Many people are familiar with the Ten Commandments, but few understand their purpose and place in God’s design for His creation. As Alistair Begg explains, God’s law reveals what it means to love both Him and our neighbors. Because of all that God is and all that He has done, the first commandment requires us to worship God exclusively, without pledging our affection to the many other things that clamor for our attention.
Well, I invite you to take your Bibles, and we’ll turn to the book of Exodus and to chapter 20 as we both seek to consider the first of these Ten Commandments and also to give something of an introduction to the commandments in general.
Exodus 20:3 reads as following: “You shall have no other gods before me,” or “besides me.”
If it was true to say that in the ’60s we perfected, at least in the Western world, a sort of willful disregard for God, a defiant gesture on the part of humanity, and if we honed it in the ’70s and lived with the implications of it in the ’80s, now, in these early years of the ’90s, as we come to the end of a millennium and anticipate 2000 and beyond, there’s an interesting change, it would seem to me, taking place in many parts of our world, not least of all here in the context of the United States of America. Perhaps this is your experience also, but I find that people have no problem whatsoever about being prepared to listen, or to read, or to talk about spiritual things. Indeed, there seems to be a widespread interest in religion, so much so that people are prepared to listen to just about anyone or anything. That is the bad side of it. The rise of Islam, the inroads of all kinds of mystical elements that attach themselves to the New Age movement, are indicative of this very thing.
And at the very same time, large segments of Christendom—that which represents, if you like, historic Christianity—appears happy simply to set up their booths, as it were, on the corridors of time alongside all these other little displays of the various religious options. And so we live in this kind of syncretistic, pluralistic culture where men and women are increasingly interested in religion and at the same time decreasingly interested in doing anything that makes demands upon them.
I believe a door of opportunity is opening for us—an opportunity for us to share with people that there is something that they need, albeit not something that they want; indeed, that what they want is actually a mirage, and that what they need is something very real.
For example, at the time of the election—which is almost a year ago now—with so much talk surrounding the issue of values, Newsweek magazine contained an article addressing the question of values. The writer described the issue as “a deep, vexing national anxiety… about the nagging sense that unlimited personal freedom and rampaging materialism yield only greater hungers and lonelier nights”—that the more men and women embrace the idea that they are free to do exactly what they choose with whoever they want whenever they want, and when you align that with a rampaging, ever-increasing materialism, says this secular writer, what men and women are left with is a frustrating sense of being hungry and a dreadful sense of being lonely.
Time magazine, in the work of the previous editor in chief, a man by the name of Grunwald who was also ambassador to Austria, wrote an article at the same time entitled, “The Year 2000: Is It the End—or Just the Beginning?” And in it he writes, “We are beset by a whole range of discontents and confusions. For a great many, the dunghill has become a natural habitat. … Observers of depravity would … be stunned by the chaos of manners and speech.” It’s interesting, isn’t it? It’s a very small thing, and yet it’s a big thing: “the chaos of manners and speech” in our culture. Does it matter that men no longer stand up for ladies on the train or on the shuttle at Dulles Airport? Does it matter that children don’t know how to say please or thank you or how to bid someone good morning? This is a secular man. He says if someone observing us from a different vantage point were to see the chaos in manners and in speech, they would be absolutely flabbergasted.
At the same time, he says, they would be equally shocked “by the hellish ubiquity of crime.” I mean, think about the crimes of this last week, just that have been covered in the Plain Dealer. Unbelievable! Three-year-old babies being raped and mutilated?
And this is just the tip of the iceberg: the “almost … democratic … availability of drugs; by the new varieties of decadence—rock songs about rape and suicide.” Oh, we have come a long way from “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” you know? “I don’t want to kiss or hold you tight … ’cause I’m happy just to dance with you.” Those were the long-haired guys from Liverpool. You remember them? Were you down there burning those albums in Dallas, or were you just applauding the people who burned them? Now who’s burning the sadomasochistic albums of today? Nobody. Everybody went to sleep. “Rock songs about [this], pornography at the corner newsstand, commercials … on your friendly cable channel” for sadomasochistic clubs. Says the man, “We are witnessing the end, or at least the decline, of an age of unbelief and beginning what may be a new age of faith.”
Now, before we jump up and go “This is terrific!” you ought to understand what this means. What he’s saying is that the materialistic, mechanistic worldview which has pervaded man in a kind of rationalistic, scientific quest for utopia has fizzled out. They fired the rocket up; it ended; it has now begun to come on a parabola down. It’s gonna hit the ground. And so, having decided that there’s nothing there, now we’re going to get into faith.
