DashHouse.com

The Blog of Darryl Dash

This blog is about how Jesus changes everything. He changes:

Our relationship with God

Our relationship with others

Our vocations - how we live and work in this world

Our ministries

This blog exists to explore some of the ways that Jesus changes everything. It provides resources and articles that will help you think about the ways that Jesus can change every part of your life.

The Lord himself invites you to a conference concerning your immediate and endless happiness, and He would not have done this if He did not mean well toward you. Do not refuse the Lord Jesus who knocks at your door; for He knocks with a hand which was nailed to the tree for such as you are. Since His only and sole object is your good, incline your ear and come to Him. Hearken diligently, and let the good word sink into your soul. (C.H. Spurgeon, All of Grace)

Filtering by Category: Exodus

Do Not Covet (Exodus 20:17)

This morning we're finishing our series on the Ten Commandments. You may be tempted to think that the least important commandment has been saved for last - that it's an afterthought, rightfully placed at the bottom of the list.

It is an unusual commandment. Most of the previous commandments have to do with actions; this one is all about the heart. We tend to see coveting as good. In fact, we see it as the route to personal fulfillment.

Despite the fact that this commandment is last, and despite the fact that it seems strange to us, I want to show you that it is a profound commandment. It's the climax of these commandments, kind of a bookend. In the tenth commandment, we come full circle and are back to the first. All of the other commands are restatements and applications of the first and the last commandments.

So this morning let's see what this command says; what problem it reveals; and what solution we need.

First, let's look at what this command says.

Exodus 20:17 says:

You shall not covet your neighbor's house. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

Deuteronomy 5:21 expands a little on this command:

You shall not covet your neighbor's wife. You shall not set your desire on your neighbor's house or land, his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

We have to really look at this to make sure we understand what it's saying. The word covet here simply means desire. The word isn't bad in itself. The Bible never says that desire is a bad thing in and of itself. The problem in this passage is that the object of desire is off limits because it belongs to someone else. To desire what belongs to someone else means that my desire becomes more important than the relationship that I have with that person. It leads to all kinds of other problems to. I may lie or steal or kill in order to obtain what rightfully belongs to them. The focus in this command is relationships. Coveting kills relationships.

There's more as we look at this command. God could have just said, "You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor." But he was very specific. He lists the things that we're likely to covet: our neighbor's house and property, wife, and donkey. It's only after listing specifics that the command says "or anything that belongs to your neighbor." The specificity of this command is very realistic. It anticipates the things that the Israelites were likely to covet. Today we might say, "Don't covet your neighbor's house or family, cottage, job, bank account, or car." You can't get off the hook with what this command teaches. We're likely to look at our neighbor's possessions, positions, and accomplishments and want what they have.

If you think about it, these are the things that many of us desire as more than just things. These are the very things that form our identities. We think that if we live in the right house or have the right spouse or drive that car or get that job that we will really matter, that we will count as someone. So coveting, we see, is a problem because it disrupts our relationships with neighbors. But it's also a problem because our coveting is really a sign that our hearts are overvaluing some things.

In fact, when ancient scholars translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek, the used a Greek word for this word covet. The word is epithumia. It's a word that also appears throughout the New Testament to talk about coveting and desires. It's often translated lusts or passions. What does it mean? It's sometimes used in a positive sense, like a strong desire. But most often it's used negatively. In these cases it means inordinate desire, that we want something too strongly.

What does this mean? It means that the problem isn't really our desires. The problem is when our desires are disordered so that we desire some things too much and other things not enough. I love ice cream. I love my job. I love my family. There's nothing wrong with loving any of these. The problem is when I love any of these in the wrong order - if, for instance, I love ice cream more than I love my job, or if I love my job more than I love my family, or if I love any of these more than God.

Centuries ago, Augustine said that our fundamental problem is that our loves are disordered. We desire the wrong things. It is wrong to set our affection on anything or anyone as if that thing or person was God. We will never find our fulfillment in that person or thing no matter how good or noble it is. The real problem with us is that our desires are out of order, and our greatest need is that our desires are reordered so that we desire the right things in the right order.

So putting all of this together, our problem is that we want what rightfully belongs to other people. What's more, we tend to base our identities on these things. The problem is that these desires become inordinate desires that begin to control us so that we're held captive by them. That's what this command means.

Well, let's ask what problem this reveals about ourselves.

At first glance, you wouldn't think that this is such a big deal. Many of us would agree that it's wrong to murder and lie and steal, but we don't see what's wrong with just thinking that we want what someone else has. But actually, this command reveals that there is something fundamentally wrong with us. This command gets to the heart of what's wrong with us. It identifies the fault line that runs through all of our hearts.

We don't think this command is any big deal, but James says that breaking this command leads to many of the problems that we experience. James 4:1-2 says:

What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight.

James says that behind church battles and even unanswered prayers are a big problem: that we desire what we do not have. James 1:14 says that our over-desires are the sin beneath other sins:

...each of you is tempted when you are dragged away by your own evil desire (epithumia) and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.

So these over-desires are not just one sin among many. Inordinate desire is the sin beneath the sin. The other sins that are more visible are the result of the inordinate desires of our hearts.

It gets even more serious than this. The Apostle Paul writes that our coveting - our inordinate desires - are really violations of the first command, "You shall have no other gods before me" (Exodus 20:3). So the first commandment and the tenth commandment are really the same. Paul says in Ephesians 5:5:

For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person--such a person is an idolater--has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.

Again in Colossians 3:5-6:

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming.

What is Paul saying? Paul is saying that when we see that someone else has something, and we begin to desire what they have in an inordinate way, that we are not just committing a little sin, as if there was such a thing. When we just have to have something, when we won't rest until we've got that new car or house or job, and when we continually want more than we have right now, then we are no different from the person who goes to a temple and bows before a carved statue. We are idolators. We have stopped worshiping the one true God at that moment, and we have instead begun to worship whatever it is that we long for.

This week I read about a child who was having a conversation with his mother about the gospel. The conversation went something like this.

Mother: "Why did Jesus die?" Son: "To save us from our sins." Mother:  "Have you sinned?" Son: "Yea, like when I scratched Cole last night." Mother:  "What is God's punishment for sin?" Son: "He says we have to die.  Like, in hell." Mother:  "How can you be saved from your sin?" Son: "Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.  Hey, Mommy. You know what would be really great? Like, you know what would be really, really cool??" Mother: "What?" Son: "If we could have, like a million billion boxes of macaroni and cheese in our cupboard!  Wouldn't that be awesome??"

Now, I don't want to be too hard on this boy. Who doesn't like macaroni and cheese in their cupboards? But as I thought about this, I began to realize that you and I are not all that different. We can repeat all the facts about the gospel. We could say, "Jesus died for our sins, but do you know what would be really cool? A high-definition TV in the family room." We believe in the gospel, but what really excites us is something else. We covet, we long for, something else - maybe not a million billion boxes of mac and cheese, but something. Whatever it is that excites us most, whatever it is that we long for the most, that is our idol.

This brings us back to the first commandment we looked at: "You shall have no other gods before me." You see how the first and tenth commandments are bookends. Every other commandment is a variation of these two. These are the sins beneath all sins.

But this means we also have a very serious problem. The problem is that you can be a very moral person who goes to church and always does good things, and still break this commandment, because it's a commandment of the heart. You may honor your parents, refuse to steal or lie or kill or commit adultery, but in your heart your affections are disordered. You have over-desires. And these over-desires mean that you are an idolator, which really makes you guilty of the command that is the foundation for all the others.

Saul, who later became the Apostle Paul, was a very moral man. Reflecting on his life, he mentioned this commandment as an example. He said that the command not to covet exposed his lost and sinful condition. The problem isn't with the commands, he said. The problem is the human heart. Soren Kierkegaard said, "It is the normal state of the human heart to try to build its identity around something besides God." We all have covetous and idolatrous hearts. This leads us to ask:

What is the solution?

What will reorder our affections so that we love God most, and love everyone and everything else in their place? What will keep us from committing the sin of idolatry, which is the sin beneath all sins?

