Scripture: Exodus 20:1-3
Sermon prepared by Rev. Ken Benjamins, Jarvis, Ont.
Dear Congregation gathered in the Lord Jesus Christ,
What we are going to look at today is the first Commandment. I am sure we are all aware of it. How does Exodus 20:3 put it? "You shall have no other gods before me." I am sure we all have heard it a 1000 times. We hear it almost every Sunday. And I think we all know what the Lord is really after in this commandment, right? Sure. What does the Lord require? Well, I know what he does not want. He doesn't want us to worship, or put our trust, in anything but God alone. We must not serve Buddha, or Hare Krishna or any of the gods of the New Age movement. We must not serve our money, or our wealth, or ourselves. No, we must worship and put our trust in God alone. In the God of the Bible.
We must worship and trust the one God who reveals himself in three distinct persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Which means, we must not let anything replace His sovereign rule in our lives. We must worship him alone. Says the Lord in the first commandment, "You shall have no other gods before me." I'm sure we are all aware of this commandment. I'm sure we all know what this commandment means.
But today I want to look at the first commandment again, what do I really want to consider about this commandment? Well, what I want to consider is the way we translate it. There are some different ways to translate the first commandment, if you really want to know. And my hunch is, if we look at what the commandment literally says in the original Hebrew — see what images the original brings to mind — maybe we can see and appreciate a little more what the Lord is really after in the first commandment.
There are different ways to translate it. The most common translation is the one we read in the New International version, "You shall have no other gods before me." That is a very good translation. Almost every Bible version I know has it that way.
There is another plausible translation. You can also translate it this way: "You shall have no other gods in my presence." The wording of this particular translation is a little bit different but obviously the meaning is virtually 100% the same. "You shall have no other gods in my presence."
There is another way to translate it. You can also translate it this way: "You shall have no other gods before my face." Now again, the meaning is almost the same; it's just that with this particular translation God's face is set in the centre of it all. With the other translations we can imagine all kinds of gods and idols sitting around God's throne. They are before him. They are in his presence. But in this last translation the gods are in front of His face. And God does not like that.
"You shall have no other gods before my face" says this particular translation.
It is noteworthy that the word "face" is in the original text. And so that really is the literal translation, "You shall have no other gods before my face." It is unfortunate that we do not hear that translation a little more often. This particular translation offers some interesting insights into what the Lord really requires in the first commandment.
Congregation, when I hear this particular wording there are a couple of different images or pictures that come to my mind. Let me tell you the first one. When I hear the first commandment with its emphasis on God's face the first picture that comes to my mind is one of God on His throne.
Now, of course, we can't see God. I mean, to picture him is wrong anyway, right? According to the second commandment it is. What I see then is God's throne and His robes of majesty and there, right in front — right in front of Him — are these ugly idols and gods that we put there in front of him. In my picture these gods are crowding Him. They are getting too close.
Now I don't know about you, congregation, but when I get crowded and there are things getting into my space (things that I really don't like at all) or if there is a person who gets too close to me and wants to intimidate me and attack me, then my first inclination is to say, "Hey, get out of my face...!" Do you have that? When something or someone you don't like gets too close to you? You go on the offensive and you say, "Back off! Leave me alone! Get out of my face!"
Something of that same language is in our text. When we bring our little idols and gods in before Him, then God says, "Get that junk out from before my face. It's crowding me. I am God and I don't need that trash in my presence — certainly not before my face." That is the first picture that comes to my mind when I hear the first commandment. You sense the urgency and hatred that God has for the gods who want to get too close.
There is another picture that comes to my mind. And to get at that picture, what we need to do first is talk a bit about what God wants to protect in the first commandment. I don't know if you are aware of this or not but behind every commandment in the Bible there is something good that God wants to protect. I mean, that is why God gave us the commandments. God did not give his law for no reason at all. No, behind each commandment there is something good, something worthy of protection.
You take the seventh commandment for example, "You shall not commit adultery." In giving that commandment God is protecting something. What's He protecting?
He is protecting our sexuality and the institution of marriage. According to God, sex and marriage are good things. Not that everyone has to get married but as it is, these things are very precious to Him. If Bill and Sally are happily married, then God likes that. That is a good thing. No one has any right to walk into that marriage to tear it down. No one has a right to interfere in anybody's marriage. That is why God gave us the seventh commandment — to protect sex and marriage.
You take the sixth commandment as well, "You shall not murder." Behind this commandment is the assumption that human life is very precious and good. Be it life in the womb or life in a nursing home. All human life is precious to God. No one has any right to wantonly take anybody's life. That is why God gave us the sixth commandment — to protect life.
With every commandment there is something that God loves, appreciates, thinks is special, and thus needs protection. That leads us then to a question about the first commandment. What is it that God protects in the first commandment? This is worthy of some consideration. What is so precious, so worthy of protection that God would give us the first commandment? What is it....'? You know what it is? It is God's covenant with us. That's right! That is really what the first commandment is all about, it's about God's covenant.
Yes, by His grace through faith we are in a special relationship with God. We are married to Him. We are His bride. In baptism we have received the promises of His covenant. Through faith we are engrafted into Christ and thus we are connected to Him. And so in Christ we are married and in His covenant. And that is ultimately what the first commandment is out to protect.
