Sermon on Exodus 20:1-6 – “The First Two Commandments”

Sermon for Sunday, August 29th, 2021 at First Presbyterian Church at Unionville, NY (BPC)

Old Testament reading:

[Exo 20:1-6 ESV] 1 And God spoke all these words, saying, 2 “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 3 “You shall have no other gods before me. 4 “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

New Testament reading:

[Act 17:29-31 ESV] 29 Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. 30 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

Gospel reading:

[Mat 22:34-40 ESV] 34 But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. 35 And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

Introduction

God spoke all these words.

That is what our text tells us today as we enter in on the ten commandments.

The 10 commandments is a subject no doubt familiar to us all, but there are almost unending implications and applications from the commandments. And so I considered give 10 sermons on the subjects, getting into much detail on each of the commands. And I still hope to do that to an extent, but I wanted to group the first couple commandments together in one sermon for today. And we’ll see why as we go – that these commandments are similar though not the same. And it is of value that we look at the 1st commandment and the 2nd commandment together.

Now, I’ve titled this sermon “The First Two Commandments.” But before the first commandments are given there is this preamble:

I. The Preamble

1 And God spoke all these words saying “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

In school you probably once memorized the preamble to the Constitution of the United States. Just about no one memorizes the whole constitution, but you may have memorized the preamble:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Important documents have preambles, and the 10 commandments are no exception. Before giving the ten commandments God says,

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

You might remember that I preached on this preamble last year at the wedding of Eric and Michell Foust.

And I said this:

“In the preamble to the 10 commandments we see the reason why God is giving His people the commandments. It follows from love. Because God loved them he brought them out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and towards the promised land. And because God loves His people He gives them the commandments.”

These are the commands of God who is the Liberator of his people and wants to keep them free. So we should not think of the 10 commandments as oppressive but as for our benefit. These are the ways we should live if we truly want to live! If we want to live has God has intended.

Interestingly the Jews today consider this preamble to be one of the ten commandments. They make this number 1 and then combine the next two commandments together so that there are yet 10 commandments.

But this idea that the preamble is the first commandment surely can’t be correct. And there’s one simple reason for this – there is no command in the preamble. It cannot be a commandment without a command!

It is not a commandment but a statement God makes about Himself and about what He has done for His people before He gives the commandments.

1 And God spoke all these words, saying, 2 “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

God spoke all these words. That is, you don’t get to pick and choose which commandments you like. These are all from God, and He is the lawgiver.

He also says “I am the Lord your God.” We saw in just the last chapter how God called the Israelites his treasured possession. And this language continues in the New Testament. All who believe in Jesus Christ as God’s treasured possession. He is the Lord OUR God. Since he owns us—since we are His possession—He sets down the rules for us. And because He loves us, He sets down the rules for our benefit, not for our annoyance.

We see this —that God loves his people—in the rest of the preamble when God says that it is He “who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

He did it! He has freed us. Therefore, let us listen to Him. This same power who freed us intends to keep us free! And we need direction so as not to fall into a snare or a pit. The laws of God guide us through the temptations and evils of this world. The laws are designed to keep us free.

So we come to the first commandment.

II. The First Commandment – no other gods before me.

3 “You shall have no other gods before me.

It is a feature of our modern English that the word “before” has largely taken a temporal since. We say things like “BEFORE you can go out and play, you must do your homework.” Or “You must eat dinner BEFORE you can have dessert.”

But the term term “before” is used in another sense here in the first commandment. It means something like “in front of.” And since God can see all things, if we are to have no other gods in front of him, then we are to have no other gods at all.

It is not only that God (Yahweh) is to be our FIRST God, He is be out ONLY GOD. He is the one and only.

God is above everything else in importance and should be recognized as such.

Each of the commandments—like this first one—are straightforward and simple. But it is important to recognize that when a commandment mentions a particular sin, it intends to cover the entire range of related sins. This applies to each of the commandments in turn. Here, with the first command, for example, not only are we to have no other Gods but we are to give due recognition to God and His glory; his weightiness. The so-called “agnostic” lives as an atheist, never giving God his due. The agnostic does not go to church on alternate weeks trying to decide whether to follow God or not, but rather agnostic, sadly, never goes to church. While he claims to be undecided, his actions prove otherwise.

While in today’s world we don’t have—like the ancient world— many foreign “gods” competing for our attention, there are other “gods” that get in the way. The first commandment, in speaking against related sins, speaks against such other “gods.”

Even in the Bible such other gods are mentioned. Gods other than foreign deities. Gods that man have allowed to creep in as their objects of desire. For example, in Matthew 6:24 money is even given the name “Mammon” as if it were a foreign god to some. And in Philippians 3:19 the stomach is represented as a god to some.

Whatever it is that seeks to be “before” God; to detract from his glory, these are false gods. All such things are restricted by the first commandment.

The Old Testament in many places expands on the first commandment in opposing sorcery and witchcraft. God is always opposed to such means of purported control. We are to pray to God, not attempt to divine the future with a crystal ball or any other method.