The fact of the matter is, though, this is faith in faith. This is not faith that has to do with the object of faith, whereby the ground of what we trust in gives credibility to our faith, but rather, it’s just faith in faith. So people are happy to talk about faith: “Oh, I wish I had your faith,” and “Isn’t it good to have faith,” and “I’m glad I have faith.” Nobody knows what they’re talking about, but they just use this word. And they read it in Time magazine or in Newsweek, and they say, “That’s it. That’s what we’re into now.”
“[Well],” says the writer, “we will need a new sense of drive” and “less emphasis on [our] ‘rights’ and more on our responsibilit[ies].” This is not the Bible. This is just a secular commentator. This is just a man looking over the panorama of the human scene. And he says, “We have given wide rein to living on the basis of rights. Now we better think responsibilities.”
That’s why I say it’s timely for us to consider the Decalogue—the Ten Commandments—because here God expresses the responsibilities which he chooses to lay on men and women. Secularism has not blossomed into the beauty that was offered up. And if you’re a believer this morning, you understand this. You ought to read your newspaper. You ought to read your Bible. You ought to think these things out and be prepared to go out on a Monday and challenge the thought forms of our generation.
Grunwald says, “We have gradually dissolved,” we have “deconstructed,” “the human being into a bundle of reflexes, impulses, neuroses, [and] nerve endings.” It’s true. Man is just a cosmic monkey. Man is now a turbocharged ape. It’s more important to “free Willy” than it is to free man from the restraints upon his life. And men and women are confused. They’re really confused. And I believe men are really interested in cutting through a lot of the Christian claptrap—all the little slogans we’ve made—and they’re prepared to think the issues out.
Now, whenever we encounter somebody like that, we’ve got a great opportunity.
Mainstream Christianity has tried to diminish its bits and pieces that folks won’t like. So, it said, “Well, if that’s a problem for somebody, we won’t believe in that. And if Mr. X won’t like that, then we can get rid of that. And if the teenagers don’t like this, then we won’t worry about that.” And so, what it does is it just renders itself irrelevant. The opportunity opens to us to stand up authoritatively in our day, to take our Bibles, and to say, “This is what God says, and we’re unashamed about it.”
Now, that’s why we’re studying the Ten Commandments: so that we might get to grips with these issues.
In coming to them, it’s vitally important that we understand a number of things. Because great confusion surrounds the Ten Commandments. Some of us were brought up learning them off by heart. Although 96 percent of America says it believes in God, very, very few could get the Ten Commandments in order. In fact, very few could even get the Ten Commandments. And some of us this morning would be hard-pressed, with a white sheet of paper in front of us, to write down more than two or three. So before we start applauding ourselves, we better just understand the context.
First of all, we need to say this: that what we have in the Ten Commandments is not a formal list of dos and don’ts that have been given to us by God to restrict our personal freedoms. People think that’s what it is. They say, “Oh, the Ten Commandments? I hate that stuff. It’s a bunch of things that you can’t do, and it just makes life miserable. You have to wear dark suits, you look like a donkey, and life is baneful. Be done with that nonsense! I don’t know who came up with that.”
Well, the answer is that the Ten Commandments are not that. Rather, they are a blueprint for life. If you want a heading for the Ten Commandments, you could call them “Guidelines to Freedom.” “Here’s the way to live in freedom,” says God. They are the kind of instructions that a parent would give—a good parent would give—to their child: say, “Honey, this is how I want you to live, and this is how you will be protected, and this is how you will grow to be the kind of person that God intends for you to be.” That’s the framework in which the Ten Commandments are given. So don’t immediately react to them as a dreadful list.
As Malcolm Muggeridge, writing in Punch years ago, said, most people regard the Ten Commandments the way they treat the average examination paper in England, where the questions are set and it says at the top, “Four out of ten to be attempted.” And so, that’s the way people approach the Ten Commandments: they say, “Well, there’s ten of them, and frankly, I’m going to have a good shot at four. I mean, I might not do too well on the other six, but at least, you know, I’ll know I’m doing well on four.” It doesn’t work that way.
Second thing to notice is this: that these commandments expound the instruction of Jesus given to us in Matthew chapter 22.
