“Reverence for the Living God”
Ten Commandments Series, No. 2
April 22, 2018
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn
Having introduced the Ten Commandments, their place in the biblical philosophy of life last time, this morning we begin our consideration of the commandments one by one. But as we do let us remember that the law that is to guide us in our lives is a personal word from the God who has entered into covenantal fellowship with us; a God who has redeemed us from bondage to sin and death. These commandments are his gift to us as a loving and faithful father. They are his instruction, the kind of instruction that any loving father is going to give to his children because he wants them to be happy and to live well.
v.3 The text in translation may seem to be suggesting that there are other gods, but that they must not be allowed a place before Yahweh; he must remain supreme. But that is not what the words mean. It is true that the statement is not itself an assertion of monotheism, as if it read, “since there are no other gods worship only me.” But that is clearly the presupposition of the words which do say that Israel is to have no other god beside Yahweh. Elsewhere the point will be made emphatically and repeatedly that the other gods of the ancient pantheon were not gods at all, that Yahweh was the one living and true God, and that all worship devoted to other gods must, in the nature of the case, be false. But the point of the commandment as written is specific to Israel. She must have no other Gods; she must remain exclusively loyal to Yahweh. The fact is, there are a great many other gods that men worship. None of them is the living and true God, none is an actual person, the Creator of heaven and earth, a being who actually exists, but people worship them nevertheless, whether such ancient gods as Amun or Baal or Zeus or the gods of money, fame, pleasure, and power. The human heart, Calvin said, is an idol factory! These gods exist insofar as they command the loyalty of human beings; they don’t exist insofar as they are believed to be actual deities.
There is no doubt that, as we said last time, this first commandment, demanding an exclusive loyalty to Yahweh, is not simply the first commandment but the foundation of all the rest of the commandments. Devotion and loyalty to Yahweh will require many separate forms of obedience.
Monotheism of a certain kind existed in the ancient world, not widely but it was known in some form; but nothing like the monotheism we find from the beginning of the Bible. What we have from Genesis 1 onwards is a completely transcendental understanding of God. Here is the living God who stands outside of and above nature as the one who created it and rules it with absolute sovereignty. He is not a god, such as the ancient gods were thought to be, local and limited as they were and forces of nature, who were in nature – the gods of sun, moon, storm, and the like – but the God who is apart from nature, stands above nature and everything in nature, which is, in all its parts, only his creation formed by the utterance of his Word. In many ways, you see, the view the ancients had of their many gods was not so different from the viewpoint now widely held in our culture, viz. that nature is all there is. The Bible repudiates that understanding root and branch. The God who is, the eternal God, the Creator of heaven and earth, the infinite personal God, is the being who gave us life, and who orders that life according to his will. The ancient gods were thought to want things from us, to be sure, but they didn’t much care about the thoughts and intents of our hearts, about our treatment of other people. They wanted gifts but they cared little about how we lived.
But the living God is not like that. He is a person of moral perfection, who loves justice, mercy, kindness, honesty, purity, and love. He is a God of terrible power who exercises his control over the world he has made in keeping with his justice and love, ordering its years according to his plan, judging sin and extending mercy and salvation to those who trust in him. If only a man or woman truly believes in this God, the entire meaning of his or her life must be transformed accordingly.
In the summer of 1745 David Brainerd began a gospel work among the inhabitants of the Native American village of Crossweeksung in what is now New Jersey. Brainerd, a Presbyterian missionary, had worked among some nearby Indians for the previous year and had been discouraged by the meager results that had attended his preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
But as he began his work among this new group of Indians in June of 1745 almost immediately the native population began to respond with real faith and understanding. Men and women who had lived all their lives at the beck and call of their imagined gods, a life of genuine darkness, began coming into the light. Those were amazing days. As Brainerd preached the Word of God, Indians, who a few days before hardly knew that they had a soul, began weeping for fear of losing theirs. People who hardly knew what sin was now felt its terrible weight in their hearts.
