"Having God As Our God"
(Delivered Sunday, June 15, 2003 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotes are taken from the New King James Version.)
We come this morning, in our study of the Ten Commandments that God gave to Israel through Moses, to the first of the ten. In Exodus 20:2-3, we read:
And God spoke all these words, saying, "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
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I'd like to begin our look at this commandment by telling you about my own experience in preparing this morning's message. Sometimes, in the providence of God, the preacher serves as his own best sermon illustration; and in this case my own experience shows how surprisingly practical and relevant this commandment truly is.
About a week and a half ago, I had done all the things that I typically do to prepare my message. I had studied this commandment in the original language; and had consulted the commentaries and took careful notes. I even came up with a sermon outline, and had it printed in the bulletin. I was very confident about the basic theme of the message; and was eager to begin typing out my manuscript. But when it came down to actually preparing the sermon itself, I found that I just couldn't do it. I sat at my computer with my fingers hovering over the keyboard; but I couldn't seem to get one word together with another. It was a very frustrating experience; and since it was near the end of the day, I prayed about it and committed the matter to the Lord. My wife and I even prayed about it together. I trusted that, during the next day, God would let me know what to say about the first commandment when I needed to know it - or, that He would give me something else to preach instead.
The next day was a particularly busy day at our home; and time was at a premium for me. I really needed to get the sermon prepared; but once again, I found I couldn't seem to put it all together. I have been preaching for enough years now to recognize what was happening. I had a very strong sense that the sermon I was preparing was not the one God wanted me to preach; and that He wanted me to preach something else instead. What it was that I was to preach, I didn't know; but I definitely had the sense that I was to wait before preaching this particular sermon I was preparing. But here's the problem: I didn't have time to prepare another one; and the time I DID have was quickly running out. And so, I really began to argue with the Lord that I ought to preach the one I was intending to preach. I thought I had a good case, after all; because the outline was already in the bulletin, and now - of course - I HAD to preach it!!
Still, I couldn't shake the idea that God wanted me to preach something else - even after all the work I had already put into this one! I even had a sense by this time of what that other sermon should be. But in my pride, I remained insistent that I preach the one I had originally intended. And that's when I went astray. I chose to ignore the gentle prompting of the Holy Spirit, stiffen my neck, and make the sermon on this commandment work out to the best of my own abilities! But as I wrote, I felt the conviction of the Holy Spirit that I was in disobedience. Imagine - disobeying God while writing a sermon! Here I was ignoring God, so I could write a sermon about God. (Can you just imagine what a flop a sermon like that would be?) And the whole time long, the thing I was writing about was this commandment: "You shall have no other gods before Me."
I had to stop and pray; and ask God's forgiveness for - of all things - trying to write a sermon in disobedience to God!! I realized that, in intending to preach what I wanted to preach, I had been placing another gods before Him; and that I was willing to disobey Him in order to trust in those other "gods" instead. Rather than obey God, I was prepared to trust in the false god of my own abilities; and the false god of my own pride; and even a false god that I'm sure they had never even heard of in ancient Egypt - the false god of the 'already-printed church bulletin sermon outline'!! I knew then that one of the reasons God wanted me to wait to preach this sermon was because He still had much to teach me about how I was disobeying it.
I confessed my sinful rebellion to God that night; and woke up the next day to preach the sermon you heard last week. And now, this week, I bring this one to you with (I pray) the blessings of God - having myself been more thoroughly instructed in how subtile our disobedience to it can be.
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I think that, in studying the Ten Commandments, most of us who are Christians pass over this one a little too quickly. We read, "You shall have no other gods before Me"; and we think to ourselves, "Well, this one is easy for me to keep. I've placed my trust in Jesus Christ, and am a committed Christian now. Like Jesus said, His Father is now my Father and His God is now my God (John 20:17)! I know who the one true God is; and I'm not the least bit interested in bowing down to some disgusting idol. For me, there's only one true God and no other; so I guess I've got this first commandment in the bag!"
And we can keep on believing that it's an easy commandment to keep, and keep on thinking that we're keeping it faithfully, so long as we think that "externally" is the only way we need to keep it. But the moment the Spirit opens our eyes to the fact that we're to keep it "internally" as well as "externally" - and to the fact that we can bow down to another god in our hearts, while still bowing to God with our bodies - then we suddenly see how much we break this commandment.
