God Comes First

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Under a scorching midday sun, a group of men survey a row of thatched huts built on a barren stretch of land. "We could place the classroom there," says one of them, who is perspiring heavily. This is a very basic, almost primitive village that has just been built. But its inhabitants are not put off by its remote location or the fact that most of the houses provide only a little protection from the harsh climate. The 400 people who live here all have one thing in common - they were recently freed from a life of virtual slavery. "We were bonded labourers," explains one of them, "working in rice mills not far from here."

That’s from a recent news report about a group of people starting a new life of freedom after they had been rescued from a bitter life of bondage. They’re asking themselves, What do we do now? How do we make sure we stay free? How do we build on our new freedom?

This morning we’re starting our new series on the Ten Commandments. David introduced this two weeks ago. Today we’re focusing on the First Commandment. It’s there in Exodus 20.1-3. That’s on p 77 in the pew bibles. Do have that open in front of you.

Here are those three verses. They’re short. But their message is foundational for our lives. 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.

That’s the introductory bit. And here comes the First Commandment:

You shall have no other gods before me.

Now the Ten Commandments are a charter of freedom. They are God’s answer to the questions of a recently freed people: What do we do now? How do we make sure we stay free? How do we build on our new freedom?

In Psalm 119.44-45 the psalmist delights to pray:

I will always obey your law, for ever and ever. I will walk about in freedom, for I have sought out your precepts.

Living in obedience to the law of God allows us to ‘walk about in freedom’. And that shouldn’t be a surprise. Why? Because God knows best. He made us. He loves us and wants the best for us. And these Ten Commandments are a direct word from him. Verse 1:

And God spoke all these words:…

These commandments are the key principles for living from our maker’s manual. They are God’s words. They reflect his character. He doesn’t change. They are strengthened, not weakened, by the New Testament and by Jesus himself, who brings out their implications for our thoughts as well as our deeds. We shouldn’t resist them, like an out of control dog choking itself as it pulls against its lead. We need to learn to rejoice in them. Psalm 119 again – this time verse 97: ‘Oh how I love your law!’ Why? Because it is the perfect law that gives freedom, as James says.

Now, I have two headings summarising these opening verses. You can see them on the outline on the back of the service sheet. First, God has brought us to himself. Secondly, we must have no other gods.


Verses 1-2:

And God spoke all these words: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.”

These commands are given by God to his people the Israelites at a particular time in their history. What’s been happening? Let me remind you. They had undergone a bitter experience of bondage in Egypt. Exodus 1.14:

[The Egyptians] made their lives bitter with hard labour in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their hard labour the Egyptians used them ruthlessly.

They might have thought that God had forgotten them but he had not. 2.23-29:

During that long period, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them.

How does all this relate to us? We were never slaves in Egypt. Is this all mere ancient history? No. For one thing, this is our family history as believers. By faith in Christ we are all children of Abraham. And what is more, their experience of slavery is like a shadow of the deeper experience of slavery that we all undergo – which is slavery to sin, Satan and death. As Jesus says: “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.” So their experience of redemption – of rescue from slavery – is like a picture of the redemption from slavery to sin, Satan and death that we experience through faith in Christ, and his death and resurrection for us.

What happened to the Israelites? God brought them out of Egypt, and into the desert. So in the same way Christ rescues us from the power and penalty of sin when we put our trust in him.

God was with them day and night. So God is with us by his Spirit.

They were pursued by the Egyptians. They were afraid they’d be killed. They wanted to be safely back in Egypt. So when the going gets tough for us as believers we wonder if it’s all worth it and start complaining at God. God saved them from their enemies.

Then they got hungry and grumbled. And God gave them meat. Then they got thirsty and grumbled. And God gave them water. They got attacked again – but the Lord gave them victory. And then they entered the desert of Sinai and camped in front of the mountain.

And take a look at what God said to them through Moses about all that had happened to them. 19.4-6:

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. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

He says he’s brought them to himself – and now, if they obey him, they can show the world what it is to know the true and living God, so that the world can know him too. That’s what it is to be a holy and priestly nation. And that is exactly true today of us, the family of those who believe in Christ. So Peter says in his First Letter:

You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

Christ has redeemed us. We’re forgiven. We’re free. And now we have to be obedient if we’re going to fulfil God’s plans for us. How did the Israelites react? 19.8:

The people all responded together, “We will do everything the Lord has said.”

They were then warned not to touch the mountain or they would die. And they stood at the foot of the mountain to meet God. And God descended on the mountain in fire, thunder and lightning. And God called Moses to the summit and told him to warn the people again to stay clear. And then…

… God spoke all these words.

And God gave them the commands that summed up what it would mean for them to obey him fully and keep his covenant with them. And the people hear his voice. And then later the covenant is sealed with sacrificial blood. And the glory of the Lord is like a consuming fire. And before you know it, the people become idolatrous. And they are a warning to us.

Before they were called to obey, they had an awesome experience of God: the exodus from Egypt followed by this encounter at the mountain. God brought them to himself, and then said, “Now obey me”. So it is with us. Only the New Testament is clear that the experience we have by faith in meeting with Jesus is even more awesome than anything the Israelites went through. Hebrews 12 says that we have not come to a mountain and a terrifying encounter with the living God there.

But [Hebrews 12.22] you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks.

And it goes on:

Therefore… let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire” [quoting the account in Deuteronomy of the Exodus events].

So God speaks. And first God says to his redeemed people – to us: “I am the Lord”. He has the absolute right to command. He is our Creator and the Creator and ruler of the whole universe. It is a monstrous thing for us to withdraw ourselves from his rule and reject his authority over our lives. After all, we can’t even exist apart from him.