I mentioned earlier that the word for desire means a strong desire. When it's for the wrong things, then it's a bad thing. When we make good things and turn them into ultimate things, then our desires are idolatrous. But the word desire can be used in a very positive way as well.

Jesus said in Luke 22:15, "I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer." For centuries, the Passover meal pointed forward to the true Passover Lamb who would be sacrificed for the sins of his people. Now Jesus sat down with his followers, and he longed to as the true and better Passover Lamb. Jesus said, "I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you." There's that word: epithumia. From this we learn that Jesus has a strong desire, a good desire: to give his life for his people as a sacrifice for the sins of his people. What can set us free from our over-desires? Seeing and grasping what Jesus did for us when he offered his life for our sins.

There's another passage that uses epithumia in a positive way. This time it's about angels. In 1 Peter chapter 1, the apostle Peter talks about "the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow" - the gospel. He concludes with this stunning statement: "Even angels long (epithumia) to look into these things."

As Tim Keller says: Angels are smart, much smarter than any of us. Angels have been around a long time. They are much older than anyone here. And yet angels long to understand what Christ has accomplished for us through his death and resurrection.

The bad news is that we are idolators. We set our highest affections on people and things other than God, which leads to bondage, conflict, and death. What should we do? Understand that Jesus has set his affections on us. Long to grasp the gospel and to understand all that Jesus did for us through his death and resurrection.

"Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God." (Colossians 3:1)

Father, please reveal to us this morning the things that we over-desire. Help us to realize that this sin is the sin beneath all sins.

Most of all, take us to the one who desires us, and who gave his life for us. May we desire him above all. In Jesus' name, Amen.

No Stealing (Exodus 20:15)

We've been looking at the Ten Commandments this summer. The Ten Commandments are well known and have continuing relevance for us today. The Apostle Paul sometimes said some pretty harsh things about the law, but he emphasized that the law still has a role for us who believe we're saved by what Christ has done for us. At the end of Romans 3 Paul said, "Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law" (Romans 3:31). Paul says that we can't be saved by our obedience to the law. We can only be saved through faith in Christ, who has kept the law perfectly and died for those who haven't. But then Paul says that we still uphold the norms of the law. We do this through the power of the Holy Spirit.

We keep these commandments for a number of reasons, but perhaps the biggest reason is gratitude for what God has accomplished for us. When the people of Israel understood that God delivered them out of bondage in Egypt, obedience to his commands is the only response that makes sense. When we understand what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, it only makes sense that we obey him out of gratitude and amazement for what he has done for us. These commands, which look oppressive at first, are actually a charter of freedom. They tell us how to life free now that Christ has set us free.

Today we are coming to the eight commandment, which simply says, "You shall not steal." Or, in the original, simply, "No stealing." You can see that there is a natural progression in these commands. We are to properly honor God and the authorities that God has put into place. Then God instructs us to protect life and marriages. And then we come to our possessions. The simple command is that nobody wrongfully takes from his or her neighbor's possessions. No stealing.

Today I want to look at this command from three perspectives. First, the obvious. Secondly, what's not so obvious at first glance. Finally, getting to the heart of this command.

So first, let's look at the obvious implications of the command, "No stealing."

It's pretty simple, isn't it? No stealing. Many of us can remember a time when we were kids and really, really wanted something. We saw it. Nobody was looking. And when we had a chance, we quickly snatched the item and took it home with us.

Some are overcome with guilt when this happens and quickly confess and make things right, but others of us continue to steal when nobody is looking. If this is you, then Scripture is clear. Stop it. As Paul said to the Ephesians, "Those who have been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need" (Ephesians 4:28).

This is fairly obvious, but let me point out what should be just as obvious, because it's something that we may overlook. Stealing can take all kinds of forms. If you think that stealing simply equals shoplifting or picking pockets, then you're really not thinking about all the forms that stealing can take. Some of you may be stealing without even knowing it. For instance:

  • borrowing items and never returning them
  • surfing the web on company time
  • taking office supplies from work for personal use
  • overcharging a client
  • padding an expense account
  • fudging on our income tax returns
  • paying someone under the table to avoid taxes

There are some of us who would never dream of walking out of the store with a shoplifted item, but have no problem spending the first half hour at work on Facebook. We'd never dream of committing fraud, but we aren't really that careful about declaring everything we made or in evading taxes if we can get away with it.

God simply says, no stealing. Right now you face a choice. Some of you are probably thinking of ways to justify what you've been doing. You're thinking that I'm being a little bit fanatical about this. I'd like to ask you to face the truth and to honestly consider ways in which you may be guilty of stealing in your life. No excuses, no rationalizations. We are bringing dishonor to God and taking what rightfully belongs to others every time we're idle on the job or less than honest in how we conduct ourselves. God says, "No stealing," and some of us have to make changes as we look at the obvious meaning of the command.

Does it hurt yet? We're going to go even farther now.

Let's look at the less than obvious implications of this command.

Sometimes you take a quick look at these commandments and think that you've seen everything there is to see. There's actually a lot beneath the surface. I want to highlight three things that you may miss about this command at first glance.

I think we need to notice that this command teaches us that money has its place. It's important, but it's not ultimate. Where do I get this from? On one hand, this command teaches us that there is such a thing as private property. There are some things that belong to you, and I need to respect that they are yours. If I don't respect your right to own stuff, then there's no other way to put it. I'm a thief.

This corrects the mistaken belief that some people have that possessions themselves are bad, or that money is bad. The Bible never says this. Quite the opposite, in fact. The Bible teaches that God cares about physical things. In fact, if you read the Old Testament laws, rules about personal property take up a surprising place in the commands God gave to his people. We're not to take away people's means of production, such as millstones, as a pledge. We're not to take away pieces of clothing like cloaks. We're not to move boundary stones. God cares about our stuff. Everything belongs to God, but he's given it to us for our use and enjoyment. They are gifts from God. God cares about our stuff.

So this command keeps us from having too low a view of possessions. But it also keeps us from having too high a view. This command puts possessions in their place. They're important, but they're not everything. Where do I get this from?

The other week we looked at the command, "No murder." You may remember me saying that in other law codes at that time, the punishment for murder depended on who you were and who you killed. If you were a slave who killed a wealthy landowner, you may be punished by death. But if you were a wealthy landowner and killed a slave, you may only have faced a financial penalty.

But it's not like that with God at all. The penalty for murder doesn't depend on who you are or who you murder. All life is valuable before God. And the penalty for murder is not financial, because money can never adequately compensate for life. What this tells us is that in God's eyes, human life is much more valuable than money or possessions.

The same goes for this command, "No stealing." In other cultures, the penalty for stealing included mutilation and sometimes death. When God gave his commands, it was quite different. The penalty and the remedy for stealing was not death, but restitution. And it didn't depend on who you were either. Your social rank has no bearing on the penalty. What God is telling us is this: human life is far more valuable than property. One can never be substituted for the other.

This has huge implications for how we live, because we face choosing between people and possessions all the time. The stuff we buy comes at a cost, and that cost is often relational. Buying certain things means that we may have to work more, which means that we will have less time to spend with our families, for instance. God says in these commands that people are more important than possessions. Human life is far more valuable than property. This really ought to shape the way that we live.

This leads us to a second less-than-obvious implication. Each of these commands has a positive and a negative. No murder means, for instance, that we value life. No stealing also has a positive. When Martin Luther taught on this command, he first covered the negative: don't steal. But then he covered the other side. "On the other hand," he said, "it is commanded that we advance and improve his possessions, and in case he suffers want, that we help, communicate, and lend both to friends and foes."

This command, then, means that we not only refrain from stealing. It means that we seek the good of our neighbor through generosity and kindness. So when God describes a way of living that is righteous and just and right in Ezekiel 18, he describes a man who "does not oppress anyone, but returns what he took in pledge for a loan. He does not commit robbery but gives his food to the hungry and provides clothing for the naked." The opposite of not stealing is not keeping your stuff just for yourself. The opposite of stealing is generosity. It means that we have a calling to share our resources with others.

