The following is a sermon I preached at First United Methodist Church, Tulsa, on August 12, 2012. The text was Exodus 20:1-3.
I know you can’t read them from where you sit, but perhaps you can tell what I’m holding. It’s a copy of the Ten Commandments, engraved in stone tablets. Charles Geiger, a long-time member of this church, gave this to me several years ago. Charles has given similar sets to a number of people, particularly on the ministerial staff. I really appreciate this lovely copy, and I keep it displayed in my office in a prominent place.
I brought these tablets today because we’re beginning a new series that will largely focus on the Ten Commandments, with some other passages brought in at crucial points. In coming weeks we’ll talk about each of the commandments, what they mean, and how they benefit our lives if we heed them.
I also brought these tablets to illustrate something you won’t see by simply reading off the list of commands. For example, today we look at the first commandment. On this tablet it reads: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” That’s King James style, but it means the same as the NIV: “You shall have no other gods before me.”
Whatever the translation, the wording is clear enough. But something vital to a proper understanding and application is not written here. Indeed, if you have the Ten Commandments memorized, you still need to know something else to avoid misunderstanding the commandments. So perhaps the most important thing I have to tell you this morning is this: If you don’t know the story, you’ll miss the point.
If we know the commandments but don’t know the story surrounding them, we will almost certainly misunderstand them, and consequently misapply them. Probably we’ll ignore them, because they make us feel guilty. Or they may bring out the judgmental side of us. If we don’t know the story of the Ten Commandments, we may be tempted to use them to find fault with other people.
You need to know the story of the Ten Commandments—especially the answers to questions like who, when, and why—so that you can know how to respond to God’s commands. So today, we’ll look at the first commandment, but first we’ll look at the context for the Ten Commandments as a whole.
The first thing to ask is: who gave the Ten Commandments, and when did he give them?
Asking who gave the Ten Commandments seems like an easy question with an obvious answer. But God thought it was important to remind Israel who he is as he begins to give the commandments. Exodus 20:2 quotes God, identifying himself: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (NIV).
And not just here in Exodus 20. Many times in the giving of the Law throughout Exodus and on through Deuteronomy, the Lord says in effect, “I am the Lord who brought you out of Egypt, who delivered you from slavery.”
Identifying himself this way, God seems to claim the right to give Israel directions for living. After all, they owe God their lives, especially their newly liberated lives, set free from oppressive slavery in Egypt.
But more importantly, God is reminding Israel of their own story. Their story with God has been a story of God making promises to Abraham centuries before, promises which God is now keeping. Israel’s story with God now includes the recent series of miracles in which the Lord manifested his power over the most powerful ruler on earth, the Pharaoh of Egypt. More impressively, the Lord manifested his power over creation itself.
It took ten plagues (culminating in the Passover) to pry loose Pharaoh’s grip on his Israelite slaves. In the ten plagues of judgment, the Lord showed his power over all the so-called gods of Egypt, the gods they associated with the Pharaoh, with the sun in the sky, with various living things on earth, and with the all-important Nile River. The Lord had shown that he is in fact the only true God, and that he controls all those things that the Egyptians worshiped.
So in Exodus 20:2, the Lord reminds Israel that he is the God who did these things, which also serves to answer the question about when. When did God give these commandments? God gave these commandments to Israel after he had delivered them, after he had saved them. It’s so important to get the order right. God saved them; then he gave them the Law. The ten plagues come before the Ten Commandments. We need to remember that order. We need to know that part of the story, or we’ll miss the point of the Ten Commandments.
If you know the story, you remember that God revealed himself to Moses in the burning bush (Exodus 3), but he did not give him the Ten Commandments at that time. God did not send Moses into Egypt with a message for the Israelite slaves: “Here’s God’s law; let’s do a good job of keeping it, and maybe God will save us.” No, God sent Moses into Egypt to tell the people he was coming in power to save them, to set them free, and take them to the Promised Land. After God delivered them, then he gave the law as guidance they would need for a life full of blessing.
