Topical Scripture: Exodus 20:1-3
Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? is the most popular show on television these days, with 33.6 million viewers most recently. And not long ago, an IRS agent named John Carpenter actually won the million dollars. I’ll bet he paid his taxes.
It looks like a simple game, but I discovered personally that if you don’t play by the rules you cannot win.
Did you call that number they advertised a few months ago to see if you could qualify to play? I actually did one night, just out of curiosity. I knew the question the recording asked. But I got flustered and didn’t push the buttons on the phone in the right order, the way they said to. I broke the rules. And so, sadly, I couldn’t play.
In the same way, the Ten Commandments are the “rules of the game.” These ten principles tell us how life works, and how to live if we want to live well.
In weeks to come we’ll learn how to handle our ambitions, religion, stress, parents, enemies, sex, possessions, lies, and lusts. These are God’s rules for every game we play.
Unfortunately, most people don’t know the rules, at least not very well. Newsweek magazine recently reported that only 49% of all Protestants, and 44% of all Catholics, could name even four of the Ten Commandments. Can you? Are you living by them, and thus living well?
Go back with me some thirty-four centuries into the past, and stand with ancient Israel at the foot of Mount Sinai.
We are on a sandy plateau some four thousand feet above the Mediterranean Sea. This is a plain roughly two miles long and half a mile wide, with enough room for two million people to stand together.
Towering overhead 2,200 feet is a huge granite mountain peak, altar-shaped and awesome. This is the mountain of God’s law, the throne from which the King of Kings proclaimed his Ten Commandments.
These words were inscribed by the finger of God on two tablets, written on both sides. If these tablets were twenty-seven inches long by eighteen inches wide, the 172 Hebrew words of these Ten Commandments could easily have been inscribed on them.
Moses shattered them in rage when he descended from the mountain and confronted the idolatry of the people. God made them again. Moses eventually laid them in the Ark of the Covenant, the sacred box carried before the people for centuries and eventually stored in Solomon’s Temple. When the Babylonians destroyed this temple in 598 BC they likely took the Ark, and it is now lost to us.
But the words it contained are not. Imagine it: an obscure tribe of Egyptian slaves plunges into the desert to hide from pursuit, and emerges with a code of ten “words” which is still authoritative today, 34 centuries later. A depiction of Moses and these Ten Commandments adorns the courtroom where the Justices of the Supreme Court meet, deliberate, and lead our nation’s legal system. These ten principles are still the foundation stones of moral and legal systems the world over.
Today we examine their first, and foundational command.
What does God say?
Western Union decided in 1876, “The ‘telephone’ is inherently of no value to us.” Lord Kelvin, president of the Royal Society, said in 1895, “Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.” Charles H. Duell, Commissioner of the U.S. Office of Patents in 1899, said, “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” Irving Fisher, professor of economics at Yale University, said in 1929, “Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.” And Decca Recording Company said in 1962, “We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out.” The group they rejected was the Beatles.
By contrast, our text begins, “And God spoke all these words.” Fortunately, this command is not based on our predictions, our rules, our laws, to be changed by the whim of our legislators.
God said this.
He is the “LORD,” the Hebrew word YHWH. This is the holiest name of God, meaning the One who was, is, and ever shall be.
He is “God,” the Hebrew word “Elohim,” the typical name for God.
He is “your” God—this God is personal. No Buddhist would say “Your Buddha;” no Muslim would say “Your Allah;” no Greek would say “Your Zeus.” But YHWH calls himself “your God.” We can know him personally, as you would know “your wife” or “your husband” or “your son” or “your daughter” or “your friend.”
He is the holy YHWH, who is yet our personal God.
What does he want of us? “You shall have no other gods before me.”
Remember that the Hebrews have just come from Egypt, where the people worshiped Ra, Phthah, Osiris, Isis, Horus, the animals, and the pharoahs.
They were going into polytheistic Canaan, the land of Baal, Ashtoreth, Asherah, Molech, and Dagon.
Their own ancestors had made the Tower of Babel, to make themselves God. Joshua had warned them, “Long ago your forefathers, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the River and worshiped other gods” (Joshua 24:3).
This would be their tendency as well. In fact, they would make and worship the golden calf even as YHWH was giving this command to Moses on the mountain above.