And God says, secondly: “I am the Lord your God”. The ruler of the universe is a God not just of power but of grace and love. He is a God who wants to draw us into a relationship with himself. He is not only the Lord, but he is also “our God”. And we are his people. And what is more, he has acted on his intention and plan to draw us to himself.

So, thirdly, he says he is “the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” This is the God who has already redeemed his people. We are already on the receiving end of the benefits of Christ’s death on the cross for our sins. We have forgiveness and eternal life and peace with God and a hope and a purpose and a future.

This is the God we are talking about. No other so-called god. And this is the God who tells us, with awesome power and tender love, how to live. God has brought us to himself. So what’s the obvious command that should be right at the top of our agenda for living? That’s my second heading.


Verse 3:

You shall have no other gods before me.

The Ten Commandments begin and end with what we might call ‘interior obedience’ – obedience of the heart. No other gods. And no coveting. In fact the Commandments, you might say, work through from our thoughts to our words to our deeds (in relation to God) and then back again from our deeds to our words and to our thoughts (in relation to other people). They cover the whole of life. And everything else flows from this first command. We are to put God, the one true and living God, and only him, first in our lives.

Sometimes people talk about the morality of the Ten Commandments as if you can drop the ones about God and keep the others about people, because they are the important ones. They regard the ones about God as optional extras. Not so. The most important relationship in our lives is our relationship with God. The most immoral thing we can do is to fail to put God first.

Let me ask two questions to clarify the meaning of this command.

Does this Commandment acknowledge the existence of other gods? Yes and no. No, in the sense that the whole point here is that there is only one true God who is the maker of heaven and earth. There cannot be more than one such God.

Yes, in that there are, of course, things that people do make into gods with a small ‘g’ for themselves. People do put other things in the place of the Lord, who brought his people out of slavery – the Lord who we now know is Father, Son and Spirit, because he has come to us in the person of Jesus. Such gods might even have a connection to demonic powers. But all other so-called gods are false gods, impostors. They are not really gods at all, except in that people give their allegiance to them. So the apostle Paul, in 1 Corinthians 8.4-6 puts it this way:

We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.

Second question: What does the phrase ‘before me’ mean? “You shall have no other gods before me.” What is does not mean is that it doesn’t matter if we have other gods, as long as the Lord has the top place in the hierarchy in our hearts. It isn’t referring to rank. It actually means ‘to my face’ or ‘in my presence’. In other words we are not to put anyone or anything else alongside the Lord. There is only room for one God in our lives.

So, for instance, we cannot say, “The Christian God is my main God, but I’ll have the Islamic God and the Hindu gods as well. Jesus is the best god but the others have got a job to do as well.” That is to rob the only true God of the glory that is rightfully his.

Nor is it good enough to say, for instance, that the God of Islam is really the same God because Muslims, like Christians, also believe in one God. Calvin saw right through that over 400 years ago when he wrote:

“So today the Turks [that is, the Muslims], although they proclaim at the top of their lungs that the Creator of heaven and earth is God, still, while repudiating Christ, substitute an idol in place of the true God.”

And we cannot be complacent either about the return of pagan gods in our society. There is right now a planning proposal in Northumberland to construct a female figure in the hillside half a kilometre long – apparently the largest of its kind in the world – which is being called ‘the goddess of the north’. And the designer talks about his concept in these terms:

“If you look back throughout history, the human and animal form have been used in the landscape for thousands of years. Native Americans constructed animal mounds, Cycladic and Maltese cultures built large scale effigies of the goddess, Gaia or Mother Earth and there were countless miniatures of fertility goddesses.”

And not long ago in the Diocese of Newcastle we were circulated with a multi-faith briefing sheet under the strap line: “In all our magnificent diversity, we are united by our humanity”. It had a piece about what it called ‘Lord Krishna’, identified by Hindus as god. It described how devotees of Krishna worship him and express their devotion to their lord.

The First Commandment will not allow us to call that ‘magnificent diversity’. That is idolatry.

And even otherwise good things must not be allowed to usurp the place of the living God. So we heard in our earlier reading how Jesus said that our submission to his rule might require us to leave home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God. None of these must become small ‘g’ gods in our lives. There is room only for the one God.

What do we owe to him? The Ten Commandments appear again in Deuteronomy 5, and just after that, in chapter 6, there is, in effect a commentary on the First Commandment. And that makes clear that what we owe God is to fear him, to listen to him, to obey him, to love him, to talk about him, to write about him, and continually to remember him and all that he has done.

Following the maker’s instructions is a wise thing to do. The other week, just before Christmas, we did a foolish thing in our family. I say ‘we’ – deliberately avoiding being specific – to save the blushes of the individual particularly responsible. Our car has a diesel engine. We were told when we bought it: ‘Remember it takes diesel.’ The manual is crystal clear: ‘Only put diesel fuel in the tank’. We filled it with petrol. That is not a good idea. It drove around relatively alright for a while. But after a bit I started the engine and it started belching and grinding and I couldn’t drive it anywhere until it was fixed. Now that was a mistake. An expensive mistake.

What people are in the habit of doing in relation to this First Commandment is the equivalent of saying: ‘I find this rule that we can only put diesel in so restrictive. I want to do my own thing.’ And the result? Instead of the freedom to drive unhindered, you end up able to go nowhere. If we want to ‘walk about in freedom’ as the Psalm has it, we must live following the maker’s manual. Anything else is the utmost folly.

I remember going to a family service in a church once, and the theme was the Ten Commandments. And the message to the children was: these are rules that the Israelites found useful a long time ago. They are no longer relevant to us. Let’s make up some rules for today, that we would find useful. And the children were asked to make suggestions for new rules to live by. Like putting petrol in a diesel engine, that is folly.

God has brought us to himself – through Christ. He has set us free. So we must have no other gods.

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