For this and other reasons we should reject the modern spiritualist tool called the Enneagram. This is a personality test but with origins in spiritualism and occultism.

The Rev. Kevin DeYoung in an article for the Gospel Coalition explains

“the Enneagram presents an approach to spirituality that is alien to, and often at odds with, the language and contours of Scripture. [regarding one book on the subject] every chapter talks about some combination of forgiving myself, finding my true self, becoming spiritually evolved, being healed from wounded messages, dealing with codependent behaviors, and pursuing personal wholeness. This is not the language of the Bible. We hear nothing about fear of man, the love of the praise of man, covenantal promises, covenantal threats, repentance, atonement, heaven or hell. When faith is mentioned it’s described as believing in something or someone bigger than you. The spirituality of the Enneagram in [this book] bears little resemblance to biblical spirituality.”

Ultimately, I contend, if we want to “know ourselves” we need to start with the Scriptures and recognize that we are fallen sinful beings who must trust in God alone. The solution to our problems is certainly not to look deeper into ourself (our sinful self) but to look outside of ourselves to God; praying that His Holy Spirit sanctify us.

So we have the first commandment. “You shall have no other gods before me.”

And the second commandment has some similarity.

III. The Second Commandment – no images.

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God”

So similar is the 2nd commandment to the first that the Roman Catholics and Lutherans consider this commandment to be an extension of the first. They then renumber the remaining commandments having Number 2 be “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” Number 3 be remember the sabbath. And number 4 be Honor your father and mother. And so on. So when they get to the end there is a problem. They are one short of ten. And everyone knows there should be ten commandments. So what do they do? They divide the final commandment into two parts – you shall not covent your neighbor’s wife and you shall not covet your neighbor’s physical property.

The Reformed way of dividing the commandments however is the correct way.

The grand Old Testament commentary of Keil and Delitzsch says that this Reformed division of the commandments is shared also by the Eastern (that is Greek) churches and is “unanimously supported by the father of the first four centuries.”

We avoid a contrived division of two types of coveting and keep the proper distinction between the commandment to have no other Gods and the commandment to have no idols. These are separate commands. It might not seem so at first, but there is good reason to see them as separate.

The difference is this:

The first is a command about WHO we should worship.

The second is a command about HOW we should worship. Only God is to be worship and not in images.

[I want to say that again: The first is a command about WHO we should worship. The second is a command about HOW we should worship.]

A great work on the Ten Commandments and titled that is by a man in the Netherlands with my same last name. He is Jochem Douma, a professor (retired I believe) at a seminary there. And he says here:

“After the first commandment rejects all other gods, so only Yahweh remains, the second commandment rejects every wrong form whereby people desire to worship Yahweh.” (Douma, 35)

In the Reformed tradition we speak of worship in regards to the “Regulative Principle.” The idea is that we are to worship God only as He has commanded us to do. We can pray, read Scripture, sing His praises, etc. But we are never to worship Him in the form of images nor in any other way not prescribed in the Scriptures.

So it is also from the 2nd commandment that in the Reformed tradition we avoid images of Christ.

The first part of WLC 109:

Q. 109. What sins are forbidden in the second commandment?
A. The sins forbidden in the second commandment are, all devising, counseling, commanding, using, and any wise approving, any religious worship not instituted by God himself; the making any representation of God, of all or of any of the three persons.

There is a simple syllogism:

We are not to make images of God.

Jesus is God.

Therefore, we are not to make images of Jesus.

The same catechism answer also says we are not to make any images of God “inwardly in our mind.”

The physical restriction perhaps makes better sense to you. We know that the acceptance in places of images has led to the greatest idolatry. Pilgrimages to the bones of saints and all sorts of silliness. Cathedrals as full of statues as any Greco-Roman amphitheater.

But what of mental images of God? What does that mean?

We are not to make images of God in our minds. Neither are we to think of pictures of God nor are we to fashion God per our own desire of what we want Him to be.

This is a major problem is our time.

People make God out to be what they want Him to be, rather than who He is in the Scriptures. These false images of God include that He is all mercy, love, and acceptance with omission of his justice and wrath.

Those who worship the image of God they’ve made in their minds and not the God of the Bible are worshipping an idol. Frankly, these same persons typically don’t worship at all – they do not come to worship at church nor have a time of worship at home.

Conclusion

So I want to conclude with this question: What of the law now? Now that Christ has come, what are we to think about the laws like these commandments?

Remember that God liberated his people from slavery in Egypt.

And Jesus Christ liberated his people from sin.

So do we dispose of the laws? Are they no longer any good? Of course not. The law teaches us how we should live so that we remain free from the shackles of slavery.

The law does not save us—we are forgiven by the grace of God in the death of Jesus Christ which we embrace through faith—but the law remains a guide for us.

We seek to follow the law knowing that God has given us the law for our good, not to oppress us.

We must always have no other Gods, and we must always seek to worship God according to His word as we thank our great God and savior, who liberated us from bondage to sin and calls us to live according to His law. Let us pray.