Pastor Gary Wong August 9, 2020
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. 4 "You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
How many of you think that there are too many rules? It sometimes seems that way, especially to children. Some parents have all kinds of rules that tell their children what they can or cannot do. “Eat your vegetables. No elbows on the table. Make your bed. Your curfew is 10:00 sharp.” Those are just a few of the rules many of you have heard as a child or given as a parent. Children hope that it will get better as they get older. If you think that you’re going to be free of rules when you’re an adult, think again. There seem to be countless rules and regulations that govern practically every aspect of our lives. With all those laws, there are times when we might feel like slaves.
As bad as it might seem for you, your experience is nothing compared to what my people and I have gone through. My people—the Israelites—had been slaves in Egypt. Believe me, the Egyptians were some of the cruelest taskmasters ever. For instance, there was the time when my brother, Aaron, and I went to the pharaoh to ask him if our people could go into the desert to worship the Lord. The pharaoh got so angry that not only did he deny our request, he ordered our people to make bricks without straw! And if we didn’t meet our quota, we would be beaten. But I’m getting ahead of myself. My name is Moses. Believe it or not, I used to be a prince of Egypt, even though I was born a Levite. This is how it happened.
Some of you probably know that my forefather, Joseph—along with his eleven brothers and his father, Jacob—had settled in Egypt because of a famine. Then a new pharaoh, who didn’t know about all the good things that Joseph had done, came into power. This new king was afraid of the Israelites, so he made my people slaves. For many years, my people suffered at the hands of their Egyptian slave drivers. The Israelites prayed for their freedom. God had heard my people’s groaning, and promised that he would send someone to deliver them from their cruel bondage. About the time I was born, the pharaoh heard that one of the Hebrew slaves was going to give birth to this promised Deliverer. So, what do you think he did? He ordered that every baby boy up to two years old be killed! My mother, of course, didn’t want me to die. But how was she going to save me? Her solution was to put me in a basket which she floated down the Nile River. As part of the Lord’s plan, the pharaoh’s daughter picked me out of the Nile and raised me as her own. While I grew up learning all the ways of the Egyptians, I never forgot my Hebrew heritage. Anyway, one day, I saw an Egyptian beating one of my fellow Hebrews. Incensed, I killed the Egyptian. I didn’t think that anyone had seen me; but I was wrong. When the pharaoh found out that I had killed one of his men, he tried to kill me. So I fled to Midian where I became a sheep herder.
I was content raising my family in Midian; but the Lord had other, bigger plans for me. One day, I took my father-in-law’s flocks to the far side of the desert—to Horeb, the mountain of God. I saw something very weird. There was a bush that was on fire, but it wasn’t burning up. When I got close, I head a voice call, “Moses! Moses!” It was the voice of the Lord! God told me, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground” (Ex. 3:5). When I heard his voice, I hid my face, because I was afraid to look at God. Then the Lord told me something equally astounding. He said, “I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt” (3:10). My first thought was, “Go back to Egypt? No way!” So, I made all kinds of excuses such as “Who shall I say sent me?”, “What if they don’t believe me?” and “I’ve never been good with words.” Every time, the Lord answered my objections. However, I still didn’t want to go. In desperation I said, “O Lord, please send someone else to do it” (4:13). Finally, the Lord’s patience had run out. In plain words, he told me, “Go!” But he also promised that he would be with me. Properly chastised, I went as the Lord had commanded me.
Obviously, delivering the Israelites from slavery wouldn’t be easy. In fact, the Lord told me that he was going to harden Pharaoh’s heart so that he would resist at every turn. Time after time, the Lord would send a plague upon the Egyptians—frogs, gnats, flies, hail and darkness—just to name a few. You’d think that with each succeeding plague, the pharaoh might soften his stance. However, it was just the opposite. The pharaoh’s heart only became more hardened. It was only after the firstborn child of every Egyptian died that the pharaoh finally let God’s people go. With joy that words could hardly express, the Israelites praised God for their freedom. Guided by God’s mighty hand, I led his people out of Egypt toward the Promised Land of Canaan. In the third month after we had left Egypt, we camped in the desert of Sinai in front of the holy mountain. As I had done when God had spoken to me from the burning bush, I went up the mountain to listen to the Lord. God told me to tell the people to prepare themselves, because the Lord himself would descend upon Mt. Sinai and speak to all the people.
On the morning of the third day, there was thunder and lightning and a thick cloud covered the mountain. Everyone—and I mean everyone in the camp was shaking in his or her sandals because of this storm. Then it got even more intense. A loud trumpet blast was God’s signal to me to lead the people out of the camp to meet with God. Mt. Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord had descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up like smoke from a blast furnace, the whole mountain trembled violently, and the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder. The people stayed at the foot of the mountain, shaking with fear, while I went up. Then God spoke. What were his words? You know them as the Ten Commandments.
Now, God spoke these words to me while I was on Mt. Sinai. Then God himself wrote them on two stone tablets. All of God’s Word has been recorded and is being passed on to future generations in what you call the Bible. For now, however, I want to talk with you about the Ten Commandments—specifically the first commandment. The Commandments are a summary of God’s moral law—God’s list of Dos and Don’ts. Some might ask, “Why do we need the commandments? Doesn’t everybody know what’s right and what’s wrong?” Nobody has perfect knowledge of the law because of sin. Our natural knowledge of the law—in other words, our consciences—can only give us a fuzzy, often flawed view of God’s will. The Ten Commandments make it crystal clear as to what is right or wrong in God’s sight.
