Putting God First

Exodus 20:1-3

June 26, 2012 | Brian Bill

A friend of mine took me to Spoon River Raceway in Canton on Tuesday.  It was my first experience at the track.  My ears are still ringing and I can’t get the dust out of my mouth.  Since this was a new experience for me, I had a lot of questions that I peppered my friend with all night.  I’m sure some were pretty stupid but I asked them anyway.  One question I asked was this: “How does the guy in the lead know what’s happening behind him?  Does he have a rear view mirror?”  My buddy laughed out loud and then he said, “There are no mirrors.  It doesn’t matter what’s happening behind you if you’re in first place.  Just keep your eyes on the finish line and drive hard.”

As we launch into our “Stone Tablets in a Wireless World” series today by focusing on the first commandment, it strikes me that if we keep this commandment to put God first, it doesn’t matter what’s happening behind us.  We need a laser focus on the finish line as we drive hard to know God in all His glory.  The first commandment is as follows: “You shall have no other gods before me.”

During this summer series, we’re learning the commandments in consecutive order.  I talked to a single mother this week who has been teaching her children the commandments based upon how we learned them last week.  She actually hit me up for the rest of them.  I praised this parent because she’s doing exactly what she should be doing by passing along the commandments to the next generation.  

Let’s review the Commandments we learned last week.  I recognize that we have new people each Sunday but you’ll be able to pick up these commandments quickly…if you participate.

1: Hold up one pointer finger – point to the sky (one God; no other gods)

2: Hold up two pointer fingers – have one bow before the other (no idols)

3: Hold up three fingers – place over mouth (don’t take God’s name in vain)

4: Hold up four fingers – place on cheek as if to nap (Sabbath rest)

5: Hold up five fingers – place hand over heart (honor parents)

I’m going to add another one today.

6: Hold up five fingers on one hand and the pointer finger of your other hand – turn pointer finger into a “gun”  and aim at the other hand (don’t murder)

Simple, But Not Easy

Before we look at the preamble to the commandments, I want to share some principles put forth by Philip Ryken that will help us understand and apply them.

  1. Follow the biblical rule.  What does the rest of the Bible say about each commandment?
  2. Follow the inside/outside rule.  Am I living out this command internally as well as externally?  Don’t just focus on the outward action but on the inward attitude.  Jesus did this in the Sermon on the Mount when He equated lust with adultery and anger with murder.
  3. Follow the two-sided rule.  Where a sin is forbidden, the corresponding duty is required; and where duty is required, the corresponding sin is forbidden.  When a particular vice is condemned; a particular virtue is commanded.  For instance, the command that forbids murder simultaneously requires the preservation of life.  The true intent tells us what to do as well as what not to do.
  4. Follow the rule of categories.  Each commandment stands for a whole category of sins: “It governs not only the specific sin that is mentioned, but all the sins that lead up to it, and all the supposedly lesser sins of the same kind.”  Giving too much time to a possession or a sport or hobby can lead to outright idol worship.  A white lie is still a lie.
  5. Follow the brother’s keeper rule.  Don’t encourage someone else to do what God has told us not to do, or keep them from doing something that God has commanded.  Without a doubt parents shape their children’s moral character, both for evil and for good.  This also means that we need to watch our example.  It certainly means to stop someone from gossiping because if you don’t you’ll be drawn into it as well.  Be careful about sharing in someone else’s sin or leading them astray by your sin.

The Commandments Keep us Safe

We concluded last week that the commandments are important, but impossible to keep.  That’s why we must put our faith in Jesus Christ, the impeccable one, who kept them all, and took upon himself our penalty for not keeping them.  

One pastor says this: “We are not saved by keeping the 10 Commandments.  However, we are kept safe by them.”  That reminds me of the boy who came home from his Sunday morning class.  When his dad asked what he learned, he bubbled over with excitement: “It was great, dad.  We learned all about the Ten Commandos!”  He’s right.  God’s commandos keep us safe and secure.  The Law reveals the righteousness of God but cannot produce righteousness in the heart.  Commandments don’t give us life; but they certainly guide life.

The Ten Commandments are an excellent summary of 10 divine rules for human conduct. The Bible Knowledge Commentary calls them rules of (1) religion, (2) worship, (3) reverence, (4) time, (5) authority, (6) life, (7) purity, (8) property, (9) tongue, and (10) contentment.

The Preamble

Please turn to Exodus 20:1-3: “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.”

The opening two verses of Exodus 20 are often-overlooked but are extremely important in establishing the context of the commandments.

1. Revelation – “And God spoke all these words…” 

Having been in Egypt for 400 years, God’s people needed to hear from God.  They had been wowed beyond measure in Exodus 19 but now they needed words to know who God was and what He wanted from them.  They knew He was powerful as they saw smoke and flashes of lightning and as they heard the thunder and the sound of the trumpet.  But now these words express God’s character and his demands.

