Rule #1: God is first, so make sure He’s first in your life.

“And God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:1-3).

For the next couple of weeks, we’re going to be looking at rules, the Ten Commandments. Yeah! Just what everyone wants to look at! Rules! I’m sure you’re giddy with delight.

Maybe not.

Rules often have a bad reputation. They have for me in the past. Let me ask you though, have you heard of Thomas the Train? Thomas was a train. A blue train to be exact, and a happy train most of the time. But Thomas wanted to be free. He wanted to be free from the restrictions of the train track. He was unhappy because wanted to roam in the open countryside.

One day he got fed up. He made a break for it. He was going to go off the restrictive tracks once and for all! He was going to know freedom.

So, he did. He went of the tracks. He was finally free from the railroad tracks!

What do you think Thomas’ “freedom” was like?…

It was crushing. Literally, crushing. He couldn’t move. He was stuck.

He was somewhere where he wasn’t meant to be. 

We often have…

Concern about Rules

We don’t like rules. But rules are good. Have you ever played the card game Mao? It’s a game with unspoken rules. It’s really hard to play because you don’t know the rules but get penalized when you break them. Rules are good because they keep things the way they’re supposed to be kept. They keep Thomas on the tracks so that he is free to come and go, free to be what he is supposed to be. It’s also good to know the rules so you’re not “penalized” for something you didn’t know.

The Bible itself says that the law is good. It talks about the “perfect law of liberty” (Jas 1:25; 2:12). The law allows for freedom. Peter Leithart has rightly said,

A community dominated by disrespect for parents, workaholism, violence, envy, theft, and lies isn’t free. Besides, absolute freedom is impossible. In the world God made, the world that actually exists, things aren’t free to do or be anything they please. They’re free when they become what they are. An acorn is free to become an oak, not an elephant.[1]

The law of God gives us a fixed and sure foundation. Yes, it’s hard, it’s unmovable, and sometimes that seems undesirable. If you are building something upon that foundation, however, it is essential. We dare not build a structure on the sand. It will not stand. So, it’s hard and sometimes seems unnecessary, but the alternative is perilous.

The good news of law, C. S. Lewis once remarked, is like the good news of arriving on solid ground after a shortcut gone awry through the mud, muck, and mire. After fumbling about in the squishy, stinky mess, you’re relieved to finally hit something solid, something you can trust, something you can count on.[2]

So, friends, we may have concern about God’s rules but they are good. They are gracious. We should thank God that He has spoken and given us His good rules. So, the good news in Christ Jesus is not that we are free from God’s law, but that we’re free to keep the law through the Spirit’s empowering.

Now that we have seen that God’s rules are good, it would be helpful for us to consider the context in which they came…

Context (v. 1-2).

God’s good rules as seen in the Ten Commandments were first inscribed on human hearts (Rom. 2:15). But God also wrote it with His finger for us on stone tablets (Ex. 31:18; 32:16). If we had space here, it would be very helpful to read all of Exodus and all of the Bible up to this point but at least Exodus 19. But, let’s at least look at Exodus 20:1-2:

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

Look at what it says. It says, “God spoke.” So, we’re not looking at Paul’s 10 good rules, but God’s 10 good rules! And next, look what it says, “God spoke.” God exists and He spoke. God gives us His 10 good rules. We have guidance spoken by God Himself. 

God has spoken. And so, the way to find moral instruction is not by listening to your gut but by listening to God.[3] And, “If God has spoken, it comes with a commission and a command.”[4] We don’t have the freedom to disregard what He says. That would be super stupid anyhow.

God is the LORD. He is the one that made all that is. He knows how things are supposed to work. We should and we must listen to Him.

Notice, however, that God is not just the powerful creator. He is also relational. He is not distant and unknowable. Verse 2 says, “I am the LORD your God.” The LORD, the one true God, is the LORD our God.” He is not just the God, but He is our God. He is not distant. He is not unreachable. God is a relational God and as a relational God, He has spoken. So, we see that God gave the Ten Commandments as relational revelation.

Also, notice what the relational God has done. He brought Israel “out of slavery.” He saved them. He rescued them.

Friends, God, in Jesus Christ, has rescued us from more than slavery. He has saved us from Satan, sin, and eternal death. We gladly receive and obey His good rules because He is God yes, but also because He has provided awesome salvation for us through Jesus Christ.

So, with some of the essential context laid, what is the command?

Command (v. 3)

God’s command then as now, is very unpopular. God said, You shall have no other gods before me.”

People respond in all sorts of ways. Think of the context then, though. Think of pictures of the pyramids. What do you see painted on many of the walls? Gods, all sorts of gods (they were polytheistic).

