How did You feel when you heard that Pastor Gettys and I were going to do a series of sermons on the Law of God? Were you jumping up and down and excited? Was your response, "Oh no! I'll just hear about how bad I am, how I'll never measure up to God's law, I'm in a hopeless condition and now I've got to hear about it some more! I wish we had more sermons on how God loves us. All we ever hear about are the rules and regulations."
Or, was your response, "Great! Finally we are getting to the good stuff. All we ever hear about is God's love. Some of these people around me need to hear more about rules and regulations! All we ever hear about is God's love al the time."
I preached a three part series of sermons one time on how to keep the Sabbath, using Jesus as an example of how He did it. The Sabbath following this series, one of the elders came up to me and suggested, "You know what we need around here, we need a good sermon on how to keep the Sabbath. My wife and I looked at each other in shock. We just had three weeks of that. I knew him well enough. I wasn't too shocked. I knew this guy. He wanted a list of do's and don'ts (especially don'ts) given to the congregation. He was a lover of rules and regulations. Is that how you feel about God's law?
David says something in the Psalm 119:97 that, to many, sounds ridiculous: Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long. What? I've looked at that text before and said, "The law is okay, but I might give it twenty minutes. I'm not meditating on that thing all day long! Once you've read it, you've read it. How many of you have meditated on God's law all day long? Granted, the word David uses for law is Torah. The Torah consists mainly of the first five books of the Old Testament which the Jews call, "The Books of Instruction." But even so, how long have you spent on that at any given time? This sounds so legalistic. Yet it isn't! Not if God's law is placed in its proper context. Many believe that there is a great difference between faith and obedience. Faith is seen as good and obedience is seen as unpleasant and legalistic. In the Semitic Jewish mind, such a difference did not exist. People who really had faith would obey and follow. If you followed and obeyed, it signified that you had faith. They were inseparable. The two words and ideas are not opposites but rather they complement each other. One shows an attitude of trust and acceptance and the other an action of following. Obedience is not legalistic in itself. It is the wrong attitude that can turn obedience (or faith, for that matter), into legalism. Obedience must happen in its proper context.
An interesting thing that I've discovered, whenever I find God stating or restating His law, It's never by itself. There's always a story that precedes it or surrounds it somehow. When the laws are separated from the story behind them, they do look harsh and cold. But, when seen in light of their context, they look precious! Maybe even precious enough to meditate upon all day!
That is why we are not going to start with Exodus 20. Turn with me to Exodus 19. Actually, to get the full context, you would have to go to Genesis 1:1 and start there. But we only have a few minutes today. Suffice it to say, the immediate context is: God has just delivered the captives of Egypt in a most grand and glorious way. He is about to speak to them as a group personally and without a mediator for the first, and last, time. That shows the significance about what is happening here. This is the only time God comes and speaks to all of His people at one time. No mediator. But before He does this, he asks Moses to get the context right. "I want you to do something. I want you to set the people's mind right before they hear what I have to say to them.
Look at Exodus 19:3. Then Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain and said, "This is what you are to say to the house of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: See the setup. God wants His law to be put in the following context. 'You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt and how I carried you on eagles' wings and brought you to Myself. See the context? This is all before the Ten Commandments come. This reminds me of the song of Moses found in Deuteronomy 32 which he recited just before his death and Israel's entrance into the promised land. Deuteronomy 32:10,11. Moses says, In a desert land He found him, in a barren and howling waste. He shielded him and cared for him; he guarded him as the apple of his eye, like an eagle that stirs up its nest and hovers over its young, that spreads its wings to catch them and carries them on its pinions. That's how a young eagle learns how to soar. The parent take it out of the nest and flies to great heights and drops him. There's nothing between that eaglet and death except the wild blue yonder. He's plummeting to the earth. He has been yanked out of his nest where he got regular meals, had nice playmates. He's gone. He's falling, he's yanked overboard, he's falling towards the earth. He begins to flap its wings. Nothing happens. He doesn't know what to do. He's never done this before. He doesn't even have his learner's permit. He plummets through the air, contemplating his comfortable but brief life. Mamma eagle, who has never taken her eyes off her fledgling swoops to the rescue and catches him on her back and lifts him up on eagle's wings. And he thinks, "Oh boy, I get to go home." And he's dropped again. And again. And again. Each time she catches him, and as soon as she catches him, and as soon as he catches his breath and is over his coronary, he's dropped again. And soon the eaglet will learn freedom.