You see this all over Scripture. It's a huge theme. Deuteronomy 15:7-8 says:

If anyone is poor among your people in any of the towns of the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need.

Proverbs 19 says, "Those who are kind to the poor lend to the LORD, and he will reward them for what they have done" (Proverbs 19:17). Hebrews 13:16 says, "Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God." You may object that you can't help everyone. The good news is that you don't have to. You only have to do what you can with what you have, which is, when you think about it, a pretty high standard. Galatians 6:10 says, "So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith."

This is really an extension of what we said earlier. People are more important than possessions.

There's one more not-so-obvious implication. In Malachi, we read that not tithing is actually robbing God. Malachi 3:8 says:

"Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me.
"But you ask, 'How are we robbing you?'
"In tithes and offerings."

This gets tricky, because tithes were part of the old covenant with Israel. The New Testament doesn't require the tithe, but it has lots to say about giving. We read in 2 Corinthians that giving should be voluntary and cheerful (2 Corinthians 9:7-8). In Acts, we read of people selling property to meet the needs of the poor (Acts 4:34-37). The early Christians were characterized by radical and joyful generosity.

So how much should we give? In a way, that very question is wrong. There's no prescribed amount. You should give generously. You should give so that nobody could say that you're robbing God in how you spend your money. C.S. Lewis said, "I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare." Theologian John Frame suggests that the cheerful giving of the New Testament cannot be much less than the Old Testament regular tithe of 10%. Don't rob God by the amount that you give.

You can see that there's a lot in this command. There's the obvious: don't steal. There's the not-so-obvious at first glance: possessions are important, but not as important as people, so be generous with people and also give generously and joyfully to the Lord.

There's just one more thing. We need to get to the heart of this command.

I'll tell you what's been going on in your heart this morning. You've been thinking, "Give me a break! How do you expect me to do this? You're telling me to stop surfing Facebook on company time. Then you're telling me to give away my money to others and to give more than I can spare to the Lord."

Well, I know. As someone's said, you think these commands are getting personal when you read, "No adultery." But then they get even more personal in some ways. For a lot of us, our stuff is closer to our hearts than anything else.

I said earlier that the Bible isn't negative about possessions or money. It does, however, warn us against a great danger that we all face: love of money. Money itself isn't bad, but love of money is. Paul writes in 1 Timothy 6:6-10:

But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.

When Jesus spoke about money, he personified it as a rival god, an idol. He said, "No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money." (Matthew 6:24).

So let me tell you what all of this means. Money can be an incredible blessing in your life, something that you use and enjoy and share joyfully with others. Or: money can be an idol that grips your soul, holds you captive, robs you of your joy, and plunges you into ruin and destruction. It can be a counterfeit god that promises much but that ultimately destroys you.

In other words, what this command really gets to is our heart. How can our hearts be set free from the worship of this false idol so that we can use and share and give away our money?

It's to put our hearts on an even greater treasure than our stuff. When we grasp what Jesus has done for us, that he left his wealth and became poor so that we could be made rich, and when we're transformed through the gospel to realize that God himself is our inheritance, then we can be set free to use our stuff instead of worshiping our stuff. This command, you see, is just a variation of the first command to have no other gods before God. And this is only possible through the forgiveness and transformation that comes through the one who was crucified among thieves in the place of us who are thieves.

Let's pray.

Father, we've seen that there's much in this command that lies below the surface. In this command, you call us to set our hearts on true treasure. Jesus told us, "Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal" (Matthew 6:20).

This command is really about worship. May each person here see what Christ has done for them. And may seeing this cause them to dethrone every idol, and to worship you alone; to use stuff without worshiping stuff; to give generously and joyfully. We pray this in the name and in the power of the one who gave his all for us. In Jesus' name, Amen.

Love Life (Exodus 20:13)

One of the best sermons I've heard was preached by Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones years ago based on two words from Ephesians 2: "But God." I remember marveling that someone could get so much from two words.

I don't expect my sermon to be quite that good this morning, but it is going to have something in common: it's also based on two simple words from the Bible. The two words are from the Ten Commandments. The are four words in the Bible I have: "You shall not murder." But in Hebrews the command is simply "No murder."

You may think that you're in for a very short sermon this morning. After all, it's a long weekend. But if it is a short sermon - and I'm not making any promises - it won't be because there isn't a lot in this passage.

From these two simple words, I want to explore three things: first, what this passage teaches us about God; second, what this passage teaches us about us; and finally, where this passage drives us.

So first, let's look at what this passage teaches us about God.

What we sometimes forget as we look at these commands is that each of these commands tells us something about God. They are not arbitrary rules. They are, in fact, reflections of the very character of God. Each of these commandments reflects something of the character of God, which is one reason why they are timeless. So we have to ask ourselves an important question as we look at each commandment: What does this commandment teach us about God?

This commandment tells us something important about God: that God is concerned with life. That may sound blindingly obvious at first, so let's think about this a bit. God loves life. God takes immense pleasure and delight in his creation, and to destroy life is to rebel against the heart of God's joy.

Let's look at it a different way. In order to understand why God hates murder, we need to understand why God loves life.

On our vacation one day, we got talking about why God created this world. It's important to realize that God never created this world out of boredom: God is not bored. He didn't create this world because he was lonely: God, who exists in three persons, has always had perfect love, perfect joy, and perfect harmony. Jonathan Edwards reflected on this and says that before creation, God is infinitely happy. He exists as a community of persons pouring glorifying, joyful love into one another. Think about this in your own experience. Maybe you've had a time when you've admired someone else, and you would do anything for him or her. Then you discover that they feel the same way about you, and you enter into this relationship of marriage of harmony and self-giving in which both of you find joy in seeking the joy of the other. Some of us have only had small tastes of this, so imagine what it is like for God.

So why would God create this world, then? Historian George Marsden summarizes what Jonathan Edwards taught in his treatise The End for Which God Created the World. Listen to what he says:

The ultimate reason that God creates, said Edwards, is not to remedy some lack in God, but to extend that perfect internal communication of the triune God's goodness and love. It is an extension of the glory of a perfectly good and loving being to communicate that love to other intelligent beings. God's joy and happiness and delight in divine perfections is expressed externally by communicating that happiness and delight to created beings. (Jonathan Edwards: A Life)

To put it differently, the universe is an explosion of God's glory, joy, and self-giving love. God has created us so that he could share his divine happiness with his creatures. God is infinitely happy in his self-giving, other-loving nature, and we have been created in his image to live the same way: in self-giving, other-centered joy.

Dallas Willard puts it this way:

We should, to begin with, think that God leads a very interesting life, and that he is full of joy. Undoubtedly he is the most joyous being in the universe...All of the good and beautiful things from which we occasionally drink tiny droplets of soul-exhilarating joy, God continuously experiences in all their breadth and depth and richness.

...We pay a lot of money to get a tank with a few tropical fish in it and never tire of looking at their brilliant iridescence and marvelous forms and movements. But God has seas full of them, which he constantly enjoys.

...Human beings can lose themselves in card games or electric trains and think they are fortunate. But to God there is available, in the language of one reporter, "Towering clouds of gases trillions of miles high, backlit by nuclear fires in newly forming stars, galaxies cart wheeling into collision and sending explosive shock waves boiling through millions of light-years of time and space." These things are all before him, along with numberless unfolding rosebuds, souls, and songs, and immeasurably more of which we know nothing. (The Divine Conspiracy)

Creating and sustaining life gives God joy. And this is why destroying and diminishing life in any way diminishes God's joy and diminishes God's glory. Because we are created in God's image, it also ultimately diminishes our own joy. We're called to love what God loves, to love life.

So to really understand this command, we have to understand something about God: that God loves life. He is the Lord of life. He's made the waters and the earth to "swarm with swarms of living creatures" (Genesis 1:20). He gave all these creatures the breath of life. God takes pleasure in the life that we see around us. We exist as a result of God's love of life. This whole universe is an explosion of his glory and his love of life. That's what this passage teaches us about God: God loves and delights in life.