I wonder how many people in this room have ever actually bowed down to an idol, or consciously worshiped a false god. Although someone from another country or another culture may have, I suspect it would be rare than anyone here ever has done such a thing. But let me ask: have you ever disobeyed the one true God? Have you ever, as it were, shaken your fist at Him and said, "I don't care what You want me to do; I'm going to do what I want to do"? All of us have done that - perhaps many times in the course of a day. Perhaps someone here this morning is even doing that in your heart as I speak. You may even have developed a practice of covering up your rebellious heart attitude toward God by doing a lot of other things that you think SHOULD be pleasing to Him - but you still remain in rebellion against Him. Well; if that's you - or if it has ever been you - then do you realize that you're a breaker of the first commandment? You may never have bowed down physically to an idol; but nevertheless, you stand before God as guilty a violator of the first commandment as if you HAD done so; because the Bible says,
Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry (1 Sam. 15:22-23).
Or consider this: have you ever wanted something that didn't belong to you? Were you ever envious of what God has given to someone else; and coveted what belonged to them? Have you ever wished you could go and gratify your desires and take what you want - even though you know it would be wrong to do so? I don't mean that you actually went and did it; but simply that you wanted to go and do it, and wished you could. But then again, perhaps those passions boiled up in you, and you DID go and do it. If that's true of you (and who among us isn't it true of), then did you know that, once again, you have violated the first commandment, and you stand before God as an idolatrous lawbreaker? The apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Colossians;
Do you see it? Covetousness is, in the eyes of God, the same thing as breaking this commandment. When we're covetous, we are revealing that we're not satisfied with God and His provision for us; and are expressing the desire to get a better deal than the one He has given us. And if that's true of us, then we would then be placing something else before the one true God in our hearts. Similarly, Paul wrote to the Ephesians and said,
In fact, every time you and I make the choice to disobey God and sin, we are choosing not to keep Him and His will for us in first place. And that would have to mean that something or someone else is occupying the place in our hearts that belongs only to God. At that point, we're not keeping this commandment. We're having another god before Him. Can you see how deeply into our lives this first commandment reaches? And can you see how we disobey it far more often than we want to admit? How hopeless we would be if it weren't for the fact that "There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus ..." (Rom. 8:1)!
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Let's consider this first commandment with respect to its position in the Scriptures. It's not only the first of the Ten; but it is also the first commandment of the First Table of the Law. These first four commandments govern our relationship with God; and that makes this first commandment extremely important.
There's a wonderful progression to those first four commandments. This first one defines who is to receive our worship - that is, we are to give our worship to no one else but the one true God. The second commandment takes that first commandment a step further and defines how we are to worship the one true God - that is, we are not to create an image of Him or of the things that concern Him, nor bow down and worship them instead of Him. The third commandment takes the matter a step further still, and defines how we are to reverence this God we are to worship - that is, we are not to take His name in vain, but to hold His name as something sacred and treat the things that concern Him with the utmost reverence. And finally, the fourth commandment takes these things yet another step further, and tells us that we are to manifest a consistent dependency upon this one true God whom we are to reverence and worship - that is, that we are to be very sure to regularly honor and observe His Sabbath rest. These first four commandments are intended to lead us to a right worship of, a right reverence toward, and a right reliance upon the one true God. And it all begins with this first commandment - the commandment to have Him, and no no one else, as our God.
And not only that, this first commandment is really the commandment that serves as the basis of all the other commandments. It's because we are to have Him as our God, and no other gods than Him, that we are to respect the authority of those He places over us - and honor our mother and father. Because we are to have Him and no other god but Him, we are to hold sacred the life of which He is the author - and never murder. Because we are to have Him and no other god than Him, we are to respect the purity of the marital institution He has created - and never commit any form of adultery or violation of the sacredness of marriage. Because we are to have Him as our God and no other god than the one true God, we are to respect the property that He has entrusted to others - and never steal. Because we are to have Him for our God and no one else, we are to respect the truth which is intrinsic to His own character, and which He requires us to operate under - and never bear false witness against our neighbor. And as we have already seen, because we are to have Him and no other god before Him, we are to be satisfied in our hearts with the things that He has given us - and never covet what He has given to someone else. Rightly understood then, this first commandment is the ground and basis of all true morality and ethics. Obedience to the first commandment is the foundational starting point of all right living.
I'll even take the matter further. The whole Bible is really an extension of this one vital commandment. The Bible tells the story of how the one true God has made us for Himself - that we might experience eternal satisfaction in perfect fellowship with Him. But the Bible also tells us of how we have fallen from a relationship with Him because of the sin of our parents, Adam and Eve. It tells of how each member of the human family is now born into the world separated from the God who made them - incapable in their own power of keeping this first commandment as they were designed to keep it; and proving their lost condition through their own sinfulness. It tells us only the beginning of the terrible story that we see played out before our eyes every day - the story of all the misery and suffering mankind has brought into this world because of our separation from the God we were ment to worship.
