because love told me what she wanted. When my heart is working right, I hear what love wants and I want the same.

Israel is hearing what YHWH wanted from them. He is beginning to tell them how life with him would work best. And today we're going to focus on the First Commandment because it's the foundation for the whole Law. Nothing else can be considered as "done" unless this one is done first. But before we talk about what God wants we need to hear about what God already did. Because before Israel ever heard what God wanted them to do they heard and experienced his love for them.

At Sinai, when the Law was given, when Israel was confronted with the demands of God, Love spoke first.

Look at v.1. "And God spoke all these words...." That's love. God spoke. We can't fly past that in a hurry to the Law of God. Elohim, the Creator, spoke to Israel. And although wrapped in holiness and burning fire and smoke, still, the Maker of the heavens and the earth came down to talk to his people. In this we hear the echoes of Genesis 2 when God spoke to our first father, telling him how life would work best and revealing his Fatherly love for Adam (see Genesis 2:16-17). Now, again, in this beginning of redemption, the Creator spoke to his people, telling them how life would work best and revealing more of himself. He is the One who is high and lifted up, burning and perfect and terrible in his holiness. And this same One also loves to be with the lowly in spirit (Isaiah 57:15), coming to speak with the slaves he'd set free, people who still struggled to trust him. The very fact that God speaks to them is the love of God on display.

And what does he first speak of? Before the law, this God speaks of covenant. That's love on display; he speaks of redemption already accomplished. Listen again to vv.1-2. "And God spoke all these words, saying, 'I am YHWH your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery....'" His first words are "I am YHWH your God," calling Israel back to the reality that this God, this Creator, this powerful God who conquered Egypt and is now before them wrapped in fire and smoke - this God is their God and YHWH is his name. He is theirs by covenant, by a relationship founded on his promise.

And YHWH is their God, who has acted in line with his covenant promises by bringing them "out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery." This is another reality that can't be missed, but often gets overlooked - redemption precedes the Law.

Redemption comes before the Law. How did I not get that until the past few years? Before demands were made there was grace; before the Law came the exodus. Before "You shall have no other gods before me..." came the Passover night and their baptism through the Red Sea. So, when YHWH began to give his Law, he was giving it to a people already redeemed, a people who already belonged to him. So, obedience to this Law was not going to earn anything for Israel. Yes, obedience to the Law of God was required under pain of death, just like in the Garden. But Israel is being called to obey their God who is not only their Creator, but also their Redeemer.

At Sinai Love spoke first. So much love and grace shout in vv.1-2 that I cannot hear the Law as the demands of a despot god. These are not the requirements of an unloving tyrant. The Law is the revealed will of the God of steadfast love and justice. The Law is the will of the One who makes himself known as both Creator and Redeemer. He lovingly acts before he demands. And his demands are understood in light of his love.

So, when God says, "You shall have no other gods before me," we have to understand this command to be an expression of love. YHWH is commanding that which is best for his people. And if their hearts are working right, they'll hear Love's desire and want that for themselves.

So, what would it look like to live in line with the command, "You shall have no other gods before me"? Well, there's a positive and a negative aspect to obedience here - something to do and something not to do.

First, the negative. DON'T have any other gods before me. The ancient world was full of options if you were in the market for a deity. Egypt had as many gods as stones in the pyramids. The Canaanites in the Promised Land had quite a few, too. Israel was familiar with all of them and they would be tempted to put their trust and hope in what everyone around them was looking to.

But why should Israel worship the idols of Egypt? It was YHWH who rescued them, showing the gods of Egypt to be impotent. And why should Israel look to the gods of Canaan? It was YHWH, not Baal, who created life. It was YHWH, not Baal, who made the earth flourish with fruit. So, the commandment - "You shall have no other gods before me" - rules out competing deities. But it also ruled out other forms of idolatry. Like later in Israel's story, they would come under threat from Assyrian, then Babylonian armies. And they would be tempted to put their hope and trust in the god called “military strength” to save them. But why should they trust in military strength to save them? It was YHWH who fought and destroyed the chariots of Egypt in the Red Sea. To set their hope in any other deity or any other power that promised life to them was utter foolishness in light of the love and promises of YHWH.

So, there's a negative aspect to the command but there's also a positive aspect. Don't worship idols, but DO keep YHWH in the place of primacy - in the place the Creator and Redeemer belongs. That would mean that for life and peace for body and soul, the people of God could only look one place - to YHWH their God by covenant. Keeping him in the place as God above all gods would be to "acknowledge God to be the only true God, and (their) God; and to worship and glorify him accordingly" (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Answer 46).

