Keep God First

Series: Preacher: Date: August 31, 2014 Scripture Reference: Exodus 20:1-3

This is a picture of the Wexner Art Center. It’s on the campus of Ohio State University and if the building looks a little odd—it’s because it is designed to reflect the post-modernist view of reality.  You may remember my telling you a few weeks back—post-modernism is a popular way of thinking that says there is no such thing as absolute truth. You have your truth and I have mine. Anything goes. And—as you can see—this art center does a good job of illustrating this philosophy because it has no set pattern. When it comes to its structure—anything goes. That castle like tower is cut in half—there’s an arch that just stops in midair—and if you were to take a tour of the Wexner Center you would see that it has staircases that go nowhere and pillars that support nothing. Its design is kind of mindless and senseless—the kind of freedom post-modernists love.

Ravi Zacharias visited the Wexner Center and, referring to all the odd senseless aspects of its design, he asked his guide, “Did they do the same kind of thing with the foundation?” The guide laughed and said, “No—of course not.” He laughed because you can’t do senseless, “anything goes stuff” with a foundation. There are “foundational rules” you have to follow when it comes to that part of any building. I mean, you can get away with pretty much whatever you want when it comes to the infrastructure but if you mess with the foundation that building will fall down. The same thing is true with it comes to building a life or a family. I mean, to a point, you can get away with what I call the non-essential beliefs of life—even silly things that ultimately don’t make sense. I guess you can be post-modernist to a point. But once you start tampering with the foundational principles of life, you have serious problems. For an individual or family to be healthy and strong—for people to be able to grow and succeed—requires a good foundation—the RIGHT foundation. I’m saying we need absolute truth—we need rules—on which to build a life.

With that in mind for the next three months we are going to be studying the 10 Commandments because in the same way that The Decalogue forms the bedrock of a legal, moral society, these ten laws written by God’s own hand provide the kind of foundation a family needs.

The sad fact is post-modernism HAS negatively influenced the foundational family values we’re going to be talking about in this series. As Bill Bennet, author of The Book of Virtues, once said, “It is now politically correct to believe in family values, but it is not politically correct to get SPECIFIC about them.” Well, to build a family we NEED to get specific. Let me put it this way.

Just as we need concrete and rebar to form the foundation of a building, we need concrete rules on which to build a family and the ONLY place to go to find rules solid enough for that kind of “building” is to our Creator, because ONLY God’s loving laws provide a “concrete” foundation—a rock that will give us and our families the strength to withstand the storms of life. This is why God repeats The Decalogue in the book of Deuteronomy and tells the Hebrew people, “Never forget these commands that I am giving you. Teach them to your children.” (Deuteronomy 6)

But as I inferred our culture no longer looks to God’s law for this kind of foundation. In his book Right From Wrong, Josh McDowell writes, “Our children seldom hear the words ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ from Hollywood, Nashville, and Madison Avenue; instead they are bombarded with thousands of hours of sounds and images that glamorize immorality and mock Biblical values.” In 2nd Timothy 3:1-8 the Apostle Paul’s prophetic words describe our culture to a tee. He wrote: “Mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good,  treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God—always learning but never able to acknowledge the truth. Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so also these men of depraved minds will oppose the truth.”

And it’s easy to find statistics that show Paul’s prophecy has come true—studies that show people no longer build their lives on God’s laws. For example, a survey conducted a few years back by James Patterson and Peter Kim showed that:

  • 74% of Americans admit that they will steal from those who won’t miss it.
  • 64% will lie for convenience as long as no one is hurt.
  • 93% of those surveyed said that they alone decide moral issues, basing their decisions on their own experience or whims.

As this and others surveys show—ours is a culture that has forgotten—or at least chosen to ignore—God’s foundational rules of right and wrong. We no longer heed the warning in Proverbs 3:7 where it says, “Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and shun evil.” Instead society makes up its own rules. We are “wise in our own eyes.” It’s no wonder that so many marriages and families are falling apart.