Friends, these words come from the God who speaks and were written by His very finger according to Exodus 31:18: “When the Lord finished speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the Testimony, the tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God.”

God has revealed Himself and He has also entered into relationship.

2. Relationship – “I am the Lord your God…” 

This is the name Yahweh, which was the name God used to reveal Himself to Moses in Exodus 3:14.  This title refers to God as the self-existent One.   Literally it means, “I am who I am.”  Albert Mohler calls this “First person intimacy and first person authority.”

God is powerful and He is also personal

The word “your” is the second person singular pronoun.  God is powerful and He is also personal.  He has revealed Himself to each one personally so that everyone can know Him relationally.  

We see this personal relationship reinforced throughout the commandments. In verse 5: “…for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God…”  In verse 7: “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God…”  In verse 10: “…but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God…”  And in verse 12: “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.”

God’s love gives us limits.  Sometimes love means saying, “No.”  God knows what is best for us so he lays out laws of love.   A pastor friend reframed these commandments to show how blessing flows from obedience.

Blessed are they who put God first.
Blessed are they who need no substitutes.
Blessed are they who honor God’s name.
Blessed are they who honor God’s day.
Blessed are they who honor their parents.
Blessed are they who value life.
Blessed are they who keep their marriage vows.
Blessed are they who respect the property of others.
Blessed are they who love the truth.
Blessed are they who learn the art of contentment.

God’s precepts are given to protect us.  The first four protect our relationship with God.  The next five protect our relationships with others.  The final command against coveting protects us from ourselves.

I know many chafe under the commandments, but let’s think of it another way.  They are short and simple and are designed to gives us freedom.  Remember the words found in 1 John 5:3: “This is love for God: to obey his commands.  And his commands are not burdensome.”

3. Redemption – “Who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” 

Friends, remember this: Love precedes law.  God rescued them before giving them requirements.  This is so important to keep in mind.  When we focus on our own redemption, on God’s amazing grace, how can we not but obey Him?  God said it like this in Exodus 19:4-5: “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.  Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession…”

God made me.  God paid for me.  He purchased me.  He brought me out of slavery to sin.  He owns me.  He certainly has a right to lay down some regulations, doesn’t He?  The Apostle Paul said something similar in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?  You are not your own; you were bought at a price.  Therefore honor God with your body.”  When we remember what we once were, we should delight in obeying God’s commands.  

Here are some other passages that speak of this:

  • Deuteronomy 15:15: “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you.  That is why I give you this command today.”
  • Leviticus 26:13: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt so that you would no longer be slaves to the Egyptians; I broke the bars of your yoke and enabled you to walk with heads held high.”
  • Psalm 116:16 captures how freedom from sin and bondage should lead us to lives of servanthood: “O Lord, truly I am your servant; I am your servant, the son of your maidservant; you have freed me from my chains.”
  • Hosea 13:4: “But I am the Lord your God, [who brought you] out of Egypt.  You shall acknowledge no God but me, no Savior except me.”

Let’s get this straight.  What God requires is based on who He is and what He has done for us.  Because of his revelation, our relationship with Him, and our redemption, we must, shall and will do what He requires, right?

In order to get at the meaning of the 1st Commandment, let me ask you a question.  Assuming that most of you would say that God is first in your life, here’s the question: “What’s number two to you?”  Go ahead and shout out your answers.  Whatever you declared as number two is the biggest threat to what you say is number one in your life.

4. Requirement – “You shall have no other gods before me.” 

Let’s make an obvious observation: The 10 Commandments begin with God, not with us.  They start vertical, not horizontal.  That’s because we must get things right with God before our relationships with others will be right.

The order of words in Hebrew is strong: “There shall not be to you any other gods before me.” The word “before” can mean “above, over, against or in opposition to” the face of God.   Let’s break this down a bit more because the phrase “before me” can be understand in two ways.

  • Before my face.  In this sense it means to have no other gods “in front of me” or “in my presence.” Literally, it forbids us from bringing idols into the place God is worshipped.
  • In my face.  This phrase has the idea putting something in someone’s face.  When we don’t give God our total and exclusive allegiance, it’s like insulting Him to his face.  God says in effect, “You dare not bring even the acknowledgment of any other so-called god into my face.”

The sense is not that you can have other gods as long as God is your favorite.  No.  There are to be no other gods allowed at all.  There can be no competition for our allegiance.  Nothing can be tolerated that takes us away from bowing before Him with our lives.  Let me push us a bit.  It’s a common cliché to say, “God first, others second, self last.”  Or, “God, family, work, self.”  Here’s how weighty this first command is: “God first.”  Period.  There is no second.  