And all because, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, they were being taught who God is, the God who made them, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who will by no means clear the guilty, but who loved them and sent his Son to die for their sins. They had worshipped the gods of nature, gods of their own making they now realized, but were being introduced to the God who is really there, the Eternal Majesty on High. And as they came to know who God is and what God has done and what God has said their lives were transformed, as was only to be expected. With the knowledge of God came a new knowledge of themselves, of the world, of the nature and meaning of human life, of their purpose, and of their destiny.
This is what Jesus had said, you remember, in prayer to his father, that prayer for his disciples and for the world we find in John 17 and which is often called the Lord’s “high-priestly prayer”: “This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God…” As John makes clear in his Gospel, eternal life is not only life that never ends, it is a particular kind of life, a pure life, a good life, life worthy to be called life and this life originates in the knowledge of the living God.
Brainerd relates in his Journal that once these folk had come to know God and believe in him, remarkable things began to happen. He tells of one Indian woman who had wept through the night because she had been angry with her child the previous day and now feared that she had offended God.
He tells of an Indian man who, following the longstanding custom of his people, had some time before exchanged his wife for another woman. It had never bothered him before that he had done this, but now that he knew God it weighed heavily on his conscience and he sought Brainerd’s advice as to what he ought to do. The preacher did some digging, learned that his former wife had committed no sin against her husband, had been faithful to her husband, and had, therefore, been improperly divorced. Moreover, she was willing to return to her husband. So, Brainerd advised his Indian friend to renounce the woman he had recently taken for a wife, receive back his proper wife, and live with her in love and peace. This he gladly and publicly did, promising before witnesses to love his wife and to treat her kindly the rest of his life.
What remarkable illustrations these stories are of the fact that the first commandment is not merely one commandment among the ten, but is the foundation of all the commandments, of all obedience to God, and of all true goodness of life. Indeed, the first commandment is the foundation of all true religion.
Surely this should be obvious. If you break this commandment you will, you must eventually break them all. Keep this one, truly keep it, and that will put you in the way of keeping all the others. Therefore, it is imperative that we all know precisely what the first commandment requires.
- First this most fundamental of all the commandments requires that we believe in the existence of God.
That may seem obvious to you and surely it is straightforward enough as the implication of the words themselves. If you do not believe that God exists, if you do not believe in God, you cannot obey the first commandment. As Francis Schaeffer famously put it: you must believe that God is there! Obviously, you cannot put God first and foremost in your heart and life if you don’t believe he exists.
But don’t take the point too lightly. There have always been and there are certainly multitudes today who do not believe in the existence of a personal God. There were such people in biblical times, as we know from the fact that the Bible addresses that unbelief. Psalm 14 begins:
“The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’
And throughout history there have been atheists who have trumpeted their unbelief in God. And in the modern world they have exercised tremendous influence. Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Charles Darwin were atheists and their atheism, their unbelief in God has profoundly shaped the modern world. Albert Einstein would only say that he believed in Spinoza’s god. Spinoza was a philosopher who identified God with nature.
Peter Kreeft, the Boston College professor of theology and Christian apologist, wittily discusses five ways to hide an elephant. By elephant he means the living God who gives meaning to human life and without which it has no meaning. And he observes that the modern world has developed five ways of hiding that elephant.
- Diversion is the first and most effective way. An elephant can be hidden by mice, if there are enough of them. So, our world is filled up with thousands of little things that divert us from attention to the one big thing. If we stay busy enough, we won’t have time to think about God and, in fact, most people rarely think seriously about Him.
- Propaganda is the second way. Use confident bombast and name-calling; call attention to all the sins committed in the name of religion, accuse believers of mental incompetence or venality. Keep up a steady stream of argument, truth and falsehood matter not. Help people not to believe in God which they don’t want to anyway.
- Indifference is a third way. Concentrate on the here and now. Tell people that they shouldn’t waste their time thinking about great questions no one can answer with confidence. They have bigger fish to fry.
- Then in the fourth place there is the pursuit of happiness. If the elephant doesn’t want to make us happy or can’t, what good is he? The elephant is a negative idea, a hard idea, and requires sacrifice and loss. If you want to be well-adjusted and enjoy your life, you’re better off ignoring the question of God altogether. Forget about God and live your life!