We today may not have tons of gods painted on our walls but we do very often have tons of gods painted on the walls of our hearts. We very often trust created things for our “hope and happiness, significance and security.”[5]

But the LORD says, You shall have no other gods before me.” God tells us to have no other gods before Him because (1) there aren’t any and (2) because He alone is worthy of worship.

It’s super good to share. And parents often work very hard to teach their kids to share. I’m still working with my kids on that. There are, however, some things that should not be shared. Individual M&M’s and skittles, for example. Or a unicycle.[6] Some things are actually not meant to be shared.

It’s not good to share our worship of God with anything else. He alone deserves worship.

If you like something, you’re naturally a cheerleader for it. You tell people what you think is the best and why. That’s what we do and it’s actually often nice that we do it. We want people to experience the same good we have. That is kind of what God’s doing, but for Himself. Seems weird a first but it makes sense.

It makes sense because the LORD God is actually the one true God. If He was okay with people worshiping other so-called gods, that would mean he’d be okay with people missing out on what is the best, that is, Himself. He doesn’t want anyone to miss out on what is best. That is good and right of God.

Friends, this first good rule given to us by God is really important. Without the first commandment laid, we are on very shaky ground for any of the rest. If the LORD God is not the one true God, then why should we listen to Him as opposed to any other god? If God has not spoken, then where do we get our rules or why should we listen to any rules?

Conclusion

The good news is God has spoken. He has told us what is right and what is wrong. The bad news is, we often fail to listen.[7] We often love and obey false gods. This shows us our need for a Savior.

Thankfully, not only has God spoken and told us how we should live, God has also became man in the form of Jesus Christ. Jesus always obeyed the rules. And even though we deserve to be punished for breaking the rules, we can receive the perfect record of Jesus if we trust in Him. He was punished in the place of all those who would trust in Him.

Friends, God has spoken good rules. And for that, we can be grateful. But He didn’t leave us there. Which is great news. Because we, apart from Jesus, would have continued to just break those good rules.

So, friends, because Jesus has rescued us, let’s have no other gods before the one true triune God. And let’s follow all the good rules He’s graciously given us. Not to earn God’s favor, because through Christ Jesus, and by His Spirit, we have His favor.[8]

Friends, Jesus shows us who God is and how worthy He is. Let’s have no other gods before the one true God because He is the one true God and He deserves and rightly expects all praise.

Questions

  • Why are rules good?
  • What do we learn about God that’s helpful for us to remember when we don’t want to listen to His rules?
  • Why do you think God made this commandment the first commandment?
  • “Whose imperatives do you obey? Does the voice in your head come from advertisements, popular songs, YouTube or Netflix shows? Who is your true Lord—not your professed Lord, but the one who actually speaks with authority into your life? If the voice in your head says ‘Do this,’ but the voice from Sinai says ‘Don’t,’ which do you listen to? When you silence the Lord’s voice, you’ve deafened yourself because there’s an idol in your ears.”[9]
  • How can Matthew 5:19 (“Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven”) be an encouragement to you when you want to disregard God’s commands?

_________

[1] Peter Leithart, The Ten Commandments: A Guide to the Perfect Law of Liberty, 133-136 (Kindle Edition).

[2] Kevin DeYoung, The Ten Commandments, 17-18.

[3] DeYoung, The Ten Commandments, 12.

[4] Albert Mohler, Words from the Fire, 23.

[5] See the New City Catechism.

[6] See Philip Graham Ryken, Written In Stone, 57.

[7] “It is our breaking of the law that helps us see our need for the gospel. The more clearly we see what God’s law requires, the more obvious it becomes that we cannot keep its commands, which is exactly why we need the gospel (Ryken, Written In Stone, 25).

[8] Notice, as Kevin DeYoung has helpfully pointed out, “The Ten Commandments are not instructions on how to get out of Egypt. They are rules for a free people to stay free” (DeYoung, The Ten Commandments, 20). It is also vital that we understand as DeYoung has said, “Salvation is not the reward for obedience; salvation is the reason for obedience” (Ibid.).

[9] Leithart, The Ten Commandments: A Guide to the Perfect Law of Liberty, loc. 286-288).

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About Paul O'Brien

I am a lot of things; saint and sinner. I struggle and I strive. I am a husband and father of three. I have been in pastoral ministry for 10 years. I went to school at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary but most of my schooling has been at the School of Hard Knocks. I have worked various jobs, including pheasant farmer, toilet maker, construction worker, and I served in the military. My wife and I enjoy reading at coffee shops, taking walks, hanging out with friends and family, and watching our three kid's antics. :)

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