God doesn’t want to be the chief thing; He wants to be everything.  The point is this.  It’s all or nothing.  As someone has said, “If God is not Lord of all, He’s not Lord at all.”  Jesus said it like this in Matthew 6:24: “No one can serve two masters…You cannot serve God and money.”  I’ve been helped by Philip Ryken: “Notice that in this commandment God speaks to us in the singular: ‘You [individually] shall have no other gods before me [personally].’ We do not worship a God, but the God, who wants to have an exclusive love relationship with each one of his people.”

Warren Wiersbe has this insight: “For the Jews to worship another god would be to declare war on Jehovah and incur his wrath.”  While we teach our children to share, there is one thing that God will not share according to Isaiah 42:8: “I am the Lord; that is my name!  I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols.”  He will not share the stage with anyone else.  This hearkens back to one of the phrases that arose out of the Reformation – Soli Deo Gloria, which means, “Glory to God Alone.”

For four centuries, God’s people were surrounded by polytheism and it had no doubt rubbed off on them.  They prayed to the rain god when the ground was dry.  When their wives were barren they cried out to the fertility gods.  But then they saw God’s amazing outpouring of power through the 10 plagues and the pyrotechnic explosion on Mount Sinai.  What one commandment did God want them to hear first?  That He is God and there is no other: “You shall have no other gods before me.”

Keeping the Commandment

I want to transition now to focusing on how we can start keeping this commandment.  To do so, I want to borrow an outline from Pastor Rob Salvato.

1. Premise

There have always been many gods vying for our attention and allegiance.  Here are some from the past that are still alive and well today.

  • Power.  The god Baal represented power but was put in his place by Elijah on the top of Mount Carmel.  People today are still pursuing the god of power.
  • Pleasure.  The idol Ashteroth was worshipped through all sorts of sexual immorality.  This god is still bowed down to today and is called pornography.  Did you know that 25% of all search engine requests are pornography-related?  70% of men aged 18-24 visit porn sites in a typical month and 1 in 3 porn users are women.  Sadly, the number one day for viewing inappropriate images on the web is Sunday.  I’ve not read them, nor will I, but the Fifty Shades trilogy, commonly called, “Mommy Porn” hold the top three best-seller spots on Amazon.
  • Prosperity.  The Syrian deity called mammon was all about materialism and money.  Someone referred to this as the “gift of grab.”
  • PragmatismMolech called worshippers to do whatever it took, regardless of whether it was right or wrong.  Specifically, Molech-followers sacrificed their children by throwing them in the fire.  When you count the babies that have been sacrificed to the idol of abortion in America and add in those who are abused and neglected, it’s obvious that Molech is alive and well today.  If it works, and it makes everything more convenient and less problematic, it must be good, right?
  • Play.  The Greek god Hermes represented athletic prowess and sport.  Many in our culture today are worshipping at the shrine of sports.  In fact, that’s why some families are not in church on a regular basis

In addition to these idols, our culture worships a trinity of false gods that we could call: Diversity, Tolerance and Pluralism.  Friends, none of this is new.  Ecclesiastes 1:9 says: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” 

Here’s the deal. You and I are made to worship.  If we don’t worship God alone we will find something, or someone else to give ourselves to.

2. Prediction

Whatever we give ourselves to that is not God will ultimately disappoint us.  We carry our idols but they then end up becoming a burden…they can’t carry us and they will crush us.

Isaiah 46:1-10“Bel bows down, Nebo stoops low; their idols are borne by beasts of burden. The images that are carried about are burdensome, a burden for the weary.  They stoop and bow down together; unable to rescue the burden, they themselves go off into captivity. ‘Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all you who remain of the house of Israel, you whom I have upheld since you were conceived, and have carried since your birth.  Even to your old age and gray hairs.  I am he, I am he who will sustain you.  I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.  To whom will you compare me or count me equal?  To whom will you liken me that we may be compared?   Some pour out gold from their bags and weigh out silver on the scales; they hire a goldsmith to make it into a god, and they bow down and worship it.  They lift it to their shoulders and carry it; they set it up in its place, and there it stands.  From that spot it cannot move.  Though one cries out to it, it does not answer; it cannot save him from his troubles. Remember this, fix it in mind, take it to heart, you rebels.  Remember the former things, those of long ago; I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me.  I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come.  I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.” 

It’s not a harmless thing to give your life to a false god because according to 1 Corinthians 10:20, behind every idol is an evil spirit.  They are designed to take everything you have, to leave you addicted, crushed and devastated.

I read an article in the Wall Street Journal this week (6/20/12) about the man who is responsible for the current Greek-yogurt craze.  After heaping accolades on him for his innovative processes and out of the box thinking, I was really sad when I read this man’s closing comments.  It’s a picture of what happens when we give ourselves to something or someone other than God Himself.  Responding to a question about what advice he would give to others looking to start a manufacturing business, he said this: “You have to have passion because it requires a lot of sacrifices. I sacrificed my family life.  I lived in the plant the last two years.  I still live in the plant.”  For what?   For overpriced yogurt that tastes like sour cream?