You remember on one occasion, the Pharisees, who were really into rules and regulations, came up to Jesus and asked him, “Teacher, [what] is the greatest commandment in the Law?” That’s Matthew 22:36. And “Jesus replied: ‘“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Now, I wonder, if you have thought this or met anyone who thought it, this is what you find. You talk to people and they say, “Oh yes, I know the Ten Commandments are in the Old Testament, but we don’t bother with the Old Testament. We’re the New Testament people. And in the New Testament, what we have is just ‘Love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Well, first of all, that is not true. Jesus said these two principal statements are the very hinges upon which all of the Law and the Prophets hang. In other words, he says, “If you get these two things and understand what they mean, then you’re set. But if you don’t, you’re in difficulty.” So I ask you this morning: you read this, it says, “I’m supposed to love the Lord my God with all my heart, with all my soul, with all my mind, and with all my strength.” Good! Well, how do you do that? What are you supposed to do? You just walk around going, “I love the Lord my God with all my heart, all my soul, all my mind, all my strength,” kinda like a mantra? What does it mean? It’s gotta mean something. How do we find out what it means?
What it means is answered in the first four commandments. They tell us what it means to love God with all our heart. See? First thing is you don’t have any other gods. You don’t worship anyone other than the living God. Secondly, you don’t worship the living God any other way than the way in which he said, and so on. And we love our neighbor as ourself. What does that mean? The last six commandments answer that question. If I’m going to love my neighbor as myself, it’s got to mean something practical. It means something very practical! It means you don’t sleep with the lady next door, unless she happens to be your wife and move next door. All right? It means you don’t rip your boss off and steal stuff out of the office. It means you don’t fiddle your income tax. It means you don’t drive around your neighborhood resenting the fact that your car is the smallest car in the neighborhood and everyone else has a bigger house and put an extension on the back and you didn’t get one. It means something really practical. You see, to love your neighbor as yourself doesn’t just mean having a funny feeling in the pit of your stomach. That may only have to do with pizza. That’s not necessarily loving.
Okay? So I want you to understand, any of you who have come with the notion—and many will have—that in the Old Testament we have the Ten Commandments, but somehow or another, those got blown out, and now we just have two new ones. No. What Jesus was saying is expounded in the Ten Commandments. Okay?
Third thing to say, in general, is that the Ten Commandments are not a ladder up which we climb to acceptance with God. If you went in the street and said to somebody, “How do you think you can ever get to heaven?” one of the classic responses will be “Obey the Ten Commandments.” Okay? “Try your best. Do the things that God said.” Where are they said? Well, they’re said in the Ten Commandments.
But in point of fact, what we discover is that the Ten Commandments are not a ladder up which we climb to acceptance with God, but they’re rather a mirror in which we see ourselves. Because when we read these commandments, we realize we’ve got a problem.
For example, commandment number one, that we’re about to deal with now: we’re supposed to have no other gods before God. That’s tough! You put your girlfriend before God any time this past seven days, guys? Put your boss before God? Put your marriage before God? When I read the Ten Commandments, it’s like a mirror; I go, “Ooh! I didn’t know that was on my face.”
Isn’t that embarrassing when you got something on your face, and you don’t know, and even your best friends won’t tell you? I remember in Scotland, I was visiting some old ladies, and I was taking them flowers. (They seemed old at the time; they were probably only forty.) And I was visiting, and somehow or another, I got the pollen on my fingers; I was driving my car, I rubbed my face, so I looked like a Mohican by the time I got to this lady’s house. I walked in proud as punch, gave her the flowers, sat down, had a cup of tea, read the Bible, prayed with her, and everything else, large as life! I came out, and as I looked in my rearview mirror to drive away, I said, “Holy smoke! I didn’t realize I had that all over my face. Why did she never tell me?” Once you see in the mirror, you find out what’s going on.
And see, here in these Ten Commandments, we look in the mirror. That’s why a lot of people don’t want to deal with them. And the mirror shows us we’re dirty. And you can’t wash your face in the mirror, so it sends us to the solution to the problem we’ve encountered.
So, don’t anybody go out of here this morning saying, “I’ve got it clear. There are Ten Commandments, you try and do them. If you do them, God likes you. If you don’t do them, God hates you. And the way to really make God like you is obey the Ten Commandments.” No. What the Ten Commandments do is say, “Hey, I’ve got a problem. And they don’t answer the problem. Therefore, I must go look for an answer.” And you dinnae have to look far, as you’ll find out.
The fourth thing to say is this: that the impact of the Ten Commandments on the unbeliever is to bring restraint in the civil realm—in other words, in the realm of politics and in democracy.
