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[a] 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[b] of those who love me and keep my commandments.
7 “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.
8 “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Exodus 20:1-11)
As we begin to look at the first part of the ten commandments today, I want you to keep in mind the context in which these words are given. Remember that these words are being spoken in the midst of the Theophanic storm which we considered several weeks ago. There is thunder, lightning, and dark cloud as the mountain shakes. Israel was to be gathered around the boundary, Moses going up the mountain. The people are terrified.
Also, keep in mind all of the foundation to our understanding of these words, as Brandon laid out the last couple of weeks, and our covenant theology. These commands are the summary of the covenant which God established with His people Israel upon delivering them out of Egypt. This is the summary of the Old Covenant, which has been abolished by the work of Christ. Yet, there are certain truths and morals herein which are also in the New Covenant. So we are to understand them in light of their fulfillment in Christ, while also seeking to properly apply them to our own lives in the New Covenant.
So today we are looking at the first four commandments. Traditionally, these are called the first table of the law. These commands encapsulate duties to God, at least primarily, while the second table concerns duties to neighbor, at least in part. Certainly there is overlap, but that is a general structure.
Having said that, some theologians have argued for other ways of structuring and understanding the Ten Commandments. For example, Lutherans and Catholics have combined the first and second commandments into one, and then divide the command not to Covet into two – do not Covet your neighbor’s wife and do not covet your neighbor’s house, or anything in his household.
Furthermore, some theologians make a case that the ten commandments should be divided 5 and 5 instead of 4 and 6 – the first 5 all containing explanations or reasons, if you count the preface as the basis for the first command, while the last five are simply stated. Some biblical theologians will argue that two sets of 5 are significant throughout the Bible, especially in terms of the temple. For example, in the Holy Place there were ten lampstands arranged in two rows of five. There were ten tables of showbread in two rows of five. Outside in the courtyard there were ten water stands in two rows of five. This five and five structure may be useful in seeing the uniqueness of the ten commandments as an old covenant document.
I offer that up for your consideration in studying your Bible. But for our purposes today, we will stick with the traditional reformed numbering and table.
Let us now look at what the Reformed have typically considered the preface to the ten commandments in verse 2. “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” So God is basically stating the reason for making this covenant with Israel, which is the fact of their redemption from Egypt. He has brought them out of the house of slavery, which is out of Pharaoh’s house, and He is establishing a new house for them. They will now be the house of Israel with Yahweh as their God – so there are new house rules, a new house covenant which they are bound by. God has not freed them from the slavery and bondage of Egypt to continue in Egypt’s ways. They are now to be a holy nation, a royal priesthood. They are not freed to do as they please and make or serve the gods of their choosing, but they are freed from idols to obey and serve the One True God.
Likewise in our redemption from sin and satan, we are not freed from God, but are freed to obey God and worship Him rightly. Freedom from the tyranny of darkness does not mean freedom from law, but freedom to obey God’s law. If we continue in sin, we are not free, but we are slaves to sin.
The First Commandment
The first commandment, verse 3, “You shall have no other gods before me.” Literally it’s, “bring no other gods before my face.”
The covenant document begins with God’s total sovereignty. It is His claim of rightful sole authority of His people. No other gods. This first commandment concerns the object of worship – they are to worship the One True God. This does not mean that they could worship other gods so long as Yahweh was number one. No, God is the one Sovereign, the only God to be worshiped among His people, none even to come before His face. God has just freed Israel from the gods of Egypt, and Pharaoh, the false sovereign. Therefore, having been freed from the tyranny of Egypt’s gods, no other gods are to be worshiped, but God alone.
This first commandment would be broken by Israel time and time again throughout their history as they desired to turn back to the gods of Egypt, or as they turned to worship the Baals and the various Canaanite deities.
It has been said that all the other commands come back to the first one. When they broke any of the other commands they were also breaking the first, for they were disobeying their Sovereign Redeemer, and obeying another as if they were sovereign. So the covenant document begins with this statement of sovereignty and authority. God has established Himself as the sovereign authority, thus all other commands flow from this. He is the sovereign authority who has redeemed Israel for Himself, so He is the one who establishes the terms and sanctions of the covenant to follow. This is the hierarchy of the covenant – God at the top, and no one else.