But secondly, let's look at what this command teaches us about us.

This command is based on something that is true of us: that we are made in God's image. We were designed to live not just physically but spiritually, especially because we are made in the image of God. God alone has the authority over life and death. That's why God tells us in Genesis 9:

Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything. But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it. And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being.

Whoever sheds human blood,

by human beings shall their blood be shed;

for in the image of God

has God made humankind.

As for you, be fruitful and increase in number; multiply on the earth and increase upon it. (Genesis 9:3-7)

This is actually quite amazing. This passage tells us that God is going to demand an accounting from every animal or person that takes a human life. This passage teaches us that although God loves life, God permits the taking of animal life for food, but even then, the animal's blood remains sacred and can't be consumed so that we remember that all life is from God. But human life is different. To murder another human being is to murder what is most like God, and is therefore an attack on God himself. Therefore the command: no murder.

So what does this passage tell us about how we should live? Well, on the negative side, it's pretty clear: don't kill others for personal reasons. Notice that I didn't say don't kill. There is a verb that wasn't used that is talks about killing in general, but that's not the one that God gave in this commandment. God does give authorization for some types of killing: for example, sometimes in the case of war or capital punishment. In this commandment, the word God used refers to illicit killing: accidental or premeditated taking of the life of another human being; killing out of hatred, desire, anger or greed. We have no authority to take human life for personal reasons. We are to protect life and love it just as God does.

It's interesting that in other legal codes in that time, the legal penalty for killing was monetary. The amount of money you would owe would depend on your standing in society, and the standing of the person that you killed. So if you were a lord and killed a servant, there would be a relatively minor financial penalty, but if you were a servant who killed a lord, you may be killed yourself. But not so in God's law. According to God, all human life is valuable. Human life is beyond monetary value. It's priceless. So negatively, don't kill for personal reasons.

But there are positive implications as well. Positively, we're called to preserve and protect human life. This covers a lot of ground: personally, that we eat and sleep properly. As far as others are concerned, it means that we take precautions against what could harm or kill others. John Calvin said it means that we defend the safety of others, both in body and in soul. Martin Luther said that it means that we do good to others, clothing the naked so they don't freeze, feeding the hungry so they don't starve, and doing good works to others.

But Jesus took this even further in Matthew 5, where he said:

You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, 'Raca,' is answerable to the Sanhedrin. And anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell.

Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to that person; then come and offer your gift.

Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny. (Matthew 5:21-26)

Here Jesus takes the command - no murdering - and traces the roots of murder right back to the heart. He teaches us that the command not to murder doesn't just cover the physical act. It also covers sinful anger, verbal abuse. Jesus says that it's such as serious issue that being reconciled takes precedence over worship. It requires immediate action. In Jesus' day, you may have been going to offer a sacrifice. You've got the sacrifice. You've passed through the Court of the Gentiles, the Court of Women, the Court of Men. Before you lies the Court of Priests. As you're about to offer your gift, you remember that you've wronged someone. Jesus says to drop the gift, turn around and be reconciled. Your unreconciled relationship is not just an offense against that person; it's also an offense against God and must be dealt with immediately.

So you can see how serious this is. You may have thought this morning that, again, this command won't have much to do with you. You don't kill. You're off the hook. But this command goes much deeper than that. It calls us to treat our own bodies properly with proper rest, exercise, and nutrition. It calls us to do what we can to protect and preserve the lives of others. Even more, it deals with our hearts, calling us to love others. The Westminster Confession describes the type of heart it requires:

quietness of mind, cheerfulness of spirit...charitable thoughts, love, compassion, meekness, gentleness, kindness; peaceable, mild, and courteous speeches and behavior; forbearance, readiness to be reconciled, patient bearing and forgiving of injuries, and requiting good for evil; comforting and succoring the distressed, and protecting and defending the innocent.

Well, we've seen what this command teaches us about God, and what it teaches us about human life and our obligations toward others.

We're left with just one more thing to consider this morning: where this passage drives us.

I mentioned earlier that God loves life. He is the Lord of life. The problem is that we don't live in a world of life. Death is everywhere around us. This world isn't the world of life that God created. The reason, according to the Bible, is death. God said in Genesis 2:17: "You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will certainly die." As a result of sin, death - both physical and spiritual - entered the world. After the fall, the first son of Eve killed the second. Ever since then, death has pervaded human history. We're included in this. Death is very much a part of our lives.

We've also seen that we are, to some extent, guilty of murder. We may not have murdered with our hands, but we disrespect and diminish lives in how we treat and think of others.

All of this drives us to ask where we can find life, as opposed to the death we see around us.

The Bible says that the only way to deal with death is death. Remember what God said? "Whoever sheds human blood, by human beings shall their blood be shed." God sent his Son to endure death in the place of his spiritually dead people. According to Romans 6, when Jesus died, his people died with him to sin. When he rose, his people rose with him to newness of life. Jesus shed his lifeblood to give eternal life to us through his death.

That's why Paul writes:

But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:22-23)

Jesus burst out of the grave and shattered the gates of death so that we could live. This world is an explosion of God's glory and his self-giving love, and Jesus' death and resurrection has set things in motion so that those who turn to him in faith will really live, will find joy in his joy, and will one day really live in a world in which even the trees sing and make music to praise the returning King. "He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death' or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away" (Revelation 21:4).

John said of Jesus, "In him was life, and that life was the light of all people" (John 1:4).

Father, may we see that you love life, that this whole world is an explosion of your glory and your love of life. May we see what this command requires of us. Most of all, may we see where you provide life in this world of death. May we find life in Jesus. In his name we pray, Amen.

Honor Father and Mother (Exodus 20:12)

This summer we're working our way through the Ten Commandments, asking what they mean and how they apply to our lives today. We're looking at them because of their uniqueness - because they are the only time in redemptive history that God himself spoke to all of his people assembled in one place. We're also looking at them because Jesus reaffirmed many of these commands, therefore showing that they're still relevant to us today thousands of years after they were given.

Today we're looking at one that you may think doesn't apply to you. You may think that nine apply, but this one is for others, specifically kids. The fifth commandment says:

Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you. (Exodus 20:12)

So today I want to ask four simple questions:

  • What does this command teach?
  • What did Jesus say about this command?
  • What are some of the wider implications of this command?
  • How do we keep it?

First, what does this command teach?

I have some bad news for you if you think that this command doesn't apply to you, because contrary to what some have thought, this is not a command that is only for children. This command was given to the entire national of Israel gathered at Sinai, most of whom were adults. In other words, this is a command given not just to kids but to adults as well. The command, regardless of your age, is this: honor your father and mother.

The word honor has the idea of weight. It carries the idea of not taking your parents lightly, of regarding them as something significant and heavy in your life. It means giving them the highest esteem, of elevating them to a place of importance in your life, and showing gratitude to them. God commands us: Treat your parents weightily; regard them as people of great worth. Treat them with deference. Take them very seriously in your life.

In the very early years, this happens naturally. If you see a very young child, you know that at a certain stage, mother and father are everything. Young children only want their parents. What their parents think of them is the only thing that matters. At a certain stage, children see parents as absolutely perfect.

But as children grow, this changes, and it should. We've all become more independent of our parents. Our lives give other people and other influences greater weight. We're very aware of the faults of our parents. It's at this point that God stops us and says: don't you dare grow so removed from your parents, or so disillusioned with them, that you stop giving them a place of weighty importance in your lives. Don't you dare stop caring for them, showing deference to them, speaking highly of them. Next to God, your parents are to receive the greatest respect and value in your life. Disrespecting them is a serious matter. Refusing to honor them is not just an offense to them; it's also an offense to God, and a very serious matter.

Do you see how relevant and how challenging this command is? It's especially challenging because there's no exception clause for those of us who had less-than-perfect parents - and some of us did. As Martin Luther said, this command applies no matter how "lowly, poor, frail, and queer they may be." The Heidelberg Catechism says it involves patiently bearing "with their weaknesses and infirmities." This is not for perfect families with perfect parents and perfect kids; this is for all of us. This is for those of us who have parents who sometimes drive us crazy, or whose faults are very plain to us. God says that we are to honor that imperfect father who may have hurt us, and to honor our imperfect father. Not easy, but it's what this command is about.

