September 16, 2018
In 1956 Paramount Pictures proudly released, The Ten Commandments. It was directed by Cecil B. DeMille and featured Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, and Anne Baxter. Of course, liberties were taken with the Scriptural account. I especially remember the stern, echoy voice of God.
There is much we could say about the Ten Commandments. I want to point out that literally it is “ten words.” This is more than just a list of commands to obey. Old Testament scholar, David Baker, points out that these “ten words contain basic principles for the life of God’s people…and they are still relevant today.” And while there are some similarities between these ten words and other ancient near eastern law codes, the Decalogue is quite unique.
The Decalogue is first given in Ex.20, on Mt. Sinai after Israel leaves Egypt. Then just before entering the Promised Land Moses reviews these commands in Dt.5. These commands form the foundation of the Mosaic Law and are reiterated throughout the Old Testament. They also carry over into the New Testament and continue to have relevance for secular government.
In 2006, Harvard Law School Professor, Alan Dershowitz said, “The Ten Commandments are clearly a precursor to all Western Law, including American Law.” Today we want to begin considering the Ten Commandments and how they inform our Christian lives. This morning we are looking at the first commandment in Ex.20:1-3 regarding worship. And in these verses we see that the Lord God is worthy of our ongoing, single-hearted worship.
I. OUR WORSHIP OF GOD IS A RESPONSE TO HIS GRACE. Ex.20:1-2
The ten words or commands were given specifically to Israel, the people of God. Israel did not become the people of God by obeying these commands. God gave these commands because they were already his people.
I point this out because it is common to think about God in terms of merit. Even Christians slip into this way of thinking that says our life in Christ is based upon our performance in keeping God’s rules. But God does not seem to operate on the basis of merit when it comes to being in relationship with humanity. And it is important to make a distinction between effort and merit. I first read this helpful distinction in a book by Dallas Willard. Specifically, Willard said, “Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning. Earning is an attitude. Effort is an action.”
Notice that God says, “I am the Lord, your God.” This phrase implies relationship. This is not just any god speaking. This is the God who created all things and extends himself in love towards all that he has made. When God created the heavens and the earth he saw that it was good. It was good because God made it. And it was good for the intended purpose of sustaining human life. You remember that Adam and Eve enjoyed fellowship with God in the Garden of Eden. God was graciously present with them. They lived in ongoing worship of God and God gave them dominion over the earth. Adam and Eve were co-rulers with God. Of course all of that changed when Adam and Eve embraced idolatry and death. To embrace idolatry is to turn from God, the Giver of life.
We see the same thing with God’s people, Israel. It was God who brought Israel into being beginning with Abraham. It was God who graciously extended his love and goodness towards Israel, not because Israel was some great nation. In v.2 God says, “I am the Lord, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” God graciously redeemed Israel from slavery in Egypt.
The God of Israel is the God who takes the initiative to act out of love towards his people, an enslaved people who could do nothing for themselves. This God initiates goodness and love towards all he has made with the intention that his people will live in his love through ongoing worship and express God’s goodness and love in this dark world.
Based on the fact that God graciously redeemed his people, Israel, from slavery in Egypt, one has to consider that the giving of the Ten Commandments was also an expression of his goodness and love. These commands are not just arbitrary rules to obey. They are not meant to be a strait jacket confining our every move. They were intended as wisdom to enable his people to enjoy life with God and each other.
In light of God’s goodness and grace in redeeming his people from slavery in Egypt, one would think that worshiping him alone would not just be a reasonable response, but a desirable response of gratitude for his goodness and grace. Unfortunately Israel had a difficult time living in ongoing worship of God. They were idolaters pretty much from the very beginning.
Now, we who know Christ are the people of God. We have also experienced the goodness and love of God in Jesus Christ. We have been redeemed out of a brutal slavery to idolatry and sin. Jesus continually called his disciples to follow him, to take up their own cross, to die to self in order to prioritize him and his kingdom. We are compelled by the love of Christ to worship God alone with hearts of gratitude. But often we are caught up in this world and we easily forget and we undervalue the daily significance of knowing God and being transferred into the kingdom of his dear Son. This is amazing grace. “Grace, Grace, God’s Grace; Grace that will pardon and cleanse within. Grace, grace, God’s grace, Grace that is greater than all our sin!”
II. OUR WORSHIP OF GOD IS AN ONGOING PRIORITY. Ex.20:3
Some say the first commandment is a statement about monotheism. There is only one God. And surely that is true. “I am the Lord, your God.” In Dt.4:38, God says, “know therefore today, and lay it to your heart, that the LORD is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other.”
