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WHO IS FIRST           EXODUS 20:3

            If you have your copy of God’s Word with you this morning, I would ask you to turn to Exodus 20 as I read verse 3 to you. Last week, we introduced the Ten Commandments by setting the context in which they were given. Remember they were given in the context of grace. God had redeemed Israel from slavery and as a result this is how they are to respond to him. As you read the Ten Commandments, God summarizes his moral laws for us with Ten Words or pronouncements. Wouldn’t it be great if man could do that today? In 302 words, God told us about Himself and what He expects from His children. That’s a pretty good economy of words when you think about some of the laws coming out of Washington DC. For instance a recent federal directive to regulate the price of cabbage contains 26,911 words!

            These commandments have been divided in different ways, but I want to stick to the traditional Protestant approach. The first four commandments deal with a right relationship with God, while the last six deal with the right relationship with fellow human beings. This morning, we are going to begin with commandment number 1. 

This is the first of Ten Commandments (words or pronouncements) that God gives the children of Israel after He delivers them from the bondage of Egypt. In fact, I would say that this commandment is foundational because all the other commandments are built on it. If this fact is not accepted, then why in the world would you want to accept any of the other nine? So God speaks to the people you shall have no other gods before Me. These words in the Hebrew make an emphatic statement about God and the proper response of God’s children to Him.

            All through Scripture, these words are reiterated for God’s people to understand the importance of it. Moses in a song after the parting of the Red Sea sang, “Who is like You among the gods, O LORD? Who is like You, majestic in holiness, awesome in praises, working wonders?” (Ex. 15:11). In Deut. 6:14, God commanded, “You shall not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who surround you.” The psalmist said, “let there be no strange god among you; nor shall you worship any foreign god” (Psalm 81:9).

            Jeremiah, the prophet, wrote, “do not go after other gods to serve them and to worship them, and do not provoke Me to anger with the work of your hands, and I will do you no harm” (Jeremiah 25:6). Hosea wrote, “I have been the LORD your God since the land of Egypt; and you were not to know any god except Me, for there is no savior besides Me” (Hosea 13:4).

            In the New Testament, Jesus obeyed this command in his temptation with Satan in the wilderness. Satan took Jesus to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms and their glory and he said, “All these things I will give You, if you fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go, Satan! For it is written, ‘YOU SHALL WORSHIP THE LORD YOUR GOD, AND SERVE HIM ONLY.’” (Matthew 4:8-10). Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, wrote, “Therefore concerning the of things offered to idols, we know that there is no such thing as an idol in the world, and that there is no God but one. . .yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him” (1 Cor. 8:4, 6). And John wrote, “We know that the Son of God has come, and has given us understanding so that we may know Him who is true; and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life. Little children, guard yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:20-21).

So this command is foundational in that God wants to be first in your life. He desires to have the number one priority in your life. The culture in which Israel was being delivered from was a polytheistic culture. This means that people in Egypt served a multiple number of gods. One looked to the fertility gods to bless the crops as well as the mother's womb. He looked to the god of rain to shower the seeds he planted and the storm gods to avert their wrath long enough for harvest to take place. "They worshiped the gods of fields and rivers, light and darkness, sun and storms," comments Philip Ryken [Written in Stone, 58]. Sun god and moon god received devoted worship. Offerings and sacrifices, accompanied by fear and superstition, daily professed their belief in many gods.

It was from this culture that God was delivering His chosen people. After four hundred and thirty years, there would be great temptation to keep the gods of this foreign land. Also, the land that they were about to inherit from the Lord was a land in which the people were devoted to a multiple of gods. In fact, these gods still exist in the imagination of people. It may not be in the form of stone or wood or statue; but it could be the god of greed, lust, power, fame, or prestige. If you can name it, people probably have worshiped it.

So God lays a principle, a foundational command for the people of Israel, as well as for us to obey. It is a command to get our undivided loyalty and affection for Him. God desires our heart, mind and soul. He demands of us our entire being for being rescued by His grace.

In giving this command God uses an emphatic no in prohibiting us from following after other gods. It is to be exclusive just like a marriage in which a wife is to have no other husband or a husband to have no other wife. The two shall cleave to each and become one flesh. In other words, God has no rivals. This was a problem for Israel as we have already stated and is a problem for many today.