Both Britain and America share this, insofar as the Ten Commandments have largely framed the basis of their laws. And the Ten Commandments are there to restrain evil. If you think about it, there is no way to restrain evil unless a society embraces a moral consensus. Soon as a society decides that it doesn’t matter if you kill people, then it’s the Wild West. Soon as a society decides that it doesn’t matter if you steal, then it’s all shot. And the Ten Commandments have framed, in Western culture, the basis, largely, of the civil jurisdiction of our day.
Fifthly, the Ten Commandments exist to bring about conviction in the theological realm. I’ve largely said that in terms of referring to them as a mirror. In other words, it is there that we find out that we’re not all that we thought we were.
And sixthly, for the believer, for those who are trusting in Christ, the Ten Commandments are there not in order to enable us to meet requirements for God—because Jesus is the only one that can meet those requirements—but in order to enable us to walk in the fullness and freedom that our heavenly Father intends.
This is how it is: All of humanity has God’s eternal law written in its conscience. Every man or woman, boy or girl, made is made as a moral being. They know things are right, and they know things are wrong. It is not simply environmental. They know instinctively. God has written it into conscience. But the law of God is only written on the hearts of those who trust in Christ. And until I come to trust in Christ, the law of God only convicts me and only condemns me. So if you keep coming here, and you are living outside of a personal relationship with God in Christ, this series in the Ten Commandments is either going to drive you far away from this building, or it is, God willing, going to drive you to the wonderful discovery of faith in Christ. Because the law of God is written in your conscience, but it’s not written in your heart.
As sinners, we break the law of God. We don’t delight in the law of God. It is only when he writes it in our hearts that we say, “I delight to do your will, O Lord. I delight to obey you. Your paths are the paths of righteousness, and all your ways are peace. More to be desired than gold are your laws and your statutes; they rejoice my heart.” That is a radical transformation. And for the believer, that’s what the Ten Commandments are. The law of God shows me I’m a sinner, sends me to Christ for salvation; Christ returns me to the law in order to frame my way of life. The Spirit of God works within my heart, says, “Come on now, you want to love the Lord your God with all your heart and your soul and your mind and your strength.” How do I do it? The first four commandments. “And your neighbor as yourself.” How do I do it? The last six commandments.
Now, having said all of that, let me say a couple of things about God with a large G, gods with a wee g, and then a point or two of application. Okay?
Number one, God with a large G: “I am,” he says, “the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods.”
The preamble, you see, is vital to understanding the laws, in the same way that the preamble of the Constitution is a very important preamble, because it sets up what is about to follow: “We the People of the United States of America, believing that this and this and this and this and this, do hereby do this.” See? And so, what happens with the Ten Commandments is people unearth them from the context. All they hear is the “you shall” divorced from the “I am.” And it is the “I am” that gives foundation to the “you shall.”
I remember 1972, I was standing on a wall in Trafalgar Square. There was a huge mass of people there. It was a Festival of Light rally. Thousands of people from all over Great Britain had come to stand around the statue there of Nelson in Trafalgar Square, and I was standing up on a wall as a vantage point. I heard a voice behind me saying, “Get down from the wall.” I spun around, I said, “Who says?” That wasn’t smart. The man was dressed in blue, and he had a helmet that went up like this. It wasn’t one of my buddies that said, “Get down.” It was the law. This is what he said: “I am the policeman. You shall get down.” Okay?
Now, God, you see, is the one who says, “I am God, and because I am, you shall…” Now, the problem for us, in our arrogant little tyrannies in which most of us live, is that we don’t like anybody telling us what to do. Anybody. We don’t want our moms and dads to do it. We don’t want our bosses to do it. We don’t want our teachers to do it. We don’t want policemen to do it. We don’t want anyone to do it. And the reason that we’re such a rebellious group of people is because we haven’t settled it at the level of commandment number one. The reason for the incipient rebelliousness that pervades our culture is because we’ve missed it here, back here. We get this right, then other things fall into place. You see? “I am your mom. You shall clean your room!” Answer: “I don’t care.” Because all authority is derived from the authority of Almighty God, who says, “I am God. Therefore, you shall…”
Now, let’s say these couple of things about God.
Why should we put God first? Answer: because of who he is. Because of who he is. What we have here in Scripture is the statement that God has revealed himself, that he is the Creator: “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament [shows] his handywork.” You look up at this ceiling, and it’s fantastic, right? You look up at this and you say, “I can’t believe they managed to get all those lights in, and symmetry, and they come on and they go off,” and you say, “There’s somebody really smart did this.” And rightly so. You stand out on a starlit night and look up into the vastness, and in your heart, because God has set eternity in your hearts, you’re saying to yourself, “Somebody bigger than me did this.”
