Exodus

The First Commandment

Ten Commandments WatsonIn previous posts I dealt with some preliminary concerns about the ten commandments as a whole – things which are helpful for us to understand before going into detail about the individual commandments themselves. (More could certainly be said in that regard.)

But now I would like to spend some time going through each of the ten commandments, one at a time, and in order. That brings us to the first commandment, which simply says,

“You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3, ESV)

Notice that the very first commandment (indeed, the first four commandments!) deals with our relationship with God. It should be instructive for us that this is where the ten commandments begin. In his book, The Ten Commandments, Thomas Watson writes,

“This may well lead the van, and be set in the front of all the commandments, because it is the foundation of all true religion. The sum of this commandment is, that we should sanctify God in our hearts, and give him a precedence above all created beings.” (p.49)

If you were to rank the commandments in the order of their importance, how far up (or down) the list would you rank this one? Perhaps the commandment against murder (6th commandment – Exodus 20:13) comes to mind first, or maybe the commandment against adultery (7th commandment – Exodus 20:14)?

Murder or adultery might strike you as “bigger” sins, so to speak. But what about breaking the first commandment? Does it strike you as a particularly heinous sin and offense? It should. The Lord clearly places this commandment first in order to show us its importance. You could say that breaking the first commandment is just as bad as, if not worse than, murder. That is a pretty startling thought, isn’t it?

That this commandment comes first also shows us that true morality or ethics starts with one’s relationship with God. Doing what is right starts with doing what is right with regard to God himself.

What does it mean to have other gods before God? It means to trust, love, worship, and serve anything else in the place of God – to give something else other than God your first allegiance.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism speaks of what is forbidden in the first commandment:

“Q.47. What is forbidden in the first commandment? A. The first commandment forbids the denying, or not worshiping and glorifying, the true God as God, and our God; and the giving of that worship and glory to any other, which is due to him alone.”

How many millions of souls break this first commandment simply by denying God and so failing to worship Him as God! And how many millions more do so by worshiping and serving other (false) gods! Indeed, in the book of Romans the Apostle Paul tells us that the “wrath of God is revealed from heaven” against such sins (Romans 1:18).

This can be done in a literal way through false religion, or worshiping false gods. In Isaiah 44:6 God says, “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god” (ESV). If God is the only true god, than to worship anyone or anything else is to have another god (even if a false one) before him. And Isaiah 42:8 likewise says, I am the LORD; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols” (ESV).

Having other gods before him can also be done in seemingly non-religious ways as well. In Matthew 6:24 the Lord Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (ESV).

Money can be a false god if it takes top priority in your life. In fact, serving money may be the most common form of false religion or idolatry in the history of humanity.

The first commandment teaches us that it is our duty to know the one true God and Creator, and to acknowledge him as such by trusting, loving, worshiping, and serving him above all else.

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A Footnote on the Neglect of God’s Law

devoted7a-810x1280__82818.1478970628.315.315In one of the many footnotes in his book, Devoted to God, Sinclair Ferguson makes a sobering observation about the all-too-common tendency in many evangelical circles today to neglect God’s law:

“The contrast between older evangelical teaching on the law and its relative relegation today may be illustrated by the fact that the catechisms written by Luther and Calvin at the time of the sixteenth-century Reformation devoted considerable attention to the exposition of the law. They were followed by the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms which devote around one third of their questions to the exposition and application of the Ten Commandments. By contrast, were catechisms to be written today by evangelicals it is doubtful whether the law would receive much if any detailed attention.” (p.163, footnote 6)

The Westminster Shorter Catechism devotes no less than 41 (Q.41-81) of its 107 total questions to dealing with a right understanding of the ten commandments.  In other words, nearly 40% of the Shorter Catechism is spent focusing on this summary of the moral law of God! Likewise the Heidelberg Catechism includes 24 questions (out of a total of 129), divided up over the span of 11 Lord’s days, to the same subject. So 11 out of the 52 weeks in a calendar year are to be spent dealing with instruction on God’s moral law.