God is teaching Israel that He is completely other. He is not at all like all the other gods. He is not just one god among the pantheon – He is the all sovereign, alone, creator of all, and redeemer of His people. Thus, He alone is to be worshiped. His demand on His people is total.
There seems to be some clear similarities here with Jesus. After His resurrection, on a mountain, He tells His disciples, before ascending back up into Heaven to sit at the right hand of God, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go” and do all that I have told you… It starts at the top with total and sole sovereignty, therefore, the rest of the commands and stipulations follow.
So, what I want to do with each of these commands today, as I have begun to do, is to briefly explain them in their context, then show you how Christ relates to them, and then how we relate to them today. The reason is, as one theologian puts it so well, “The law exposes our sin, restrains the unruly, provides a guide to life. But Jesus is the heart and soul of the Decalogue. The first use of the law is Christological.”
So how does Jesus relate to this command, “You shall have no other gods before me”? We know that Israel failed to keep this first and foremost command. But Jesus comes to fulfill the law. He comes as the true and perfect Israelite. Like Israel, Jesus spends 40 days in the wilderness. Satan comes to tempt Him. In the third temptation, Satan brings Jesus up to a mountain and shows Him all the kingdoms of the world in their glory. And Satan says to Jesus, “all these I will give you if you fall down and worship me!” What does Jesus do? “Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’” Jesus refused to bow down and worship another.
Furthermore, in the work of Jesus on the cross, He judges and triumphs over all the other gods, the principalities and powers are foot-stooled. Jesus’ work was to come and destroy idols. Or as 1 John puts it, Jesus came to destroy the works of the devil. So Jesus not only refused to bow down and worship another, but He came to destroy all others who would put themselves up as gods to be worshiped. He casts out demons and evil spirits. Through His apostles, He puts the idol maker businesses out of business, because people are turning from their idols to Jesus Christ!
There is an epic portion of Athanasius’ work On the Incarnation where he talks about how idols used to be worshiped in this place and that place. And there used to be magicians and magical arts here and there. The Greek gods used to be something great. But now, He says, since the coming of Christ and the spreading of the kingdom of God, they are put away, they are no more, such magical arts are practiced no more! Where the gospel goes and takes root, the worship of other gods fades away. This is the work of Jesus.
Certainly it remains for us to worship no other gods, but the One True, Triune God of heaven and earth. The apostle John closes out his first epistle, saying, “little children, keep yourselves from idols.” (1 John 5:21). Thus it remains a temptation for us to turn from God and worship idols, or worship other gods. In the life of the Christian this most often looks like idols of the heart. So let us beware of the idols that creep up in our hearts, where we should be trusting and resting in God. As Calvin said, “our hearts are idol factories.”
So how can we tell if we have made something else an idol in our heart? As we see in the fourth commandment, the culmination of worship of God is resting in God. So if we are resting in or looking to something else to find peace in other than Christ, we are worshiping another. Or real practically, if we have to have something other than Christ to be okay, then we have made an idol of that thing in our heart.
One commentator says, “The Lord is our judge, Savior, and lawgiver… When we tremble before other judges or hope in other saviors, when we pile up our sins on anyone but Jesus, idols occupy our hearts and take control.”
The Second Commandment
The second commandment, verse 4 and following, “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. 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, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
This commandment forbids making idols, but we already know we aren’t to worship any other gods, so this commandment further teaches Israel that they are not to make images of God. Most of the pagans in the old world who made graven images weren’t worshiping the wood or stone in their minds, it was the god connected to the image that they were worshiping. God is telling Israel, don’t make an image and worship it – you can’t worship me through images. What did Israel do with Aaron at Mount Sinai? They made a golden calf, and Aaron said, “Here is your God that brought you out of Egypt!” That’s not Yahweh! God said, “Don’t worship me through making images out of anything. Nothing in heaven above or the earth below, or under the earth. So many pagan gods were idols fashioned after things in the heavens – the sun or moon. Or were fashioned after things on earth – various animals. Or things under the earth – demonic entities of the underworld. God says, “I know that this is how the Egyptians did it, but I am not like those gods, do not make images of me.”