Now, before we begin our study, I want us to note a few things about The Ten Commandments:

(1)   First of all, scanning through all 10 Commandments reveals that they fall into TWO SECTIONS.

The first four laws tell us how we are to relate to God—the way we revere, respect, and love Him. Turn to Exodus 20:1-17 and you’ll see what I mean:

  • LAW #1 – God and God alone is God.
  • LAW #2 – It is wrong to worship anything material as God.
  • LAW #3 – God’s DAY is to be cherished and honored.
  • LAW #4 – God’s NAME is not to be used recklessly.

And then the SECOND section—the last six commandments—they deal with how we are to treat each other.

  • LAW #5 – Father and mother are to be honored.
  • LAW #6 – Human life is sacred.
  • LAW #7 – Sexual purity and fidelity is demanded.
  • LAW #8 – The rights of property are to be observed.
  • LAW #9 – False and slanderous speaking about others is condemned.
  • LAW #10 – The desire to possess that which is not ours is branded as wrong.

You may remember that Jesus was once asked about the Ten Commandments. Specifically He asked which of the 10 was the greatest. Do you recall His reply?  In Matthew 22 He said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” So—in His reply Jesus taught His first followers that these laws are indeed divided into two sections.He taught them that our relationship with God and our relationships with our fellow man are intertwined.And of course they are! We can’t love and respect God properly if we don’t love and respect each other and we can’t love and respect each other properly if we don’t also love and respect God.Without the horizontal aspect of a proper relationship with our fellow man our religion—our faith—would become a selfish impractical thing in which we are concerned with our own soul and our own vision of God and nothing more.And—without the vertical principle of loving God we wouldn’t value each other enough. We wouldn’t see ourselves as special creations of God.People would be looked at as things and not as persons.So the Ten Commandments teach us that foundational to life is BOTH a proper horizontal relationship with each other AND a proper vertical relationship with God.The next time you see the perpendicular, intersecting beams of Calvary’s cross let it remind you of this truth.We need to practice both LOVE FOR GOD and LOVE FOR OUR FELLOW MAN. You can’t have one without the other.

Do you remember the words of 1st John 4:7-8 that we studied not too long ago? Everyone who loves [others] has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love [others] does not know God, because God is love.”

(2)The second thing I want to point out about these ten commands is that they are mostly written in the NEGATIVE.

With the exception of the 4th and 5th commandments, they are all stated as “Thou shalt NOT.” And even the 4th command—which deals with the Sabbath—is largely expressed in the negative. Why would God do this? Why so many “NOTS?” I mean, “nots” tend to turn people off. Well, look at the CONTEXT. God has just called the people of Israel out of SLAVERY. So, they were a long way from being a nation. At this point, they were basically a mob of disorganized DISORDER and they needed ORDER. They NEEDED “NOTS!” Remember God was molding them—maturing them—into a nation of priests who would tell the world of His great love.

One of the first words parents teach their children is “NO.” They head for the electrical outlet or the hot stove and you say, “No! Don’t touch that!”Well, at this point, the people of Israel were in the infant stage so they needed limitations. Like all human infants they were prone to sin and they needed to learn their “NO-NO’s”—their “NOT’s.”For example: they had spent hundreds of years living with a nation that worshiped many Gods—so they had to NOT do that anymore!They had spent generations among a nation that did not respect human life.  In Egypt people were property to be bought and sold and they had to learn NOT to think of people in that way.I’m saying these commands of God DO have a stern quality about them but when you are warning a child not to go down a path which will hurt them or others you can’t get too stern!

I remember one summer vacation our family had been in the south and decided to drive north toward Maryland along the Blue Ridge Parkway. We wanted to enjoy the amazing views that those mountain roads provide. Well, we came to one part where the road had been built right on the ridge of these mountains.  On each side of the road were sheer drop-offs. Now—what if you were on this parkway and came to one of these overlooks along this crest of the mountains—and as soon as you pulled to a stop your three year old threw open his door, hopped out and started running excitedly toward the edge as fast as his chubby little legs would carry him. Would this be a time to WHISPER sweetly? Would this be a time to be POSITIVE and say, “You are running great son! Wonderful form!” NO! This would be one of those times when, as a parent, your heart would leap in your chest as you SHOUT as loud as you can, “STOP! RIGHT NOW! THOU SHALT NOT RUN IN THAT DIRECTION!!!” Well, that’s what God is doing with these laws. He’s saying, “NO” to protect His children both then and now.