The psalmist says—Psalm 100:3—“Know ye that the Lord he is God: it is he [who has] made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.” That is why, you see, since the tail end of the nineteenth century, with the shakiness of German theology that fed its way into Britain and into the United States and, at the same time, the accompanying influence of Darwin, we have had, for basically this whole century, a declining commitment—an exponentially declining commitment—to the truth of the creative handiwork of God, so that while men and women are prepared to talk about God, they are not talking about a God who made them. And that is the only God about which the Bible speaks. “Know ye that the Lord he is God: it is he [who has] made us.”
This God, says the writer in Deuteronomy, is unique. Deuteronomy 4:39. You should turn to it if you would like to see it. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy—chapter 4. This is very important when you’re talking to your friends. Deuteronomy 4:39, this is what God says: “Acknowledge and take to heart this day that the Lord is God in heaven above and on the earth below.” I am so sick of this “Mother Earth” junk. I’m fed up with it. I’m fed up with these people on channel three, five, and eight sitting there as if they were in charge of the weather or they were in touch with somebody who’s in charge of the weather: “Oh, Mother Nature will be shining on the air show this afternoon.” Oh yeah? It’s bogus. Listen: “Acknowledge and take to heart this day that the Lord is God in heaven above.” He makes it rain. He makes it drought. And he’s in charge “on the earth below. There is no other.” There’s nobody else. There’s no one else.
Now, you see, that immediately backs you into a corner, doesn’t it? Because our culture says, “We don’t mind you having a god, providing you’ve just got a god. We don’t want you coming here with the ‘the God’ story.” See, we can have the “a god” story, but not the “the God” story. ’Cause after all, this is the realm of competition. And as long as we have a McDonald’s, we’re gonna have a Burger King. As long as you have a Burger King, you have the right to have an Arby’s. As long as you have an Arby’s, then you have a right to have that guy with the square hamburgers—I don’t like that, whatever that is. What’s that? Wendy’s! That’s it, Wendy’s. Yeah. I had my last one of them ten years ago in Beachwood—and it was also my first one. Anyway… Sorry for those of you who are carrying stock in Wendy’s. It’s definitely go down now.
But what we’ve got is, everybody sets up their stall. And in the same way, when you talk God, everybody sets up their little stall. You go to the average university, they’ve got all their little deities set up. And the last thing in the world you want to do is to be thought some kind of obscurantist freak who says, “You know, I think Deuteronomy 4:39’s got something to say here. ‘There is no other’ rather than the God who made us.”
And because of that, he says in verse 40, “keep his decrees and [his] commands, which I am giving you today, so that it may go well with you and [with] your children after you and that you may live long in the land the Lord your God gives you for all time.” In other words, “I’m God. I thought it up. This is how you should do it. Do this and it’s really good.” But if you want to bring home a tumble dryer and try and mix concrete for a new patio in the back of your house, that’s not a smart idea. There is not a tumble dryer made that will do that job the way that the concrete mixer is supposed to do it. And I don’t suggest that you put your laundry in a concrete mixer. Why? Because they weren’t put together for that.
This God that we worship is Creator. He is unique. As we saw in a previous study, he is plural, he’s powerful, he’s perfect, and he’s praiseworthy. You should write those four things down—perfect doctrine of God. All you need to do then is go and find the whole Bible explaining those four words.
The God that we worship, the God who reveals himself here in Exodus chapter 2, is plural. In other words, he is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The cults can’t do anything with that. They don’t have the idea of a Trinity. Hinduism says there have been many avatars. Christianity says God has revealed himself only once. Both Hinduism and Christianity cannot both be right; one is wrong. Judaism says that God is totally monotheistic: he is Yahweh, he is Jehovah. Christianity says Jesus is God. We cannot both be right. Islam says this, Buddhism says that, Christianity says something; we cannot both be right.
And that’s the wonderful thing that became apparent, incidentally, at that jolly thing that took place in Chicago these last few weeks. Did you see that? The hundred-year convocation of the religions of the world. Got off to a flying start; everybody said, “What a wonderful time we’re going to have. Here’s little Johnny with his idea, and then Fred, and Billy, and they’re all here; Mary as well. And one thinks that God is the Father, one thinks it’s the mother. One thinks God is monotheistic; it’s the Trinity. Oh, it’s going to be wonderful,” says the writer at the beginning of the week, “when we all get together and discover that we all believe the same thing!”