We're going to look at what this means in practical terms in a minute, but before we move on we have to notice that this is the first commandment, as the apostle Paul writes later, with a promise. God says, "Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you." This, of course, was given to the people of Israel who were promised a land. The apostle Paul translates this promise to those of us who know Christ: "so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth." (Ephesians 6:3). What does this promise mean? It's not an individual promise as much as it is a corporate one. Obeying all of God's laws is the way to life. It's the best possible way to live well. And honoring parents is crucial to the basic functioning of society in every way - socially, economically, and spiritually. Whenever the basic structure of the family breaks down, it threatens the well-being of the entire society. Life becomes diminished for everyone. But when we honor and care for our parents, we create a social climate that enhances the possibility of a good and long life, not only for each person but for society as a whole.

That's what this command means. Now we have to ask:

What did Jesus say about this command?

It's always interesting to see what Jesus said about these commandments. He taught on many of them in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus didn't talk about the fifth commandment in that sermon, however. Instead, he referred to it when he confronted some of the most religious people who lived at the time, who thought they had found a way around this commandment.

In Matthew 15:4-6, Jesus said:

And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, "Honor your father and mother" and "Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death." But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is 'devoted to God,' they are not to 'honor their father or mother' with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition.

So let's notice what Jesus says here. First, he affirms that this is a command of God. The command to honor our parents, according to Jesus, is of divine origin. Second, he quotes Exodus 21:17, which says, "Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death." Notice how serious this command is: in Israel, God's covenant community, disrespecting parents is placed amongst commands dealing with death and physical injury, and failing to honor them is a capital crime. We don't live in a theocracy - under the direct rule of God - so the punishment no longer applies, but Jesus affirms that this is not only a command from God, but that breaking this command is an incredibly serious matter.

But then Jesus confronts a group of adults who outwardly agreed with this command, but thought they had found a loophole around it. Jewish tradition allowed that funds originally dedicated to the care of parents could be declared Corban - legally dedicated to God - meaning that you would no longer be required to do anything to financially support your aging parents. Instead of giving money to your parents, you would instead give the money to the temple. Some scholars think that you were actually able to keep the money yourself and benefit from it, as long as it was dedicated to God.

In essence, they thought they had found a way out of financially supporting parents by playing the spiritual trump card. Jesus had no time for this. He said that this is actually a way of nullifying the word of God. They not only violated one a commandment and disrespected their parents; they also showed complete disregard for the word of God.

Do you see what Jesus has done here? He has not only reaffirmed the commandment to honor our parents, but he has emphasized its importance in the strongest of terms. He's reaffirmed that this commandment applies to adult children, and he's fleshed out what honor means. Honor means financially supporting our aging parents. The apostle Paul reenforces this too when he says, "Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever" (1 Timothy 5:8). Providing financially for our family is a spiritual issue. If we do not do this, it shows that we have not grasped the gospel. It is tantamount to denying the faith that we profess to believe.

So Jesus does not qualify this command or weaken it for us. Instead, Jesus reenforces it in the strongest possible terms, and helps us see that honoring means practically caring for the needs of our parents, including looking after their financial needs. To fail to do this is not only disrespectful to our parents; it also nullifies God's word and implicitly a denial of the gospel. This is heavy stuff.

I want to stop here to ask about some of the wider implications of this command.

I want to be brief here and point out that, throughout the church's history, Christians have seen this as a command that applies not only to our relationship to our parents, but to all authority. At first you may roll your eyes and think that they're taking things a bit too far, but think about it for a minute. Martin Luther said, "Out of the authority of parents, all other authority is derived and developed." Think about this. God has placed us in families, and the Bible teaches us that the family is the basic unit of society. In essence, the other structures developed when families got larger, so that the state or government is really, in essence, a very complicated extension of the family. This is a very different way of thinking. John Frame writes, "What we call 'states," then, are the governmental structures of the family of Adam."

This is why the catechisms emphasize that this command applies not only to our relationship with parents, but it applies in a much wider way as well. That's why, for instance, the Baptist catechism says, "The fifth commandment requires that we preserve the honor and perform the duties which belong to every one in their various roles as authorities, subordinates or equals."

There's one other wider implication. One day when Jesus' family came to visit him, Jesus said:

"Who are my mother and my brothers?" he asked.

Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God's will is my brother and sister and mother." (Mark 3:34-35)

If we are thinking of ways to honor our families, we also have to think not only in terms of parents and authorities. We also need to think of our fellow believers. The gospel turns us into a family. We are far more than just an audience. Blood is thicker than water; the blood that unites us as family is the blood not of physical descent, but of Jesus' own blood, shed on the cross.

When we really understand this command, it transforms not only the way we honor our parents; it will transform the way we relate to all authority. It will help us even see our relationship with each other within the church in new ways. It's what the apostle Peter was getting at when he wrote, "Show proper respect to everyone, love your fellow believers, fear God, honor the emperor" (1 Peter 2:17). This command is about honoring parents, authorities, and our spiritual family, for the good of all.

Well, let's finish by asking what may be the most important question this morning: how do we keep this command?

There are probably few times in history in which the fifth commandment could be more countercultural, more timely, more necessary. We need this commandment. Most of us have been taught to question authority. Our children are taught to be autonomous at a very early age. The fifth commandment reminds us of the importance of submitting and honoring those who are in rightful authority over us, especially our parents. We tend to be very individualistic. So this commandment challenges us in some very practical ways.

Let me speak to parents. You've probably heard of Grimm's Fairy Tales. One of the lesser known stories is of a very old man, "whose eyes had become dim, his ears dull of hearing, his knees trembled, and when he sat at table he could hardly hold the spoon, and spilt the broth upon the table-cloth or let it run out of his mouth." His son and the son's wife became so disgusted by him that they banished him from the table, and when he broke his bowl they made him eat of a trough. They treated him horribly.

One day the couple's son, who was four years old, began to make something out of wood. The parents were touched and said, "What are you making?" "I am making a little trough," answered the child, "for father and mother to eat out of when I am big." The couple looked at each other and wept, realizing that they were teaching their son how to treat them when they got older. And they brought the grandfather back to the table, and from that point on they always let him eat with them, and they never complained even if he did spill a little of anything.

You get the idea. The way that you are treating your parents as adults is teaching your children how to one day treat you. How this applies will look different in every circumstance, but the principle is clear: honor your father and mother. How are you doing in keeping this command? We need to ask how we are caring for our parents financially, socially, emotionally. To the degree that we are indifferent to their needs, to that degree are we diminishing the possibilities of a well-functioning society for all.

You need to teach your children how to respect authority, and the best way to do this is to teach them not only with your words but with your example. Your children need discipline, but they also need your example. Teach them to honor parents and authorities by the way that you honor parents and authorities.

Our society talks a lot about deadbeat parents who fail to take care of their underage children. But there’s such a thing as deadbeat sons and daughters, who fail to care for their feeble parents. We need to teach our children not to be deadbeat kids, both by teaching them God’s Word and demonstrating what it means to honor parents by our behavior.

Now let me speak about how this applies to church. This commandment transforms our family relationships and it transforms our view of authority, but it also translates our view of church. The church is not something that I attend or that I'm part of when it suits me. It is Jesus' own family, united by his blood. This means that we are called, as Peter says, to love one another. We're called not only to honor parents and authorities, but to love those in our spiritual family for the good of all.

This is why church is so countercultural. People will get if you go to a church that's hip and that you enjoy. They won't understand you committing to people who cost you something, who are sometimes annoying and inconvenient. They won't understand you loving others and sacrificing for their good when it costs you. But that's what it means to be part of Christ's family. It means committing to a particular group of people and loving them sacrificially.

The fifth commandment pulls us out of our selfishness and lets us live for others, not only our parents but for all that God has placed in authority, not to mention all others who have been saved by Jesus blood. What could possibly pull us out of our selfishness so we can live for others? Because we serve a Savior who perfectly honored his own Father and gave his life so that we could be changed.