This should be instructive to us as believers. How much time do we spend considering God’s law or meditating upon it?  Psalm 1 calls upon us to delight in “the law of the LORD, and so to meditate upon it “day and night” (Psalm 1:2). This should also be instructive to those of us who have the privilege of serving the Lord as pastors & teachers in His church. Do we devote much time & attention to teaching God’s law to His people? If we do not, we would seem to be neglecting, not only the law of God, but also the best examples from among our Reformed fathers in the faith.

We must not relegate the law of God to the status of a mere footnote of the Christian faith.

Sinclair Ferguson on the Law and Love

devoted7a-810x1280__82818.1478970628.315.315Many in our day seem to pit law and love against each other, as if love somehow renders the law of God unnecessary, or as if rules and relationships (or loving ones anyway)  were mutual exclusive. But is this the biblical way of looking at it? What is the right way to view the relationship between law (specifically the ten commandments) and love?

In his book, Devoted to God, Sinclair Ferguson writes,

“In fact love was always at the heart of God’s law. It was given by love to be received in love and obeyed through love. The divine commandments could be summed up in the great commandment to love God with heart, soul, and strength. Thus Jesus himself teaches that if we love him we will keep his commandments. Paul adds that rather than nullify[ing] the law the gospel strengthens it. Moreover specific laws from the Decalogue are almost casually sprinkled throughout the New Testament. Not only does love not abolish the law, but the law commands love!” (p.162-163)

Even in the very text of the ten commandments themselves this is explicitly stated. Look at the text of the 2nd commandment (as stated in Exodus 20:4-6):

“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. (ESV, italics mine)

Those who commit the sin of idolatry are said to “hate” God. Why? Because they commit idolatry. In other words, if they truly loved God, they would not commit idolatry (or have other Gods before Him, or take His name in vain, etc.). Love, in many ways, is defined by its actions. So while love certainly involves more than our outward actions (i.e. it includes right motives), it does not involve less than our outward actions (i.e. it doesn’t render them meaningless or unnecessary).

And how does God Himself describe those who love Him? As those who “love me and keep my commandments” (v.6). So love and commandment-keeping go together – and they always have. And (as the saying goes), what God has joined together, let no man separate.

THE SABBATH: HOLY REST AND WORSHIP (SHORTER CATECHISM Q.60)

shorter-catechism-explainedThis is part 4 of a brief series of posts going through what the Westminster Shorter Catechism (in Q.57-62) has to say about the 4th commandment. Question and answer #57 deals with the actual text of the commandment itself (which is found in Exodus 20:8-11 and Deuteronomy 5:12-15). The questions that follow explain and interpret the meaning of the commandment.

Question and answer #58 deals with the question of what – the substance of what is required in the fourth commandment – keeping one day in seven holy unto God. Question and answer 59 deals with the question of when – which day of the seven is now to be sanctified.

We now come to question and answer #60, which asks the all-important question – how? What exactly does it mean to sanctify the Sabbath or keep it holy?

Q.60. How is the Sabbath to be sanctified? A. The Sabbath is to be sanctified by a holy resting all that day, even from such worldly employments and recreations as are lawful on other days; and spending the whole time in the public and private exercises of God’s worship, except so much as is to be taken up in the works of necessity and mercy.

So according to the Shorter Catechism, sanctifying the Sabbath involves at least two (2) things: holy rest and worship.  In his book, The Shorter Catechism Explained from Scripture, Puritan writer Thomas Vincent (1634-1678) puts it this way:

“We are to observe and keep the Sabbath as holy, partly by a holy resting, partly in holy exercises on that day.” (p.146)

Vincent there shows us the balance that we must keep between those two things, as well as the right relationship between them. Let us then briefly turn to look at them in order.

First the Sabbath (or Lord’s day) is to be sanctified “by a holy resting all the day.” Not just rest, but a holy rest. So it is clear right at the outset that what is in view here is not mere inactivity or sleep. So what does this holy resting entail? We are to rest “all that day” (not just for an hour or two) from two (2) things: our “worldly employments” (i.e. our work), and our “recreations” (i.e. our play).

And the point here is certainly not just that we are to refrain from sinful work and recreation, as we are always to refrain from those things no matter which day of the week it may be. No, the writers of the Catechism explicitly state that we are to rest from even those employments and recreations “as are lawful on other days.” So we are not to treat the Lord’s day like any other day, whether that be for work or for play.