Did you read the articles about Thursday, Friday? It was fantastic! The Muslims were kicking up a right shindig with the Buddhists, the Buddhists were blowing out the Hari Krishnas, the Hari Krishnas were ticked off with somebody else, and the whole thing was a major dog’s breakfast. It was proving the stupidity of it all! And, says the writer, although they agree the thing is messed up, they cannot agree on the solution. Of course they can’t! Because this is God’s infallible truth. Because God as he reveals himself is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. He is one in essence. They are coequal from all of eternity. He is the triune God. He is plural.
He is powerful. He speaks, and it happens.
He is perfect. He is without flaw. He is self-existent.
And he is worthy of our praise. Oh, that men would not say, “Hasn’t nature been good to us,” but oh, that men would say, “What a wonderful, almighty God, who has chosen to do these things.” Now, you see, that only happens by grace. By nature, man is confused.
Now, why is this important? Well, it’s important for multiple reasons. But it is interesting to note: the USA is second only to one other country in the world in church attendance. There’s only one other country where more members of the population go to worship. I bet you don’t know which one it is. How many of you think it’s South America? Cowards. How many of you think it’s somewhere in Europe? Okay, none of you know anything. Okay, that’s fine. Here it is: it is the Republic of Ireland. That’s the only place in the world where more people go to church per capita of population—driven in many cases by total fear. Okay?
Now, despite the fact that all these people go to church, let me quote you: “Although 95 percent of … Americans say they believe in God, it is by no means clear that they acknowledge the God of biblical revelation”—they don’t!—“who speaks to [them] from beyond himself and awakens in [men and women] a sense of dependency, [a sense of] moral unworthiness and [a sense of] obligation to [do] his will.” See?
So they say, “Well, I want to get religious, and I want to come to church.”
“Okay, come along to church. This is Parkside Church.”
“Well, what’s it like?”
“Well, it’s like a lot of things.”
“Yeah, but I mean, what’ll happen if I come in there? I mean, will I feel good?”
“Well, what do you mean? I mean, will the seats feel comfortable? The seats are comfortable.”
“Yeah, but will I feel like I’m a good guy.”
“No, probably not. Not unless your wife tells you you’re a good guy, or one of your friends, or something else. If the Bible speaks that way, then you’ll feel great. But if the Bible says you’re a bad guy, you’re gonna feel like a bad guy.” And guess what? If you don’t like feeling like a bad guy, you’re never coming back. ’Cause if your view of God is that he exists to make you feel like a good guy, the only place you’re ever going to go and worship is some place where God fits your bill. And men and women today are unwilling to admit what they have to admit to start a relationship with God at all: number one, “I’m a sinner.”
See, here—and I don’t think it’s unique to this country; I don’t want to sound like the wailing prophet from across the Atlantic or something—but Americans that I talk to use the word God with a large G to refer to a general principle of good in life: God is a cosmic principle, or God is a force, or God is whatever you want him to be. But the idea that God is self-existent and he is to be feared and he is to be loved is nowhere in the reckoning. So we’ve got a paradox, and that is that while a knowledge of this God of the Bible and a knowledge of the Bible and a commitment to the core beliefs of historic Christianity, while all of those things plummet, America remains one of the most religious countries in the world.
George Bush at the Religious Broadcasters Convention last year said to the cheers and applause of the gathered group, “America is still the most religious nation in the world”—and everybody applauded. But at the expense of truth, at the expense of the God of revelation, at the expense of the reality of Scripture, at the expense of a commitment to the core beliefs that have underpinned all that built this place on the foundation on which it now stands? We’re on shaky ground.
That’s why I say to you, these are days of great opportunity to talk to our friends in these lines, to engage them in conversation. Enough of this being known as a bunch of crazy people waving things and tramping around. We meet people one at a time. Their lives are their lives. There’s good, there’s bad, there’s problems, there’s success, there’s questions, there’s everything. By and large, many of them are confused. Some have a background that is understanding these things. Some of them come from nowhere. Slogans are not going to do it. Trite expressions of the religious right will not transform men and women’s lives. It’s gonna take a painstaking commitment to engage in dialogue concerning truth, concerning God, concerning the Bible. And loved ones, I say to you this morning: you cannot do that unless you learn your Bible, unless you know the truth, and unless you’re sensitive to those things.
So when you say to people, “You know, we had this thing on the Ten Commandments,” someone’s going to say, “Oh, blooming Ten Commandments! Isn’t that a drag?” Well, you can say, “Well, the sermon was a bit of a drag, but the Ten Commandments, they’re not. No, they’re okay.” “Why is that?” And then you can start and tell them.