Father, we thank you for this commandment. We see today that it applies to us, and that it's crucial that we follow it. I pray that you would help us see its importance, not only for us, but for our children and our church as well.

We pray for those today who have not been honoring their parents as they should. Give them the grace that they need so that they will care for their parents by speaking well of them, forgiving them, and supporting them in practical and financial ways.

We pray for parents. Please allow us as parents to teach our children the importance of honoring those in authority.

We pray for our church. Teach us that we are family, and allow us to be free to love and serve our fellow believers.

All of this is possible because we have a Savior who not only honored his Father perfectly, but who died so that we could be forgiven and changed. May every person here be transformed by trusting in Christ. We pray in Jesus' name. Amen.

No Other Gods (Exodus 20:1-3)

Today we're beginning to look at one of the best known and most controversial parts of Scripture: the Ten Commandments. These commandments are so well known that they're still being debated and discussed today. The Royal Ontario Museum recently held a lecture series called The Three New Commandments in which they asked three prominent thinkers to analyze and debate the Ten Commandments and share their ideas for a moral code for our own time. Electronic Arts, a popular game maker, commissioned a survey that found that very few people know the Ten Commandments. In fact, over a quarter of 11-16 year olds can't recite a single one of the Ten Commandments from memory. They go on to suggest that "they are now seen as 'outdated and irrelevant to modern life' - so they have asked people to rewrite them to reflect the world we live in today.

So the Ten Commandments are not well known, but they are still being discussed. Why are we going to look at them? Are they really relevant today? Aren't they too negative, and haven't we moved beyond rules?

These are all good questions, and we're going to explore the answers. But let me answer the two main questions. First, are the Ten Commandments still relevant? And Scripture answers: absolutely. The Ten Commandments were given to God's people on a mountain in a dessert thousands of years ago, but they still are very important to God's people today. When Jesus gave what we now call the Sermon on the Mount, he expounded in depth the meaning of a number of these commandments and applied them to today. When the rich young ruler asked Jesus what he must to do to have eternal life, Jesus responded first by listing some of these very commandments (Matthew 19:16-19). The apostle Paul listed recited and affirmed these commands, and concluded that "love is the fulfillment of the law" (Romans 13:10). James spoke of these commands to argue that they're a unity. One theologian puts it this way:

There are a few details of the Decalogue that do not apply to us as new covenant Christians, but for the most part the Ten Commandments express principles that will never change, that apply to all times and all situations. The Decalogue presents these principles in general terms, thereby covering all of human life. (John Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life)

But here's the second question: aren't the Ten Commandments too negative? Or to put it differently: haven't we moved on from the Ten Commandments to something more positive? This question is really based on a view of the commandments that sees them as negative, that sees God's commands as a straightjacket that robs us of our freedom. We'd much rather live without rules, except for the rule that we can do as we like.

But nothing could be further from the truth. These commands were not given to take away our freedom, but to ensure our freedom. What do I mean? When God gave these commands to Israel, they had just come out of hundreds of years of slavery in Egypt. They had been in political, economic, social, and spiritual bondage. But God set them free, and now three months later God gives them these commands. He begins by reminding them, "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery" (Exodus 20:2). It's in the context of their liberty that God gives these commands. The basic question they answer is: now that God's people are free, how can their freedom be preserved? These commands become the founding charter of God's people, and it's really a charter of freedoms. The goal of these commands is to protect the blessings of the freedom achieved by God when he liberated them from Egypt.

You still may be thinking, "I still don't see how commands lead to freedom." That's often because we see freedom as the ability to choose for ourselves what is best. But as someone has put it, freedom is not the absences of restrictions; it's finding the right restrictions. For instance, a fish is only free if it's limited to water. If you liberate a fish from water, that fish will die. If you want freedom in marriage, it comes from the constraints of love, which involves a mutual loss of independence. But we become ourselves within these boundaries. "Freedom," writes Tim Keller, "is not the absence of limitations and constraints but it is finding the right ones, those that fit our nature and liberate us."

You see this even in this passage. The commands are rooted in two things: God's gracious nature - "I am the LORD your God" - and God's gracious actions - "who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery." These are not the commands of a God who is against us and wishes to restrict our freedoms so we live a life of misery. These are the commands of a God who communicates his gracious nature, who gives us his personal name so we can be in intimate relationship with him. This is also the God who has saved us with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Israel then knew of their deliverance from bondage in Egypt; we now understand that we have been set free from an even greater bondage. God gives us these commands as the God who is gracious in his nature, and the God who has saved us.

So these commands are relevant to us today, and they are liberating. They preserve freedom. They are also significant because we read that God himself spoke these words. This is the one occasion in redemptive history in which all the people of God were gathered in one place, and God spoke to them directly from his own lips.

So today, let's look at the first command, which is in many ways the foundational command for all the others. Martin Luther said that this command is "the very first, highest and best, from which all the others proceed, in which they exist, and by which they are directed and measured." In some ways, every command is essentially a different perspective on the same thing. Each of the commands is, in essence, a restatement of this command applied to a different area of life. That means that every sin is a violation of this commandment. When we break any of the commands, we're also breaking this one.

What is the first commandment? Exodus 20:1-3 says:

And God spoke all these words: "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me."

I want to simply ask two questions this morning. First: what does this command say? Second, how do we do what it says?

So first, what does this command say?

Well, that shouldn't be too hard. It simply says that we are to have no other gods before Yahweh. It's very similar to the second command: "You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below." Somebody has suggested that both these commands are about right worship. The first command tells us to worship the right God. The second command tells us to worship God rightly.

But let's look a bit deeper here. Notice that God does not say that there are no other gods. Scripture does in fact say that in other places, but it's important to notice that this command was given to a nation in which false gods abounded. They had just spent hundreds of years in Egypt, where there were many false gods. We live today in a world in which there are many gods. For instance, in Hinduism, there are over 330,000 deities in the various traditions. We live in an increasingly multicultural setting, and there deities, gods, that are rivals to the one true God as revealed in Scripture.

God says, "You shall have no other gods before me." The words before me has the meaning in front of me. I heard recently of someone who is being unfaithful within marriage right in sight of their spouse. It's not being carried out secretly. It's being carried out openly, right in front of that person's rightful partner. God here reminds us that there is no such thing as worshiping other gods behind his back. God is present, and he knows who or what we worship. We are not to have other gods before him.

So you could summarize this command as a call for singular devotion to God. The issue is exclusive loyalty. We are to refuse all rival loyalties and false gods, and worship God alone. The root of all sin, in essence, is to give the love and worship that rightfully belongs to God to something or someone else. God has entered into a relationship with us, and it is one of exclusive covenant loyalty. Polytheism and idolatry are clearly out of the question.

If you're following along, you may be saying, "That's right. No other gods. No false religions and idols!" You may be thinking you're off the hook on this one because you don't have any idols in your house. You may think this, but you'd be wrong.

The real issue goes beyond little carved statues. You see, the real issue is that false gods not only abound in other religions. They abound all around us. They're very much a part of our world. They're sometimes even part of the church. The modern world has developed many God-substitutes that tempt us to forsake the Creator and to give our heart to other things.

In his Large Catechism, Martin Luther asked the question, "What is it to have a god?" Listen to his answer:

A god is that to which we look for all good and in which we find refuge in every time of need. To have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe him with our whole heart. As I have often said, the trust and faith of the heart alone make both God and and idol...That to which your heart clings and entrusts itself is, I say, really your god.

Let me read that again: "That to which your heart clings and entrusts itself is, I say, really your God."

Thomas Watson, a Puritan from the 1600s, said, "To trust in any thing more than God, is to make it a god." He then gave a number of examples:

If we trust in our riches, we make riches our god...If we trust in the arm of flesh, we make it a god...If we trust in our wisdom, we make it a god...If we trust in our civility [our moral goodness], we make it a god...If we trust to our duties [good deeds] to save us, we make them a god.