- And, finally, there is subjectivism, a specialty of our contemporary world. You have a right to determine the truth for yourself and if God is not true for you, then God is not. You have the right to rule him out of existence. No one has a right to impose God on you against your will, even God himself.
So, Bertrand Russell claims to have built his atheistic philosophy on the “firm foundation of unshakeable despair,” but in fact he didn’t live in despair at all. He used all five of those techniques to hide the elephant from himself. “Man is the measure of all things,” said Protagoras, another master of the five ways of hiding an elephant. He lived in the 5th century B.C. But his atheism, as all atheism since, came to nothing as it turned out man wasn’t the measure of all things.
Kreeft asks in conclusion: “Why do we say such nonsense? Why do we turn elephants into mice, cosmic truth into personal preferences? Because we are terrified of elephants. Perhaps we cannot ride them; perhaps they will trample us.” [Three Philosophies of Life, 33-35]
The fact is God does exist and because he exists it is only right, it is only sensible, it is only absolutely necessary that we revere him and honor him as God and that we allow nothing to become a god in our lives except the living and true God! To keep the first commandment is, do you see, only to live your life according to what is true and what is real.
- Second, this most fundamental of all the commandments requires that we believe in the God of the Bible.
You might suppose that in the Bible atheism is regarded to be the worst sin, the deadliest sin, the most inexcusable sin. But it is not so. To believe in a God of your own contriving, to cut the living God down to size in your own mind, to denature God is certainly no better and in some ways much worse than believing in no God at all.
Most people in the world today, even in our world, even so profoundly influenced by atheist thought as it is, still believe in God. But what sort of God? A detached Deity who, having created the world, sits unperturbed and indifferent, observing the creatures he has made but involving himself not at all? A benevolent, avuncular figure of cheerful good will who would never presume to interfere in our lives or demand our obedience? An angry God who is persistently offended by his creatures and in carelessness for their feelings looks for opportunities to make them miserable? A God who wishes for better things but is powerless to bring them to pass? Is he the God of Islam, the vague impersonal first cause of modern astrophysics, or the spirit whom the animists suppose to live in trees, mountains, or heavenly bodies?
There is no credit given in Holy Scripture to the man or woman who believes in some sort of God. To believe in a false God, a God one’s own devising, an imaginary God is as bad as believing in no God at all. And, actually it is worse, for it inoculates a person from a serious consideration of who God actually is and what God is actually like. It is true, after all, as the atheists never tire of pointing out, that a great deal of evil has been done in this world, and is being done today, by believers in God in the name of their God. That can only be because believing in a false God, an unreal God, does not make for true human goodness; it actually undermines it, as a bad foundation undermines the house built upon it. Here we are a society that still largely believes in God but is as rotten in its own way as societies that have been built on the foundation of atheistic unbelief. How can that be? Because the God we believe in doesn’t actually exist and so our faith in that God must betray true human life at every turn.
The God who is, the God whom we must revere, the God before whom we must have no other Gods is the God who speaks to us in the Ten Commandments, the God who made us the human beings we are, the God who made us for himself and for one another because he is in himself a God of relationship, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the God who’s law has been written on every human heart and published in his Word, the God who in love and mercy acted to redeem his fallen people from their sins and restore them to fellowship with himself. He is the Lord our God who brought us out of the land of slavery. He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He is the God of history. He is the God the prophets. He is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. He is the God who came into the world as a man to live and die for the salvation of men and women. He is the Creator ready to be our Father, our Brother, our Friend, our Comforter, our Advocate. But he is also the God who will judge our lives according to the standards of his Law on the Great Day. He is the God of both heaven and hell, of the past, present, and future, the God who dwells in eternity and in unapproachable light, but also the God who is near to those who fear him to help them and keep them. He is the God who addresses us, instructs us, commands us, encourages us, warns us, and comforts us in the Bible.
This is the God who commands us to have no other Gods before him. And no wonder. He being such a God how wrong must it be, how foolish, how contemptible, and how destructive must it be to worship other Gods before this God, the living God?