Some people might be tempted to treat Sundays like just another work day, another day to labor and make money. Time (as the saying goes) is money, and so for some people, a holy resting all the day sounds costly, rather than beneficial. And so such people may need to learn to trust in God’s provision. Is that not the lesson we are to learn from God’s instructions regarding the manna in the wilderness in Exodus chapter 16? There was one day in the week when the manna would not appear – the Sabbath. Exodus 16:26 states, “Six days you shall gather it, but on the seventh day, which is a Sabbath, there will be none.” The only day that the people of Israel were allowed to gather extra to save for the next day was on the 6th day. Why? To free them up to remember the Sabbath to keep it holy. Even gathering food (manna) was not to be done on the Sabbath.

Others might be tempted to treat Sundays like just another day off, another day to play and have fun. Such people may need to learn to enjoy God more. (And who among us doesn’t need to learn that more?) To use a personal example, I like sports. I enjoy watching some sports on television and occasionally even in-person. (As a lifelong Philadelphia sports fan, my sports fandom is often more an exercise in patience and long-suffering than of celebrating championship parades, but I digress.)

Nothing wrong with enjoying the occasional game. But that being said, if I enjoy watching (for example) a football game (yes, even the Super Bowl) more than I enjoy spending time with the Lord and His people in worship, then both my priorities and tastes are out of whack.  Again, nothing wrong with sports or entertainment per se (as long as there is nothing inherently sinful involved), but those things should not be in any position to compete for our ultimate affection and enjoyment. And we are to rest from those things on the Lord’s day for our own good.

And that brings us to the second thing that sanctifying the Sabbath involves – worship. The Sabbath is to be sanctified, not just by a holy resting from worldly employments and recreations, but also by “spending the whole time in the public and private exercises of God’s worship.” The whole time. And so the former is for the purpose of the latter. In the 4th commandment we are essentially being given a break from our worldly activities in order to free us up for worship.

Now if the first part (the holy resting) seems foreign to most people (even most Christians?) in our day, almost certainly this part (spending the whole day in the worship of God) is even more so. One need only look at the rarity of the Sunday evening worship service in our day to see something of a barometer of that. Structuring the whole day around worship seems like a nearly forgotten art. Sadly, many who were not raised in the Reformed faith (myself included) have had to learn much of this the hard way, with very little in the way of an example to emulate. This was not always the case.

Notice that the worship of God that is commended to us here is both public (corporate) and private (personal and with our family). And so we should make attendance upon public worship perhaps the highest priority of the day, although that by no means excludes time spent alone or with one’s family in prayer, the study of God’s Word, and even song (!). The latter is often closely-related to the former, with time spent considering and discussing the sermon from earlier that day. (How much more might we benefit from even the simplest preaching of the Word if we were to make that our practice!)  And here we also see that private worship is no substitute for diligently attending public worship of the church on the Lord’s day. In truth it should not be an either/or proposition.

That might sound like a rather daunting task. Surely there are things that cannot be left undone, even on Sundays, right? And that is where the common-sense exceptions to the rule come into view here in Q.60. It states that the whole time is to be spent in public and private worship “except so much as is to be taken up in the works of necessity and mercy.” One’s family still needs to eat, for example. The sick or injured must still be cared for. Someone in need must still be shown mercy. (In truth, the Lord’s day may actually provide us with more time and opportunity for this than other days.) And there are occupations or lawful callings in which people cannot reasonably be expected to take the whole day off from their work, which is necessary for the life, safety, and well-being of their neighbors (such as law enforcement, military, or medical personnel, just to name a few).

There is obviously much more that could be said, but I hope that you find this thumbnail sketch from the Shorter Catechism to be a helpful starting point, and perhaps something that may spur you on to more careful study and application of what the Scriptures have to say on this important subject. May we all learn to view this holy rest and worship, not as a burden, but as a blessing.

The Lord’s Day as the Christian Sabbath (Shorter Catechism Q.59)

1710_largeHave you ever wondered why Christians now worship on Sundays (the first day of the week) rather than Saturdays (the seventh day)? Why Sunday?