Israel heard the will of their loving God in this first command. And if their hearts were working right, if they embraced the love and grace that YHWH had shown (and was promising to still show them - remember Exodus 19!), then it only makes sense that they would want what God wanted, that they would love what their loving God said was good and right.

But the love of God and his redeeming Israel from slavery in Egypt wasn't enough. Israel time and time again went the way of Adam, hearing the word of God and choosing to put themselves in God's place. Positively and negatively, Israel broke the command and chose idolatry over true worship of the living God. Their hearts didn't work right. They didn't want what Love wanted. So, they chose death over the God who loved and rescued them.
That's us. That's the choice all humanity makes when left to our own choices. We chose “not God.” We chose what we want. And what we want are easy-to-please gods. In the face of the enduring will of God to have no other gods before him, what we want are idols.

Ah, idolatry, the confusing sin. We in the West are both baffled by and experts at idolatry. We are baffled because our minds go straight to wooden and metal figures of gods and creatures, sitting silently in temples made by men. And we mock them arrogantly. But we so easily fail to see the idols we keep closer to ourselves than statues. We are blind to the gods not in our homes but in our hearts to whom we look to save us and make life right. We devoutly pray to "Happiness" to become incarnate in our lives. We cry out to almighty "Comfort" to protect us from all homeless people and that which might build up our faith in God's ability to provide. And we declare the praises of all-powerful "Control," the god who promises to share sovereignty over life and family and suffering. We bow down to perfect families and Christian schooling...trusting in them to make life the way it's supposed to be - and it is idolatry all. Each good or sinful thing we turn into a functional savior is a flagrant breaking of the first commandment just as certainly as Israel's burning of their children on the altars of Molech, god of Canaan.

Positively and negatively, I fail to keep God on the throne of my life - I fail to love God with all my heart and soul and mind and strength. And I fail it all the more as I hear his commands to love my neighbor as myself. You can see how interrelated the Commandments are. If I fail to love my neighbor through sins of lust or coveting or murder in my heart; if my selfishness spills over into sin against my wife or my kids, then I've also broken the first because I haven't obeyed the will of the Creator.

So, I always break the First Commandment; sometimes because my heart doesn’t want to keep it and other times because I try but fail. I have the wrong set of wants. I want what I want when I need to want what he says is good and right.

But left to ourselves we'll never want what he wants. We'll only want what we want. And apart from his grace in Christ, the terrifying potential is that he just might give us what we want. For some who set themselves in the place of God, wanting to be their own god, Jesus may just allow them to try and save themselves, only to find out in the end what they are capable of – which is nothing.

But, the Gospel says that while we were held captive by sin and under the threat of death by God's good Law, God wanted once again to speak love to his people. And when God wanted to communicate his love to us, what did he do? "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." (John 3:16) God spoke in so many ways throughout this Story of Redemption - directly here, through Moses, through the prophets. But when he wanted to speak most clearly, most fully, he sent Jesus. Jesus is his final Word to us - the Word of God who put on flesh and walked among us (John 1).

When Jesus spoke, he spoke of love - the Word of God spoke love to rebels like us, assuring us that the God who made the heavens and the earth still loves the people he made even though we ran away from him. He spoke of love for sinners, love for lost sheep, love for people sick in body and soul. He spoke of love for his bride, his flock, his own whom he would love to the end (John 13).

But Jesus spoke, too, of obedience to the Law of God. Jesus himself upheld the Ten Commandments as the enduring will of God saying, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them." He went so far as to say "...until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished." (Matthew 5:17-18).

But where you and I hear the requirement to accomplish the Law of God and despair, Jesus heard the will of God the Father and rejoiced. Jesus loved the Law of God. "(W)hen Christ came into the world, he said, "...Behold, I have come to do your will, O God...." (Hebrews 10:7). He loved the Father perfectly. And so he loved the will of the Father, wanting what the Father wants.

So, we see Jesus keeping his God before everything else. Jesus lived in the audience of One, doing everything to the glory of God alone, keeping the First (and every) Commandment - not just avoiding the sinful negative expressions, but fulfilling the righteous requirements of God's Law. Christ was obedient both positively and negatively to the will of God. Jesus was the law-keeper, the one faithful Israelite who heard God speak and obeyed out of perfect love.

But Jesus didn’t just speak of love and obey the Law. After that he acted to redeem. Like YHWH in Israel’s story, Jesus accomplished our exodus. He baptized us through our own Red Sea. And he did it by dying a sinner’s death in our place.