Israel has been caught. Israel has been carried. Now is the time to begin to learn freedom. Just as flight must obey the laws of aerodynamics and gravity, laws exist for being a truly free child of God. They must be followed for freedom, not bondage. This is something that must be taught by God, the Father.
Has you father ever called you? Now, that's something mothers do. Mothers are good at calling and keeping up with the new and so forth, but when Dad calls, "Who died?" Something important happened and Dad called. Dad's calling here. Something important happened. He's about to say something very profound.
Exodus 19:5,6. "Now if you obey Me and fully keep My covenant, then out of all nations you will be My treasured possession. Although the whole earth is Mine, you will be for Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." These are the words you (Moses) are to speak to the Israelites." Put them in their context. Let them know I love them. Let them know what they mean to Me. God is making sure that what He is about to say is going to be taken in the right way. He tells Moses to remind them that they are precious to Him. Hosea 9:10 says, When I found Israel, it was like finding grapes in the desert; when I saw your fathers, it was like seeing the early fruit on the fig tree. God's people are precious to Him, even before we are mature in our relationship with Him. Notice He says, "It's like finding early fruit on the fig tree." It's not even ripe yet. But He knows it's coming. We are precious to Him.
Do you see what is happening here? Who are these people that God is talking about loving so much? These are the same ingrates that have been belly aching all through the desert. People who don't even understand Who it is that they are following. People who have been slaves in Egypt and are still slaves to sin. These are the people that He is about to make a covenant with! That should tell us something. When God chooses you to do something, it is not because you are talented and wonderful, it is because he wants you to do it. Remember that when the nominating committee calls! You only have to be willing, God will make up for all of our human frailties.
Exodus 19:7,8. So Moses went back and summoned the elders of the people and set before them al the words the Lord had commanded him to speak. The people all responded together, "We will do everything the Lord has said." So Moses brought their answer back to the Lord.
"What He says, we will do." What audacity. These people have no clue about their own faithfulness. They should have said, "What He says, He will do." That would be much closer to the truth! In fact, that is what has happened throughout history. God has always been faithful: His people have been unfaithful.
Exodus19:9-15. The Lord said to Moses, "I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, so that the people will hear Me speaking with you and will always put their trust in you." Then Moses told the Lord what the people had said.
And the Lord said to Moses, "Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. Have them wash their clothes and be ready by the third day, because on that day the lord will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. Put limits for the people around the mountain and tell them, 'Be careful that you do not go up the mountain or touch the foot of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death. He shall surely be stoned or shot with arrows; not a hand is to be laid on him. Whether man or animal, he shall not be permitted to live.' Only when the ram's horn sounds a long blast may they go up to the mountain."
After Moses had gone down the mountain to the people, he consecrated them, and they washed their clothes. Then he said to the people, "Prepare yourselves for the third day. Abstain from sexual relations." I like what the Hebrew says. "Avoid the women."
What's happening here? What's this all about? God makes an issue of preparing the people to receive His Law. "Wash your cloths, get presentable, take some time to get ready. This is important stuff!" In other words, this is going to require something of you. A seriousness of purpose. An attitude that says, "Okay, God, let's do business. I want my life to be right. I want to hear everything that You have to say to me." Some of that might be wise to do before you arrive at church on Sabbath morning! Preparing to meet God means to come out of hiding with an open heart, ready to be filled.
Look at Exodus 19:16-20. This is amazing! On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like the smoke from a furnace, the whole mountain trembled violently, and the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder. Then Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him.
The Lord descended to the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses to the top of the mountain. So Moses went up. Here we have a sense of nearness and distance. God wants the people to be close so that they can be a part of the scene. He wants them to be distant so that they will have the proper respect and awe that is due their Creator. God is to be loved but he is also to be worshiped.
What a scene this must have been! Smoke, fire, thunder, lightening, cloud, earthquake, and a trumpet blast! Seven things! Each of these things appears with God's presence throughout Scripture, but never all of them at once like this! This is an occasion like no other. This is God giving His law of love to the people he loves!