No doubt there are a great many believers who gather for worship regularly on Sundays (sometimes twice!), without seeing any relation of this practice to either the 4th commandment itself or any explicit statement in the New Testament. Still others may indeed gather with the Lord’s people for worship every Sunday, but view the choice of that particular day as somewhat arbitrary, perhaps chosen at some point by an authority figure or council early on in the history of the church.

Having established in the previous question (Q.58) that the basic requirement of the 4th commandment is that we keep holy to God one day in seven “to be a holy Sabbath to himself,” the Westminster Shorter Catechism now turns our attention to the question that naturally follows – which day of the seven has God appointed? Shorter Catechism Q.59 puts it this way:

Q.59. Which day of the seven has God appointed to be the weekly Sabbath? A. From the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ, God appointed the seventh day of the week to be the weekly Sabbath; and the first day of the week ever since, to continue to the end of the world, which is the Christian Sabbath.

Note the dividing line between the Old Testament and New Testament observance of the Sabbath – the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus was raised from the dead on “the first day of the week” (Luke 24:1) – a Sunday. And so the reason for the change in observance of the Sabbath from the seventh day of the week to the first day is, in a sense, eschatological in nature. It is a weekly testimony to both the truth and the significance of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. You could say that every Sunday (not just Easter Sunday) is resurrection Sunday. Every time the church gathers for public worship on Sunday (whether we realize it or not), we are in some way testifying to the truth of the resurrection, which Paul says is “of first importance” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).

Now is there a verse or passage in the New Testament that explicitly settles this issue for us? No, not if what you are looking for is a simple proof text. There is no verse that says something like, “Thou shalt now remember the first day of the week, to keep it holy.” Nowhere does the Apostle Paul or any other New Testament author come right out and say, “Of course the Christian Sabbath is now the first day of the week rather than the seventh day.” That would sure make much things simpler, wouldn’t it?

So then where do we get the idea that the first day of the week is the Christian Sabbath? From both Scripture and church history. In his book, Call the Sabbath a Delight, Walter Chantry points out:

“It became the habit of Christians to meet for worship on the first day of the week. This was firmly established in the apostolic era” (p.83).

Notice that he states that this was “firmly established.” It became a settled issue for the church. And how early was this the case? Chantry explicitly points us to “the apostolic era.” In other words, the church gathering together for public worship on Sundays was basically a settled issue in the early church, while the apostles themselves (at least some of them) were still with us.

How do we know this to be the case? There are a number of passages in the New Testament that are helpful here. First, there is Acts 20:7, where we read the following:

On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight.” (ESV)

What day was it when the church was gathered together for worship? Sunday. Why does Luke mention that it was “on the first day of the week”? His readers would have understood the implication. The context here is public worship. The breaking of bread was almost certainly the observance of the Lord’s Supper, and Paul’s “speech” was a sermon, and a rather long sermon at that!

In addition to that passage, we also see something similar in 1 Corinthians 16:1-2, where Paul writes,

“Now concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do. On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come.”

When did the church gather together? And when was this “collection for the saints” (a relief fund of sorts) to be put aside and stored up? Not just on the first day of the week, but “on the first day of every week” (v.2)! Every week. The church in Corinth met for worship every Sunday.

Lastly, in Revelation 1:10-11 we read the following:

“I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.”” (ESV)

What day was it? John identifies it as “the Lord’s day” (v.10). So as early as the first century A.D. Sunday was already being referred to as “the Lord’s Day.” Even in his exile on the island of Patmos, the Apostle John marked the time and the days Sunday by Sunday. The Lord’s day was meaningful to him, and the revelation that we now have in the book by that same name was given to John for the sake of the church on the Lord’s day!

May we learn by God’s grace to consider the Christian Sabbath or Lord’s day a delight!