He even says, "If we trust in our grace [instead of God], we make a god of it." He goes on to include pleasures, our appetites, children - anything, really - we can turn it into a god.

You can see the wisdom of this commandment, because it doesn't deny that there are false gods. This world abounds with false gods. Even good things can become rivals for the worship that alone belongs to God. The thing that we often don't realize is that it is impossible for us to live without having an object of worship. The way that we are created demands that something or someone has our heart. Something is at the center of our worship. The only real question is whether we will give our heart to God, or to someone or something else in his place. God says: don't have any other gods before me.

We're going to look in just a minute at why this is a positive command. But I want to pause here and ask you what idol may have your heart. "That to which your heart clings and entrusts itself is," Luther said, "really your god." What is your heart clinging to? It could be a relationship, a person, money, your position, your looks, anything. Something is at the center of your life. This world abounds with false gods.

You may ask, "What's so bad about clinging to something else besides god? What's wrong with making money, kids, my spouse - whatever - an idol?" You have to admit, idols are pretty alluring. What's wrong with them? It goes back to the introduction to these commands: "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me." Right in the introduction, God tells us what's wrong with giving our hearts to anyone but him. No other god is really God; no other god is gracious; no other god sets us free from bondage. Because they're not god, they're not worthy of worship. Because they're not gracious, these false gods demand performance. If your job is your idol, you have to continually work to prove yourself to your idol. And because no other god sets us free from bondage, every other god will enslave us. We become slaves of our career, slaves to money, slaves to pleasure. Only when we worship God do we worship the one true and gracious God, the one who leads us out of bondage into freedom.

The command is simply, "You shall have no other gods before me." Now you understand how sweeping this command is. Now you understand why Luther said that this command is "the very first, highest and best, from which all the others proceed." It's also good news because Luther also said, "If the heart is rightly disposed toward God and this commandment is kept, obedience to the remainder will follow of itself." In other words, if you get this one right, all the rest will follow.

But you also understand how difficult this is. The real question is:

How do we do this?

How do we have no other gods before the one true God?

The really bad news is that nobody has been able to do this. This is really bad news, because this is "the very first, highest and best, from which all the others proceed, in which they exist, and by which they are directed and measured" as Luther said. But if we are honest, we all have to admit that we consistently put other things and other people before God.

It gets even worse. When Jesus was asked to identify the greatest commandment, he responded by giving us the first commandment in a positive form:

Jesus replied: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments." (Matthew 22:37-40)

The first and greatest commandment is total devotion to God. It's exclusive loyalty. But we're hopeless at doing this. We consistently give our hearts to other things and other people.

That's why Jesus responded with a challenge one day to someone who claimed to have kept all the commandments. The man asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus reminded him of the Ten Commandments, and the man said, "All these I have kept since I was a boy" (Luke 18:21). But then Jesus said, "You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me" (Luke 18:22). We read that the man became very sad and walked away. Why? Because Jesus had put his finger on the one thing that he loved more than God. Jesus had identified the idol in his life, and this man was unwilling to make a break with that idol.

Jesus then said, "How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of God" (Luke 18:24-25). The people who heard this responded, "Who then can be saved?" (Luke 18:26). This is one of the best questions. What hope is there for people like us who tend to put all kinds of things ahead of god, who break the first commandment regularly, who put all kinds of gods before him?

It's at this point that Jesus gives us hope. "What is impossible with human beings is possible with God," he says (Luke 18:27). There isn't a person here who is capable of dethroning all idols and giving his or her heart to God alone. It's impossible. But what is impossible with us is possible with God.

It's this verse that gives idolators like us hope. The only person who ever kept the first commandment perfectly is Jesus. He loved God and his neighbor so perfectly that he was willing to go to the cross and give himself in love to do God's will and to save his enemies. On the cross, Jesus took the punishment for our idolatry. And he's not only offered us forgiveness, but he's given us new hearts that are being transformed so that we will one day love him with total devotion.

What's impossible with us is possible because of what Christ did at the cross. He has changed the first commandment from being a command - "You shall have no other gods before me" - to a promise - "You shall have no other gods before me."

So Father, take us to Jesus this morning. We realize this morning that we are incapable of keeping this command. We are all idolators. We all put other things and people ahead of you. And in breaking this, the first and highest command, we are breaking in one sense breaking the others.

But what is impossible with us is possible with you. Thank you for Jesus, who bore the punishment for our idolatry. And thank you that you give those who trust in Christ new hearts, so that they shall have no other gods before you. We look forward to that promise being fulfilled; even now, set us free from idols. We pray in the powerful name of the one who died to make this possible. In Jesus' name, amen.

The Stricken Rock (Exodus 17:1-7)

For the six weeks leading up to Easter, we're looking at the unfolding mystery of the gospel from the ancient Scriptures. Although we see the good news of what God has done to save us most clearly after the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, you see glimpses of this good news throughout all of Scripture. This is why Jesus could turn to two of his followers, open the Hebrew Scriptures, and explain "to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself" (Luke 24:27). The Bible is not a collection of unrelated stories and moral lessons. It is, we discover, the revelation of God that ultimately takes us to Jesus.

Today we are looking at a crisis that took place not long after God had rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt. What we're going to read is going to highlight three things for us: the trial; the sentence reached as a result of this trail; and the ultimate trial and sentence that we're all a part of.

So let's first look at the trail.

As we start to look at this passage, we need to remember what's just happened. God has just delivered his people from the most totalitarian regime of that day and set them free from centuries of slavery. He's guiding them visibly by going before them as a pillar of cloud during the day, and a pillar of fire at night. When they've had nothing to drink except for bitter water, he's provided sweet water for them. He's fed them miraculously in the desert so that they never have to worry about having enough food. What they have seen is nothing short of amazing. But as we look at the passage that was just read for us, we see that there is a problem. We have to look a little below the surface to understand how serious this problem became, not just for them, but for us as well.

In verse 1 we read that Israel has moved to Rephidim. We have no idea where Rephidim is anymore, but we can guess that it's within traveling distance of the last place they camped, which presumably had water, an oasis in the desert. We read the problem at the end of verse 1: "there was no water for the people to drink." This is a significant problem.

The whole nation of Israel was on the move, up to two million people. They were not in a car driving; they were in the desert walking. And they were not looking for the convenience of a refreshing drink. Their very lives were at stake. Stopping in the middle of the dessert with no water was big trouble. In the middle of Sinai, dehydration would take hours, not days. As soon as their water-skins from the last night were empty, death was certain. So you can understand why the people of Israel were concerned.

So we read in verse 2: "So they quarreled with Moses and said, 'Give us water to drink.'" Notice that this word keeps coming up in these seven verses. Moses says at the end of verse 2, "Why do you quarrel with me?" In verse 7 we read that Moses renamed the place Massah and Meribah, which means testing and quarreling.

Here's where we need to understand what's taking place below the surface. What does this word quarrel mean? It means much more than what your kids do when they're overtired. It's more than a spat. The word quarrel here is a legal term describing the launch of a lawsuit. The prophet Micah used the term to describe the lawsuit God brought against Israel for breaking his covenant.

The people of Israel were effectively taking legal action against Moses. The charge was negligence. They say in verse 3, "Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?" And the penalty, presumably, is that after he is found guilty, Moses will be sentenced to death. That's what Moses says in verse 4. "Then Moses cried out to the LORD, 'What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.'" They are all going to die in the desert; Moses may as well be the first to go as the one who has brought them there. This is no case of grumbling; this is a trail on a capital offense.

But the defendant in this case wasn't just Moses. Ultimately, they're suing God. Verse 7 says, "And he called the place Massah and Meribah because the Israelites quarreled and because they tested the LORD saying, 'Is the LORD among us or not?'"

Here's the real issue: they are not putting Moses on trial; they are putting God on trial. God had provided for them over and over. He had cared for them in miraculous ways. And yet they've put God on trail, charging him with negligence on a mass scale. And the penalty, at least for Moses, is death.