Thomas Goodwin, the 17th century Puritan theologian and pastor, was a great Christian and a great Christian thinker. But he admitted without qualification or excuse that when he lost most of his magnificent library in the great fire of London, it was the Lord’s judgment because he had loved his books in a way and to an extent that made of them an idol, a god whom he sometimes worshipped before the one true God.
You remember the rich young ruler who came to Jesus asking what he must do to be saved. He was an impressive young man. The Lord was drawn to him. There was something about him that made the Lord Jesus like this young man. So, the Lord, to test him, told him to keep the commandments. To which the young man replied that he had done so from his youth. Then Jesus said to him, “You have but one thing more to do. Go, sell all that you have, and follow me.” But at that the young man went away sad. He had been attracted to Jesus. There was something about the Lord that arrested his attention. Perhaps he had listened to him teach or witnessed one of his miracles. He felt that Jesus was a man who knew the answer to the great questions of life. But when Jesus told him to sell everything he had and follow him; the man couldn’t do that; he wouldn’t do that. He was a rich man. He was used to being wealthy. His life was the life that only money can buy. With that simple command the Lord had laid bare this rich young man’s soul. Here was a man who thought he had kept all the commandments and by a simple test the Lord Jesus had proved to him that, so far from keeping all the commandments, he hadn’t even understood the first of them. Money was his God. He put money before God. He revered money more than God and keeping his money, therefore, was more important to him even than God himself.
The church of the Lord Jesus Christ has always had among its members large numbers of people like him. They believe in God. They really do. But they do not really believe in the God of the Bible, the God who actually is there, or they would live differently than they do; they would make choices differently than they do; they would spend their time differently than they do; their loves and their hatreds would change as would the entire meaning of their lives. To revere the God of the Bible is to understand the meaning of life and to rejoice in that knowledge. One cannot live in indifference to the God of the Bible once he or she knows who and what God is! Ever thereafter there will nothing added to God: not God and one’s country, not God and one’s family, not God and one’s job, not God and one’s pleasures, but God alone. Loving and serving him will bring all the rest – family, job, pleasure and all the rest – and better than all those things could ever be if put before or even beside the living God.
Why is there something rather than nothing at all? Something must have always existed; something cannot come from nothing. What is that something that has always been there? That is the ultimate question to which the Bible provides the only truly convincing answer: there is a God, an eternal being, a Supreme Being who made everything else, who called the heavens and the earth into existence with all that they contain. What exists existed first in the divine mind, infinite as it is, and then was brought into being by divine wisdom and immeasurable power.
But then why do you exist? Why is there such a thing as a human being and why you in particular? Very clearly nature cannot produce you, could not and did not. Deep down everyone knows this, even if some human beings will go to great lengths to hide that fact from themselves, by what Paul calls their “suppression of the truth.” Once again there can be but one answer: the living God made man in his own image and likeness. We are, Calvin said, microcosms of God, little Gods, as it were. He has stamped his own nature on us. We are not God, of course. He is infinite and we are very finite. He is holy and we are sinful. He is always wise and we are so often fools. But he made us as we are, with the extraordinary powers he has given us because he wants fellowship with human beings. And so, he created us to think, to love, and to speak. This is the God with whom we have to do! This is the God whom we are to revere, to love, to trust, and to obey. It is for this reason that the creed begins with the words, “I believe in God the Father, the maker of heaven and earth.”
Who are you? Do you remember to ask and answer this most fundamental question, this question the answer to which determines everything else about your life? Who are you? You are something, someone that the one living and true God made! You are his doing? You were made by him for him. You were made in his image precisely so that you might know him, love him, serve him, and be loved and served by him in turn. He is the be all and end all of your existence, which is why if you love and trust him you will finally live a life that will be defined by, ennobled by, and blessed by perfect fellowship with him, knowing and being known by the God whose own being is the most captivating thing we will ever encounter in time or eternity. Nothing says more about a human being; nothing determines more his or her life than the thoughts he or she has about God. So, as we read the first commandment, let us all remember this.
“Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom, let not the strong man of his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord…”
“Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” “…for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge…”
That is what people say who put God first because he is first, people who have no other Gods before him!