So if the first commandment concerned the sole object of worship, this commandment concerns how God is to be worshiped, or rather how He is not to be worshiped – not through making images and bowing to them. This was very different from the religious world around them that came from out of Egypt, and that they would see in Canaan. God is different from these other gods, He is not like them. And so His worship is not like theirs.
This command also contains sanctions. God will visit the iniquity of the fathers on the children to three or four generations of those who hate him. But He shows steadfast love to a thousand generations of those that love him. These sanctions belong to the Old Covenant and show us the nature of the covenant, that it was a covenant of works. The nature of Old Covenant Israel was that if they faithfully obeyed and loved God they would inherit the land, take dominion, and have historical continuity there. If they turned away from God and rebelled against Him, they would be disinherited and removed from the land.
In the New Covenant, Jesus is our covenant head, He is The True and Perfect Israelite. Father’s are not mediators of New Covenant blessings, Christ is the only mediator of the covenant. So we inherit and are blessed in and through Him, and God’s steadfast love to those in Christ is irrevocable.
And when it comes to images, the image of God is not seen in created objects, but in the coming of God in the flesh, Jesus Christ. Hebrews 1 tells us that Jesus Christ is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of His nature. Man-made images cannot properly communicate the glory of God, for the glory of God is seen in the face of Jesus Christ. Colossians 1 says that Jesus is the image of the invisible God. Man-made images of things in heaven, on earth, or under the earth are not images of the invisible God. Only Christ is. Colossians continues, “for in Him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” That is where God dwells, not in images made of human hands.
The Regulative Principle of Worship and implications from New Testament texts such as I have referenced teach us that God is still not to be worshiped through man made images. Matthew Henry says, “Our religious worship must be governed by the power of faith, not by the power of imagination.” Henry is saying that worshiping God through images made my man is to worship God according to our own imaginations, not as He truly is. This is forbidden.
Consider the practice of the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholic church of the veneration of saints through icons. They will literally bow or kneel before these icons and pray to them or through them. Such is idolatry and a violation of Jesus Christ the God-man being the one mediator between God and man. Such is one reason why we today are of the broader reformed practice, and not Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic. Eastern Orthodoxy or Roman Catholocisim are tempting for young Christians to want to convert to today because of their claims of being steeped in ancient traditions, but such traditions do not go back to the earliest of Christians, the apostles, or any period in Scripture, and indeed are violations of it.
The Third Commandment
The third commandment, verse 7, “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.”
This commandment teaches that worship is to be reverent. What does it mean to take the name of the LORD your God in vain? Literally the Hebrew says, You shall not hold up, or lift up the name of the LORD your God in vain. As we have seen, beginning at the burning bush, in Exodus is really where God reveals and emphasizes His name to His people, particularly through Moses. Thus, He commands that His name not be taken in vain. It is to be used in all reverence and awe. It is not to be profaned or blasphemed or taken lightly. They are not to lift up or carry God’s name on them in a vain or irreverent way. Certainly this would include swearing false oaths in God’s name.
What happened when Jesus was crucified? He was lifted up on the cross. The Romans mocked him with the sign that said, “King of the Jews.” He was blasphemed before all. He was accused of blasphemy that He did not commit. And as He was lifted up on the cross, He became a curse for us. He took the guilt and became a curse. Jesus bore the curse. Then what happened? Paul says in Philippians that God has given Jesus the name that is above every name – Lord.
The ultimate application would be: do not deny the name of Jesus. Do not take God’s name in vain by denying Jesus, who has been given the name above all names. To reject Jesus as Savior and Lord would be to take God’s name in vain. Typically we think of taking God’s name in vain by using His name as a profanity or curse word, and that is certainly true as well. We certainly should not curse with God’s name in vain. Now among other places, the Psalms teach us that God’s name is indeed invoked to bring down judgment and imprecations upon the wicked. But that is not doing so in vain. And such should not be done flippantly, or without proper reverence and awe at the gravity of such a thing.