So what God is not saying is that “I am not to be on top of a list of the many gods you have,” and “you can have Me on Sunday only and the rest of the week there can be other gods in your life.” No, what God is saying is that I do not want you to have any god instead of me or along side of me or in addition to me. I want your undivided affection. I believe that this is clearly illustrated in the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18.

In this story, the prophet Elijah goes to the top of Mount Carmel to confront the people about their divided loyalty to God. There is not to be a blend between the worship of Baal and God. So what ensues is a battle of the prophets. In this battle you have 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah on one side and one prophet of the Lord on the other side.

The rules for battle were clearly spelled out. The 450 prophets of Baal would cut a bull into pieces and put it on wood. Then they would call on their god to consume their sacrifice by sending fire. Elijah would do the same and call on the name of the Lord. The god who answered by fire is God.

First, you have the prophets of Baal calling on their god the entire morning. Then, Elijah begins to taunt them. Maybe their god was “deep in thought,” in which case it was pretty obvious that wasn’t thinking about them. Maybe he was busy—responding to the call of nature—therefore subject to human limitations. Maybe he is traveling and can’t be present to help them, therefore he is not omnipresent. Maybe he has grown weary and has fallen asleep. So the prophets begin to pierce themselves and bleed but were not able to get the fire ignited. “There was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention” (1 Kings 18:29).

Then it was Elijah’s turn. The Bible says he repaired the altar and had his offering doused three times with water. God answered his prayer and the people proclaimed “The LORD—He is God! The LORD—He is God!” (1 Kings 18:39).

There is no god like God! He is transcendent-far beyond us in character, perfections, being, and comprehension, and yet He is imminent as Paul stated, "He is not far from each one of us." This God displays His wrath against sin, and yet without any conflict or contradiction, shows love and kindness to sinners through the grace in Jesus Christ. He is altogether good, perfect in holiness, righteous and just in all that He does, hating iniquity, and rewarding faithfulness. He judges and condemns, yet He pursues sinners to forgive through satisfaction of His justice secured by His Son. He is "the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God," whom belongs "honor and glory forever and ever" (1 Tim. 1:17). "From Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever" (Rom. 11:36).

The first commandment is pretty clear, “You shall have no other gods before Me.” Every person has a god. Ligon Duncan points out, "That which we love and serve and desire and long after and aim for and strive for and think of the most is our god." The gods of our age may not be like the gods of old, which were made out of wood or silver or gold. Yet, there are a host of things that people consider to be god. I want to name a few.

First, there is what someone called a “pluralism” of gods. People view these gods with their different beliefs and systems of worship as equal. For example, in India there is the goddess of death called Cali. In Haiti, people prayed to Satan for deliverance from French control. So it doesn't matter what you believe or who you believe or how you worship-just as long as you do not make claim to the only truth or the only God. Brian Edwards further observed, "Pluralism asserts that all religions are really heading for the same destination but that we give the destination, and the route to it, different names. It may be Heaven, Nirvana or Paradise via Krishna or Buddha or Allah, or we may just call him the Great Architect, or Gaia the great mother goddess of earth."

There are the gods of the New Age, which abound today. “White witchcraft” has transformed America from games played at slumber parties to gaining status and rights. Witches and druids are now recognized by the government as a tax-exempt religious organization. These New Agers deal with mediums and astrology. There are millions who dabble in magic, guidance from tarot cards, Ouija boards, and daily horoscopes.

Man has become his own god. In other words, people worship themselves. This worship pushed man into becoming secular. Man is now enlightened, intellectual, educated. God is no longer the Supreme Being in a person’s life. It is themselves. In this Age of Enlightenment, which brought about the scholarship of the day has tried to destroy the Bible and subject it to the rational thinking of man.

Also, there are the contemporary gods of our day. For the business tycoon, there is capitalism. Men and women might say, “We’re the ones who make this country run. We create jobs and make the economy work. Therefore, if it is good for us, it will be good for everyone.” In the educational community, the human mind is elevated above God. The concept of revelation from outside ourselves is considered outdated and therefore irrelevant. In the medical community, there is the advancement of biotechnology. Doctors are crossing ethical lines of destroying life in order to create or sustain life. There is a rule that says if we can do it, it should be done.

There are many other gods that I have yet to name, but I will just mention a few more. They may be gods of materialism or gods of sex or gods of partying or gods of ambition or gods of greed or gods of entertainment or gods of sports or gods of technology. The devotee is absorbed with his particular man-centered gods.