In my Chronological Bible reading for this week we covered Ezekiel 33:11 where God says, “As surely as I live I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die O house of Israel?”

Doesn’t that sound like a loving parent exclaiming, “Stop! Stop! Turn back! Don’t go that way! There is sorrow ahead! There is death around the corner! Turn and come back to Me?” I’m saying the fact that these ten laws are so full of negatives is yet one more indication of God’s tender love for us—His tender care. In fact, I think that the Ten Commandments would be best compared to a love letter—a tender, heartfelt message written in stone by the finger of God Himself. As the late Ron Mehl puts it in his excellent book on the Decalogue, these laws are indeed ten(der) commandments—and Mehl put it that way because he understood that ALL God’s laws are for our good. Our Heavenly Father gave us commands like “Flee sexual immorality,” and “Husbands love your wives,” and “You shall not steal or bear false witness” because He wants to protect us. He didn’t throw His precepts into the Bible just because He liked the way they sounded. He didn’t concoct those rules to throw His weight around. No—He gave those commands because He loves us and He knows some things that we don’t. He knows that sexual immorality is a path, not to pleasure and fulfillment but to emptiness and frustration. He knows that stealing and lying hurts us in so many ways. Bill Hybels writes: “The Lord tells us specifically that His commands are never burdensome. By this, He doesn’t necessarily mean they’re easy to keep. Rather, He’s telling us that they’re never foolish. They are never unnecessary or purely arbitrary. He doesn’t force us to observe meaningless formalities. Nor does He impose rules that have no value. On the contrary, every guideline, every law, every imperative in the Bible was crafted in infinite wisdom. They were given not only to honor God, but to benefit us as well.” God’s words in Jeremiah 29:11 come to mind. Do you remember them? He says to you and me, “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” And later in chapter 32 God says that His desire is, “….that people will always fear Him—but for their own good and for the good of their children after them.”

Let me put it this way. God’s commands are like an umbrella. When you put up an umbrella it shields you from the rain. But if you choose to move out of the umbrella during a storm you are bound to get wet. I’m saying the nature of the Ten Commandments is not harsh or unloving. Yes—these laws are negative in TENSE but they are not negative in NATURE. Their purpose is not to burden us but to protect us and provide God’s very best for us.

(3)And then—a third thing we should note is that the 10 Commandments are much MORE than a body of detailed rules and regulations.

They are a guide that shows us our need for a Savior—shows us our need for Jesus. In Galatians 5:4-5 Paul writes: “When the FULLNESS OF TIME came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order that He might redeem those who were under the Law that we might receive adoption as sons.” Now I want you to focus in on that phrase, “THE FULLNESS OF TIME” for a moment. In these four words God used Paul to remind us that before Jesus could come into the world—which was God’s plan from the very beginning of time—before Jesus could come, something had to happen to sinful humanity to get us to the point where we could understand His coming. We had learn Who God is and who we are. Mankind had to mature such that we could comprehend God’s love as expressed in sending Jesus.

I can’t help but think of those “Cheese-it” commercials where they point out that they only use cheese that is MATURE. They wait for their cheese to age to the proper point before using it in those delicious little crackers. Well Jesus didn’t come into the world until humanity was mature. He was born at the first possible moment that we could understand the reason for His coming. And this “maturing” process began with the Scriptures recorded in Exodus 20. I mean, Christianity did not come into the world without ROOTS and FOUNDATIONS. Remember in Matthew 5:17 Jesus said, “I am not come to destroy the law—but to FULFILL it.”In other words Jesus came to show the law’s true purpose. And the law that Jesus came to fulfill BEGAN with these ten foundational principles for life.