But then, the Bible tells us of how this same God, in great love and grace, condescended to redeem fallen men and women to Himself by sending His own precious Son to pay the price for the guilt of our sins, and to remove the barrier that separated us from Him. It tells of how He restores sinners to Himself, as a gift of His grace, through their faith alone in the cross of Jesus. And it also tells the glorious story of how these redeemed ones will enjoy a free and unhindered relationship with God forever - fully keeping the intent of this first commandment unto all eternity; and having no other gods but Him forever. In short, the Bible tells the story of how God has made it possible for us to now keep this commandment to the full - as He intended it to be - in Christ; and has destined us to keep it perfectly forever.
This commandment shows us what we were truly made for - what our chief purpose really is. It also shows us how far we have fallen from our chief purpose. And yet, it also reminds us what God has sought to bring about in His whole program of salvation - to bring us back to the place were we truly have no other gods before Him. Can you see, then, how profoundly important this first commandment is?
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There's an important principle we need to keep keep in our thinking when we study the Ten Commandments. This principle is that whenever they command a duty, the sin which is the opposite of that duty is also equally forbidden. Likewise, whenever a sin is forbidden in the commandments, our obedience to the duty which is implied in that commandment is also equally required. And so, whenever we come to one of the commandments, we should ask two questions: (1) "What sin is being prohibited in this commandment?", and (1) "What duty is being required in this commandment?"
Take the commandment against murder for example. We are commanded, "You shall not murder." Obviously, that means we are forbidden from taking the life of another - or even from diminishing the life of another in any way. But its opposite is also required of us; that we are to do all that we can to protect and preserve the life of another, and hold our lives and the the lives of others as something sacred. Or take the commandment against committing adultery. We read, "You shall not commit adultery"; and we obviously understand that as a prohibition against violating our own covenant of marriage or that of another. But its opposite is also required; that we are to seek to be chaste and morally pure in our conduct and thoughts, and are to protect the chastity and moral purity of others - doing what we can to help preserve, and advance a commitment to, the covenant relationships of those around us.
That same principle applies to the first commandment. In it, God says, "You shall have no other gods before Me." There is a negative aspect and a positive aspect to this command. Negatively, it forbids us from allowing anyone or anything to occupy the place in our affections that only God should occupy. But the opposite duty that this commandment implies is also required of us; and it's this "positive implication" that I'd like us to consider this morning. Positively, it commands us to give our worship to the one true God. It's basically a command from the one true God that demands that all people everywhere worship the one true God!
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Many people believe that it's a matter of one's own choice whether or not they will worship God. And from our standpoint as Christians, of course, we can never coerce someone to worship God against their will. But you hear people talk all the time about the worship of God as if it were nothing more than a matter of personal choice or preference. They might say something like this: "Personally, I don't believe in God. That sort of thing is alright for some people, I suppose - if they think they need it; but as for me, I have chosen not to believe in a Supreme Being." Or you might hear other people say something like this: "I believe there are many paths; and one path is just as valid as another. Personally, I have chosen to worship God as I conceive Him to be - not in the way some religious institution interprets for me from the Bible." Here are people, then, who were made by God to worship Him; and yet they treat the matter of worshiping God as if it as if it's an option.
But in this commandment, we see that it's not true that the worship of the one true God - the God of the Bible - is merely a matter of personal preference or a mere option. It is a command; and there is no option with a command from God. The direct commandment to "have no other gods" before the true one is, also, an implicit command to "have" the true one! That, of course, doesn't sit well with the multicultural spirit of our age, or with the whole idea of "tolerance"; but that simply shows how far we, as the human family, have fallen from God's intention with this first commandment. God says something that is admittedly "intolerant" by today's standards - "You shall have no other gods before Me." But it is God Himself who commands it, and that makes it absolutely obligatory - "intolerant" or not.
Think of what options are instantly eliminated in the command to worship the one true God and no other. For example, it eliminates the option of atheism - the belief that there is no God. The Bible's straight-forward comment on atheism is clear: "The fool has said in his heart, 'There is no God;'" and it commands the atheist to repent of his atheism and "have" a God - the one true God - as his own.
It also eliminates the option of agnosticism - the belief that one cannot know whether there is a God. There are two kinds of agnosticism: the kind in which a person humbly admits that he doesn't know whether or not there is a God, and the philosophic position in which a person arrogantly asserts that no one could ever possibly know whether or not there is a God. But "not knowing" has never been the problem. The Bible tells us,
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse ... (Rom. 1:18-20).