God’s first words were, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Ex. 20:2). Some of you might be thinking, “Wait a minute. God didn’t bring me out of Egypt. I’ve never been a slave a day of my life. How do these words apply to me?” Technically, you’re correct. But while none of us was ever a slave in Egypt, all of us were born slaves to sin. The devil and the world had been our cruel taskmasters, and our sinful natures still willingly do their bidding. Because of sin, we had been blind to the fact that we constantly disobey God in our thoughts, word, and actions. So, one of the purposes (actually the chief purpose) of the law is to show us our sin and to remind us that we are under God’s wrath when we do wrong. How serious is God about sin? The Lord says, “I am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sins of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me” (20:5). Simply put, God says that if we do not keep his law perfectly, we deserve to die.
So, what specifically, is the First Commandment? Most of you learned it as, “You shall have no other gods.” Now, God could have said, “I am the only God.” However, by putting it in the negative, God was making this commandment much more emphatic. The meaning is very clear. There are no loopholes, exceptions, or wiggle room. In fact, the wording of this commandment is even stronger than how your English language puts it. In my native Hebrew, this “No” means at no time, never, ever, forever, don’t even think that there will be a time when you can worship some other god.
Besides telling us that we are to have no other gods, the Lord included two other permanent prohibitions in the first commandment. God said, “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below” and “You shall not bow down to them or worship them” (20:4, 5). Now, why would making an idol and worshipping it be a sin? Please understand. God is Spirit—He has no visible form. Therefore, there is nothing that a human being can fashion that could possibly resemble God. And since nothing man-made can resemble God, bowing down to an idol—giving it the honor and glory that belongs to God—is a sin.
No matter what the language, the meaning of the first commandment couldn’t be clearer. Yet, it is so hard to keep. If you don’t think so, take a look at what my people did as an example of what not to do. Think about those Israelites. The Lord had just reminded them that he had brought them out of slavery in Egypt. You want to talk about false gods and idols? Egypt was full of them! The Egyptians worshipped the sun, the moon and the stars. There was a god of fertility, a god of rain, a god for the living and a god for the dead. There seemed to be a false god for everyone and everything. When the Israelites came to Mt. Sinai, God told them that they were to have no other gods. So what did they do? While I was still on that mountain receiving all of the rules and regulations that the Lord was giving his chosen people, some of the Israelites were worshipping a golden calf that Aaron had made! But before you start shaking your heads in disgust, look at your own life and see how well you have kept the first commandment. If you are honest with yourselves, you will have to admit that you have broken this commandment countless times. You may not have bowed down to a calf made of gold, but there are plenty of other idols in your life. Maybe you serve the god of money and what it can buy. Maybe you are a slave to your work. Perhaps you sacrifice your time with your family to satisfy your sinful lusts. Perhaps your idols are your TV, phone, sports, or hobbies. Whether it’s out in the open or buried in your heart, when you put anything or anyone (including yourself) ahead of God, you are breaking the first commandment.
God’s will in the first commandment is clear. Because we are sinful, however, we cannot keep it. Our loving, merciful God knows that. That’s why he sent he sent the Savior—what we Israelites called the Messiah and you call Jesus Christ—into this world. Just as the Lord delivered my fellow Israelites from slavery, God sent Jesus to deliver all people from the slavery of sin. Jesus alone could and did keep all of God’s law perfectly. In the portion of Scripture you call the Gospels, writers such as Matthew, Mark and Luke tell about how Jesus resisted the devil’s temptation in the desert. Satan promised Jesus all the splendor of the kingdoms of the world if Jesus would bow down and worship him. Jesus answered with the words of the first commandment: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only” (Matt. 4:10). Jesus kept this and every other commandment perfectly in our place, and then took the punishment that we so richly deserve. Because of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection from the dead, God has forgiven all of our sins. Because of Jesus and through faith in him, we have life, salvation, and a home in heaven just waiting for us.
Friends, the Lord has given us his commandments for our good. As we strive to keep his holy law, God showers us with countless blessings. We keep them, not to earn a place in heaven, but in grateful response for what the Lord has done and continues to do for us. The Lord has made us his own, and he “shows his love to a thousand generations of those who love [him] and keep [his] commandments” (20:6). So, love the Lord your God with all you heart, and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind. He is the only true God. Amen.
“The Law of God Is Good and Wise” (CW 287)
Text: Matthias Loy, 1828-1915, abr., alt.
The law of God is good and wise;
It sets his will before our eyes,
Shows us the way of righteousness,
But dooms to death when we transgress.
The law is good, but since the fall,
Its holiness condemns us all;
It dooms us for our sins to die
And has no pow’r to justify.
Its light of holiness imparts
The knowledge of our sinful hearts
That we may see our lost estate
And seek relief before too late.
To Jesus we for refuge flee,
Who from the curse has set us free,
And humbly worship at his throne,
Saved by his grace through faith alone.