Now we need to talk about God's covenant with us. Often when a young couple makes a covenant together and is married, you know what they like to do? They like to stare at each other face to face. Do you ever notice that? They like to look each other in the eye. They like to watch each others' eyes, face to face. Sometimes couples who are really in love can sit for hours and do that. Sometimes it is almost difficult to get them apart. They don't even listen when you ask them a question. All of a sudden they reply, "Oh, did you say something...?" Sometimes it is almost like you have to take a book and stick it between their faces to get their attention, right? That's how strong love between couples can be sometimes. True love is really a beautiful thing. And now you see, congregation, it is that kind of thing that the Lord wants to have with us, His covenant people. He wants to look us in the eye. He wants to have us face to face.
That gets me then to the second picture that comes to my mind when I hear the commandment, "You shall have no other gods before my face." In the first picture, you know, all the gods are in front of Him, crowding Him and so God says, "Get out of my face."
Congregation, why does God want all the gods away from His face? Why? Because what He wants instead, is us! That is who He wants to have before Him. That is who He wants in His presence. That is who He wants to look in the face. That is who He wants to look at eye to eye! He wants to have us. We are His married covenant people.
That is why we have the first commandment. God wants to protect His marriage with us. He wants nothing in the way. What He wants before His face is us — his covenant people — His bride!
Appreciate then what the Lord is out to promote with the first commandment. God is not just out to protect something in the first commandment — no, He is also out to promote something. I mean, that goes with every commandment in the Bible, right? With the seventh commandment, "You shall not commit adultery", God is not out just to protect the institution of marriage — no, ultimately what He wants is to build up our marriages and make them strong.
With the sixth commandment regarding murder, God is not out just to protect human life — no! Ultimately what He is after is to promote life, make it safer and better. The same principle applies with the first commandment. God is not out just to protect His covenant marriage relationship with us — no! Ultimately what He wants to do is to build it up, make it vibrant, make it strong.
Appreciate then what God really wants from us in the first commandment. You know what He wants from us? He wants us to turn to Him and look Him in the eye. And I mean, not just ...like... look Him in the eye, but to look Him in the eye with love. That is ultimately what God is after. God does not want just a covenant with us — but a covenant of real true love. I mean, God loves us, right?
Sure! That is obvious. He certainly loved His people Israel in the Old Testament. We see that clearly in the two verses preceding our text. Says Exodus 20; "And God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God — and look what I have done for you: I brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the land of slavery." Oh, and look what God did for us in the His New Testament. He gave His one and only Son Jesus to die on a horrible cross to save us from our sin. Not to mention the fact that He poured out His Spirit to live in us. God definitely loves His people. He wants to look them in the eye with love. How imperative that we turn to Him and do the same: look Him in the eye, look Him in the face with eyes of love.
Congregation, do you envision true religion that way? Are you aware that by faith you are 'married' to God? Are you aware that by faith you are His ‘bride’? That our relationship to God is that intimate and close?
You know, often when we talk about true religion we see it only as matter of "believing" in God. "Faith" is really what religion is all about, we say. But you know, that's not right. That's wrong. I'm not saying that we don't need true faith to be saved, of course we do. But faith is not the heart of religion; love is. What God desires is a real vibrant marriage relationship where we stare at each other face to face! That's the heart of religion. I think of the first and greatest commandment. What is our calling? "To love the Lord our God with all of our heart, with all of our soul, with all of our mind, with all of our strength." The goal of true religion is to say by faith, "Lord... I love you."
And so maybe it should be asked today, "Congregation, brothers and sisters, boys and girls: Do you love God? Do you? You're married to Him; now the question is: Do you love Him? Do you long to seek His face? Do you long to stare at His majesty? Do you...?"
I'm not asking if you believe in God. Many people do — if not most. What I'm asking is, "Do you love God?" Maybe there are things standing in the way in your marriage with God. Are there things standing in the way that would cause God to say to you today, "Get rid of that stuff. I want to see you." Is there? What idol is in the way? Is it your wealth? Is it your pride? Is it a secret sin?
You know, when I think of a happily married couple, I know what they like to do. They like to spend a lot of time with each other. They like to walk together. That is what God wants to do with us. He wants to walk with us, like Enoch did and Noah, like all those who were commended for their faith. God wants to walk with us in every area of our lives. Moreover, when I think of a happily married couple, I know what they also like to do. They also like to have that regular time where they can just be together, be alone, so they can talk, stare at each other face to face. Congregation, God also desires the same with us — through personal Bible reading and prayer — every day.
Yes, our God is a God of love. Think of it: He sent His Son to pay for our sin. All our sin is gone. And by faith we are married. We have His law to guide us. We have His Spirit to comfort us. We have His grace to make us holy. That explains why the first commandment is so important. That explains why the first commandment is the first commandment. In the first commandment we remove all the gods so that we can be face to face with our heavenly marriage partner.
When that happens the other commandments begin to fall into place. Brothers and sisters, may we remove all the idols in our lives. May we come before His face through faith in Jesus Christ. May we give Him all our love.
Proposed Order of Service
Call to Worship: Psalm 117
Silent Prayer concluded with # 420:1, "Breathe on Me, Breath of God"
Salutation: "Our help is in the name of the Lord who has made the heavens and the earth."
Prayer for God’s Greeting: "May grace, mercy and peace he granted unto us from God the Father, the Lord Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen"
Hymn #95, "Now With Joyful Exultation"
Service of Reconciliation
God's Law: Exodus 20:1–17
Hymn #427, "Dwell in Me, O Blessed Spirit"
We Hear the Word Proclaimed
Scripture Reading: Exodus 20:1–3
Text: vs. 3
Hymn #239, "Amid the Thronging Worshippers"
Sermon: "Before My Face"
Prayer of Application
We Respond to Serve
Hymn #499, "My God How Wonderful You Are"
Prayer for God's Blessing: "May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all. Amen"
Doxology: #620, "By the Sea of Crystal"