So, God says, “Have no other gods before me.” “Before me” means “against my face,” and requires absolute and unconditional allegiance to God and worship of him alone.
What a shocking surprise! Before this, everyone knew that the universe was wild and chaotic, a jungle of warring powers: wind against water, sun against moon, life against death. There was a god of the spring planting and another god of the harvest, a spirit who put fish into fishermen’s nets and a being who specialized in caring for women in childbirth; and at best there was an uneasy truce among all these, at worst a battle.
Now along comes this Moses, from an insignificant band of desert wanderers, and shouts that all these processes are one process from a single source, that the obvious many are the unthinkable One. And he shouted it so loud that it has echoed down all time. This was the greatest discovery ever made (from Joy Davidman, Smoke on the Mountain, 21).
Are you keeping his command?
How are you doing with this, his command to have no God but God?
Our country is not doing so well with these ten commands. Only 13% of us say we believe in all ten of the Commandments. 69% of us say that there is no moral absolute today—we’re our own moral determiners. We’re in charge, not God. Or so we think.
Who’s in charge of your life? Who comes first?
Paul Tillich, the German theologian, says that everybody has an “ultimate concern.” We all have something or someone who matters most to us. How do you know what yours is? Ask yourself three questions:
Where and how do you spend your time? That’s the real currency of our day. The average Christian spends ten minutes a day in prayer and Bible study. If I told you I loved Janet and my boys, that they come first in my life, but only spent ten minutes a day with them, would you believe me? Does your time serve God?
Who are you trying to impress? If you had to choose between pleasing God and impressing your friends, or your girlfriend or boyfriend, or your boss, or your employees, who would you choose? Is it your ambition to please God?
For what would you sacrifice? When was the last time it cost you something significant to follow Jesus? Today, I hope.
How’s your soul with the first commandment this morning?
Why should God be your Lord and boss?
He’s YHWH, the creator of everything that is. Maybe you think life began as a cell in a pool of water—where did the cell and water come from? If the universe began as a Big Bang, where did the Big Bang come from?
He’s our redeemer, the one who brought us out of “Egypt,” out of bondage to our sins and eternal death in hell.
He’s our personal God, “your God.”
He is the only God there is: “I am the Lord, and there is no other” (Isaiah 45:6); “There is no God apart from me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none but me” (Isaiah 45:21).
He demands our worship: “I am the Lord; that is my name! I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols” (Isaiah 42:8). Jesus said to Satan, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only'” (Matthew 4:10).
How can you make him your Lord and boss?
Ask for his help. Each of the Ten Commandments addresses a problem God knows we have. So here, God knows we have trouble making him our only God, our boss. Adam and Eve first sinned by trying to be as gods, and we’ve done the same thing ever since, from Nero to Hitler. Ask God to help you.
Examine your life. For what would you die? For what are you sacrificing today? What or who matters most? If the answer is anyone but the Lord God, obey Joshua 24:23: “Throw away the foreign gods that are among you and yield your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.”
Make time every day, early, to worship him: “It is the Lord your God you must follow, and him you must revere. Keep his commands and obey him; serve him and hold fast to him” (Deuteronomy 13:4). Decide each day to live that day to please God.
Start today, before you leave this place of worship. This is the only day you have.
People who don’t use seat belts spend 54% more time in the hospital each year than people who wear them. Are you wearing God’s seat belts for your soul? Put yours on, while you still can.
Ephesus was the largest, richest, and most influential city in all of first-century Asia. Their Temple of Diana was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. 425 feet long by 225 feet wide, she possessed 127 columns, each 60 feet high; 36 of these columns were covered with gold, jewels, and carvings. A spectacular sight, to be sure.
But according to Revelation 2, the Christians here lost their “first love.” They stopped loving Jesus as their highest priority, their first commitment. Jesus warned them that if they did not return to him, essentially to observing the First Commandment again, he would remove their church and their city would cease to be.
What happened? Ephesus is today a city of abandoned ruins. And the Temple of Diana lies in rubble, a stark sermon in stone to any who violate the First Commandment. We don’t break God’s rules for life, we break ourselves on them.
How is your soul with God today?