Yes, these laws are one of the most beautiful expressions of love found in the Bible. There is so much that God wishes to protect us from! There are some things in this sin-damaged world of ours that are so shattering and devastating to our brief human lives that God doesn't want us to have to learn them by bitter experience. My heart is so moved by people that come to me after making a horrible mistake that they will pay for the rest of their lives. God did not want this to happen to us! He loves us! And He also forgives us! Yet, even with forgiveness, we often must live with the results of our choices, what we have done. He is even there to help us bear those burdens. The first prison visit I made as a pastor, was to a man who had a life sentence. He killed somebody. He had later been baptized as a Seventh-day Adventist and was now doing a wonderful prison ministry from inside. He may never get out. Yes, he has been forgiven, he has been redeemed, but he's still paying the legal penalty for his mistake. Yet not the eternal penalty, Jesus took that upon Himself.
God says, "I know what is best for us, for you and me, for our relationship. There are some parameters here ten of them that are literally matters of life and death." Just ten! Do you know how many laws there are in the United States? I don't either. Many years ago, over two million had been counted. I imagine that it is many times that now! If it were still two million, and you wanted to be a law abiding citizen, and you wanted to learn two laws a day, it would take you six thousand years you would know them all and be a law-abiding citizen!
Some have complained that eight out of ten of the commandments are negative, "Thou shalt not." But, think about it. This actually opens up possibilities and life rather than closing them down! There are all kinds of positive things that can be done and only a few that cannot. The focus is on creating a fence that defines outer limits rather that in giving detailed instructions about positive duties. They are also stated very strongly because of God's love. As I mentioned, God wants us to avoid the horrors of sin. I was on Sunset Rock a few weeks ago with some close friends when one of their children tottered dangerously close to the edge of the cliff. The child's mother did not say calmly, "Johnny, please don't do that because mommy would just hate for you to become like a pancake at the bottom of the cliff." What do you think she said? "NO! JOHNNY, get away from the edge this instant!" Was this spoken in love? You bet! Very strong love.
I read a story about Chichi Rodriguez, the famous golfer. He's not known for his driving abilities. I'm talking about off the range. He was driving his car with a friend and zoomed right through a red light. And his friend said, "Chichi, you're going to get us killed. You went through a red light." He said, "Don't worry about it. My brother taught me to drive, and he never stops at red lights. He's never had a wreck." They zoomed through the next red light and the guy said, "You've got to let me out of this car or we're going to die!" He said, "Don't worry. My brother taught me to drive. He never stops at red lights." They came to the next traffic light and it was green. Chichi slammed on the brakes and stopped. The guy said, "Now what?" "My brother might be coming from the other way."
God's law is given to protect us from each other and to protect us from our brother. Ah, I love God's law.
I had a friend one time. Well, he actually wanted me for his friend than I wanted him to be my friend. You know how that works. We were young teenagers and he had a mo-ped, a motorized bicycle. He would kind of pedal-ride it over to my house sometimes and want me to go for ride with him on his mo-ped. I knew this boy. He had epilepsy. I had seen him have seizures time and again. I did not want to ride the mo-ped with him. I was afraid to. But I didn't want to insult him or worry him about, "Oh you just don't like me because I have epilepsy." That kind of thing. So, I went to my mother and said, "Mom, do me a favor. Tell me I can't ride with him. Give me permission to tell him I can't..." "permission nothing! You can't ride with him!" I said, "Thanks, Mom." I went outside. "Sorry, Mom said."
That's what the Ten Commandments are. God's giving us giving us permission to tell the devil, "No!" We don't have to do something stupid and dangerous just because he says so.
Jesus places His commandments in a positive context in Matthew 22:36-40 where He divides them into law for loving God and law for loving your neighbor. And he expands upon them in Matthew 5 where He shares what the spirit of true law keeping is. We don't have time to get into that, we've done that before. But you may need to look into that some more.
Now, Exodus 20. Now we are going to start with verse one because we want context. Exodus 20:1-2. "And God spoke all these words: "I am the Lord your God, Do you know what word He uses here for "God?" In the Hebrew it's "Jehovah." And, Jehovah is taken from three other Hebrew words: which means, "was, is, will be." Get it? Okay, this is more of the context. God who is giving this to you is no upstart. He has always been, He will always be, He knows the end from the beginning, and He is now. He knows what's going on right now. "I am the Lord, the One who knows everything." who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the land of slavery." Protestants consider this the preamble to the Ten Commandments. Jews consider this to be the first commandment. They don't actually call them commandments, they call them the ten words from God and this is the first word. "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery." And then they add what we call the first commandment: You shall have no other gods before Me. to what we call the second commandment. And that becomes their second Commandment.