3. Promise.  

God will smash your idols if you will let Him.  One of my favorite illustrations of this is found in 1 Samuel 5:1-5 “After the Philistines had captured the ark of God, they took it from Ebenezer to Ashdod.  Then they carried the ark into Dagon’s temple and set it beside Dagon.  When the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, there was Dagon, fallen on his face on the ground before the ark of the Lord!  They took Dagon and put him back in his place.  But the following morning when they rose, there was Dagon, fallen on his face on the ground before the ark of the Lord!  His head and hands had been broken off and were lying on the threshold; only his body remained.”

Here’s a promise from the Lord – when we try to prop something up in our lives, out of love He knocks it down and shows how ineffective and lifeless it really is.  If you want to be free from false gods, then bring the true God into your life.  You don’t have to get rid of them on your own; in fact, you can’t because they’re too powerful.  Let God take care of that.  But you have to bring Him into the temple of your heart.  When you do, Dagon will be destroyed, Baal will be busted, Ashteroth will be annihilated, Mammon will be mangled, Molech will be no more, Zeus and Hermes will be gone and finally, your altar to self will be smashed to smithereens.

they found it more convenient to get rid of God than to throw their broken idol away

Having said all that, let me give a caution at this point.  If you keep reading, instead of repenting, the people remove the Ark of the Covenant.  They found it more convenient to get rid of God than to throw their broken idol away.  Some of you will be prone to do the same thing.  Instead of allowing God to clean out the idol factory of your heart, you will look for ways to shut God down.  When things fall apart, some of us get rid of God instead of realizing that maybe God is smashing our idols in order to get our attention!

Let him into the temple of your heart and He will destroy Dagon and whatever else lurks in there.

I came across two questions that can help us determine how well we’re doing at keeping the first commandment.

  • The Love Test: What [or whom] do you love?  God demands your absolute affection.  Origen, writing in the third century, said this: “What each on honors before all else, what before all things he admires and loves, this for him is God.”  Puritan Thomas Watson: “To love anything more than God, is to make it a god.”
  • The Trust Test:  What [or whom] do you trust?  God demands your exclusive allegiance.  Martin Luther once wrote these words: “Whatever thy heart clings to and relies upon, that is properly thy God.”  Ligon Duncan: “That which we love and serve and desire and long after and aim for and strive for and think of the most is our god.”

While there are many idols that call out for our love and for our trust, the supreme deity of our day is the god or goddess of self.  Robert Bellah, in his book on American religion called Habits of the Heart, tells about an interview he had with a woman named Sheila.  This is what she said, “I believe in God.  I’m not a religious fanatic.  I can’t remember the last time I went to church.  My faith has carried me a long way.  It’s Sheilaism.  Just my own little voice.”  Bellah adds, “This suggests the logical possibility of over 220 million American religions, one for each of us.” Ryken writes: “What do we love?  We are infatuated with ourselves.  Whom do we trust?  We believe in ourselves…we say that we want to serve God, but we spend most of our time thinking about our own needs.”

And so, how can we be delivered from the worship of other gods and ultimately from the worship of ourselves?  Simply put, here it is: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and trust fully in his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.  Only true love for God can release you from bondage to other affections and the only way to replace all the things you are trusting in is through a total trust commitment to Jesus Christ.

Choose for Yourselves

To comply with this commandment requires a definite choice.  Jochem Douma says, “Choosing for the Lord always means making a choice that excludes every other possibility. We never get rid of idols if we are not really converted to the only true God.”  Incidentally, the breaking of this first command is very serious business.  Because of God’s people’s reliance upon idols, Israel was exiled to Assyria and Judah was sent to Babylon.  That’s why we’re warned about this even in the New Testament.  1 John 5:21: “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.”

Joshua 24:14-15: “Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness.  Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.  But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living.  But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

God is Lord of all or He’s not Lord at all.  One of the best ways to demonstrate this is by following the Lord in believer’s baptism. 

Writing in the aftermath of World War II, Elton Trueblood looked back to those few brave German Christians who had the courage to oppose Adolph Hitler. When so many others went along or simply kept silent, a few, a courageous handful, would not go along with the majority. Trueblood asked the question, “What made these people different?  Why did they say no when everyone else said yes?” His answer was simple: “They had the First Commandment.”  That made all the difference.  When you have the First Commandment, when you take it seriously as a way of life, you find the courage to stand against the crowd.

Are you in the race today?  If so, are you looking ahead by making God your absolute allegiance?  Are you keeping your eyes on the finish line or are you looking around and behind?  Give God the worship He deserves…and you’ll win.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?