Tell them that we must do this because of who God is and because of what God’s done. Isn’t that what he says here in Exodus 20? He says, “The reason I want you to do this is because I redeemed you. I redeemed you.” “I[’m] the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” And having brought them out, he gave them the law. Why? To redeem them? No, to frame their way of life. What has happened to us? First Peter 1:18–19 (check them, you’ll find it), he says we haven’t been redeemed with corruptible things like silver and gold; we have been redeemed by the precious blood of Jesus. We have been set free, realizing we’re unable to keep God’s standard, casting ourselves upon God so that Christ would give to us what we do not deserve; then, having been redeemed, we want to find out how to live. And number one, “You shall have no other gods before me.”
Okay, well, let’s finally talk about gods with a small g. What does it mean, “You shall have no other gods before me”? Or in your translation, it might read “besides me.” Well, it would be like taking a second wife while your first wife is still alive and well and happy to be your wife. It would be the breech of an exclusive relationship. And God says, “I am in an exclusive relationship with you. I have pursued you. I have redeemed you. I am your God. And therefore, you shouldn’t have any other gods that take my place.”
Now, we need to realize—and we’ll say this again and again going through these Ten Commandments—that the commandments are not restricted to outward actions, but they are also relating to the disposition of our minds and our hearts.
I don’t know about you, but I think I come to the first commandment, and I look at this, and I picture scenes from subcontinents of the world, with people dancing round poles or bowing down before statues or going through elaborate incantations and rituals and mantras and so on. And I say, “Whoa, man! I’m glad I was born where I was born so we don’t have to really worry about the first commandment, because we’re not into any of that stuff. I mean, we’ve got the first commandment down: ‘You shall have no other gods before me.’ Got it! We don’t have any of those dumb gods, none of those idols, none of that stuff. We’re not burning all that tissue paper like on the streets of Hong Kong. We’re not taking perfectly good apples and oranges and leaving them there to rot, waiting for the little deity to come by feeling like a Granny Smith some afternoon. We’re not that stupid, we don’t do that stuff. We’ve got it down!”
Hey, wait a minute before you go too quickly. You see, in paganism, the reason that they do all of those things in relation to God is because they believe that God exists for them. And so, if they will do something for it—or him, or her—then he in turn will do something for them. So therefore, we come along, and we do our little ceremonies, and then we seek to make God obligated to us. We say our mantras, then God fills in for us. We do our incantations, and then God does something for us. That’s the view of paganism.
Did you hear what I said? That’s the view of paganism. That’s the view of secular America. We don’t know who it is, but we figure he’s up there somewhere, and if we could only find out what you’re supposed to do, then we can obligate him—or her, or it—to us, and all will be well with us. So before we start congratulating ourselves that we’ve got space exploration—and the shuttle got off, mercifully—and we’ve got microwave ovens, and we’ve got TVs, and we’ve got computers; therefore, presumably, we don’t have a problem with these gods with a small g. Listen: all of these things—all of the advances in technology and all of the improvements, for which we’re thankful—cannot mask the deep foolishness and immaturity that pervades our culture.
Think about the best campuses, now, in the American university context. Now, I won’t mention any for fear that you and I didn’t go there, and then we’ll feel bad. But those that are on the forefront, what are they doing? They’re establishing professorial chairs for earth cults, for feminine deities, and for New Age nonsense. I mean, just get their brochures and check. Just check, and you’ll find out it’s true.
What? The people who put the men on the moon are thinking about worshipping the earth? All these scientific rationalists who woke up one morning at the end of the nineteenth century and realized how smart they could be are talking about worshipping some kind of feminine, female god deity? Yeah. Why? Because when men and women cease to believe in the God of revelation, they don’t believe in nothing; they start to believe in everything. And that’s where we are. It’s not that men and women don’t believe in God. It is that they believe in gods. And any belief in wee gods means that we’re not believing in the God of revelation.
And so this morning, if the cap fits, let’s wear it. Think of those of us, even, who profess faith in Jesus Christ, and we would want to go out and say, “Oh yeah, we’ve got this one really buttoned down. We understand this. We’re not going to put any other gods in God’s place.” Can I ask you, do you have a comprehensive understanding of the rule of God within your life? I’m not asking you divorced from me. I’ve been asking myself the question this week.
Is God in charge of your Mondays? Do you have a view of God in charge of your work, or is work another department under the control of a different head of the department—namely, another little deity? Is God in control of your relationships, of your comings and goings, of your dating game? Or is that actually in the department of another little deity? Is God in charge of the success quotient of your life and of mine, of our aspirations and our dreams, of our apparent successes, of our amassing of things and of stuff? Is this God of revelation in charge, or have we delegated it to subdeities?