Either way, these verses are extremely important to understanding what God is giving His people. He is repeating part of what He asked Moses to share with the people. The significance of these words hit me like a brick this week! You have probably thought of this before. It just now hit me. These people have just been delivered out of Egypt. The commandments are not a way to earn their salvation! They already have it! They've already been saved! Salvation has been accomplished! The commandments are instructions to guide delivered people into a proper style of life and behavior!* That hit me strongly. They've already been saved and now they're getting the commandments. Jesus Christ died before I was born. Salvation was available. Because I accept it, the commandments are God's rules for living. This fits so nicely with all the times that the Bible says, "If you love me, keep my commandments." If you love me for what I have already done for you, for delivering you from the bondage of sin, you will keep my commandments! * (Bible Amplifier)
Exodus 20:3. You shall have no other Gods before me. This commandment forms the basis for all the others. Loving God. Keeping Him first! He has delivered me! I love Him! He has covered my shame with His blood.
Ron Mehl tells a story that moves my heart. "...an eight year old boy sat in class, taking a test. He became so nervous and distraught about completing the test on time that the worst thing in the world happened: he wet his pants. Horrors! He looked down and saw a little puddle there beneath him. Sick with worry and embarrassment, he looked up just in time to see his teacher motioning him to her desk. But how could he move? What could he do? Noticing that the boy seemed frozen in his chair, the teacher got up from her desk and began walking down the aisle toward him. "On no! Here she come!" he groaned to himself. "What in the world am I going to do now? She's going to see this puddle and everybody will see it and will laugh. It's going to be horrible."
What he didn't know was at that very moment one of his classmates, a little girl, was coming down the aisle from behind him carrying a large fish bowl. When she got up alongside him, she suddenly lurched forward and dropped the heavy bowl. It shattered with a loud crash and sent water, broken glass, and displaced fish flying everywhere. Now covered by fish-tank water, the boy sat there thinking, "Thank God! Thank God! There IS a God in heaven! What a wonderful gift! What a Wonderful girl!"
But then it dawned on him that little boys don't even like little girls. He couldn't possibly let the incident pass. He looked and her and said, "What's wrong with you, you clumsy clod?" And the whole room burst into laughter as she turned red as a beet. As the class laughed at the little girl, the teacher took the boy (now covered with dignity) to the gym class to get him some dry clothes for him to wear.
At lunchtime, no one wanted to sit with the girl. Her friends avoided her at recess. In the unforgiving society of elementary school, she was suddenly a plague...
When the day was over and the boy was on his way home, he walked out the door and saw her. All the kids were leaving, but she was walking by herself, along the fence. He began to reflect on what had happened that day and suddenly, on an impulse, he walked over to her.
"You know," he said, "I've been thinking about what happened today. That wasn't an accident, was it? You did that on purpose, didn't you?"
"Yes," she said. "I did it on purpose. I knew what had happened to you. You see, I wet my pants once, too."
I don't ever want to forget what God has done for me. I too, like this little boy, have covered myself in shame. But God covered me. He spilled His precious blood for me, all over me and covered my sins. He took all of my shame upon Himself without complaint. Now I'm clean. He has fit me for heaven even though I deserve hell. He saw my hopeless situation and He rescued me. He has given me dignity and hope and a reason to get out of bed in the morning.
Why should I ever want to put anyone or anything in front of Him? Why should I tolerate other gods in my life? Why should I look for other saviors? Why should I serve lesser gods? He promised to provide for me everything that I need. He has changed my life. I want to tell the whole world about what He has done! Jesus came along and took away my embarrassment, my shame. Oh, how I love Him! Don't you? Now that is something worth meditating on all day!
Sources: The Tender Commandments by Ron Mehl Exodus by Jon L. Dybdahl
Hymn of Praise: #195, Showers of Blessing Scripture: Exodus 20:1-3 Hymn of Response: #456, My Lord and I
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last updated 8/4/2002 by Bob Beckett.