So, these are more than commands. They are a tool meant to prepare us for Jesus—to guide us to understanding our need for Him. In Galatians 3:24 Paul writes, “Therefore, the law has become OUR TUTOR to lead us to Christ, that we may be justified by faith.” In the Greek-speaking world of Paul’s day, there was a type of household servant called the “paidagogos.” This person was in charge of the child’s moral welfare. It was his duty to oversee the child’s character development. One of a paidagogos’ responsibilities was to take the child to school each day. He was not the child’s teacher, but he was responsible to see that the child was, in fact, under the teacher’s care. And in this New Testament text, Paul borrows this picture from his culture and says in effect, the law has the same function.  It is our “tutor” our “paidagogos.”

So, these commandments are not only designed to say, “Do this,” and “Don’t do that,” but to lead us to the person of God Himself. For as we attempt to obey God’s law we see both God’s holy perfection and our sin.  As I said last week, the law sheds a powerful light on our sinful state and leads us to realize how far we fall short. Like a paidagogosthe law leads us to “school” where we see our need for Jesus’ forgiveness.  Okay, with all this in mind, let’s turn now to Exodus 20:1-3 and read the first commandment.

1 – And God spoke all these words:

2 – “I am the Lord your God,who brought you out of Egypt,out of the land of slavery.

3 – You shall have no other gods before Me.”

Now let the phrase in verse 2, “Who brought you out of Egypt” remind you that as I said, these were a people who had been redeemed by God—freed by God—rescued from slavery by God. But God didn’t want them to be just a REDEEMED people. He also wanted them to be a RIGHTEOUS people. So He gave them these laws and principles for righteous LIVING. And the first step toward being a righteous people would have to be their belief in the ONE GOD—their worship of ONE GOD. You see God was forming a COVENANT relationship with them much like the relationship that is between husband and wife. Do you married people remember your wedding ceremony? It probably contained some form of this phrase: “I ________ take thee _______ to be my wedded wife or husband—to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, and FORSAKING ALL OTHERS to cleave only to thee as long as we both shall live.”

Marital vows are a pledge to a lifetime of faithfulness—a lifetime of EXCLUSIVENESS.  No man or woman in their right mind would allow the spouse to strike a bargain before the marriage by saying, “I’ll spend most of my time with you, but I want to enjoy intimate relationships with other people some of the time.” No—marriage represents a firm, exclusive commitment to each other by both husband and wife. And God calls us to have a similar exclusive allegiance to Him.

Later on in the Commandments God says He is a JEALOUS God. This is because He refuses to share the glory and the worship that is due Him with anyone or anything else. We were created to have an intimate, exclusive walk with GOD AND GOD ALONE. Life will not work unless we get this first commandment right. It’s like buttoning a shirt. If you get the top button off—the rest will be off as well. And it was important for the Hebrew people to get this right from the “get go” because this principle conflicted with the different views of deity held by the world of their day.

(1)   One popular view was POLYTHEISM—a belief in many gods.

As I inferred a moment ago, the Egyptians were polytheistic. They believed in a god of the sun and a god of the moon and a god of the sea and a god of the grocery story, etc. Their world was crammed-full of gods and goddesses competing for the gifts and the worship of men and women.

(2)   A second philosophy was HENOTHEISM.

Those who held this view would accept one god as their god and would worship no other, but they also believed that other nations had other gods. A god was “god” only in one territory. It was sort of like it is in professional sports. This area—this territory—is NATIONALS territory. Just north of here is ORIOLES territory. And you know—even today sometimes we as Christians are henothistic. We say we worship God. We claim that He is Lord over ALL our lives—but if we were honest we would have to admit that there are “territories” of our lives over which we do not give Him control. Now think about this for a moment. Is there any “territory” in your life that is “off limits” to God? Perhaps your checkbook is not a place you “let God rule.” Maybe your selection of friends or what you do with your leisure time is off limits to God’s rule.