Others point out that this is also a commandment about syncretism. Syncretism takes place when we combine beliefs and practices from different religions. In his book, “The Decalogue: Living as the People of God,” David Baker writes, “It is not primarily a question about the existence of God…Rather, it is very practical, calling Israel to decide who they will worship as God.” In other words, this commandment assumes a context of polytheism.
All the nations surrounding Israel were polytheistic. They worshiped many different gods. Each god had its own area of jurisdiction. Old Testament scholar, Mark Rooker writes, “In pagan thought, no one god was ultimate, and gods were believed to be finite and not absolute. No one god was believed to possess unlimited wisdom or power.” These gods were male and female, some strong, others weak. These gods ate and drank. They participated in work and rest, in sex and war. In some ways these gods were just glorified humans. They were capable of both good and evil actions.
So, unsurprisingly, in polytheism there is tolerance of all gods since each god has his or her particular role. Because the gods could do good and evil, it was important to stay on their good side. If you wanted a blessing you had to please that god in order to persuade him or her to do good for you. And, of course, you didn’t want to offend that god because of what they might do to you. And if you did offend a god you would have to pay a price to avert that god’s anger.
Since we are not polytheists it is difficult to appreciate the struggle of the people of Israel. Polytheism was the order of the day. When the Israelites entered the Promised Land they were familiar with the local gods that were worshiped in the various towns. Well suppose your crops were not doing well and you knew that Baal was a fertility god worshiped in that area. You can see how tempting it might be to offer a little sacrifice to Baal. It’s not that you no longer believed in the true God, but you didn’t want to take any chances. You wanted to cover all your bases just in case. Polytheism was deeply ingrained in the cultural mindset.
That this was a constant temptation for Israel is seen in Josh.24:14-15 where Joshua says to the people, “Now therefore fear the LORD and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD." And so, God says, “You shall have no other gods before me.”
On the basis of Scripture we do not believe that other gods exist. We do believe in the existence of satan and demons. In 1Cor.10 Paul tells the believers to flee from idolatry. He says, “What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons.” There are many spiritual forces, but there is only one God.
So this first commandment is a call to make the worship of God our number 1 priority in all of life. If we are going to worship only God then we must trust fully in God. We must trust that God knows our needs and that God will fulfill his promise to provide for our needs. Our God is not like the non-gods of polytheism. We do not have to try to persuade God to bless us. We do not have to worry that God is going to do evil towards us. We don’t go to church so that hopefully God will see that we are giving him his due so that he will be kind to us. Rather we worship God because he alone is God. He is our priority.
III. OUR WORSHIP OF GOD SHAPES ALL OF LIFE. Ex.20:3
While it is true that we do not attend church in order to curry favor with God, my sense is that it is also true that we see an increasing casualness towards God on the part of many professing Christians. To me, the greatest indicator of this is that church attendance is way down. Corporate worship of God is just not that important. People who were raised in the church no longer feel the need for it. And I wonder if this is not an indication that they feel little need for God unless they are in trouble. God is not the priority.
The Ten Commandments begin with the worship of God. The vertical comes first. The last four or five commands, depending on how you divide them, have to do with the horizontal dimension, our relationship with others. Love of God and love of neighbor!
The order is very important because it is only as we prioritize God that we will be able to properly love our neighbor. Because God is the creator of all things, he is the one who best understands how life is best lived. When we prioritize God and his good rules our entire approach to life will be shaped by the goodness and love of God. Prioritizing our worship of God will bring a godly order to our lives.
Now just as Israel struggled in their worship, so do we. We may not worship images of god and goddesses, but we do struggle with idols: money, power, sex, materialism, etc. For most of us these are very personal struggles. We are not on the big stage like politicians and media personalities. It is very likely that no one may even be aware of your struggle with idolatry. But I can assure you that idolatry will always bring disorder and ultimately death into your life and your relationships. You may be able to effectively keep something from your spouse or fellow worshipers in the church. But you are only fooling yourself.
More than that you are usurping God’s rightful place as God. We must constantly be vigilant to identify the idols in our lives so that God may have his rightful place in our lives. This is the only way to receive the blessings of God extended to us in Jesus Christ.
Prioritizing worship is important. We seek to worship together as the body of Christ on the Lord’s Day. Now if you are like most believers you are apt to find something in any and every worship service that bothers you. We don’t like this or that, whatever it may be. We all deal with these thoughts and feelings. I would encourage us to do our best to enter into each moment of worship as best we can. We ask the Lord to give us a gracious spirit and seek to honor and exalt his name with each other.
And then each day in our individual lives we seek to honor the Lord and live to bring joy to his heart. We give thanks to the Lord, even for our food. We bring our requests to the Lord for guidance and wisdom. We praise the Lord for his mercy and love. We put him first so that we have no other gods before him. Amen