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 They go on to suggest that "they are now seen as 'outdated and irrelevant to modern life' - so they have asked people to rewrite them to reflect the world we live in today.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.