Well in the giving of this first command God was leading the Hebrew people beyond polytheism and henotheism to MONOTHEISM—which of course is the realization that there is not simply one God for each nation, but that there is only one God for all the earth and He is everywhere! Psalm 139 expresses this truth when it says, “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from Thy presence? If I ascend to the heavens, Thou art there; if I make my bed in Sheol, behold, Thou art there. If I take the wings of the dawn and if I dwell in the remotest part of the sea, even there Thy hand will lead me. And Thy right hand will lay hold of me.” The Psalmist is saying there is no place that God is not—no territory that He does not cover. We must worship and serve Him as such.

Now, as we wind things down, I want to point out three quick things about commandment number one.

(1)   First, of all of the commands, it may just be the TOUGHEST one to KEEP.

Now, in all likelihood we who live in Derwood, Maryland won’t be asked to give our lives because of our commitment to obey this first command and put God first. We probably won’t face persecution and death like all the Christians in Iraq and Syria because of our public decision to worship only the God of the Bible. Obeying this first commandment doesn’t usually involve this kind of suffering for you and me but I think we still struggle to obey it. I say this because it is difficult—even here in America—for us to keep God #1 in our lives. And I say this from personal experience. You see, as I consider all the tasks I perform each week, whether it be counseling engaged couples or visiting in the hospital or preparing to preach—when I think of all these tasks and compare them to obeying this first commandment, I would have to say that keeping God first in my life is the most difficult thing I do. For example, it is so easy to let pride in godly tasks push God off of the throne of my life as I take credit for any success—it’s easy to care more what people think of my sermons than what God thinks. And you know what I’m talking about. It’s easy to put THINGS first—or SPORTS first—PEOPLE’S opinion first—pleasure first.  It’s hard to make God LORD of our money and so on.I think most Christians struggle with their obedience to this law. Keeping God FIRST is tough. It is a daily battle. But as Ron Mehl says, “Our number one task as believers is to make sure that nothing—-no ‘god,’ person, object, task, duty, or pleasure-comes before God in our priorities, in our plans, and in our affection.”

And this is nothing new. Christians have always floundered in this area. Scripture says that the believers who made up the church in Ephesus worked extremely hard, stayed doctrinally sound, and patiently endured suffering in the Lord’s name. Yet, in spite of this, Jesus said they were “this close” to losing their light and their witness in the world.  Why? Look at Revelation 2:4. It says this was true because they had “left their FIRST love. Like the Ephesians, we can get so busy doing the Lord’s work that we don’t spend time with the Lord. We can actually come to worship godly ACTIVITY and in so doing dethrone God Himself. God wants to be FIRST in our lives. He pursues an exclusive love relationship with us.

Perhaps this first command was on King Solomon’s mind when he wrote in Proverbs 3:5-6, “Trust in the Lord with ALL your heart and lean not on your own understanding: in ALL YOUR WAYS acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.” The phrase “all your ways” means in everything we do—EVERYTHING! And the word “acknowledge” infers a relationship in which we put God first. I think a good paraphrase of these words might be: “In everything you do—in your marriage, in your parenting, in the way you do your job, in the way you figure your taxes, in the way you drive your car on the ICC—in the way you play basketball—IN EVERYTHING, PUT GOD FIRST, and He will direct you and crown your efforts with success.”

God’s promise in Proverbs 3, to crown our efforts with success leads me to a second thing about this commandment that I want us to note:

(2)   It is also a command that is the most BENEFICIAL to us.

Since God is the boss of our lives—since our lives and everything in them are HIS responsibility. Since we are HIS concern—that means the “buck” stops there. And since it does, then it pretty much makes worry and anxiety obsolete. As Psalm 56:3 says, “In the day when I am afraid, I will have confidence in THEE [not ME.]”

As you may know, Ron Mehl, suffered from Leukemia. He once said, “Many people ask me how I’ve dealt with years of this illness—-years of hanging by a rope over the edge of a cliff. My answer might be that it’s not so bad when you know Who is holding the rope! I’ve settled into a sense of confidence that my time is in the Lord’s hands.You see I know that my life really is HIS responsibility.” When we put GOD first then, like Mehl, we come to experience firsthand the truth of 1st Peter 5:7. We learn that we can, “Throw the whole weight of our anxieties on Him, for we are HIS personal concern.”