For those who want to know the truth, God has very clearly revealed Himself. But the problem isn't whether or not someone can know that He is there. God is here described as revealing His wrath; and the reason is, as the Bible goes on to say ...
"...because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man - and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things" (Rom. 1:21-23).
The solution to agnosticism is to repent of unbelief, and worship the one true God who has already made Himself known to all. And so this commandment speaks to the agnostic: "You shall have God as your own - the one true God who has revealed Himself and made Himself known!"
This commandment also eliminates the option of polytheism - the belief that there are many gods. I read once that Billy Graham, when he held evangelistic meetings in some parts of the world, found that he had to make it clear to people when they came forward to receive Jesus Christ as their Savior that, in doing so, they must also renounce all other gods and claim only the one true God as their own. Many people in those parts of the world thought they could have many gods and simply add the one true God to all the others. Many people today think that they can simply invite God into their lives as one of many other things that they use to try to make their lives better. But the one true God will not share His glory with anything else (Isa. 42:8). He says to every man and woman in the world, "Look to Me, and be saved, all you ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other" (Isa. 45:22). And so God, in this commandment, speaks to all polytheists and commands them have but one God - the one true God - as their own.
This commandment eliminates the option of pantheism too - the belief that everything, including ourselves, is God; and that there is no distinction between God and the existing universe. The Bible tells us that God is a distinct Being - separate from and transcendent above His creation. It tells us that, in the beginning, God - existing separate and transcendent over all things - created the heavens and the earth as something distinct from Himself (Gen. 1:1). He made the first man and the first woman as parts of that creation - yet as separate and distinct from Himself. He is a God who has graciously taken action toward us, in distinction from us and on our behalf. He says - as a distinct Being to other distinct beings - "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage ..." The people He redeemed didn't bring themselves out of bondage; it was He who brought them out. And so God, in this commandment, speaks to all pantheists as one distinct from them; and He orders them to see themselves as distinct, fallen beings, and to have a God - the one true God - as their own.
I would even suggest to you that this verse eliminates one of the most pervasive of all the false approaches to God - especially in those churches that call themselves "Christian". That false approach is the option called "formalism" - the belief that one's relationship with God goes no further than mere faithfulness to the rituals and ceremonies of religion. It's the belief that it isn't necessary that I worship God directly and in a humble, reverent way or obey Him - so long as I'm fitting in with the forms of religion. It's the belief that God is pleased with me if I'm baptized, if I'm a faithful church member, if I give regularly, and just generally fit in with the externals of Christianity - regardless of the condition of my heart; in fact, regardless of whether or not I have any relationship with God at all. The Pharisees of Jesus' day were great formalists; and yet Jesus spoke to them and said,
Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying, "These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men" (Matthew 15:7-9).
God speaks this command then not only to all theists, but also to all atheists, agnostics, polytheists, pantheists and mere religious formalists - and that covers everyone! He commands them in it to worship God - the one true and living God - and to truly worship Him in spirit and truth!
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If we read this commandment in its context, we see that God issued it to Israel; the nation of people that He personally delivered and rescued out of bondage in Egypt. He spoke these words to the people as they were gathered around the base of Mount Sinai, in great trembling and fear. But we shouldn't think that He meant them to be applied only to a nation - as if He were strictly speaking to a huge mob of people and saying, "I command you all, as a nation, to embrace Me as your national God; and I order you all, as a people group and a culture, to worship Me alone."
Now it's true that God entered into a covenant relationship with the nation of Israel at this point. He did address them as a nation. In Chapter 19, He tells Moses,
Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel: 'You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagle's wings and brought you to Myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special people treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation' (Ex. 19:3-6).
And in speaking those words, He used the second person plural pronoun - as if speaking to a nation of people. But that's not what He does in issuing this commandment. As you may remember, this commandment - as is true of all the commandments - is issued to the second person singular pronoun. God is addressing this commandment, not to a group, but to an individual. It's as if He is calling you by name, and saying to you personally; "You - yes you! [And you can insert your own name here] - You, O man; and you, O woman! I am speaking directly to you and to no one else! I command you, I order you, to have Me as your God! You are to give your worship to Me! Do not look elsewhere - do not bow down to another. Not only are you not to have any other gods but Me; but you are to make sure that you - indeed - have Me as your God!"
What does it mean to have God as our God? It, of course, means more things that we could ever mention in one message; but I would suggest that, first of all, it would mean that we acknowledge Him as He truly is. It would mean that we forsake all our own ideas and conceptions of God, cease trying to redefine Him into our own image or preferences, and bow down to Him as He has revealed Himself to be.