To the degree that I allow anyone else or anything else to enable me to make my decisions, which I ought to make simply in obedience to God, I am violating the first commandment. When I put my job and the privileges of my task before God himself, I have begun to worship the privilege of preaching. When you worship your family as if you were gonna have your family forever, you are no longer worshipping God. I want to go so far as to say that when you or I put our families, no matter how much we feel the right to be committed to our families, in places that is God’s alone, then we just violated the first commandment—or your wife, or your husband, or your girlfriend, or the one you’re going to marry, or your job.
Let me end by turning you just to two verses in the Old Testament: Jeremiah 9 and Joshua 24. I’m just going to read them, and we’re done.
God speaks through the prophet Jeremiah, and he says, “I am commanding you today, if you want to start boasting, to make sure that you don’t boast about these few things.” Verse 23:
This is what the Lord says:
“Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom,
or the strong man boast of his strength
or the rich man boast of his riches,
but let him who boasts boast about this:
that he understands and knows me,
that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness,
[and] justice and righteousness on [the] earth,
for in these I delight,”
declares the Lord.
Is it right to be physically fit? Definitely. Do we really need to stand in front of those mirrors all the time, preening ourselves? Probably not. Is recreation wrong? Definitely not. Is golf good? Depends how you play. But whenever even good things and good people take my heart, then I have ceased from obeying the first commandment.
The final verse is in the book of Joshua and in [chapter] 24. Joshua 24. You know the situation well. The covenant has been reviewed. Joshua has rehearsed the way that God has led his people out. He’s given them a land, and he’s done all these things for them, and then Joshua stands them up, and he says, “Now [listen],” verse 14, “fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve.” ’Cause the fact of the matter is, we’ll serve something, or we’ll serve someone. And every one of us, when we walk out these doors this morning, we go out to serve and worship. We worship at all kinds of shrines and in all kinds of ways. And the question is, are you going to worship the living God, or are you going to serve these other gods? Choose whether you will serve God or “whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you[’re] living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
Can I ask you this morning, where are you in relationship to this first commandment? God’s law has been written on all of our consciences, but only in Christ is it written on our hearts. Ask yourself in this dying moment, “Who’s in charge of my life? Who’s on the throne of my life? Who calls the shots in my life? Who takes first place in my life?”
“I am the Lord your God,” he says. “You shall have no other gods before me.”
Let’s pray together:
Father, look upon our hearts today. You know us. You made us. We don’t want to pretend before you. We don’t want to play at church. We don’t want to be simply sloganeers walking out from here. We want your truth to take root in our hearts. We want to hear your Word in the Bible. We want to understand it, and we want to live it. We want you to help us to get rid of little gods that we’ve begun to include in our thinking: gods of our looks, of our ego, of our success, of our acquisitions. Help us, Lord, not to worship there. And then help us tomorrow, when we feel like worshipping there again, to remember that we said today that we didn’t want to worship there. Help us to help one another in this, ’cause all of us are learners from the one who knows the answers.
And may the love of the Lord Jesus draw us to himself, may the joy of the Lord Jesus give us strength to obey his commands, and may the peace of the Lord Jesus keep our hearts and minds, today and forevermore. Amen.
 Joe Klein, “Whose Values?,” Newsweek, June 8, 1992, 19, quoted in Michael S. Horton, The Law of Perfect Freedom (Chicago: Moody, 1993), 13–14.
 John Lennon and Paul McCartney, “I’m Happy Just to Dance with You” (1964). Lyrics lightly altered.
 Henry Grunwald, “The Year 2000: Is It the End—or Just the Beginning?,” Time, March 30, 1992, http://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,975194-1,00.html.
 See Romans 2:15.
 See Psalm 40:8.
 See Psalm 23:3.
 See Proverbs 3:17.
 See Psalm 119:72, 127.
 See Psalm 19:8.
 Exodus 20:2–3 (NIV 1984).
 Psalm 19:1 (KJV).
 Psalm 100:3 (KJV).
 Deuteronomy 4:39 (NIV 1984).
 George Gallup and James Castelli, The People’s Religion (New York: Macmillan, 1989), 93, quoted in Horton, Law of Perfect Freedom, 36.
 George H. W. Bush, “Remarks at the Annual Convention of the National Religious Broadcasters” (speech at the Sheraton Washington Hotel, Washington, DC, January 27, 1992), https://bush41library.tamu.edu/archives/public-papers/3882. Paraphrased.
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.