Listen! God asks us to make Him first in OUR lives because we are first in HIS! Obeying this commandment gives us a lot less to worry about in life. We can sleep a lot better at night! Do you remember Jesus’ words in Matthew 6? “Don’t worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Your Heavenly Father knows that you need these things. Seek FIRST His kingdom and His righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well.” You know, we would be wise to think of worry as a sort of “red light” on the dashboards of our lives informing us that we are NOT putting God first. I mean, when we find ourselves wringing our hands over this or that we should remember that worry means we have taken back our lives from God’s omnipotent, all-loving care!  Instead we should get on our knees and take our situation to the Boss—NUMERO UNO. As the late George Beverly Shea used to sing, “take your burden to the Lord and leave it there.”

I want to say one more thing about this commandment and here it is.

(3)   It is FOOLISH not to obey this law. To use one of my granddaughter’s favorite words, it’s SILLY not put God first.

As, Psalm 14:1 says, “The fool says in his heart, there is no God.”  I mean, considering Who God is and all that He has done for us and all that He has promised to DO for us, it IS ridiculous to deny Him first place in our lives. After all, He has loved us enough to give us His only Son to be our much-needed Redeemer!  Why not give Him first place in our lives!

Mehl tells the story of an eight-year-old boy who sat in class one day, taking a test. He became so nervous about the test and getting it done within the time limit, that he lost control of his bladder and suddenly wet his pants. His face turned beet red as he looked down and saw the stain on his trousers.  He wondered, “What am I going to do? I’m so ashamed! People will see! I’ll be the laughing stock of the school!” About this time he looked up and saw his teacher motioning him to come to her desk and he worried all the more for if he stood up people would be sure to notice his accident. Well at that moment one of his classmates, a little girl, was coming down the aisle from behind him, carrying a large fish-bowl full of water. When she got up alongside him, she suddenly lurched to one side and spilled the entire contents all over him and then dropped the bowl which shattered with a loud crash. Now covered by fish-tank water, the boy sat there thinking, “Thank God! Thank God! There is a God in Heaven!” And he was so thankful that this little girl had done this that he was about to smile at her in gratitude when he remembered that little boys don’t even like little girls. So instead he frowned at her and said, “What is wrong with you, you clumsy clod? Can’t you watch where you are going?!” Then, as the class laughed at the girl, the teacher took the boy (now covered by dignity) to the gym to get him some dry clothes to wear. At lunchtime that day no one would sit with the little girl. Her friends avoided her at recess. It was clear that she had been elected the klutz of the day. When the day ended and the boy was on his way home, he saw this little girl walking by herself along the fence. He began to remember all that had happened that day and on an impulse he sheepishly walked over to her and said, “You know, I’ve been thinking about what happened today. That wasn’t an accident was it? You did that on purpose.” And she replied, “Yes I did do it on purpose. I saw what had happened to you.”

You know, we have a Redeemer Who, by dying on Calvary’s cross took our shame upon Himself. By shedding His precious blood, Jesus covered us. He washed away our sins. God saw our hopeless situation and provided a way for us to be rescued. That’s why He sent Jesus. So—why should I ever want to put anyone or anything in front of Him?  Why in the world would anyone want to tolerate any other “gods” in his life? Why serve lesser “lords?” How could I NOT put GOD first?

Today, I challenge you with this question. Why not commit to give Him first place in YOUR heart and life?  If you are here and have never made that all important decision to give your life to Jesus, why not do so now?  Ask Him to forgive your sin. Give Him the controls—the responsibility—for every part of your life.  Let’s all commit right now to make His will first. It could be that you feel that God’s will is to join this church or to re-dedicate your life to Him. Whatever your decision or commitment is we invite you to share it with us by walking this aisle and talking to me or Bobby or Kevin as we sing.

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