God did not give Israel the law so that they could save themselves or earn their salvation. God gave the law as guidance to a people he had already saved. That’s how you and I should read the law, not as a way to save ourselves by keeping the rules but as a way to guide our lives as the people saved by grace.
To make sure we see this important point, please notice with me a couple of earlier passages, before Exodus 20. The first is in Exodus 14. This is after the ten plagues struck Egypt, after the Passover. The Israelites have left Egypt, but Pharaoh has changed his mind about letting them go. With his mighty army he pursues Israel to the shores of the Red Sea. Israel is trapped between Pharaoh and the sea. The people cry out with fear, certain Pharaoh’s chariots will soon run over them and round them up for slaughter. But in Exodus 14:13 (NIV), “Moses answered the people, ‘Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again.’”
The Israelites have already seen many things God has done to save them. Now Moses tells them again, “Stand still and watch God. Don’t try to save yourselves; let God save you. Watch!” Just as he promised, God intervened; he made a way when there was no way. He opened a path through the Red Sea, for Israel to cross on foot. When Pharaoh’s chariots tried to follow, they were caught in the rush of returning water. One more time, God did what no one else could do to save his people.
Now let’s go forward to Exodus 19. The people have arrived at Mt. Sinai, where they will enter into solemn covenant to be God’s people on earth. God will soon give them his law. But before he does, God says in Exodus 19:4: “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself” (NIV).
God reminds them what they have already experienced of his saving grace and power: “You have seen it,” he says. “You have seen how I carried you. I brought you on ‘eagles’ wings’—far beyond your own power. I have brought you to this place. I have brought you to myself.” Israel didn’t earn this privilege; they didn’t achieve this status; God gave it to them. God has carried them. God has brought them close to himself to be his very own people, with unique knowledge of his ways, to share with the rest of the world as their testimony of the greatness and goodness of God.
In Exodus 14:13, they were told to stand still and see the salvation of God. Now, in 19:4, the Lord reminds them that they have seen the salvation of God. That brings us to Exodus 20, where, in effect, God says, “Now hear this!” Now that you’ve seen what I’ve done to save you, listen to my words of direction, my words of guidance. Now that you’ve seen what I’ve done, listen to what I want you to do.
In connection with that, notice something that’s easily missed. Did you notice the wording in Exodus 20:1? “And God spoke all these words” (NIV). Several chapters later, Moses will receive stone tablets engraved by the finger of God (Exod. 31:18). But in Exodus 20, God is speaking—audibly—to the whole nation of Israel. They all heard the Lord, speaking the Ten Commandments. The people were so overcome by the experience that they begged for it not to be repeated (as you can see in Exodus 20:18-21).
The point I want to underscore is that first God showed them his saving power; then he spoke his guiding word. Humans are more likely to follow guidance when we trust the good intentions of the one who offers it. God had given Israel abundant evidence of his power and his good intentions; they had seen what he had done. Now he speaks guidance for their lives, individually and as a nation. They should listen, but they should also never forget what they have seen.
So we know who gave the Ten Commandments and when, and that has begun to answer the question of why God gave the commandments. God’s purpose in giving the law was not to save Israel; it was to guide them. What is God’s purpose for us in the Ten Commandments?
The most common misunderstanding of the OT law comes from trying to use God’s commands as a way to save ourselves—by our performance. Maybe we’re not foolish enough to think we’ve done a perfect job of obeying God, but we are vain enough (at least I am) to think we do the right thing more than lots of people, maybe more than most people.
Are you like most people? Do you think you’re better than the average person when it comes to making moral decisions? You know the average person thinks he’s better than average. Is that your confidence for judgment day? Do you think God will populate heaven with those who have been better than average? Do you think God will weigh your good against your bad and give you extra credit for sincerity? Is that what you’re counting on? If so, you’re counting on your performance. You’re counting on yourself. And to you God says, “Stop counting on yourself; start counting on me. Stop and look at what I’ve done to save you. When your heart sees what I’ve done to save you, you will want to listen to what I tell you to do.”