Thoughts on the 4th Commandment (Keeping the Sabbath Holy)

Chantry SabbathIn his book, Call the Sabbath a Delight, Walter Chantry makes a simple statement that should go without saying, but actually serves as a much-needed and timely reminder in our day:

“Whether or not people keep the Sabbath holy is not an incidental or insignificant matter.” (p.12)

How do we know this to be true? Simply because it is included in the 10 commandments! (It is in God’s top 10, so to speak.) The 10 commandments contain a summary of God’s moral law (Westminster Shorter Catechism Q.41), so remembering the Sabbath to keep it holy is still just as much our moral duty before God as any of the other nine commandments. And the fact that the 4th commandment is located in the first table of the law (as commandments 1-4 are often referred to) means that it has to do particularly with love for God. In other words, remembering the Sabbath to keep it holy is to be an expression of our love to God.

And yet even among many of those who claim to affirm and uphold the continuing relevance and binding nature of the 10 Commandments, one easily gets the impression that keeping the Sabbath holy really is somewhat “incidental or insignificant” (to borrow Chantry’s phrase). Certainly this is true, if judged by the actual practice (or lack thereof) of Sabbath observance on the Lord’s day.

The 4th commandment (Exodus 20:8-11; Deuteronomy 5:12-15) has fallen on hard times in our day. While you could argue that the same could be said of all of the 10 commandments, it should be plain to any reasonable observer that in recent years the 4th commandment in particular has been the subject of more than its fair share of ignorance, neglect, and downright disobedience, and that even among professing believers in Christ.

For one reason or another many seem to assume that there is little or no continuing relevance (much less obligation to obedience) inherent in this particular commandment. At least functionally, even if not necessarily theoretically, many believers seem to live as if we now had only 9 instead of 10 commandments. This should simply not be the case.

The Westminster divines certainly thought much of the 4th commandment, as the Shorter Catechism devotes no less than six (6) questions to the subject (Q.57-62). I plan to spend some time going through these questions in future posts, and hope that will find them helpful and edifying.

And I also hope that (if you have not done so already) you will take the time to pick up and read Chantry’s book on this subject. It’s helpfulness far exceeds its brevity (only 112 pages long)!

 

The Importance of the Preface to the Ten Commandments

It is often said that “context is key” when it comes to properly understanding something. And that is certainly true when it comes to having a right understanding – indeed a truly Christian understanding – of the Ten Commandments.

Have you ever given any thought to the context in which the Ten Commandments were given? The “preface” (as it has come to be known) is what supplies us with that context. It is found in Exodus 20:2 (and Deuteronomy 5:6), where  God says,

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

Notice that deliverance came before duty. In other words, God did not give the Israelites the Ten commandments (which are the summary of His moral law) and then tell them, “If you do all of this, then I will redeem you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Instead, He graciously redeemed them and rescued them from their slavery first! Living lives of holiness unto Him was to be their response to His grace!

The Westminster Shorter Catechism teaches us this same thing regarding the Ten Commandments:

Q.44. What does the preface [Exodus 20:2] to the Ten Commandments teach us? A. The preface to the ten Commandments teaches us, that because God is the Lord, and our God, and Redeemer, therefore we are bound to keep all His commandments.”

So why are we, as Christians, to obey God’s commandments? At least three (3) reasons:

3 Fingers

  1. Because He is the Lord. 
  2. Because in Christ He is now not just God in general but our God.
  3. Because in Christ He has redeemed us from our sins.

So we are to obey God’s commandments first because He is the Lord – He is in charge. He is the Creator and we are His creatures; and we owe Him obedience as such. Secondly, we are to obey Him because in Christ He is our God. Tell that to those who constantly seem to pit the idea of relationship against the existence of rules. Rules (commandments!) are in no way contrary to a right relationship with God. And lastly, we are to obey God’s commandments because He is our Redeemer in Jesus Christ.

Redemption does not free us from the obligation to obey God’s commandments, but rather from the curse for having broken God’s law. The Westminster Confession of Faith goes so far as to say that, Christ, in the gospel, does actually “much strengthen this obligation” (19.5). When was the last time that you heard a preacher tell you that the gospel actually gives you all the more reason to obey God’s commandments? (Perhaps Matthew 28:20 should have been a clue.)

There you have it. It’s really not all that complicated, is it? We do not obey in order to be saved; rather we are saved so that we might then obey God out of gratitude for the salvation that is ours in Christ by grace alone. Obedience is our response to God’s grace. And it has always been that way, even under Moses.