So, on the flip side to this command of having no other gods, God is saying, “I want you to worship me.” After all, we were created to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. This means we are to worship Him. God says He will give His glory to no other. So we must ask ourselves, “Are we giving God the glory that is due His name?”

I want you to ponder this a moment. God could have created you for the purpose of His amusement. God could have created you as a pawn to claim the earth through destructive and violent ways. God could have created you and snuffed out your life because He could. But God created us in His image. He created us with a purpose. He created us a living human beings with a free will to choose. He created us with a living soul that will exist for eternity. He created us to worship Him.

But I want you to know the only way we can truly worship Him is through His Son Jesus Christ. We cannot worship God on our own terms. In fact, the Bible says, “There is no other name under heaven by which man can be saved.” Yet, we had a problem that hindered our worship of a holy God. The problem is that we are sinners and unrighteous in offering anything to God. But God did something for us in His grace which would take care of our problem. He came in the form of flesh and lived and died in our stead so that we could live for Him.

Even though this salvation was free it still will cost us everything. In Romans chapter 12 verses 1 and 2, the Apostle Paul basically tells us that this is what God wants us to do in light of the fact that He is the Creator and is our Redeemer in Jesus Christ. He wants us to give our whole selves to God as an act of worship. Can I put that provocatively? Paul in Romans 12 verses 1 and 2, when he says, "I want you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, as your reasonable service of worship." When he says that , he’s basically saying, "Don’t give Jesus your heart, He wants more than that. He wants all of you. He wants the totality of what you are. Give Him all of you in all of life, that’s all He wants."

God is calling us to give the whole of ourselves all of the time in His service. After all, that’s the great theme of the Exodus. From Exodus 4:13 on, more than a dozen times God repeats to Pharaoh, "Let My people go in order that they may serve Me and worship Me." We are redeemed to serve and worship the living God. God has saved us to be a people who worship Him and only Him with our lives and with our lips. This is a command to worship God and God only.

Jochem Douma points out the emphatic positive truth of the first commandment. "Choosing for the Lord always means making a choice that excludes every other possibility" [The Ten Commandments, 18]. That's how Joshua explained it to the people of Israel after they had conquered Canaan. "Now, therefore, fear the Lord and serve Him in sincerity and truth; and put away the gods which your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. If it is disagreeable in your sight to serve the Lord, choose for yourselves today whom you will serve: whether the gods which your fathers served which were beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord" (Joshua 24:14-15, italics added).

 Having no gods before the Lord is a definite choice-a decisive act and decisive life. This is not just a one-time action but a regular part of life. Just as John warned believers toward the end of the 1st century, "Little children, guard yourselves from idols," (1 John 5:21), so this first command is a daily practice for us. Every day we decide to have no other gods before the only true God whom we have come to know through Jesus Christ the Lord.

A young man by the name of James Taylor had lived a worldly life, and was a leader in opposing a revival that had swept his neighborhood. The morning of his wedding day he awoke with the words of Joshua 24:15 on his mind. In earlier years he had memorized that verse. Unlike our modern customs, he put in a full day’s work before his wedding that evening. As he went about his labors, the Holy Spirit convicted his heart, and he accepted Jesus as his Savior. He said, “Yes, we will serve the Lord!” At first his bride was dismayed by this decision, but she soon became a believer, and a Christian home was established.

You say, “What’s so unusual about that story?” Well, that young man was the great-grandfather of J. Hudson Taylor, founder of the China Inland Mission, now called the Overseas Missionary Fellowship. Nor has the influence of that first decision been without present-day consequences. The newly appointed general director of that organization is the great-grandson of the founder.

Though saving faith cannot be transmitted from parents to children, God does use the holy influence of fathers and mothers upon their offspring and upon successive generations. What if James Taylor hadn’t yielded to Christ? What if his decision had been different? It is possible that a company of dedicated missionaries would not be serving in the Orient now under an organization whose founding was a direct result of that man’s conversion.

The trail of a right choice in your home may lead to great blessings many years down the road. A child may not inherit his father’s talent, but he will absorb his values.

            As we close this morning, I want to emphasize that there is freedom in being completely devoted to God. Freedom is knowing that you are no gripped by some blind force leading you around or you are tossed by the sea of chance, but you are entrusting yourself to the One who controls all and works all things to the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Rom. 8:28).

            There is no limit to the benefits that we may enjoy as we seek to remain faithful in our loyalty to the Lord. Even death does not bring an end to all that God has in store for those who love Him.

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