The purpose of the law as guidance—not salvation—is made clear in the New Testament, in such passages as Galatians 3:24 (NIV): “So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith.” Other translations use the word “tutor” or “schoolmaster” to describe the Law. The point is, the instruction of the Law can lead us to the Savior, but the Law is not and never was meant to be the means of salvation. The Law can teach us our need for salvation as we see how we fall short of God’s purpose. The Law can show us we have fallen, but it does not pick us up. For that we need the Lord himself, carrying us, just as he carried the Israelites “on eagles’ wings” to himself. The Lord comes to us in our brokenness, in our slavery, to pick us up and bring us close to himself, so that his presence heals us. The Law can show us we need healing, but it does not heal. God does.
One time I thought I had a broken hand, after another player hit me rather awkwardly in a basketball game. My hand hurt and it wasn’t working properly; so I took myself out of the game. I wasn’t sure what was wrong, but an x-ray confirmed my guess: my hand was broken. The doctor made sure everything was rightly aligned; then he put on a splint to keep my hand still long enough for the bone to heal.
The x-ray revealed the break—the location and its severity—but the x-ray did nothing to heal the broken bone. For that matter, the doctor didn’t heal the bone either; he just set it in place, and the life in my body produced the healing over time.
God’s law is like an x-ray, revealing broken souls and broken relationships, but the x-ray does nothing to heal what is broken. That takes the personal touch of Jesus the Healer. Even more, it takes his healing life injected into our souls. The law’s x-ray reveals our brokenness, but Jesus sets things right, and then the presence of the Holy Spirit brings healing through the new life he breathes into us.
This applies to the way we read the whole Bible: before we try to live by God’s guidance (in the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount) we need to see what God has done to save us. We need to listen to the Ten Commandments and listen to Jesus’ instructions as coming from the God who has shown us how much he loves us and what his power can do.
From God who has already acted to save us, we can receive instructions which will bless us and make us a blessing to others. But if we try to live by the rules in order to save ourselves, we won’t be blessed by the law. Remember, God doesn’t give us the law to save us. He gives the law to people saved by his grace and power. He gives the law to instruct us in the way that is good. But the power to live in the way that is good is the power of his saving presence, the power of his Spirit within us.
So, what about commandment number one in the Ten Commandments? “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3, NIV). Why does God require this from Israel and from us? Is it because he doesn’t like competition from rival gods? God is a jealous God, as Exodus 20:5 tells us. But an even more fundamental reason is that the Lord God knows there is no competition! And Israel should know this, after all they saw God do in Egypt in the ten plagues, after what they saw him do at the Red Sea. There is no other god who saves like this!
Israel should worship and serve no other god but “the Lord [their] God who brought [them] out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” What about us? We worship the same God, but not only because he delivered Israel from slavery. We worship the same God, who has now given “his only-begotten Son, so that whoever believes in him can have everlasting life.” We worship the same God, who has raised Jesus Christ from the dead. We worship the God who has conquered sin and even death, this God who has shown us that he alone is God and there is no other.
The first command requires Israel and us to worship the true God, exclusively. We are not to seek our lives and our salvation in those things which fascinate us only to fail us: our pleasures, our possessions, our powerful positions, or anything else that we allow to run our lives. We allow these things to rule our lives because we think we can get life from them. Eventually we learn these are false gods, with no power to give life or lasting fulfillment. God knows this already; so he says, “No other gods!”
God wants you to live; he doesn’t want you to seek life where it cannot be found. God wants to be the only God you worship and serve, because he is the only God who saves and fulfills your reason for being. God knows he is the only God you really need; and he wants you to know that.
How much does he want to be your God? To be all the God you’ll ever need, he’s willing to go to the cross, to die and then rise, and then give us the gift of the Holy Spirit.
To us this morning God says, “Look what I’ve done to save you. Look what I’m doing to finish my saving work. Listen to what I say. Follow my directions. Keep always before you the cross of Christ, the sign of my conquest of everything that would destroy you. I am your God; there is no other.”