I heard about a church in which the pastor recently invited the congregation to join him in the Lord's prayer. He reminded them that it begins, "Our Father, which art in heaven ..."; and he then told them, "Now if it makes you uncomfortable to say, 'Our Father ...', then you go right ahead and pray, 'Our Mother ...' instead." And of course, what that pastor did was an abomination, and nothing less than a violation of the intent of the first commandment! To do such a thing is to refuse to bow down to God as He has revealed Himself to be! "To whom then will you liken Me," God asks in Isaiah 40:25; "Or to whom shall I be equal?" The answer is, of course, no one! He has no comparison in the universe. And if we truly own God as our God, then it means we cease trying to change God to suit our liking, or to fit with current cultural tastes, and worship Him as He truly is - bowing humbly before His own revelation of Himself and declaring, "Truly, O God, there is none like You!"
Do you accept the truth about God, and to you bow down to His own revelation of Himself as He truly is? Or do you seek to change your perception of Him to suit your own wishes? If you would have God as your God, then you absolutely must have Him as He truly is.
I believe a second thing that would be meant by having God as our God is that we not only acknowledge Him as He is, but we also adore Him and worship Him as He is. It's one thing to acknowledge the truth about God; and to be honest, even the demons do that. But it's another thing entirely to worship Him and love Him for who He is.
I remember hearing Dr. Mitchell from Multnomah Bible College tell about a man that he was trying to witness to. The man was very argumentative toward Dr. Mitchell, and very offended that he was trying to witness to him. "Don't tell me about God!" he said. "I'm not some lousy pagan! I believe in God." "Ah," said Dr. Mitchell; "that's wonderful that you believe in Him; but the great question is, do you worship Him?" You see, lot's of people believe in God; but not everyone who believes in Him worships Him! And if you don't worship Him, you don't really have Him as your God. Psalm 89:6-7 teaches us that we must do both - acknowledge Him AND worship Him: "For who in the heavens can be compared to the LORD? Who among the sons of the mighty can be likened to the LORD? God is greatly to be feared in the assembly of the saints, and to be held in reverence by all those around Him."
If you would have God as your God then, you must do more than merely acknowledge the truth about Him as He is presented in the pages of Scripture. You must do that, but you must do more than that. You must also adore Him and worship Him for who He truly is. You must hold Him and all that is true about Him in the highest place of love and esteem in your heart. Do you worship Him?
A third thing that would be involved in having God as our God would be that we have our trust in Him and rely on Him. It would mean that we live a life of dependency upon Him. Can you truly say that you believe in God and worship Him as He truly is if, when in the midst of the trials and troubles of life, you don't cry out to Him or even ask for His guidance and help? Can you truly say that He is your God if it's your habit of life to put your trust and confidence in something other than Him?
Many people who say that God is their God don't actually trust Him in actual practice. They don't turn to Him as their first resort; and they rarely bring their needs to Him in prayer. They may say they trust Him; but their actions clearly say that they trust in another god. And yet, as David said in Psalm 31:14; "But as for me, I trust in You, O LORD; I say, 'You are my God.'" If you truly trust in Him in practice with the concerns of life - if you truly cry out to Him and depend upon Him - then you speak the truth when you say that He is your God.
And of course, a fourth thing that would be involved in having God as our God would be that we obey Him. If we don't do what He tells us to do, we can scarcely support the claim that that He is our God, can we? Many people say they believe in Him. Many people express adoration for Him. Many people even say they trust Him. But the thing that gives the proof to all these other claims is whether or not they obey Him.
Jesus Himself taught us this. He said, "... But why do you call Me 'Lord, Lord,' and do not do the things which I say?" (Luke 6:46). He said, "If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father's commandments and abide in His love" (John 15:10). If you would have God as your God then, you must not only acknowledge Him, must not only worship Him, and must not only trust Him, but you must also faithfully obey Him and keep His commandments.
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In all of this, we have only dealt with the positive implication of the first commandment. We haven't even yet dealt with the direct commandment itself! But I hope you can see how deep and rich this wonderful commandment is. It's impossible to overstate its importance.
And where to you stand in relation to this first commandment? Do you worship the God who gave it? Do you claim Him as your God? Would He agree that you do, indeed, have Him as your God? If you're like me, then the more you examine it, the more you realize how far short of obedience to it you fall. Do you need to repent of failing to fully have God as your God? May God have mercy on us; and may we truly and increasingly HAVE the one true God as our God!
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