If you want the see the problem of our disobedience, then look to the cross and see the consequence of sin. But if you want to see God’s answer to sin, then look to the cross to see the sinless Savior dying there, satisfying God’s justice so that what is left for you is love.

The Gospel says that those who repent and set their hope in Christ are united with Christ; united with him in his death and united with him in his life. The Gospel says that those who trust in Christ are counted as having his very righteousness so that God looks at us and sees Christ’s perfection. In him God counts us just as if we never sinned and just as if we did everything right – he counts us just as if we weren’t idolaters and just as if we worshipped and glorified him alone as our only true God.

So, the Gospel says that those who agree with God about their sin and turn to Christ are free – free from the guilt and shame and power of sin. And that is good news for someone who needs a real Savior. In Christ we hear that love and redemption have come from God again. But unlike Israel long ago who heard love and saw redemption and ran away from God, we who believe in Christ receive from him both the motivation and power to follow him, because he puts his own Holy Spirit inside us, more and more causing us to want what our loving God wants – wanting him to remain and for all other hopes to pale in comparison to him whether they be good things or evil.

So, because of Christ – out of love and gratitude because he first loved and rescued us – we can begin to keep God in his proper place as King over our lives. And because he assures us of his “never stopping, never giving up, unbreaking, always and forever love” toward us in Christ, he even frees us to confess again, every day, our failure to obey him.

When we look to other gods to make life right – to husband or wife, to security, to fantasy, to food, to whatever form our self-righteousness takes – Christ comes again by his Spirit. And while his word still convicts us of such idolatry, he also assures us that there is no longer any condemnation for us in him. In him righteousness has come with life and peace with God. In him the Spirit of God has come to help us want what God wants, to help us grow in love and obedience to God.

Jenny and I made that growth chart to watch our boys get taller over time. It’s hard to see their growth day by day, but the marks will show that change has happened over the months and years ahead.

You may not feel like you’re growing in Christ right now. It could be because you’re looking for the wrong marks. You might be looking for perfect obedience and perfect love to God. You might think the mark of growth in Christ is the absence of struggle or sin. You might think you have to be six feet tall before you’re big enough for God to count you special.

No, children of God. There is a better measurement. Because if the Spirit is at work in you – if your hope and faith are in Christ – then you are already as big as you’re going to be. That’s how God looks at you, Christian. Everyone who keeps turning from sin back to Christ the Savior is counted as full-grown in him. Your name is written beside his marks. They are counted by God as yours.

That is love. That is redemption. Do you want another god ahead of this One? If your answer is no, if you only want Christ, then raise your heads and hope. Though we will come to see ourselves each day as a bigger sinner than we used to be, the Gospel says Jesus is as big a Savior as we’ll ever need. Even in the face of our abundant failure his love and his grace toward us is super-abundant (Romans 5:20), so that we don’t have anything left to fear. No condemnation, no accusations from within or without – nothing in this world can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:39). What better god could there be?

[Pray – Father, for the love you give to sinners like us, for the grace that is greater than our sin, for the blood of your beloved Son Jesus poured out for us – for all this we give you thanks, our God. And we humbly come to you in to declare your worth – unequalled God, unparalleled Savior, sovereign King above all kings we worship you. By the power of your Spirit at work in our hearts we acknowledge You to be the only true God, and our God; and we worship and glorify you accordingly. (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Answer 46) We feel like little beggars at your door because we know our sin. But you open the door and raise up our heads and you call us your children because Christ died and rose again for us. And by faith we see Christ standing beside you saying, “This one is mine and I love him, Father.” Marvelous grace for sinners! Unequalled love for unlovely rebels! And yet we are lovely because you love us for the sake of Christ. Help us to hear that love, to believe that our redemption has come in Christ, and then help us to walk by the Spirit with you. Help us always repent. And help us always to return to Christ who is our righteousness before you. With joyful lips we lift up our heads and voices to you now, our God. We praise you, O Christ. We worship you, Holy Spirit. One God in Three Persons we praise you for your love, praying through Christ our Savior. Amen.]


[Benediction – from Number 6]
The LORD bless you and keep you;
the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.

More in Exodus

December 21, 2014

Exodus 40:34-38 - God With Us

December 14, 2014

Exodus 35:1-40:33 - Building a Church

December 7, 2014

Exodus 34 - Pardon and Restoration
Varina Sized

Join us Sunday at