We need to understand what this his incident is and isn't about. It's not about the doubts that come our way. Most of us, at one time or another, encounter times that we struggle to believe. I know some people who have lost their jobs in the economic crisis. Somewhere along the line they may struggle. They may say, "God, I'm having a hard time trusting you to provide in these circumstances." We may need to confess to God that we believe, but that we need help with our unbelief. But that's not what's happening here.

What is this passage about then? It's not about doubt; it's about accusation. Doubt is when we admit that we don't understand and that we're struggling. Accusation is when we set ourselves up as judges over God, and make him the defendant, as if God has to answer to us. Do you see the difference? When we struggle with doubt, we still see God as God. When we accuse God, as in this passage, we have set ourselves up over God. We've put him on trial.

And what this passage reveals is that we have a problem. And the problem goes deeper than actions; the problem is that our hearts have an inclination.There's something within us that makes us prone to question God, even accuse him. This began in Genesis 3, and it continues to this day when we set ourselves up over him, and we're inclined to press charges against him and doubt his presence at every turn.

I've experienced times that God has come through in surprising and extraordinary ways. I've heard of the same. Just this week I talked to someone who faced a choice between doing the right thing and the wrong thing. The problem with doing the right thing is that it came with a heavy price tag. It was going to cost him and his family. But he did the right thing, and as soon as he got home there was a check for $5,000 from a stranger. He believed that this was God's provision for him, a reminder that God would care for him no matter how bad things look.

I hear stories like this, and I've experienced them too. But when I get into a jam, my heart's inclination is not to trust God. My heart's inclination is to doubt, to fret, to worry and to begin to accuse the One who has provided for me, who has given me far more than I deserve. I don't wait for my need to be met. I don't always even pray for my needs to be met. Instead, my inclination is to doubt God, even to put him on trial, to expect him to answer to me.

God said later in Deuteronomy 6:16, "Do not put the LORD your God to the test as you did at Massah." But we do this all the time. So we see there is a trial going on in this passage, and it's a trial we're involved in too.

So what's going to happen with this trial?

Let's look together at the sentence that was arrived as a result of this trial.

So just to review: Israel has put Moses, and by extension God, on trial. God is in the dock. What's going to happen? Read verses 5 and 6 with me:

The LORD answered Moses, "Go out in front of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink." So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel.

What's happening here? On the simplest level, God is providing water for his thirsty people, showing again that he provides for his people. That's true. But there's much more going on here. What you have going on here is a trial.

God tells Moses to go in front of the people. Why? Because this is the court of judges and witnesses. Court is in session as these elders come together. A trial is underway.

God tells Moses to take the staff with him. What staff? The one he'd used to turn the Nile River into blood, judging the gods of Egypt. In other words, this is the rod of judgment.

Moses passes before the people, and you can imagine them thinking, "Oh my goodness, what have we done?" They've accused God, and God has now said, "Okay, let's take this to court and see how this goes." And now you have the court assembled and the rod of judgment prepared.

What would happen? What if the rod of judgment fell on Israel for their rebellion? You can only imagine. Later on the prophet Isaiah talked about the rod of God's judgment coming down on Assyria:

The voice of the LORD will shatter Assyria;
with his rod he will strike them down.
Every stroke the LORD lays on them
with his punishing club
will be to the music of timbrels and harps,
as he fights them in battle with the blows of his arm.
(Isaiah 30:31-32)

But who's on trial? Is it Moses, who's been accused by the people? Is it Israel? In one of the most incredible twists, God says in verse 6, "I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb." You need to understand that in the Old Testament, God does not stand in front of people. People stand before God. God is on trial here. God sits in the prisoner's dock. Moses has his rod of judgment, and it is God himself who stands to be judged.

And in one of the most incredible passages of Scripture, God tells Moses to raise his rod of judgment and strike the rock. Later on in the psalms that commemorate the event, God is described as a Rock (Psalms 78 and 95). God is standing by the rock as it's stricken. Do you see what is happening?

God was not guilty. God had done nothing wrong. He had provided for them over and over again. And yet Israel put God on trial. God stands in the place of the accused. And now, at God's command, the rod of judgment strikes God himself, not because he is guilty, but because the people are guilty. He gets the punishment that they deserve.

And as a result of that judgment, as the rock is smitten, water comes out. The needs of a rebellious people are met as God himself bears the punishment that they deserved. They drink the water they need and their lives are saved precisely because God took the judgment they should have received! The guilty verdict is read, but instead of the guilty being punished, God is. God receives the judgment he didn't deserve, and the guilty receive the grace that they didn't deserve.

Do you understand? The God we serve, the Rock of Israel, is a God of mercy who bears his own judgment for the sins of his people. It's amazing! Some people think the God of the Old Testament was a harsh God. Here we see that God is a gracious and compassionate God, one who - even in the Old Testament - stands in the place of the guilty, bearing the punishment on behalf of his people. The stricken rock shows us the gospel of grace, even in the time of Moses.

But the story doesn't end there. We've seen the trail and the sentence reached at the end of this trail.

What I'd like to look at before we close is the ultimate trail we're all a part of, and the ultimate sentence that was paid.

God himself took the punishment that Israel deserved. It's great news. But there is a greater problem, that should concern us all.

In the coming years, Israel fails God time and time again. The events that we just read about took place at the beginning of the wanderings in the wilderness. Sadly, a similar event took place almost forty years later in Numbers 20. The old generation had died out; a new generation is in place, and they're about to enter the Promised Land. We read in Numbers 20 that this new generation also quarreled with Moses. The wanderings of Israel in the desert are bookended with these failures. This time, tragically, Moses failed by striking the rock twice. He knew that God's presence was in the rock, and that speaking to it would be speaking with God. He hit the rock twice, and unthinkable outburst of anger against God. God still provided water for Israel, but he announced the verdict. Moses would not be allowed to lead the people into the Promised Land, because he had disobeyed God in such a severe manner.

God was so gracious in Exodus 17 when he stood in the place of sinners. But the problem is that the story doesn't end in Exodus 17. It continues in Exodus 32 and in all the failures of Israel, and even the failure of Moses himself. Even the good guys fail! What hope is there for us? God took the punishment for them in Exodus 17, but what's going to happen with all of their other failures? What's going to happen when even the good guys commit the most horrible sins?

The New Testament answers this question, and it's amazing. In 1 Corinthians 10:4-5 we read: "They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ."

What does this mean? It means that Jesus Christ was with Israel in the desert wanderings. The rock that was smitten by Moses was Jesus Christ himself. The smitten rock points us to the ultimate Rock who was smitten for our sins: Jesus Christ. We have received the guilty verdict for our sin. God, the righteous judge, must take the rod of divine justice and administer the sentence. But it is Jesus who is smitten. Isaiah wrote:

Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
(Isaiah 53:4-5)

When Moses struck the rock in the desert, life-giving water poured out. And when Jesus was smitten at the cross, blood and water poured out from his side. In the ultimate trial that we're all a part of, we have been found guilty. But when the rod of divine justice came down, it came down on Jesus. And as a result of that Rock, Jesus Christ, being smitten, we get the water that we need.

As we close, we need to see two things clearly. One is that we're part of a trail, and that we deserve the guilty verdict. We deserve the rod of justice. Even the best of us don't stand a chance.

But then we need to see that the rod of divine justice will fall on us, and it should. But there's another way. Jesus said, "Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them" (John 7:37-38). Jesus said, "Those who drink the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life" (John 4:14).

Let's pray.

One day we will stand before God in judgment. The rod of divine justice will be there. On that day, there are many who will plead innocence. They'll talk about all the good things they've done. But not even Moses was good enough. On that great and dreadful day, we will have to acknowledge that we deserve that rod of judgement to come down on us, and it's a rod that can crush us.

But on that day we can have hope. We can look at the rod of justice, admit that it's what we deserve, but then plead that Jesus our Rock stood in our place and received the judgment that we deserved. I plead with you to put your trust in Christ this morning.

Father, thank you for your amazing grace. Thank you that Jesus endured and exhausted the divine judgement that we should have received. This is our only comfort in life and death. We look to that Rock today. Amen.