The Fourth Commandment
The fourth commandment, verse 8 and following, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”
For Israel, this fourth commandment concerns the specific day set aside for worship and rest. The Sabbath was to teach Israel to trust and rest in God where their labors ended. This was the ultimate test for Israel to see whether they truly had no other gods before Yahweh. It was so tempting for them to think they had to keep working or they would fall behind. It was so tempting to think they couldn’t afford to rest, especially in the difficulty of their world and way of life. Would they trust God to supply? Brandon covered well last week the significance of the Sabbath as the sign of the Old Covenant. As the New Testament clearly teaches in places like Hebrews 4 and Colossians 2 that Jesus is our true rest and that the issue of days and sabbaths were shadows of things to come, the substance of which belongs to Christ.
Christ is the substance of the Sabbath. Jesus is our rest. The test of whether we really trust God is if we will simply rest in Christ. Will you lay aside your labor and rest in Him, and trust His work to be enough for you?
One of the church fathers, John Chrysostom says this about the Sabbath, “For what purpose then, I ask, did he add a reason respecting the sabbath but did no such thing in regard to murder? Because this commandment was not one of the leading ones (or part of the natural law). It was not one of those which were accurately defined in our conscience but a kind of partial and temporary one. And for this reason it was later experienced.”
Listen as well to what Augustine says, “But the rite of the sabbath was taught to our ancient fathers which we Christians observe spiritually so that we abstain from all servile work, that is, from all sin (for the Lord says, ‘everyone who commits a sin is a slave of sin’), and we have rest in our hearts, that is, spiritual tranquility [peace].”
Christ brings us the peace and rest signified by the Sabbath, the rest that Joshua could not provide the people in Canaan. That rest is found not in a place or a day, but in Jesus Christ. And the day of that salvation is “today.”
So today, by apostolic example in Scripture, we gather together for worship on the first day of the week, on which Christ rose from the dead, when He inaugurated a new world order, not bound by the shadows and types of the old. The old pattern was work then rest. The new teaches us that we rest then work, or work from our rest. Rest in Christ first, and always rest, and from the peace we have, we work, not to earn, but because we’ve been given grace. Certainly there is great wisdom from the outward principles of work and rest throughout the Bible, to physically rest one day a week. I think that is a very good thing and a biblical principle to practice. To be fruitful and productive, periods of rest are required. But this was hardly the point of the Sabbath regulations.
There is an early Christian among the Rus people (Russians) when Christianity first came to the Rus around the year 1000 AD by the name of Cyril of Turov, and he said this in a sermon on the resurrection of Christ, “For the mystery of the cross has brought idolatry to an end, conquering Satan’s power. Christ has given Himself to God as a sacrifice for all, thus putting a stop to the blood-sacrifices of goats and calves, and throwing the Old Covenant into the shadows. Today the sun rises and shines in the height, and joy warms the earth, for today Christ, the true Sun, has risen from the grave, saving all who trust in Him. Today the moon comes down from its high place and bows before the greater lights. As it was prophesied, the Old Covenant and its Sabbath have ceased, instead giving honour with its prophets to Christ’s Covenant and Sunday.”
So you see, the first table of the decalogue is Christological: Christ comes to abolish idolatry and blasphemy, to bring about the worship of the one true God, by providing peace and rest that the Old Covenant could not give.
Israel is called God’s son – Israel’s heart was too hard to hear these words from Sinai. But God had a Son who would hear His Father’s words – and fulfill the covenant – Jesus Christ. Jesus perfectly loved God. Jesus came to be and do what Israel failed to be and do. He received the words from His Father, and did them all.
Whatever the murmuring or restlessness or anxiety you feel in your heart today, won’t you come and rest in Jesus Christ and His finished work? He is the only one who can provide that peace. Christian, why do you let such anxieties keep you restless, when you have the rest-giver, Jesus Christ? For Jesus says, “Come to me all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.”